I’ve always been an ardent reader of Sherlock Holmes stories and it’s all because of the London fog. Growing up on the flat plains of the Texas Panhandle, there were few occurrences of fog, although we did have occasional dreary, cloudy, rain-sodden days. After soaking up some of the London climate through the mysteries, what I yearned for was the exceedingly damp, dark and always foreboding fog that Holmes and Watson had to plunge into when hot on the trail of deadly criminals.
That may be why I find Fall in New Mexico to be such a terrible time to write. I have in my mind that real writing, especially of mysteries, is best done while sitting deep in a tall-backed, overstuffed, winged armchair in a darkened room next to a roaring fire while a howling storm of rain and snow is battering the windows. In the Holmes tradition, the densest fog makes for the finest crimes.
So here I am, ready to batten down the hatches against the outside world and focus my words on describing the darkest faces of humanity, and it is a gloriously sunny day outside. We’re having wonderfully mild, warm, dry, windless, bright days of unending sun, while the mountainsides are covered with the colors of autumn. We’re past the height of the aspen yellows, but even the remnants are still painting the countryside with blankets of colors. No one in his right mind would want to squander a day like this by being inside.
Thus am I stymied in my creativity. It will soon be November, my mind is prepped for winter and all I get is short sleeves and summer. I’ve begun a new story that starts with the pain and depression of patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium and I just can’t get it to sound right. The warm sunshine coming through my window wants them to go outside and play volleyball or something.
Perhaps my time is best spent reading.
I was in London a couple of years ago, by the way. It rained a couple of times but I never got the fog that I wanted. My only victory for literature was finding magnificent growths of wisteria (one of the Holmes stories was located at Wisteria Lodge). I guess I’ll have to go back when the weather is worse, which is something that only a writer would want to do.
I finished a final draft of a major (meaning 70,000 words or so, which is major for me) adult novel in April. This was the first adult novel that I’d done since finishing the Mogi Franklin Mystery series. I sent the manuscript to the publishing house that publishes the Mogi books to see if they would accept it for publication. Publishing an adult novel is wholly different from publishing middle-reader books, so it wasn’t automatic that they would be interested. They had to decide if it was a good book, if it fit their publishing house guidelines, and if they would expect it to sell.
They said yes and I started work with the senior editor. After he had read the manuscript, we met in July for a couple of hours. He had a list of comments, 90% of which I took to heart (I don’t remember the remaining 10%). After making several significant changes to the story, I resubmitted the manuscript in August. We exchanged emails in September discussing several specific aspects of the story, one of which was the need for clearly identifying the message of the book and how to present it to the reader.
Message? I needed a message?
Well, yeah, okay, what he was asking for was what I wanted the reader to be thinking about when they finished the book and, hopefully, afterwards. Why had I written the book? What did I want the reader to be left with? What was the bottom line? If it was the kind of story that expected to teach something, then what was the reader supposed to have learned?
Not having thought of it before, I realized that I did have something to say; I just hadn’t viewed the book from that perspective.
I don’t believe all books have to have a message or a theme or an underlying motif (I learned that word in high school; my English teacher would be proud). However, most good books do have a basic message or theme, even the big action/thriller types, and all good literature does. It can be as simple as “doing good is right”, or could be a morality play (religious belief, compassion, love,…), or be about personal conviction (courage, honesty, integrity,…), or societal (family, community, mutual support,…), or as complicated as a recurring image (the One Ring to Rule Them All). When a message or theme, or even a character strongly resonates with the reader, it can be a remarkable moment that lasts a long time (why does everyone know who Holden Caufield is?).
Most readers want either a message or foundational moral or some sort of personal part displayed by the hero or heroine that gives us encouragement or hope. They want a reason to remember the book and a reason for why they might recommend it to a friend – it makes it a better read, it gives more meaning to the story as they’re reading it, and makes the culmination of the story more satisfying.
My first step, according to my editor, was to make sure that the ending of the book clearly repeated the message that I had written about throughout the whole book. Therein was a problem: I had a story that I had made up as I went along and I hadn’t worried about significant themes or underlying meanings. Also, I had an ending that sucked. I mean, it was adequate, but even I was left unsatisfied. It certainly didn’t end with any meanings conveyed by the book, and maybe that’s why the ending sucked.
Now having realized that I actually did have a message and needed to be upfront about it, I wrote four different versions of the ending, each of them emphasizing, summarizing, or clearly articulating what I thought the book was about. It was a pretty interesting exercise. It took some soul-searching to understand what my story was about and took several changes across the book to make the message consistent within the story; I wanted it to be mindful but not interfering with the action or plot.
I finally wrote an ending that was naturally integrated in the whole story and made everything come together in the end. Even I was impressed. I sent my editor an updated manuscript a couple of weeks ago. He’s working his way through it and I’m waiting to see if I’ve been able to articulate the meaning with the strength that it needs.
I’ll keep you updated.
By the way, the book is already listed on Amazon. It will not be available until April 1, 2019, but it has a cover and a description. I didn’t write the description, by the way; my publisher did. Its name is The King of Trash, a novel by Don Willerton. Look it up.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.