Monday, December 12, 2011

Opinion — On Writing: Pieces That Don't Fit Anywhere Else

I suspect most people who have been writing for a long time have pages and pages of unpublished work, not just on discs and hard drives, but also in drawers, boxes, perhaps in a rusted old filing cabinet in the garage, or in unruly stacks on the floor. I do. I also have dozens of paper notebooks, my form of Blackberry, which have story ideas, snatches of dialogue, doodles, strange phone numbers and grocery lists.

Someone said — it is variously attributed to John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Stephen King — one must write a million words before he or she can be considered a writer. Counting my early years at the Army Home Town News Center in Kansas City and my many years writing newsletters, newspaper articles, (My favorite: “No Sex Please, We’re Hoosiers”), ads, brochures and speeches, even if I don’t count college term papers and answers to high school essay questions, I’ve put a lot of words on paper. If you add the mystery books that have been published, 15 of them so far, I’ve no doubt met the million-word requirement. Having written a million or more words doesn’t mean I’m a good writer, merely according to the standards set forth, a writer. (Incidentally, there are many writers out there who have written hundreds of books and short stories, well more than I’ll achieve in my lifetime. But still, I’ve put a lot of words together and told a number of stories.)

There may be as much as a half million more words — in various states of existence — that, in fact, merely exist. I’m in the midst of gathering them up. They have been tucked away in various places (some still only on paper) and I’m putting them in an electronic file titled “Pieces That Don’t Belong Anywhere Else.” In or soon to be in that file are a few short stories; a 20,000-word novella (scaled down from 35,000 for a failed Nero Wolfe competition entry); a 50,000-word mystery novella (it’s either too long or too short — I like it, but I’ve never sent it to anyone because it is probably too long or too short); a children’s book (text only); some poetry (at least that’s what I call it); a few thousand scattered words that describe memories of growing up and growing old that might make it into a memoir some day. I also have a couple of one act plays and a draft screenplay of my recently released novella, Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin.

Separately, I have two finished manuscripts, one sitting at my publisher that’s part of the San Francisco series, and a manuscript for a full, standalone mystery that was almost published a couple of times. In fact, of all the books I’ve written, I thought this one would be the most commercially successful. While it would be creatively suicidal for me to think in those terms as I write, in the end this book has the makings for a broad appeal. It has family drama, romance, a suspenseful trial and a few diabolical twists. At one point, the manuscript was so far along at a publishing house. I was asked to write the catalog copy. The decision was made, I thought. All I needed was the contract. It had to be merely days away. “Oops,” as Governor Perry would say.

These days, I think about publishing it myself, but without reviewers, some sort of marketing support, or at least an active tweet system (I’ve been too little and too late with regard to social networking), might not the launch of the book be little more than a tree falling in the woods? On the other hand, it would be something to do, wouldn’t it? And I like the process of publishing. Maybe it’s just an e-book sitting out there in a cloud waiting to be discovered by some unsuspecting soul.

So, what do I do with the book and with Pieces That Don’t Belong Anywhere Else? Maybe nothing. Just have them available. Maybe I’ll publish a couple of short stories here on the blog. Maybe, some afternoon, with nothing else to do, I’ll start looking at publishers of books for kids. Maybe some publisher somewhere will read this and decide he or she wants to put together a few mystery novellas that take place in San Francisco or Chinatown and I could join the group.

In the end, having my own slush pile is comforting and perhaps a curiosity for a Kepler 22B, 22nd Century researcher investigating obscure writers from earth.

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