Should I stay or should I go?

How to decide whether to break a book contract

Years ago, when my husband and I were house hunting in Arizona, a realtor gave us some advice: Don’t ever threaten to walk away from a contract unless you are prepared to follow through.

The detail are long and boring, but her words saved us from a big mistake.

They saved me again almost 20 years later when I parted ways with my first publisher, a company with which I had a three-book contract. The decision brought me back to square one. I had to start all over to find homes for my books, just like we did with that house hunt when the offer on the place we thought was perfect fell through.

I did not know then that I would sign a contract with Level Best Books just a few weeks later. I did not know that the new book deal would confirm for me what a terrible mess I had been in. I did not know anything at all except that the decision to break my contract, as frightening as it was, made me oddly happy.

It thrilled me despite the unknown consequences because that realtor’s words forced me to ask myself why I was staying in a bad situation, what was keeping me from breaking that contract. They helped me explore and confront my lack of confidence and my fear of failure. I had stayed because I worried that I would never get another chance.

That was a terrible reason.

If I didn’t have confidence in my writing, who would?

The act of breaking the contract was an act of faith in myself.

Since then, I have received several emails from authors who read my blog post about leaving my publisher and have found themselves in similar situations. They have asked for advice, wanting to know how I made my decision and why.

So it here it goes. This is my advice to those who are questioning their contracts and trying to make that big decision: Should I leave? (Disclaimer time: I am not lawyer. I am not an expert. This is simply advice from someone who has been there.)

The first step is to review your contract, point-by-point. Has your publisher actually violated the legal obligations of the contract? If not, it might be harder to succeed in getting released, but it is not impossible. Some publishers are willing to let an unhappy author go simply because it’s best for everyone. If you can afford it, hire a lawyer to review the contract for you and make the argument for your release.

Second, develop a list of reasons to stay and reasons to part ways. Put everything on it, not just the business factors. Write down the emotional factors as well. When you are done, circle the emotional factors and decide whether they should remain on the list. If those emotional factors are not going to change, then they should stay on the list. But you might find, like I did, that you are the problem, that your emotions are holding you back, and that when you delete those factors, the choice is obvious.

Third, comes the series factor. I was fortunate that this did not come into play for me. I had not yet released any books through my first publisher. Some of the authors who contacted me already had two or three books of a series with their current publishers. They knew chances were slim any other publisher would pick up the books mid-series.

What do you in this position?

You have four choices:

  • You can query other publishers in hopes that yours will be the series that beats the odds and becomes the exception. Maybe another publisher will pick it up. You never know. If you plan to follow this route, you must be absolutely certain that your publisher does not have rights to future books involving those same characters and/or settings. This is critical. Failure to explore this could lead to a legal mess.
  • You can self-publish the remainder of the series as long as doing so does not violate the terms of your contract cancellation. The same legal concerns apply as stated above. You must also be careful about cover art. You might be violating copyrights if you use cover art that pulls concepts from your already-published books.
  • You can ditch the series and start anew with a new publisher. That can be a difficult choice. You have a huge investment in these characters and in their future exploits, but you might also find that creating and exploring new characters and motivations invigorates you.
  • You can stay with the current publisher for that particular series and either hire a lawyer to demand your contract terms be met or be your own advocate, pushing your books through on schedule and with the appropriate distribution.
  • Regardless of your decision, review all contracts and make sure the rights to your books revert to you immediately should the publisher go under. Let’s be real. You would probably not be considering parting ways with your publisher if thought your publisher was going to thrive. So this should be high on the list.

Breaking a publishing contract is a huge decision and not one that should be taken lightly. This is why our former realtor’s advice so important. If you have not done the hard work–if you haven’t thoroughly explored your reasons, the options and the consequences–you might find yourself drowning in a pool of regret and self-doubt. That negativity might get in the way of success. Be strong, be confident, be sure. Don’t walk away unless you are prepared to follow through.

These woods: A place of hope in a time of darkness

This is the path I took the other day when I learned a sixteen-year-old boy from our community died five days after he slipped during a hike and hit his head. I did not know Blake Driskell, but it was impossible to ignore his struggle. Purple signs proclaiming “Blake Strong” lined the streets of Addison, NY, where he was a well-known student and athlete.

Prayer requests filled social media pages, posted by people in his school district and in ours. A GoFundMe account quickly raised thousands of dollars for his family. I felt his loss. Not in the same way as those who knew him, but I felt touched by him.

A hike on our hill seemed like a good way to process it along with the recent murder of George Floyd, which brought back memories of a similar killing I covered as a journalist in 1995, that of Jonny Gammage at the hands of police in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA.

I walked seeking life.

I didn’t know that while I walked a friend was making funeral arrangements for her 26-year-old daughter, a mother of three young boys, who died at home. I had only met Bethany Leach once, but I knew that her mother loved her immensely. I knew that Bethany had been struggling and that her parents had endured a great deal of pain and heartache as they did their best to help her through it.

My heart aches for my friend and her family, and especially for those three boys.

So these photos are for all of you: Blake Driskell, George Floyd, Jonny Gammage and Bethany Leach. They are a celebration of life in a dark time, a promise of hope and renewal, hope that communities large and small will heal in time and flourish again.

A new book deal!

Even during a pandemic, good things can happen.

Today, I signed a contract with Level Best Books for three novels in my Lisa Jamison mystery/suspense series.

I couldn’t be more thrilled. The owners/editors are people I know and trust. I am confident my books are in excellent hands, and I am in the company of some pretty awesome authors.

It is an amazing feeling.

The first novel, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, is due for release April 13, 2021.

The next two novels, NEVER BROKEN and NO TIME TO BREATHE, will be released in April of 2022 and 2023.

Verena Rose, an editor and partner in Level Best Books was the first person I turned to when I broke my previous book contract. Why? Because trust and confidence were the most important considerations as I tried to find a new home for my novels.

I first heard of Level Best Books in 2015 at New England Crime Bake, where I met Shawn Reilly Simmons. (New England Crime Bake, held each November near Boston, is an awesome conference, by the way. I highly recommend it.). Shawn was there, in part, to announce that she and her partners were taking the helm of the company, which published only anthologies at the time.

Verena, Shawn and their third partner, Harriette Sackler, all have impressive resumes. Harriette is a multi-published, Agatha Award-winning short story author. Shawn is author of the RED CARPET CATERING MYSTERIES, published by Henery Press, and a former submissions editor for a small press. Verena is the Agatha Award nominated co-editor of NOT EVERYONE’S CUP OF TEA, AND INTERESTING AND ENTERTAINING HISTORY OF MALICE DOMESTIC’S FIRST 25 YEARS and the managing editor of the Malice Domestic anthology series. She is also researching and writing a novel of her own.

All three editors/owners serve or have served on the board of directors for Malice Domestic and are involved in a number of respected writer associations.

Soon after the team took over, Level Best Books began accepting submissions for novels. They started small with a few novels releases in the first year under their new serial mystery imprint, Dames of Detection. Then they grew, slowly and steadily, adding a second imprint, Historia, a publisher of serial historical crime novels, this year.

I came to know Verena virtually about two years ago, and I have been following the progress of Level Best Books all along. I have been nothing but impressed. Verena, Shawn and Harriette are smart business women who know the publishing business from both sides — as writers and as editors.

Level Best Books is an approved publisher of Mystery Writers of America and of International Thriller Writers. That is important to me. The authors I know who publish with them are happy. That is even more important.

I am proud and fortunate to call myself a Level Best author.

Bobcat on the brain

I am distracted enough in my attempts to write with a new part-time job, fours kids studying at home and my husband working from home. Yesterday, the distraction problem escalated.

This guy came slinking through our backyard. Now I can’t help peeking out the window every few minutes, hoping to catch another glimpse of him.

Rediscovering Marco: A Canine Love Story in the Time of Corona

When we moved into our new house seven years ago, we also adopted a second dog. Marco was a 75-pound rescue. The vet guessed he was about 18 months old. He was a border collie/lab mix and the gentlest dog I have ever met.

Marco and our other dog, Clover, instantly clicked. Clover was older and smaller with the body of a beagle and coloring of a border collie. They behaved like siblings, wrestling, playing tug-a-war and curling up near each other in exhaustion.

Thanks to a wireless fence, they were able to run and play outside all around the house. As Clover aged, she no longer need the collar that gave her a slight shock when she got too close to her boundaries. She hated the feeling and she had a torn ligament that limited her mobility.

Marco had always been a bit more stubborn. He escaped now and then, despite the “stubborn dog” setting, but he always came right back. He’d been so good this past year that we didn’t expect it when he bolted after some deer one day this fall, and we were shocked when Clover followed.

I searched our property and the neighborhood for two hours. Then I returned home to find a message on the answering machine from the vet. Marco was fine, but Clover had died instantly when she was hit by a car. Some kindly neighbors had taken Marco to the vet for identification and they brought him home to us.

Another kind neighbor brought Clover.

That’s the sad part of the story.

It gets better from here on thanks, in part, to the coronavirus. Yes, as devastating as the virus has been, some little bit of good — some measure of happiness — has come out of it.

When Clover died, the two older kids were in college and the two younger kids were busy with school and school activities. My husband worked full time 45 minutes away and my days were spent writing, running errands for us and for my mother-in-law and cleaning.

We couldn’t trust Marco with the wireless fence anymore and we didn’t want to lose him, so he was relegated to a run. It was a long run with good reach, but he was clearly not happy. He would bark and bark at the deer in our backyard, but they would continue eating 20 feet away, unbothered. They learned quickly that he couldn’t get them.

Marco grew less active. He spent more time on the sofa. He’d lost his puppy-like energy. He and Clover had always entertained each other. Marco missed both his freedom and his buddy. We cuddled him more than usual and that was good, but he wanted more and we were all too busy to notice.

Then the virus hit.

The virus brought the college kids home to take classes via Zoom. The living room became a classroom for the younger kids. My husband started working from an office in the basement. With nowhere to go and everyone sitting at desks, we all needed breaks. Something totally different. Something fun and exciting.

That something, we discovered, was Marco.

It started with rough-housing between assignments and classes. The kids, each in turn, would leave their work stations and seek him out. They would talk to him, play tug-of-war with him and alternate chasing him and being by him. My husband started taking Marco along after work when he retired to the garage, where he is building pieces of the tree house of all tree houses.

I had been walking alone and with friends for exercise before the virus hit, but after everyone closed in on the house, I found I needed the psychological relief of the outdoors more often. I located Marco’s old harness, hooked him up and started taking him for walks on our property and along our rural roads.

Sometimes, I would find a child waiting on the stoop when I returned, anxious to take Marco on another adventure. Other times, the kids joined me. More often, they took him for walks on their own, wanting more purpose to their outdoor time than a solitary stroll.

It’s been three weeks since our oldest came home from college and two weeks since serious social distancing began. The world is suffering from the virus and from the loneliness the necessary isolation has forced upon us. But for Marco, it has been a rebirth.

He is happy again.

Everybody should have a Marco

Embracing envy, a side effect of the pandemic

I find myself envious during these days of social distancing of those who have younger children. My husband thinks I am crazy. Some of his colleagues are struggling to work from home while toddlers and elementary school kids disrupt their meetings and concentration with outdoor voices, giggles and tantrums.

He is grateful for the cooperation of our college students, who are endlessly occupied with online classes, and our twin 13-year-olds who juggle schoolwork with video games and television. All four kids have been especially quiet while they all recover from a different virus, the kind that attacks kids with inexperienced immune systems, leaving adults unaffected. They have been easy even in illness, so I am grateful as well.

But then I see these posts on social media of parents doing crafts with kids, cooking with kids, taking them on small hikes. That’s when the envy creeps in. I miss those days when the two oldest would play for hours at the kitchen table with Playdough, Legos and Polly Pockets. I miss watching the twins narrate self-created episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine while they push their personified toys along their wooden tracks. I miss taking the kids outside to play in the mud, throw rocks in the creek, search for worms, ants and spiders.

I miss the days when our kids were fascinated by everything and anything.

They still get outside, but I have to remind them and push them and encourage them to find activities that are worth their time. One twin sometimes plays baseball with my husband. The other throws shot put and discus at the track. The two boys often walk outside together to talk about their mutual interests or conjure up some new story line for a video game or comic strip.

The older kids will sometimes go for walks or runs, but it can be struggle, especially since they have been sick and the weather has shifted from spring-like and sunny to rainy and cool. They have also just returned from huge college campuses, where they walked a mile or two to class and shared tight spaces with others.

They are savoring the peace and quiet.

I need to remember that all of our kids are also mourning. Our oldest should be preparing for a five-day field trip to Colorado, where his Penn State geobiology class planned to test its newfound knowledge in the field. The internships he applied for this summer are on hold. He lost his job when the campus dining halls closed.

Our daughter was excited by her life in Raleigh . She had fallen in love with the city and with the people she had come to know on the campus of NC State. She had finally found friends who shared her views, a major that she loves and the independence she craves.

The twins lost baseball, track, the school musical, all-county band, marching band, field trips and time with their friends. They love learning and conversing with their teachers. All that is gone for now.

So I am grateful that they have all been cooperative and accepting, that they haven’t succumbed to depression when it tempts them every day. I am grateful that they make an effort to get along and that they are such a pleasure to be with. I am grateful for family game night, shared television shows, dinners together and deep conversations.

I am very fortunate.

But I want to paint windows with Easter decorations. I want to make “stew” from grass and berries and rocks. I want skip stones in creeks and ponds. Or do I? Really?

I know this is nostalgia speaking. I know that if I dig deep enough, I will remember the frustrations of floors littered with toys, kids who won’t sleep, constant interruptions to my attempts to write. I will remember getting every meal for all four kids, instead of letting them get their own breakfast and lunch, having to order and baths or showers, breaking up deeply emotional arguments, and finding the next new activity to keep them occupied despite physical and emotional exhaustion.

I will remember all that and I will be relieved that we are long past those stages. I am grateful, truly grateful, for the freedom young adulthood and the teen years give us and I would not trade our lives now for anything else, but my envy defies logic. It persists.

So what can I do but embrace it?

If I really think about it, I understand that my envy is a good thing. It means that, overall, those days were good. They were worth longing for. I hope all parents who are home with young children right now can feel the same way someday. I hope they will be able look back on this pandemic through rose-colored glasses, and maybe feel a tinge of envy when they see other parents with young children. Like me.

Good-bye, book contract

My heart is heavy.

I made a painful decision this week. I asked that Black Opal Books release me from my three-book contract, and they did. I am, once again, a writer without a contract.

It was not an easy decision, but I did it out of respect for myself and my work. The Oregon-based publisher was bought out by an employee in July, a few months after I signed my contract. The previous owner was sick and the new owner wanted to do right by the authors.

Her intentions were good, but she inherited a mess and things only got messier. Books were released without the authors’ knowledge, authors were forced to cancel launch events because their books were not published on schedule, book orders for events routinely went unfulfilled.

Emails to editors and the owner often fell into a void, my own emails included.

I was told things would get better.

I waited and waited, but they have not.

I sincerely hope I regret my decision someday, that the new owner and the remaining authors are hugely successful. I have made some great friends through Black Opal Books and I want them to do well.

But for now, it’s back to the keyboard for me.

The full manuscript for a new thriller, Never Let Go, is in the hands of three fantastic agents and I am reaching out to a wonderful press about the three books that were previously under contract with Black Opal Books: Dead Man’s Eyes, Never Broken and No Stranger Here.

This has been a difficult and disappointing experience, but I am optimistic. The heaviness will lift and my books will find a new home. So, I will keep my chin up and write on.

Preparing for the polar plunge: book promotion

While I still don’t have a firm release date for my debut mystery novel, A DEAD MAN’S EYES, things are happening behind the scenes at Black Opal Books that indicate it will be on bookshelves by late spring. And that means it’s time for me to get to work.

I need to start seriously promoting my novel.

I feel a bit like I did as a kid, preparing to dive into the tea-colored waters of an Adirondack lake for the first time after a long winter. Adirondack lakes never really warm up, so a late-spring swim can feel like a polar plunge. That first moment of contact is a shock to the system and the anticipation of it can be enough to make a weaker soul run for the heated pool inside the Best Western.

But the rewards … oh, the rewards.

Those who brave the first plunge find the gates open to a whole summer of freedom — swimming across Ampersand Bay, leaping off cliffs at The Gulch, skipping-dipping under the post-midnight stars in Lake Flower (Who? Me?). The body quickly adjusts to the temperature and the initial shock gives way to exhilaration. Winter is gone and summer, full of new possibilities, arrives.

This is my spring. Winter — a time of first drafts, first query letters, first rejections and first acceptances — was lovely and full of its own adventures, but it lasted almost 20 years and I am ready for this new season. I am excited, thrilled even, but I have to steel myself for that first plunge, for the initial shock of promotions.

It’s a huge and intimidating shift from the private life of a writer to the more public life of an author/business person. I know I can write books, but can I sell them? The thought of promoting and marketing my books is enough to make me run to the nearest public relations firm. But I know that it will be worth it, that I just need to take that first plunge and let my mind adjust to the temperature of it all.

I still have some time, so I am preparing with a book that came highly recommended, Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum. I have only just begun reading, but I’m finding it inspiring so far. I would love to hear from other writers. How was your transition? How did you prepare for your debut novel? Feel free to link to any blog posts or books in the comments.

Dread be gone

New years are a thrill, aren’t they? They are full of promises and possibilities. Peace, joy, happiness — all that stuff. This year should be especially exciting for me with three novels due for release, beginning this spring.

So why this lingering sense of dread?

I made it through the holidays, thanks to the kids. It was easy to stuff this intense uneasiness deep down in my gut with the older children home from college and the younger two on break from junior high.

So much to do!

But they are all getting ready to return now and that means I will be home alone with no one and nothing to distract me. No obstacles to prevent that feeling from rising to surface. I have to face it. I have to admit that I am afraid.

Terrified, really.

I started writing my first novel almost 20 years ago. That’s a long time. My imagination was free to go wild during those two decades, not only with plots and subplots, but also with dreams of becoming a published author, with plans for book events and more novels and more book events. And more books events.

Did I mention book events?

I love to talk about writing. I love to work with other writers. I love to encourage new writers, to help them see the world from new and interesting perspectives. I even enjoy the social media stuff — connecting, sharing, commiserating.

But now I have these products and I have to sell them and all that self-doubt is creeping back in. Should people buy my novels? Are they good enough? Am I going to put myself out there just to be made a fool?

I have to remind myself daily and nightly that two different agents felt my work was worth their time, that the editors at Black Opal Books had confidence enough to offer me a three-book contract, that this is real and this is happening, and that my husband and kids believe in me.

I am cool with being nervous. Nervousness can be a good thing, productive even. But I need to banish the dread. I need to fly with my imagination again, to go wild and have fun. Hence, my New Year’s resolution: to nourish confidence in the face of dread and to defeat it once and for all.

Happy New Year!

The Overpass

I had a dream early this morning, long before dawn.

I was standing on a highway overpass, overlooking a city’s downtown on a gray and still day. Somehow, I knew this city was in Central New York, where I had spent my journalism years, but something was different. I was confused.

I had planned to walk into town, but I was overwhelmed with apprehension, a sense that I should remain on that overpass. So I did, and in that moment, the first building began to fall. It had been leaning slightly already, but the pressure was too great. It crumbled and crashed into the next building, which also collapsed.

The weight of the rubble broke a nearby dam and the highway below me became an instant river, turbulent and wide. I saw no one — no people fighting the current, no vehicles floating downstream, no bodies anywhere. I heard nothing — no crash of concrete and steel, no rushing water, no screams.

My decision had isolated and insulated me.

I was alone on the overpass, safe and alive and terrified.