After one of my novels comes out in print, I rarely reread it. If asked, I’ll read passages and discuss them, but once the work has gone to press, it’s out of my life except for promotion. All that changed recently when my agent reported the interest of a new publisher in taking on earlier series. This wasn’t simply a nice bit of news. It was an assignment—a synopsis of each and every book.
Like almost any other writer, I dread writing a synopsis. I don’t know why I find these so onerous and difficult. Nevertheless, I turned to the Mellingham series and pulled the first book from the shelf, Murder in Mellingham(Scribner, 1993). No one ever asked for a synopsis. No one or five page treatment lurked in a now-defunct format anywhere on my computer. After much gnashing of teeth, I had a page that pretty much covered the story of the book. On to the next in the series, Double Take. On this title, the Kirkus reviewer commented, “Oleksiw is growing as a writer.” I thought that was nice, wondered what passage prompted it, and thought no more about it. By the time I got to Family AlbumI was actually reading the story. I came across paragraphs I enjoyed, lingered on the phrasing, and stalled. Did I write that? Apparently, yes. I had the same experience with the remaining four books in the series.
I don’t know why I should be so surprised at how much my style has changed over twenty-seven years. The real surprise would be if it hadn’t. When I first began reading mysteries, I had very catholic tastes, but one day I wanted to read all of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books in a row for a reason I’ve since forgotten. With copies of her twelve mysteries on hand (excluding Sleeping Murder, published after her death though written thirty years before), I began reading. Although these mysteries are somewhat evenly spaced over forty years, the style ranges widely. I had never noticed this until I read them one after the other, when the differences become evident.
The typical cozy mystery reader may not think of Christie as a writer of several distinct styles but I do. I think the variations are masked by her consistent approach to exploring crime and the attitudes of the period. This rereading also helped me recognize at least one reason for a flagging interest in writers I used to enjoy—the sense of sameness in the work. Each story feels like the last one I read, and I no longer feel the sense of anticipation when I pick up those writers’ newest title.
Now that the synopses are done, I’ve turned to my current WIP, a stand-alone that is a departure for me both in narrative style and structure. This story is written in first person with more physical action and draws on my experience with home renovation. I like the concreteness of the work. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, described an exercise he gave his students that was a turning point for many of them. Take an ordinary object in your home, something you use or see every day, and describe it and how it works. I gave my students this in-class writing assignment: What is a zipper and how does it work? The students talked about it for days.
I used to think that an artist’s or writer’s style changed with the subject matter, but no longer. The change may be the result of no more than the passage of time, of assimilating what we’ve learned from the just completed work, and transforming that into something new, where again we learn and change. Now that I’ve seen how my work has evolved over twenty-five plus years and twelve published mysteries (not to mention the ones that failed and sit not quite forgotten in a drawer), I’m curious about how my work will change over the coming five or ten years.