Jennifer Hillier

FAQ

I’ve talked a lot about my writing journey in my newsletter. But I still get a lot of questions about how I got published. You can find answers to the most frequently asked questions here.

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, Things We Do in the Dark?

Things We Do in the Dark will be out July 19, 2022, and can be pre-ordered here. And please do!

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.

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.

What was your favorite book to write?

Every book was my favorite book to write at the time that I wrote it.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I try really hard to focus on the process of writing, and not the outcome. There is so much in the publishing world I can’t control. I can’t control whether anyone will like my books. I can’t control how many books will sell. All I can control are the words between the front and back cover. There are times when I’ve forgotten this, and I’ve stressed over things I can’t do anything about, like reviews, rankings, sales numbers, and bestseller lists.

And then I remember: I love writing. I love the act of putting words on a page to tell a story. I find it immensely fulfilling in a way that nothing else is. It’s fun.

Of course some books are more fun than others. Seven books in, there are three that stand out for me. Creep, because it was my first novel, and I had no idea if it would ever get published, and so I just wrote whatever I wanted to write. Jar of Hearts, which marked a turning point in my career, and brought me back to the joy of storytelling. And Things We Do in the Dark, which was my most challenging book to write, because I wrote it entirely during the pandemic, in our small house, with my husband working from home, and my six-year-old in virtual school beside me at the dining room table. It’s kind of hard to mentally switch gears from writing a murder scene to helping my first grader with his math problems.

Also, I’m not so great at math.

What’s your best writing advice for new writers who are aspiring to be published?

I have four bits of advice I can offer, if someone asks (I don’t offer if nobody asks, because rude).

  1. 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 afterI start writing for the day, and sometimes not even then).
  1. Read widely within your genre, and read outside of your genre, too.
  1. Learn to accept criticism. I’m a big fan of writing workshops and critique groups. The ability to process feedback is an important part of improving as a writer, plus it doesn’t hurt to get used to other people having opinions about your work. (Spoiler: the criticism doesn’t stop once you get published. It just comes in different forms, such as two-star Goodreads reviews written entirely in GIFs that will still sting years later . . . not that this has happened to me.)
  1. Finish your work. Having five great partially written 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?

Here’s the thing. It’s not actually a series. I consider Creep and Freak to be standalones.

While Freak takes place after Creep in the same fictional Seattle world, the books have different protagonists and different villains. I understand the series designations that appear on a few retailers’ sites are confusing, and I’m so sorry about 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. And because my characters share the same world, you never know who might pop up in a book.

For instance, if you enjoyed Creep and Freak, you might be happy to find an important character from those stories in Wonderland. And if you enjoyed Wonderland, you’ll notice a familiar face in Little Secrets.

You’re Canadian, and live in the Toronto area. Why are your books set in Seattle?

Seattle is where I became a novelist.

I think most writers have always been writers. But until I lived in Seattle (which I did, for eight years), I was never a novelist, even though I’d long dreamed of writing a book. There was something about the evergreens and misty mornings and views of the Cascades that got my creative juices flowing. The beauty—and quirks—of Seattle jumped out at me right away, and up until recently, it was so much easier to describe Seattle on the written page than it had ever been for me to describe Toronto.

The city of Seattle smells a certain way, a combination of light rain and fresh air and ocean breeze. It looks a certain way—fog in the mornings, with maybe a snippet of sun in the afternoon—but it really is kind of gloomy from September to June. Which is perfect for staying in and writing. The mountains are gorgeous. The music is legendary.

And they know coffee. The very first Starbucks was in Seattle, and yet, I was hard pressed to meet a local who actually drank it. And if you want everyone to know that you’re not from Seattle? Carry an umbrella. Dead giveaway.

I miss it.

Will you ever set a book in Toronto?

Yes! Things We Do in the Dark is partly set in my fictional version of the west end of Toronto, which was inspired by places I knew growing up.

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, if a character from an earlier book makes an appearance, it’s more fun if you’ve already met them.

The release dates were:
Creep—2011
Freak—2012
The Butcher—2014
Wonderland—2015
Jar of Hearts—2018
Little Secrets—2020
Things We Do in the Dark—2022

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 print-on-demand (POD) version wasn’t made available until much later. Because POD books are always priced higher and are not discounted by the retailers that sell them, the most cost effective way to read Wonderland is via ebook.

I’m so very sorry about this. Though I read primarily on my Kindle Paperwhite for convenience these days, I fully understand and appreciate the feel of print books.

Are you available for interviews, podcasts, book clubs, and other virtual events?

Yes, whenever I can be. But admittedly, not as much as I used to be, as I’m trying to do a much better job at managing my work-life balance. I’m a better mother, partner, friend, and writer when I don’t overschedule myself (which I’ve done before, and it wasn’t fun for the me, or the people I live with).

Please do reach out to me through my contact form with your request. In the meantime, if you’re in a book club and looking for discussion questions, check out my book club page.

Can I buy a signed book directly from you?

Unfortunately, shipping a book from Canada, even within Canada, is quite expensive, and in many cases costs more than the book itself. But, depending on availability, I’d be happy to mail you a signed bookplate. To request one, please send me a message through my contact form.

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, on Word, but you know what I mean), I can’t talk about it, lest it wither and die on me. Which has happened before.