Hi! Maureen Milliken, checking in.
Even before I was a published mystery writer (still hard to get used to that phrase), possibly because I did a lot of freelance book editing, or maybe just because I’m a know-it-all, I’d get asked a lot what the “secret” to getting published was. Since my book, Cold Hard News, came out earlier this month, I’ve been asked with more frequency.
I get it. The process of getting a book published is soul-searing, life-sucking hell. Take it from someone who sent out query letters for nearly five years (with some hiatuses and lots of revisions along the way). It seems there has to be some kind of magic bullet.
My answer over the years is the same as my answer now, and can be boiled down to three basics: preparation, hard work and tenacity.
The details, of course, can be found on the Internet. But those three things apply to everything from writing a publishable book to finally getting it published to getting people to buy it once it’s published.
I could write reams and reams on any of the stops in the road from first sitting down to write to the post-publishing blitz. I won’t today (yes, I hear your huge sigh of relief), but there’s one offshoot that takes all three into account I never gave a lot of thought to until recently: Make yourself a part of the mystery writing community. It’s never to early.
I don’t mean in a cynical way. I’m not really a befriend-people-so-they’ll-help-you-out type. I don’t have the energy, social skills or salesmanship for that.
I mean it in an organic way. Be a part of a community and it’s a lovely, generous community that will take you in and be there when you need them.
One thing became clear when I became serious about getting to work on my mystery novel several years ago: I had no flipping idea what I was doing. So I joined the Mystery Writers of America (a couple years later I also joined the awesome Sisters in Crime). I signed up for CrimeBake, the conference held every November in Dedham, Mass., and sponsored by those two organizations.
I didn’t sign up thinking that I would network, so much as that I’d sop up information that would point me in the right direction.
I was right about the information. I learned more about what was needed and expected to write a book and get it published at that conference and from those organizations than I knew existed. But the really cool thing was I started meeting people. People who were doing the same thing I was.
I’m not great at social situations. I talk — a lot — but am not good a small talk. I enjoy people, but have never been a champ at making friends and giving a roaringly positive first impression. I’d rather sit back and observe and eavesdrop than put myself out there and be treated like the dorky kid trying to sit at the cool kids’ table. But when I went to my first CrimeBake in 2009, I vowed that I’d try to act like a “normal” person, be friendly, outgoing, make small talk. What did I have to lose?
So I did. That first year, I re-introduced myself to John Radosta, who I’d met through a mutual friend when we all went to a Bob Dylan concert together. Not only does John feel about Dylan the way I do, but also is a kick-ass writer who turned out to be one of my most insigtful readers. The awesome Brenda Buchanan sat down next to me at a table in the bar one year, and it turned out not only had we been reporters on the same beat in York County, Maine, way back in the 1980s, when she regularly beat me on stories, but we both lived in Maine and had novels that had a journalism angle. She asked me to read the manuscript for Quick Pivot, which was released this spring, but also insisted on reading mine, Cold Hard News, which I insisted was finished. She was gently persistent and I gave in. After her read, I realized it wasn’t finished and she helped me tremendously to make it a better book.
A little starstruck, I introduced myself to Paul Doiron at the Friday night cocktail party shortly after his first novel, The Poacher’s Son, was released. He turned out to be a genuinely nice guy and over the years has become a friend. I introduced myself to Gerry Boyle after a seminar he did on writing character, figuring it was OK because he once worked for the newspaper I now work for, so that would be a talking point. He turned out to be a nice guy, too.
I also made a lot of other friends and connections, including meeting Lisa Jackson and June Lemen, with whom I’d form a writing group in New Hampshire while I was struggling through the early days of writing Cold Hard News. Julie Hennrikus, Barb Ross, Kit Irwin — the list goes on.
The whole time I was forging these friendships, I wasn’t thinking of how it would pay off for me. I was just grateful that all these cool people took the time to get to know me and talk writing, mysteries and life.
The ones who helped with my book over the years helped the final product become what it is, and I’ve always known that and been grateful.
The bigger surprise came once the book was being published. Paul Doiron, Gerry Boyle, Kate Flora, Barb Ross and Brenda Buchanan — all very busy people with their own books just released, or on deadline for ones about to be — agreed to write blurbs for me. And they were awesome.
Kate and Brenda came to my launch party and helped make it a rousing success.
And just last week, I had the privilege of taking part in a book signing-reading at a Waterville, Maine, book store with Gerry, where he talked more about my book than he did his own.
So what’s the magic bullet? Hard work. Tenacity. Preparation. And become part of the community. But not because you’re looking for payback some day, but because being part of a community that does the same thing you do will make you better in every way.