Lag Time

Clea Simon has recently discovered that she is incapable of writing a book without a cat in it. The author of three nonfiction books and, now, three mystery series, she celebrates the release next month of Dogs Don’t Lie (Poisoned Pen Press), her first “pet noir” (which, despite the beleaguered dog of the title, also features a grouchy tabby sidekick), and Grey Zone (Severn House), the third in her Dulcie Schwartz feline series in which the heroine receives suitably enigmatic guidance from the ghost of her late, great cat. She lives with her husband Jon and their tuxedo cat Musetta in Somerville, Mass., in a 100-year-old house that is not, as far as she knows, haunted.

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Shh! I’m writing again… and I just have to finish this scene.

That’s what I said to the cat – the cat! – as she mewed piteously just now. She’d carried one of her two toy mice up the

Musetta says, "Hey, what's with the dog?"

stairs, and that is always occasion for a certain kind of strangled-sounding cry. It’s usually my queue to toss the toy, and let her knock it back to me. (We call it “volleymouse.”)

But, you see, with one thing and another, I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write until about twenty minutes ago. I’ve been too busy getting ready for the launch of my next two books.

Two? Yes, two – which is another story I’ll get to presently. Right now, though, I’m thinking of the oddity of publishing time. Particularly serial-mystery-publishing time, which decrees that just as you should be re-skimming the soon-to-be-launched book, choosing excerpts to read and recalling funny stories about how that particular character came about, you tend to be knee deep in the next book. At least, you should be.

In two weeks, I have my first bookstore events for my two April mysteries, Dogs Don’t Lie and Grey Zone. The first is the debut of a new series, a character I adore. Pru Marlowe is a bad-girl animal psychic, my cozy-esque response to all the noir I was reading a two or three years ago. The other is the third in my Dulcie Schwartz series, a gentler mystery, with a bookish heroine who just happens to commune with the spirit of her late, great feline, Mr. Grey. And if you ask me any more, I just may be stuck.

You see, these two books came about rather tumultuously and, really, another lifetime ago. Pru first appeared in a short story about three years past, and only after that did she insist on her own book. Once she made her intentions clear, pushy gal that she is, Pru dominated my life for a while, to the point where I think I was even talking like her – a little tougher. Devil may care. But while my agent was shopping that manuscript around, the publisher of my Dulcie series asked if I’d like to extend it – and I jumped at the chance. Pru who? I’d missed my little Dulcie, and I found myself afloat with a boatload of new ideas for her and Mr. Grey. A student would go missing! A professor would fall from a rooftop. No, his office window! As one book faded from my mind, the other came alive. That’s the way it works when the spirit moves you. Your characters get into trouble. If you’re lucky, they’ll show you how to get them out.

And then … the fun is over. They sell, or come due – as both these books did last spring – and while that is certainly cause for celebration, it is also a little death. Your beloved stories become the property of your editors. They’re no longer quite so alive, or quite so yours. It’s not bad, mind you. It’s probably for the best that you wrangle a bit with your editor about what she deems repetitious words or scenes that you adore, but which objective minds find a bit draggy.  But it distances you – the book is less an alternative world, and more of a product. Then production begins. You answer queries from the copy editor (yes, “fug” is a word). And you read proofs, terror-stricken that you’ll miss the one sentence that makes no sense – and that somehow nobody else in the editing process has noticed either.

Finally, when you are almost sick of that story you once adored, the long wait begins… Production. Cover design. Cover copy. Somewhere down the line, your book shows up online. You hear that advance reading copies have gone out. There are rumors of pre-press reviews. Maybe even some buzz.

All the while, though, you’ve been recovering – replenishing the stock of coincidences and ideas. Recuperating from the maddening tug-of-war of the editing process, of production. And because you are human and must do what you do, you start writing again. If you’re lucky, it’s because you have contracts – I have the luxury of knowing that both Pru #2 and Dulcie #4 have homes waiting for them. Basically, though, you do it because, really, it’s what you do. You dive in. The characters start talking, they take over.

Now they’re at it again. Dulcie has been roughhousing with her new kitten, and I cannot wait to hear how this latest bit of fun is going to be disrupted with the news that a friend has been hauled off to jail… Only, I have to stop now, and it’s not just the cat. I have to think about Dulcie’s last adventure. That missing student. The professor’s unhappy landing. And Pru – cynical Pru, whose grouchy tabby Wallis grumbles, rather than howls for her attention.

Will Dulcie, as she was in Grey Zone, win me over again? Will I find Pru as wickedly cool and enchanting? Maybe this lag time is the true test of a book. Maybe I will pick them up and love them, love revisiting these particular adventures. Only let me finish this scene first…