DO YOU KNOW ME?
If you’re old enough to remember when Atari’s Pac-Man was the cutting edge in home video games and you had to get up from the sofa to surf across your four television channels, you’ll remember this classic ad campaign.
American Express had a whole slew of celebrities that caused the viewer to say, “Didn’t we see him in that movie—what was the name? The one we saw the night Uncle Jack tied one on and got so sick. Who was that guy?” At at the end of the spot it turned out he was the inventor of Rubics cube or Karl Malden. As I recall, it was usually Karl Malden.
These days, I feel like those guys. “Do you know me? My best-selling mystery series has won almost every award out there. But when I walk into the bar at a crime fiction convention, I have to show this!” (Whips out dog-eared copy of In the Bleak Midwinter.) Okay, part of not being recognized is that I stopped coloring my hair. My distinctively red is now distinguished gray.
But a huge factor is that I’ve let almost three years go by between books. My last novel, I Shall Not Want, released in June, 2008. Your brother-in-law was still trying to sell you on his wildly profitable house-flipping business. You could go see a movie without insisting, no, you don’t want the damn 3-D version. You were planned to retire on your cushy investments with Lehman Brothers.
In commercial fiction, three years is an eternity. The publishing companies want a book a year releasing like clockwork: hardcover, paperback, next hardcover. Romance writers are expected to be even more prolific. Fantasy and SF authors, who used ot get a few years respite between installments of their trilogies and tetrologies, are under pressure. And in crime fiction, they want a book a year.
Every author feels the pressure. It’s driven by readers, who want the next book in the series they love right now. It’s driven by the constantly contracting bricks-and-mortar marketplace, whose buyers want to know what have you done for us lately? It’s driven by agents, who have the unenviable job of tracking authors who get dropped by their publishers and reminding you that you are not immune. If you’re playing in the majors, it’s driven by the knowledge that your book is necessary to the company’s bottom line. A book a year. A book next year. A book the year after that. If you can’t produce, you’ll fall behind.
I certainly didn’t set out to get off the merry-go-round. Heck, I thought I’d be on “untitled Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne number 9” by now. But then I had some health issues. My husband had some health issues. We were doing the college search with one kid and the first year of high school with another. Most of all, I got ambitious. I wanted to tell a big story about a group of veterans trying to reacclimate to their small town, people who couldn’t share the truth with those around them. I wanted to take all those news stories I had read during the eight-years-and-counting of this war and make them individual: a cop, a priest, a doctor, a high-school grad.
I researched for almost half a year. I wrote, and re-wrote, and crossed out what I had and wrote the whole damn thing differently, and when I finally turned in my first draft and my publisher decided to hold off its release by fourteen months, I did two major revisions under the scalpel-like eye of my editors. All accompanied by a constant stream of readers’ emails: When’s the damn book coming out?
Here’s the thing: I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve written. (It’s not the perfect, Platonic-ideal book in my head, but they never are.) Those extra months gave me the luxury of expanding the story, to look into every nook and cranny of the characters’ lives. Then, I had still more time to pare it down and polish it to a shine.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece of writing,” my agent said when I turned it in. “Just please, don’t take so long next time. They want a book a year.” I know they do. And I need to get back on that merry-go-round. It gets hard, reintroducing yourself every three years. But still, I can’t help but realize I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t taken all that time. And I wonder, what stories aren’t getting told because of that book-a-year clock ticking away.
Do you know me? I’m Julia Spencer-Fleming, Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier.
You can preorder One Was A Soldier at: Amazon Barnes & Noble Books-A-Million Borders Powell’s Books and your locally owned independent bookstore.