we are, the end of the first workday week of MURDERATI. Big thanks to all of
you that have stopped by with encouraging words and posted about us on your
blogs. We appreciate it.

thought I’d do something a little different today by way of introduction. My
story is fun, but it’s long, and it certainly isn’t going to help YOU get
published (or make money once you do). So instead, I’ve got something for the Newbies. A top ten list of things every serious unpublished writer must do.
Period. No whining. We’ll do my story another day, when it’s rainy and we’re
all bored. Suffice it to say that I have a great New York agent but no
contracts yet. Deal? Good. Let’s go.

Ten Things An Unpublished Writer Can’t Afford NOT To Do:

1. The Organizations

  • The list of writer’s organizations is long and varied. Start here. Sisters in Crime (SinC) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA) take unpublished members. Yes, it costs money to join. (SinC $40, MWA $95). Just do it. Scrounge for pennies in the couch, give up the lattes. It must be done.

The Subgroups

  • For minimal fees, you can join subgroups of these organizations. I belong to Guppies, the SinC Chapter expressly for the Great Unpublished Writers out there. Also the SinC Internet Chapter and my Middle Tennessee SinC  Chapter. This takes it up another $40. I also belong to SEMWA, the Southeast Chapter of MWA. That’s free.

The Web Threads

  •  This too is free. It’s earned media, plain and simple. There is a thread for every genre, every idea, every group. The ones I belong to I joined because I know I can learn from the members. Some are public (DorothyL, Rara-Avis, Short Mystery, Murder Must Advertise.) Some are offshoots of the organizations above. A word to the wise – lurk for at least two weeks to get a general sense of what the thread is really about. You don’t want to pop up the first day, shoot off your mouth and embarrass yourself. Some lists are a little clubby, and they’ll appreciate a gentler introduction.

The Magazines (Print and Online)

  •  Personally, I love Writer’s Digest. Tons of solid writing tips, great articles (Blogmate Simon Woods had an excellent article a couple of months back). I don’t get any others hard copy, because yes, I’m starting to run out of money. (If you’re an MWA member, you get a discount) There’s Publishers Weekly, but it’s pricey.
  • Online – Publisher’s Marketplace is the place to be. You can set up a website (See Mine), research agents and publishers, stay on  top of the deals being made, read book reviews, really, is there anything PM can’t do? Yes, it’s another chunk — $20 a month. But that’s how I got my agent…

Critique Groups

  •  I am blessed to belong to the BMW’s, otherwise known as the Bodacious Music City Wordsmiths. There are 7 of us, published and unpublished. We meet the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. Those who are producing bring 10 pages of their WIP (or a short story) to be read ALOUD to the group. We then proceed to the critique portion of the program. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes it’s just too damn funny for words. I’ve never left a BMW meeting without learning.
  • CG’s are a bitch to find. They’re worth their weight in gold when you do. If you don’t have a local MWA or SinC chapter to plumb, Guppies has a wonderful online critique group.
  • Just a little advice. NEVER let anyone make you feel like your work isn’t worth their time. If that’s the case, they aren’t worth yours.

The Conferences

  • All I can say is ouch. When  you don’t have advance money to offset the registration fees, the hotel and the airfare, it’s going to take a bite out of your wallet. I’m attending ThrillerFest on my own dime, and it’s pretty painful. But you can’t make money without spending money. I keep repeating that one.
  • Conferences are invaluable. You meet like-minded individuals, make friends, learn tons, and come away with the Holy Grail of Writing – contacts.
  • Bouchercon, ThrillerFest and Malice Domestic are the Holy Trinity of Conferences. But there are others. My first was Murder in the Magic City, this February, in Birmingham. Cost me $40 and a tank of gas. I met a lot of people, including some of the Boys of Noir there (Duane Swierczynski, Victor Gischler, Harry Hunsicker, Jim Born and Sean Doolittle.) I was inspired to try some short stories and noir flash, which you can sample in the upcoming Demolition Magazine and the inestimable Flashing in the Gutters. So it’s a good thing to go and meet people. You broaden your mind. (And yes, everyone who knows me knows I got the worst case of professionally shys and wasted the whole morning being too reticent to approach the authors, so shame on me. I could have learned more.) Networking is 9/10th of the law. We’ll cover that more in a later post, because it’s so important. Networking online works just as well as in person, but it’s not nearly as fun.
  • Do your research. There are plenty of regional conferences in your backyard if you look for them. There are some fun ones listed in Upcoming Events, too.

Independent Readers

  • This one can be a little tricky. Your Mom doesn’t count. Neither does your next door neighbor. I classify an independent reader as someone you’ve never met, so they can be objective. Like a therapist. Someone who will tell you the truth and not worry about hurting your feelings. And trust me, you’ll need an IR. I met one of mine on a web threads after we realized we shared the same taste in material. She’s a star. Caught the spot where I gave it all away in my new book, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS. I rewrote it because of her.
  • Readers, period. Yes, your mom counts for this. Ignore her comments about sentence structure, but get her opinion. You’re looking for story flow here, realistic characters, setting. Things that make a book. I know so many people who don’t let anyone read their work before they submit. Personally, I think that’s a mistake. And don’t worry about copyright infringement or plagiarism. Really, if they could do it, wouldn’t they have done it already?
  • Dutch Uncles. Some people call them mentors. There should be people in your life who always have your back, who put you on their shoulders, cheer loudly, and are there  when you need to vent. I met mine at a book signing for the wonderful NYT best-selling author John Connolly. (If you haven’t read his Charlie Parker series, get thee to a bookstore now. You won’t regret it.) Connolly’s media escort was a local woman. She’s a brash, in your face type with a heart of gold. We started chatting and I told her that I was a writer. She says, “Aren’t you a member of Sisters in Crime? Don’t you belong to a critique group? Don’t you know any of the people here?” She was incredulous. I was entranced. I took her advice, and it was worth taking. Now she councils me, in life and in writing, and I don’t know where I’d be without her.

8. Read

  • Read everything you can get your hands on. In the genre, out of the genre, non-fiction, bathroom walls if you have to. The top selling books are selling for a reason. If you write regional knitting cozies, you need to know the work of every regional knitting cozy writer that’s out there. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Emulate the voice and style of your favorite writers. After a while, once you’ve read enough, your own voice will poke through, and you’ll catch yourself saying “I would have written that differently.” Or “If he had just used the word kerfuffle there, it would have had more impact.” Once you catch yourself correcting the work of your masters, you’re ready for number 9.


  • Write Every Day. Let me repeat this. WRITE EVERY DAY. Sit in the chair and write. If you can’t work on your WIP, edit it. If that’s not working for you, pretend you’re taking my place on Fridays and write a blog entry. Start a blog of your own and talk about your writing. Write a short story. Write down the dream you had last night. Write your grocery list from your character’s perspective. Pretend you are being besieged by crows and you must write a good-bye note to Aunt Wanda. I don’t care if it’s 40 emails. Write, write, write. Gear all of your writing to your work, and you’ll get comfortable writing every day.
  • Submit too. Yes, you’ll get rejections. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. Perseverance should be every writer’s middle name. If your novel isn’t selling, write some short stories. Do flash fiction. Write an article about the pains of becoming a world class writer. There are so many ways to get your name in lights, you should never be at a loss for places to submit.


  • As in you’ve gotta have ‘em if you want to make it in this industry. Publishing is a harsh world. When world-class writers with dozens of books to their name can lose their publishers, it tells you something. A couple of months ago, a gentleman mused, rhetorically, I think, about why we do it. Why do we write and set ourselves up for rejection? It’s an excellent question. I do it because I feel compelled to share. I chose this road three years ago, and I haven’t regretted it once. Money would be nice, but the satisfaction I get out of creating something from nothing, breathing life into fictional characters and making my readers care about them, is priceless. And seeing your words in someone else’s font is pretty special too.
  • This is the part where I tell you that you have to believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. And I mean it.

Tap for Next Week
: I scare myself – why am I not writing romance?

of the Week
: Condesa de Leganza – Crianza 2001

14 thoughts on “T.G.I.F.

  1. Tenbrooks

    Sterling advice in every respect and most of it a pleasure to follow.

    Since you are electing to leave your own story for a rainy day—torture for curious writers who love stories—maybe you would be so kind as to share with us other serious unpublished types just the bare details of how long it took you to snag your agent and how long that agent has been shopping your manuscript. The Cliff Notes to the road ahead…

  2. Jeff Cohen

    Excellent tips, J.T. One quibble–your blogmate Jeff Cohen also had an article in a recent Writer’s Digest. But if he’s not going to say anything about it himself… oh. Wait.

    Anyway, I learned a few things from you, and look forward to seeing more.

  3. Neil Nyren

    Best summary on the subject I think I’ve ever seen. Should be required reading for any aspiring author, mystery or otherwise.

  4. Lorraine T.

    Interesting, but also discouraging, even depressing. Steps 9 and 10, all writers do, but the others are impossible for some.I sometimes wonder how many wonderful, fascinating stories are being written in isolation, never to see the light, because success today depends totally on self-promotion.And, of course, the cynic in me blames lots of the poor work on today’s market on the writer being one heck of a good self-promoter.

  5. JT Ellison

    Naomi — wine or whine, you never know which I’m in the mood for…Tenbrooks –I built a site on Publisher’s Marketplace, which has a place to mark if you’re looking for an agent. I was contacted by a few agents who wanted to look at my first book, CROSSED. One happened to be my dream agent, to whom I was writing a submission letter. I agreed to an exclusive, he read the book, called and asked to represent me. That was a good day.These “Cliff Notes” make it sound easy, but those two weeks were a culmination of the past two years worth of hard work. Dues must be paid, one way or another.BTW, the first book didn’t sell quickly, so my agent requested I write another with the same characters to be the first in the series. I did, and that’s ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, shopping now. Tacked on another year, but I learned a lot during that time.Good luck to you!

  6. Tenbrooks

    Thanks for the quick reply. No illusions here about the amount of time and work required. I’ve got a loooooonnnng time already invested in writers’ workshops etc and three years in a first novel.

    Your Publishers Marketplace site is a gem–a real treasure trove of fun and information.

  7. Pari

    J.T.Your advice is so important. I agree with it all. Sitting here today, on p. 157 of the second first draft of my new manuscript–and wanting to throw the entire thing in the toilet–I appreciated some of the reminders in your piece.



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