Friday, January 02, 2009

Writing a Good Book from the Bible

by She Who Shall Not Be Named AKA Jennie Bentley

OK, so this blog kind of snuck up on me, between the holidays, the packing and moving, the renovating yet another house, the kids being home from school, and everything else that's going on in my life at the moment. In short, I dropped the ball, and didn't have anything ready. My apologies. Since I don't want to leave y'all high and dry, without some of my scintillating prose to read, I figured I'd recycle this blog post, which I wrote at my agent's request a month or two ago, for the Fine Print Literary Management's blog. If any of you caught it there, I'm sorry, but it's the best I can do on New Year's Day!

Here goes: the ins and outs of writing bible-based books!

The first time I heard the term ‘bible-based mystery,’ I wondered how anyone could take the epic tragedy of Cain and Abel and turn it into a whodunit, when the whole world knows that Cain had motive, means and opportunity, and did indeed whack his brother over the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. Little did I know—then—that a bible-based mystery has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible or anyone in it.

That all changed when I was asked if I’d be interested in writing a series of mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime, about a home renovator in New England.

The catch?

It was a bible-based series, a work for hire: based on a concept dreamed up by someone else, in this case my editor. I’d do the work and get the advance and the royalties, but the pseudonym would get the credit, and the publisher would get the copyright.

I admit it: I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do. As they say in the Bible—the real Bible—I counted the cost. There are drawbacks to writing someone else’s vision, and not getting to retain copyright to the work is the least of it. Spending months, maybe years, writing books with characters and a setting someone else has invented, isn’t all fun and games.

I guess I don’t have to spell out what I chose. After all, I’m sitting here writing this. In the end, I decided a three-book contract with one of the biggest publishers in the world, along with seeing my words in print, outweighed the negatives.

That doesn’t mean writing the first book was easy.

Usually, I’m a pantser. One of those people who go along for the ride, just seeing where the story takes them. I don’t like to outline. If I already know everything that’s going to happen, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to write the book.

That was a luxury I didn’t have this time. What I did have, was a ‘bible’: a two page outline provided by my editor. She’s the one who named the characters—most of them, anyway; I changed a few names here and there when they cut too close to the bone—and she also chose the background or gimmick for the series, in this case home renovation. I chose where to drop the fictional town where the action takes place, and how to arrange the story and animate the characters behind the names. And of course I wrote the 90,000 words between the front and back covers. Every one of them. Including the tips for the Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation projects.

So would I do it again?

Sure. It’s been a good experience, by and large.

I’ve had the fun of creating a series, once I figured out how to make the characters and setting ‘mine.’ I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my work in print, even if it isn’t my name on the cover. I’ve gotten some excellent reviews and I’ve had a lot of nice things said about me. I’ve been named an IMBA bestseller. I’ve received a few bona fide fan letters from people who’ve read and enjoyed my work, and I’ve been compared to my favorite author. I’ve had to learn to answer when someone calls me Jennie.

In the end, it’s not much different from writing any other book. You pour your heart and soul into it just as if the idea was yours to begin with. You spend the same time and effort you would on any other book. The only difference is that you know, from the moment you start writing it, that this is the manuscript that’ll get published, and you won’t have to worry about anything but creating the best story you can. And that’s worth quite a lot right there!

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So there you have it. The pros and cons of writing a bible-based mystery series. Ask me questions if you're curious, OK? And if you don't have any, just have a wonderful weekend, and a fabulous 2009!


Joyce said...

I think you made a wise decision.

I'd do the same thing if given the chance (hint hint, oh powers that be out there).

Dana King said...

I agree. Writers write. Period. So long as you didn't close off any avenues for your own future work--which you haven't--this sounds like a fine way to break into the business.

I was negotiating for such a deal once, but they wanted the manuscript faster than I thought I could deliver anything of quality, considering I already have a full-time job. It was an intriguing possibility, though.

Annette said...

This is all news to me. Thanks for an informative and enlightening post, Jennie.

And I've always said a publisher can call me by whatever name they want as long as they send me the checks.

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks, guys!

Joyce, if you're querying agents and if you haven't already tried her, Jacky Sachs at Bookends does a lot of these, I think. I know of at least two authors who have gotten signed to inhouse series by her lately.

Dana, yeah, they do want their books pretty quickly, don't they? I had six months to write each book. No problem for me to write a book in six months, luckily, except I can't go from one to another without a break in between, and then I turn out to have more like four months for each book, and that's cutting it a little finer. Book 3 is due March 1, and I'm only at 30,000 words. I'll get it done, most likely, but it'll be a bit of a scramble.

Annette, I agree entirely. I don't care what they call me as long as I get paid. Or more to the point, as long as I get published. Most of us, when we start out, will write for free if someone is just willing to publish our book, won't we? ;-)

Anonymous said...

In the mid-80's I edited books for a friend who was writing men's fiction from a bible. He is now writing under his own name, but the discipline of writing to a formula gave him a good basis for both income and knowledge later on.

And I have written to order for non-fiction, but I really didn't know as many of the mechanics of fiction-writing like yours until this blog, Jennie. Thanks for sharing this.

Karen in Ohio