As edits begin, I just want to brush my teeth and pee

Have you ever awakened in your dreams to a house full of people only to realize you are still in your PJs with unbrushed teeth and super serious bedhead? If you haven’t, I am glad for you because, in this dream, I am forced into a hostess role without even the chance to pee. It is not fun.

I am publicly exposed at my worst.

As editing begins this month on A Dead Man’s Eyes, the first book in my Lisa Jamison mystery/suspense series, I am excited. Good edits will only make my book a better experience for readers. I look forward to the improvements, which will bring me one step closer to publication day. But, as the editing period nears, that dream, an old one for me, has slipped back into my early morning playlist.

I don’t need an expert to interpret my dream. I am nervous. I am worried about exposing my words to the world only to realize that I failed to groom them, that they are without nuance, without the minty breath of a fresh voice. I fear that I will open the door to readers and reviewers before they are ready. I am guessing other authors have had different versions of this same dream, especially during the editing process of their debut novels.

I trust the editors at Level Best Books. I know they won’t let people into our house before my book is groomed and ready, but my nerves are not easily steadied by such assurances. That’s okay though. I would rather be nervous than overconfident. A good dose of nerves will only make me a better writer. For that reason, I hope I never lose these pre-release jitters.  I wouldn’t mind losing the dream though, or at least treating myself to a dreamy shower, a tube of Colgate and a pee break before my guests arrive.

This blog post is an excerpt from my October newsletter, which features an interview with debut historical author Hilary Hauck, thoughts on writing from mystery author Gabriel Valjan and photos of our new puppy dog, Lola May. You can find the newsletter here and subscribe here to make sure future newsletters come directly to your inbox.

On the verge

Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!

We all handle rejection differently.

Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.

My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.

I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.

I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.

My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.

It was okay, I said. I could wait.

But the kids are older now.

I am ready and so are they.

I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.

More next week!

One hundred days …

You know that last post?
The one about the Christmas dream?
I should have been more clear.
I meant the Christmas of 2015, but I’m not picky.
Christmas of 2016 will do.
In fact, I would prefer it.
So much has changed since I last wrote:
I took a part-time paying job to help meet mortgage payments on our old house until it sold. (Yep. I am now a taxonomy specialist. Ever hear of that? Neither had I, but it’s kind of cool.)
My mother-in-law broke her hip and came to live with us. (She calls herself my fifth child, but don’t let her fool you. She’s 88, but she’s already back in the commander’s seat, itching to permanently move back home.)
My agent and I agreed to switch submissions strategies after only a handful of publishers, shelving the thriller for a bit while we push the rewritten mystery/suspense series. (Working on book three of the series now!)
So my time has not been my own and the timing for my debut into the publishing world would not have been great.
At least, that’s how I rationalize the situation to quell by my impatience.
Distraction is key, so I plan to hunker down for the upcoming months and devote any free time to my work-in-progress. But I hope you’ll forgive me if  I steal a few moments to toss pennies into fountains with my eyes closed, cross my fingers and write a few letters to Santa.
Christmas of 2016 is only 100 days away.
Anyone know of a stocking appropriate for a book contract?

Don’t read down.

“Don’t read down.”
Those were the words of best-selling novelist Elizabeth George during a panel at New England Crime Bake, a mystery writers conference I attended earlier this month in the Boston area.
Those were the words that set me free.
The moment I heard them, my muscles and my mind relaxed, releasing a tension I hadn’t known existed.
It didn’t take long to figure out why.
With my gradual immersion in the mystery/thriller genre over the past decade came a feeling of obligation, a need to read novels published by authors I’d met, or  novels beloved by other writers more successful than I in the business.
I wasn’t choosing for myself anymore.
I was letting obligation dictate my reading list while sneaking in a few fictional “treats” on the side.
While I discovered some wonderful works among that obligatory pile, I also wasted a lot of time pushing through pages that didn’t hold my attention.
Part of that disinterest might have been personal preference. Sometimes best-sellers just don’t click with me, despite all the five-star reviews. Other times, I recommend books that turn other people off. That happens.
But many of those novels were simply not that good.
I was reading down.
When I returned from Crime Bake, I looked over the books on our shelves that remain unread, books that I had scheduled for the months of December or January or February. Most of them I know nothing about. I bought them out of obligation.
So here’s my plan.
I’ll give each book a few chapters.
I did pay for them, after all.
But I’ll give myself permission to close the cover if they don’t keep my attention beyond that. I will no longer waste time reading down when the direction I want to travel in is up
Thank you, Elizabeth George.

It’s submission day (again)!

Oh, the ecstasy!
The emotions are etched in my memory like a high-contrast, high-definition photograph.
I actually screeched that day six years ago when my then-agent emailed a list of editors at various publishing houses who received my manuscript for consideration.
It would all fall into place from there. I just knew it.
My novel would be on the shelves within a year.
The next novel would result in a bidding war.
Everyone would be reading my stuff.
Yup, that’s what happened.
Not!
What a contrast from today.
Today, marks my third submission day (My fourth if I count rewritten and resubmitted work.) and the emotional picture is far less jarring than it was six years ago. It’s more like soft-touch through a sepia filter. I feel no euphoria. Only a pleasant buzz.
And I like it that way.
The first time around, rejection was devastating. I had jumped so high that I had a long, long way to fall and the landing hurt — a lot. My then-agent was new to the business and had set his own expectations just as high.
We had buried several truths in our ignorance:
– The manuscript was not ready.
– My agent did not have the necessary connections. (He now represents only nonfiction.)
– Debut authors are a hard sell.
You know that saying, that ignorance is bliss?
It’s not.
Ignorance, in this business, often invites disillusionment. Disillusionment takes weary, broken writers by the shoulders, spins them around and encourages them to walk away from that which has hurt them. They leave their dreams behind because they don’t want to experience that kind of severe impact again.
That could have been me, but one thing kept me from surrendering to disillusionment’s power: my journalism experience. When the first novel failed to sell, I started researching the business of publishing while writing another novel. I connected with established authors and aspiring writers like me. I asked questions. Lots of them.
I needed realism and I found it.
I met authors who had written multiple novels before they celebrated publication. I became friends with a writer who sold her first novels in mere days, not only because she is that good, but also because she is smart and savvy. She had spent as many years researching the markets and the players as she had writing.
I also met writers who had simply gotten lucky.
I opened my eyes and saw the mistake I’d made in signing with an agent who had no experience beyond his previous job working for a publisher. He knew a great deal about the after-market end of the business, but not enough about selling to publishers.
I left my agent with two completed novels in hand and started all over.
I had just started a third novel when I connected with my current agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli, a woman who has been in the business longer than I can ever hope to be. Liz is calm, but enthusiastic. She is practical, but ambitious. She’s connected, but in ways that run deep. Her contacts are more than business associates. Like her clients, most are friends.
And she’s worn off on me.
I hope this novel sells, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t dream of it. But I won’t let those dreams overwhelm or distract me. I refused to pour all of my being into the fate of this one novel. If it sells, I’ll be screaming from the roof tops, but I’ll wait until that happens to climb up there.
For now, I’ll just sit on my porch, where the ground is only a few feet below me, and focus on the next novel like the one under submission doesn’t exist. I know I’ll lose my balance if this novel doesn’t sell. I’m only human, after all. But the landing won’t hurt so much and my recovery time will be minimal.
And I’ll climb right back up the stairs to the porch and start writing again.

New agent, new energy

I was excited last year when I dropped the kids off for the first day of school.
I had recently terminated my contract with my agent and couldn’t wait to find out what the future would hold. It was a scary thing — going agent-free after two years, especially since my former agent is such a good guy — but I knew instantly I’d made the right decision.
We were not a good match.
Sometimes, that happens.
I was careful when I started firing off queries to new agents.
I didn’t want to go through that again.
Some rejected me instantly.
Others asked for full manuscripts and have yet to respond.
Others read partials or fulls and decided against representation, or were interested in only one of my two completed novels. The latter were the agents I chose not to pursue. I want an agent who will stick with me throughout my career, regardless of what genre I write. I’d hate to shelve a novel simply because it’s not a particular agent’s “thing.”
Then came the response from Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli of JET Literary.
She’d found flaws in my mystery/suspense novel that no other reader had, and offered to reconsider after revisions. She opened my eyes to those logical errors and immediately inspired confidence. In her emails and on the phone, she struck me as sharp, honest, and experienced.
But it was that confidence that impressed me most.
She knew what both novels needed and she knew how to express that.
She had plans.
She offered strategies, visions and direction.
She knows the industry and knows it well.
She is the kind of agent who can sell my novels and steer my career in the right direction.
I like her but, more important, I trust her.
So here we go.
It’s that time of the year again.
All four kids will be in school full-time for the first time ever.
I will have time to write and, as much as I will miss them, I am excited.
But this is a fresh kind of excitement.
This year, I get to write — just write — without worrying about the business side of things. 
I feel focused.
I feel encouraged.
I feel, once again, like I made a wise decision.
Two more days and I’m off.

Preparing for the inevitable: negative reviews

I’ve yet to publish a book, so I can’t say what a negative book review feels like.
I’ve had only one review on my published short stories and that got five stars, so I’m in la-la land over that.
But my journalism days … oh, my journalism days!
You’d think those experiences would have hardened me, but newspaper articles don’t really get reviewed.
They get reactions.
In the best cases, I received loads of phone calls, interest from the national media, thank-you notes and teary-eyed visitors offering hugs, cookies and flowers. Those reactions made me feel good about my career choice, like my stories made peoples lives just a little bit better even for only a day.
In the worst cases, I was lunged at by prisoners; yanked into a mob angry relatives (It wasn’t even my story! I was just returning the photo.); stalked by a man who was grateful  I had made public his illegal incarceration, but who was also mentally ill and untreated (He later proposed to the female deputy who told him to leave me alone!); stolen from; cursed at; and wished an early death for myself and my future children.
But even such negative reactions to news stories can be, in a sense, a good thing.
Bad people don’t like it when their wrongs or their weaknesses are revealed, especially to the general public.
They get mad.
That’s okay by me.
So even 11 years of journalism has not prepared me for the inevitable — for my first negative novel review, the day when someone takes my heart right out of my chest and stomps on it, ripping my work to shreds.
That must be what it feels like, right?
I think about this whenever I read a novel that, for whatever reason, rubs me wrong.
How would I react if my work were publicly bashed?
Could I stand it?
I found comfort recently in a post by author/blogger Beth Revis.
She has a good point.
I don’t like beef.
Why?
I just don’t like it, so I’ll never give a steak or a burger or a pot roast a good review.
Yuck!
That poor chef will just never win over a non-beef lover like me.
That’s what I need to remember.
I have to think beef.

The learning curve

Way back in the old days when I was I was still a querying virgin, I stumbled upon an online discussion about the number of novels writers completed before they were published.
A talented few were published immediately.
Most had written two or three books before their writings went public.
But a surprising number kept writing even after half a dozen novels were rejected.
I scoffed.
That will never be me, I thought.
If the first novel wasn’t published before the second one was finished, I was sure I would have deemed myself a failure. All the stamina would be gone, all the excitement, the fervor, the self-confidence. There was no way I could go on.
Yet here I am working on my third novel while the other two have yet to see a bookshelf.
And what shocks me is that I am more confident, more excited, than ever before.
This is why.
The first published novel sets the tone for a writer’s career. It also starts the timer for the completion of another work and then another and then another. The pressure is on and learning curves can be incredibly dangerous if they are taken too fast.
Those who want to make careers of writing cannot afford to make mistakes early on.
At least not publicly.
I made mistakes and, thankfully, they were neither permanent nor public.
Better yet, I learned from them.
Like so many before me, I was too excited by my first novel to sit on it for a while. I rushed into queries before all my beta readers had finished. When the verdict came in, the errors were glaringly obvious to me. I couldn’t believe I had queried it.
I cut characters, revised the first half and tried again.
It worked.
But then came more mistakes.
I signed with an agent who was not a good fit for me. I wrote my second novel too fast. I approached my third novel with sales figures in mind instead of focusing on the story I wanted to tell. I was letting ego overrule passion.
Again, I stepped back and re-evaluated.
I needed to slow down.
I terminated my contract with my agent and started the hunt again, taking a more cautious approach this time around. I revised my second novel and entered the first novel into a contest that targets the appropriate agent/publisher audience for its genre.
I ditched several chapters of my third novel and started over again, being true this time to my desire to write a mystery that is both suspenseful and worthy of the term “literary.”  I am so much happier and my passion has recovered its strength.
With two completed novels and a third underway, I have more choices and more experience.
I learned a great deal about the business in my two years with my first agent, who is wonderful person and was always willing to talk with me about such things. I am not sure precisely where I want to take my career, but I know where I don’t want to be.
And, in this business, that knowledge is equally important.
I look back at that woman who scoffed at the thought of banking completed novels and try to see her with a sense of humor. At the time, I also thought I had a pretty good handle on parenting with two young kids close in age.
Then came a surprise set of twins.
The twins have taught me that I have a lot to learn and that the learning never ends.
Writing multiple novels has provided the same kind of lesson. Balance is key in this business just as it is in every other aspect of life. With each mistake, I have gained confidence — confidence that has led to positive change. That confidence comes not with perfection, but with the ability to see and correct those mistakes and to learn from them.
The twins opened my eyes as a parent.
The novels opened my eyes as a writer.

How Daniel Abraham made me laugh: A Private Letter from Genre to Literature

Among the most difficult dilemmas I have faced since I began writing fiction is determining a genre for my first (unpublished) novel, Spring Melt.
Is it crime?
Is it historical?
Is it courtroom drama, women’s fiction, commercial, literary or commercial with a literary edge?
I have no clue.
Its complexity complicates the querying process.
Will agents be turned off by my mention of one genre and my dismissal of another?
Will publishers market it to the wrong audiences?
Oh, the stress …
So when I stumbled across this — A Private Letter from Genre to Literature by Daniel Abraham — today, it brought me great comic relief.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Just click on the paragraph below to access the full letter:

I saw you tonight. You were walking with your cabal from the university to the little bar across the street where the professors and graduate students fraternize. You were in the dark, plain clothes that you think of as elegant. I have always thought they made you look pale. I was at the newsstand. I think that you saw me, but pretended not to. I want to say it didn’t sting.

Time to smoulder

So close.
I am so close to finishing my second novel.
The first draft is complete.
The second is underway.
But writing will have to wait.
A line has formed in recent months that includes painting the newly re-walled living room, painting our oldest son’s room, baking a tent-shaped cake for the Cub Scouts cake auction and tilling a garden plot. All things that have to be worked around kids, kids and kids.
Something is always waiting.
But, when it comes to writing, waiting can be a good thing.
The longer writing waits, the more it smoulders.
As it smoulders, it builds strength.
Plot inconsistencies become clearer with each stroke of the paint brush. Characterization problems are resolved with a few dozen turns of the soil. Novels restructure themselves in a bowl full of cocoa powder, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla.
When I return to the keyboard, I will have plenty of creative energy to burn.
And the novel won’t have to wait long.
I’ve decided to take a break for a few months from freelance work with the exception of one book editing job that I am excited to tackle. That will give me a few extra hours a week to devote to the novel. I should also be able to sneak some time in at night when all the kids are asleep after the painting is done.
I’m still hoping to be finished, really finished by summer,and the time spent thinking without the distraction of writing might just enable that.
Fewer wasted keystrokes.
Fewer wasted words.
More intense focus.
It’s so hard to be patient.
But it’s so important to wait.