Betty Webb is the author of the nationally best-selling Lena Jones mystery series (DESERT RAGE, DESERT WIVES, DESERT WIND, etc.) and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries (THE KOALA OF DEATH, THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, etc.). Before beginning to write full time, Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. She has taught creative writing classes and workshops at Arizona State University and Phoenix College, and has been a nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 20 years, and is currently reviewing for Mystery Scene Magazine. In addition to other organizations, Betty is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the American Association of Zoo Keepers.
Yesterday, while I was speaking to a Phoenix-area book club, I made an inadvertent slip when describing my chores as a kid growing up on a farm. I said, “I milked the goat and chickens…” when I meant to say, “I milked the goat and fed the chickens.”
My verbal gaffe got a big laugh, of course, but the phrase “milked the chickens” remains with me. It perfectly describes the writing life.
Every single day, we writers attempt the impossible.
The first impossible thing is in trying to create something from nothing, to build a universe from a void. The second impossible thing is in attempting to transfer the multi-colored visions in our heads to the stark black-and-white of the printed page. The third impossible thing — the most impossible, actually — is in struggling to lead a “normal” life.
In other words, we writers are constantly trying to milk chickens.
At this point in my writing life, I’ve written thirteen mystery novels. Well, twelve if you don’t want to count my one-hundred-page novella (“Desert Deceit”) as a book. Each novel started with little more than a vague idea in my head. My mean-streets Lena Jones “Desert” novels (“Desert Wives,” “Desert Rage,” etc.) were all triggered by newspaper accounts of certain human rights abuses. My cozy Gunn Zoo series (“The Koala of Death,” “The Puffin of Death,” etc.) emerged from my years of volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo.
I’ve been lucky. Not only did all those books find a publisher willing to pay me for them (!), they went on to receive glowing reviews in media like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and that publishing-world bible, Publishers Weekly. Only Kirkus continues to hate them.
Yet as lucky as I’ve been, none of these published books matched the original idea in my head. My most recent book – “The Puffin of Death” – provides an example.
When I first came up with the idea of writing a mystery centered around those bizarre-looking birds, I pictured a rocky slope in Maine being studied by a group of American zoologists, one of whom was a killer. Somewhere along the line, and for the life of me I can’t remember when and how it happened, the coast of Maine was replaced by a windswept cliff in Iceland. Since I’d never been to Iceland, I decided that a trip there was necessary. So I went.
A month later, I was back home and writing a totally different book than the one I’d originally planned. Gone was my original killer, gone were my original suspects, gone was my original victim. The only thing that remained the same was the puffin, but even she was eclipsed by the antics of an orphaned polar bear cub named Magnus.
And this is not necessarily a bad thing, because change can be good.
Like many writers, I construct an outline before beginning to write, and “The Puffin of Death” was no different. I plotted out the action chapter by chapter, making certain I alternated indoor scenes with outdoor scenes so my readers wouldn’t suffer from claustrophobia. I provided method, means, and motive for my wannabe-murderer, and made certain that my about-to-be victim had done something awful enough to get what was coming to him.
But three chapters into the outlined version of “The Puffin of Death,” I junked it.
The book had become its own thing. “Puffin” refused to be dictated to and wrote its own pages, ignoring my every attempt to rein it in and make it conform. The murderer refused to do the deed, and someone else stepped forward. The puffin, instead being a cute, cuddly little bird, developed a mean streak. And Iceland? Instead of the frozen north I’d envisioned, it became a lush August paradise where shaggy Icelandic horses pastured on the slopes of active volcanoes.
Because I was writing by the seat of my pants – as they say in the trade – I wound up writing a book I hadn’t intended to write, a book that had nothing to do with the outline I’d so laboriously put together. In short, I failed. But guess what? That “failure” turned out to be much better than the book I’d planned, and judging from what the critics have been saying about it, they agree.
Have I learned anything from this?
Sure. I’ve learned that no matter how hard you try, you can’t milk a chicken, so don’t even try. Instead, bypass that stuffy chicken coop and head for the open, green pasture. The view’s better out there.