Almost four years ago, an idea for a crime fiction series wriggled its way into my subconscious. Although I’ve always enjoyed reading Parker, Child, and Crais, I was hankering to write about someone who wasn’t always right, wasn’t indestructible, and had flaws and problems that weren’t of his own making…but had to be solved anyway.
The protagonist I started noodling with became retired Washington DC homicide detective Marty Singer and his first novel, A Reason to Live, is so close to done I can taste it. Final edits are done and only the formatting and launch remain.
I thought this might be a good time to recount where it all started.
Marty’s story isn’t my first novel or my first try. I have one completed thriller, The Road to Sturgis, that might make it into the sunlight some day, a completed Western, and like a lot of writers, a handful of starts on others. All told, about a quarter million words is sitting in the drawer.
Sturgis was my only real attempt, however, and that took three or four years to put together, with fitful starts in learning the craft, teaching myself about the industry as well as soliciting, receiving, and dealing with criticism. Since the metamorphosis from “would-be novelist” to “novelist” is a personal, internal change, there were no shortcuts to the process. Classes and books and articles and conferences exist to help budding writers on their way, but some of these resources are bad, many are incomplete, and—in the end—can only streamline the path that we all have to take regardless: simply sitting down and writing.
Do You Like Me?
I knew from my research, however, that getting an agent was the only way to make it. Seven or eight years ago, electronic publishing really didn’t exist and self-publishing was still very much a dirty word. Future generations won’t understand the stigma associated with “vanity press” and the kind of all-or-nothing attitude you had to adopt if you wanted to see your book in print. Self-publishing wasn’t an option if you took yourself seriously; it was an absolute last resort and the great majority of writers who couldn’t find representation simply started a new novel rather than print their book themselves and be saddled with the “self-published” label.
Queries, however, went nowhere. Although I didn’t wallpaper New York City with submissions as many writers did, I certainly put in my time on the research and tried to choose my attempts with care. All told, I probably sent out three or four dozen submissions. All were stone-cold rejections, the best of which I still enjoy thinking about today: it was two sentences on a photocopy of the agency’s letter head that had then been cut in half. Using my postage to return. I think that’s when I got my first inkling that agents and agencies weren’t always the anointed guardians of literature and consummate professionals they’d been cracked up to be.
Despairing a bit about the message in a bottle feeling that mailing submissions gives you, I read somewhere that attending conferences was a great way to make personal contact with agents and leap-frog the slush pile. Bouchercon, one of the Big Three conferences in mystery and crime fiction with Thrillerfest and Malice Domestic, was being held in nearby Baltimore that year and so I paid my fee, booked a hotel, and headed to B’more with my manuscript in hand.
I was lucky enough to have a friend of a friend who knew mystery author Julia Spencer Fleming. She was kind enough to give me some of her time on the phone before the conference and several times in person at it. She, in turn, generously pitched my idea to agent Janet Reid, who liked the idea but passed later after seeing the synopsis and first chapter. Despite the unhappy ending, Bouchercon was an amazing learning experience in understanding the culture of writers, agents, and publishers. If you have the opportunity, make an effort to attend one, whether it’s one of the bigggies or not. (And there are side-benefits, like crashing Lee Child’s annual Bouchercon party and having him cheerfully foot the bill.)
So, many rejections later—with the final nail delivered by Janet Reid, who actually saw part of the manuscript—I reluctantly shelved Sturgis and turned to new projects. I always knew that it had been a long shot; I’d read enough Novel Writing for Dummies books to realize that the first novel(s) you write are probably exercises. But you don’t automatically commit three years and 75,000 words to the drawer without giving it a shot, either. You never know when your ship has arrived.
I dabbled and waffled and scribbled. This is when I researched and wrote my Western (I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan and read most of his early writing, which were all Westerns) which ended up in the drawer, started and outlined about six different novels, and practiced the craft. I joined writers groups both locally and online and discovered the importance of networking and community.
The idea for A Reason to Live came as a reaction to the crime fiction and thrillers I was reading at the time. I realized after doing some book critiques of these mega-best sellers that most of them featured protagonists that were indestructible and very rarely wrong. As a result, most of the stories were on the shallow side because–if the hero is infallible—the only challenges are variations on the “race against time” theme, i.e., something outside of our superman’s control. If the lead character has no flaws, the only conflict possible comes out of the environment. And that works for a little while, but there’s no potential for that character to grow.
These books make good beach reading, but they don’t do much on a deeper, more literary level. And I think all genres have that capability. I didn’t want to write something that was forgettable, I wanted to author a book that would make people think afterwards.
I began writing ARTL in the summer of 2008. I liked my story, my protagonist, and had cautious optimism about my skill level and expertise after having finished two novels and been knocked around a bit by agents and readers. As it was close to a police procedural and there were some delicate medical issues to get right, research took months and the writing took at least a year or year and a half to get down.
I pitched ARTL at the 2010 New England Crime Bake to a half-dozen agents, all of whom seemed interested in the idea and the synopsis. All of them got to hear an earful, too, since the pitches all happened at the bar, where the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. For all that, however, only one agent—Joanna Stampfel-Volpe—was kind enough to get back to me…and it was a rejection, albeit gently given and with a ton of suggestions for improvement. Fairly crushed, as I thought this one was the one, I tore down ARTL and rewrote it from about the mid-way point on.
In the Trenches
It was time to get serious. Family and friends as readers weren’t cutting it for the kind of objective criticism I needed to take my writing to the next level. Their enthusiasm and support were indispensable, but it’s no help if the people who love you play patty-cake with your book and then you have the hammer dropped on you by every agent inNew York. I reached out to local writers and formed a small critique group. I learned the value of criticism from peers—how to give it, how to take it—and just how very different outlooks and attitudes can be on exactly the same object.
That group petered out, so I joined Sisters in Crime in an effort to hook up with a more experienced group that might also fit my niche a little better. The other two in my local group were writing cozies and I found that even this disconnect—just one sub-genre away from mine—made it difficult to speak the same writing “language.”
The online group was a disaster. I appreciate the effort the SinC group coordinator made in putting everything together, but I was assigned to a group of eight—too many—half of whom weren’t finished with their books yet. Of the ones who were finished, one was a lady who read everyone’s book over a single weekend, wrote her critiques in one sitting, then pitched a fit when we took more than a few days to critique her first chapter. After about three weeks, she deleted all of her notes from the Yahoo! Group we were using to collaborate, wrote a wounded, huffy email to the coordinator, and (without telling any of us, who were still reading her manuscript), left the group. File this under How Not to Act As a Budding Author.
Another woman had a 90k manuscript ready for us. Her enthusiasm was admirable. But the first 75 pages consisted of a conversation between her milquetoast protagonist and a ghost. The first ten chapters…no action, no mystery, not even an explosion. I attempted to be diplomatic in my criticism, but I hadn’t joined the group to trade pats on the back. My honesty wasn’t appreciated.
One other woman was well on her way to getting a good SF mystery put together and I felt drawn most strongly to her writing, but that wasn’t much of a reward for reading three to four other manuscripts and the promise of four more coming when the others got their act together. I did what critiquing I could, but when my SF buddy had to have surgery, the group fell apart.
Through it all, I picked up a small amount of good advice, but was also exposed to a lot of works in progress. You learn more than you think you do from reading, if not bad writing, then writing as its coalescing. I still wish I’d struck gold with a good group, however; if you’re lucky enough to be in one, hold onto it with both hands.
Despite the dismal results from the critique group experience, I still felt I had a decent manuscript. It simply needed a professional assessment to nudge it over the finish line. I wasn’t looking for approval, either; at this point, my skin was thick enough to take a real whipping, as long as it came from someone with experience and credentials.
I turned to professional editor Chris Roerden, whose book Don’t Murder Your Mystery I highly recommend for anyone trying to clean up their writing act. After many failed emails back and forth asking for her time (she was undergoing eye surgery at the time and many things understandably took a back seat to that), I got her to look at my first 10 pages for a fairly stiff price. Her write-up was helpful and I dutifully weighed her assessment, then made my edits. Excited that I was finally on to something concrete and eager to keep going, I wrote to Roerden, asking what our next steps would be. No reply. Two additional emails also went into the ether unanswered.
With that, I very nearly dropped the editing thing altogether, but I was glad I stuck with it. After much online searching, I found Alison Dasho nee Janssen, former chief editor Bleak House Books (later Tyrus Books). She’d recently struck out on her own. We hit it off immediately, the price was right, and she actually answered her emails. I knew she had a boatload of experience not just with editing but editing precisely my kind of fiction. To satisfy due diligence, I contacted several of the authors who she’d worked with and each one sang her praises. (Also, to be clear: this is developmental editing, not proofreading. I was looking for someone with chops and experience to assess the overall quality of ARTL, not find typos. I can’t overstate the positive impact this had on my manuscript.)
That was in mid-November. Other commitments kept her from getting to my manuscript before January, but she turned it around—with a nine-page critique—in just a week. I spent February and March rewriting based on her suggestions and handed it out to a cadre of five readers. My last reader got back to me five days ago. I simultaneously did my own line edit, found enough mistakes to make me wince, and finished the changes yesterday.
It’s a Wrap
The final version has gone through at least four major iterations. The current manuscript comes in at about 88,000 words, but I’m confident I’ve written and edited out more than twice that much.
During the last phase, when I was casting about for an editor, I was learning more and more about digital self-publishing. I’d been aware of it for years through Joe Konrath’s blog, but the stigma still remained for me up until about August of 2011. The revelation hit when I received another form letter rejection of a short story. I was suddenly sick and tired of a single person’s taste or sense of literature or personal bias determining my future. Two weeks later, I published my first short story collection Three Shorts as a way of testing the waters. I found to my delight that there were other authors like David Gaughran who were in exactly my shoes.
Throughout it all, I taught myself about the industry and the burgeoning e-publishing field. And what I read sounded good. If I thought magazine fiction was narrow and capricious, well, it only reflected (or might even be better than) the state of novel publishing. The tide was turning and digital publishing was powering the change.
Since the release of my short story collections, I’ve had no intention of submitting my novel to an agent. The numbers aren’t there and I’ve seen and experienced enough to know that the only way I’ll deal with legacy publishing is if they come calling to me. Until that time, I’m delighted to have control over my writing future. I applaud those who have the patience and fortitude to hang on for that traditional publishing contract, but anyone who denigrates e-publishing without having gone through the few trials and tribulations I have (and I got off light) is either lucky, delusional, or doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
A Reason to Live debuts soon. The sequel, Blueblood, is done and going to Alison the editor in May. The third, Signs, is halfway done and I have my eye on a late summer/early fall release. Stay tuned!