Monday, July 02, 2018

Writing a book by committee

Story Circle Network, an international online organization designed to encourage women to tell their stories, has a small work-in-progress group, so small that those of us who participate regularly feel part of a close-knit circle. We laugh, celebrate, weep, and wail together, mostly about writing but health, vacations, and other matters creep in.

And we have our schedule—Mondays we post our writing plans for the week Wednesdays we check on what everyone’s reading, and Friday is devoted to brazen brags. This morning I posted I wanted to work on the novel I just started, but I don’t really have a plot. I know it opens with a polite and unknown intruder, and I know there’s a wedding, but other than that I don’t have a clue.

They were off and running, with suggestions like Murderous Matrimony (I really liked that). I explained since it will be the fifth Blue Plate Mystery, it needs to follow the pattern of the previous four—Murder at… I got Murder at the Altar, and, for distance weddings, Murder at the Cow Palace (Lubbock) and Murder at the Dude Ranch (Kerrville). For the latter, a friend suggested an uninvited guest turns up dead at the wedding. She suggested three villains—the roping champion who wrapped his bull whip around the victim’s neck as he struggled drunkenly back to his cabin, the crooning cowboy everyone had a crush on, and the lesbian couple who were outraged by the victim’s MAGA hat. Well, there went serious work for the day! There’s a glimmer of a useful idea there, but more about that later.

It reminded me of 1986 when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram commissioned me to write a Texas novel to be serialized during sesquicentennial celebrations. I had never written an adult novel at the time, and I stammered, suggested others, etc. But Larry Swindell, book editor, kept saying he liked the idea of Judy Alter. It would not, he assured me, be a novel written by committee. And it wasn’t.

So Far from Paradise took a large leaf from some study I’d been doing of the Waggoner family, with the rags to riches story of the founder of the dynasty. In retrospect, it was probably historically accurate (I sure hope) but hopelessly sentimental, with the wastrel son (shades of Horseman, Pass By?), the daughter who moved to the city, etc.

I don’t remember how long it ran, but I do remember the newspaper’s art department came up with some neat illustrations for it, illustrations I wish I had today. I don’t think, after many computer changes, I even have a copy of the manuscript, though the whole thing may be in my archive at the Southwest Writers Collection in San Marcos.

Reaction was great. One woman called to tell me her grandfather lived in Paradise (it’s actually a small town northwest of Fort Worth) and, she drawled, “They must have known each other.” Several other people seemed to have trouble with the line between history and fiction and their remarks (which I wish I could remember) indicated they took this as gospel.

Hmmm. I wonder if Charles Dickens had similar problems when his work was serialized?

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