Many people have asked me, "Jeri, how does one get into the whole publishing thing, anyway?" And I reply, "Well, you have an idea, you write it down, and then you let strangers in New York tell you how great it is but they can't use it. Then repeat step three over and over again."
But seriously, I think you need to start with at least some germ of talent. I've been writing stories ever since I could pick up a crayon, but I never considered it a viable career option until several years ago, mostly with the advent of home computers (I'm not that good a typist).
Then of course this talent needs to be honed. And really, the only way to do that is write. And write. And lots of reading, all kinds of things. I have a pantheon of favorite books. Let me see if I can list some here.
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (truly responsible for inspiring my wanting to write novels and indeed, I finished my first full-length 400 page novel at sixteen. It ain't bad but it will never see the light of day. No way.)
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--a truly clever page turner and great fun to read aloud
- The House on the Strand by Daphne DuMaurier--not one that usually comes up in book lists, but when I find myself looking for something to read, I will inevitably pull this down and revisit it. It's got mystery, time travel, romance. Great fun, along with...
- the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers--what can I say about these? It's all about the characters, less so about the mystery, so I can read and enjoy them over and over again.
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens--by far my favorite of his
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin--so romantic and so wordy. Interesting always to see the fashions change in terms of what is acceptable in the publishing world. You couldn't get away with this today, but they do continue to film it, don't they?
- The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies--the stories take you in such interesting places and always with the most adventurous prose as does...
- Arturo Perez-Reverte, mostly The Fencing Master, The Seville Communion, The Club Dumas, The Flanders Panel--equal kudos has to go to his translators. Great plots and great prose (no greater praise, really)
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee--it's got it all: a great voice, great plot, interesting characters, read-aloud prose
- The Little Prince by Antoine Saint Exupery--I was so obsessed with this little book when I was in high school I wrote a play based on it. It's not bad (the play, that is).
- The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett--and he's not alone in this genre...
- In A Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes--noir doesn't get any noirer than that
- The Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters--when I didn't even know such books existed. I was in a little mystery book store high in the mountains and I just started looking in the stacks, reading the various categories, and I began to wonder, 'do you suppose they have a section for medieval mysteries?'--and there it was!
- The King's Fool by Margaret Campbell Barnes--this is historical fiction from my parents' library ('50s and early '60s) and there was a lot of it: Nora Lofts, Thomas B. Costain, Roberta Gellis (the older stuff), so many more authors that got my juices flowing for tales of the past
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer--still waiting for him to finish it. As you might have guessed, I was raised in a house where history was king, especially English history so I obtained my interest in things English by osmosis
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling--I LOVE these books. She's a good read for mystery writers because she's good at leaving clues that don't seem like clues. And to me, it's the perfect blend of things medieval with a modern-day setting. And the magic. It's just way cool.
- Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess--Come on. Everyone's read it. Great for reading to an audience of four-year-olds. Has a happy ending.
- The complete works of William Shakespeare...by Edward DeVere (now you know where I stand)
You might have noticed I like a lot of series. I just noticed that, too. Hmm. These are just some of my favorites that I can see while scanning my shelves. I'm sure there are more.
So, reading is important to writing because it enlivens your vocabulary. Besides, good books drop you into places you may never be able to visit. I hope I do that with my prose as well.
Then (in this sojourn of publishing, remember? That's what we're talking about), you need an idea and begin to write it down. Now, I was never an outliner. Just wrote from page one to "The End", with some notes in between. But this mystery business seems to need more care and feeding, so I find that I outline more these days, but still not too strigently, because some of my best ideas come out of just the process of writing.
My characters all have biographies. That's very handy because things come out of writing those that you never expected and might use later. You always want more than you'll ever use, really. Think of real life and how much people will never (hopefully!) know about you.
I usually start with an idea or an incident and just begin by thinking about it. So staring into space is one of the job descriptions (see why I like it so much?) Then I start writing down notes, scenes, dialogue, incidents, what needs to happen, who dies, how. I usually have to research something, and since each Crispin Guest novel involves some sort of religious relic, I start with that and anything else that crops up. So there is at least a month or two of just research and note-taking before I begin to write the thing. And then I go in order, from page one on. And I edit and rewrite as I go. And rewrite. And rewrite. Did mention I do a lot of rewrites? So by the time I'm done with one "draft" it's really been several hundred (I don't even want to know). A critique group is invaluable along the way or at the end. Support is extremely necessary and I've found mine with Sisters in Crime, a international organization of mystery writers. Through them I met my Vicious Circle: a group of three other splendid ladies, Ana Brazil, Bobbie Gosnell, and Laura James who write like the dickens. I am lost without them. Check out their sites as well.
Now you have a manuscript, but did you format it correctly? That needs looking up. And this is a business, after all, so one must observe the needs of that business. You must write a synopsis. Several, in fact. One long and detailed one several pages long, a one page synopsis, a one paragraph synopsis, a 25 word synopsis, the kind of thing you need when someone in an elevator asks what the book is about (also known as the pitch). You need a biography on yourself. What have you done or what do you do that might in any way be a platform on which you can sell this book? (Yes, shrinking violets need not apply. YOU must sell your book today if you are lucky enough to get it published).
In today's publishing market, it is almost impossible to sell your book without an agent. The big publishers won't even look at it, will send it back unread without an agent slipping it in the door first. So you need to research how to get an agent and querying the ones that are right for you. Or, as in the case of mysteries, there are small publishers in this genre that will take unagented submissions.
One can discover all this keen information in...books! How to get an agent, how to pick a publisher, the format of your manuscript, how to write a mystery, romance, thriller, children's book, etc. There are organizations for writers published and unpublished.
I recommend getting published, though, at least in something. Proves people will pay for your writing. Write articles for your local papers, magazines. Write short stories and work on getting those published. But do your homework or you will waste lots of paper, ink, and postage (yes, a lot of it is still snail mailed.)
And even after all of this, you will still get rejected. Many, many times. It takes a thick skin and perseverance. And hope over experience. Yeah, a lot of that. After all, I'm still at it.