As a fiction writer, I’m about as organized as your recycling bin. I’ve written seven or eight novels, and there’s at least one incomplete first draft that I started a couple of months ago, plus a half-finished third draft of a book that I thought was finished only it’s not. My first two (1985 and 1991) were published in paperback by actual New York publishing houses. My third (1993) my agent wouldn’t even try shopping. It was a splendid idea that I had no hope of being able to pull off; probably nobody could. My fourth he tried to shop, but it failed to sell, and for some good reasons. Without a complete floor-to-ceiling rewrite it’s dead.
The fifth novel — we’re moving forward to the year 2000 now — was never submitted to anybody. The computer files are long gone, but I’ve kept the paper manuscript. It’s sitting on my desk right now. I’m wondering what on Earth to do with it. I think it’s pretty darn good, but there are Problems.
It’s a mystery. The setting is a town named Puteoli, on the Bay of Naples. It’s 65 CE, and Nero is the emperor. Vesuvius won’t blow its top for another 14 years. When I started it, I thought, “Wow, what a great idea! A mystery set in Ancient Rome.” While working on the book, I belatedly discovered that at least three other writers had had the same idea before me. The concept was not even faintly fresh.
Whether any of those writers is still plying their trade I don’t know, and I don’t much care. I’m past all that marketing nervousness.
The second problem, and probably the biggest one, is that it’s just too damn long. About 210,000 words, at a rough count. For comparison, even the fattest mysteries (Elizabeth George, for instance) seem to weigh in at about 130,000 words.
Third, I prefer to try to be as realistic as possible. I’ve done a lot of research on Roman culture; it’s been 20 years, but I still have the shelf full of books. And, slavery. The entire Roman economy ran on the energy of slavery. So the book is full of slaves. And I’m pretty sure that would be a problem for a lot of modern readers. Roman slavery, as awful as it was, was nothing like what we’re familiar with today. It was not race-based. Freed slaves could and did move up in society, and while a certain opprobrium attached to their status, their children were just as good as anybody else, because you couldn’t tell whose parents had been slaves just by looking at their complexion.
Modern readers would just have to relax and accept the slavery in the book as normal. It was certainly normal to the Romans (and to everybody else in the ancient world). Aside from a couple of major uprisings more than 150 years before the time of the novel, nobody had any thought that slavery ought to be abolished. The idea would have been laughable.
Lurking within this fact is a technical problem for the mystery writer. When a well-born Roman gentleman was murdered, his slaves had to be tortured. That was the law! The reasoning behind the law is not hard to see: The Roman nobility lived in close proximity to their household slaves, day in and day out, and on some half-conscious level they were terrified of them. A slave could easily murder you in your sleep, so the law had to present the strongest possible deterrent.
But having spent several long chapters introducing my characters, some of whom are slaves, I darn well refuse to torture them! It would be disgusting, and a bad sidetrack for the plot. So the historical realism, which I value highly, kind of flies out the window.
Problems. Still, it’s a good story.
I hold no hope that a publisher would make an offer on a 210,000-word mystery. Ain’t gonna happen. Maybe it’s time for another stab at self-publishing.