I met today’s guest author, Maddie Dawson, on my favorite online writer’s community, SheWrites.com. Her … well, it’s complicated, but it is Maddie’s first novel, is just out in paperback. People Magazine says of Stuff That Never Happened: “This deceptively bouncy, ultimately wrenching novel will grab you at page one.” And she has written one of the most interesting posts I’ve had to date on 1st Books. – Meg
The marketing department got a big laugh when I told them that at the sales meeting, just weeks after it had been accepted by a publisher.
“Wow! Seventeen years?! You must be a very…um, careful writer!” they said. I suspected that some of them had still been in diapers the day I took out my typewriter and wrote the first line.
My children, too, found the whole thing amusing. One of them hadn’t even been born when I started it, and the other two had spent their childhoods watching me write that book over and over again. My son, for one, was incredulous.
“Geez,” he said. “Well, congratulations! And what do you think your hourly rate would be for that book?”
(He can’t help it that he works in a business where that kind of question might actually be significant.) I proudly said my hourly take probably hovered somewhere around one and a half cents. But really, who’s counting?
Who, indeed? To me, the most interesting and problematic thing about taking such a long time with a story was that every few years, it seemed I had to adjust the amount of technology my characters owned. The whole world changed in that seventeen years. First I had to give them answering machines and computers, and then later they needed portable phones, laptops, cellphones and email. Email! (I couldn’t have the only people in the human race who didn’t use cell phones and email, could I? That would have made them seem like hermits.) And for times in the story when the plot called for them to be unavailable for some reason, I had to invent a certain flakiness to their personalities that required them to simply “forget” to keep their phones charged.
But even though that book was really and trulio my first novel, I have a little secret: I have another first novel, too.
In fact, I have a whole other author identity—two facebook pages, two websites, two twitter feeds, and two email addresses. That’s because after having three novels published, my fourth one, The Stuff That Never Happened, came out last August, and it was written under a pseudonym.
So while Maddie Dawson is me—I’ve even been known to answer to that name in the street—I am actually also Sandi Kahn Shelton, the author of three novels (What Comes After Crazy, A Piece of Normal, and Kissing Games of the World) about women in their thirties. These are novels about young women reconciling with the past and seeking and finding the families they feel they are meant to be with. As Sandi, I’ve also written three nonfiction humor books about parenting.
Pseudonyms are really more common than I thought. We all know that Nora Roberts is J.D. Robb, and that Sophie Kinsella is Madeleine Wickham. And there are countless others out there that would surprise us all, I’m sure.
My decision to have a pseudonym came about because my fourth book wasn’t really about women in that breathless, frantic, finding-love stage of life anymore. For this book, the character who showed up and started telling me her story turned out to be Annabelle McKay, a woman who is nearing 50 and who’s been married to the same man for 28 mostly happy years, yet now her marriage is being thrown into disarray because of an affair she had in the first year. It’s an affair that both she and her husband agreed never to speak about at the time they reconciled, but which neither of them really got over. Not exactly chick lit, right?
Obviously this was a book that wasn’t going to attract readers who may have thought that I only wrote sort of humorous books about finding love. As my friends in the marketing department explained to me, it wasn’t going to get to the same target audience. (Book-publishing is all about niches now, and targets—as though the readers we seek have a bulls-eye on them that we’re trying to hit.)
I get that. I really do. And while it’s frustrating sometimes that books can’t just be filed as “fiction,” but instead are asked to slip into one of several genres: women’s fiction, chick lit, romance, historical romance, paranormal, etc., etc.—well, who am I to balk at a whole system? Readers and booksellers, like a lot of humans these days, want to know just exactly what they’re getting, so they know what to expect.
After all, we all know that if a book is a romance, then the main characters must end up together at the end of the book. If it’s “women’s fiction,” maybe they will and maybe they won’t…and if it’s a literary novel, chances are it’s more character-driven than plot-driven, and will have a lot of imagery to the writing.
All the novelists I know chafe against these categories—actually, we’ve been known to jump up and down and shriek and rend our clothing and try to pull our hair out—because, as we explain to each other over and over, books can have some of all those characteristics, can’t they?
The answer is yes, they can. But we as a species are an impatient group…and our lives are hard enough without having to shell out $25 or more on a book we’re not so sure of. And even though some very fine, astute, and masculine men read women’s fiction and like it, still it’s marketed mostly for the estrogen set.
I’m not discouraged by this phenomenon. I’ve made peace with it. I just want to get my work out there, to connect with the readers who might want to read about these topics, and then to hope that the publishing industry keeps going and booksellers survive.
I’ve learned a few things about this writing business since that seventeen years I spent with my first manuscript. The main thing I’ve learned—and which I tell to my writing students—is that miracles really do happen, and that the pile of papers in the drawer can someday turn into an actual book, astounding your friends and children.
But I’ve also learned to sometimes it’s necessary to be flexible and to bend and change with the business.
And if my characters need cellphones that they never remember to charge, so be it. I just hope that by the time I finish my next book, they won’t also be needing flying cars. – Maddie (who is also Sandi!)