"The Cat Who" encouraged me to keep writing
AGENTS CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH.
Once upon a time, after Irregardless of Murder had been published, I was actually able to find a real literary agent. She was a well-respected professional whom I met at a writing conference. I queried her (as we say in the biz) and she liked my manuscript.
The new book was a stand-alone, entitled Another Think Coming, and was a semi-serious, semi-comic novel about a Texas grandma, Hester MacBride, who blames the death of her only grandson on a local drug dealer. Deeming herself “hopping mad at God,” she decides that she is the only one who can bring justice to this evildoer, since law enforcement seems hamstrung.
But how does a law-abiding, God-fearing woman do such a thing? Her efforts are sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious. In the course of her efforts, she finds herself assisting at a revival service, where she prays with a contrite stranger. The stranger in question turns out to be the very criminal she has been stalking. What happens next lands Hester in serious hot water.
My agent loved my character’s feistiness, her faith and her courage. Secular publishers, unfortunately, found my book too religious. Christian publishers, while they complimented my writing, seemed to find my book too gritty or something. Anyway, after a good long try, the agent and I decided to call it quits. She’s a wonderful agent, and I’d recommend her to anybody. She just couldn’t perform miracles.
DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB—YET
So I—in agricultural terms—lay fallow for a while. I wrote a sequel to my first book, Irregardless of Murder and planned a third. I contributed short pieces to a couple of devotional books and gave talks locally on writing and mysteries, which went over well. I became a grandmother and that took up a lot of my time. But I never stopped wanting my Miss Prentice series to get another try.
THE LILIAN (sic) JACKSON BRAUN STORY
Most cozy mystery writers know who she is, the author of The Cat Who… series. Years ago, she published the first three or four of her cat mysteries and then cozies supposedly fell out of fashion. Noir mysteries were what sold, according to her publisher. So she went back to her day job, and hoped for a comeback, which came about 15 years later. Her first few books were re-published, and subsequent The Cat Who books have been top-sellers ever since.
I took Lilian’s story seriously. Miss Prentice could make a comeback, I was sure. And she has. My new publisher has done a wonderful job of getting things going again. Irregardless is expanded and updated, has a new (and more striking) cover, and actually is available in ebook form, which didn’t exist when the book first came out. The sequel is scheduled to come out next year, and the third is in the pipeline. Thank you, Lilian, for the inspiration!
So, if you know your audience and understand their passion for your favorite genre, don’t give up. If you literally (and I use the term deliberately) can’t stop writing, and love what you’re doing, keep at it. Amass a large collection of work. Set things aside. Come back to them after a brief hiatus and edit the stew out of them. Then get busy finding an agent or a publisher.
It can happen.
If you take a good look at it, you realize a Grudge isn't very pretty.
When somebody does something wrong to somebody else,
Sometimes just for no reason at all,
A new Grudge is born.
At first, it seems small, harmless
After all, it’s your own little Grudge, and nobody else’s.
It feels good to let the little Grudge out of its box sometimes.
It runs around the corners of your mind and does amusing cartwheels.
It loves you to tickle it and to feed it slights of various sizes.
It seems fun and certainly justified to hold onto a Grudge.
Sometimes, you may keep it cooped up in its box for a long time,
Then take it out when you remember
How the little Grudge was born in the first place.
Sometimes you share your little Grudge with other people
And often more little Grudges are born,
Some Grudges stay small and live a long time,
Hiding in the back of your mind to only come out on rare occasions.
But Grudges grow.
They benefit from exercise and a diet of slights, large and small.
They become too big for the small box at the back of your mind.
They want to move forward, into your Everyday Thoughts.
You musn’t let them.
Because Grudges are not what they seem.
It is the goal of every Grudge, large and small, to rule a person.
This means the Grudge tells you what to say and what to do.
They attack your Sense of Humor and suppress your Compassionate Urges.
Grudges love to shoot little sharp word arrows out of your mouth,
Arrows that hurt and cause wounds that can become infected.
Grudges hate it when you are happy with other people.
A Grudge always wants you to be thinking about it.
A Grudge hates you to have fun.
You are supposed to always be thinking about ways to feed your Grudge, instead.
A Grudge wants to be your only pet.
But a Grudge makes a terrible pet.
In fact, the only safe way to deal with a Grudge is to get rid of it.
It’s not easy.
Grudges won’t leave you easily.
In fact, you can’t run a Grudge off without Help.
Here's a Prescription to help you get ride of a chronic Grudge:
Take one or two of these Scripture passages daily until the Grudge dies of starvation:
Colossians 3:13 "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." NIV
Matthew 6:15 "But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." NIV
Acts 8:22 "Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart." NIV
Philippians 4:8 "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." NIV
(For further treatment, go to BibleGateway.com.)
I’ve said it before. When you’re a writer, it’s not simply enough to have written the Next Great American Masterpiece, you must also know how to promote it. (Since I have most of my experience in novel-length fiction, that’s what I’ll be talking about, though much of this applies to non-fiction, too.)
There are two very important letters that writers must learn how to compose: 1) the query letter, which is sent to a likely publisher, and later, 2) the cover letter, which accompanies your manuscript that you are sending to the publisher. In most cases, #1 must precede #2. In other words, you must get permission to send them your work. The query letter is your first contact with a potential publisher, and you want it to shine.
One of the hardest things that authors must do is write letters. Of course, today the letter may be in the form of an email, but even then, I still recommend that you use that formal form you find in the books, complete with the addressee’s address, your return address, the date, etc. And you should sign it in the formal, more elegant manner, too: “Sincerely,” or “Yours truly,” etc.
One extremely important point: be sure to find out the appropriate person to receive your letter. I once was given an editor’s email address by a friend, but he neglected to tell me the sex of the person (their name was “Pat” or “Chris” or some such unisex name). I opted for “Dear Sir” and only succeeded in alienating the female editor. (Inject sound of being shot down in flames) So make sure you know.
Publishers and editors like to be addressed in formal, even obsequious terms until you become friends and associates, at such time you can address them by their nickname and make any number of raucous in-jokes.
As in literature, there are clichés in query letters. One of them is “I have just written your next best seller,” or “My fantasy novel is even better than Harry Potter.” They’ve heard or read this all before. It prompts the editor to think, I’ll be the judge of that. But don’t be too humble, either. Have self-respect, but don’t be inflated.
Tell them the genre and number of words right away. Find out what the standard number is and use it as a general guide. If your mystery novel is 200,000 words, don’t bother to query about it. No matter how good it might be, massive editing would be required, and they just don’t have the time. (A good standard number of words for a mystery novel is about 80,000 words.)
As to genre, it is important to know what yours is and to explain the type of audience who might enjoy your book. It’s not a mistake to allude to other popular works: “My spy thriller would appeal to Tom Clancy fans,” or “My book is the cozy type so popular with readers of Agatha Christie.” Be aware of trends. “The Unicorn Dilemma is the type of exciting story so popular with fans of Twilight.”
Let them know your writing experience, if any. Virtually any adult experience is worth mentioning: a column in your local newspaper, several free-lance articles in a regional magazine, a prize in a writing contest. Don’t, however, go all the way back to your school days, unless you were editor of the award-winning campus newspaper or you taught writing as a teaching assistant. Of course, if you’ve published anything before, now is the time to mention it.
Tell a little about appropriate experience that acquaints you with your book’s subject. My book was about a high school teacher in the Adirondack region of NY State. I had grown up in northern New York and had substitute-taught in high school for several years.
Be sure to tell them what your story is about. One of the hardest things for a writer to do is to reduce his plot into a thumbnail, but that’s exactly what you must do in a query letter. Check the inner flap or the back cover of your favorite books and see how they explain their story in a short, appealing way.
More than anything, it’s all about respect, your self-respect and your respect of the professional you are addressing.
I have included an edited version of one of my queries. (This one was successful.)
Ellen E. Kennedy
My Town, My Zip Code
My Email address
Friday, The Date, The Year
Ms. Mary So-and-So, Acquisitions Editor
Town and Zip Code
Dear Ms. So-and So,
I am writing to query with regard to a proposed cozy mystery series about a high school English teacher, beginning with Irregardless of Murder.
Amelia Prentice has had a bad day. She has emerged from unconsciousness to learn that she tripped over the corpse of a former student in the Public Library. Furthermore, she’s on a list of murder suspects and there’s a nasty wound on her forehead. Her placid if predictable life as a high school English teacher is now in chaos. When Amelia’s friend Lily is tossed overboard from the Lake Champlain ferryboat and the victim’s mother disappears, Amelia will join forces with newspaper editor and old flame Gil Dickensen to find out what‘s going on. Is the culprit the wacky, monster-hunting professor, the matchmaking cabbie or perhaps the mysterious Frenchman dubbed “the millionaire from Montreal?” The cryptic initials “UDJ” seem important, but what do they mean? With compassion, faith and a soupcon of courage, Amelia faces the murderer and certain death in the murky waters of the lake.
It is my plan to make a cozy, whimsical series around Amelia Prentice which also would include recurring themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, resolution and justice. Other possible future titles in the series would include: Death Dangles a Participle, Murder in the Past Tense, To Brutally Split an Infinitive, The Village Idiom, Revenge of the Apostrophe Police and Run-On Sentence.
I am a former TV/radio advertising copywriter who grew up in the Adirondack region where Amelia lives. I have been a substitute teacher in high school and drew upon my own experiences in summer stock for Past Tense.
If you would be interested in looking at them, the manuscripts for the first two books are complete and ready to submit.
Thank you for considering my work.
Ellen E. Kennedy
It’s a nice picture of our entire family circa approximately 1955. The two children are looking as children do in formal pictures, a little vague. The baby has a sweet expression. My dad is staight-backed and handsome and my mother is looking as beautiful as she did in those days. What isn’t seen is the Frowning Presence that hovered over this day like a dark cloud.
Our mother loved us passionately, was very affectionate most of the time, but she struggled with a daunting depression that marred the smooth surface of our childhood. She was never abusive, just very sad or angry.
It originally stemmed, I believe, from medications administered by her physician. These were what would be later called uppers and downers, and they were supposed to help her lose weight after childbearing. They didn’t. They made her feel crazy, but when she told the doctor this, he just gave her another brand. Eventually, she stopped these medications altogether—which required a tremendous effort of will—but the damage had already been done. She struggled with obesity the rest of her life. And her depression was very real.
It wasn’t anything we did, but we didn’t understand that. In truth, it wasn’t her fault, either. But it cast a pall nonetheless. My dad did what he could, and handled the situation with great love and wisdom. “That’s not your mommy,” he’d say, “that’s the medicine they gave her.”
But here’s the God part: through faith and prayer and great effort, the cheerful, loving part of my mother came back to us, and by the time I graduated from high school, I went off to college in the knowledge that my younger siblings would have a happier time. All the childish prayers I’d whispered had been heard.
To my children, their grandmother (my mother) was a sparkling presence, who lit up with joy when she saw them and was full of surprises and laughter. That was the “real mommy” my dad had always asserted was there. When she tucked them into bed, she would sprinkle them with imaginary “pixie dust.” The Christmas after she died, one of my daughters gave each of the grandchildren a picturesque bottle filled with glitter, labeled “Grandmother’s Pixie Dust.” A smiling presence; that’s how they remember her, and it’s all due to God’s gracious healing miracle.
While this story has a happy ending, my point is somewhat broader. If you’re a parent, look at your family photos. What kind of mood does this picture evoke? Or that one? Were you a smiling presence in the picture, or a frowning one? What memories are you making for your child?
Our children don’t understand the pressures we are experiencing.
They don’t know that they’re not necessarily to blame for the frown you’re wearing.
How will they remember you?
We owe it to our children to imprint a smiling presence on their memories that will last far beyond our days. With God's help, we can do it.
"I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."
The "Pixie Dust" Grandmother.