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My Ill-Fated Elephant Detective Novel

Babyelephant-001

Everyone has a mistake or two hidden in their closet. Mine just happens to be elephant-sized.

A number of people have very kindly (and probably untruthfully) expressed an interest in seeing my ill-fated elephant detective novel. This was the first book that I attempted to write, and it was a disaster.

I had grand plans for this book — it would feature a pachyderm detective who would unravel a series of mysterious deaths at a Chinese circus. Unfortunately I ran into a lot of logistical difficulties with my hero. He was constantly lurking around, extending an ear around the corner and forced to eavesdrop in order to get vital information about the crime. I just couldn’t get anywhere with the book because there was (literally) an elephant in the room. The final blow to this endeavour was when Water for Elephants was published. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a detective novel, there were so many similarities (circuses in the 1930s, crime and punishment amidst pachyderms) that I had to abandon it.

No, my book wasn't about Batman, but it might as well have been.

No, my book didn’t have Batman in it, but it might as well have.

Now that I look back on this first book, I can’t imagine what I was thinking. It was so enormously complicated that I could barely keep track of all the various plot points that, like an overloaded circus train, threatened to careen off the rails. Not to mention the fact that when people asked me what I was up to (I spent years writing this book, in a very dilatory fashion), the conversation would invariably go like this:

Them: “So what’s your book about?”

Me: “It’s about an elephant detective!”

Them: “A what? A person who finds elephants?”

Me: “No, a detective who IS an elephant.”

Them: silence….

Naively, I stumped along, believing that the world really needed more first-person narratives told by elephants. Of course, I turned out to be wrong, but not before I had sunk enormous amounts of time and energy into it.

I can’t tell you what a relief writing The Ghost Bride was in comparison. Now when people ask me what my book is about, I can launch into the fact that it’s about this peculiar historical practice of marrying the dead that Chinese people used to occasionally do. At this point they often still look interested, a sentiment that I hope will mysteriously compel them to rush off and read it, or at least, not back away quietly from me.

The funny thing about it is that some of the events in The Ghost Bride actually started out as a subplot for this first novel. I happened to be digging around in the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper when I came across a sentence which alluded to the decline of spirit marriages amongst the Chinese.

“What is this?!” was my first reaction. Never mind that there wasn’t anything about elephants in the article.

Then I realized that this must refer to the marriage of the dead. I’d vaguely heard of this before, since ghost stories are the weapon of choice for Chinese grandmothers, but this matter-of-fact reference was so intriguing that I sat down and wrote the first chapter pretty much as it appears in the book. I then put it away with all the bits and pieces of unfinished writing, but there was something that kept drawing me back, even though I clearly couldn’t use it because it wasn’t written in first-person pachyderm.

I spent far too much time researching acts like this.

Try to imagine Tian Bai riding this unicycle. Or actually, maybe you shouldn’t.

Still, I was tempted to try to shoehorn this whole notion of a ghost bride back into my elephant novel (please don’t do things like this). In fact, Li Lan and Tian Bai were originally characters from that first book – Tian Bai was one of those Chinese acrobats who spin plates on sticks and form human pyramids. It was a truly terrible novel. I cringe when I reread bits of it. But I’m glad that I worked on it because without that long, strange sojourn, I might never have written The Ghost Bride, which thankfully shaped itself into a tale that was worlds away from where I started.

So whether you’re writing or reading, I’d like to encourage you to keep going. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, even ones that weigh several tons and are unable to squeeze themselves into crime scenes.

P.S. Yes, I am writing another novel, which necessitates many trips to and from the refrigerator in search of “inspiration”. There are no elephants in it.

Book Suggestion:

  • Gerald Durrell’s Rosie is My Relative - a much better book about an elephant which is (intentionally) hilarious.

Snack Suggestion:

  • Peanuts, sugarcane, and bananas.

Photo credits: Photo 1 - http://www.livelimitless.net/tag/wild-pygmy-elephants. All other photos link back to original webpages.

Have you ever had the horrible suspicion that the project you’re working on is misguided? 

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25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. My book probably sold for a hundred copies, for few in Malaysia like to read poetry, and it’s not physically available in the local book shops currently.
    Despite this, I am quite happy, for it’s was never a commercial goal.

    February 26, 2014
    • Wow, writing a book about poetry is a great achievement – congratulations! :)

      March 4, 2014
  2. RachelB. #

    Great essay!

    February 26, 2014
  3. Thanks for putting that up. It makes me feel better about my own misadventures in writing. PS. When can we look for The Ghost Bride sequel? I’m looking forward to more Li Lan and Er Lang :D

    February 26, 2014
    • Ha ha! There are no misadventures in writing – just long, strange detours… ;) As for sequels, I’m so delighted that you’d want to read one! Will try my best.

      March 4, 2014
  4. Lately much of my writing ventures have felt like mis-adventures, or that I’m just scribbling in circles getting no where. This is an encouragement to keep writing and looking for that Story. Thank you for sharing. ^^

    February 27, 2014
    • You’re very welcome! Please keep writing and good wishes for finding your Story – you’ll know when you do ;)

      March 4, 2014
      • ^^ Thank you.

        March 5, 2014
  5. I can’t wait for your next book. It must be interesting! I hope it’ll be a masterpiece like The Ghost Bride.

    February 27, 2014
    • He he… I don’t know about “masterpiece”, but thank you so much for the encouragement! I will try not unleash any more elephants on the unsuspecting public :)

      March 4, 2014
  6. Hilarious. And don’t we all have one of these beasts (pun intended) tucked away in a drawer somewhere?! I bet it’s not even bad at ALL, knowing you. But probably the elephant-as-main-character posed some logistical problems. Still…. how could I convince you to publish a page or two? :) xox

    February 28, 2014
  7. Haha…I would actually read your novel instead of Water for Elephants. I love the idea of an elephant detective. It certainly would’ve been amusing if you had finished. Ah, my current WIP is so…complicated. I still don’t know if it’ll make sense since it would involve a modern day Chinese American girl to travel within Middle Age England and Ancient China. It’s a big mess because I’m trying to address social issues whilst trying to make it epic, amusing, you know something actually interesting and different.

    March 3, 2014
    • Don’t worry – having more plot is much, much better than not having enough! Good luck with your writing :)

      March 4, 2014
  8. Oh please PLEASE will you post a little excerpt of the elephant novel? With your ability to create alternate realities I actually think you might be able to pull it off!!!!

    Is your next novel a sequel to Ghost Bride? I really want more of Er Lang. And to meet his family. Don’t want to post spoiler here in case anyone hasn’t read it yet, but what should one eat while fantasisting about… you know… guys like him?

    March 3, 2014
    • Actually – I really didn’t pull it off. It was dreadful. You would probably run away screaming if you saw it!! My next novel is a different book (though if it doesn’t start shaping up I just might have to abandon it and write a sequel instead), but I’m so glad you liked Er Lang. He was a very fun character to write – he just kept showing up, despite the fact that he wasn’t supposed to have a large role. ;)

      As for what to eat, I’d like to suggest lobster with Korean ramen noodles for a spicy aquatic kick! Btw, I do love your blog so much and please let me know if you ever want to write a guest post here! It doesn’t have to be a book review – something like the reading habits of Sicilians would be fabulous ;)

      March 4, 2014
      • Oooh lobster! Good idea! We can get fab lobsters here in Sicily…

        I remember you very kindly inviting me to write a guest post ages ago and I have been fretting over it periodically ever since. I was so in awe of your writing abilities that I worked myself into knots of worry that I might not manage anything of a good enough standard.

        I think I should just jump in and do it. Shall I email you a few ideas? Then you can guide me towards what you like best.

        And please write a sequel to The Ghost Bride even if your next novel turns out to be a masterpiece too. It was one of those books that drew me so fully into another world, and whose characters I loved so much, that I felt bereaved when I came to the end.

        March 4, 2014
      • Yes, please email me! I love your writing (DMing you on Twitter right now) ;)

        March 5, 2014
  9. You can always go the Neil Gaiman approach and turn the elephant book into a children’s story.

    Victor

    March 3, 2014
    • Ha ha! Actually, people often asked me “Is your elephant book a children’s story?” To which I replied “No, it’s a very serious novel about detectives and crime-fighting animals.”… Hmm…no wonder I couldn’t get anywhere with it. ;)

      March 4, 2014
  10. What a nice post, Yangsze! Thank you for sharing this! It has been such a joy to watch your success take off! I’m glad you’re encouraging others to “keep going.” I am happy to say I am finally done querying. :)

    March 11, 2014
    • Thank you so much, Susan! And congratulations on the upcoming publication of your mystery novel!! :)

      March 14, 2014
  11. Laura Stokowski #

    Dear Yangsze, I first read your book Ghost Bride (library copy) several months ago, and loved it. It kept haunting me, no pun intended, and I talked my book group into reading it for April, so I bought myself a copy. It is now among my favorite books, along with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and his Shades of Grey (not that other one!), Helen Wecker’s the Golem and the Jinni, Jane Eyre, and everything by Jane Austen. I can’t wait to read your next book, whatever it is about! But the real reason I’m writing is to ask, what year is Ghost Bride set in? I want to be able to tell my book group buddies. Thank you

    April 1, 2014
    • Hi Laura,

      Gosh, that’s very kind of you – and what an honour to be included in such great company! THE GHOST BRIDE is set in 1893, and if your book group has any burning discussion questions, I’d be delighted to answer them. Please feel free to send me a message via my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/yschooauthor :)

      April 2, 2014

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