When is a mystery not a mystery?

Over the weekend I attended a writer’s workshop in Atlanta and was inspired by Chuck Sambuchino’s speeches (you know him as the editor of Writers’ Digest) and a meeting with Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media. These soirees are always the source of insightful information about the writing craft and the writing business. They also provide chicken soup for the writer’s soul as we socialize with hundreds of kindred souls struggling with an amazingly common set of publishing problems. We are not alone. In fact, like salmon swimming upstream to spawn, we are in an overcrowded marketplace and, like the salmon, most us will be eaten by “bears.”

At this event I had an astonishing encounter with a publishing house editor. When I described what I was working on, I received the oddest, and most annoying, writing advice I’d ever heard. The sequel to Defiled is a novel I call The Appearance of Truth (available in the winter of 2017). It is the story of an elderly lady (Randle’s mother, Elaine) who traverses the culturally bankrupt wasteland of aging and dying in America. It is social criticism about the indignity of death and our soul-crushing end-of-life rituals. As always, I wrap the social criticism in the pretty package of a fast-paced, entertaining mystery/thriller.

The editor listened courteously and then informed me that I did not have the makings of a mystery/thriller because there wasn’t enough at stake. An eighty year-old woman’s life is not worth saving (only in the literary sense, I hope). At eighty, Elaine had lived as long as she could rightfully expect, had experienced all the joys and sorrows she could expect, had soaked up all the social benefits she was due as a U.S. citizen. Elaine was ready for the trash heap and would not make a sympathetic heroine.

If I wanted my story to fit into the traditional publishing categories of mysteries or thrillers, I was told, I would have to use the accepted recipe for my story. That would mean a heroine who was much younger, 20s or at least 30s, so that the loss of 50-60 future years would be at stake! Of course that story would miss the entire point of my story–young heroines are not subjected to the cruelties of aging.

While traditional publishing formulas are troubling from a writing perspective, they are more alarming as a reflection of prevailing American culture. We push the aged to the margins of society and hope we don’t have to deal with their sloppy, messy medical problems and their emotional deaths. That is why I will publish The Appearance of Truth exactly as written. That’s why Randle’s courageous and feisty mother, Elaine, will become a memorable heroine.

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