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Crossing Genres: A Challenge

Sternberg_Irv
By Irv Sternberg

Authors who venture into multiple genres know the difficulties involved in selling their fiction. Editors are skittish about acquiring a manuscript authored by a writer better known, say, for mysteries than science fiction. Despite that reality, I’ve devoted all my writing time to doing just that-crossing genres.

I didn’t plan it that way. I had worked in Iran in the mid-1970s when international tension was high between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Because Iran was a strategic country in the Cold War, I elected years later to try my hand at a thriller, setting my story in Iran and inventing a James Bond-like protagonist named Clint Jagger. It was first my attempt at a novel.

Although the manuscript won an award from the National Writers Association, it failed to sell, largely because publishers decided, I was told, that the American public did not want to be reminded of the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran under Khomeini.

Nevertheless, after many years in journalism and public relations, I had become smitten by the fiction bug, and quickly began looking for another story line suitable for Jagger. I found that story line in the building of the English Channel Tunnel, or what the British call “The Chunnel.”  Thus was born my first published thriller, “Deadly Passage,” about a terrorist plot to release poison gas on the train during its inaugural run under the English Channel.

The book was published in England, reprinted there as a large-print edition and   translated into Japanese. A Danish firm optioned it for film.

That book was followed by a sequel, “Sakura’s Stratagem,” about a xenophobic Japanese industrialist bent on avenging Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The setting was the NORAD facility in Cheyenne Mountain and Colorado’s chaparral country around the Royal Gorge Bridge.

With two thrillers behind me, I turned to a different genre and wrote “No Laughing Matter,” an amateur sleuth mystery set in Denver and featuring Izzy Brand, an aging comic and widower who lives with a one-eyed farting dog and has “conversations” with his late wife. Izzy is determined to find his best friend’s killer. “No Laughing Matter” also fits the cozy category.

Next up will be a sea-going historical set in the mid-1850s about a young Victorian woman who takes command of her stricken husband’s clipper ship. I’m also revising my Iran book, hoping to complete what will become a trilogy in the Clint Jagger series. Further down the road is a planned sequel to my Izzy Brand mystery, and another historical.

Looking back, I realize that I’ve never been slavish to the idea that an author must write only in a single genre. Instead, I’ve chose to write the kind of books I like to read, about characters who are interesting and memorable. My books have no profound lessons or messages; they are intended to entertain and, perhaps, provide the reader with new information. I leave the literary road open to my high school colleague, acclaimed author Philip Roth.

Like most writers, I’ve developed some habits that I think help the writing process. Here are a few.

One, having envisioned my protagonist and determined my setting, I begin with a synopsis of eight to ten pages that covers the significant scenes, turning points and twists. I use this synopsis as a guide, not a blueprint, summarizing the beginning, middle and end on the grounds that if I don’t know where I’m going, I’ll never get there. (I know some writers prefer to plot as they “go along” to avoid predictability, but I’ve never had that problem.)

Two, I keep a “to do” list handy to record holes in my story, weak plot points, stale dialogue, facts that need checking, anything that I should research, rewrite or edit.

This is one of the last steps in my manuscript preparation before submission to my publishers.

And three, I summarize every chapter-scene by scene-on 4×6 index cards. This enables me to find any scene quickly should I decide to add a new piece of information, make any changes, etc.

These methods have worked for my in my fiction writing. They may work for you, too.

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