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A writer’s decision October 10, 2012

Posted by Jenny in fiction, professional editing and writing, serial fiction.
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Many of you know that I am the author of a murder mystery, “Murder at the Jumpoff,” that was published this past spring. I have been working on a sequel, or at least some other novel, since around that time.

“Jumpoff” was conceived in a moment of inspiration and completed within about seven months. It was fun to write and went fairly painlessly—I only mention that because I am a person who can make easy, simple things into complicated, tortured affairs.

The sequel didn’t come so readily. At first I tried for a very straightforward followup to the first book. Its title was to be “Murder at Tricorner Knob,” involving the major characters of the first book and intended to be the next installment of any number of mysteries set in remote corners of the Smokies.

Somehow, as I went along, I felt I was pulling marionette strings—making things happen artificially to fit a formula. I decided to keep some of the material but do something deeper. I would keep those characters but shift them to the background and explore themes of grief and the often awkward development of relationships.

I’m not even mentioning some other totally different things I tried out along the way—a historical novel set at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (a longstanding interest of mine), and something unrelated, an account of a one-night experience inspired by Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (except mine was set on the Chesapeake Bay). None of these flounderings seemed to work.

In the meantime, I was getting involved in the promotion of  “Jumpoff.” I had quite a few book signings, book readings, and discussions about off-trail hiking from around April through June. I attended writer’s festivals. I will say, quite simply, that overall I hated the experience, although I did have some rewarding moments, such as the group talk at Highland Books in Brevard, a discussion at Union Ave. Books in Knoxville, and a reading and talk at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. I am truly grateful to the folks who showed up for those and other events and participated. Thank you!

At the same time as these relatively positive experiences with some of the  independent bookstores, I was trying to get the “CRMs” (community relation managers) at the chain bookstores to schedule signings for my books. I met with huge indifference. I would call back again, and again, and again—figuring this was normal for this situation—only to have nothing come out of it. I’m not crying for sympathy—this is just the name of the game. The major exceptions were Books-A-Million in Pigeon Forge/Sevierville and Hastings Books in Maryville.

Another part of my experience was becoming better acquainted with the literary scene in western North Carolina. “The Read on WNC” is a widely read blog, affiliated with the Asheville Citizen-Times, that covers that world—for example, Ron Rash (author of Serena) is a star. I established a page on the blog but quickly sank without a trace. I hope this doesn’t come across as whining. I intend it not as a complaint but just as a description of the actual circumstances of being a first-time novelist in a saturated market.

My publisher, Canterbury House, was always very pleasant and supportive. Their main concept is to produce mystery novels in a regional setting, creating a series and building a loyal readership. Nothing wrong with that, but I began to see a divergence between this sort of readership and the readership for “Jumpoff,” which was hikers as much or more than mystery followers. Also, I could see that I had unfortunate literary ambitions that clashed with the concept of workmanlike writing that would appeal to a specific group. I do not scorn that concept. I respect the ability to write for a certain market in a way that will win those loyal fans. That is certainly better than a failed literary effort that no one will enjoy.

I estimate that I’ve spent close to 1500 hours working on what was originally a straightforward sequel to “Jumpoff” and morphed into what I started thinking of as merely a “linked novel.” I am very satisfied with parts of it and not at all with others. Today, something crystallized—I realized that I had three distinct, significant problems relating to the plot. This was clearly symptomatic of a deeper problem, which is that I’m not convinced that I’m a novelist, and I’m not sure anyway that I want to add another tome to the groaning, bloated output of the literary world.

I mark the fourth anniversary of “Endless Streams and Forests” this month. Every day, I look at my statistics. I generally get more than 200 visits a day from countries ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. This seems valuable to me. I have made some contacts through this blog incredibly important to me, the most notable going from here around the Smokies over to South Africa.

I’ve gotten some feedback about this via email and comments, so I’m going to add a few words of explanation: The majority of views come from Google searches that lead people to past articles. Over time, blog posts I’ve done about, say, a certain place in the Smokies or a certain battle in the Boer War have risen sufficiently in the Google analytics that people see my post listed. Some of my items are specific and obscure enough in their topic that my post is right at the top of the search results. Posts that do not have an obvious factual topic, such as my current series based on my grandmother’s memoirs, do not get Google search results.

There is no financial benefit for me in this (although I’ve had a few offers involving ties to companies that I opted not to do). But I have decided that this is my best future, not to load yet another novel onto the teetering stack of the literary world, but just to continue what I do here, and have been doing here for a few years, and try to do it better. And try out a few new ideas as well. Pieces of what I created in those 1500 hours may appear in different form.
Thank you, blog readers.

News flash: “Murder at the Jumpoff” accepted for publication May 6, 2011

Posted by Jenny in fiction, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Approach to the Jumpoff. Photo by Seneca Pressley.

Some of you know that I spent a big part of last year writing a murder mystery centered around off-trail hiking in the Smokies, Murder at the Jumpoff. I was delighted to learn today that my novel has been accepted for publication by Canterbury House, a regional publisher based near Boone, NC. If everything goes according to plan, it will be ready for publication next spring.

Here is a blurb about the book:

When a risk-taking off-trail hiker plummets to his death at the Jumpoff—a spectacular viewpoint in the Smokies— it soon becomes apparent that someone must have pushed him over the edge. The investigators’ paths lead them in a surprising direction involving a long-smoldering love affair as they close in on the murderer, who embarks on a bizarre journey of escape in a vintage 1968 GTO convertible.

“Murder at the Jumpoff” tells of the fate that befalls Donald MacIntyre, an adventurous man who is killed at the treacherous headwaters of a wild mountain stream. His death brings terrible grief to Hatsy O’Brien, a woman with an interesting past who had been secretly in love with the younger, married MacIntyre. The murder is investigated by the genial Hector Jones, a backcountry ranger who knows even the remotest sections of the national park inside and out, and by the attractive detective Sally Connolly, who finds romance blossoming with Jones. After pursuing intriguing leads involving a bitter academic feud and the illegal digging of rare native plants, Connolly and Jones home in on the unlikely suspect of Tim Strauss, a pillar of the community, whose long-buried passion for O’Brien might shed some light on the case—and who turns out to have some unexpected and humorous quirks in his personality.

Canterbury House makes a point of working with authors who are “passionate about their stories and their craft,” and it specializes in these genres:  Inspirational, Mystery, Nonfiction, Romance, Southern Fiction, and Suspense. Probably the best-known author on the Canterbury list is Rose Senehi, author of In the Shadows of Chimney Rock and other mystery/suspense works with a strong regional flavor.

Followers of this blog know that my favorite area for off-trail exploration is the upper watershed of Lester Prong and Porters Creek. These are the mysterious and challenging valleys that lead to such popular destinations as the Jumpoff and Charlies Bunion from directions that very few people attempt. A trip I did last August to the Jumpoff with Brian Reed and Seneca Pressley reminded me once again of the peculiar intensity of this area, which I first visited in 1984. When you read the book, you will find many bits of hiking knowledge from my personal experiences of bushwhacking in the Smokies. But don’t be fooled into thinking the whole thing is autobiographical—when it comes to the plot line, there are lots of things that I, well, just plain made up off the top of my head, just for the sheer enjoyment of telling a story!

Brian on cascade approaching the Jumpoff