I’ve talked a lot about my writing journey, both on my blog and on Facebook, and also at the Thrill Begins, where I’m a regular columnist. But I still get a lot of questions about how I got published.
The short answer is: slush pile. Back when I was trying to get my first book published, I had no contacts in the publishing industry, and only I had a few writer friends, who were all in the same boat I was.
For the long answer, and the answers to many more questions, keep reading.
Where can I buy your new book, Jar of Hearts?
If you prefer to buy the book from a specific bookstore and want to make sure there’s a copy available, please tell them. They’ll order it for you, or they’ll put one aside for you if they already have a shipment planned.
You’ve often said that if books are like relationships, and a book can be the love of your life, then Jar of Hearts is yours. What does that mean? And why is this book different?
It’s different because I went back to the beginning. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Four books into my writing career, I was burned out. Writing had stopped being fun. Well, okay, that’s not true. It was still fun, but there was just so much stress and pressure associated with it. And while one can argue that this is what happens after you get published, there is so much in the publishing world that a writer can’t control. You can’t control whether anyone will like your books. You can’t control how many books you’ll sell. You can’t control whether readers will tell other people about them or not. As a writer, the only thing I have control over are the words. And somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten to make those a priority.
When I set out to write Jar of Hearts, I made the conscious decision to write the entire book from beginning to end before telling anyone about it. I hadn’t done that since Creep, my first novel. But back then, I didn’t have a choice. And since then, every book had been written with a publishing contract already in place. This time around, I didn’t want to put together a proposal. I just wanted to write, and allow the story to go wherever it wanted. And most importantly, I wanted to enjoy it, with no deadlines, no pressure.
Is that risky? Kind of, from a financial standpoint. It meant I would be investing a lot of time—which required regular childcare, which I had to pay for, which is expensive—writing an entire novel with no guarantee it would pay off (read: sell).
But man, it was so much fun. It was like falling in love with writing all over again. My ideas have a way of “shrinking” once I talk about them—sometimes withering altogether—and this time, nobody knew anything about the book. Nobody was checking in to see how it was going. The only stress I felt was creatively, and that’s the good kind. The only pressure I felt was to write the best book I was capable of writing.
I loved every moment of it. Everything after that is just a bonus.
How did you get published in the first place?
My “origin story” is not that uncommon.
Like most writers, I started writing at a very young age. My first short story was a re-imagining of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, where the Wicked Queen dies a horrible death at the hands of an angry and vengeful Snow White. I was six. The story earned me a place on the bulletin board of my classroom and a coveted gold star sticker, which promptly fell off when I spilled juice on it after bringing it home.
I started writing more original stuff when I was ten, mostly short stories and poetry. Every so often, in middle school and high school, I’d attempt a novel and get a few chapters in before giving up. I wasn’t very ambitious about it, though I had a few teachers along the way who noticed my work and encouraged me.
When I was in my twenties, I didn’t write anything at all.
In my thirties, on the brink of moving from Toronto to Seattle, I was packing up my home office when I came across a plain white envelope. Folded inside were three pages of a story I’d started writing randomly a couple of years before, while bored at work.* I recognized the story immediately when I pulled it out of the envelope, and cringed. Then I sat down in the middle of my office floor, surrounded by packing boxes and paper, and thought, “All right. Let’s see how terrible this is.” It was almost midnight.
But it wasn’t that terrible. Not saying it was good, but at the end of three pages, I found myself wanting to see what happened next. I got into bed with my laptop, pulled up my barely-used Word program, and typed those three pages into a new document. As I typed, I revised a little, expanding here, deleting there, until the next thing I knew, it was three in the morning and I had five more pages.
The next day, I couldn’t wait to get back to the story. I was consumed with it. I wrote every day, all through the move from Canada to the U.S., during the long drive, at night at the motels, in between unpacking and getting settled. My first novel—a horror novel—was finished in three months. And guess what?
It was awful. Embarrassingly terrible. I knew the minute I went back to reread it a few weeks later that the book was worst thing written by anyone ever, and so I stuck it in a folder and forgot about it. And didn’t feel moved to write anything for another year. But I kept up with publishing news, I reread Stephen King’s On Writing for the third time, and I read a ton of fiction. I also got to know my new city, Seattle.
Then one night, I had a dream. (Cheesy, I know, but bear with me). My dreams are very vivid and for the most part never make sense, but this one was a bit different. I dreamt that a college student, who also happened to be a serial killer, was terrorizing his own university campus.
When I woke up, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought about it all morning. Finally, I went to my laptop and wrote it all down. As I wrote, I noticed the dream had a beginning, middle, and end – it even had a twist! (I wish I was kidding, but I’m not). I wondered if it might make a good short story, and so I started writing it. But by the end of the first couple of pages, it was pacing more like a novel. And by the end of the first chapter, I knew it would be. And around fifty pages in, I got this strange feeling that maybe, just maybe, there might be something there. And that if I could just finish the damn thing, it might not be so terrible, and then maybe, just maybe, I could take my shot at getting published.
Oh, and guess what? I wasn’t a horror writer, after all. I was a thriller writer. That realization changed everything.
Fourteen months later, including two workshops through Gotham Writers and two other critique groups, the novel had been through seven drafts and was ready for querying. I had done my homework on agents (and on the publishing industry in general, reading absolutely everything I could find) and knew that I wanted an agent to help me sell the book to publishers.** I queried almost a hundred agents over a span of three months. Nearly half sent back rejections. Eight asked to see a partial manuscript (which is usually the first few chapters). One requested the whole book. The rest of the agents never responded.
Of the eight who’d asked for partials, all came back rejections. Three rejections came back the same day. (That was not a good day). But I had one “full” still out—the only problem was, due to those partial rejections and the feedback I’d received, I knew there was an issue in the first fifty pages. There was a reason eight agents hadn’t asked to read the rest of the book.
The villain was a serial killer college student, and his character was generally well-received by early readers. But the protagonist was his sex-addicted psychology professor. And over and again, the feedback I’d heard from my workshops was that nobody would care what happened to a female main character who’s addicted to sex and cheats on her fiancé. It was strongly suggested that I make her more likeable. I’d taken the advice to heart and, despite the fact that it didn’t feel quite right, did my best to make the character more sympathetic. I put her in therapy. I showed her expressing regret. And while it did make her more sympathetic, it also made the book boring. It wasn’t keeping anyone hooked. That’s when I decided that interesting was more important than likeable, and I revised the book back to an earlier version where I felt the character was true to herself.
Feeling good about the book once again, I checked my spreadsheet.*** Only one agent had the manuscript, and it happened to be a full, and she was an agent I desperately wanted to impress—I had targeted her from the beginning. Going against everything I’d read you shouldn’t do,**** I emailed her with the new version of the manuscript, asking her if she would mind reading this one instead, because I had made some changes. To my great relief, she responded saying that she always preferred to read the newest and best version of any book she requests, and so it was fine that I’d sent it.
A few days later, she emailed to say she was halfway through the manuscript and loving it, and would be in touch the following week. But it didn’t take a week. The very next day, she called and offered me representation. That was a truly great day.
Three months and two more revisions later, the book was ready for submission. We got three rejections. And then finally, an offer. That was an incredible day. And a year after the offer, Creep was finally published.
And that first book? The one that was embarrassingly terrible? Three years later, I dug it out again and rewrote it from scratch. The characters had never really left me—especially the villain—and I’d always felt bad that I hadn’t been able to give them a better story. And wouldn’t you know . . . the first book I ever wrote ended up being my third published novel, The Butcher.
Which just goes to show: nothing you write is ever a waste.
* I’m not a slacker! I was working for my uncle as a receptionist at his chiropody clinic (or podiatry clinic, for my American friends) and there was a snowstorm that day. Nearly every patient cancelled, and since the clinic didn’t have internet, there was nothing much to do.
** There are many paths you can take to get published, but bigger publishers often require an author to have an agent. This is typically considered to be the “traditional route.”
*** I used an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my queries, because I knew I’d be querying a lot of agents. I had three hundred names on my list, ranked from “dream agent” to “if everyone else says no, what the hell.”
**** I’d actually queried her twice already. The first time was through her agency’s query portal, but nobody replied. The second time was directly by email, when she’d asked for the full. So this would be my third email to her, which they say you should never do, because it’s called pestering, and nobody likes to be pestered, especially by someone they’ve never even met. Some might call that stalking.
You’re Canadian, and from Toronto. Why did you decide to set all your books in Seattle?
The easy answer is, because I was living there at the time. Seattle is where I became a writer, and believe me, I’m just as surprised as anyone.
There’s always been something about the Pacific Northwest that sparks for me creatively. I think moving to a new city, and seeing it through a newcomer’s perspective, initially allowed me to write about it in a different way than I might have written about a place that’s completely familiar. Seattle is exciting to me, and I think seeing it through that lens translates really well onto the page.
Not that Toronto isn’t exciting, because it is. It’s an amazing city. But it’s also home, and I find myself worrying that the things I love about it won’t be that interesting to anyone who isn’t from there. And worrying about anything in your book is a bad thing. The last thing any writer needs while they’re writing is more self-doubt. (Self-doubt is our default setting).
Or, who knows . . . maybe I just never wanted to fictionally murder people in my hometown. Canadians are really nice. And we apologize a lot. (Sorry about that.)
How long does it take you a write a book? And why do we have to wait so long between books? I saw on Twitter that you finished your novel months ago. Why will it be out a year from now?
Listen, bossy person, I don’t control the universe, and also, I don’t like your tone. Kidding! This is a totally valid question. I know what it feels like to be waiting on a new book from an author you enjoy (paging George R.R. Martin).
The answer is, it varies. I feel like my writing process is a bit different with each book, but I always do multiple drafts for each book. Creep took fourteen months before I felt it was ready to be read by anyone in publishing. Freak took eight months. The Butcher, I wrote in only seven weeks (but remember, I already had a draft to work with), and then it took another three months to revise it before I sent it to my editor. Wonderland took a full year (I was three months pregnant when I started it, and my baby was six months old when I finished). And Jar of Hearts was written in five months—weekday mornings only, from eight to noon, which was all the childcare I had.
As for the length of time between published novels, there’s a lot of work that goes into what the publisher does after I submit the book. There are developmental edits (big picture stuff), then copy edits (nit-picky stuff), and then finally first pass—and sometimes second pass—edits (which is when you see how the book looks on typeset pages and then scour it for errors—extremely nit-picky stuff). Plus, the publisher also needs time to market the book, and get the word out to booksellers and reviewers to build excitement leading up to its release. The more time they have, the more they can do.
What’s your best writing advice for new writers who are aspiring to be published?
Write a lot—put yourself on a schedule that works for you, and stick to it. Write even when you don’t feel inspired (which for me, is almost every day—inspiration hits after I start writing for the day, and sometimes not even then). Read widely within your genre, and read outside of your genre, too. Ask for feedback, and actually listen to it. I’m a big fan of writing workshops. Learning to accept and process criticism is an important part of improving as a writer, plus it doesn’t hurt to get used to it early (because here’s a tip: if you don’t enjoy criticism from a fellow workshop participant, just imagine what it’s like to get criticism from editors! Or readers, who’ve actually paid money to read your book!).
Once you’ve written something, finished it, revised it, and then revised it three/four/five more times, and you get to the point where you’ve lost all perspective and are so sick of it you could cry, that’s when it’s ready for other people to see it. Not a day sooner.
Also, finish your work. Having five great unfinished stories won’t do anything for you. Finish one story, and work on it until it’s so polished and shiny you can see your face in it. That one finished story is your shot at getting published. And then, while you’re submitting it to agents or editors, let it go, and write the next one.
Remember, very few people who say they want to write a book will actually write one. Of those who do, only a fraction will actually finish. Of those who finish, even fewer will have the tenacity to go back and revise it as many times as it takes to make it great. And fewer still will have the drive to go back and write another one, and another one, and another one. So if this is you, congratulations! You are way ahead of most everyone else. Please don’t quit. Keep going. You’ll get there. You will.
Will there ever be a third book in the Creep series?
While Freak takes place after Creep in the same fictional Seattle world, the books have different protagonists and different villains. The series designations that appear on a few retailer sites are confusing, and I’ve been working with the publisher to correct that. You can read my books in any order. Think of it like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books (and movies)—same world, same characters, but you don’t have to watch Red Dragon first to enjoy the Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal.
That being said, there is a possibility that I might one day write a new story starring some of the characters from Creep and Freak. I never say never. Unfortunately, it’s not on the agenda anytime soon.
Okay, so I get that Creep and Freak aren’t part of an ongoing series. But I’d still like to read your books in the order they were released.
I totally get it. The upside to doing it this way is you’ll get all the “easter eggs” I like to drop into each of the later books. Plus, characters from earlier books often make surprise appearances in later books, which can be more fun if you’ve already met them.
I only read print books. Where can I buy a print copy of Wonderland? I’m having a hard time finding one.
Wonderland was released as a digital-first book by the publisher, and a paperback version wasn’t made available until much later. I myself only have one print copy in English (there are print versions of the book in other languages). Unless you can find a copy on Amazon or an independent retailer, I’m afraid your best option is to read it as an e-book. (The good news, though, is that you don’t need an e-reader—most devices now allow you to download a free e-reader app).
I’m so very sorry about this. Though I read primarily on my Kindle for convenience these days, I fully understand and appreciate the feel of print books.
Are you available for interviews, podcasts, book clubs, or guest blog posts?
Yes to all of the above! You just have to give me some flexibility in terms of time, as I have a small, demanding, unreasonable human at home who dictates my schedule (but man, is he ever cute). Plus, I’m always working on something new, which makes my schedule even more hectic.
What are you working on now?
Another thriller, of course! And because my ideas are so fragile until they’re fully fleshed out on paper (okay, Word, but you know what I mean), I can’t talk about it, lest it wither and die on me. Which has happened before.
Hey, whatever happened to your cat, Kobe?
Kobe died suddenly from a chest infection right before Christmas 2015. He was only six, and otherwise completely healthy. I’m still heartbroken about it, and probably will be for a long time. I’m glad he’s immortalized in The Butcher (he inspired Matt’s cat, Elmo). And Wonderland, silly as it sounds, is dedicated to both him and my son. I miss him every day. Cats are good people.