Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Long Journey to a Book Contract

INK member, Susan Calder, signed her first book publishing contract this week for her mystery novel A Deadly Fall. Here is Part One of her story of how she got there. Tune in to Part Two next week

Part 1:

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]