It Gets Real

Yesterday the first paperback copies of my historical mystery arrived. I’m not a rabid fan of Amazon KDP, but by golly, they make it real. I can sit here, put together a book, hire helpers, drop money in their accounts, upload the final files, and a couple of weeks later, bam! It’s a book.

On the left is my story collection. (And yes, the quote from Isaac Asimov along the bottom of the cover is real. He really did say that about my story “Statues.”) On the right, the mystery. I first wrote While Caesar Sang of Hercules 20 years ago, but I never showed it to anybody. When I resurrected it last year I had to retype it from my printout copy, because the digital files were long gone. I hope my next novel won’t have such a long gestation period!

In preparing the publication, I edited it rather extensively, tightening up certain sections and adding some new material. It’s set in a town on the Bay of Naples in the year 65. Nero is a minor character; he appears in only two scenes. It’s about the lives of ordinary people, and of course their lives are disrupted by murder. I was living in Menlo Park when I wrote it, and I drove up to the bookstore on the Stanford campus several times to buy well-researched academic books on Roman culture. I’m sure I got a few details wrong, but the historical ambience is not slapdash. As for the story, I’ll leave you to discover that for yourselves.

Having gotten that thick wad of older work out of the way, I have no excuse for not writing something new. At the moment I have two or three novels in various states of disrepair. One is finished but needs a bit of rewriting (or more than a bit). I’m halfway through the first draft of another. And for some reason I’ve been encountering a lot of resistance to working on either of them. I just don’t want to!

I may be misquoting, but my brain tells me Brian Eno once said, “Honor your resistance as a hidden intention.” After setting aside for a week anything to do with writing, yesterday I used a bit of metaphorical Windex on my computer screen to take a look at those projects. What I quickly realized is that I’m resisting working on them because, at root, they’re not good.

The finished book is a YA fantasy mystery. The trouble is, it’s not a very good fantasy. The magic element in the plot is minor, and the magic itself is boring. A fantasy novel really needs to be about the magic in some central way — and if the magic is colorful, that’s going to give the book a big boost. Also, for structural reasons to do with how the plot unfolds, the book isn’t a very good whodunit.

I’ve pondered bringing the magic forward as a central plot element, but when I do that, the whodunit plot falls apart. The story in its current form has some powerful emotional elements. The YA part is okay, I think. But as a fantasy, it’s strictly blah.

Right now I’m thinking seriously about starting over. Dream up an entirely new book, one in which the fantasy element is both vivid and central to the plot. I don’t have a plot yet, but I have a vision of a culture. I also have an idea about the five main characters. I don’t know their names yet, but I can see them.

My goal, this week and next, is to develop an understanding of the magic and the culture before I try to do a plot. Trying to do the plot first and then fit the magic to it would likely be a mistake. Maybe other authors work more organically, but right now I’m inclined to follow the carpenter’s maxim: “Measure twice, cut once. Measure once, cut twice.”

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