The “What If?” Factor in Fiction Writing

When I started writing in 2009 as a humor columnist, I wrote in 800-word sound bites that wrapped up neatly and made people laugh, but made them think, too. It was a fun couple of years writing that column weekly for the local newspaper. Then I decided to write a book, a completely different animal.

Unfortunately, I just sat down at my laptop with the seed of an idea and started typing. I wasted a lot of time doing that, but I got a feel for how it felt to write a long piece rather than a short one. Then I started attending writing conferences, and my eyes were opened.

I’d made…Every. Mistake. In the book. (Pun intended)

I went back to my laptop armed with hundreds of pages of notes from writing conferences, and began afresh. One thing that finally wormed its way into my brain, after studying the publishing business from the ground up, was that I was cross-pollinatating women’s fiction and suspense, a process referred to as “genre confusion.”

This is not what publishers are looking for. The book has to tidily fit on a shelf beside other books of the same ilk, and my ilk was confusing. Genres have extremely specific rules, at least if you want to land a publisher; and if those rules aren’t respected the manuscript gets tossed on the slush pile. At the bottom. I got rejected more than thirty times, but kept trying. Finally, I landed a knowledgeable agent that had worked as an acquisitions editor for a major publishing house, and this woman taught me a lot about genre. As we worked together on my manuscript, she proclaimed that I had to choose: women’s fiction or suspense, and if that if she were me, she’d choose suspense.

So I did. Everything I wrote had a dark side anyway, and it didn’t appear I could willingly leave this behind, so instead, I embraced it. This has been great fun. Then, in wondrous and fabulous epiphany, at one of my writing groups, I heard the best definition of the difference between mystery and suspense ever: Mystery is Whodunnit. Suspense is Whydunnit.

The intriguing “Why” of the suspense genre nudges my books toward a women’s fiction/book club slant, and I’ve been writing dark and twisty stories about psychologically or emotionally flawed women ever since.

THE ‘WHAT IF’ FACTOR

Upon finally landing on a genre I enjoyed writing, I looked around for ideas. I am one of those people who enjoys talking to strangers and discovering fascinating tidbits about their lives, so it was no surprise when at one of my writing events for my first book, I stumbled across a story idea for the next one. Among all the authors sitting at tables, salivating for customers to buy their books, one woman drew potential customers like flies to honey. I couldn’t stand it, I had to find out what was so different about this author. I ran over to her table, and we began chatting. She told me she’d had a horrible car accident that had nearly killed her, and she’d been in a coma for six months. When she woke up, she said, she was completely different. Instead of a shy wallflower, she arose a confident, funny, arresting woman, in love with life and grateful for every second. She laughed about it, and I was somewhat horrified, but thoughtful. We parted ways, and The Deadening was born from that idea. I started playing the “What if” game. What if this woman was assaulted? What if her identity has been erased and she lands in a hospital as a Jane Doe. What if her personality is so different, that even her family cannot believe it. What if she had a ridiculously tragic marriage, and her new personality isn’t swallowed so well by her husband?

See how it works? It’s best to play the “What if” game with a couple of glasses of wine and a cat in your lap.

I am happy to report that as a result of playing the “What if” game, my publisher offered me a contract for the next two in the series. “The Rising” releases in 2022, and the final book in 2023. By the time these books release, ‘what if’ I stumble over countless other story ideas in this wild adventure that we call life? I’m positive that I will, and I’m pretty sure they’ll end up as books, too.

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