Mystery writers: truly a community, and the best kind

OK, Maine Crime Writers fans, the mystery of the missing blog post has been solved. Because here it is. Sorry it’s a little late today. OK, a lot late.

But you know what I DID do today? I signed up for the New England Crime Bake. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s held in Dedham, Massachusetts, every year on Veterans Day weekend. A conference for mystery writers and fans. And it’s awesome.

I’m probably repeating myself, because I know I’ve blogged about Crime Bake before, but everything about it bears repeating.

I went to my first one in 2008, desperate to find a way to get going on the mystery novel I’d planned on writing my entire life. I’ve gone every year since, and when I hit it this year, I’ll have two published mystery novels under my belt. I owe a lot of that to Crime Bake.

Not only was listening to the writers, publishers, editors — everyone at the conference — motivating, but it was also a huge learning experience for someone who knew next to nothing about getting a mystery novel published. Or, obviously, even getting one written.

Just as important, I made friends there that have been the foundation of my mystery writing career. At my first one, I met June Lemen and Lisa Haselton, two other New Hampshire writers, and we formed a writing group. That got me writing Cold Hard News, my first Bernie O’Dea mystery.

That's me, second row, in pink, with the other 2015 debut novelists at last year's Crime Bake. Brenda Buchanan is two to my left, in the red sweater.

That’s me, second row second from left, in pink, with the other 2015 debut novelists at last year’s Crime Bake. Brenda Buchanan is two to my left, in the red sweater.

Over subsequent years I met fellow Maine Crime Writers blogger Brenda Buchanan, who, it turns out, was the reporter who always beat me when she was with the York County Coast Star and I was with the Biddeford Journal-Tribune in the early 1980s.

There are a lot of other people, too. Some of them I just see once a year (and on Facebook, of course), but it always feels like it was just yesterday.

I’ll tell you something about the newspaper business you may never guess otherwise: it’s not the most nurturing, supportive environment. It’s stressful, the stakes are high, our mistakes are out there for the world to see. People don’t send us flowers (OK, it  happened to me once, but the guy was kind of a stalker), and rarely call or email to tell us they love us or what we do. They do call, but not to tell us that.

Doin' journalism.

Doin’ journalism.

Even the hardest, most satisfying work is there for a flash, a day or two, then gone. I’m not bashing it. I’ve been doing daily journalism for thirty-three years and I love it. It’s a vocation to me, not just a career, and I can’t imagine doing anything else (or imagine anyone else who would have me).

The only other thing I could imagine doing is being a full-time mystery writer. And one of the things that would make that so awesome, aside from all the other obvious things, is the mystery writing community. I was welcomed when I was struggling to write a novel, I was welcomed as I was writing it, and I was welcomed after I was published. I’ve never, ever heard a harsh word from a fellow mystery writer, never felt like what I was doing wasn’t worthwhile or I wasn’t a member of the club. The encouragement and support is phenomenal.

Aside from the really good advice, support and encouragement from my former writing group and Brenda, and countless other friends in the mystery writing community, here’s stuff that wouldn’t have happened to me without Crime Bake:

When Cold Hard News was “finished,” but I still didn’t have a publisher, I signed up for a manuscript critique at the 2014 Crime Bake. I don’t get easily discouraged, but I’d been pitching and revising for four and a half years and if I weren’t a stubborn blockhead, may have given up. Hank Phillippi Ryan was my critiquer (I don’t want to say critic). She went through my first chapter with me in such a thorough and insightful way that Friday night that I spent the next afternoon rewriting it. When I told her Saturday night that I was inspired and reworking it, she encouraged me to email it to her when I was done. Right, I thought. She’s a nice person, but very busy and I doubt she has time for my cruddy manuscript. Sunday, after I got home from Crime Bake, I sent the reworked chapter to her anyway. She responded a couple hours later with an ecstatic email telling me what a great job I’d done, including an all-caps WOW and an admission that it made her teary-eyed.

Two months later, after I decided to skip trying the whole agent thing and directly query publishers who accepted submissions from authors, my now-publisher liked my manuscript. Maybe it would have  happened anyway, but if they can’t get through the first chapter, they won’t read the rest. I have Hank to thank for that.

Gerry Boyle reads from Once Burned at a dual book signing in Waterville, Maine, last June.

Gerry Boyle reads from Once Burned at a dual book signing in Waterville, Maine, last June.

After Cold Hard News came out, Ellen Richmond, a bookseller in Waterville, Maine, agreed to a signing with me and fellow Maine Crime Writer Gerry Boyle. Now you have to understand how Gerry is regarded in Maine. I work for the same newspaper he once did, and when people found out I was writing a mystery novel, they’d say “Like Gerry Boyle?” or “Have you heard of Gerry Boyle?” or “Now Gerry Boyle, there’s a mystery writer.” I don’t disagree. In fact, when I read his first book, Deadline, in the early 1990s, it was the first mystery I ever read that I felt got journalism right. He got Maine right, too. And I said, “See? I want to do what that guy does.” So yeah, I knew who Gerry Boyle was.

At a Crime Bake before Cold Hard News was published, I approached Gerry after he did a master class on writing character. I was kind of shy, thinking the big-shot writer would brush me off, but I wanted to introduce myself now that I was back in Maine and worked where he used to. Not only didn’t he brush me off, he was friendly and gracious enough that it led to a friendship.

No News is Bad News, the second in the Bernie O'Dea mystery series, coming out in July. Thanks, Crime Bake!

No News is Bad News, the second in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, coming out in July. Thanks, Crime Bake!

That said, I was still nervous about a dual book signing last June. Here I was with my one book, shaky as hell that no one would like it, and Gerry was promoting Once Burned, his zillionth or gazillionth I think (the gazillionth-and-one just came out this week: Straw Man). Lots of people came to the signing, most of them to see Gerry. But here’s what Gerry did: he talked up my book. He didn’t have to, but he did. More than his own, or at least that’s how it felt. And people bought it.

Both of those experiences were huge lessons to me well worth the price of the Crime Bake admission. What they brought me in terms of “success” aren’t even the most  important things about them.

Writing a mystery? Or even a non-mystery? Consider going to Crime Bake this year. You won’t regret it.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Cold Hard News was published in June 2015, and No News is Bad News is due out in July. She is City Editor of the Morning Sentinel newspaper in Waterville, Maine. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries and sign up for email updates on her website, maureenmilliken.com.

 

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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6 Responses to Mystery writers: truly a community, and the best kind

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Putting my hand in the air as the volunteer critique coordinator who matched you up with Hank. (Actually it was a no-brainer. I had a book about a reporter/I had a reporter critiquer.) But still, I’m claiming the credit.

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  2. You SHOULD claim credit, Barb, for all your great work helping make Crime Bake a better conference each and every year, and YOU deserve a gold star, Maureen, for working so diligently toward the goal of publishing your work.

    I also credit Crime Bake and the many wonderful mentors and colleagues (including you, Mo) who I have met there over the years. It really is ground zero for the New England crime writing community, and you are so right, it really is a community. Readers of this blog who aspire to publication and have never been to the ‘Bake should register right now. It is worth every penny (and as conferences go, is quite affordable).

    Good topic, Maureen – thanks for posting.

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  3. C.T. Collier says:

    I’m going to Crime Bake for the first time this year. Your enthusiasm is revving me up and calming my jitters at the same time! I’ll have my debut, first-in-series, in hand. Hope to see you there. 🙂 –kate

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  4. Skye says:

    This was a wonderful post and your community and the Crime Bake sound amazing.

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  5. Inspiring stuff, Maureen! Could agree more.

    Like

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