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The Length and the Breadth of It

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For some reason I can’t figure out, I’m having one of those days when my office is so cold I can’t stand to be in here for long.  I made myself tough it out for real work, but the blog doesn’t have that kind of compelling motivation behind it. 

Usually, it doesn’t get this bad in here unless the temperature outside is in single digits, and low single digits at that.  It’s over sixteen degrees Fahrenheit, so, you know, go figure.

Somebody wrote me off list to say that I sound as if I’m fed up with my work, and maybe on the way out either of the Gregor series or of mysteries altogether.

So let me start with that.  I have been thinking, on and off, of starting a new series, to run concurrently with Gregor, not instead of it.  But Gregor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  I’ve got the one I’m working on now, the one I’m rewriting, and I’m signed on to do two more.  So, for the next three years, there should be Gregor.

What’s actually going on is the opposite of what this seems to appear to be to some of you.  It’s not that I’m “off” mystery novels lately, it’s that I’m back on them for the first time in a long time.

I think that, up until this year, it had probably been over a decade since I’d read a mystery novel because I wanted to.  I did read a few because I’d been asked to blurb for them, or because it sometimes helps to read them when I write them, or because I was on an award committee.  But I had pretty much reached the point where reading mysteries just made me tired, or bored, or annoyed.

Writing them didn’t make me any of those things, but what did happen to the Gregor series during that time is that it changed significantly from where it was when I started it.  The books got longer, and the focus shifted from the crime to other things the books were concerned with.

Of course, in a way, the Gregor series has always been like that.  One of the earliest, called Precious Blood–one of my top five favorites in the entire series–is definitely a character-driven book with a plot that I can’t even remember, although several people told me it was good.

Around the time that Bill died, however, something odd went on in my head, and you can literally chart the change in the books from there.  Start with True Believers, which is the second book published by St. Martin’s, and you can see it happen.

I’m not interesting in returing to a series like my first one.  For those of you who don’t know, there were five books in those, written about a woman who is trying to make it as a freelance magazine journalist in New York and does it by writing pseudonymous paperback romance novels on the side. 

They were nice enough books, and some people liked them very much, but they didn’t sell very well, and they caused no particular pain that I could see when they disappeared.  They were funny, which is something I don’t get to do very often any more.

But they were also written by a different person, or maybe a me that doesn’t exist anymore.  Bill died.  He got sick–very sick–and he died, leaving me with two small children, a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid medical bills, no book or magazine contracts, no other kind of work (at that point, I hadn’t taught anywhere since 1979) or any idea of what I could do if I wanted to, and a feeling that I was just completely and irrevocably worthless.  After all, it was my job to cure cancer, and I’d failed.

I just don’t think the way I did when I wrote the Pay McKenna novels.  Life does not feel the same way to me.

And it doesn’t help that those novels have caused me endless career trouble over the years.   They were classified as “cozies,” which they sort-of were–they were at least light and funny–and it seems that once you’ve been classified, nobody pays attention to what you’ve been doing.

That’s how I finally ended up getting my first, and only, book club selection, and how that became my last.  Because the book club involved is careful to post little notices on books that might have bad language or explicit violence.

And the book they bought was Somebody Else’s Music, which has both.

But there was no notice, because–well, I can’t be sure,  but my guess would be that it was because people there had read my earlier books, and just assumed I wrote cozies, and there you are.

But I don’t write cozies anymore, and I probably never could have again.

And there is publishing math on the length, too, of course.  No matter how short your book is, the hardcover is going to list for twenty dollars or more, and many readers are adamant that they’d not be getting their money’s worth with the shorter books. 

It’s also just a matter of development.  Agatha Christie’s books got longer as she got older, too, and they got better written.  Eventually, you simply start to see things as important that you didn’t before, and you get to know your characters better than you did before.  The books get longer because you have more to say.

Still, I seem to have reached one of those places in my life where things change in a substantive way.  The big blow up at the beginning of 2009 was what started the shift, but when that was largely over my life didn’t get back to normal.  It got different, even though there was no Big Obvious Change, as there had been when Bill died.

When I came back to rewrite the book I was working on when the mess happened, it was not only a better book–cat litter could have produced a better book than the one I was working on last spring–it was a different kind of book, with much more of a focus on intricacy and clues and detection and a puzzle for the reader than anything I’ve done in years.

I don’t know how that will work out.  I will say that the last phase, the one just over, produced a number of books I’m very proud of (including Somebody Else’s Music), and one short story, the single thing I’ve ever done that I think could possibly be called–I don’t know.  What would you call it?  Good enough to be literature, maybe.

It’s a short story called “Rapunzel,” and it appeared in a book called Once Upon a Crime.  It was never nominated for anything or anthologized, as some of the other things I’ve done have been, but it’s still the single best thing I’ve ever written.

I’m not sure it isn’t the single best thing I’ll ever write.

Written by janeh

January 13th, 2010 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Length and the Breadth of It'

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  1. Passage through times of change is what helps develop wisdom…at least for those who are paying attention.

    Speaking of short books. I just read a book by Jim Butcher (the author of the Harry Dresden series) called “Backup.” It’s about an ancillary character in the Dresden series, his brother, the vampire.

    I was astonished that it got published as a book, because it’s only about 12,000 words, if that. Not even a novelette length, but there it is in a hardcover edition, priced $20 US. I got it from the library, as I’m not insane. Good story, the kind that you’d expect to appear in an anthology or collection, but I’ve never seen anything like it before. Just the one story, in a book by itself.

    Who the hell knows what’s happening in publishing these days? We’re about to send our first book to Lightning Source, and by next month, *I’ll* be a publisher. Crazy times.


    13 Jan 10 at 2:23 pm

  2. I shall look forward to the new Demarkian.

    As for “getting my money’s worth” by way of big, thick books, I’m not so sure. I expected to, and did, pay a stiff price for my reprint of Oman’s HISTORY OF THE PENINSULAR WAR–600 pages a volume, and a limited readership–but when it comes to novels I’d as soon my $20-25 got me 200 pages well-written and to the point than 350-400 in need of editing. This doesn’t keep me from reading and enjoying THE LORD OF THE RINGS, ATLAS SHRUGGED and GONE WITH THE WIND, but there are a lot of authors out there who need to read Kipling on the proper use of India ink.

    The only time I was ever incensed over a short novel as such, it was a series detective published with large type and wide margins as though the publisher as well as the author thought the readers fools. And I think I could have lived with that one if the story itself wasn’t an obvious throwaway. There is a serious difference between a novel which is short because the author said what he needed to say and stopped, and a novel which is short because the author had nothing to say.

    But I could be atypical. There are those who would say that of me, and they aren’t all talking about my preferred novel length.

    Agatha Christie: I pulled down my Black Dog & Leventhal copies of the Miss Marple novels to get a uniform page size and font. In order of original publication they were 288, 191, 201, 286, 286, 221 and 270 pages.


    13 Jan 10 at 5:46 pm

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