Sunday, March 27, 2016

Susan on What We're Writing: "Once More With Feeling"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: There's good news and there's bad news.

The good news is that I've finished the first round of copyedits on THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE (Maggie Hope #6) and sent everything back to the Powers That Be at Penguin Random House. Also, there's also a gorgeous cover to reveal — but they won't let me show you just yet!

And the bad news — you know all that research I was doing on yet-unnamed Maggie Hope #7? The one set in Paris? And how I'd started writing?

Well, as it turns out, it was a good story. But it wasn't my story. It just didn't work for me.

I have a lot of insomnia and usually curse it — but there, one night in the dark, at about 2 a.m., I realized, "This book is just not working."

And, so, with a heavy heart, I scrapped endless notes and about 30K worth of words.

It hurts, people — it hurts. I mean, yes, it's a so-called first-world problem, of course. But still.... ouch.

However, there's a bright side.

Initially, yes, I was upset. Angry, even. But then, after some time passed, I realized that what I was feeling was ...  relief! Like, my subconscious had known this for a while and it took that long for the message to get through.

At any rate, the news isn't all bad and is in fact (ultimately) good: I've found the right plot now, with the right characters, and have found fantastic first-person research books to read. And so, I'm starting again!

I don't want to give away too much; but, as always, I'm using some real people as inspiration for fictional characters, including Maurice Buckmaster of Special Operations Execute (SOE, Churchill's secret army); Vera Atkins, also of SOE; and then a Frenchman named Henri Déricourt. Déricourt is a polarizing figure — he may have been a double, or maybe even a triple agent — working for SOE, the Gestapo in Paris, and, allegedly also for MI-6. No one agrees.

Questions about Henri Déricourt's loyalty's persist to this day, with historians on different sides of the fence. (Which makes him a fascinating, but difficult, figure to research).

It's important to note that the files that would have shed light on Déricourt and his (allegedly) being a double or even triple agent — burned in a fire at SOE in 1946, the day before they were supposed to be moved to storage.

That fire and all those records it consumed — it's like the burning of the Library at Alexandra for those of us consumed with curiosity about what happened to the SOE agents in France and their betrayal to the Gestapo. Something happened, something horrific. 

But whether it was SOE's incompetence, an SOE double agent working with the Gestapo, or even a triple agent, betraying both SOE and the Gestapo to MI-6 — no one knows. The facts are so obscured now that Anthony Cave Brown reported a historian saying in BODYGUARD OF LIES: "[the disaster that happened to the agents of the SOE Prosper network] is a skein so tangled, so convoluted, attitudes of mind so Byzantine, as ... to defy rational analysis."

And so — unless something turns up, a diary, perhaps or something that was misfiled and thus survived the fire — it will remain a mystery.

Which, Reds and lovely readers, makes a great premise for a novel.

Have you ever put a lot of thought and work and energy into a project, only to realize it's just not working? What happened? How did you work through it? Tell us in the comments!


  1. So glad you've come up with the right story, after all, Susan!

    I haven't (yet) had that experience with one of my books, but I sure did in my marriage. All my work and efforts were not returned and life was just getting more miserable. It was the wrong story. So I ended it, and am so glad I did. We both worked hard to make it work as best we could for our young-teen sons, and now they are awesome well-adjusted adults. And I'm much happier with another guy, twelve years now.

  2. Susan, it takes a huge amount of courage to press restart. And like you, I find that when I can't sleep is when my mind is at its most insightful and I'd better pay attention or live to regret it.

    Starting over after getting well in? I have had this experience more than once. And if there's one thing you can say about writers, it's that misery loves company. So I loved reading about your do-over. Going YES! YES! The new story sounds fabulous.

    Writing's not for sissies.

  3. Susan, I've been there. I still want to write that book someday, but haven't been able to figure out how. It may be that I never do. Your new idea is so intriguing. I foresee another marvelous book.

  4. Very brave to dump 30,000 words. May come in handy at some future point. So glad you are excited about the new story!

  5. Thank you, guys. Edith, yes, I hear you about the marriage. But better late than never, right? Glad you found your "right story."

    Honestly, at this point I'm now less angry about losing words and more concerned about finishing on time and meeting my deadline....

  6. My sympathy, Susan. Been there, done that. At my agent's suggestion, I was trying to write a "bigger book" set in the sixteenth century. I had just done six non-mystery historical novels as Kate Emerson and this was supposed to follow up on that. I wrote about 100 pages, got suggestions from both my agent and my then editor, and tried to incorporate them before I finally realized that this just wasn't a book I wanted to write. The good news is that I've recycled a lot of it. First I pulled out the material for two short stories. One was nominated for an Agatha and the other sold to AHMM. Another chunk will probably go into the 4th Mistress Jaffrey mystery, the option book for the one I'm working on now. It hurts to give up on something, but as you say, it's a relief, too. And working on something that is the right project is so much better!

  7. Kathy, yes! And good for you for finding the parts that did work...

    I've kept the 30K words and hope that maybe someday they'll work for something....

    Working on the right project is also so much more fun, you're absolutely correct.

  8. OH yes, Susan. I wrote almost half of a big suspense novel that my agent and editor both were finding compelling but I had to admit it just wasn't me. I was writing a book that didn't represent who I was so I walked away
    , ignoring pleas to continue. Good for you for recognizing this.

  9. Susan, 30K, ack! Very brave of you. But I'll be those words will come in handy, maybe in an unexpected way.

    And the new story sounds fascinating! So glad you trusted your instincts on this.

    I can remember ever to completely start over, although I have through out good bits of a book. So painful, but you never miss those junked words afterwards...

  10. Oh Susan, you are so brave! And this is such a powerful thing to do. Plus, you didn't lose 30,000 words, you *used*
    30,000 words to get to the place you are now.

    Your books are always wonderful, so it is very revealing to see sometimes complicated road to the end.

    Now you've found the key. And it will be smooth sailing from here…

  11. Been there, down the long blind alley. I was working feverishly on a work for hire, following an approved outline. My editor, a nice woman who didn't have a clue about the subject matter, kept asking me to diverge from the outline every time I turned in pages. It remains one of my the most frustrating experiences in my writing career. However, I did end up at least getting a small kill fee when we finally mutually decided the project wouldn't work. I totally get the relief!

    That editor didn't last very long, but I never again wrote for them, alas.

    This Maggie Hope sounds exciting, Susan. But then she is a favorite character, and I always look forward to her next story.

  12. I think I've tried to read a few books where the story just wasn't working, and the author plowed on anyway, for whatever reason--publishing pressure, laziness, whatever. When you are working at your craft constantly, there are those moments when you think, "I'm stuck. How can I work through this mess?" And it takes knowing yourself and painful honesty to admit, "It's not working at all." Don't worry about the deadline, Susan--(easy for me to say, right?), you will get there.

  13. Susan, your stories are always so full of the backstories and mysteries of history that I stay fascinated from beginning to end. I definitely trust your instinct as to whether it's the right story or not, because I always feel your passion for the story when reading it.

    I love what Hank said, that you didn't lose, but used those 30,000 words to take you to the place you are, the right place. Whenever I hear someone say that they wasted years on something, I always think that, no, you used those years to journey to the place you needed to be. So, there's my analogy for the day, writing and life.

    Looking forward to the cover reveal and reading The Queen's Accomplice! And, of course, this new story has me thoroughly intrigued.

  14. We're just in from Church . . . Happy Easter, everyone!

    Susan, it's so hard, and so brave, to abandon something when you arrive at the sad realization that it simply isn't working . . . I'm sure the next book will be terrific.

    Can't wait to see the cover for "The Queen's Accomplice" . . . .

  15. Thanks, all! Happy Easter to those who celebrate!

  16. Susan, I admire both your courage in leaving a project that wasn't working out as you wished it and your gruelling hard work in getting a story to its end. Two-sides of the coin! And people like you who are capable of both still produce high-quality work in the end!

  17. I bowed my head in a few moments of silence when I read your words. How painful and brave. I'm not sure I would have had the courage. So far, I haven't had the need to face the reality of OMG, this is so not working. If I ever do, I hope to follow your example! By the way, loved the books illustrating this post. Looking forward to The Queen's Accomplice.

  18. But wait. You didn't tell us. Does this mean you lose out on the research trip to Paris?

    Ok, end of silliness.That is a brave thing to do and I stand with everyone who says the work was not wasted. It never is. Some other 3 AM, you will find some brand new way to use it bubbling up into your mind.

    Myself, I need to ignore 3 AM thoughts about life or writing. They are always the ones that are all wrong in daylight. BUT the stuck wheels start to turn with a walk or a shower. It's a mysterious process for sure.

    Good luck on the new book. If you feel like it's the right one now, it will be.