Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Writing — Ch-ch-ch-anges, Now and Then

When you are born as the change is happening, you may not notice it.  Smart phones aren’t too smart for an eight-year-old.  They are simply telephones as expected. They are not too far beyond me even though I am a few days past 70, but I work it at the speed of a tortoise.

Editing — The Old-Fashioned Way
I am going through a manuscript written some years ago.  It is unpublished.  It is one of my favorites and one I have always believed was the most accessible, the one with the broadest appeal, of all my mysteries.  I thought it was my “big “ book, my best seller.  I received the most complimentary rejection letters on this one.  In fact one of the big publishing houses made an offer, but rescinded it before the paperwork was processed. I believe the company’s second thoughts were based on two ch-ch-ch-changes in the marketplace.  This was about the time the big box bookstores took over book retail, but long before Amazon and the arrival of e-books. The big boxes would order high numbers of each book because they could return the ones that didn’t sell. That meant publishers had to print 25,000 copies of a book to meet the chain’s demand, though books prior to this one sold 5,000 or so. It doesn’t take much to do the math. This big box killed many of us midlist writers who had good reviews and a modest but consistent following and whose sales only a few years earlier were profitable for writer, retailer and publisher alike. Some of those who slipped into near oblivion were multiple award winners. Also, about this time, as Borders swept across the land, publishers gained the ability to track book sales of any author in the marketplace. The sales figures of my books (The Shanahan series primarily), once acceptable, were not only transparent but didn’t meet the new number-crunching criteria set by the mega-stores. Even though this new “big” book of mine was a standalone and stood a chance of breaking out, I believe my sales record haunted me. My name didn’t inspire enough confidence. 

Though I was glad I kept my day job, I kept writing and kept looking for publishers. Good thing.  After a decade of writing and submitting, I found a home for my initial series, and in fact for what would be the next eight Shanahans. Incidentally, the latest, Killing Frost, is due out May 1.  I’ve also had others published, and my most recent books are also available in newer technologies — all the formats, including e- and audio books.  In the fall, a mystery novella will be released from a different publisher.  This shows a certain amount of adaptability to the ch-ch-ch-anging times. The idea of novellas or novelettes appears to be gaining popularity, perhaps boosted by the availability of the Kindle and its cousins and various reading habits of new readers.

However the “big” book was never published. It occupied a storage box in the basement until recently. Time has passed, and the book is almost a fresh read. Fresh in the sense that is almost new to me.  That holds promise. I can make what I consider a good book better.  Not so fresh in the sense that it takes place in the present moment. It’s a decade-old present. In a dozen or so years the world around us has changed, subtly perhaps. but changed.

Since that was written, what didn’t exist or was incredibly exotic is now common place — the aforementioned smart phone, plus battery operated cars, GPS, Google and its search capabilities and multiple view (satellite or street level) maps, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Spotify, not to mention the way we get news. In the scheme of things, all this is relatively recent.  The major TV networks are calcifying. We don’t need to wait for the six o’clock news and we don’t. We get 24-hour news on cable and streaming video to our phones. Moreover, everyone armed with a smart phone is a reporter. Everyone with a blog is an editor of a magazine, of sorts. We have aggregators funneling information to niche interests. We have video capability on our iPads and phones, allowing folks to report instantly from streets around the world.  They report riots, rebellions, and weather catastrophes.  The act of reporting may play a major role in world order and disorder, catch bad police behavior or catch a thief, overthrow a government or laugh at silly cat antics. One person with exhibitionist tendencies may take a “selfie” that is viewed by a million folks.

Whether or not all of this is utilized in a novel is far less important than the notion that this is our culture now, an aspect of the environment, even when we’re not actively using the technology or even aware of it.

In short, my “big “ book, written when there were still public telephones, when a criminal needed to be tailed physically instead of electronically, and when half the population smoked.  No texting or tweeting. Tattoos no longer mean you’ve just been released from prison. Even though the plot works and the characters have substance, this means my book needs at least some subtle updating to have the immediacy of now. The reader needs to feel he or she staying in the world he or she knows.  

On the other hand, I have another, smaller book, also pillaged from the paper- picture- and book-strewn cellar It is also old enough to be more retro than current.   In this one, however, there is benefit to its age, to its innocence of the passage of time.  It is life as it was, that is when life was at a slower, less complicated, and less efficient pace.  The patina adds dimension to the story, which is as much about an isolated small town stuck in time as it is about a solution to a crime.  Unlike the big book, which is meant to be immediate, this one is best left as is. 

I suspect many publishers and their acquisition editors think writers aren’t always the best judges of their work.  Noted.  But, after examination, both of these, in my less-than humble opinion, are worth getting out there in the marketplace, one in an updated fashion ready for a broad, mainstream audience and the other, a kind of retro rural noir, certainly quirky, probably more suited to a smaller, independent press, and to readers who appreciate quirky.


Teri-on-the-sandbar said...

I like how your brain works. Always have.

Ronald Tierney said...

The feeling is mutual. Looking forward to your wading off the sandbar with your own fiction.