Sub Rosa, the novel which was to be a sequel to The Malice Plant, is going to have to be abandoned. I’ve given this a lot of consideration over the past few weeks. I’m three-quarters of the way through writing the book. After a recent rereading of the manuscript, I realized that there is a Big Fundamental Problem. This book was started in 1995 immediately after I finished writing The Malice Plant. When I rescued the chapter files from oblivion neither my notes or outline were there (or possibly they were on corrupted disks), so I spend a year trying to figure out whodunnit and why, coming up with a new outline and notes in the process. Then, after I started writing it again, I realized there was a fundamental flaw which was why I was having so many problems going forward. I despaired and drafted a blog post much like this one. But I didn’t post it and I didn’t pull the plug on the book. Authors get attached to their books-in-progress. We are often reluctant to shoot a lame story and put it out of its (and our) misery. So I replotted the book (again!), congratulating myself on figuring out how to address this issue without quite having to go back to page one. Given a new lease on life the book galloped ahead, bogged down, trotted briskly, slogged through a mire, frisked happily through fields of plot and prose, then got somewhat confused and stopped, panting. I’ve done about as much with that metaphor as I can. (It’s more accurate than you think.)
In a strange piece of synchronicity, Jennifer Crusie, an author I like (she’s very funny and writes brilliantly), just announced on her blog that she’s abandoning her current book-in-progress — a book she’s been struggling with for even longer than I have with mine. I admire her candor. In that spirit, I’m going to be very candid here, too.
I realized that something wasn’t right, that on a fundamental level the book wasn’t working. I kept telling myself that I just needed to keep writing, that it would all sort itself out as I got further into the book. This was true; some of sticky bits did get sorted out by themselves. Creativity begats creativity: the more imaginatively immersed a writer is in the work the more it tends to come together. My uneasy feeling that the whole thing really wasn’t working even though I’d put tab A into slot A and was ticking off plot points in a methodical manner and moving steadfastly toward the end came into focus over the weekend a couple of weeks ago. I had a sudden awful idea that I’d made a fundamental mistake of a different sort. So the next Monday I sat down and reread the whole thing to see how it hung together. I do this periodically, but this time I was looking for a specific narrative problem woven between character and plot. I found it. And realized that the past year of work has got to be thrown out. The plot works on paper, but it doesn’t work in the context of the main character. The heroine is not involved, except artificially because I, the author, insist on throwing her into things. The heroine has nothing at stake and is very removed from the primary conflict. She’s a spectator to events which don’t involve her and the changes I made which should have made her more involved in the action only served to emphasize how she really doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on, and wouldn’t have the slightest interest in getting involved. My intermittent struggle with the book is in some ways a struggle with my main character who I’ve forcibly injected into the action.
I’ve had a nagging worry about the narrative voice and tone of the narrative because I wanted the later parts of the book to be seamless with the parts I did long ago (some of which were still useable). I figured that I’d do the best I could matching earlier writing and then polish it up with rewrites until the narrative voice was pitch perfect throughout. What I didn’t realize as I kept rewriting was that the problem with the narrative voice wasn’t with the “voice” part but the “narrative”. It didn’t sound quite right because it wasn’t right. I thought I had a problem with tone that I could iron out with rewriting, when what I really had was a problem with content and context.
I think one of the things I need to emphasize is that this book was also hard because I was attempting to write in the past. Not past tense, but actual past. I wrote The Malice Plant over fifteen years ago and began this book immediately afterward (in 1995)! I got stuck, set it aside, and only rescued it from data decay oblivion a couple of years ago. It was hard to write not just because of technical issues with plot and characters, but also because when I wrote the first book I lived —and gardened—in a small town in North Central Texas. I’ve been living on the Texas Gulf Coast (with a totally different climate, ecosystem, and garden) since the summer of 2000. Houston is nothing like Cedar Lake and though I can recreate Cedar Lake in my imagination, my heart isn’t in it. It’s here. All the bits of stories I’ve been scribbling down are all set on the coast. I’m home again: I’m where I want to be, and though not everything I write in the future will be coastal, I don’t want to be in the fictional town of Cedar Lake right now. I don’t want to write about a time and fictional place I left behind twelve years ago, in a story that’s 17 years old. The whole time I’ve been working on this book, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that it’s holding me back, that it’s a millstone around my neck, that I’m just going over old ground when what I want to do is tell new stories, with new characters and cover new ground.
There’s some great dialogue and character scenes and it’s wrenching to abandon a book I’ve been working on for so long and which picks up a story that a lot of people like. But I don’t want to plot it for the fourth time and start all over. What I may do is use some of those great character scenes as a jumping off point for short stories so that readers who really like Rosemary Wilde and her friends will be able to see what happens next and what sort of trouble the gang gets into. The pure character interactions — when they aren’t being forced to fit the plot — are fun and could possibly be used in the context of different, shorter, stories. But not right now. Right now I need to write those other stories I’ve been scribbling down notes for, the stories I’ve been bursting to write, but didn’t because I’ve been doggedly trying to finish a book I started before the end of the last century.
I feel a tremendous sense of relief and freedom with this decision. I hope you readers understand. I know my fellow authors do. I’ve never gotten this far into a book and had to abandon it, but it’s not an uncommon experience for authors. I guess it’s my turn now.
I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am that I can’t go forward with a full-length sequel to The Malice Plant. The title “Sub Rosa” may yet turn up as a story title — and who knows, perhaps I’ll spin enough short tales to equal a sequel! For now I’m going to work on posts for a food blog (I hope to have more details on that soon!) and work on those non-mystery ideas that I’ve been jotting down. I’m still considering possibly doing NaNoWriMo (which I haven’t done before) in November, so depending on what novel ideas I come up with and whether I can actually do NaNo, there may still be a new novel out sometime next year after all!