February 6, 2014

Guest Post: Charles Salzberg

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 5:35 pm

Devil in the Hole

Let’s face it, this writing life can be hard. Really hard. We writers get faced with rejection from the moment we start. Sometimes before we even start, someone tries to cut us off at the knees. That’s why we need to be connected to those who have gone before–Dennis Lehane calls this “sending the elevator down”. And why we need writing mentors and supports in our lives. I’d like to welcome Charles Salzberg back to the blog. Charles has been a mentor to me as a writer, and has shared his first moment and second moment right here. Today he’s got something a little different, a story about a writer who nearly got struck down before he’d even begun. And some perspective on why the writer never should’ve listened.

Next time someone tries to cut you off at the knees? Tell ‘em Charles told you to stand tall.

Charles Salzberg

The other day I got to the class I teach a little early and one of my long-time students, a wonderful writer who has just about completed his fascinating memoir chronicling twenty years of addiction while living (and scoring) primarily in Brooklyn and the East Village, was sitting there. I asked him if there was any progress on his book—he’d just started sending it out to agents after already having some interest from editors. And rightly so. His voice is unique, even if his story isn’t. But through his tales of the trials and tribulations of being hooked on just about everything from cocaine to heroin, you not only get to see what and who an addict really is, but how one can live at least the semblance of a “normal” life.

“I got my first rejection. They said that for a book like this, you’d have to be famous. That no one’s publishing memoirs of unknown people anymore.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Lots of memoirs are written by unknowns and besides, there are famous people who run through your book.”

I gave him a pep talk and then class started. But I couldn’t get what he said out of my mind because I hear it all the time. “You can’t do this.” “No one is buying that anymore.”

My advice to writers is simple: Ignore those kinds of comments. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do or shouldn’t do or better not do. It’s something I (and other writers) have heard throughout our careers and if we listened to it, we wouldn’t write. To me, it’s just a lazy shorthand way of dismissing work before actually reading it and judging it on its own merits, because as far as I’m concerned good writing can overcome any rules.

When I wrote my first novel, Swann’s Last Song, I broke the cardinal rule of detective/mystery writing. My protagonist, Henry Swann, follows a long trail of clues and yet, at the end, does not solve the crime. “You can’t have a detective novel where the detective doesn’t solve the crime,” I was told over and over again. Finally, after 25 years, I changed the ending and sold the book. But it doesn’t end there. When the book came out in paperback I included my original ending, and not to my surprise everyone who read both endings preferred my original.

The same thing happened to me with my latest novel, Devil in the Hole, which is told from the perspective of at least two dozen people. That means that practically every chapter is told in the first person voice of a different character. When I sent it out to agents and a few editors, I got pretty much the same reaction, “great story, great writing, but we can’t publish a book with so many characters telling the story. The reader will get confused.”

I knew they were wrong and when I sent the ms. to my present publisher, Five-Star, they loved it. It was published in August and in the almost two dozen reviews I’ve received since then, not one person has complained about being confused by the multiple narrators. Not only that, readers seem to love the way the book is structured. So much for the wisdom of professionals.

The bottom-line is, you have to trust your instincts. If you’re a good enough writer you can make anything old new and make anything unworkable work. Once you realize that, you’ll pretty much have your own “made it moment.”

Charles Salzberg is a New York-based novelist, journalist and acclaimed writing instructor.

His new novel, Devil in the Hole, a work of literary crime fiction based on the notorious John List murders, is on the shelves now. He is also the author of the Henry Swann detective series: Swann’s Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel; Swann Dives In; and the upcoming Swann’s Lake of Despair.


  1. Thank you for this! I needed a good boost today :)

    Comment by Windy Lynn Harris — February 6, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

  2. Love Five-Star, and I think Devil in the Hole sounds amazing. I look forward to reading!

    Comment by Stacy Allen — February 6, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

  3. Really appreciated reading this. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Sandra Hutchison — February 6, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

  4. Cool to see you again, Charles. The naysayers really need to read MY NAME IS RED. Almost every chapter is from a different perspective, including the devil, and charscter’s in a painting. Congrats again on your continued success!

    Comment by Savvy — February 6, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

  5. Many blessings to you Jenny for an informative site God has his time for our gifts to blossom.

    Comment by Author A;leja Bennett — February 6, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

  6. Wonderful piece! So heartening to read when I’m working my butt off to get my book–which I love so deeply and have worked with what I hope are deft hands–out to the readers who want it, and first placed with an agent who believes.

    Comment by D — February 7, 2014 @ 4:00 am

  7. A wonderful piece! Rejections are unfortunately so much a part of writing. We just can’t and shouldn’t give up. Many famous writers had multiple rejections on great work before they found a publisher. Persistence is necessary.

    Jacqueline Seewald

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — February 7, 2014 @ 11:09 am

  8. Great advice. Thanks for the inspirational story. I’m adding Charles Salzberg to my reading list.

    Comment by Scott — February 7, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

  9. How interesting and refreshing. I’ve worked in the music industry almost all my life where someone somewhere has always given their opinion (which they have to do, of course), and if they’d been heeded every time there would be little or no music ever written, recorded or released. I can see the same will be true with writing. My advice to those songwriters and musicians was ‘be yourself, be true to yourself – write from the heart and it will strike a chord with someone somewhere at some time.’ I shall now take your advice and my own advice. Clearly you have been right and I’ve often been right too (about others) and now must apply this to my own writing. Good luck with all your works.

    Comment by Jane Risdon — February 7, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

  10. Ah, yes, the rejection letters. First you get the one that says the story is terrific, but he doesn’t like your heroine. Then the next says love your heroine, but the story isn’t quite there yet.

    Comment by Sheila York — February 9, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

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