After years of waffling on this front I’ve made a decision that delivered me right to the doorstep of my second traditional book deal!
As I wrote in a previous countdown post, this summer I’ve been putting together a couple of novel proposals. I’d been working on shaping my second novel since April, writing then boiling down an extended synopsis and polishing the first fifty pages until my agent said, “I love it.” Hoping that love could carry us into a two-book deal, she asked about a third project.
I did have a story idea in my back pocket. While over the course of the many years I’d been submitting the novel now known as The Art of Falling, I’d been drafting a memoir. My family had dealt with a tragedy, and transforming it into a story of hope through the written word felt like the work I was called to do.
When The Art of Falling sold, though, I launched a career as a novelist. Women’s/book club fiction, specifically. The Sourcebooks team and I are working hard to find an audience for this book—why jump genres and build another one? So I decided to novelize—whatever the heck that meant.
After some back-and-forth with a writing friend and my agent, I wrapped my head around what it meant to fictionalize and came up with a synopsis. It was sketchy at best, but the book was far out in my queue—I had to hope my editor would understand this.
My agent asked for an Author’s Note, often included in a novel based on true events. I wrote:
On October 20, 1997, my husband Ron killed himself on our small farm after a daylong standoff. For my sons, my stoic parents, and me, those eight hours thinned the line between heaven and hell. This entire novel unfolds in that limited time frame, as the events of one day forever change a family’s lives.
This is not a memoir—only the cockapoo Max plays himself—but I am well aware of how a typical Monday can be skewed into a minute-by-minute, life-and-death horror, even while food must be eaten and kids must play and stories from days gone by must relieve tension.
The story is written from what I know. I’ve felt the intergenerational ramifications of alcoholism and suicide and what it means to be left behind to deal with them. I know suicide’s taboo can cause friends to fade and new heroes to emerge. In the background, this is a story about a standoff between one desperate man and the police. But in the foreground it is a standoff within family relationships as two generations of women almost break under the pressure that those tense eight hours of uncertainty deliver.
I’ve compressed time to allow events that played out after the suicide to unfold sooner, and added fictional elements that help develop the novel’s premise. But the standoff was very real, and it didn’t just happen to us. Our entire community held its collective breath while awaiting its outcome that picture-perfect autumn day, while even the leaves stood still.I had no sample pages. A synopsis only two-and-a-half pages long. Yet a few weeks later, my adventure in traditional publishing threw me a plot twist: largely on the strength of this note, my publisher skipped over Book #2 entirely and offered on Book #3. Maybe I’ll have a chance to sell Book #2 to another publisher one day—I know my agent will want to try—but for now I must set that novel and its beloved characters aside.
In my Author’s Note, above: did you notice the clever use of the past tense, as if I’d already written this book?
I have not. While the Leaves Stood Still is due June 1, so if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing now.
Have you ever written a “novel based on true events”? Thought about it, and decided on memoir instead? Suffered a publishing plot twist that wrenched you from one character set into another? I’d gladly break from my writing to read your comments.
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Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her work is represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her monthly series, "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. It is now available for pre-order. Her new monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.