Betting On The Muse

 

A couple of weeks ago I started writing my post for today, and said, I need to think more on this before I put it out there. So I put it aside, and didn’t get back to it right away because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. As in, I can only focus well on one thing at a time and I had a pretty big thing to focus on: I finished my ninth novel on Monday morning. May I qualify that? I finished my ninth novel, but the first two were practice novels, and I never sent them out. (But now that I’ve typed that out loud, I wonder why I so easily discount those two just because they haven’t been published.)

Number nine is a mess. It’s quite possibly the messiest first draft I’ve ever written. The Intruder is something new for me: a suspense novel without a hint of supernatural in it, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that it has been a little difficult to switch gears. It’s not like I’ve only written supernatural stories. Fully half of my published short stories are straight crime, i.e. contain nothing surreal or supernatural, and those first two “practice” novels didn’t contain any supernatural elements, either. But when my third novel (first one published), Isabella Moon, which was all about the ghosts, sold for actual money, I figured I should stick with what worked. I didn’t look back until about a year ago.

Writing about ghosts and demons is enjoyable to me. It’s fantasy. An escape. As writers—may I speak for us all here?—we spend lots of time in alternate realities. For me, at least, it’s not much of a stretch to envision realities in which the presence of perceivable ghosts is not only possible, but probable. And why not? There’s certainly a market for it.

Why write something different this time? I wanted to try something new, and my muse said, “Let’s go for it.”

I was struck by something the estimable James Scott Bell said in his January 29th post (in fact, the entire post was very timely for me):

“One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.”

That feels very true to me about short stories. They’re low risk. If a new story in a new genre works out, you’ve just opened up a new door for yourself with attendant readers. On the other hand, if you’ve written five thousand words of uneditable dreck, it’s only cost you a few hours’ commitment. No big deal, and you’ve (it is to be hoped) had a good time. Hello, one night stand of the writing life.

But thinking about making such a big jump from one genre of novels to another was, dare I say, hard for me. In fact, it slowed my writing down considerably because I was afraid of screwing it up. Of looking like an idiot. I don’t like to admit it when things are hard. (Insert years of therapy here.) It felt BIG.

On the one hand, it is big. I just spent most of a year writing something very new for me. One hundred and five thousand words of new. If I thought of myself as a brand—and, seriously, I have a very hard time with that concept—then this book would be considered off-brand. My answer to that is that all of my published books are similarly suspenseful mysteries, it’s just that they also contain ghosts. How that plays with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, I’m not sure. Marketing myself as a part of a category has never been my forté, and you don’t even want to get me to hop onto my literary vs. commercial fiction soapbox. (Literary fiction is just a genre. Way too many MFA programs are still teaching people to write for Esquire magazine, circa 1972. The End.) But I digress.

On the other hand…really? I’m a writer. The words I put on the page are just words and ideas. Not pearls of wisdom or gold bricks. They aren’t even fully formed until I play with them and shape them into something readable. Writers who think that every word they spew out, or squirt out, or precisely place with the tiniest, cutest pair of word tweezers in the world is some precious, permanent thing are delusional. We are creating. Playing. And if we don’t write what we want to write (again, thanks, JSB and Mr. Bradbury), then it’s our own fault and shame on us.

Here I am, in between hands. Today I print out the manuscript to see it on paper. That’s my first step of editing. You can’t edit a blank page, but you certainly can edit four hundred pages with words on them. Wish me luck.

As I was working on this, I read a post on Facebook (I know. I get distracted.) that asked if writers found it hard to talk publicly about their writing, and I had to laugh at how many people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t.” I love that TKZ folks talk openly and honestly about their work and experiences. It’s very refreshing.

So that’s my vein-slicing for today. What about you? What’s the biggest, most public risk you’ve taken as a writer?

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

16 thoughts on “Betting On The Muse

  1. Bravo, Laura. To paraphrase Mr. Bradbury, you’ve taken a jump into the air and are growing wings at the same time. That “risky” feeling combined with following the Muse is, I think, the mark of a real writer. It’s easy to play it safe and phone it in, but where’s the joy in that? (I’m reminded of the grandmother’s speech about the roller-coaster in the Ron Howard film Parenthood.)

    Good luck with your hard-copy edit. I do the same, and if you’re like me there will be a few moments of “Hey, that’s pretty good” mixed with some “Yuck, did I really write that?” but mostly “I know how to fix it!” That’s a good feeling.

    • Today is the day I print out the hot mess and take it to cafe to give it the first hard read. Am in the same boat as Laura as I *know* this one, more so than any of the others, needs real rewrite attention.

      Sigh. On second thought, maybe I will take the print out to my favorite watering hole.

      • I’ll be with you in spirit, Kris.

        Like you and Jim, I think a hard copy is the only way to see the brutal truth. Time to get out the red pen and kill the darlings and the stinkers.

  2. I’m a multi-genre author because I can’t pick just one thing to focus on. I love reading many different story types, so I think it’s only logical that I enjoy writing in different genres. I don’t consider it a risk. I have these stories to tell, and I’m telling them.

    Many authors write under pen names so as not to dilute their brand, but if we know the author is doing that, we may check them out anyway based on name recognition alone. Kind of defeats the purpose of a pen name. And then they have more than one platform to manage. To me, that’s crazy. I don’t have enough time to manage the one platform I’m currently operating under. Taking on more would be futile.

    Congratulations on finishing book 7/9. And good luck with revisions.

    • You have such a healthy attitude toward the subject, Staci–I love that, and I plan to borrow your confidence when mine slips. The pen name thing is interesting. I know a couple of authors who have tried it to varying degrees of effectiveness. The argument is often that they don’t want more violent/sexy/supernatural/insert adjective here material to offend their current readers. But the idea of having to start an entirely new platform from scratch is intimidating.

      If I were to write something *very* different from my current work–say slasher horror or light romance–I might say I’m “Laura Benedict writing as Lolly Beelzebubbles* or something. It’s fun to imagine a whole different person writing a story. Thanks for the luck–I’ll need it!

      • Feel free to borrow the confidence as you see fit. (I’m kind of laughing, though, because I doubt myself more than anyone I know!)

        I do understand why writers use different names when one of their audiences would be offended by the content of a different genre (like Christian romance readers and erotica readers, for example). But when I think about actually trying to manage two profiles? It kind of churns my stomach.

        And I think I’d buy a book by Lolly Beelze-bubbles just on the name alone! 😉

  3. Hey Laura, you finished the sucker. That counts! I took a similar but smaller leap into woo-woo world with one of our series books, “South of Hell.” We dealt with past life regression therapy and the whole yarn-ball of reincarnation. Our editor was really not “on board” with the idea when we first brought it up in concept stage. But he let us run with it and I think it was a strong book. But because it was our series character, we had to account for the fact that the woo-woo might — or might not — be all in the head of the victim. We had to leave room for genuine doubt and let the readers decide.

    The only other time we colored outside our lines was with a short story we wrote for an anthology on hit men. It was humorous, bawdy, called “Gutter Snipes” and was set in the world of men’s bowling teams. One guy, desperate to win the trophy and prize money so he can buy his wife a new refrigerator, tried to off the champ first by pouring acetone in his beer and then plugging up his ball holes with epoxy. I loooooved writing that!

    • I can only imagine the heat you took from your editor, Kris. Those folks really are protective of the readership. I can’t tell you how many times at my early Bouchercons people said, “Oh, you write that woo-woo stuff.” And they did not say it kindly. How wonderful that you went ahead with it anyway. But it totally makes sense that you had to make it possible that it was all in the head of the victim. That’s smart. May I ask if you got any negative (or positive) reader feedback?

      Gutter Snipes sounds hysterical. I love that he did it for love!

      • Didnt get any negative feedback at all. Readers accepted the story, not one neg review on Amazon about the woo-woo. I think it was because we gave the plot room to have sort of a Rashomon effect. In fact, we got emails asking us to do a follow up in future books on what happened to the girl who thought she was a reincarnated Civil War era slave. But her story was finished. 🙂

  4. Congratulations on finishing your 9th. I have 2 published “books under the bed” and I had started re-plotting & re-writing my very first novel attempt. People have seen excerpts online from years ago and they still ask if I’ve published it. I’d like to, but I have too many other ideas I want to flesh out. The 2nd novel is a ROM COM that should never see light of day.

    As you know, I talk about writing all the time, at conferences or at local writing group meetings. Since I rat hole myself away to write most of the year, when I get out in public, I prefer to listen but the sequestered author needs venting time to hear her own voice, like a pot of tea whistling on a stove. After I’ve decompressed, I can listen to other authors and hear what they’re doing.

    I write multi-genre stories and have done that from the start. The cross-over lines make it a fuller story for me. Writing YA is very multi-genre because a young person’s mind doesn’t see genre lines, they only appreciate a full and satisfying story, no matter where the writer takes them. I loved the freedom of writing YA and wrote 4 novels for Harlequin Teen. The business side of promoting across more than one brand is a bigger problem and can cost money and time, but the creative side can be liberating.

    Good post!

    • I would LOVE to read a Jordan Dane rom com–you are depriving your fans!

      The concept that young YA readers don’t require stringent genre lines blows my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, but it makes sense. I wonder what that bodes for that group as they mature…

  5. 1. When I first heard about The Dresden Files and went to look for the first book in the series at my local B & N I went nuts looking for it. It seemed logical to me that it would be in mysteries, since it’s in the mystery genre (with a magician as the lead). Nope, not there. Not in Fiction & Literature, either. It was in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sigh.

    2. Dawn Cook was a traditional fantasy writer. She wrote an urban fantasy novel. Since it was aimed at a different audience she went with the pen name Kim Harrison. Kim Harrison’s Hollows novels were hugely successful. Now her Dawn Cook covers advertise that they were really written by “Kim Harrison”. Sigh.

    What can you do?

    • I had never heard that story about Dawn Cook/Kim Harrison. How very strange.

      The Dresden Files is a great example of cross-genre writing–no wonder they couldn’t easily categorize it. Thanks for putting it into the mix!

  6. Good for you, Laura, and congrats on finishing the book. I always tell new writers obsessed with making that first draft perfect that being a writer gives us permission to WRITE CRAP. My first drafts are always painful, but I love the editing–feel like a sculpture smoothing, and cutting, and smooshing (techie word) to polish the rough into brilliant shine. And yep, a hard copy really helps, and then my redline bleeds all over the pages.

    My “thrillers with bite” really cross woo-woo lines with a dog viewpoint character. And child characters really took the 3rd book in a new direction, so much so that readers (and my heart!) want to know more about these young people. I think today’s authors are (and must!) constantly reinvent themselves, whether they talk about it publicly or do so privately. So to all of us on the journey, write on!

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