Monday, February 13, 2012

A Novel Obsession

I suppose I could call this post "The Mystery Writer's Conundrum"; a kind of obsession with writing something different from what I have written before.

I first started the writing of mysteries after I retired from my day job. That was in July of 1997. I was fifty-seven at the time, a late bloomer. I had always "wanted to write", but never seemed quite able to do it. (Fiction writing, that is; I was a hired pen at the Library of Parliament's Research Branch here in Ottawa, and I wrote for a living.) After my first book, Undertow, came out late in 2002, I believed – erroneously, as it turned out – that I was home free, that I had found the magic key. Surely, the next book - and the next, and the next – would flow from my pen (or keyboard), a Niagara of paragraphs and pages. It didn't happen that way. Each of the two succeeding books was as difficult as the first, and took about as long to write.

Now I am struggling equally as hard with my fourth book. About two weeks ago, I sent half the new book – tentative title, Birthright – off to my publisher and his editor. I had doubts about the structure and organization, and I wanted some feedback. To my not very great surprise, the feedback was to the effect that the book as it stands now needs much better organization and structure. Even more to the point, it is not written as a mystery novel, not in its current form.

And that takes me back to the title of this post. In writing the book, I strayed away from writing a mystery. Instead, I was trying to write an historical novel about my protagonist's rum-running career during Prohibition, and – to really complicate things – about the impacts of WW2 on a number of the characters in the narrative. The book, as it stands now, is divided between 1933 - in Cuba and England – and 1947 in St. John's, Newfoundland, the setting for the first three books in the series. Trying to connect the two time periods and the three different locations is proving very difficult.

I believe I am correct in saying that the requirements/ingredients for a mystery novel differ from those of a non-mystery. If one is writing a mystery, the "mysterious" part has to be obvious from the start. That is one of the feedback items I received from my editor. I wrote some interesting stuff in the first half of the book – some 168 pages – but "Where was the mystery?" she asked me. Well, I replied, the mystery really starts in the second half of the book. "Well," came the response, "you might want to move the second half to the front, and even dispense with a large part of the narrative as it now exists. You’ve written some interesting stuff, but it isn't clear that it's a mystery that you are writing."

So, now I am more or less back to the (in)famous "square one". On the positive side, there are some 250 pages of text written, some of it relevant to the "mystery". And some of it quite good – if I do say so. There are also the characters, most of them well-defined, most of them interesting.

Some years ago, I started to draft a short article on how to write a mystery novel. Had I completed it, the title would have been: "First, you kill someone." Someone is dead at the start, and the story goes on from there – backwards, forwards, and sideways. I should have kept that in mind when I started this current book.

For additonal instruction and guidance, I might also have re-read one of my favourite short stories by Somerset Maugham: The Achilles Statue, also called The Creative Impulse. It is the story of Mrs. Albert Forrester, a noted writer of poetry, essays and criticism:

"All the critics agreed that Mrs. Albert Forrester's books were excellent. She was considered by the critics to be a writer of the highest merit."

The trouble was, Mrs. Forrester's books, however highly regarded, did not sell. Critics do not buy books.

To summarise the story, Mrs. Forrester's husband Albert, who was her sole financial support, grew tired of the pretentious literary life that he shared with his brilliant wife, and he ran off with the family's cook, Mrs. Bullfinch, and settled into a flat with her. Albert didn't care for his wife's writings; he liked to read detective stories instead. He read hundreds and hundreds of detective stories. And now that he was gone, he advised his wife to put aside her brilliant writing, and write the kind of detective story that people who actually bought books might like to read. And buy. Albert even told his wife how she might start her detective story:

"I like stories which begin with a very respectable-looking, middle-aged, well-dressed gentleman, wearing a gold watch on a chain, lying dead in Hyde Park. People like to read about the murder of a respectable-looking, middle-aged gentleman," he went on. "People like to think that everyone has something to hide – even respectable-looking, middle-aged gentlemen."

Thus inspired, Mrs. Forrester went home directly, and began to write her detective story. When it was published – as The Achilles Statue – it was a great success, and she became famous at last. And wealthy, too.

And, by the way; Albert and Mrs. Bullfinch lived happily ever after also.

The message for me being that if I set out to write a mystery novel, then I should write a mystery novel. Don't try and write something else. I dread the idea of writing my books to a "formula" – what Barbara Fradkin calls "The F Word" – and I hope I never do that. But there are essential components to a mystery novel.

So, I will start again on my new book. And this time I will start the book by killing somebody. And go on from there: backwards, forwards, and sideways.


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