Friday, December 6, 2013

Zellie's Story (The Back of the Backstory) by Susan Oleksiw

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.) 


carlbrookins said...

I wouldn't assume your story is not marketable. Just because it doesn't fit the genre you've been most active in, is no reason to discard the idea of selling Zellie's tale. Of course I'm biased. I've always been a proponent of organic writing--starting somewhere and seeing where it goes.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

With good writing, characters can take on a life of their own. As you said, they seem to write their own story. I think that's a good thing. My husband always says to me, write what you want to write and don't worry about selling and getting published. It makes good sense. It's a liberating experience. Congrats on this new work!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Carl and Jacquie. I know that my experience isn't unique but I have been wondering about how limited our options have become. It's very hard to sell a short story collection, especially for someone not already in the genre. Nevertheless, I loved writing about Zellie and I'm hoping others enjoy reading about her.

Thanks for your comments.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I do hope it sells well!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

The only novel I've ever written that practically wrote itself turned out to be unmarketable. VOYAGE OF STRANGERS, a historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, is the sequel to a story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but it isn't a mystery. Its protagonists are in their teens, but it's not a YA for several reasons: the vocabulary is too rich, and it's not dystopian, paranormal, fantasy, or contemporary teen problems in a sassy modern voice. I tried hard to market it: 150 queries to agents and editors, whose responses included some near-misses. And now I've taken the plunge and published it as an indie e-book, keeping my fingers crossed that my credibility will survive and the book will find its readers.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'm sure it was a tough decision, Elizabeth, and I hope the book does well. As for your credibility, I was at Crime Bake and one agent was asked about a writer's credibility/stigma after self-publishing, and she said, there's no stigma anymore. In essence she said self-publishing is a fact of life; it's not shocking new thing anymore. Good luck with your book and thanks for commenting.