Thursday, May 26, 2016

Reds on Writing: Trunk Novels @LucyBurdette

When the subject of trunk novels (finished or unfinished manuscripts that have been stashed away before publication) comes up, I have plenty to say. The first book I ever wrote, FINAL ROUND, lives in a trunk. As it was told, Cassie Burdette, a lady golfer whose personal baggage limited her professional success, had the bad luck to get involved with the murder of a superstar golfer. 

Recognize anyone?

On the basis of that manuscript, I landed an agent and she sold a 3-book golf lovers mystery series to Berkley Prime Crime. But FINAL ROUND was rejected because Cassie was serving as a caddie, carrying the bag for a man on the PGA tour. They wanted her to be shown as a golfer, not a caddie, in the first book of the series. 

    "But she has issues," I explained, "that prevent her from playing at that level."

    The publisher didn't care. 

    So FINAL ROUND went in the trunk.

    During the time I was waiting and hoping to hear news of a sale, I wrote a second installment in the series in which Cassie falls for a gorgeous professional golfer in the Dominican Republic. Tropical setting, voodoo, a dangerous romance: What was not to like? But my new editor determined that foreign settings weren't selling. Into the trunk it went.

photo by Daniel Johnson

After eight mysteries published, I attempted a non-mystery "breakout" book, featuring a jilted real estate agent and the detective from my advice column mysteries. My agent felt it wasn't representative of my strongest work. Thunk, went the manuscript, into the trunk.

photo by Greg Wagoner

Next I started a book about a psychologist who was tricked into co-leading a happiness group and finally found happiness herself. I got involved in writing something else and didn't finish it. Thud: on the pile, in the trunk. 

    And then came the book I fondly call "the homeless baby thriller." But three-quarters of the way through, I got distracted by writing a proposal for the Key West food critic mystery series. And that led to a gallop through seven published novels. So the thriller went to gather dust with the other trunk inhabitants. (Help, help, it's getting very crowded in here!)

Poco, the original zany Aussie

Oh, and don't let me forget the children's book about a zany Australian shepherd who gets in trouble with all the neighbors. Trunkward bound after a clumsy first draft.


So though I recently celebrated the publication of my fifteenth book in fourteen years (KILLER TAKEOUT), I've actually written parts or all of 21 books. But there's very good news in this: I've learned more about writing well with each book. And all but the first two are still interesting ideas that I'd love to go back to one day, if life ever slows down. (In truth, I’m working on three things that I feel a little superstitious about, so I’ll wait to tell.)

    Someone told me once that he'd pitched a golf mystery to an editor who told him that writing about golf would kill his career. But I’ve survived. And honestly, I don't have a moment of regret. And here I give you the opening of my first ever novel-fresh from the trunk:

FINAL ROUND by Roberta Isleib, circa 2000

    The first streaks of sun lit up the golf course like a carpet of emeralds.  I rolled my neck in slow circles, easing out kinks left over from a long drive and a series of lumpy mattresses.  A palpable hum of excitement and hopefulness hung over the practice range, which teemed with golfers grooming their swings for today's tournament.

    Despite the pastoral backdrop, I knew the tension that permeated these early minutes would surge over the next few days.  For professional golfers, competition was more than just a game.  Take the first tee, where a crowd of fans narrowed the hole to a chute with living, breathing walls.  And suppose the only image that flashed through your mind was shanking the ball off the toe onto some spectator's bald head.  Or worse yet, making no contact at all.  Or maybe the guy you needed to take apart that day was your best buddy off the course.  Even so, you had to grind away without a thought about how he felt.  No question about it, competition could be murder.   

    I'd worked hard to get here.  Except I never imagined I'd make my appearance carrying someone's bag, not using the clubs myself.  And there were things I missed about playing.  Like the feeling of striking a shot so pure, so perfect, you knew it was your best.  Or say you were playing an opponent who had the game to kill you, but you'd clawed a path to two holes up anyway.  Or maybe you were coming down the home stretch all square and your hands felt like concrete blocks, but you needed to chip close to give yourself a chance for bird.  And you knocked it stiff.

    Yeah, I missed it.  Gods knows, I grew up in a family that could make eating mashed potatoes into a contest.  Even our dog was competitive:  you had to fight him for a place in the front seat of the car.  But right now, my job as Mike's caddie was to stay in the background.  Kind of a Hillary Clinton to her Bill, only without the humiliating Monica Lewinsky part.

Well, now that I look it, there was a lot of golf in them there pages! I think I improved as I went along:). 

Cassie's first published adventure on the LPGA tour, Six Strokes Under, is still available as an ebook.

Jungle Reds, anything in your trunks? Doesn't have to be writing--could be any project you started and didn't quite finish...


  1. Gee, what I know [or understand] about golf could be etched on a tee with room left over for several volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but I enjoyed the opening of the story anyway. I certainly think a girl caddie could make an interesting story.

    Sad to say, my trunk has a couple of long-ignored sewing/needlepoint projects just waiting to be finished . . . .

  2. I like the opening!

    I don't have any mysteries in the trunk, but my mother's two unfinished quilts are there and beckoning until, as you say, life slows down a little!

  3. Aww, thanks Joan and Edith. I still have a fond spot for that book! And lord knows I spent more time polishing those paragraphs than should be legally allowed.

    Hopefully the time will come for the sewing and quilting and needlepoint!

  4. As we all know, when it comes to misery, writers love company. Do I have books in the trunk? Lordy yes indeedy I do. Books. Essays. Stories. But little by little, bits of them have been polished up and found their way into published books. I think of them as "Not good enough... yet."

    What's great in that unpublished opening is the voice! And there are people who like golf, you know.

  5. thanks Hallie, I love having company like yours:). And Cassie's voice is exactly what caught my agent's attention--it's so hard to define and yet so important!

  6. I've written almost twice as many books as I've sold but the good news is that parts of most of the rejects have been recycled into something that did work for an editor. I still have a couple of pets I haven't given up on, particularly two middle grades historical novels and a couple of short stories that don't fit into any particular genre. Then again, some of my earliest efforts were pretty bad--not even worthy of being kept in a trunk.


  7. Hallie, I'm with you--Roberta, the voice shines in that opening--I would've kept reading even though I am not a golf aficionado--because the character's passion comes through clearly.

    Many years ago, I completed a first novel--a hysterical (oops, make that historical) gothic romance. A major publishing house reviewed it and told me that my heroine was too strong. Another told me that it might do okay at midlist, but they didn't think it had the potential to be a bestseller. That was the first to go in the trunk, but certainly not the last.

    Sometimes a quilting project can take a long time--I might find a piece of fabric I love, then take years to find the perfect companion fabrics or person to make it for.

  8. This is the third attempt I've made at a comment, but not due to technical difficulties. As a reader, I'm frustrated. As a writer, frustration gets in the way of communicating, so I'm spending too much time on a blog comment.

    Let's just say I'm bummed Cassie's origin story isn't likely to see print. Her passion for an endeavor shines through. Her dreams are relatable. I see a lot of Hayley's passion for food in Cassie's passion for golf.

  9. Roberta, you've just proved me wrong - Ross and I were talking about some deceased writer who was having a ms-in-the-trunk published, and I said no writer would leave a complete manuscript unsold! (Actually, I think I may be right, because those dead-author novels are never juvenalia or early one-offs. They always happen to be the next book in a successful series :-)

    I have one trunk book - the unfinished ms of the science fiction novel that was my first attempt at longform. I like to think I'll go back and revise it now I know so much more about good writing, but considering my production track record, I may have to leave it for the Smithie to finish after I'm gone. Also in the metaphorical trunk: several almost-done needlepoint pillows, including one I started for Ross for his graduation from law 1986. And let us not forget the boxes and boxes of pre-digital camera photographs. I have some lovely empty albums, just waiting for me to find the time. On the other hand, if I leave 'em loose, they'll be easier for the kids to divvy up when they inherit.

  10. Those under-the-bed (I don't own a trunk!) novels are hard to ignore when they whisper in the dark. Trying to resurrect on of them while waiting to hear back from my publisher on my latest novel.

  11. Hmm, no, no trunk books. A couple of ideas, which when I find them I think--oh,that would work! But then I do something else.

    I did have--and you will laugh--a few chapters of a book I tried to write in..1989? About: A FEMALE GOLFER! Can you believe it?

    Sadly, not only did I know nothing about golf (I just thought it would be commercial) I knew even less about writing. And ZERO about point of view, of which there were many and random. As for voice, my dear father read the pages, and never one to mince words, wrote back a note which included the following;:

    Thanks, honey. You know there's this thing called voice? Well, you don't have it.

  12. My very first mystery - a kind of cozy-ish amateur sleuth - is in the trunk and not likely to see the light of day. It's been joined by a couple of short stories that never sold. And, sadly, the first in my Laurel Highlands series. After a year of trying to pitch it to agents, the best feedback I got was "great writing, but hard to sell drug stories right now." So into the trunk it goes (for now) and book 2 in the series is now book 1. But maybe someday...

    Of course, all the writing projects are joined by a myriad of counted cross-stitch projects. I used to cross-stitch for relaxation. This was before my kids got big enough to see the pretty colored threads as toys. Everything got put away and I just haven't taken it out again.

  13. Lucy, I love the beginning of the Cassie book! Such vivid descriptions, great voice, and I know enough about golf to understand her passion (although I don't share it!) (My parents were avid golfers. I think I spent the first twenty years of my life on a golf course somewhere, but I just could not learn to play. And my dad would have loved your golfing books.)

    Hank, poor you! But so funny. And you certainly developed a voice!

    I'm afraid I don't have a trunk book. I sold the first book I attempted. Now I'm thinking it would be nice to have bits of things I could pull out and polish and stick somewhere...

    As for trunk projects, there's the barely started quilt. And, Julia, I don't even want to think about all the old photos and the empty new albums...

  14. Erica Jong told me that "Fear of Flying" was originally meant to be a trunk novel that would never see the light of day. Sometimes ya gotta write what ya gotta write-- and sometimes it turns out to be the right book at the right time!

  15. Aww, now why isn't a caddie good enough? Personally, I'd like to read stories about people with issues, who are underachieving--room for growth in a series! Maybe there's a place for her now?

    I have a trunk novels that includes druids and a lost manuscript and a creepy castle. :-)

  16. Love all these comments! Especially Kathy, who has written ALMOST TWICE AS MANY AS SHE'S SOLD. And she's sold a lot! that is very reassuring to me--and yes, it's a pleasure to be able to go back and pluck some pieces out of an unused book. Goes to show--again--how different each writer is.

    thank you FChurch for your kind comments. Who in their right mind would say a heroine is too strong?? sounds like you should keep writing... along with Cyndi and Mary and Rhonda!

    that's so fascinating about Erica Jong--she sure did well with that book!

    Debs, you are a shining hero--selling everything you have written. And Hank, sometimes the father is just plain wrong:)

    Julia, we will keep our fingers crossed for the sci-fi, but first, Russ and Clare--oh we are dying for that next one (no pressure of course...)

  17. Lisa, you may be right. But they didn't want her in a supporting role--the opposite of the feedback FChurch got! I am now energized to go back and look at the thing:)

    Druids and lost manuscripts and castles sound like perfect fodder for YA or juvenile mysteries...

  18. Yes, indeedy, I have trunk books. I have the Harlequin style romance I wrote for a college creative writing class, JEWELED TORMENT. Set in Bangkok. Cobras and emeralds and romance, oh my! Then I have a Regency romance I actually had an agent for for a while but which went nowhere. I can't remember the title. I have a police procedural which might have been good if I had known the first itty bitty thing about police procedure. I have the first two books in a mystery series featuring an Air Force intelligence captain. (Write what you know, anyone?) The first one got me my agent, but editors weren't interested in a military-set mystery series. Too worried about politics and war creeping in. Seriously, that's what one editor said. The first thriller I wrote after pubbing a couple of cozies, MISSING ELEMENT, will probably never see the light of day, either. All these books add up to the million words John MacDonald (I think)said you have to write before you're a competent writer. Or so I hope.

  19. I'm impressed! Ray Bradbury wrote about his drawer of abandoned writing, ready to be resurrected for later works, but you have a TRUNK! I think that means you win. Thanks for sticking with it and for the pleasure of reading your Key West adventures. Hugs! <3

  20. Oh no, Roberta, father was so right! A couple of pages of that still exist, and it is hilarious. Fact, if I can never find again, I should use it for a class and what not to do with point of you!

    And I want to read the druid book! And Laura's romance! So many things…

  21. Point of view I mean, so much for dictation !

  22. You read my mind, Lucy -- I've entertained thoughts about changing the manuscript to YA. :-)

  23. And I want to read the military mystery, Laura!

  24. Lucy, I think the opening of your Cassie book is very engaging!

  25. you're so sweet Reine, thanks! Laura, me too on the romance--polish her up so we can read! I find it amazing the proclamations the editors make about what will not sell--sometimes they're right, and sometimes... not:).

    Thank you Mary!!

    And Lisa, yes, write the YA. it would fit right in.

    and hank, one day when you're feeling brave, we so want to see those pages...

  26. From DebRomano


    I know nothing about golf but I've read and enjoyed all your golf mysteries. If the Cassie as Caddy book had been published, I am quite sure I would have enjoyed it.

    I have a closet full of unorganized photos, boxes and bags of unfinished needlework projects, and more, so much more! I tell my family that it's a good thing I'm older than the rest of them because I'm probably not the person who will need to go through all of it someday!

    Laura, I would read that military book most definitely!

  27. I accept the challenge, dear Roberta! I'll look.xoxoxo

  28. I actually liked the golf talk in this, Lucy. I haven't played golf in a long time, but it rang so true about the thoughts going through one's head as you tee up to take that first shot of the hole. I also like watching golf on TV. I would have enjoyed the caddy's perspective, too.

  29. The first book I wrote, back in 2002, was about a serial rapist in a small town in Vermont, and that book ended with all of his victims gathering around his hidden cabin in the forest and watching him die. Fun, right? Except I couldn't let it go, so in the second book I brought his mother in to avenge his death. Then the series segued into a dad sleeping with his daughter. Guess what: it never sold. I'm still sitting on one about an FBI agent with traumatic amnesia, which occurred when the cult that had taken in the agent's mentally challenged brother tried to burn their house down around her. Oh, and there's a sort of love triangle in that one. Nope, that hasn't gone anywhere either.

    I have read all of your series, and they're all strong. Blame the poor taste of editors for their premature demise (and we've seen how well they're doing these days!). It does sound like you found your genre/voice early (unlike me!).

  30. Deb R, at least it's only a closet LOL. My dear aunt, who was a talented spinner, weaver, and knitter, left an entire house full of projects. I don't know how they'll ever sort it out.

    Kathy and Sheila, thank you! Sheila, you gave me the belly laugh of the day:). Could that book be any farther from a cozy mystery?

    I'm psyched to go back and look at Final Round when I have time. trouble is, some parts were cribbed for other books and it might be hard to remember what's been used!

  31. My gemology books are sitting in the trunk. One day I'm going to take them out and blow the dust off of them. However, I have borrowed bits and pieces of that series for the Sarah Winston series.

    1. I hope you do Sherry-- I can imagine the plot twists with gems and jewels!