Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Trunk Novel"? Nope. Not me.

Nope.  Nope.  Nope.  I don't have one. No "trunk novel." Unless, um, you count one that never got past six chapters and an incredibly elaborate outline.
 You do count it?
 Okay, then, the story. And it's a tale of innocence and experience, of great expectations, of hilarity and naiveté and big-time reality checks. And, finally, of education and knowledge and lessons learned for a lifetime.
 All from 6 chapters and an outline?
 I've always wanted to write mysteries, ever since I was a little girl, but I just never had a good idea. Which, as you know. is a big problem.
 One day, in 19....94? or even before that....I got one. A good idea. I would write a mystery about GOLF, featuring the first female golf pro at an exclusive local golf course, and she would solve a sort of eco-murder-mystery on the golf course having to do with herbicides and miscarriages. (As a TV reporter, I had covered the trial that turned out to be "A Civil Action" so I was full of research knowledge and lots of cool jargon.)
 We will not discuss the fact that I do not know how to play golf, don't know how a golf course works, and actually, don't even like golf because my depth perception is so bad I can never figure out where the ball is.  But I thought GREENSKEEPER  (good title, huh?)  would be commercial, and I'm a reporter, had been for almost 20 years back then, so I thought--I write true stories every day. How hard can it be to make stuff up?
 So I started. And whoa, I decided I was a natural. It as fun, the story was flowing, it all made sense. To me.
 What I didn't know:   I had clearly never heard the phrase "point of view." I mean, I'd heard it, but had no concept that in a good book, the POV has to be consistent. So when I tell you I head-hopped paragraph to paragraph, that is only in retrospect, because back then I didn't know that's what I was doing.
 I finished six pretty great (if I did say so myself) chapters. and decided it was time to submit this baby to some agents and get this new career underway. I was TV reporter. Who wouldn't want me?
 But no--wait. I read somewhere you were supposed to have an outline. NO problem, I thought. I can do that. So I wrote an incredibly specific chapter by chapter description of what was going to happen, and that only served to make me  even more certain that I would soon be a wildly successful author. I thought--who wouldn't love this?

 I sent the chapters and the outline to two agents. And waited for the good news. This was--1994, remember. Maybe--before that. Actually, come to think of it, it might have been 1989. Hmm. I wrote it on a typewriter, I remember.
 Meanwhile, I sent the manuscript to my father, who is retired from the foreign service now, but used to be the music critic for the Chicago Daily News, and has written two well-published non-fiction books on American music.
 He's the nicest person in the world, and infinitely loving.  He called, and said--"Honey? I read your stuff. And, uh--" And I am quoting precisely now: "There's this thing called 'voice,'" he said. "And you don't have it." 
 Which was--a bummer. But I figured, what does he know? He doesn't read this kind of book. 
 A few weeks later, I got my replies from the agents.
 One's letter said, paraphrasing: Wow, this is a great plot, and we love the idea of the female golf pro. But we are sorry to say your writing is just not up to par. (Oh, they didn’t actually say "up to par," I'm sure. But how could I resist? And that's what they meant.) And they rejected it.
 The other agent said: "Wow, you are a terrific writer! But this plot just doesn't cut it."
 I was so flummoxed and disappointed, I just--stopped.
 Years later, more than ten years later, when I started writing again, I knew enough to know that I didn't know anything. I was still a complete novice, writing PRIME TIME, but I worked and learned and got advice and read books about writing, took  classes  and went to conferences and joined Sisters in Crime and MWA. And revised, revised, revised.
 And it all worked beautifully. And now my fifth Novel, THE OTHER WOMAN is the lead hardcover title for Forge's fall catalog, and is getting amazing amazing blurbs--Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, Lisa Scottoline, Joe Finder, Louise Penny, Carolyn Hart, Lisa Unger. (And I am on the national board of MWA, and about to be president of national Sisters in Crime.)
 I pulled out GREENSKEEPER, recently, wondering if there was anything I could steal for my next book. Or anything I could learn.  And there was.  I learned exactly what NOT to do!
 And what could be more valuable than that?
 What did you learn from your mistakes?

 ***Breaking news: You can win a Kindle, a Nook or $100 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choice! Click here for details!


  1. Love these stories! Thanks for sharing, Hank!!

  2. Yes, loved the story Hank! if only we'd known each other back then, we could have co-authored a couple of bad novels:) xoxo

  3. I've never failed, Hank... I've just learned what doesn't work...:)

  4. Great story. I loved your dad's comment about voice, so funny...and and reminiscent of my own first bungled story that, thankfully, was roundly skewered by a critique group that I was able to join. Thankfully, no copies remain in existence. :D

  5. Enjoyed your share this morning Hank. Isn't it wonderful how if we're open we can always learn something.
    Best wishes for every success with "The Other Woman".

  6. Loved this story, Hank!! I especially loved how you went back to writing after you'd learned more and put all the time, effort and passion into it that it took to make it work. You've written fabulous books as a result, and I'm so excited for you about The Other Woman! Can't wait to read it!!

  7. Your dad's comment cracks me up! Glad you didn't give up. ;) Really looking forward to The Other Woman. Sounds like a super read!

  8. Great tale! Some day I'll get brave enough to tell the story of my first, well my first two novels. They are retired forever--you're welcome, world.

  9. AH, Kaye... cannot wait to hear the story! And thank you, everyone--I am so excited about THE OTHER WOMAN--and it brings tears to my eyes to hear your support. I'm incredibly grateful. xoox

  10. Oh Hank...I love this. Thank God I've moved enough times that I've lost track of the first two starts and that I finally put myself in the hands of a really good writing coach!
    POV. Isn't that some kind of big car that always parks in the Compact slots?
    Looking forward to The Other Woman!

  11. Ack!! The computer ate my comment. Liked your story. THE OTHER WOMAN sounds interesting. I had a writing teacher who said, "Put your A$$ in the chair and write!" So, that is what I try to do. :)
    pmettert @ yahoo

  12. It's all part of the learning curve--and you learned! In one of my earlier efforts, a sort of romantic suspense, I had three POVs. I circulated it, and it got some encouraging comments, but never sold. What did I do to fix it? Added two more POVs! No one should be surprised that it's still on a shelf and will stay there.

    But I discovered that I loved writing, and figured out how to improve (first RWA, then SinC and MWA, and critique groups, and a whole lot more butt-in-the-chair time), so I don't count it as wasted.

  13. Oh my goodness, Hank, I can relate to this, line by line! The POV thing was a beginning lesson for me, too. I was told early on that my first ms "didn't benefit from" the multiple POVs littering its pages. I couldn't believe it - after all that work! I think I have POV down now, but there is so much more to learn, which is why I love it (or hate it, depending on the day.) Thanks for sharing this wonderful trunk novel story. I can't wait to read The Other Woman!

  14. Hank,
    A wonderful story! When we start out, we all believe we've written the great American novel. Then there's that great learning curve before us. But that belief is something valuable to hold onto.

  15. Thank you for your wonderful, encouraging and inspirational--and reassuring! delighted to be part of this world... And thank you for the crossed fingers for THE OTHER WOMAN! I am a mass of nerves.

    xoxo Hank