Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to Communicate With Your Editor

James O. Born

Communication is the key to virtually any occupation.  Advertisers must communicate why their product is so important to consumers.  Police officers must communicate with each other to stop serial criminals from committing crimes over and over.  Doctors must communicate to patients all sorts of information from the most complex scientific theories to simple practices they must employ to stay healthy.  And a writer must not only communicate with the reader effectively, but also communicate with an editor.

The writer-editor relationship is unique.  Everyone has a different view of it.  It can be a partnership, it can be a chore, it can be a joy, but ultimately it needs to be a relationship which makes a novel better.  There are a number of other elements the relationship can affect.  The writer has to clearly express his or her expectations for promotion and other elements not related to actually writing a novel.  For the purposes of this blog, let's focus on the relationship that affects the novel itself.

I have dealt with a number of editors in my career.  All of them have their own unique view of how things should be done and how novels should sound.  I always thought of it as writing a novel specifically for that editor.  It's sort of like doing a public speech but focusing on one person in the audience.  But in this case there is a chance to do something special.  Don't waste this opportunity to hear someone else's opinion of your writing.  Listen to what your editor has to say.  Don't be ready with a quick excuse or response.  If the editor thinks the book is missing a character to tie it all together, I would recommend that you consider creating a character to tie it all together.  It's a lesson I learned in other areas that I can apply to writing.

I can use two examples from two different editors.  And please forgive me if I've mentioned any of these stories before.  I find that they are the best examples I can present and I use them in the classes that I teach.

The first relates to my third novel, Escape Clause.  I had finished it and felt pretty good that the story of a Florida cop sent to a prison to investigate a mysterious death had all the elements I wanted and the tone I was trying to set.  I was not overly confident, as any writer who is overly confident about their writing is probably a shitty writer.  But I felt pretty good about the book.  That is, until my editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, talked to me about what was missing.  There is no way I would've ever seen it on my own.  He suggested that I identified the bad guy at the very beginning of the book, instead of about eighty pages in.  Even though I thought it was a great surprise to realize exactly who the bad guy was, Neil pointed out that the reader needed someone to root against right from the start.  I still recall when I was done, the letter he wrote me that said I had really, “juiced up" the novel.

I can state unequivocally that Neil's way was far superior to my original idea.  Dammit!  The book went on to earn very good reviews and the inaugural Florida book award for best novel.  Thank you very much, Neil.

A more recent example is in my upcoming novel, Scent of Murder.  Once again I handed in a book I was happy with.  This time to my editor at Forge books, Bob Gleason.  Bob liked the overall story, but felt it needed one additional viewpoint.  He thought that several scenes set in the viewpoint of one of the canine heroes of the book would make it more interesting.  I resisted at first.  Then set aside my ego and considered Bob's tremendous experience in publishing.  He didn't just leave me out in the cold, he suggested I read Call of the Wild by Jack London as well as several articles.  Bob is big on sending me articles on different subjects.  To make a relatively long story not much shorter, he was right.  The final version of Scent of Murder, is better than the version I wrote.  Again, dammit!

This was all possible by communication.  And by communication, I mean it is probably more important for the author to listen to the editor than the other way around.  In effect, the editor is your boss.  If you keep that in mind, generally things work out all right.

On a different subject, but relevant for today and tomorrow only, the e-book version of my second novel, Shock Wave, is available for free on Amazon if you click here.  I'm not selling anything, just giving it away.  That sounds worse when I say it out loud.

Have a great Thursday.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Ramblings on Winston Churchill - and Time Travel

from Jacqueline

I’ve always been fascinated by time.  Not in the way of watches or clocks, but in the way “six degrees of separation” links us to the past and, indeed, to the future.  The idea of stepping back in time is compelling – and for my work as a writer of historical fiction, that’s exactly what I have to do. I’m helped by memory, of course, and by the fact that, when I was a child, I loved to listen to elderly people telling me their stories.

Let me tell you what has brought on this reflection.  Fifty years ago this week, Sir Winston Churchill died at his home in London.  At the time, I was nine years old, in Mr. Croft’s class at school, and having terrible trouble with fractions. I was never going to be a mathematician, but I had been near top of my class until we got to the dreaded fractions.  I would come home and weep because anything less than whole numbers seemed beyond my ken.

 We weren’t big TV watchers in my house – indeed, during the day there was nothing on the box to watch between about 2-5pm, and I was in school until 4pm anyway, so it didn't matter much to me. After “Watch With Mother” in the afternoon, there was just a blank screen with the “Test Card” until the news programs began in the early evening.  And there were only two channels when I was a kid – the BBC and ITV.  To this day, I refer to switching to the “other side” instead of “changing channels.”  In Britain, that’s what everyone said, then, and I think it was easier than the endless chain of channels offering the same round of boring game shows, talk shows and reality TV that make up our viewing menu today. 

 Going back to this week some fifty years ago, and Sir Winston’s funeral – my mother, brother and I watched the entire televised event, as did almost everyone who owned a TV in Britain.  If you didn’t have a TV – and millions didn’t – then you crowded into the house of the neighbor who had one. The funeral marked a solemn occasion of deep national mourning; and the whole country was in a state of grief.  There are those today who saw Churchill’s passing as the true end of the Empire. Even as a child I felt the sands shifting under my feet that day, and one had a sense that the tide was on the turn - and let's face it, we had The Beatles and The Stones. Certainly there has never been a funeral quite like it – even that of Diana, The Princess of Wales, was not on a par with Sir Winston’s.

In America, more people tuned in to watch Churchill’s funeral than that of President Kennedy.  It is probably true that Churchill – whose mother, Jennie, was an American – is probably held in higher esteem in certain circles in the USA than in the UK.  In one of my novels, set in the early 1930’s, Churchill is described as being on the hinterland of power, a man pushed aside due to his less than stellar performance in the Great War – his errors had mounted up, and his political track record in the 1920’s left something to be desired.  I received a few letters from Americans asking how I could possibly say such a thing about this giant of the 20th century.  But as I explained – I cannot get away from the facts of the matter. Every dog has its day, and Winston Churchill’s was not in the early 1930’s.  Nancy Astor said at the time, “Churchill is finished.”  His true day came much later, in the Second World War.

 My mother had tears in her eyes as we watched the gun carriage bearing Churchill’s coffin making its way through the streets of London.  Every now and then the TV would lose the signal, and the screen would fill with squiggly lines.  My mother would leap up and thump the top of the TV set, complaining about “the tube” and miraculously the picture would right itself. I sort of wish TV’s still did that.  When you could no longer correct a screen with a good solid whack, it seemed an era had passed.  But here’s what I remember from that day, as I sat at my mother’s feet watching this hero of British history on the journey to his final resting place. It was Mum telling us her story of seeing Winston Churchill during the war.  The family had just been bombed out of their home. Every house on the street had been reduced to rubble.  Neighbors had been killed – blown to shreds during a Luftwaffe bombing raid.  Winston Churchill came to survey the scene, accompanied by his daughter, Sarah.  My mother described watching as Churchill walked across the field of still-hot debris, the people standing back to let him through.  He bent down, picked up a piece of masonry, and threw it back to the ground with disdain, his face a picture of venomous hatred for those who had inflicted such terror on the people.  My mother said he did not say a word, but continued on his way, and the people cheered. The great orator had no need for a speech on that occasion – his action said everything to the people who had lost all but hope.

So, we become travelers in time and place with every passing day.  The global becomes personal when we hear, read, or watch the news.  We remember where we were when this happened or when we watched events unfold that became history, and we remember the talk around us, the way people took the news.  With our memories and the recollections of others we can finger the fibers of the past.  We can tease out and recall the images that resonate, and they become part of our personal and collective mythology.  It’s the same with the future – everything we do today has bearing upon tomorrow. Some of us play with fate in a small way (OK, so I confess, I just had a hot bath, and yet I am still using collected rain from the last storm to water my garden, in this very drought stricken California), and some of us involve ourselves more deeply – scientific research, political activism, environmental advocacy, for example.  Or we write fiction – which can predict the future in a scarily accurate way, in the same manner that universal truths can be revealed in a well-told story.

As writers we play with time, with character and place. The memories big and small have a bearing on what and how we write.  But you don’t have to be a writer to be a time traveler – you just have to remember, to be curious (like Patty with her research into her family history), and to listen to people, old and young.  If you do that, you can look both ways at once – rather like being on a road, and seeing what has gone before, and what is still to come.  And there’s something very meaningful about that – a way of connecting oneself to the big picture, while smiling at the small snapshot that puts you in a certain place and a certain time.  I look at photos of Churchill’s funeral, and though I was not one of those lining the route, and I was born long after his finest hour – I was there, in my way.

Ooops, the tube's gone again ...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Scent of Murder

James O. Born

I do occasionally write something other than this blog.  Since I didn't have a particular topic for "How to Write a Novel," I thought I'd give you a glimpse of my upcoming novel, Scent of Murder, which will be released by Forge Books on April 7.

First, I would like to extend my thanks to the great people at Tor/Forge for their tremendous input.  Starting with my editor, Bob Gleason, who made me take a look at the narrative and consider things I had never thought of.  Add to this input from Associate Publisher Linda Quinton, who has a deep understanding and love of dogs and a broad knowledge of marketing and I truly feel like this  a much better novel.  That is what being part of a team really means.  The fantastic cover speaks for itself, conveying an excellent image of the opening scenes and overall tone of the book.

In a way, this is another lesson in how to write a novel.  A book from a publisher is in no way a solitary effort.  I may have started working on the novel by myself in my office, but ultimately it was in my best interest to open my mind to other opinions.  It's easy to say I work in real life as a law enforcement officer and have seen first hand what K-9s can do.  The real issue is how to convey that in a compelling and interesting way.  Both Bob and Linda helped me in ways I never would have imagined.

Finding a way to integrate the K-9 heroes of the book into the actual investigation in the novel was a challenge from the beginning.  Bob convinced me to create a point of view for one of the dogs.  He told me to read White Fang by Jack London.  That is the kind of instruction that helps you as a writer.  I read the book and studied the technique.  I didn't copy it or try to imitate Jack London.  And in the end it made the novel more interesting.

My new business/book cards
Linda read the manuscript and had suggestions about making some of the police work more subtle so that it might appeal to an audience in addition to the police procedural fans.  She had me bring out elements of the dogs and gave me suggestions that never would have occurred to me.  The fact that an associate publisher was interested in my manuscript was fantastic in itself.

Now I'm working with my publicist, Emily Mullen, who did a great job on Border War, to work out dates and appearances for bookstores and create a marketing plan which will give the book the best possible chance to succeed.  That is no small task in this era of shrinking sales and a crowded market.

Elayne Becker has been right on top of everything since the moment she took on the new job.  Not bad for a girl from Georgia stuck in New York.

Normally this could be a stressful time for a writer, but the fact that everyone on this team knows what they are doing and the book is something new for me, makes me not only confident, but excited about the novel's release.

The lesson here is, "no one can be a success in publishing on their own."

Obviously I will have more to share about the novel as the release draws near.  I have some new friends in the dog community as well as the law enforcement arena who have shown a lot of interest in the novel.  It is a realistic view of what police K-9s are involved in every day, as well as the relationship they have with their handlers.  It's hard to tell who's actually in charge sometimes.  Take a look at the Amazon description and feel free to e-mail me any questions at or in the comments.  If you haven't already, join my Facebook author page.

Here are a few dog photos to give you an idea of the world of police dogs.

Me and K-9 Hutch
My choice for a cover

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why you should attend a writers' conference

Patty here...

Sometimes I think I’ve heard everything there is to know about writing and the publishing business but, of course, I’m always wrong because things change. Mystery fan conventions like Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime are fun, because you get to attend panels, listen to your favorite authors wax poetic, get books signed and mingle in the bar. However, if you’re serious about writing and you want to learn nitty-gritty tips to inspire your process, or learn about the latest trends in the publishing business from editors and agents, you should consider attending a writers’ conference.

The California Crime Writers Conference is a biennial, two-day event that began in 1995 as a one-day conference organized by Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles. In 2007 after years of success, the conference partnered with the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America to become the even bigger and more comprehensive CCWC.

As 2012-2013 president of SinC/LA, I co-chaired CCWC in 2013, which featured keynote speakers Elizabeth George and Sue Grafton. The inspirational keynote speeches given by these two writers were worth the price of admission.

Sue Grafton, Hank Phillippi Ryan, moi, Elizabeth George (photo by Robin Templeton)

But, of course, there was more to discover. Attendees in 2013 chose from a host of workshops in four tracks (Craft, Business, Law Enforcement/Forensics and Nuts and Bolts issues) lead by bestselling authors, law enforcement and forensic experts, plus top agents and editors. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One award-winning author told me the conference featured the best law enforcement/forensic track she had ever seen in all her years of attending conferences.

The 2015 CCWC is shaping up to be another winner. This year, I’m co-chairing the Law Enforcement and Forensics track, which will include homicide detectives, an FBI agent and firearms trainer, a forensic entomologist, an expert on serial killers in the medical field, a forensic psychiatrist, among others.

Too often writers collect information about forensics and law enforcement from watching TV and film. Many of those “facts” are fiction. CCWC allows a writer to learn firsthand from experts who will share their knowledge and answer questions about how homicide detectives handle a crime scene, what firearm a character might use and why, how insect activity reveals clues about a death, how a serial killer thinks and how to avoid common mistakes when writing about forensic evidence.

However, the most compelling reason to attend a writers’ conference is for the opportunity to network with fellow attendees. Writing is a solitary pursuit. Writers need to charge those batteries by basking in shared experiences. Whether you’re looking for an agent, a critique group, an independent copy editor or just some conversation with fellow scribblers, think about attending a writers' conference, especially CCWC, since I'll be there to hold your hand. Invest in yourself. Register. Learn. Share. Succeed. You deserve it.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Back to How To Write a Novel

Daily Productivity

James O Born

One of the biggest changes for me once I became published was recognizing the fact that I could no longer spend several years on a novel.  There were deadlines and revisions and an entire life to live outside the world of writing.  It was a transition at first, but took less than a year to fall into a routine.  When I say routine, I don't mean a routine that wears you out, but understanding how much work I needed to do each day to stay on track and not feel severe pressure from deadlines.

I'm writing this during the month of November, which I am told by reliable sources such as the blog site Writers Who Kill  is national write a novel month.  Paula Benson, my friend who penned the piece, points out several instances of famous writers who could produce quickly if needed.  One example in particular I liked was Ray Bradbury, who would use a typewriter at a university which required a ten cent an hour fee.  It forced him to write quickly and creatively.  It should be noted to anyone who wishes to whine about the time required to write effectively that Ms. Benson, although she would never admit this, is almost solely responsible for the effective administration and running of the entire state of South Carolina.  I look forward to your e-mail on the subject.

Side note: I started this blog in November but deadlines and holidays delayed it.  I’m revising and editing it on January 14. 

Over the last decade I’ve attended dozens and dozens of conferences and sat on panels that discussed every aspect of writing.  I can remember one in particular, Mystery Florida in Sarasota, Florida, where I learned quite a bit about the process of writing.  I was on a panel with the late Stuart Kaminsky, a MWA grandmaster and all-around good guy, who said he wrote about thirty-five pages of text a day.  To keep it in perspective, I generally shoot for about 1000 words or five pages of text a day.  That keeps me frazzled and frail, yet this man who was twenty years my senior had no issue with it.  I kept my yap shut about my productivity during the panel.

On a separate occasion at Mystery Florida, Michael Connelly made an offhand comment that he felt that, at and minimum, you should work on a novel in progress at least 30 minutes a day.  For some reason that resonated with me.  I suspect it's the fact that it wasn't a great amount of time that I had to absolutely dedicate every day.  It's also important to understand that Mr. Connelly is a graduate of the University of Florida and anything a UF grad can do, I can do better.  Except, apparently, write best-selling novels.  Regardless, Mr. Connelly, who is well-known in the Mystery community as a slacker, imparted an idea to me which has stuck with me ever since.  I'm not saying I only work half an hour a day, but I always work at least 30 minutes each day.

Another interesting offhand comment I heard once was from my good friend Bob Morris, unfortunately also a graduate of the University of Florida.  When asked at a panel at Bookmania in Stuart, Florida, how many words a day he wrote, his response was both logical and pragmatic.  He said that since he had been a columnist for newspapers most of his life he felt like 750 words a day was about right.  That also made me consider the issue more carefully.

It's easy for me to say that I write 1000 words a day, but then there are other issues to consider.  Are those edited?  Are they re-edited?  Are they revised and edited a third or fourth time?  Because that's what the finished product really is.  A thousand words or five double-spaced pages doesn't sound overwhelming to me.  I can tackle that in a day.  The next day I will have to edit those thousand words and then write another thousand.  The day after that I will edit the 2000 words and write 1000 more.  I think you're starting to get the picture.  It's not that easy.

I have a number of friends who now make the majority of their income through books which are sold on Amazon or other e-book retailers.  One of the things I've noticed each of them comment on was how important speed was in producing a book.  They wanted to have as much product as possible on the bookshelf, so to speak, to get Amazon to notice their books and start to promote them.

The big question becomes, "how fast is too fast?"  I think the answer is that it depends on each writer.  Everyone has their own process.  Jonathan King, the Edgar award winning author once told me he had to think about a book for months before he could start working on it.  I like that idea.  It gives me a chance to think about a book while I'm doing other things.  You might notice that this is something I have advocated on this blog a number of times.  If you're a runner there is no better time to consider your novel than while completing your early morning jog.  If you enjoy yardwork, most of the time you can be thinking about your novel while you're prunning your rose bushes.  If you make your living dismantling bombs for the military, that is one of the few jobs I would say, “Keep your mind on the task at hand.”

For the rest of us, you get the idea.

Is writing a novel in a month a good idea?  That depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Real McCoy

Patty here

Last Monday I rambled on about my renewed interest in searching for my roots. At the time, I was on the verge of identifying the country of origin for one branch of my family. Today, I know…at least, I think I do.

My great grandmother was Emaline (Emiline/Emeline) McCoy. She was born in the U.S., but I wanted to know what country her kin came from. Once again, I tapped into research already done by others and traced Emaline’s line back to 1711 in Argyllshire, Scotland where the Highland Clan Campbell ruled the land. Argyllshire is located in western Scotland and includes the Isle of Mull where I spent a delightful few days many years ago.

Trekking on the Isle of Mull in my Lilliputian pink rain jacket

And they also have cool boats

As I searched databases and added names to my family tree, I found a married couple whose names matched my ancestor’s names but who lived a century later. Tilt! Did somebody incorrectly record the dates? Were the duplicate names a coincidence? (I was finding many name repetitions. Seriously, there are other names besides William and James. Get creative, people!) Or was the information I’d originally gathered just plain wrong? This was a mystery I wanted to solve, so I found a site that listed the names from Parishes in Argyllshire during that period. My kin were not listed and therefore the link to me could not be corroborated. I want to believe my McCoys had once lived in Argyll, because I love their socks.

Dig those socks

Then it occurred to me that sorting out conflicting information like this is also a mystery writer’s dilemma (and a journalist’s and a detective’s). “Facts” must be verified. Suspects eliminated. Unfortunately, eye-witness accounts are often unreliable. People forget; they get confused. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they just write down the wrong dates.

One thing I know for sure is that fictional witnesses should not all be cooperative, spilling their guts for the sake of the plot. The search for truth is messy, frustrating and often emotionally draining. In fiction, this is a good thing, because it creates conflict and as all readers know: no friction, no fiction.

When sending a fictional sleuth to investigate, whether she is a professional or an amateur, it’s important that each witness interviewed has a motive for talking to your hero(ine). Is the witness well-meaning but in his need to be helpful, he pads his story with events that didn’t happen? Is he somebody who doesn’t want to get involved and therefore tells Fictional Investigator that he saw nothing? Or has the emotional shock of a crisis corrupted his memory of events?

Here is an interesting article about the challenge of witness testimony. Or just ask Jim Born: 

So, I'm off to verify The Real McCoys of Argyllshire. In the meantime, Write on! Search on!


Friday, January 09, 2015

About Charlie

from Jacqueline

I’ve been pondering whether to write anything about the terrible, terrible events that unfolded in Paris on Wednesday.  At first, I thought, no – plenty of others, far more politically savvy and far more articulate than I, will be saying everything that needs to be said.  But then it seemed that to write about anything other than our basic right to express our truth would be akin to turning my back on the obvious.  Plus, writing on a blog with a name like this – Naked Authors: The Naked Truth About Literature and Life – we really have to put our two cents worth in there.  So, here’s mine – and my fellow Naked Authors, please chime in with your comments - add them to the end of this post if you like.  Just don’t erase my words though!

 From the very first time I disagreed with my parents on something I’d read in the newspaper – I must have been about nine years old (I know … sassy little moo wasn’t I?), I knew instinctively that, though they did not like what I said, they would do everything in their power to support me in my right to say it.  The fact that they argued their points back to me and waited for my response, even when my father muttered under his breath, “She’s a rebel!” – meant that it was OK to speak your truth in our house, as uncomfortable as that truth might be.  So, I have cherished that right – and I have written about it here on these pages, encouraging other writers never to be assailed by something so minor as writer’s block, when there are guys with serious ammunition killing people for uttering words they didn’t like in countries without some sort of protection and support for the free expression of opinion.  Take this girl for example – and you can’t tell me that she still doesn’t have a price on her head.

 Throughout Europe, illustrated opinion has always been considered as powerful as the written word – possibly more so than in the USA.  In France, especially, satire in the form of a hard-hitting cartoon is an accepted and important part of the political conversation, fanning the flames of heated dialogue, no matter who is offended in the process. Call it Libertie!  On Wednesday, in the offices of Paris-based satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, Islamist assassins (a couple of former rapping, small-time wide-boys) made an attempt to annihilate truth itself because freedom of expression is not part of their worldview.  They live in a country where they have the liberty to think what they like – but the fact that they attempted to punish and halt an expressed worldview different from their own in such an indescribably violent and destructive manner must be countered by anyone who has ever held an opinion in a public forum.  With social media, that probably means a good 75% of us. And thank God writers and artists the world over are picking up the tools of their trade to do just that.  Politicians must avoid tap-dancing around this one in case they lose favor – there is no side-stepping this issue.  In every self-proclaimed democracy there has to be an unequivocal support for freedom of expression, even if you don’t much like what you’re hearing or seeing.

I am a writer of historical fiction, of essays and articles, and though I have written many opinion pieces, writers like me don’t usually draw the kind of ire that leads someone to our doors with Kalashnikovs (I don't even know if that's how you spell it!).  Snarky reviews, maybe.  The odd letter of complaint – of course, we all get those, however I don’t think anyone’s going to kill me over an incorrect date, or some such thing.  But I am really impressed by people who are prepared to stand up and be counted by saying – with their art or craft – something that resonates on a collective scale, or that inspires dialogue, or a good old argument, even if it is not a popular point of view.  And I take my hat off to the many writers and artists who have shot back with their truth in the past day or so.  I am not worthy to be among your number, because you are risking death to tell your story or express your views.  I only ever risk repetitive motion syndrome and a sore back.

God bless you, you journalists and political commentators who speak your truth, who report what you have seen so that we might be better informed, and who risk your life to make us think, even when it's uncomfortable.  I might disagree with what you’ve said, or with what you have written, but by any god that exists, you have a right to your voice - and every time you use it, you empower democracy beyond measure.

Once again, wishing you peace.

Until next time ....

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Jacqueline Winspear's guest blog on Thursday

Our own Jackie has graciously provided the story of her search for an agent.  The fact that I tricked her into writing a blog on my assigned day, as well as her own Friday blog makes me feel a little guilty.  But I'll get over it.  My thanks as always.

----Jim Born

In May 2001 I had a really bad riding accident (funnily enough, it was worse than the recent one, but this is more painful). At the time I had a very demanding new day job, and I also had a novel in progress that I was passionate about, but had only written about a quarter of the book at that point. The thing about the new job was that it did not allow an ounce of time for my writing - I felt as if I had sold myself down the river for a 401K and a company car.  The night before the accident, a friend called and said, “How’s that new job going.” And I said, “I would give my right arm not to be doing this job …” And the very next day I broke my right arm and crushed my right shoulder, and as I was flying through the air (and this is absolutely true), I remember thinking, “This is happening because I’m supposed to be writing.” Following surgery, things were pretty grim - we were living in a rural area, no public transportation, I could not drive. My husband dropped me off to spend the day with a friend one day - he would pick me up on the way home from work - and my friend, a well-known local columnist, said to me, “Now’s the time for you to finish that book!” I pointed to my right arm and said, “With this?” And she wisely said, “You’ve got a left arm, haven’t you?” So that was it - I set myself a goal: Within three months I would have 75% of my arm back and I would have a manuscript. The doc had told me I would be lucky to get 65% within a year. I do well with goals. That evening I began work on the Maisie Dobbs manuscript again, with one hand. Soon I was lifting my right hand onto the keyboard because I wanted to go faster. Three months later, at the end of August 2001, I had a manuscript and 85% of my arm back. I had no income, because I had given in my notice on that job - yes, I could have “milked” the system and claimed disability, but the truth was that I knew I would never want to do that job again, and I’m an honest person. I had no idea when I would work again. The other thing was that I was so exhausted, rewriting amounted to running the spell-check. Here’s what happened next:

I invested in Jeff Herman’s book (Guide to Publishers etc …), and went through the list of agents carefully. I knew I needed an agent who was interested in mystery, history, women’s fiction, British fiction, War, and any combination of the foregoing. I tabbed 30 agents. Then I went deeper. My “A” list of 10 agents hit most of the profile points. The “B” list two or three, and the “C” list were hitting one or two, maybe just mystery and history. Then I had to set to work on preparing the proposal. Now, I had worked in academic publishing - which as you know has as much in common with general books as baking has to do with the tech industry. In fact, academic publishing is a first cousin of the tech industry. I had only ever seen proposals for textbooks on subjects such as “Digital Control Systems” or “Principles of Compiler Design.” I had no idea about pitching a mystery - but I did know about business. So, my proposal went way over the top. 

I prepared a one-page synopsis, followed by a detailed chapter breakdown with one paragraph on each chapter, which I thought would demonstrate the arc of the story. I went to bookstores and made notes about where my book would be placed if it was published, and which books would be alongside it. And I read the Acknowledgements page of books that were in the same field as mine, just to see if authors mentioned their agents - and I took those agents names down and did some background reading on them, adjusting my A, B, C profile lists accordingly. The next part of my proposal was “marketing” - which included the information about where the book would be positioned in a bookstore, which other books would be alongside it, and also non-book retail possibilities (special interest WW1 groups, Anglophiles, ex-pats, anything I could think of). I included a resume - completely unnecessary really. And once I’d prepared all the pages of my proposal, I wrote a table of contents for it and put it in a nice little binder. I made ten copies, and I also prepped ten copies of sample chapters - the first chapter, a chapter from the middle and one from towards the end of the book. I wanted to demonstrate the writing from different stages of the story. I clipped my sample pages - about 50 - to the inside back cover of the proposal and I set to work on my one-page cover letter. First paragraph - Introducing my book, this is what it’s about. Second paragraph - this is why it matters to me, personal connection to the story (my story within the story). Third paragraph - why I chose to approach you as an agent, mentioning a couple of the agent’s authors/books. Fourth paragraph - thank you for taking the time to read my proposal, etc., and look forward to hearing from you. The cover letter was the only personalized document - not only in the “Dear XXXX” but in that third paragraph. It demonstrated that I’d done my homework, that I took time over it. On August 31st, 2001, I sent ten packets out to my “A” list (at $3.20 per shot, which was $32.00 I could barely afford, especially when added to Kinko’s costs!!!). My plan was to hit the “B” list when all the refusals were in. I hoped I would not have to go through again and find a “D” list. The packs would have landed around September 4th, so if I was lucky, a few agents would have opened a pack on - yes, September 11th, 2001. When that terrible event happened, I thought, “That’s it - who wants a book about war now?” I knew it was only a matter of time before we were at war. I also knew the publishing industry - vulnerable at the best of times - could end up in the tank. And that’s what agents thought too.

By that time I was cleared to travel, and having gone through a quite difficult recovery, my husband’s friend who worked for United got me a buddy pass to fly to England as soon as airspace was opened up again after 9/11. I had put all thoughts of the fate of the manuscript out of my mind - over 3000 people had been killed, so it seemed beyond selfish to even think about it. Plus I had just landed a job with a company I once worked for, and was starting as soon as I returned from the UK. Then, miraculously, three days before I was due to fly to the UK, I had calls from three of those agents. 

Over the next month each of the others would write to say that they were not even thinking of taking on new authors until they knew which was the wind was blowing with regard to the publishing industry. I signed contracts with one of those agents within about a month of arriving back from the UK - and I chose the one who was interested in me as a writer, not the ones who were just looking for someone who might be the next big thing. Amy (Rennert) was the only one who asked me, “How do you see yourself growing as a writer.” And I thought then that she would be the one who would support me in my desire to be the best writer I could be. Because it was coming up to the end of the year (and the book needed revising!), Amy said she would not go out to publishers until February at the earliest. She started her “push” with the manuscript in March 2002. The book was sold in April 2002 - and not to the highest bidder. I took Amy’s advice, which was sound - she said that it would be too easy to go with the big publisher offering the bigger bucks, but as a new author especially, I could get “lost” among the big name authors. It would be easy to become overwhelmed, plus if the book crashed and burned, that would be my career, in tatters. The smaller publisher would also be able to publish the book sooner. “Maisie Dobbs” was published in June 2003 by SOHO press. But there is more to the story. Coincidentally, I had just read an article in Poets and Writers magazine, where very well-known authors were asked what they thought was the best way to publish a first novel - big publisher with big splash? Small publisher? A few declined to be named, but to a person they concluded that if you could pull it off, it was best for a first time author to publish the hardback with a small outfit, where there was personal attention and you were nurtured as an author, but then have the paperback rights picked up by a major publisher. I had that in the back of my mind when my agent told me there as an auction in progress for the paperback rights to Maisie Dobbs. Those rights went to Penguin, which was great, because they were marketing heavyweights. I think it’s important to say that my first advance bought me a new laptop, that’s all, and it was something to get very excited about. I knew I had decided upon an agent who I believed would be good for me over the long haul - and I made a good decision. The series has grown slowly but surely, though I was lucky when that first novel garnered so much attention, and was nominated for 7 awards, including the Edgar for Best Novel (I could not be nominated for Best First, as I wasn’t a US citizen).

I know I was so very fortunate in this almost “textbook” path to being published within the traditional publishing framework. Everything seemed to slot in at the right time. But I did my homework before I pitched - I had no personal contacts, so I had to do my due diligence. I did not just send out to agents without doing some pretty in-depth research, and I was thoughtful about my proposal, making sure it was succinct, that it demonstrated someone who was ready to be a professional writer, and one who would work hard - not only on the book itself, but in making it a success. But according to Amy, here’s what sold her - the cover letter. It was that second paragraph, when I wrote about my grandfather and his wounding in the Great War, and when I wrote about my grandmother working in a munitions factory - she said there was an emotional resonance that was hard to ignore. And all the other stuff I researched and wrote? Not wasted, because it made her job easier - it gave her plenty of material for her pitch to publishers.