Getting Published: One Author’s Success Story

getting published, la noir

Getting published is hard. Just ask John Schulian, a prize-winning sportswriter and veteran television writer whose first novel, A Better Goodbye, was just released by Tyrus Books. There’s a lesson in his tale that’s not confined to the writing life. Achievement comes with hard work, persistence, an ability to handle rejection and a willingness to accept advice…and did I mention hard work? John is 70 years old, and there’s a lesson in that, too. It’s never too late…unless you let it be.

A Better Goodbye has gotten rave reviews. Here’s a quote from the book jacket: “Set in the sex trade that straddles the worlds of entertainment and crime, the novel is L.A. noir at its most keenly observed. Think Michael Connelly meets Elmore Leonard for a Metro ride from Universal City to Compton.” Oh, that quote…it’s mine. But now, let’s hear from John about the long and winding road of getting published.

By John Schulian

As far as I can tell, I won’t be receiving any prizes for having my first novel published when I am 70. Holding the book in my hands will be reward enough, thank you – that and knowing I’m in the same age bracket Norman Maclean was when he bestowed his classic A River Runs Through It upon us nearly 40 years ago. Every predictable happy adjective applies to me as I go public with my L.A. noir, A Better Goodbye. But if I still resemble a punching bag, it’s because I never realized how long a decade can be until the one I just spent getting hit by rejection after rejection.

They came from every direction, like mosquitoes on a steamy summer night. Some editors instinctively backed away from what one called my “dark tale.” Others were repelled by the haunted ex-boxer, sex-trade sirens, and merciless criminals who populate my novel.

“Unsympathetic,” said one potential buyer, leaving me to wonder how he’d react if I told him what a fine time I had creating them.

The way I’d written my female characters, meanwhile, became a subject of debate. “(Schulian) has writing chops, particularly with the way he writes women,” one editor said. Another chimed in with praise for my soiled heroine’s love of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and “her attitudes toward men.” On the other side of the ledger was the spoilsport who found the ex-prizefighter in my novel “emotionally taut and compelling,” but said my star massage girl “never quite comes alive as a three-dimensional character.”

getting published
John Schulian tells his story of getting published

Mercifully, I managed to avoid what one editor told Vladimir Nabokov while rejecting Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Most of my rejections came wrapped in encouragement. I was “terrifically talented” and “keenly observant,” my writing “polished and lively.” But that didn’t make me any less dead in the water at Scribner, Penguin and Putnam. Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Kensington and Melville House told me thanks but no thanks, too. Then Random House and Soft Skull/Counterpoint joined the chorus. Thomas Dunne, William Morrow, Dutton and Berkeley didn’t bother to respond, but I got the message.

Who Said Getting Published Was Easy?

I was being initiated into a club that has been around since the first editor turned away a writer on behalf of a publishing house. Margaret Mitchell collected 38 rejections before she found a buyer for Gone With the Wind, James Joyce 33 for Dubliners. Even J.K. Rowling struck out a dozen times before someone got smart and snapped up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The showstopper, however, is the 111 rejections that buffeted James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie in the nine years it went begging. It might be the best novel Burke has written, nominated for a Pulitzer and better than his best Dave Robicheaux mysteries, but it’s still largely unknown and unread.

I feared the worst for A Better Goodbye getting published. Not knowing what else to do, I changed agents. It was either that or self-publish, and the thought of self-publishing pained me. I’ve been a professional writer – newspapers, magazines, Hollywood – since 1970, and I was dead set on finding a publisher for my novel. Whoever it turned out to be might not pay me a lot, but they would pay me.

With that in mind, my new agent took my novel back into the marketplace, zeroing in on a fresh set of editors whether or not they were at publishing houses my first agent had approached. I did my best not to interfere, staying busy by writing short stories and editing anthologies of sports writing. But every time I noticed a new crime novel published by an outfit I’d never heard of, I shot off an email to my new agent. Bless his heart, he never complained.

In 2012, on the same day he told me that Soho Crime, Mulholland Books and Grove had passed, he forwarded an email from Gerry Howard, who wasn’t just an editor at Random House; he was David Foster Wallace’s editor. And a Thomas Pynchon scholar. And the kind of heavyweight I never imagined being interested in A Better Goodbye. But he was interested. There was, he wrote, just one big problem for him: My hero was “too much of a mope for the book’s good.”

It was the smartest, most incisive note I’ve ever received. I rewrote a third of the book on the strength of it, and Gerry Howard liked what I’d done enough to put it in front of Random House’s decision makers. How could they say no to him? Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Things like that count in the literary world, right?

Genre Counts in Getting Published

It was the marketing people who got me. They said my novel, part crime fiction, part literary fiction, puzzled them. They said they didn’t know how to sell a book like mine. I thought it was their job to figure things like that out, but I must have been misinformed.

getting published cover
The long road to getting published: “A Better Goodbye”

My agent resumed knocking on doors and I began clearing space in the desk drawer where my novel would likely stay until it turned to dust. I didn’t even think about it much anymore. And then in March – on the 23rd, a day that should be a national holiday – my agent called with not one but two offers to publish A Better Goodbye.

I took the offer from Tyrus Books. They had published muscular crime fiction by Craig McDonald and Scott Weddle and brought my friend Robert Ward’s stunning blue-collar novel Red Baker back into print. As soon as I came aboard, the lead foots from Tyrus stomped on the gas. They wanted to publish my novel right after Thanksgiving, which meant a lot of work in a hurry – writing a new top for an early chapter and a completely different final chapter; combing the manuscript again and again for typos, misspellings and graceless sentences; arranging for publicity; having a website built; putting in days at the computer so long I thought my eyes would melt.

But Ben LeRoy, who runs Tyrus, called my novel “great” the first time we talked on the phone, and that was enough for me even if he lays the same praise on all his other writers. As anyone who reads my book can attest, there are happy endings and then there are happy endings. This one suits me just fine.

(A Better Goodbye is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio formats).

Mystery Books Hard-Boiled: From Spade to Lassiter

By Paul Levine

This question recently appeared on Facebook: “Who’s your favorite character in hard-boiled fiction?”

The answers were smart and reflected knowledge of both classic and post-modern noir crime fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were among the answers. So, too, of course was Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. How could he not be an icon of hard-boiled mystery books with lines like this from “The Maltese Falcon?”

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.”

Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Sam Spade
In the field of mystery books, a hero doesn’t get  any more hard-boiled than Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.”

More contemporary tough guys like Dave Robicheaux from James Lee Burke’s mystery novels, Matt Scudder from Lawrence Block and Easy Rawlins from Walter Mosley were also on the list. So, too, were Spenser and Travis McGee. I think those two iconic tough guys display a tad too much sentimentality to be considered characters of old-school hard-boiled mystery books, but no one can deny that Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald created protagonists who will live forever. The occasional female character also cropped up. Lisbeth Salander, from Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, made an appearance, as did Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.  Hard-boiled babes, as it were.

Wikipedia defines hard-boiled fiction as:

“[A] literary genre sharing the setting with crime fiction (especially detective stories). Although deriving from romantic tradition which emphasized the emotions of apprehension, horror and terror, and awe, the hardboiled fiction deviates from the tradition in the detective’s cynical attitude towards those emotions.”

Can Heroes of Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Have Tender Hearts?

One answer on Facebook blindsided me. That was Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer in 10 of my mystery books, including the recently released “State vs. Lassiter.”

Funny thing is, just as with Spenser and Travis McGee, Jake never seemed that hard-boiled to me. Oh, there’s the occasional tough-guy line: “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

Then he’s occasionally getting punched out, digging up graves, and flirting with disbarment.

But is that enough? I always thought he had a hard bark but a tender heart. To determine whether Jake is hard-boiled or merely cynical, I recently had a not-too-friendly conversation with him:

Paul: You look like you’re still in shape to play for the Miami Dolphins. How do you do it?

Jake: Being fictional helps. By the way, you look like pelican crap.

Paul: You’re just peeved because I got you indicted for murder in the new book.

Jake: I don’t get “peeved.” I get pissed, and when I do, someone gets decked.

Paul: Let me ask you a tough question.

Jake: Take your best shot, scribbler.

Paul: You’ve been called many things. “Shyster.” “Mouthpiece.” “Shark.” But murderer?

Jake: I’m not bad. You just write me that way.

Paul: Okay, in “State vs. Lassiter,” your client’s money goes missing…

Jake: I never stole from a client, bribed a judge, or threatened a witness, and until this bum rap, the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.

Paul: How’s that?

Jake: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.

Hard-boiled mystery books Jake Lassiter
Mystery Books: Is “State vs. Lassiter”  hard-boiled crime fiction or a legal thriller or both?

Paul: Okay, at the start of the book, you’re having an affair with a beautiful woman who also happens to be your banker.

Jake: So sue me. Women think I look like a young Harrison Ford.

Paul: One keystroke, I’ll turn you into an old Henry Ford. You and your lady are having a fancy dinner on Miami Beach. She threatens to turn you in for skimming client funds, and next thing we know, she’s dead…in your hotel suite.

Jake: Is there a question in there, counselor?

Paul: What happened?

Jake: I take the Fifth. Ever heard of it?

Paul: You go on trial for murder.

Jake: Hold your horses. No spoilers!

Paul: “Hold your horses?” What are you, an extra in “Gunsmoke?”

Jake: Sorry if I’m not hip enough for you, scribbler. You won’t find my mug on Facebook. I don’t have a life coach, an aroma therapist, or a yoga instructor, and I don’t do Pilates.

Paul: So you’re not trendy. You’re not a Yuppie.

Jake: I’m a carnivore among vegans, a brew and burger guy in a Chardonnay and paté world.

Paul: You’re a throwback, then?

Jake: If that’s what you call someone with old friends, old habits, and old values.

Paul: Bring us up to date. You first appeared in “To Speak for the Dead” in 1990.

Jake: Yeah, and Hollywood made a TV movie with Gerald McRaney. My ass is better looking than him.

Paul: Who should play you in a movie?

Jake: Easy. The Duke.

Paul: John Wayne? You’re kidding.

Jake: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.” Sort of sums it up, don’t it?

Paul: “State vs. Lassiter” is the tenth in a series of mystery books. But you’re facing life in prison. Is this the end?

Jake: Not entirely up to me, is it scribbler?

Paul: Last question. Do you consider yourself hard-boiled?

Jake: (Reaches across the table and pops Paul with a left jab. Ka-pow!). What do you think?

Paul: Ouch! You’ll pay for this, Jake.  Wait till the next book.
“State vs. Lassiter” is available in paperback and as a Kindle ebook from Amazon Books.