Wednesday, July 22, 2015


The following blog comes from William Wells, whose story needs no further introduction or explanation.

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“Mozart began composing at age three. Terence Tao scored 760 out of 800 on the math portion of the SAT exam when he was nine, received his PhD from Princeton at 21, and was appointed a full professor at UCLA at 24. Picasso displayed extraordinary artistic ability in his childhood. Bobby Fischer was a chess grandmaster at 15. Saul Kripke, the noted philosopher and logician, taught himself ancient Hebrew at the age of 6, read the complete works of Shakespeare by 9, and mastered the works of Descartes and complex mathematical problems before finishing elementary school.

“The Permanent Press published my first novel, Ride Away Home, in August 2014, when I was 68. The cutoff age for child prodigy is ten. Even so, waiting 58 more years to get into print does seem a bit tardy. However, blooming late is not unique. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, when she was 64. Grandma Moses started painting in her 70s. Nola Ochs made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest college student, receiving her bachelor's degree from Fort Hayes State University in Kansas when she was 95, and then starting on her Master's degree.

“I tried writing novels when I was younger. The first attempt, while reporting for the New Haven Register, was—of course—a coming-of-age novel, with The Catcher in the Rye in mind. Fifty pages in, I knew it was going nowhere. Over the next years, through my 20s and into my 30s, more stories were started and abandoned. I stayed busy with other things: serving in the Navy, being a top 40 disk jockey, a newspaper reporter, writing speeches for the governor of Michigan, writing a syndicated cartoon, and founding and running a custom publishing company. My wife Mary and I raised two sons.

“Of course, I could have made time for writing fiction. Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent on the commuter train on his way to and from his job as a trial lawyer in Chicago. Best-selling crime fiction author John Sandford started out working as a newspaper reporter in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and wrote books at night. Elmore Leonard's day job was writing copy for a Detroit ad agency. James Patterson did the same in New York. For whatever reason, I didn't do that.

“Finally, at 64, I made a New Year's Resolution that didn't have to do with diet and exercise: I would approach writing the way I did with my other endeavors, by treating it as a full-time job. By the end of that year, if I hadn't written something I liked, whether or not it was published, I would stop thinking of myself as a writer. I'd have to accept the fact that "author" would not appear in the first paragraph of my obit.

“I began studying the process by reading interviews with prominent writers and books about writing fiction. I looked up what literary agents and editors had to say about what it took to make a good book and get it published. I reread novels I liked and took notes on why I liked them, and I studied best-seller lists to try to figure out what was working in the marketplace (keeping in mind the dictum that you should write the book you want to read, without regard to what is popular at the moment).

“I discovered that I didn't know a lot about how to write a good novel. What I learned was:

1. The purpose of a first draft is to finish it. Then you have something to work with. Don't worry if it isn't good because it won't be. Hemingway said, inelegantly, "The first draft of anything is shit." Anne Tyler said, "I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them—without any thought about publication and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside." I was comparing my first drafts to the finished work of the world's best authors. That was like taking one violin lesson and then auditioning for Julliard. Rookie mistake, one of many.

2. John Sandford was asked in an interview why so many other newspaper reporters who try to write novels fail. He said he thinks it is because it is difficult to make the transition from a newspaper-length article to the long form of a novel. There is no rule about how long a novel must be to be taken seriously, but clearly it is longer than an article about a meeting of the Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Zoning Board of Appeals, which was part of my beat while working for the New Haven Register. You have to change from sprinter to marathon runner. That was, in fact, the biggest challenge for me. I'd get fifty pages in and feel that I’d never make it to that distant finish line. But the dictum about just finishing that first draft got me through.

3. It’s all in the rewriting. Draft after draft until you are satisfied that it can't be any better. And then do another and another. Early on, you grow tired of the characters and bored by the story, and you just want to put the manuscript in the mail to your editor. But you can't.

4. Understand that you will never be satisfied with a manuscript. But at some point specified in your contract the publisher can start charging you for changes, so you stop.

5. Don't wait for inspiration. Just show up at the keyboard and get on with it. In my other jobs, I didn't ask myself every morning if I felt inspired enough to go to the office that day.

6. What works is the same as with any other undertaking: nothing gets good without consistent, long-term effort. In one of his books, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study that identified the fact that you have to practice for a minimum of two thousand hours to achieve excellence in anything, be it a tennis or heart surgery. No one just shows up and is world-class—with the possible exception of those child prodigies.

“I'm nearing 70. I've finished three books, so far. My first was a literary novel, Ride Away Home. An editor told me about The Permanent Press, and the book found a home. The next was a psychological thriller called Face of the Devil. Dagger Books will publish it this summer. The Permanent Press will publish Detective Fiction, my take on the crime fiction genre, in 2016. I'm now at work on a sequel.

“I've found that the most difficult issue to deal with when writing books at any age is that, in order to replicate a version of real life on the page, you have to shut yourself up alone in a room and miss what's going on outside. This becomes more of a problem as you approach an age when you are no longer buying green bananas. That is the theme of one of my favorite poems, The Circus Animals' Desertion by Yeats. Toward the end of his life, Yeats expressed a measure of regret at having spent so much time on his art instead of experiencing life in the street: ‘Players and painted stage took all my love/and not those things that they were emblems of.’

“My oldest son Adam is in the commercial real estate business. He also paints, plays guitar, and studies philosophy and world religions. I was talking to him about that dilemma. At my age, I said, instead of sitting for hours at the keyboard, burning the days, I could be out playing golf or trolling for tarpon in the Gulf or drinking daiquiris at Sloppy Joe's in Key West.

"So why not just stop writing and do those things? Adam asked. I said that when I don't put in my time writing, I feel an uneasiness, a vague malaise. So you write because you have to, he said. ‘Yes," I answered. ‘Then you're an artist,’ he said.”

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I hope you will post your comments below and feel free to contact Bill Wells directly at

NEXT WEEK we’ll be publishing a guest blog written by Stephen Campbell, who is the host of the podcasts: The Author Biz, a weekly podcast focused on the business of being an author, and CrimeFiction.FM, a three times a week show focused on the crime genre. Be sure to tune in as Steve’s blog raises the question “Are small publishers the new curators of remarkable genre fiction?”


Wednesday, July 15, 2015


In August we’ll be releasing David Freed’s fourth Cordell Logan mystery, The Three-Nine Line. It’s been a very successful series, combining high in the sky adventure (Cordell, like his author, is a pilot of a small plane) along with a wicked sense of humor, which you will appreciate when reading David’s blog. It also provides serious comment on the elements needed when structuring a mystery that many will appreciate as you read on...

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“When I was eight, I enjoyed a brief but ultimately unprofitable flirtation with kleptomania. If it wasn’t otherwise nailed down, I stole it.

“Small inexpensive toys shoplifted from the shelves of the local Hested’s (what would now be the Dollar Store) were my usual booty, but I was not beyond stealing elsewhere, and for others. On Mother’s Day, I gave my mom a lovely perfume atomizer made of violet colored glass pinched from Rexall Drugs, along with a card congratulating her on being pregnant. In fact, my mother was not pregnant at the time and I really didn’t understand what the card meant--some kind of gently humorous sexual entendre, as she explained it to me years later. All I knew was that it was indeed a Mother’s Day card and that I had to stuff it down my jeans pronto, along with that atomizer, if I was to make it out of the drug store clean. My mother found the card endearing as she did my innocence in not understanding its message. She also found it mystifying that I could have afforded so generous a gift on a weekly allowance of 50 cents. But I am getting ahead of myself.

“One day, after having my latest cavity filled, I walked out of the dentist’s office with a full-size, plaster cast model of somebody’s mouth secreted under my jacket. I knew the moment I saw it that I had to have it, sitting there as I was, alone in the chair after the dentist went off to go look at X-rays or whatever it is dentists do when they are not torturing you. The mouth, I was convinced, would make the perfect anti-hero to my vast collection of plastic army men, most of which I’d also stolen. Can you imagine the fun, sitting on your bedroom floor with the door closed and waging war against two-inch soldiers with a giant human mouth? I certainly could! Those gnashing jaws. Those jagged, misshapen teeth. The ultimate monster.

“A few weeks later, shortly before my ninth birthday, I walked home from school to find my mom, a bookkeeper, sitting with my dad, a street cop, in the living room of our suburban tract house in Denver. This was highly unusual. My working class parents were rarely home in the afternoons, and certainly never together. The set of their own jaws and the anger in their eyes told me that something was amiss, and indeed it was. My mother had gone into my closet to put away clothes and stumbled upon my cache of ill begotten goods. My father promptly took me down to the basement, made me lower my pants, and whipped me with a leather belt. He then took a ten-cent, balloon-powered plastic robot on wheels I had pinched from Hested’s, crushed it under the heels of his black cop shoes, and told me that the wreckage of that toy would be my only birthday present. Then, my mother drove me around town and made me give back everything I’d swiped--less the robot my dad had destroyed, of course, for which she reimbursed Hested’s ten cents, deducted from my piggy bank.

“Other than my wife’s heart, I never stole anything ever again.

“What’s all this got to do with writing mystery-thrillers, you might ask?

“Well, for me, everything.

“For the protagonist in a mystery novel to investigate and ultimately solve crimes over the course of 300 pages, persuasively and with more than a patina of authenticity, the author who creates that protagonist must possess at least a passing understanding of how a criminal investigation plays out. In that regard, I feel well-grounded. Aside from having a cop's blood coursing through my veins, I spent nearly 20 years as an investigative newspaper reporter, covering all manner of law enforcement and military affairs, and later worked extensively within the national intelligence community, before segueing to writing crime fiction. Several of my closest friends are former cops or military special operators. All of which is to say that relating to or thinking like one of those good guys comes more or less naturally to me. It’s having to think like a bad guy that makes my head hurt.

“There’s an adage in fiction writing that for a hero to ultimately prove himself heroic, the anti-hero must be equally strong, if not stronger. The most compelling fictional bad guys are so clever and cunning, spinning such elaborate webs of deceit, as to seem at times invincible. This, of course, is before the hero, relying on all of his acumen, ingenuity and, often as not, a big-ass, semi-automatic pistol, sniffs out the clues and deconstructs the deceits before bringing the bad guy to justice and the reader to a logical, satisfying ending. This is where I sometimes run into trouble.

“As a journalist, I’ve interviewed my share of felons, from homicidal gangbangers to psychopathic rapists to thieving, white collar dirt bags with law degrees and Brooks Brothers suits. Not one of them to my knowledge ever conjured a criminal enterprise so sophisticated or cunning that it would have made for even a sub-par mystery-thriller. In other words, I can’t model my creative writing on the nefarious affairs of the real-life villains I’ve known because their enterprises were simply too straight-forward and not elaborate enough. Thus, I am left to make everything up, to put myself in the shoes of the murderers I must construct them from whole cloth, to give them warped but logical motives that permit them to pull triggers and plunge knives. I am obligated to cover their tracks until my hero can systematically uncover those tracks. Unfortunately, all of this having to be killer-like is hard work. I’m inclined to believe that whatever criminal impulses I may have once possessed—impulses I could definitely use today--were literally spanked out of me in that suburban basement. In this, then, I sometimes struggle as a writer of mystery-thrillers whose mission is to field a savvy crime fighter as well as the credibly crafty crooks he must stop.

“But, that, I suppose, is half the fun, and more than half the challenge.

“I remember crying and being overcome by embarrassment when my mother drove me back to the dentist and made me return the plaster cast mouth. He was a tall, reedy man who wore glasses with opaque frames and a weird kind of tunic that buttoned up the side, and he was not happy, which was not surprising given my thievery and his occupation. I read somewhere that many dentists are unhappy. All that saliva, I suppose. In any case, he shared his smoldering frustrations at having spent hours searching high and low for the mouth after I’d swiped it, then told my mother that it would not surprise him if someday I ended up in state prison.

“Who knows? That dentist may end up someday as a criminal in a mystery novel, with that plaster cast mouth as a murder weapon.

Now, there’s an idea.”

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If you enjoyed David’s blog and have anything else you’d like to add, please post it on this website. You can also reach David by email at And should you wish to contribute to these weekly blogs, contact me at 

NEXT WEEK we’ll be featuring William Wells’ blog, LATE BLOOMERS...another offering from another novelist.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Daniel Klein is one of the most charming, funny and creative guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Four years younger than me, he graduated from Harvard where he received a B.A. in philosophy. After a brief career in television comedy, he began writing books, ranging from thrillers and mysteries (starting with two Elvis Presley comedic thrillers, Kill Me Tender in 2002 followed by Blue Suede Clues a year later.) In 2007 he hit pay-dirt when he and his chum from Harvard, Thomas Cathcart, wrote Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes which made The New York Times Best Seller list, followed by two other sequels. In 2012 he wrote Travels with Epicurus, which became a London Times Best-Seller in England. These became International Best Sellers.

But Danny is more than that. He’s also a playwright and did so well with these non-fiction books that “I could afford to publish two novels with The Permanent Press for their small $1,000 advance.”  The first was The History of Now in 2009, which won ForeWord Magazine’s Silver Award for Literary Fiction, followed by Nothing Serious in 2013.

Before turning this over to Danny, it’s important to tell you this. In the early 1950s, Procter & Gamble produced a boxed powdered soap called “Duz” with the tag line, “Duz does Everything!” claiming the soap worked in even in the hardest water. One doesn’t know whether the product was named because of the slogan or the other way around. Regardless, it was a very familiar radio commercial for the over 70 set.  When I read Danny’s final line I told him “nobody under 60 that I spoke with knows anything about Duz.” But rather than fiddle with it, I let it stand with this explanation.

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 “Several years ago I was asked to be on the jury for an art colony’s admissions.  Hundreds of writers had submitted short samples of their work in hope of winning a week or two at this rural enclave where they would have their own cabin, meals, and the company of other deserving artists.  My (unpaid) job was to read their submissions.

“The sheer volume of manuscripts I needed to read was daunting, so after a while I lightened the burden by turning the process into a game: guessing which writers had an MFA in writing. (The correct answer was in the bios on the last page of each submission.)  

“I batted 100%.  In most cases I could spot an MFA in just two paragraphs.  The dead giveaway was the tortured metaphor.

“I have been skeptical of the value of MFA programs ever since.

“Much of what I have learned about the craft of writing came in on-the-job training.  Back in the 1960s and early ’70s, I made a living doing odd jobs in television in New York; I wrote quiz questions and stunts for game shows, routines for stand-up comics, and between-song patter for singers.  At one point, the networks started to produce their own movies, then called Movies of the Week (MOWs), and they were handing out script assignments to just about anyone who came up with a promising idea – even me.  They paid very well.

 “But I didn’t have a clue of how to write a film script.  Indeed, at that point my only experience writing dialogue was a play I’d written in college in which I shamelessly and clumsily aped Samuel Becket.  So I sat down in front of my black-and-white television set and studied one MOW after another.  Then I quizzed a couple of experienced TV movie writers about their methods.

“I soon learned the single most important lesson for the job: pay close attention to the commercial breaks. There were seven of them per movie.  This meant that the movie’s two hours of air time only entailed a one-and-a-half hour script.  But more significantly it meant that the viewer had seven opportunities to switch channels. This station-flipping option needed to be discouraged big time.

“The key, then, was to construct a plot with seven discrete cliff-hangers—intriguing, unanswered questions in the story that required the viewer to stay tuned for the next ‘act’.   This applied to mysteries, love stories, historical dramas – the lot.  A viewer deeply invested in ‘What’s next?’ doesn’t switch to the middle of an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode or even to a variety show.

“I soon discovered that this actually made the construction of a script easier. I would start by dreaming up a series of ‘What’s next-s?’ of increasing consequence until the final, super ‘What’s next?’  These commercial-break dramatic moments would often be altered as I began writing, but I would have been lost without this scaffold at the beginning of the process.

“Years later, when I began to write genre novels—medical thrillers and amateur sleuth mysteries for Doubleday and St. Martin’s Press—I still had commercial breaks on my mind when I constructed my outlines.  I had learned a valuable practical lesson in craft by writing those MOWs, a lesson I somehow doubt I would have learned at the MFA program at the University of Iowa.  (Yes, I know, those programs are for literary writers, not for commercial writers like me.)

“And then there are the lessons in invention that I learned while ghost writing books for psychotherapists who didn’t bother keeping case records…but more about that after this word from Duz.  Remember, Duz does everything.”
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I look forward to reading your comments on this blog directly and also by email. You can also reach Danny by email at

NEXT WEEK  it’s David Freed’s turn on the eve of our publishing his fourth Cordell Logan mystery, The Three-Nine Line

A Final Thought: If any of you readers want to contribute to this weekly book blog, or know someone in the industry who would like to do so, let me know by emailing me at


Wednesday, July 1, 2015


From Chris Knopf: 
Predictions of imminent calamity at the hands of the digital revolution are aplenty, yet exemptions seem to be popping up in unexpected places. Notably, independent bookstores have begun to rebound and surveys show that millennials believe physical books are superior to electronic for retaining important information.  This might explain why eBooks haven’t swept away the physical product the way iTunes upended the CD market and online streaming video killed off video stores.

Another pleasant development is the continuing vitality of libraries. At least in my corner of the world, they’re doing better than ever.
I haven’t studied this on a national level and I’m sure other people have different views, but in the two towns where I hold library cards, we have beautiful new buildings, dramatically expanded services and herds of happy patrons.  I have a few theories on how this happened:
The Great Recession put pressure on book-buying budgets, driving regular readers to the libraries for purely financial reasons. But once there, they enjoyed the experience, and kept coming back as things improved.

Rather than running from the perils of digital competition, library management embraced high tech, installing their own banks of broad band workstations, racks of DVDs and tech-savvy research assistants as a natural extension of their traditional role in dispensing reliable information.  Again, once engaged with the library for digital purposes, people naturally scooped up the physical books within easy reach, sustaining the habit.

Consuming media is not experience-neutral.  One of the reasons video didn’t destroy movie-going is because no matter how elaborate your home theater, it’s just not the same as going to a place where you buy popcorn, sit in a big room with other people and watch a giant screen.  Reading on a Kindle or iPad is just not the same as handling a printed book.  Libraries helped remind us of that, and thus fostered continued love of the traditional book.

The libraries I know have evolved into community centers. Humans are pack animals.  We naturally congregate with like-minded people, in this case, those who are curious and seeking intellectual enrichment.  By providing a venue for speakers, book clubs, historical expositions, study groups, even political debates, libraries have moved to the center of civic society.  I never turn down a chance to do a reading at a library because I know there will always be a decent turn out. This is because the audience is composed of serious readers who regularly attend author appearances.  

Librarians provide world-class customer service.  Do you know of any other profession more tireless in helping you obtain the information you seek?  For the librarians I know, it’s not a job as much as a calling. They love research and discovery, and take immense pleasure in sharing the bounty their institutions have accumulated.  Before Google, my go-to source was a toll free number at the New York Public Library.  I’d call them with some arcane question and they’d happily spend hours chasing down the answer.  That spirit is still very much alive and well, and you could do a lot worse than recruiting a librarian to aid in your quest for knowledge.  

All of this for me is cause for celebration.  As I write this, hordes of librarians are in San Francisco at the annual ALA Conference, and I suspect more than one wine glass has been appropriately raised to the good health and cheer of the local public library.   

From Martin Shepard:

Recently I spoke with an older librarian I know, who will shortly be retiring. She “wholeheartedly agreed with the assessment that local libraries have morphed into Community Centers and that their aim is to serve their communities in any way they can.” But she also sees some worrisome trends developing. While appreciating the fact that “local libraries are pouring funds into splendid additions and renovations, the space is often allocated to private meeting rooms, children's playrooms, media rooms (DVDs, music CDs, books on CD etc.), one result being that bound books, unless they are the latest best sellers, are being squeezed to the sidelines and that many tech savvy visitors come into the physical library simply to use their computers or read the newspapers without having to buy one.”

She goes on to say that at her library “the ratio of loans of DVDs to books is about two to one and there are many patrons who never touch a book.  However, this is not true of the children's department, the most vibrant area of our local libraries. Here books go out twenty-five at a time and parents are justly proud of their offspring's listening or reading abilities. While this drops off for many once they learn computer games, nonetheless the joys of reading have to take firm hold at an early age.”  

I personally think that this gentle lady worries unnecessarily, though the “squeezing out of non-bestsellers” is a legitimate complaint. Still, one can appreciate the fact that a third of the loans are actual books needn’t be worrisome at all, for many of these book loans come about because of all the other services a library provides. In my opinion this should be cause for celebration.

This is particularly true for us at The Permanent Press, since the major buyers of our books comes from the library market due to librarians who read the pre-publication reviews for our titles that appear regularly, and frequently, in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. It is their appreciation of quality fiction that has helped many of our writers gain attention in the market place, which they surely deserve.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Fifty-four year old Charles Davis is a remarkable novelist who we’ve published before. He’s a British citizen who has lived and worked in the United States, Sudan, Turkey, Ivory Coast, and Spain, before settling down several  years ago in France, across from the English Channel. An adventuresome and curious man he’s also visited and hiked around the Libyan desert, Zanzibar, and Timbuktu, and is fluent in Spanish and French as well.

In 2007 we published
Walk on, Bright Boy, set in Moorish Spain, and in 2010 Standing at the Crossroads, set in Africa. Both novels were highly praised, with Publishers Weekly saying that “his characters are about the awesome transformative powers of storytelling.”

I can only add this: that his historical (and hysterical) and moving novel, Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, debuts a year from now. And, for all the praise his earlier work have gathered, this latest one blasts off from Earth’s gravitational pull and flies into the furthest reaches of our solar system. It’s one of the most original and best books I’ve ever read and that we’ve ever published, and one that should find readers throughout the world. Our publication date in the USA is set for June 2016, a year from now, and we are expecting publishers in many other countries to acquire rights as well. With that, I turn you over to Charles:

“Novelists make stuff up, right? No, wrong. We do make up quite a lot of stuff. But we're also a gang of marauding magpies, pillaging other people's lives for stories, experiences, emotions, and observations, gathering the bright and shiny bits of being then rearranging them into a pattern we hope will be pleasing enough to persuade people we're not wasting their time. It's a tricky trade, tricky in every sense of the word, never more so than when the purloined raw material is a story based on historical events, because no matter how deft the narrative, readers will always end up asking, 'I wonder whether that really happened?' Worse, they can find out where you got it wrong.

“My most recent experience of conjuring fiction from fact was writing a novel about Hitler and Mussolini. I'd long wanted to write about Hitler. He does loom rather large in the history of the last century and anyone who wants to grapple with morality and human nature really has to take him into account sooner or later. But how? There are tens of thousands of books about Hitler and novelists as diverse as Beryl Bainbridge, Ron Hansen, Richard Hughes, Norman Mailer, √Čric-Emmanuel Schmitt, George Steiner and A. N. Wilson have taken a stab at capturing the man with words, not to mention the sickeningly brilliant meta-history devised by Ron Rosenbaum. Quite apart from the quality of the competition, the number of books alone suggest you might be better off doing a little light dusting or mowing the lawn. And even if millions of words hadn't already been churned out on the subject, just how do you grapple with a figure, so large, so improbable, so monstrous?

“Well, to start with, you make him smaller. But we'll come to that in a minute.

“First, the trigger. I wanted to write about Hitler, didn't know how to approach it. Then one evening we watched part of a documentary on the TV about 
Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, an anti-fascist archaeologist and art historian who was obliged to guide Hitler and Mussolini around the monuments and museums of Rome and Florence in 1938. The documentary wasn't all that good and we turned the TV off before the programme finished. But I had my angle, somebody antipathetic to the tyrants compelled to accompany them before their crimes inflated them into monsters. That was key, 'before', in other words at a period when they were just people, powerful and unpleasant people, but otherwise much like any other people, not yet numbered among the main villains of the twentieth century and, in Hitler's case, demonized as one of history's greatest mass murderers.

“The main moral debate about Hitler concerns his place in humanity. The argument is between exceptionalists, who maintain that Hitler was a freak beyond human nature, and naturalists who claim he was within—but at the extreme edge—of human nature. Given all that tosh about the Jewish-Bolshevik-Christian-Communist-Capitalist-Jewish conspiracy, exceptionalists do have a point. Everybody knows that people can be fabulously dim, but come on, this is imbecility on an intergalactic scale, pushing stupidity to superhuman levels. And then there are the crimes themselves, crimes so immense that they must surely be beyond the bounds of a reasonable, reasoning species.

“Unfortunately, I don't think they are. I'm not saying, like some have, that any one of us could have been a Hitler. The fact that we all have negative bits lurking about inside us doesn't mean we're all hankering to commit crimes against humanity. But I do believe most of us would have muddled along well enough in Nazi Germany, participating in or turning a blind eye to the regime's crimes because it made life easier. And I do believe that it is an act of intellectual laziness if not moral cowardice to dismiss Hitler as a mad monster. Doubtless he was a bit mad, doubtless he was a monster, but he was one of us, too, and we can't just quarantine him in some category of inimitable iniquity that doesn't contaminate the rest of us.

“So if the immensity of the man's crimes are not to remove him altogether from the moral universe, we've got make him smaller, reducing him to an entity that can be accommodated within the spectrum of human behaviour. And how do we make things smaller? When events are just too big and scary to be encompassed otherwise, when we can't run away or hide behind the sofa, what do we do? I know what I do. I laugh at them. That's the basic idea behind
Hitler, Mussolini, and Me. A bloke landed with a brace of tyrants, can't get away, so he's laughing at them; or, at least, we're laughing at them through the medium of his observations. The question is what belittling mockery is appropriate for Hitler and Mussolini?

“Looking at the pictures, it struck me that Il Duce bore more than a passing resemblance to a penis. That distended, glistening, glabrous, glandular looking head was all too phallic. And as for the helmets! He reminded me of a cartoon I saw when I was a teenager, a pornographic spoof called
Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle, which featured foot soldiers that were basically male pudenda topped with a helmet trundling about on their bollocks squirting jizzum at their foes. When I checked, the image was not as close as I remembered, but the idea stuck.

"At the same time, despite the histrionics of his famous balcony speeches, there was something uptight, restricted, faintly costive about Mussolini, so I found myself thinking about him as The Constipated Prick. Hitler, meanwhile, was infamously effusive, wittering on remorselessly both in public and private, so he was clearly a windbag. And as a vegetarian it was not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose his bowels produced more gas than most. As a consequence, he assumed the counterpoint role of The Flatulent Windbag.

“Next step, research, initially on the Internet, then in books, in the course of which I came across reams of little known facts about the dictators' private lives, including the astonishing discovery that Mussolini did indeed suffer from chronic constipation and Hitler was farting all the time. This was most gratifying. Novelists don't make stuff up? I'd just reinvented the twentieth century!

“Some writers plan every scene of a book before they even begin writing. Personally, I know where I'm starting from and I know where I want to go, but I only have a very hazy notion how I'm going to get there. This is a dangerous technique if you've already got enough notes to piece together a medium sized encyclopedia. When I started writing the first draft, I found myself breathlessly rushing ahead, trying to tell everything all at once. At one point, I was sixty pages into the novel before my principals had even made an appearance. However, I gradually managed to whittle things down and eventually whittled my way into a format that would allow me to tell my story and share some of the bizarre-but-true details I'd unearthed.

“Despite the somewhat cavalier attitude intimated in the first paragraph of this blog, turning famous fact into fiction does entail a degree of responsibility that is not implicit in making stuff up from the things we've cherry-picked from friends, family, and our own lives. The main issue I had was how to present Hitler and Mussolini. The advantage of writing about men like them is that you don't need to dream up or create characters, they're ready made and their fame means you can elicit a latent depository of images, prejudices, ideas and facts already stockpiled in the reader's mind. But you do have to realize the characters in a way that the reader accepts as plausible. You don't need to get every detail right, but you must ensure every detail is credible and coherent with the model.

“Given the aim of cutting the dictators down to size, this was a bit of a challenge, particularly for Hitler. Hitler was highly intelligent, charming, generous, funny, and charismatic. He was fond of children and animals, capable of capricious kindness, and could be a loyal friend. He was also a crashing bore with a vulgar mind and narrow intellect, a man so sure of his own rectitude that he never doubted the justification for any act of cruelty, barbarity, or brutality he deemed necessary. And he farted a lot. In a book aimed at laughter, you have to emphasize the vulgarity and flatulence, which inevitably falsifies the character, turning him into a caricature and reducing the complex human being. But, as I said already, that was my intention, reducing the monster, not so much to something less human, but more so, 'one of us' rather than 'one of them'.

“To compensate for the risk of simplifying, even traducing, complex characters, voice became vital. In
The Eighth Wonder of the World, Leslie Epstein opted to have Mussolini use two modes of speech, PONTIFICATING IN UPPER CASE LETTERS, and speaking in private like a pastiche Chico Marx. Since I'd already reduced my characters to an ambulatory fart and a penis on legs, I couldn't risk indulging myself in more childish humor, and so I used the words of my principals.

“This was a distressing experience, since to extract the observations and statements required for my dialogue, I was obliged to scan through the recorded pronouncements of two men who were nothing if not verbose and nothing if not prone to saying things any sensible person could do without hearing. It was another process of selecting and whittling, above all whittling, trying to get a balance between evoking their blatherings without inspiring readers to slope off and slit their own wrists, which would otherwise have been a very reasonable response to much of what the tyrants said.

“Many of the questions brought up by a fiction based on factual events revolve around veracity. The Afterword in
Hitler, Mussolini, and Me goes into some detail about this. At present, the only unacknowledged falsehood I am aware of in the book (though there are bound to be others, both of fact and interpretation) is the suggestion that the 1933 torching of the Reichstag was the work of the Nazis. This was long thought to be the case, but though the Nazis were quick to exploit the arson, most historians now agree that it was the work of a lone Dutch Communist. As for the rest, it's all true—or very like.

“Fact and fiction blur together, but the balance of probability does not necessarily mean one is more or less true than the other. They provide different realities according to how they are perceived. And the reality I wanted to convey was that Hitler and Mussolini were people. Most people are absurd, even ludicrous. So were Hitler and Mussolini. You don't need to believe everything I tell you. But I do need to tell it in such a way that you are willing to suspend disbelief for the duration. Then you can create a reality of your own. Hopefully, one that both informs and makes you laugh.

is all true, though. Really, trust me. I'm a writer.”

I look forward to your comments both on this blog, by email to me, and to Charles as well at


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You CAN Judge a Book by its Cover

There’s an old saw that says  ”Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But is it true?  Sometimes “Yes” and sometimes “No.”

When authors have huge followers, putting their names in huge letters on the dust jacket will suffice, even if the rest of the design tells you little of what the book is about.  On the other hand, one can come across a novel by a relatively unknown writer that is brilliantly written, but the cover does it no justice at all. Sending out an advance galley with a vapid cover to book reviewers—who are overwhelmed by submissions—would be far less likely to be singled out  than  if it had a striking design. The same is true for anyone browsing in a bookstore or seeing images on Amazon. This is a very human response. A product enclosed by beautiful wrapping will always be opened before one covered by a brown paper bag. Better yet, if the cover art is exceptional and also reflects what the novel is about, this makes for the perfect marriage.

Back in 1989, I received a flyer from Lon Kirschner and was mesmerized by his book cover designs. As I’ve said in a previous blog, I had my own art background. My beloved father, Mac Shepard, was an artist whose subway sketches are always featured on our catalog covers, while I was an art major at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan during the late forties and early fifties. I was dazzled by his work, and Lon’s been designing covers for us for over 25 years. What a joy it is to both work with him and see what he  comes up with. Any publisher, large or small, looking for a master cover designer would do well to get in touch with him by email. With that, I turn you over to Lon directly.

“Some designers claim that the act of creating is a little like giving birth. There are designs that come rather easily and some are difficult and painful. Of course, being male I have never actually given birth, but I have heard the screams.

I’ve written about my thought process before so I thought it would be interesting to pick a few examples of covers I have worked on for The Permanent Press and discuss the degree of difficulty each one presented. I have found there to be three types of projects.

Number 1: The cover that practically designs itself. These come along less frequently than most.

Number 2: The idea comes quickly but the visual takes a little pushing and pulling to make everything work together.

Number 3: The difficult birth. I have just read the last page of the manuscript and I don’t have a clue how to present the story or what imagery will convey the essence of the book. When this is the case I usually put the project aside and let the story roll around in my head for a while. I then start looking at images of things that seemed to stand out from the book. This can be anything at all. I call it visual free association. It has always worked but can be a long and sometimes frustrating process with false starts and a bit of aggravation. It is also the main reason I try to read the entire manuscript if it is available. It is much harder to solve a problem with less information, such as a short description from the author or a publisher's brief. I often find that my idea comes from some description that is buried in the manuscript, easily missed if the entire story isn’t available.

My main objective has always been to design a cover that has the attitude of the book. Not an illustration of the story.

Number 1. The Cover Designs Itself.
A Movable Famine

This book was a joy. Quirky, funny with a totally engaging main character. I knew right away this would be a portrait of him.
I rarely show a character. I don’t want to impose my idea of what someone looks like on a cover because what I love about reading is that everyone sees it differently. We are all reading the same script but watching a slightly different movie on the screen. So here is the problem. How do you show someone without showing them? The answer was the first line of the manuscript. To me it was the defining line of the book and set the tone. When I read it, I knew it was the character. That opening line became his portrait. With the addition of the retro looking suit, tie and a splash of notepad yellow I had a cover, evocative of a time when poetry was written out in long hand or typed out on the black and white keys of a battered Smith Corona.

Number 2. Almost There.
The Three-Nine Line

I have done all of David Freed’s Cordell Logan mystery titles. This one was different. The other covers in the series always featured some type of graphic that involved the hero’s plane, a beat up Cessna coupled with some type of graphic mystery element. This title called for something different. The story is set in the present day, but the memories and experiences of American soldiers who were prisoners during The Vietnam War is at the core of the book. It is a dark tale set in an exotic land. David had sent me some images of the setting of the book. One of these was of The Huc Bridge of Hoan Kiem Lake. I knew this was going to be the cover. I researched images and found one that had the right amount of ominous mystery. With some color manipulation and addition of background to make it fit my format, it became a strong cover image but I felt it needed something. I tried adding additional elements to tie it into the war. These proved unsuccessful and the cover was stripped down to the foreboding bridge image and title. Everyone loved the image but agreed that something was needed to tie it all together. After staring at the cover, I saw it. This was a story of prisoners of war. I needed to convey that so I underscored the title with barbed wire. That was the missing element. Although the final cover took a fair amount of work, the basic imagery was there from the very beginning, it just needed a push in the right direction.

Number 3. What Do I Do With This?
Grendel’s Game

I have chosen another mystery for this category. This was a tough solve and one that I think proved to be very successful. An eerie story with a fair amount of brutality, it takes place in Sweden with complex and well developed characters. It is really a psychological thriller. A gory murder cover would have done this book a disservice.

Without giving too much away, I began the free association of looking at images. After a while, one image kept coming back to me. The meat hook. Let me stop here and say that this was not what I would call a pleasant visual experience. If you don’t believe me, Google 'meat hook' and see what comes up. It was because of that fact that I knew I had to turn down the gross factor and turn up the creep factor.

The solution was to use the hooks to literally hang the title on, with the addition of a distressed background environment to give the title a home. The effect was a cover that let you know this was a chilling book and it was done without spilling one drop of blood!

Although all three of these examples are very different in the way they were solved, they all have one thing in common. Each cover is built on a concept. We live in an age where it is possible to do anything graphically. But if the concept isn’t sound, then all of the technology isn’t worth much. The first part of my job is to conceptualize. The second part is to make that concept come to life.

To see more of my covers please visit You can also contact me at”

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Charles Davis will talk about the challenges of writing Hitler, Mussolini and Me, a historically accurate and satirical novel that takes place in Rome in 1938, which we will be publishing next June.

I look forward to your comments and also hearing back from you by email.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015


I’m a radio guy myself. Each morning, after waking up, I turn on WSHU National Public Radio while doing stretches and some weights. Here on the East End of Long Island, Connecticut Public Radio is as accessible as any local station. Driving around town doing errands, I listen to this same station. When I’m in my office I listen to the streaming sounds of, the jazz station out of Seattle/Tacoma—for my money the very best jazz station in the universe—while working on my computer. And here’s another perk: I’ll often hear Joan Baum on WSHU doing one of her extraordinary reviews.

Enough about me. Time for some background that Joan offers about herself:

“Ph.D. from Columbia, dissertation area: English Romantic poets. Did my thesis under the direction of Lionel Trilling.  B.A. from Queens College, CUNY. Graduate of the High School of Music & Art, like Marty, the Master-blogger.  I write book and art reviews and articles for Dan's Paper. Besides reviewing books for WSHU, I also write  reviews for Hadassah Magazine and sing tenor in the Choral Society of the Hamptons,  where ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds also give trouble.”

Now on to the meat and potatoes of her blog:

“A long time ago in a fallacy far away (that one could make a living as a freelancer), I was asked if I’d be interested in doing science book reviews for NPR, courtesy of  a two-year National Science Foundation grant. Science?  What did I know?  Exactly so, came the reply. We want someone who’s not a specialist to look at these subjects for a general audience. I was thrilled, challenged, and intimidated. Little did I know that two minutes of air time could be used up fast just reciting a book title, particularly if the work under review came out of the polysyllabic field of chemistry, or when the author was listed as the head of an et al. team. But the experience was fun, and doing radio reviews sharpened my writing skills. The unexpected dividend was that radio and print supported one another. Radio made me more conversational than academic, and I learned to not always dismiss in print what worked well on the air: repetition of key words, overall short sentences. Other lessons were to come.

“When the NSF grant was up, I was picked up (ah, someone was listening) as a general book reviewer for Christian Science’s Monitor Radio, and it was there that my reliance on Roget’s became a happy addiction, for at the time the editors made it clear that certain words were to be avoided for taboo reference. Sorry, but you can’t have someone smoking, I was told, when I was reviewing the biography of a famous man who did smoke, or mention someone being fired by way of receiving ‘a pink slip’ as it was too suggestive of a negligee. As for a line about a certain medical procedure in regard to a major illness, I was asked to please see if the person couldn’t just fall down a flight of stairs. And then get therapy. There were also words to be avoided for reasons of sound and clarity: words that ended in ‘t’ or ‘d’; familiar expressions in another language that I’d lose time explaining; puns that depended on visual as well as an auditory sense. I always felt that a good book review would give an example of an author’s style, but what to choose as representative?  Print allows, radio restricts. Concision would rule. I soon discovered that the advantages of doing both print and radio at the same time were reciprocal: radio can enhance the sense of voice and rhythm in print, and print narratives help direct the logical structure of an on-air review.

“Commercial radio book reviews are rare—as opposed to mass media interviews, which tend to concentrate on author intention rather than book evaluation based on timeliness and significance. But commercial reviews tend to follow celebrities and even then typically run for no more than 50 seconds. My own radio experience has reminded me that there’s nothing wrong with entertainment as a means to inform and persuade. Once upon a time my dissertation advisor pressed me with a rarely heard question: ‘Wouldn’t you like someone other than your mother to read this?’ Well, my mother’s no longer around, but knowing there’s an on/off button out there does the job.”

I hope you will comment on Joan’s blog both on this website as well as emailing her directly at

COMING NEXT WEEK: Lon Kirschner, an exceptional designer, will be posting his blog: You Can Judge A Book By Its Cover, which will include some exciting visuals.