Back Burner Books

Reality Check Commentary - a tired journalist’s question


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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I’ve written one-third of my sixth Cornish Detective novel, my mind occasionally straying to contemplate other writing projects.

I’d like to return to the adventures of an American Civil War veteran. I’ve written two novellas about Art Palmer negotiating his way through the war-torn Deep South in the era of Reconstruction, as he makes for his sister’s plantation in Georgia. I’d like to know what happens to him. I’ll find out in early 2020.

One project that’s firmly on the back burner is a vaporous notion I had for a literary novel about communication, identity and dating in an age where we all surveilled online and in the street with CCTV. I intended that to be my first novel, after writing twenty short stories and novellas and 460 poems in 2013-2014. Then, I saw advice on several writing gurus’ sites that placing a literary novel written by a debut author was the most difficult of sells for an agent. It was better to stick to genre writing, hence I chose Crime which allows me to write about anything.

I’ll probably never get around to penning my magnum opus about relationships in the 21st-century where we can spy on one another and where we’re spied on by Big Brother, but plenty of famous authors never completed their final manuscripts:

10 Famous Authors and Their Unfinished Manuscripts

What stories are on your back burner?

This unfinished painting of Charles Dickens imagining his characters depicts how we’re haunted by writing projects. The painting Dickens’ Dream was begun on the death of Dickens in 1870 but hadn’t been completed by the painter Robert William Buss when he died in 1875. magnum opus about relationships in the 21st-century where we can spy on one another and where we’re spied on by Big Brother...
I like this, and I wonder if a deeper layer of it could be the effect of the internet on humanity, considering the internet as one of the five great communication revolutions in human history: speech, writing, telephony, radio, and the Internet. Just a thought.

As for my magnum opus, it's also currently vaporous, but it will be a fantasy novel with aspirations of mainstream crossover, which takes the modern world as its starting point, and deals with parenthood in a socially fractured world where each generation must reinvent the (parenting) wheel.

Big idea. Very few details. Blindly, the search goes on...
What stories are on your back burner?

Which one? They're all new and shiny diamonds that sparkle in the dark drawer (or from the backburner) and sing their siren song until I look at them again ... which is when they become glass, occasionally crystal, rarely a gem.
Ideas are wonderful things, glittering fairy dust, hard to capture and shape. Skills, tools, time, dedication are required, just as a start.
And a lot of other storytellers are sprinkled with the same dust - that 'dome' story: I had that idea, too. If a writer isn't quick enough, the story idea goes off to flirt with someone else.
Excellent question, Paul!

I don't know if I would identify it as my magnum opus but I have been chewing, for a very long time, on this idea for a novel about a rather dull and unambitious American expat living in a small Central Asian country who accidentally learns that a CIA operative stationed in that same country is about to be burned by his own government - an event that would result in the agent's capture and, very possibly, death. The expat is the only one who can save the agent. The problem is in that he does not know who that man is or how to find him.

I think you are needlessly pessimistic about one's ability to sell a debut literary novel. There will always be a market for a well crafted piece of literary fiction. The Help was a debut novel and so were The Kite Runner and The God of Small Things.

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Reality Check Commentary - a tired journalist’s question