Shelly Lowenkopf2Shelly Lowenkopf

Fiction Writers' Handbook

I’d like to introduce you to the amazing editor/teacher/author, Shelly Lowenkopf. He has an impressive career in the publishing industry and you can even find him on Wikipedia.

QUESTION: Hi, Shelly! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. You’ve held editorial positions with book publishers, and you’ve participated in executive editorial projects in a variety of magazines. Can you tell us more about your editorial career?

ANSWER: I was yanked into an editorial career by accident, signing on to write a series of books for a mail order organization. When the publisher wanted more titles per year than I could supply, he asked me if I had any writer friends who could be potential contributors to the series. After a time of this, I recognized how much satisfaction and valuable information awaited me from this side of the desk. In subsequent months and years, I pestered every editor I knew for hints and insights about the editing process.

I began attending and participating in book trade events and activities, developing an understanding of my first love, general trade publishing with an emphasis on fiction. A New York massmarket publisher offered me the challenge of running the Los Angeles office, increasing my understanding of massmarket publishing. An opportunity to learn the curious avenues and alleyways of scholarly publishing came my way and I took that, absorbing the potentials before moving on to literary, which became my true passion.

The accident of my writing leading to editing then produced another accident. An editor from a rival massmarket publisher asked me to take his university classes while he attended a sales meeting. I agreed. When the weeks of teaching were over, the chair of the program called, told me the students were threatening an armed revult unless I came back next semester. I was only too happy to agree, setting in cement my understanding about the writing life in a Yogi Berra-like aphorism: When an accident seems imminent, make it.

Through such accidents, my writing life, editing life, and teaching life have braided into a rather tough, quirky career I could not have imagined at the outset, leading me to work with the likes of the notional astrologer, Sidney Omarr, the iconic writer, Henry Miller, and the bigger-than-life attorney, Melvin Belli, the King of Torts. Not to forget the opportunities to work with Digby Wolfe, the famed creator of the TV legend, “Laugh-In.”

I had the misfortune of always being promoted up beyond my pleasure of hands-on editing to administration in every landscape, and there have been many landscapes.

QUESTION: You’ve taught courses in short story, novel, dramatic writing, editing, genre fiction, and revision at the graduate level in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. What did you enjoy most about your teaching career? Have any of your former students gone on to great success as writers? Were you also writing and publishing back then?

ANSWER: Teaching helped me become a better writer and editor thanks to the need to present information and concept as specifics rather than abstractions. Teaching kept me focused and allowed me to share my enthusiasms with some of the most remarkable persons I’ve had the good fortune to meet. Many of my students have built writing and publishing careers for themselves. I’m pleased to say my present publisher was once a student of mine. Love it when he introduces me as his writing professor.

I can’t recall a time when I didn’t have one or more projects of my own in the works, even when immersed in publishing and teaching. They all seemed somehow to fit.

QUESTION: You’ve had over thirty-five books published, along with short fiction, pulp novels, essays, and reviews. Do you have a favorite, or one that has earned the most praise?

ANSWER: I’ve come to terms with many forms of writing, finding differing degrees of satisfaction in each, but there is no question in my heart or mind that the short story gives me a special sense of satisfaction. I have great fondness for essays and reviews, but I adore short stories and mystery novels.

QUESTION: Your latest book, ‘The Fiction Writer’s Handbook’, was published in October, 2012. Can you tell us about the book?

ANSWER: The simple answer is that I wanted to write a book about writing that would have helped me when I was trying to learn and assimilate craft. The more complex answer is that The Fiction Writers’ Handbook is about three hundred seventy-five separate essays on useful tools in the writing craft. This book gave me three hundred seventy-five opportunities to demonstrate how vibrant and intricate the craft is. The book is payback, a love letter to writing, storytelling, and characters, the personages who appear in story.

QUESTION: You are a past regional president of the Mystery Writers of America. What did you do as president, and how did you get that position?

ANSWER: I scheduled meetings, recruited new members, arranged programs for the membership, tried to keep rival factions and internal feuds from growing. I read more mysteries than ever before, got a chance to publish authors I’d grown up on and come to idolize, and got roaring drunk with my heroes.

My entire association with MWA was another brilliant accident. My great mystery mentor, Dorothy B. Hughes, saw me as fresh blood for the cause. Because I so admired her, I was flattered and began volunteering for more things than I should have volunteered to do.

QUESTION: You’ve edited a number of bestselling mystery authors. Can you tell us about that? Can you tell us a bit about the author/editor relationship? What do you like best about editing other authors’ work?

ANSWER: My experience with mystery writers causes me to believe they, as a general rule, turn in the most consistently professional manuscript. Science fiction authors are not far behind in my esteem. Even such mystery icons as Frank Gruber, an early hero, who I thought wanted editing and who wouldn’t take it, made a work of art of his final manuscript, the typing neat, the margins wide and inviting, the logic of the story compelling. Working with genre writers triggered the higher levels of anticipation. Even when I knew the story and knew what was coming, the presentations were well organized, orchestrated for a dazzling emotional effect.

I recall getting mildly drunk once with Steve Fisher, whose I Wake up Screaming turned me on to the suspense thriller genre. “I want from you a bigger book than I Wake up Screaming,” I told him. A month later, I had a draft of Saxon’s Ghost in my hands.

Working with writers, in particular with men and women who’d published a lot, was like entering a conspiracy with a trusted comrade. I got to be the sounding board and I loved it.

My goal was always to get them telling their best new story, the one not yet written but different and better than the previous.

I love the opportunity to work with the professionals, men and women who did not allow ego to get in the way of telling the best story possible. I find an ongoing thrill in seeing how they get the effects they seek or, if an effect eludes them, how talking about it produces answers.

I always found it thrilling when they’d ask for my notes, then want to go over them. To me, this was playing in the big kids’ sand box.

QUESTION: How do you feel about the “rules” of contemporary writing: no adverbs, limited dialogue tags, show don’t tell, no head-hopping, etc.? In your opinion, how important are they to writing? Are there any that you particularly adhere to?

ANSWER: Contemporary writing did not emerge from the shell like the Botticelli Venus; it evolved slowly since about the eighteenth century, although there were yet earlier traces. I read fiction the way a tree-ring specialist reads tree rings or the geologist looks at core sampling. Twenty-first century writing means the author has to sit back and watch the kids—the characters—do the work.

I love the way the evolution has worked. The luck of the draw has me with a literary agent, Toni Lopopolo, with the same regard for close personal involvment with the characters and no stage directions or interruptions.

I still recall reading in Graham Greene’s autobiography the beating-up he inflicted on himself for using an adverb he might well have avoided. “She smiled sadly.” What an eye-opener to me.

My students have great fun mimicking my takeoff on adverbs. I’m also big on watching for POV violations and characters who expostulate and asseverate in public.

QUESTION: What is your favorite or least favorite part of writing or editing?

ANSWER: My favorite part of writing is the stage I’m involved with at the moment, thus it might be first-draft, revision, polishing. If I’m editing, I like getting down to the hairsplitting of the line edit, where sometimes a matter of a missing word or a superfluous one is enough to send the entire paragraph rushing home to Mother for help.

QUESTION: You are currently a freelance consultant and teacher, and your clients include novelists, academics, and the creator of a popular television series. How did you get involved in that work? What do you like best about your current work? Can you tell us about it?

ANSWER: Helping students reach publication quality seems to have provided a base. Writers tell their friends. Agents ask me to help their clients. Editors sometimes suggest some writers with on-the-fence projects consult with me. The more simple explanation is word of mouth. I promised my late wife I’d keep her classes going, and when USC cut me loose after a shift in departmental politics, a remarkable opportunity for a visiting professorship opened at UCSB. Once again, word of mouth was the catalyst.

Like most writers, what I want to do most is write and read, but I’ve come to realize that teaching is like the editorial process; it’s a conversation—not a conversation between client and teacher or editor, rather a conversation within a process. I’m a part of the process, talking to the other parts.

QUESTION: You and literary agent Toni Lopopolo of Toni Lopopolo Literary Management teach Fiction Bootcamp Workshops in California. I’ve heard that you use a unique method that helps first time novelists master writing skills. Can you tell us about it?

ANSWER: We focus on elements that alert the emerging novelists to techniques for getting out of the way of their story with stage directions and footnotes. We in effect do for the writer what the acting coach or director does for the actor. We help the author step into the background so the characters and their story can emerge. We direct the writer into seeing the story, not the writer’s ego or preconcieved notions. Once in a while, this produces a kind of melt-down. Most of the time, it raises the student to the level of writer we’ve worked with in our editorial mode.

The approach is effective. Toni is my go-to reader for my own work. I do not always like what she tells me, in particular when a part of me knows that the things she doesn’t like happen to be true. At that point, I listen to the truth, then follow it as best I can.

QUESTION: You also lecture at writers’ conferences and schools about the novel and the short story. Do you have any interesting stories to tell about your experiences? Do you have any upcoming speaking engagements?

ANSWER: One evening in a class at USC, a charming Englishman in crisp tennis whites ran down a concept which seemed to me ideal for a TV mini series. At break, he asked if I’d like to collaborate on it. My response was the model of politeness. I told him I only work on speculation with my own projects. A week later, he returned with a check with my name on it and a HBO logo. Thus I met and became friends with Digby Wolfe.

In another USC class, I observed that character types were all about us, suggesting how even I could become, with a certain amount of tweaking, a character. Two weeks later, when it was time for students to declare their thesis project, I saw myself transformed by one student into a homicide detective in the Bronx. A year later, the thesis became the first in a series from Pocket Books, bearing my name as the series lead. The illustration on the cover bore an uncanny resemblance to my photo on my USC ID card. The student went on to complete his PhD and become an assistant dean.

In yet another class, a student majoring in poetry submitted a narrative poem which I urged her to convert into a short story. When she did and we spent some time discussing possible revisions, I challenged her to submit both the poem and the short story simultaneously to a list of literary magazines. I bet on the story being taken first. It was. The then department chair, a man with a monumental ego who considered himself a poet, claimed I’d ruined the spirit of poetry with my suggestion. I won my bet, the story won a prize, and the student went on to become a novelist and teacher. The department chair took an early retirement under a cloud of suspect behavior.

The same department chair set great store by Aristotle’s still vibrant treatise, Poetics. In a lecture to the entire student body, I proposed that the formality and pomposity of Poetics could be avoided by reading Uncle Remus’ (Joel Chandler Harris) Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. For about two weeks, the Uncle Remus stories hit the best seller list at the student book store and I was given a $25 gift certificate. The department chair did not speak to me for the remainder of the semester.

The science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was a featured speaker at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference, where I was a workshop leader from 1980 until 2011. A writer of great dramatic intensity and originality, Ellison used his speech before the assembled audience of 350 to call out and embarrass a reviewer. At the farewell breakfast, where the same audience was in attendance, I made the announcement that on the previous night, someone had broken into the Conference Bookstore and left three copies of Ellison’s latest work.

I have three presentations in the forthcoming Glendale Writer’s Conference in July. I have two lectures for the Pacific Institute of Professional Writing Camarillo Sessions in early November, and am to present two lectures at the Central Coast/Cuesta College Writers’ conference in late September.

The original owner and director of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference, Barnaby Conrad, was a close and dear friend for over thirty years. During that time it was our custom to lunch or dine at least twice a week, thus I awaited him as he finished his workshop one June Conference afternoon in the 1990s. A grandmotherly type was reading from a rather linear narrative when I came in. Conrad put up with the material for about two pages, then, with great politeness, stopped the lady by asking how soon she’d arrive at story. “In another eight pages or so,” the lady said, “the characters in the tent are mauled by a bear.” Conrad nodded. “I think,” he said, “we’d better start with the bears.” For years, that was the advice we passed along to emerging writers. “Start with the bears.”

QUESTION: You contribute a weekly book review column to the Montecito Journal. What kind of books do you review?

ANSWER: Eclectic tastes. Much fiction, including mystery/suspense, mainstream, and literary. Some short story collections. Some memoir, science, biography. I love the quirky, the funny, as represented by the likes of Michael Chabon.

QUESTION: What books or authors have most influenced you in your own writing?

ANSWER: Huckleberry Finn is my special favorite. I’m also big on Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, and the Scottish mystery/suspense writer, Kate Atkinson. Can’t forget Dorothy B. Hughes. John Fante still grabs me. For short stories, I’m devoted to and moved by Deborah Eisenberg. I pay much attention to Daniel Woodrell’s novels, his Ozark noir.

QUESTION: Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!

I blog at
I’m on Facebook as Shelly Lowenkopf
I’m on Twitter as lowenkopf
Amazon has a list of my publications
And I email from [email protected]


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