Marian Exall is the author of A Slippery Slope, the first Sarah McKinney mystery. She self-published the novel through the Village Books Self-Publishing Program. Read the Kirkus review of her book here.
Although in real life I’ve been married to the same man for nearly forty-three years, my literary life has been a series of flings. A therapist might assess my reluctance to tackle the hard work necessary to ready a project for publication as fear of rejection. I suspect it has more to do with laziness. Anyway, for many years, it confined me to writing short stories, fine in their way -- read Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision for a master class in the genre -- but the Holy Grail for all fictioneers is The Novel; I was determined to complete one before I croaked.
I had a plan – sort of – for overcoming my fear of commitment: I would write in serial form and revise as I went along. That had to be less painful than confronting a whole manuscript at once. It had worked for Charles Dickens, most of whose magnificent (and long) novels were published a chapter at a time in weekly or monthly magazines. Dickens used the feedback from readers to fine-tune his characters and modify his plots.
And I had my readers: my three writing buddies who cheered me on every two weeks when we met to critique each other’s work. Scrupulously starting with positive comments, we quickly got down to the nitty-gritty: “Show, don’t tell!” “You’re using passive voice; find more active language!” “Tell us how it smells/sounds/feels!”
They were particularly good at weeding out the “British-isms” that still, after thirty-seven years of living in the U.S., find their way into my prose.
Rolling along happily in this way I had two-thirds of the book done. Then I got stuck.
I should say a word here about why I chose to write a mystery. The main reason is because I love to read them! Tana French, Kate Atkinson and Ruth Rendell are my favorites. I like the Scandinavians too: Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. The secondary reason is that mysteries have a structure that is reassuring for a novelist to lean on. The essential elements of a mystery plot offer a scaffold on which to develop character, place and time.
The problem was that my scaffolding only went two-thirds up the building. I turned to another favorite author, John Irving, for help. He always writes the last sentence of his novels first: “Once I know what the last thing the reader hears is, I can work my way backward, like following a roadmap in reverse.”
I wrote the last chapter, then joined the dots. May, 2013: I had a first and final draft.
A friend from my Atlanta days was staying with us. She offered a final read- through to make sure the local details were right. (A Slippery Slope is set in Decatur, Georgia.) Between offering invaluable insights – Decatur police cruisers are blue and white, not black and white – Nancy mentioned the Decatur Book Festival, held every Labor Day weekend, and now the biggest independent book festival in the USA. What a perfect opportunity to launch the book!
My days of short-lived affairs were over. I was ready to commit to a long-term relationship. After three months of hectic activity – formatting, cover design, crash course in e-publishing, printing snafus too horrifying to mention – I and twenty-five newly-minted copies of A Slippery Slope arrived at the Decatur Book Festival’s Emerging Writers’ Pavilion.
As I walked down the aisle to the podium to give my five-minute presentation, I felt as Jane Eyre must have done at the end of Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, “Reader, I married him.”
Although in my case, it was her: Sarah McKinney. The second Sarah McKinney mystery will be completed by the end of the year.