My debut novel, Final Approach, will be released this October. It features Emily Locke, an amateur sleuth whose pursuit of clues lands her in the world of skydiving. This is the first in a series of Emily Locke mysteries, each highlighting a different sporting community.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how did you hear the news, and what went through your head?
From inception to contract, the project took five years. It took almost four years to arrive at a final draft. To me, that seems like a very long time, but I try to remind myself that writing was—and still is—something I fit between my career, family, and other pursuits. When I look at it that way, I’m stunned I ever actually finished.
I queried for nine months before I was offered agent representation. My publisher considered the manuscript for seven months before offering a contract. To some extent, those things happened in parallel, which is unusual.
I never experienced the Call. An independent mystery publisher was already considering the manuscript when I found my agent. The book had progressed through a couple review tiers, so I grew cautiously optimistic with each cycle. The acquisitions editor e-mailed after each review to let me know where we were in the process. Each time it passed to a new level, she forwarded reviewer feedback and an estimate when the next cycle might complete. By the time it got to the editor-in-chief, the press had been evaluating the manuscript for seven months. I thought I would self-combust.
The news came by way of an e-mail from my agent, who I’d signed with during the long wait. It wasn’t an offer, exactly, more like a general comment: “They’d like to know how you’d feel about some terms.” My agent and publisher did their back-and-forth exchanges over contract verbiage, and two months later it was finally settled. I was signed.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
All the time, but I think this is normal. With a work-in-progress, there’s always concern that the story I’m putting on the page won’t live up to the version I’ve been watching in my mind.
At some point, though, writers decide a manuscript isn’t a work-in-progress anymore—it’s finished. I don’t suppose any book is ever perfect, but eventually we have to accept that our best is out there and move on to the next project. To a certain degree, it’s probably useful to worry about a story I’m still writing. But nothing can be done to change a finished book, so I don’t look back.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?
To my knowledge, I haven’t offended anybody or burned any bridges, the two mistakes I’d most like to avoid. There are abundant resources available for new authors trying to learn about publishing. These helped me avoid pit falls. Specifically, I think the time I invested in writers’ conferences, surfing agent blogs, and reading books about publishing was well spent. I still do all those things, by the way. Publishing is dynamic and there’s always something to learn.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
I have five favorite pieces of best advice:
Author Timothy Hallinan says to write every day because it keeps your mind in your story world. I think he’s right. He’s posted a neat series of articles about Finishing Your Novel on his website. I revisit them when I need a kick in the pants.
In Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott says not to be afraid to write shitty first drafts. I think of her a lot when staring at a blank page.
Along the same lines is the catchy slogan: “Don’t get it right. Get it down.” That means go ahead and write the drivel. We can’t go back and fix something we never wrote down in the first place.
I once read that we should welcome rejection letters because it means we’re in the game! Thank goodness I got that advice before I started to query. The rejections streamed in. I’d read enough about the industry to expect this. I reminded myself I was in the game. That was a much better mindset than the one I would have adopted for myself otherwise. Upon opening a rejection letter, say to yourself, “Congratulations, you’re in the game.” File the letter and send out your next batch of queries.
Finally, an editor friend told me to begin my next book as soon as I started querying. The idea was to get so far invested into my next project that I wouldn’t consider ditching it when the rejections started to take their toll. It was good advice and served its purpose.
How do you craft a plot?
I’m only working on my second manuscript now, so I don’t have oodles of experience to draw on for this question. Both story ideas evolved from a kernel, one small notion that was interesting enough to return to again and again. For both mysteries, I began with what I’ve heard author Laura Lippman refer to as “the central secret.” I knew what really happened, who really dunnit. The challenge then became introducing enough character motivation and event misdirection to carry the story. That’s the tricky part for me . . . devising scenes and subplots to bridge one necessary event to another.
Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?
I would like a shirt that says Just Say No to Outlines!
They’re enormously valuable to the writers who use them but I’ve never been a successful outliner. The best I can do is outline four or five scenes ahead at any given time. I often have an idea of how certain scenes later in the book will play out, but my main struggle is forming the bridge that will connect where I am in the story to where I’d like to be.
I confess that I’m actively trying to develop this skill. If I could outline, I’d have all the answers! It sure would be nice to sit down at the keyboard, check my outline, and know what scene was up next. The way I imagine it, a writer with an outline has more productive writing sessions and stares at fewer blank pages. I’d like to get there, but I have a long way to go.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I started reading about the business about the same time I decided to give writing a try. This research spared me a lot of frustration. I was well prepared for the big three publishing realities:
I would be rejected many, many times and it was nothing personal.
Things in publishing move S.L.O.W.L.Y.
Persistence is my friend.
When things didn’t go like I wanted them to, I knew they were going normally.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
My setbacks are in my head. They have to do with the writing act itself. Often I don’t know what is supposed to happen next in my story. So I procrastinate. I find excuses to do other things, like read a book, instead of working on my own. I hear other writers, the ones I call real writers, talk about penning 1500 words a day and I want to cry because many times I don’t hit that in a week. So I remind myself sometimes that it is what it is. Maybe those other writers don’t have a day job. Perhaps they aren’t running kids around to sports and lessons all week. Maybe they don’t have other hobbies. Who knows?
By the same token, I can only rationalize so much before swinging the other way. Writing, like exercise, must be built into my day and become something that always happens by habit. I feel better when I write, the same way I feel better when I exercise. Usually that positive reinforcement is the best motivator for me to climb out of a writing set back.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
Jan Burke once recommended that aspiring authors read both the good books and a few “stinkers” to find out what works and what doesn’t. Whether it’s a well-placed detail, subtle twist, or an intriguing character, I make mental notes about the techniques that emotionally move me when I read. On the flip side, two mistakes most likely to turn me off are rambling exposition and dialog that doesn’t contribute. As a result, I’m on the lookout for those in my own drafts.
What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?
Trust your editor. Accept that writing and editing are different skills. A talented editor can make your work shine if you’re willing to step back and seriously consider her suggestions. You both want the same thing: the best story possible.
How many drafts do you edit before submitting to your editor?
I only have one book as a point of reference here. Final Approach, in manuscript form, was revised three times before I queried. First I went through the draft myself. Then I addressed issues from my critique partners. Finally, I hired a freelance editor to copyedit the manuscript before I started to query. After the manuscript was accepted for publication, it went through two more revisions with the editor-in-chief before going to production.
For the book I’m writing now, my editor actually asked for the first hundred pages in draft form. She likes to gauge whether a story idea is working before an author gets too invested in a potentially flawed manuscript. Early drafts of those pages went to my critique partners three or four times before I shared them with my agent. When my agent gave the nod, I sent them to my editor for evaluation. That felt a little bit like showing up at a dinner party in my bathrobe. I stand by my earlier “trust your editor” statement, though. I trust that she’s looking for big issues now and won’t hold the smaller stuff against me in the early draft.
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?
Keep it brief. It’s tough not to describe every plot twist in your query, but it’s important to stay focused on the main storyline. There are several excellent agent blogs to help authors craft their best letter. My favorites belong to Nathan Bransford, Jessica Faust, and Janet Reid.
I’d also suggest personalizing your query. Put something unique in each letter to show you’ve done your homework. Follow submission guidelines. These vary by agent, which means more work for authors, but agents appreciate getting submissions in the preferred format.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
I did quit. There was a full year during the first draft of Final Approach when I didn’t write a single word. Writing took an enormous amount of mental energy and discipline and I’d convinced myself I was no good at it anyway. Plus, I’d started a story that I had no idea how to properly end. I had a day job, family responsibilities, and too many hobbies. It didn’t make sense to continue torturing myself. There were other uses for my limited time.
When I got the bug again I had the good fortune to find two excellent critique partners. They offered two things I most needed: validation and accountability. I often say I wish I could have that year of non-writing back.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I don’t like to ask co-workers and neighbors to support my kids’ fundraisers, so I usually buy all their cookies myself. It’s no easier for me where the book is concerned. If I had to make a living in sales I’m sure I’d starve.
I attend three or four writers’ conferences each year. The main reasons I go are to learn and network with peers, but maybe now that I have a book out those conferences will be a good place to spread the word. This fall I’ll place print ads for Final Approach in periodicals geared toward skydivers. When possible, I’ll do bookstore signings, though I admit that the idea of setting these up scares the bejeezus out of me.
Panelists at writer’s conferences consistently make a big deal about developing a “web presence.” This peer pressure landed me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m not sure either has done anything to promote the book, but Facebook sure is fun. I have a blog called Write It Anyway, geared toward new writers struggling to fit it all in, and beginning in August I’ll contribute to The Stiletto Gang, a blog featuring women mystery authors Evelyn David, Marilyn Meredith, Maggie Barbieri, and Susan McBride. There’s my author website too, of course. These on-line efforts have certainly helped me network with other writers, which is golden, but only time will tell if they’ll help build a readership.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
I hope that day’s coming! The book isn’t released yet, so the only reader responses have been from editors and reviewers along the way. I’m surprised at the amount of spotlight claimed by Jeannie, a secondary character. She’s a fun character to write and I’m tickled that early readers have singled her out.
Thanks for having me here at Novel Journey. I’m always looking to connect with other writers and hear about their experiences. I welcome e-mail from other Novel Journey readers and writers (rachel (at) rachelbrady (dot) net) and hope I’ll meet some of you in person at upcoming conferences. Write on!