Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jumping Off the Merry-Go-Round

Kenneth Wishnia teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island, where he is an Associate Professor of English.His first novel, 23 Shades of Black, was nominated for the Edgar and the Anthony Awards and made Booklist’s Best First Mystery list, and was followed by four other novels, including Soft Money, which Library Journal listed as one of the Best Mysteries of the Year, and Red House, which was a Washington Post Book World “Rave” Book of the Year in 2002. His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Murder in Vegas, Queens Noir, and elsewhere.

My career trajectory has landed me on more “Retooling in Mid-Career” panels than I’d care to mention. At Bouchercon 2010, I was on a panel with the cheery title of “Deathwatch: Keeping a Series Going or Knowing When to Stop,” which was held at 8:30 AM, no less. (Fortunately Parnell Hall was there to lift our spirits with one of his signature comical ditties.)

This is a provocative subject, considering that I published five novels in six years in my Edgar-nominated series before I jumped off the book-a-year merry-go-round to start working on a Jewish-themed historical thriller that took me nearly seven years to research and write (The Fifth Servant, Morrow 2010). And don’t be fooled by the “five novels in six years” line, either. It took me 15 years to write those books.

But I have no interest in plowing the same field again, even though, at nearly every reading or book event that I do for The Fifth Servant, someone asks me when the sequel is coming out. Well, there is no sequel. Why not? Because it would suck. (That’s a technical term we writers use.) Because I put absolutely everything I had into this one book, and I would just be watering down the recipe if I tried to stretch it to another book. I wish some others would do the same.

I have to admit that, although I respect and admire and--yes--envy my friends and colleagues who have made the transition to writing full time, the recent work of some mighty famous big shots has disappointed me. Several recent titles by big-ticket authors (no names, please) have started out fabulously--because after all, they were written by masters of the craft--before petering out with run-of-the-mill or paint-by-numbers second halfs. And I’m beginning to ask why I should be expected to spend time and money reading a book that the author hasn’t thrown him/herself into utterly and completely.

The answer, of course, is that the system of commercial publication thrives on such production habits.

No disrespect to the folks who are paying their rent by writing yet another installment in a series that, as one writer admitted to me, will not outlive her. I’d love to be paying my rent by full-time writing, too. But since Suffolk Community College is paying my rent (you know, the day job), even though it takes up a great deal of my time, it has also allowed me to write whatever I want, to leap into the unknown, and to risk being called a fool for trying something different. And thanks to that, I’ve grown tremendously as a writer. I’d rather write a handful of books that will still be read in a hundred years than a string of commercial hits that might make me rich, but will soon be forgotten.

Perhaps it’s fortunate that I feel this way, since I’ve been forced into this position by fate and my own missteps when I was younger and much more na├»ve about the business of publishing. But at this point I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Which is good, since I appear to have no choice.

--Kenneth Wishnia

No comments:

Post a Comment