Earl Stanley Gardner

10/3/2016 – Be Careful With Conflict

I once read a biography of Earl Stanley Gardner, an attorney and prolific author who wrote close to 150 novels. His most popular books starred attorney-sleuth Perry Mason, and that became a hit television series in the late 50s and early 60s and then again in the 80s.

How did he come to write such successful books? One anecdote mentioned in the biography said that when he was a beginning writer, he sent a story to Black Mask Magazine, that was rejected, but along with the rejection was another note, apparently meant for the editor’s secretary that was a rant on all the faults in Gardner’s story.

Gardner took it as advice on how to write, so he paid attention to the editor’s criticism. He rewrote the story. When he resubmitted it, he thanked the editor for the suggestions and his storyperry-mason-bk was accepted, probably because of the editor’s embarrassment.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Gardner’s first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, at a yard sale. As I read it, I had to smile. All of us involved in writing fiction are told about the importance of conflict in keeping reader interest. Gardner took this advice to heart, and his book is almost a parody or maybe a lesson on conflict in fiction.

It begins on the first page when Della Street walks into Mason’s office and says she thinks the new client is a phony. She’s opposed to this client at every turn in the plot. Then it’s obvious that the client is lying and withholding information and Mason knows it, but how to find out the truth? From what she tells him, Mason knows he’s up against some tough foes, and he’s in danger of being disbarred. And then Paul Drake, the detective, comes in, and he becomes another source of conflict. So by halfway through the book, Perry Mason is in conflict with his secretary, the detective he uses, the client, and an assortment of tough characters. Gardner establishes Perry Mason as a tough fighter who will battle any and everyone, but to me it seems like the conflict was laid on so thick that it became a parody.

Conflict is important, but when it becomes obvious or biased, it becomes trite, irritating, and boring. For instance, when the wife opposes her husband’s dream of adventure. Boringly obvious set-up. And biased. For one thing, why can’t it be the wife’s dream of adventure? And why can’t the conflict come from another source than the obvious spouse, who could be supportive.

Surprise us with the conflict. We’re inundated with the standard issue, and a lot of us are too sophisticated to buy into a writer’s lazy use of it.


Query Letters

Since we are publishers as well as writers, we receive a number of query letters. They give us a general idea of the kind of queries agents and other publishers receive, and we are not impressed. No wonder the rejection rate is so high.

The worst query we ever received was typed across one side of a 3” x 5” postcard with no margins and no space between the lines. Other queries showed not even the least understanding of what we published or the audience and genre for the book they’d written. Sometimes we’d get phone calls from hopefuls who had an idea for a book and wondered if we’d give them an advance to write it (extremely unlikely).

I received a query yesterday from a man who’d written a picture book and simply wondered if we’d like to publish it. No return self-addressed stamped envelope enclosed—a real no-no. The query letter, only one paragraph, seemed so respectful and unassuming that I could feel the writer’s hope and fear. Who was he? I thought he might be a high school student or a retiree. He thought he’d written a worthy story for a picture book and included the first couple of pages. They weren’t too bad.

So I wrote him back a kind rejection letter. I told him we don’t publish that kind of book, which he should have known. I suggested that he join a writer’s group in his area and read the numerous sources on the web and in the bookstore on how to write an effective query letter.

I hope this good deed will go unpunished and that it will help him.

Years ago, I read the biography of mystery author Earl Stanley Gardner, a hugely popular and best-selling author in his day, in which he told about the many, many rejections he had received. Then one day he received a rejection and the editor had written a note attached to the manuscript commenting on what was wrong with the story. Gardner read the comments, rewrote the story and resubmitted it with a letter of thanks for the comments. He found out later that the comments had been meant only for the editor’s secretary, not for Gardner, but she’d forgotten to remove the note. Gardner speculated that the editor bought the resubmission out of embarrassment.

Earl Stanley Gardner’s first mystery, The Case of the Velvet Claws is written as if he followed a mystery-writing primer step by step. Conflict? it’s hurled at the protagonist, Perry Mason, from every character in the book, even his secretary and his client. Considering Gardner’s great success, he obviously got it right.

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