I recently finished writing a novella that all but wrote itself. It was a great feeling, and I loved the story that emerged. It didn’t begin this way. The story began as a short mystery with an ending that was vividly clear to me. I knew who the main character was and how the story would evolve. But as I began writing, the character revealed quirks and surprises that I found interesting and sometimes endearing. Everything she said or did hinted at a deeper backstory. I gave an extra paragraph here and there, and before I realized it the original idea had transformed into something I didn’t expect.
At this point I could do one of two things—I could delete the supposedly extraneous material and get back onto the mystery track, or I could follow along the new developments and see where they went. I chose the latter. I finished the story, writing page after page even when I wasn’t sure where this was going to end, and then realized I had reached the moment of decision. As a poet once said to me, Something happens, people change, mysteries remain. The story found its ending.
Discovering a complex story as you write is a wonderful experience, but it is one that seems to happen less and less frequently to writers. Perhaps it’s because we write with a focus on publication, or a marketable story idea or an outline, or because we feel there are so few publishing options left for non-genre work.
I began with one genre in mind and ended up somewhere else. I don’t want to call it literary fiction because it is first and only a story about a woman whose life in the backwoods is upended unexpectedly. I think of it as just a good story.
If I hadn’t been able and willing to give the time to the story of Zellie’s life, regardless of the question of being able to find a publisher for it, the story might never have been written. I suppose what I’m really saying is that writers are more and more slotted into certain genres, and we can move from one genre to another, but those have to be specific genres—mystery, romance, science fiction, paranormal, historical. We are also expected to write more or less according to a single format that stresses plot, action, surface speed rather than depth. The freedom to write the story that comes, one that doesn’t fit into any specific genre, seems to have been lost. The options for self-publishing may seem to give us more opportunities to publish, but they are really the opportunities to publish more of the same, not something different.
The freedom to experiment and explore, to write something interesting even if it has no specific category, is decreasing, and this is too bad. This is where the best discoveries are made—about characters, story lines, insights into the way people behave—and where, I think, the individual has the greatest opportunity to grow as a writer.
I set aside my current mystery novel project to finish Zellie’s story, and I’m glad I did. If you’re curious about Zellie, you can find her life at the link below. If you’ve also set aside a more commercially viable project to explore another idea, I’d like to hear about it.
(And here let me give credit for the cover design to Kathleen Valentine.)