Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's Good About Being Unpublished

I'm hard at work drafting a new novel. I have a plot outline in Excel that would amaze and confound you were I to share it. Why Excel? Mostly because this novel is very plot-driven, being a detective story. I wanted to not only keep track of each scene in the narrative, but also have a detailed timeline of all the events that take place off-screen, which events the detective (and reader) discover over the course of the investigation. So I needed to write down, for example, that in Act 1 somewhere the murderer tells a joke that the detective overhears, and then in Act 3 the murderer tells the joke again within earshot of the detective, but the detective has in Act 2 learned something that gives new and significant meaning to the joke when she hears it again in Act 3. Not that there's actually this joke-telling in my book. But still, there's a lot of stuff like that going on in the story and I needed to keep it all straight. My first thought was to use index cards, and I even wrote out a few this weekend, but I decided that I wanted to be able to see the whole timeline at once, and be able to insert things and keep track of characters and days and places and of course when I am faced with such a task, I turn to Excel with its nice sorting and filtering features. Yes, just like Shakespeare did.

The point of all this is not that I'm using a hated Microsoft product to plot out a novel. The point of all this is that I'm writing a detective story right now. I admit that I'm actually surprised to find myself writing it. It's not what I do, you know?

I have two literary novels with my fabulous and charming agent at this point, but because I don't have a publisher yet breathing down my neck to meet any sort of expectations, I'm pretty free to do what I like as long as it amuses me. My agreeable agent tells me that she'll read anything I write and by gosh, she's a fan of anything as long as it's well-written so that's all cool. BGut mostly, as an unpublished novelist, nobody has heard of me so there are no barriers to my writing a murder mystery and so that's what I'm doing. Possibly I'll have a career like Iain Pears, who wrote a string of mysteries (the "Jonathan Argyle" art mystery books) and also wrote some dandy literature (The Dream of Scipio and An Instance of the Fingerpost).

Never having written a detective story before, I'm having a lot of fun building the plot mechanism. There is certainly an art to crafting a convincing and intriguing mystery and this is my very first attempt, so this book might be awful and I'm prepared for that. As I say, I have the freedom right now to experiment and have fun. A few knowing fans of detective fiction have already told me that I'm playing too fast and loose with the genre conventions and that, too, is perfectly okay by me because, as I say, I'm mostly amusing myself by writing this book. I have no deadlines, nobody is asking for my next manuscript, and so far I'm having a lot of fun. Plus, Excel! I love spreadsheets.

Anyway, how about you? Are you writing a style/genre/whatever that you wouldn't believe you were writing if you weren't doing it?


  1. Lovely to have a positive take on being unpublished, Sott. And you raise an interesting point: just how much creative freedom does a writer lose when they become A Published Author? and whose expectations define those boundaries - is it the publisher's or the reader's expectations of the author. Would readers be happy to read different genres/styles from the same author? I think readers wouldn't care as long as the book is good.

    Enjoy your creative freedom! Hope the detective story is fun to write!
    Judy (South Africa)

  2. I agree with Judy.

    For myself, being both unpublished and without an agent, I write whatever comes to my head.

    For now, that's mostly Fantasy. I'm currently trying to finish off a six book epic fantasy series.

    I have a project in mind that will be an interesting 'just-for-fun' kind of exercise... but I'm not telling what it is just yet!

    I do like your outlook, Scott. Best of luck to you!

  3. Great attitude, keep doing what makes you happy = writing. :)

  4. Excel? Jokes? Fast and loose?

    Your excitement makes me happy, Mr. Bailey!

    As I reader I do expect certain things from authors if I know them. I wouldn't necessarily want to read a sci-fi thriller from Jhumpa Lahiri, but I would give it a shot if she published such a thing. I think it's important for artists to stretch out in new directions to keep themselves fresh and ever-learning. Sometimes the new directions will work and sometimes they wont.

    When I wrote Bread, it felt like a different type of thing from what I usually write. It was more tragic and more straight forward. But, as time goes on I do wonder if other people see it as different from say, Rooster, or my short stories. I honestly don't know. I am working on another crime-related novella that also originally felt different, but as of this weekend, I made a change that made it feel more like me again. So, in a way, I kind of have a hybrid on my hands, and that's not surprising.

  5. Well, as you know, I somehow managed to switch genres and find publishers for each (fantasy and mystery), but they were both small presses who were more interested in the specific manuscript I sent them rather than any track record or expectations of me as an author. Since your first book will likely come out from a large publisher, they may want more of the same when it does well.

    I keep finding myself trying to write a middle-grade novel, which is not what I'd normally write though I do read a ton of them. But it keeps getting pushed to the back-burner.

    You ought to check out a software program called Scrivener - it's supposed to be the bee's knees for managing fiction projects.

    Alexandra MacKenzie

  6. Not at the moment though I do hope to write a psychological or dramatic thriller before I die. Funny thing is, I scare easily....

  7. Ooh, good luck with that! The in-depth pre-plotting required of a mystery novel makes my head hurt. But, to each their own. I'm sure it'll turn out great!

  8. Judy: To be completely honest, I just wanted to announce that I'm writing a new book and having a lot of fun. I really don't know how I feel about writers changing direction during their career. I suppose that like most folks, I want something of the experience of reading a particular author to repeat from book to book. I assume that my exploration of the existential problem and Razor-Sharp Wit will keep readers coming back. I assume a lot of things. But for now, I'm having fun so that's what matters.

    S.M.: I hope that even if I get my novels published I keep the "I write to amuse myself" attitude. Having a supportive agent (thanks, Weronika!) helps.

    BellaVida: I just wonder how happy I'd be if my detective story turns out to be crappy. Well, there are plenty of other books to write, right?

    Domey: I'm always excited to start a new book, you know. About writers changing genre, I must remind myself of Nabokov, who wrote everything from modernest works to straight narrative to science fiction, and all of it was brilliant. As I said to Judy, there's something I get from reading authors I like that I want to find in all of their books, but I can't say just what that something is. Maybe it has to do with voice, or the way the author's imagination works. I don't know. I will say that I don't find Rooster to be all that different from Bread in terms of the feel of the writing, if you know what I mean. If I was a fan of one, I'd not be put off by the other. Happily, I'm a fan of both!

    I would totally read Jhumpa Lahiri's zombie dystopian novel. It would be all kinds of sad. You'd read it too. Admit it.

    Alex: Yeah, what about the kids on the island book? What about that?

    I've heard of Scrivener and I want nothing to do with it. It looks like too much of the process is inside the software, and I hate writing on a computer. It turns out that all I really wanted to do with Excel was make a list that was formatted all prettily. Now that I've printed out the list, I doubt I'll return to the Excel file ever.

    I also note with amusement that once again, I have begun a book, written the first 1000 or so words and then paused for a week to work on the outline. I am right on schedule, which I find to be reassuring.

    Also, I discovered some really cool stuff in my research that I can't wait to put in the book! And, it's set in the PNW! On an island! Locked-door mystery, anyone?

  9. Would Jhumpa go distopian? I think her zombie fiction would be more slice of life, like Zombie has to deal with a grandfather who has refused to pay his taxes for thirty years, or Zombie goes to a family reunion and has to sit next to a Zombie cousin from West Bengal.

  10. E.Elle: If you look at the greats of horror writing, I think you'll find that a lot of them scared easily. So you have an advantage!

    Stephanie: The thing is, I always plot my literary novels in reverse, from the end to the beginning, so the process of plotting a mystery seems pretty normal to me. Though almost all of the actual events happen in the first chapter or two and we only hear about them as the investigation gets under way. But I still have to plan them all even if they're off-screen. The off-screen stuff is more important. So that part's weird. I'm used to showing everything to the reader as the narrative progresses, not holding anything back. But mostly, I just want to get to the scene where the detective pulls out her pistol.

  11. BTW, I'm comforted to know that you think Rooster and Bread are similar. I like the idea of being able to write anything but have them also be similar. That's me.

  12. Domey: It would be zombie couples, one realizing the relationship is over and the other not. Well-educated zombie immigrants living in Massachusetts, possibly with relatives visiting from West Bengal, yeah. The mother zombie. "I don't know why you don't use better curry in these brains. You can surely afford it."

  13. Daughter zombie, "Peter doesn't like brains with too much curry. He says it gives him a stomach ache. I'll make two dishes, one for you and one for him."

  14. Mother zombie: "Zombie with stomach ache? Who ever heard of that? Living in Cambridge has made you soft, like the Americans. You should move back home. You could make good money now."

    Peter zombie: "Enough of that, mother. You promised not to talk about us moving back. Aaaarh."

  15. Thing #1: Excel rules.

    Thing #2: I applaud anyone who can pull off a successful detective story, that being the genre which which I struggle most.

    Thing #3: Always look on the bright side of life, doo-doo-doo da-doo doo doodoodoooo.

    Thing #4: I am not so much writing a genre I never thought I would, but I am not writing in one of the genres I always assumed I would, if you follow.

  16. Nevets, I am the Spreadsheet King at work.

    A successful mystery is very hard to write, just from a plot perspective. And on top of the interesting mystery, it's also got to be a good novel with interesting and compelling characters and depth and all of that. What I'm attempting is to write an exploration of the lifecycle of relationships, as it were, in the shape of a detective story. We'll see. I have high expectations.

    And yeah, I'm not really writing the novels I thought I'd be writing. I thought I'd be William S. Burroughs or somebody like that. Instead I'm...well, me.

  17. I never planned to write novels for kids, but when an agent suggested I draw out a 500-word picture book manuscript into a 17,000-word novel I found a real love for childish humor.

    Excel rules.

  18. Yep.

    My novel in progress is Literary with lovely, shiny Steampunk embellishments.

    It's the novel I feared I'd never write and I'm doing it. It's the one I have to write before I touch (or go back to revising) anything else because it haunts my dreams if I don't work on it.

    Honestly I don't know what I'll do when I'm done with it.


  19. I prefer to write mystery/detective/crime stories. My head is wired that way and always has been. So, when I started on a horror story this morning because I needed to fill some time, I was a little surprised.

    My actual current WIP is a blending of police procedural and urban fantasy, where the protagonist is a necromancer, so that's a little odd too, I think.

  20. Yeah, there's no outer pressure to stress you out if you're unpublished. Then again, there's no one screaming "writing something write something because the public wants you.' It's bittersweet.

  21. I generally write fantasy. I have a dystopian and a scifi in the works as well.

    Then my mom pitches me a plot for a murder mystery that she's always wanted to write. Well, by God, we're gonna write it!

    So I start the synopsis, cooking along pretty well, creating a rough timeline, spreading out the clues... and then suddenly there was a ghost in the mix. Where did that come from?!

    So... I have trouble escaping my genre. It's just how my brain works, I guess. *shrug*

    More power to you, my friend. Just look at James Patterson. He's delving into fantasy now pretty heavy. I think he actually owns his publisher's family, though, at this point...


  22. I have always seen myself as a literary novelist despite the fact that in the strictest sense my first three novels are actually fantasy novels in that they involve supernatural beings; I just think of them as plot devices. I needed a guy to face up to the truth and so I made Truth a character. Made total sense at the time. But my last novel, the one I’ve just finished, lacked shape until I read an unusual detective novel. The basis of this book was that a parole office has to determine whether a convicted killer is showing remorse. The problem is that she has always maintained her innocence and so is incapable of showing remorse. But at its core it is still a detective story. I liked the twist on an old trope and so when I returned to my own novel with fresh eyes I realised that at its heart it is actually a mystery but a mystery set in the real world where most of the time we don’t get neat resolutions. Still, once I could see the shape the resolution-of-sorts came quickly and relatively easily.

  23. Whoa, Scott! You admitted that you're writing a detective novel. I thought it was a huge secret. ;)

    I did this with Cinders. I seriously thought I'd never write a fantasy, and maybe Cinders isn't a true fantasy, but it was still an entirely new world and genre for me, whatever it is. It's good to get out there and experiment. I think that's what makes us grow the most as writers.

    Also, I'm finding that even though I'm publishing now, I'm doing different genres and it's still working out. :)

  24. Detective novels are fun, like jigsaw puzzles!

    Lucky me, I'm not published either... which genre will I play in next? :-)


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