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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Path to Published Success

I've been to many writers conferences where I've heard audience members ask the speaker how they became a New York Times best-selling author or achieved other publishing success. The answers have pretty much been the same: write as best you can, and don't give up. I think their answers are vague because, frankly, they don't even know how it happened to them...

My first book was published in 1984. So I have more than 26 years of experience - some firsthand and some watching other authors from the sidelines. I've seen authors who wrote horribly and ended up on bestseller lists. I've seen others who are remarkably talented give up because they were unable to find a publisher or agent. I've seen many others ebb and flow.

My own publishing success has been a roller coaster. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I found myself on the ground floor of the personal computer industry in the late 1970's. By the early 1980's, I began writing articles for computer magazines such as PC Magazine, inCider (an early Apple magazine), PC World and others. I received a letter in the mail (this was long before the Internet, email and text messages) from a publisher who said he'd read one of my articles and wanted me to write a book on creating databases. I thought he was representing a vanity press and I threw the letter away.

By the time the third letter arrived, I was curious. So I called him and I have to admit, I wasn't that friendly - I was ready to tell him to stop sending me letters. But in the course of our conversation, I realized that he was calling from a major publisher of textbooks. And THEY were wanting to pay ME.

I jumped right on that bandwagon and my first book sold tens of thousands of copies, even though computer books have a notoriously short shelf-life. That book was Creating the Perfect Database and it was used as a college textbook. I followed it with The Dynamics of WordPerfect when WordPerfect was the Number One word processing software for DOS. This was obviously pre-Windows. By the time the second book was released, the success of my writing made it possible for me to start my first computer company, McClelland Enterprises, Inc. By the time the third book, The Dynamics of Reflex, was released, my computer business was in full swing - and another computer company would follow soon after.

But my goal had always been to write suspense. And though I was now a publishing success - without a single personal appearance, book signing, or media appearance - I wasn't satisfied. I wanted to write novels.

When I contacted my editor, I found that publishers have their niches. And while he was wonderful at publishing textbooks, he didn't have a clue what to tell me about publishing a novel - except it was "different."

I fell into writing my first publishable novel 16 years after my first non-fiction was published.

I had continued in the computer business (which, let's admit, was extremely lucrative), primarily working with government agencies. But one day, I received a call from a trucking company, who proceeded to tell me they wanted me to write a program to hide their kickbacks.

To make a very long story short, I became a government informant, passing information to the FBI and helping to provide data that would eventually be used to assist the government investigations. And some time later, I was still a bit traumatized by that incident. In doing some soul searching and trying to make lemonade out of lemons, I came to the conclusion that I'd always wanted to be a writer. And they say "write what you know" so I did. I wrote my first suspense/thriller called Kickback. Though it was based on my own experience, the main character had more chutzpah than I would ever have. In fact, she was a lot of things I wished I was: athletic, daredevil, afraid of nothing.

It took two years to write it but another two years to find a publisher. I started with the big NY publishers, received those rejections pretty quickly, and worked my way down to the medium-sized publishers. By the time Kickback was published, I'd amassed more than 70 rejections.

But the success of Kickback was enough for me to decide I wanted to a writer. I learned quickly that getting a novel published was a lot different from textbooks. Novels required a lot more publicity - book signings, media attention, talks. By the following year when The China Conspiracy was released, I'd learned how to do television shows, radio interviews, newspaper interviews, book talks, participation in panels, the whole gamut.

But three years would elapse before my third suspense would be published (due to a move and other personal commitments), and by the time Ricochet was released (2006), the publishing industry was a different animal... More on that in a future blog.

One thing I learned from this process and from watching others: every author's path to success is unique. And that's why they can rarely tell you how to get to the top. Once it happens and the author looks back, they often have a difficult time figuring out how THEY got there.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Of Mice and Men

My home office is separated from my house. Each morning with drink in hand (non-alcoholic, of course) I leave my home and walk across to the staircase that will take me up to my bird's nest office where I can survey my property from 360 degrees.

This morning as I reached the bottom of the staircase, a field spider sat in my way.

"It's dead," I told myself just before it moved.

I stood there and it sat there and we studied each other for a long time.

There was no alternate way to my office. So there I stood, prepared for the day and unable to proceed.

If my husband had been home, I would have screamed. Screams and crying always get a quick response.

But he wasn't home.

I have a pest control contract. I thought briefly of going back in the house, calling the pest control company and reporting the spider.

Then I decided I was a big girl, and this was my house.

So I went back in the house and went out the side door leading to my garage. I would get the vacuum cleaner and suck up that critter, I thought. But it wouldn't be with MY vacuum cleaner. After all, what if it crawled out while I was vacuuming the living room? No; I would use my husband's handy-dandy shop vacuum that could suck up a Volkswagon.

I sneaked inside the garage door. Quiet, quiet, so the spider wouldn't know I was there. I walked along the back edge, tiptoeing, until I spotted the vacuum cleaner. Very gently, I pulled out the cord and tiptoed back to the far wall and plugged it in. Then silently, like a sniper, I walked in slow-motion back to my weapon. I disconnected the floor attachment and quietly moved into position.

A baby gate, meant to keep my dogs from eating all my husband's tools, separated me from the location of the spider.

So silently, stealthily, I raised the vacuum cleaner hose over the baby gate and maneuvered into position. I was ready.

I stepped forward, pointing the vacuum cleaner toward the base of the steps.

The spider was gone.

The only thing worse than seeing a spider is knowing there is one big, hairy, fat field spider somewhere in the room, and you don't know where.

My husband's garage has never been cleaner.

And no, I never found it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Blank Page

Many of my friends and fellow authors have been blogging for quite some time and they've finally convinced me to do the same. Ideas for books flow to me like hummingbirds gravitate to flowers. Give me a computer screen and tell me to start a blog, however, and I'm clueless. I looked at other blogs; some humorous, some dark, some downright frightening. Others tend to be about the day's flavor of gum and others much deeper.

I decided to begin at the beginning.

This blog will give you a peak into my world.

I heard Carrie Underwood say that she wanted to be a singer "from the womb" and I identified immediately. I was born with an imagination that has been both a curse and a blessing. But it wasn't until the 4th grade when I really began to write.

I'd been born in Washington, DC to an FBI Agent and his homemaker wife. We moved around a bit during my first few years but in 1967, with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, my father, a native Tennessean, was sent to the Mississippi Delta to help break up the Ku Klux Klan, search for Vietnam War deserters, and more.

By this time, I was living in New Jersey and had a pronounced northern accent. So on my first day of school, when the teacher told me to "open a winder" I didn't know what a "winder" was. I found out, after being threatened with a "paddling" that it was a window. Turned out, this teacher didn't embrace us Yankee upstarts coming down to Mississippi to tell them what they could and could not do. So on that first day of school, she threatened the other students if they had anything to do with me. Play with me, and get a paddlin'. Clear and simple.

I'd always had a vivid imagination, and now I was alone with whatever characters my mind could conjure. I have two brothers and two sisters, but we were a few years apart. I was the one in the middle. Too young to do the things the older ones did. And too old to do the things the younger ones got away with. So I dreamed. I dreamed of people who would play with me. Of places I would go. Things I would see. In the hot, humid summer of the Mississippi Delta, I thought of exotic, far-away places, cruises, castles, knights in shining armor.

My first "book" was written on the backs of white cardboard that came with the stockings my mother purchased. When it was done, all thirteen pages of it (thank God my mother's stockings "ran" quite frequently) I bound it together by sewing yarn along one side. It was about time travel to another world - a world where animals talked, where vegetables and fruits lived lives like humans, and a place where I was always safe, even if danger abounded around me.

Later that school year, I won a poetry contest. I don't remember the poem, but I do remember walking across the stage and being awarded a poetry book by the principal of the school. She was good to me, and encouraged me to write. She would be only the first.

By the time I reached the 8th grade, I was writing prolifically. Ms. Webb, my English teacher, was about 150 years old. She encouraged me to participate in a writing contest and I was astonished to learn that she'd been notified that I'd won. But our celebration was short-lived. It turned out, she'd written my name as "Pat" on the entry form, and the judges had assumed I was a boy. (To this day, I've never gone by that name, and I don't know what possessed Ms. Webb to write that name.) When it was discovered that I was a girl, they disqualified me. Turned out, they didn't believe girls could write as well as boys so the contest was only for the males.

I was disappointed but Ms. Webb was fit to be tied. She died two years later, and I felt her every time I sat down at my manual Smith-Corona typewriter. I'd buy a ream of paper and draw penciled margins around each page so I'd know when to stop typing each page. And I would bang on that typewriter, putting out page after page, for years...

Some people write off and on. Some tell me they want to write a book, but they never do. Others are like me. I can't stop writing. It's something I've been called to do. It's like water. Like food. Take the keyboard from under my fingers and you may as well chop off the fingers themselves.

And to me, that's what makes a writer: it's what you are when you can't imagine being anything else.