Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Now that we’re in the last, nail-biting weeks leading up to Crime Writers of Canada’s Best Unpublished Novel Award (the Unhanged Arthur), I’m trying to be all Zen about it. After all, this is my second year making it to the shortlist. Just breathe, Pam, let it go; your chances of winning are nil. Still, the odd fantasy manages to creep in when I’m supposed to be sleeping, flossing my teeth, listening to the CBC news, or earning a living. I can feel that Bony Pete statuette in my hands, count the sales to Kindle and Sony e-readers, action doll figures, movie rights, Oprah, the Giller and Guv General committees coming to their senses as they realize crime writing can be fine literature too; and I just know Bobby Hepditch will finally regret dumping me after the high school prom. Okay; being Zen ain’t easy.
But then writing a novel isn’t easy either. All of you fellow crime writers know this. The only thing harder than writing is getting published.
Contests can improve your chances of publication, and increase your sales once you are published. Just making it to the longlist is enough to get you a closer reading from agents and editors. So enter! And when you get longlisted or shortlisted, put it in the first line of your query letter.
Louise Penny entered the UK’s Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award and her unpublished novel, Still Life was shortlisted. She didn’t win, but making the shortlist garnered her attention from editors and agents and secured her an agent. Louise has gone on to write four more novels and win numerous awards. That first contest set her on her way.
Phyllis Smallman won the first ever CWC Unhanged Arthur and was published by McArthur and Co Publishers, who have just published the third novel in her Sherri Travers series. Phyllis was also shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger.
For unpublished crime writers there is also the St. Martin’s Minotaur/ Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition; again, the winner is considered for a publishing contract.
The Killer Nashville/ Claymore Dagger Award comes with a chance at publication with Avalon.
More information for each of these contests can be found on their websites. CWC and the UK’s CWA both offer valuable tips on how to give your manuscript the best chance of impressing the judges. Fees range from $35 to $50.
Last year, after my novel, This Cage of Bones, made the shortlist, I attended the CWC Awards ceremony in Ottawa, followed by the Bloody Words Conference, and I had a blast. It was wonderful to finally meet other writers whom I’d known online for years. I schmoozed like a campaigning politician, made some good connections in the writing biz, and hob-nobbed with sundry ink-stained wretches, Attila-the-Hun agents, media types and fans. I maybe should’ve been cut off after the third glass of wine when I pitched my novel to one of the waiters. But hey, he liked the idea of being an agent and said it would save him having to graduate high school, which apparently was looking kind of dodgy anyway. In the meantime he cut me a bigger percentage of the chocolate mousse.
I did pitch to a real agent at the Conference, and she asked me to send her the manuscript. I decided I’d first eviscerate my novel, so I cut two hundred pages of the most compelling, heart-wrenching, literary prose. Re-wrote the thing for the four hundred and twelfth time, slashed, wept, replenished my lost electrolytes with carrot juice and added three semi-colons.
By then I was also fifty thousand words into the next book in the series and it was time to enter the Unhanged Arthur again. Tempus fuggit, eh? A second agent saw the announcement when I was shortlisted last month and asked to have a look at it. Ultimately it wasn’t for her, but she did compliment me on my writing.
Even if I don’t win (again) this year, making the shortlist provides credibility for my career and a boost to my saggy self-esteem. Being a writer means living on an emotional roller coaster that seems to not just plummet earthward, but actually crash through the earth’s crust and take you down to where that infamous slough of despond is stashed.
If I don’t win I’ll go home and pick up the beast and carry on. I will try to improve it again; I will try to find someone who loves it. I will keep writing because I have no other choice. I will find joy in the words I craft that come alive off the page for me and keep waiting for my time to be ready.
So enter those contests, and keep on writing!
How the job changes the officers doing it
Get eye-witness information at the Edmonton Public Library - three sessions remaining
and, for writers searching for agents and publishers:
Why it's wise to check Writer Beware before signing with an agent
Saturday, May 15, 2010
My Long Journey to a Book Contract
In spring 2007, I completed my first mystery novel A Deadly Fall. After five drafts, I prepared to query publishers and agents. The story is set in Calgary and my preference was to publish in Canada.
My preparations began at a Writers Union of Canada one-day presentation on publishing. The presenters offered advice on manuscript submissions and query letters and a list of reputable Canadian agents. At home, I checked the agents’ websites and found a half dozen who were receptive to both unsolicited submissions and mystery genre books. I got my list of potential publishers from the Crime Writers of Canada website. That spring, they listed all the books submitted for the Arthur Ellis Awards, with authors’ and publishers’ names.
Large Canadian presses don’t have submission guidelines on their websites, since they don’t officially accept unsolicited submissions. They also don’t mention their editors’ names, probably so they won’t be flooded with queries from aspiring writers. The WU presenters said the big presses secretly comb the slush pile, not wanting to miss the next hot thing. They recommended sending a query letter and the novel’s first three chapters to the appropriate editor. I found those editors by going to the library and bookstores and studying the acknowledgements in the Arthur Ellis nominees’ books.
Small Canadian presses generally welcome submissions and post guidelines on their websites. Typically, they want a synopsis and the first few chapters, although some request the entire manuscript from the start.
My next step was to draft a query letter. People say this letter is vitally important. I modelled mine on the WU presenters’ sample, ran it by friends and scrutinized every word.
In June, 2007, I mailed my first batch of queries – to five large or medium-sized Canadian publishers and one agent. Three weeks later I received a request for the full manuscript from the agent. Wow. I was on my way. Four months later the agent sent an encouraging letter rejecting my novel. She liked the book, but felt new mystery writers were too hard a sell and had a few problems with my story. Her critique led me to make another, minor, revision before sending out more submissions.
I continued querying agents and publishers in batches and received form rejections and rejections with positive comments. Many publishers and agents did not reply. A second agent asked for the manuscript. She also liked the book but felt Canadian publishers weren’t buying mysteries from new authors. I entered unpublished mystery novel contests and didn’t place. I discovered more possible publishers through sources like Quill and Quire magazine. In July-Aug, 2008, I queried my 14th to 17th publishers. In November, one of them requested my manuscript – my first publisher’s request after almost a year and half of querying. In January, 2009, I got a request from Publisher Number 17, TouchWood Editions.
Statistically, publisher’s requests have about a 10 percent chance of leading to a contract. During the coming months, I queried 10 more publishers, knowing some were extreme long-shots. I sent e-mail follow-ups to the publishers who had my manuscript. An editor I’d sent it to unsolicited said he was passing it along to his publisher. I had a third faint hope.
In January 2010, I received an e-mail from Ruth Linka, the publisher of TouchWood Editions. She asked if my novel was still available and said she wanted to give the manuscript to another reader. I was too afraid to hope and knew my novel could go down to a final meeting, where it would be passed over for someone else’s.
I felt I was down to the wire with Canadian presses. I had tried all the ones I knew of that might conceivably publish my mystery novel - 26 in total. I expected to know by spring if my three hopes would fall through and came up with a Plan B: Revise the novel and try the US and British market. I was not looking forward to this.
In March, I went to Australia on holiday. Three days after I left, Ruth Linka called my home. The following week she e-mailed, asking for a convenient time to phone me. It took a week for me to get these messages and longer to find a suitable time to phone her from Australia. She made an offer to publish my novel. I was thrilled to say yes.
Back home, it all seems to be happening so quickly. I signed the contract with TouchWood this week. Next week, Ruth will put me in e-mail touch with my editor and in-house promotions person. I’ll be spending the summer editing and the year after that gearing up for the book launch.
It has been a long, hard eighteen years that don’t feel so bad now that they’re over. There were many times I felt like quitting, felt my writing didn’t measure up and felt I’d never get here. What kept me going, I think, is that I enjoy the writing process. I like sitting in my room making up stories. I like going over and over them to develop their meaning and make them come across to others. I like learning techniques to make my writing and stories better.
I also enjoy the social aspect – attending writing group sessions and gatherings and classes, meeting fellow writers and making new friends.
Now, I’ll enjoy the social part of giving readings, presenting at festivals and conferences and, I hope, connecting my stories to readers.
Author of "A Deadly Fall"
coming in 2011 from TouchWood
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Nineteen years ago, I decided to become a writer. Aside from letters and term papers, I hadn’t written anything since high school. I plunged into a semi-autobiographical novel I expected to finish in a few months. Within a few years, I knew it would hit the bestseller lists.
It didn’t work out that way.
I quickly realized I had a lot to learn about writing and enrolled in Concordia University continuing education courses in Creative Writing and Magazine Writing. For the latter, we had to write an article and query letter targeted to a magazine or newspaper. At the time, I was living in Montreal and was an avid reader of The Montreal Gazette newspaper travel section. I wrote a travel piece about the Calgary Stampede, which I had visited the previous summer, and sent my query to The Gazette travel editor.
I sweated his reply. Two months passed. Why was he taking so long? One night, while I was at a school parent committee meeting, the editor phoned. He wanted to publish my article. I couldn’t stop smiling for a week. This writing-thing had been the right choice. It was going to be easy.
I queried magazines with other travel article ideas. And received rejections. I wrote a short story and sent it to a literary magazine. Rejected. I started two murder mystery novels and abandoned them after a couple of chapters.
A short story I started morphed into a novel. A year later I had a first draft – 1,000 pages. Even I could see that was a tad long for a first book. I ruthlessly cut it in half.
My husband’s job transfer took me to Calgary, where I discovered a thriving writing community. I joined the Calgary Writers’ Association (now defunct) and the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society, where I took courses and later served as president. I became a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and Mystery Writers’ INK. All of these groups taught me much about the writing craft, offered tips on getting publishing and brought me into contact with fellow writers. Many have offered support and advice over the years and become valued friends.
All this time, I worked on my novel in workshops, classes and critique groups. I radically revised it, polished it up and sent it out to the publishing world.
No one was interested.
Discouraged, I turned to short stories, which I could finish in a much shorter period. My plan was to publish some for recognition and a feeling of accomplishment. The plan worked, albeit slowly. I kept sending my stories out, receiving rejections, sending them elsewhere. Gradually a number were accepted. Each acceptance gave me a mental boost. My story credits lead to an offer to teach writing courses at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre, an activity I thoroughly enjoy. They also provided a track record that became a selling point down the road when I queried publishers about my murder mystery novel.
I started the mystery novel in the fall of 2003 and finished the first draft by Christmas. The following summer I brought the first two chapters to a one week workshop with author Fred Stenson at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. Fred and the class attacked my work. I wound up with a tighter, much improved opening. A fall novel course at the AWCS with author Eileen Coughlan gave me direction for the rest of the book. I wrote the second draft and took a few middle chapters to The Sage Hill Writing Experience Fiction Workshop with Steven Galloway, a literary writer who believes in the importance of plot. My Sage Hill critiques propelled me into draft number three. When I finished it, I considered beginning queries, but something about the book didn’t feel right. I registered for a Booming Ground online mentorship with Lawrence Hill, another author who values plot. After a gruelling year of work I had the book I wanted. I did a fifth draft based on comments by Hill and friends who had read the manuscript. I was ready to query agents and publishers.
[end of Part 1 - watch for Part 2 next week]
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Flash Fiction (1,000 words or less) :
"And Here's to You, Mrs.Edwardson," by Hamilton Waymire.
This appeared in Big Pulp .
Short Fiction (1,001 to 4,000 words):
"Twas the Night" by Anita Page.
This appeared in the Gift of Murder anthology.
Long Fiction (4,001 to 8,000 words):
"Famous Last Words" by Doug Allyn.
This appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Novelette (8,001+ words):
"Julius Katz" by Dave Zeltserman.
This appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Golden Derringer (for lifetime contributions to the field short mystery fiction):
Stories eligible for the Derringers must have appeared in a recognized paper or online publication during the previous year. Panels of judges for each category complile a short list from among all nominees, from which member voting determines the winners.
$17.99, Writers Digest Books, 2009
--Reviewed by Anne Jayne
About 2400 years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinesse general, recorded his advice for the battlefield. The Art of War is a field manual covering tactics and strategies for winning battles, and wars.
James Scott Bell is a contemporary novelist, as well as being the author of two books on writing. Inspired by Sun Tzu's work, Bell wrote The Art of War for Writers. It is a compact little book (suitable for carrying in your field jacket pocket) that covers reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy for writers.
He describes his objective for writing this book thus:
"What I want to do with this collection is offer you some helpful observations based on more than twenty years in the fiction writing game. This is not a comprehensive 'how to' on fiction. I've written two other books in that form. rather, I see to fill in some 'cracks' in what is normally taught in writing books and classes."
I think he's achieved his goal. Each of the chapters is short, but punchy. While I was already familiar with some of the advice he offers, I also found great ideas that were new to me. I've implemented some of those great new ideas already.
Bell often illustrates his points with anecdotes. From these I learned, among other things, that a writer should not try to pitch his or her book to an editor who is giving birth to her daughter. Nor should a writer literally get down on her knees to beg an agent to accept her as a client. Desperation does not win the hearts and minds of editors or writers.
The book has three parts: reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy.
Reconnaissance: Bell talks about the fundamental principles of establishing a successful writing life.
Tactics: By this stage, you're in the midst of writing your novel, or perhaps you've finished the first draft. Here, Bell offers pithy words of advice on how to make your novel better. Characters. Plot. Comedy. Pacing. Suspense. (And more.)
Strategy: With your novel finished, and polished up, it is time to attend to the business of writing. Bell offers advice on agents, editors, and publishers; on writers' conferences and elevators; on cover letters and synopses; and on criticism.
As already noted, this is a compact book: three parts, seventy-seven chapters, 259 pages.
This isn't the book that will teach an aspiring writer everything he or she wants to know about the craft of writing, or the business of writing. However, I bet that most writers, aspiring or experienced, will discover some new ideas, some inspiring (or funny) anecdotes, and some great quotations on the writing life within the pages of the book.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
The Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition 2011
Writers' Police Academy Novel Writing Contest
Love is Murder 2011 Short Story Contest
Denver, Colorado Lit agent Kristin Nelson on her blog "Pub Rants"
Twitter for Authors: a Primer
Travel Writing Workshop with Marcello Di Cintio
June 5th at Memorial Park Library, Calgary
Anthony Bidulka, author of the very popular Russel Quant PI series set in Saskatoon
Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw
Hear local poets the first Thursday of each month at Pages Books on Kensington
Next: Thursday May 6th at 7:30pm Kevin Stebner, Preet Gill, Bernadette Wagner
Speaker: Judith Duthie, Manager of Owl's Nest Books, will discuss promoting your book: things to do before, during and after publication of your first novel, including exercises in how to hand-sell your book to booksellers. Short blurb-writing exercises will also occur if time permits.
Mystery Writers Ink Special Meeting (same night as above):
If you did not receive your email with notice of bylaw changes last month, please check your spam folder and then, if you still don't have it, email firstname.lastname@example.org with 'bylaws' in the subject line for a re-send. We will be voting on May 13th.