By Susan Isaacs
This is what it was supposed to be: a short mystery story that would be part of an anthology. The only requirements were it had to be set within the last seventy-five years in New York City. Piece o’ cake, right?
Right. Except I don’t write a lot of short fiction. The opening sentence is the voice of the piece, and it’s always a bitch. Ten, twenty, fifty times: a stinkeroo. Then finally voilà! So I figure: “All that work? I might as well write a novel.”
But what would become “A Hint of Strangeness” had to be short, whatever “short” meant. This wouldn’t be my book; it would be a compilation by a group of mystery writers. So abandoning my literary teacup for a wad of tough-dame Dentyne Ice, I wrote faster than I normally would. New York City? Fine. I’d lived in three of its five boroughs, but chose Queens, 1963, because back then, it not only seemed so aggressively ordinary, it actually was. My protagonist? Marianne Kent, nineteen, a Wasp in a mostly Jewish, slightly Italian neighborhood. Not exactly autobiographical, but when I was that age, I lived in the same part of the borough, Forest Hills.
I’d typed a quick outline. That’s my M.O. Also, a mystery needs a strong, direct narrative thrust and an outline keeps the writer on the path. Whodunit, and why? How are the scales of justice brought back into balance? Unlike the Victorian novel, the mystery author can’t meander into fields of daisies or indulge in genealogical anecdotes or an extended tour of Keswick during lambing season. Especially not in a short story.
Marianne is smart – an economics major at Queens College – and pretty. So two pluses in her column. Except that’s it as far as assets go. Her father was killed in World War II and she was raised by a refined mother of meager means. One chilly fall night she comes home after a wearying day at school and work, unlocks the front door, and trips over…A body.
If writing is ever a snap, it means the work is lousy: Or at least that’s always been true for me. But writing A Hint… was pleasurable. I not only like Marianne, I admired her, and I loved the chemistry between her and her best friend, Laurie Fishbein, a pre-med student. So when the homicide detective in charge of the case finds himself at a loss, Marianne and Laurie naturally take up the investigation.
The short story grew. Marianne tracks down a long-lost aunt; Laurie develops a neurasthenic mother by page 31 and a father who is not only broccoli king of New York, but a guy who seems a tad too familiar with the ways of the mob. Etcetera.
As I was blithely typing page 70, I stopped with an Uh-oh. I hadn’t finished the short story, and it was no longer a short story. The characters had taken on lives of their own, met all sorts of intriguing people in the course of their investigation, and were finding out that Queens was perhaps not the bland borough it has once seemed.
After much detecting, some travel, and some really terrific research, Marianne Kent finds out who done it, why, and a great deal about herself. And I had a novella. I offered it to the publisher of the anthology whose initial comment, “long is good” was now “You’ll have to cut it in half,” which is like saying “You can keep the heart, but get rid of the left ventricle.” Also, all along the publisher had been snippy about my Queens setting. To him, New York City was Manhattan, and he insisted I write at least one scene set in that borough.
To me he was an ignoramus, and a pushy one, but I did insert a productive afternoon at the 42nd Street Library. (Yes, Manhattan is often referred to as New York, but any mayoral candidate or third-grader knows New York City is also Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island.)
So what do you do with a novella you now own? I’d never before written one, so I was clueless. A lot of writers have them published in magazines or save them as the centerpiece for a collection of short fiction. However, since I tend to write pieces of short fiction only once or twice a decade, I figured this was not my kind of solution. So I showed it to my agent. And he said: “I think this would be a good Amazon Single. I want to send it to them.”
An e-book? I was torn, though neither in the sense of ripping at my shirt collar because I felt a choking sensation at the thought of betraying my local bookseller by going digital, nor slamming down the phone and bellowing: “This must be bigger! I will turn this novella/novelette/novelito into a tetralogy.” No, my work was done and I liked what it was. Okay, I did have a little guilt about the bookseller, and I didn’t like the notion of an empty space on the shelves where I keep my books and translations. Still I replied: “Okay.”
Though some editors have been known to read a novel on a weekend, I expected the more usual pattern of twenty-first century publishing. Dispirited employees at downsized houses with fewer assistants than in the previous century, schlepping a printout of a piece of writing back and forth between home and office for weeks, months, lacking the time or vigor to read it.
On the other hand, Amazon had not exactly downsized. It was immense, powerful. (In fact, mine had been an early signature on the letter a huge number of authors put out protesting Amazon dealings with the publisher Hachette. Amazon backed off: case closed.) Still, when A Hint… was accepted within two or three days, I was astounded. The jacket cover – not for any bound book, for there would be none, but to have the appearance of bookishness for marketing purposes – came about a week later.
I’m a great fan of graphic art, but this cover with its crumbling Manhattan-like city looked as if it belonged on a dystopian novel for despondent young adults. It lacked even a smidge of humor, which, to me, was what made Marianne’s narrative voice such a delight. So I e-mailed the otherwise congenial person at Amazon and said something to the effect of “Feh,” albeit a bit more diplomatically. After several back-and-forths, she agreed to speak to the artist. My hopes did not soar, but a couple of days later, I had a terrific graphic cover with a bright-eyed intelligent-looking young woman on it.
During this time, the manuscript was on a copy editor’s computer, being examined for missing commas, awkward adverbial clauses, using “which” instead of “that” and the inevitable blatant errors… like a character having “icy blue eyes” on page 7 and “his eyes, blacker than night, glowered as she extracted the dental floss from her makeup case” on page 46. But with all the shrinkage in publishing, the work doesn’t go to staff, but to freelance copy editors who are overworked and underpaid.
During my career I’ve had copy editors who have saved me from my own ignorance, like calling a couch–y thing a chaise lounge rather than a chaise longue, and my overeagerness to use “whom” when “who” was correct. (It wasn’t all my bad. I had a supercilious, literal-minded editor who changed my sentence, “the ground was encrusted with a brittle February frost” to “the ground was frozen” followed by red-penciled exclamation point that practically tore the page.)
This time I got a lot more than I expected. The copyediting was well done, and fast, I think it took about three days. I’m assuming it was done by an actual person, but for all I know Amazon has created a spellchecking, grammarian android to which they’ve given a human name.
Then one morning, a couple of days later, I got an e-mail that A Hint of Strangeness was up. And indeed, when I looked at my screen, there it was. No launch party, no book tour, and in fact, no book. It might be depressing except for the fact that a lot of people are buying it, reading it, and for the most part, saying it’s terrific. Not only that, there’s the pleasure of knowing it’s being bought and discussed by readers around the world.
[A quick note here: this is not how it goes with self-published books, as far as I know. I have no idea how that procedure works, though I suspect it’s a more difficult process, though certainly not impossible. There have been great successes in this area, but the authors who do best, I believe, not only have the writer’s gift, but an enormous amount of energy and persistence, plus a talent for marketing that I lack.]
So let’s just say I’m wistful about my e-endeavor. No book, so in place of A Hint of Strangeness, I’ll have to put some Queens-related tchotchke on my shelf, a World’s Fair Unisphere in a snow globe or a Queens College course catalog. Also, the physical gratification of holding a book, turning the pages, is lost. There is far less satisfaction in holding up an iPad and saying, “This is mine,” than touching the glossy, heavy paper of the jacket, feeling the book’s weight in your hands as you offer it to someone.
On the other hand, while I may not love tech, I am exceedingly fond of it. I got my first computer, an IBM Displaywriter, in 1979. While some of my literary friends were extolling the sensual pleasure of pencil on paper, I was knocking it out on a keyboard, always willing to change it, make it better because I did not have to retype an entire manuscript.
Way back then, long before many of you were in utero, I said to anyone who would listen: “We’re hardwired for language and also for narrative. It doesn’t matter if it’s carved into stone, hand-written on parchment scrolls like the Torah, bound into leather-covered tomes, stapled into comic books, typeset by a master printer or spewed out by a computer, or whisked through cyberspace onto your screen. The medium merely gets it out there.
It’s the message – your story/novella/novel – that matters.