Have It Your Way

Several years ago at an International Thriller Writers conference in New York City, I met a fellow mystery writer, Isabella Maldonado. After wearing a gun and badge for 22 years (including attending the FBI National Academy at Quantico) she retired as a police captain and has embarked on doing what she always wanted to do—be a writer. Sound familiar?

Between then and now, Isabella and I have become friends. Earlier this year, she sent me a review copy of her third book, The Cipher, which I read, enjoyed, and even blurbed. I don’t blurb anything I don’t like. It’s darker than my books, but sometimes dark is just what the doctor ordered.

The Cipher went on sale a couple of weeks ago. Now emails from readers are coming in, and last night she sent me a note asking for advice in how to deal with one of them—a note from someone who decided it was his job to point out everything he thought was wrong with the plotting of her book. In my experience folks who do that are often people who would like to write and who know that, if they did so, what they produced would automatically be better than what his or her targeted author has written. Isabella wanted to know how to deal with the know-it-all. I suggested that she send my standard MYOB reply which goes as follows: Thank you for writing. Your input is appreciated. Regards, JAJance.

In other words, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am! The first time I used that reply was in the early 2000s when I received a note from someone calling herself “Melissa G.” who, after seeing my photo on the website wrote to tell me that I was so ugly she hoped I wore a bag over my head when I went out in public so I wouldn’t “frighten” people. My website says I respond to emails, and if I didn’t respond that was a response in itself. So I sent the reply mentioned above. If you happen to send me an email and receive that in response, you’ll immediately know you’ve plucked my last nerve!

At the time I received that missive, I was writing the first Ali book. Some of you may recall that in Edge of Evil Ali receives a very similar message at her website, cutlooseblog.com from someone named Melissa G. All of Ali’s blog followers wrote in to tell Melissa G. exactly what they thought of her, so I didn’t have to. That, by the way, is something I call Writerly Revenge.

But back to the need for authors to tell their stories their way. I’ve hinted that J.P. Beaumont makes a cameo appearance in my next Ali book, Unfinished Business. I may be making publishing history here in that a character from my HarperCollins books is able to show up in a Simon and Schuster book. The whole idea of writing a crossover is to bring readers from one series to another and vice versa. The first time I did that was in Partner in Crime, an attempt to bring my two separate sets of readers—the Beau readers and the Brady readers—to the same book. It worked like a charm, and suddenly they were all reading both series in equal measure.

Ali is a relative newcomer to the game—nearly twenty years as opposed to close to forty. It turns out that readers who prefer J.P. continue to be the most difficult to bring along to something different. Hence my decision to have Beau show up in Unfinished Business.

From the very first scene in Until Proven Guilty, when I walked around a crime scene on the back of Magnolia Bluff, seeing things through Beau’s eyes, hearing what he heard, and being privy to his innermost thoughts, he has come to me in first person. That’s who he is. Since the Ali books are written in the third person, I automatically assumed that Beau would show up in that book in the third person as well. Boy was I wrong! When it came time to write about him, there he was in all his curmudgeonly first-person glory.

I finished the book and sent it to my editor. When she sent back the line-edited manuscript, she sent a note explaining that she had changed Beau’s parts from first person to third. It occurred to me that maybe, if someone else did the changeover, it might just work. Boy was I wrong about that! I was rocking and rolling along with the editing process right up until I hit the first Beau segment, and it was like crashing into a brick wall.

That happened about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and there was close to a pyroclastic blast around here. It was very similar to the one that occurred with a previous copy-editor. While working on Man Overboard, he had blithely gone through the whole manuscript changing timeline notations with wild abandon. Then, near the end of the book when he suddenly discovered that Arizona doesn’t do daylight savings time, he added the following notation: “I didn’t know that. Please fix.” A good deal of ungrandmotherly words escaped my lips right about then, and the same thing happened this past Saturday when Beau suddenly did a jolting switcheroo from I and me to he and him.

My longtime readers know Beau the same way I do—in the first person. He’s not just a pronoun to them. They enjoy his little internal asides that speak directly to the reader. They like his dry sense of humor, and those things just didn’t come through in a third-person version. My Simon and Schuster editor, who doesn’t have decades of history with reading those books, had no problem with Beau suddenly showing up in third person, but I did. And I’m pretty sure my longtime Beaumont readers would react the same way. Not only would they not try any more Ali books, I was afraid they might give up on J.P. as well.

So I took the Beaumont portions of the book and put them back in first person. Once I did so, Beau came off life support and bounced back into the picture. It was the difference between reading about a paper doll cut out and a living breathing human being. And that’s the way Unfinished Business will be published—MY way—with Ali’s parts in third person and Beau’s in first.

I usually take my editors’ advice. Eventually I was able to convince my editor that Beau’s voice was essential to the story and that I needed to be true to my character. As for what happens if, once the book is published, I have a bunch of literary Monday-morning quarterbacks taking issue with the way I wrote it? I just happen to have an email response all queued up and ready to send: “Thank you for writing. Your input is appreciated. Regards, J.A. Jance.

Or I could just send them my shorthand version of that: WYODB—Write Your Own Damned Book!