This is a true story.
I signed up for a novel-writing workshop. I thought it must be more fun than critique groups which are usually geared to short-story writers–which I am not. The idea was that over a six-month period, there would be input and critiques which would allow you to complete a novel for publication. I went to the first meeting.
The group was a mixture of amateurs who had never written a novel, semi-professionals like me who have written novels but have never published; and two published writers whose presence in the group could be explained by them as 1) I have a novel coming out and I really think you’ll agree it’s worth buying; and 2) since I am a published author, I have prescient insight into what will and will not sell. They were the most vocal, of course, and wow, did they believe the world should revolve around their prodigious talent.
So we went around the room and everyone was asked about their novel idea. There were proposals regarding vampire plots, a woman discovering her presumed dead father was in witness protection, and a woman suspected of being a witch who must find a real witch to clear her name. I did my best to stifle a yawn. None of the idea were exactly my cup of tea or in my bailiwick. I didn’t think I could stomach another vampire novel and fantasies about witches and warlocks–well, to me, bamboo slivers under my fingernails are more welcome than listening to someone prattle on about that kind of plot. But, hey, please do read those kind of books if they appeal to you…read something, I say.
So, now it was my turn. I told them the idea that I had set in NY in 1926. It regarded a nothing person, a cypher of a woman who doesn’t stand out anywhere. Her hero is Rudolph Valentino. She meets him on the last night of his life and at a party, she is fooled into believing they’re going to marry. It’s a trick, see? Then Valentino collapses and dies and she believes herself to be his widow, but when no one will say they were actually married and it turns out to be a cruel hoax, she snaps. That taste of notoriety, however brief, has made her crave it and she’ll do anything not to lose it–even if it involves killing a few people.
The response? Crickets. Here I thought it to at least be an original idea–or semi-original–and there was a lot more to it than I was explaining, but I got no response. They were looking at me as if I were a Martian. Then the “pros” decided to step in with their opinions.
“You could write about her pretending to be Valentino’s wife–that might be a good story,” one of them said.
“But she doesn’t really marry him,” I said.
“It might be more interesting if she did,” said the other.
“But it wouldn’t have happened in real life,” I said, wondering where they were going.
“It’s historical fiction–it doesn’t have to be true to life,” the first one said.
I objected. “I don’t write historical fiction…”
“Well you’re writing a fiction story based on a real event, right. That’s historical fiction.”
“I write crime novels,” I replied, starting to become a touch irritated. “The protagonist goes a little crazy–she’s a little deranged–and decides she wants nothing more than to hang on to her newfound notoriety–even if it means killing someone.”
They weren’t buying it. “Think about the dramatic impetus,” I was told. “She pretends to be Valentino’s widow and cons her way into social circles—could be like ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.'”
“Or Will Smith in that movie,” said the other one. “What was it? He played someone famous’ son?”
“Six Degrees of Separation,” said the other ‘pro’. “Yes, you could really have a good plot like that–she so ingratiates herself that maybe she cons someone out of the use of their apartment.”
I must confess, I’ve never seen those two movies and if I were to pitch the novel idea for a film, I would most likely call it Polanski’s “Repulsion” meets Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. .45.” (Look ’em up if you’ve never heard of either–and they’re both worth seeing.) But what had me fuming was that they wanted me to write their version of my novel instead of mine. I’m sure my idea has been done before, but I wanted to project it through the prism of my own personal niche.
“I think if you make it more literary, it would sell better,” I was told.
Literary? Sell better? Who gives a crap? I write to tell a story I want to tell–if its marketable, great. If not, it’s still my story. The “pro’s” then proceeded to tell me about their novels–which is probably what they had wanted to do all along in the first place.
Anyway, that was my first and last appearance at the novel workshop. I’ll write my novels in my own way, thank you very much, and people who don’t want to read it don’t have to. Tah-dah!
So, beware the “pro’s.” They may want to help you to help them.
It’s hard to be a writer.