Posed for Murder is a mystery and my first novel (St. Martin’s Minotaur, February 2009). Lydia McKenzie is an art photographer who specializes in murder recreation photographs. She researches historic cases and then convinces her friends to model for her film noir style photos. But when she finally achieves her dream of having a show in a New York art gallery, she is horrified to discover that someone is killing her models just like her pictures.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.
I wrote a mystery novel set in my neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn while I was pregnant with my son. I liked the book, and, two years after starting it, I set out to try to find an agent. In the process, I learned everything I had done wrong with my book. The book had too much back story with a little bit of mystery and mayhem thrown in at the middle and end.
I had an idea for a second story with the same characters and wrote that book in about a year. I heard about the St. Martin’s Press Competition, and thought that it was worth a shot since I hadn’t been able to get any agents interested. I entered the manuscript in the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best Traditional First Mystery Competition. Five months later, I found out I was a finalist. And a few weeks later, I received a phone call from an editor at St. Martin’s Press telling me I had won.
I was stunned. I knew my chance of winning was very low because there were so many manuscripts entered in the contest. Several agents had told me that there wasn’t a market for my work, so it was amazing to jump over the middleman and have an editor “buy” the work directly from me.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
Oh, yes. Doesn’t everyone? As soon as I finish something, my mind moves to the next project. I have a tendency to see the problems in my last project instead of the achievements. But perhaps that’s what keeps me writing the next book instead of retiring after writing just one book.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?
I don’t think anything I did was really a mistake. Perhaps I looked for agents before my work was as good as it could be, and that’s considered a no-no. But my work was as good as it could be at the time, and I learned a lot of valuable lessons during my agent search. The feedback I got helped me improve my writing and craft a better book.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
Writers should read a lot, continue working on their craft, and go out of their way to meet people in the business. It is a people/relationship driven business, like so many others, and other writers can not only be generous with introductions and blurbing your book, but they can also help you learn how the business works.
How do you craft a plot?
Ideas come to me (sometimes in a dream) and I write them down. I begin to sketch out events and start to assemble an outline. I read over the outline (a couple of events/sentences for each chapter) to make sure there’s enough twists and turns, and continue to expand it. Then I paste it into a document that will become my manuscript and begin the process of turning plot points into scenes. But I often end up going in a new directions and I continue to add to and change the outline as I write.
Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?
I always write with an outline, although a very rough one. I don’t always get hours of uninterrupted time to write because I have a small child, and a freelance writing/producing career in TV. I need to have something to refer to each time I pick up the book again so I can figure out where I am and continue writing.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
The process takes a long time, and you need to be patient. Even after winning the contest, it was another two years before my book hit the bookshelves. It’s not a sprint, but a marathon, so make sure you’re prepared at the start.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
Years ago, when I was writing screenplays, I was in a writing group where another member of the group said some terrible things about my script. I stopped writing for about six weeks until I realized that I couldn’t let someone else’s words make me lose confidence. I swore never to let that happen again, so I hope I’m now immune to bad reviews!
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
For a writer, there’s nothing more important than being a good reader. Reading the work of others teaches you about craft, and informs you about the world. Make time to read, and you will find your writing improve immeasurably.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I've been very proud to see my book, POSED FOR MURDER, on library shelves and in bookstores . It's very exciting to see the process come to its natural conclusion, and know that book is out there being read.
What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?
Be professional and courteous. Don’t take any of their editing suggestions or corrections personally. Think of yourself as a team working towards a common goal (a great book), and your editor will be more than happy to work with you again.
How many drafts to you edit before submitting to your editor?
With my latest book (the next adventure of Lydia McKenzie), I probably did 5 or 6. Each draft is different. The first draft is about getting it down on the page. And then I do a rewrite/polish. I often go back to the outline and make sure that I have my story consistent, and that each plot line is both developed and resolved. I have my writing group and some other trusted readers go over it, and then I rewrite again. And again. Then my agent has a chance to comment, and I polish again. And then I send it to my editor.
We often hear how important it is to write a good query letter to whet the appetite of an editor. What tips can you offer to help other writers pen a good query?
The query route wasn’t the way I got published, but I think queries are good practice for learning to distill your story into a few sentences. This becomes your elevator pitch, and you will be delivering it repeatedly before and after your book comes out.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
I think everyone wonders what the point is when they get their millionth rejection or whatever, but I’ve been a writer since before I could even write (I used to dictate stories to my mother). Whether or not I’m published doesn’t change that.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
Some weeks it feel like a lot! I have mostly kept my travel to the East Coast, going to Boston, Connecticut, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. I've done a lot of events in New York where I live, appearing at bookstores and libraries. I went to Malice Domestic, the Festival of Mystery, Murder Under Bones, Love is Murder (in Chicago), BEA, and the Virginia Festival of the Book. In the coming months, I will be going to ALA in Chicago, the Hanover Book Festival in Virginia, and the Decateur Book Festival in Atlanta,. I've also done quite a few radio and TV interviews. I blog weekly on www.thedebutanteball.com and serve on the board of my local chapters of MWA and Sisters in Crime.
I recommend that writers go out of their way to meet people. Writing conferences are useful this way, and so are on-line networking sites. A writer recommended to me that it's good to be a big fish in a little pond, so don't worry if you can't get to New York or Los Angeles on your tour. Make a splash at your local bookstores and libraries. Be the local author that everyone wants to book for panel discussions. And always be as warm and charming as you possibly can be.
It’s just so gratifying for me to hear from people who have read my book and liked it. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
I believe that success comes when it is meant to and when you’re ready for it. The only way to insure that you’re never published is to give up.