Confessions of a Former Crime Reporter

Twenty-seven years ago, I created a bit of a stir among a few Central New York police agencies when the newspaper I worked for ran my interview with a murder suspect I wasn’t supposed to know about.

Sources told me state police accused sheriff’s deputies of leaking me the information, and that sheriff’s deputies threw the accusations right back. Everybody was mad at everybody.

The funny thing is that no one asked me how I got his name, not even when the suspect sued state police for defamation, or when the real killer was caught years later.

I have whispered my story to only a few, select people over the years, but I am ready to relieve myself of this burden — to confess to you. First, however, let me tell you a little about this case.

This particular murder troubled people more than most.

The victim and his family were well-respected, and the boy was killed in community that took pride in its reputation as a quaint, safe and desirable place to live. There was no way to blame the victim, no way for parents to tell themselves this couldn’t happen to their children.

Police were under pressure.

I was under pressure.

Residents wanted to feel safe again.

The suspect invited me in when I knocked on his door, pointed to the unmarked police car in a neighboring lot that neither of us was supposed to know about, and told me why, he believed, he was a target.

First, he lived on the lake close to where the body was submerged. Second, he was a motorcycle-riding stranger in a well-off village that didn’t like motorcycles or strangers. He theorized that police didn’t tell me about him because they had no evidence and too many doubts. It was the community that wanted to convict him.

He wanted to clear his name, so I listened.

Then I talked to state police.

Then I wrote the story.

How did I find him?

Here it goes.

About three days ( I think) after the body was found, I stopped by the building police had been using as a local command post while they investigated the murder. It was empty. They had packed up and left, which usually meant one of two things: They had no leads, or they had a really good one. Police weren’t saying much about the case, which fueled my belief that they had a suspect.

Well, I say the room was empty, but one thing remained.

There, on the bare conference table was a blank, yellow legal pad. It was void of ink, but full of deep indentations from a pen or pencil. It beckoned me. Memories of a childhood game gave me an idea and I grabbed the pad before I could think about it any further.

At a table in a local Burger King, I gently rubbed the page with the long edge of a sharpened pencil, the same way I decoded “secret messages” as a child. Words began to appear and there it was: the name and address of the suspect.

That was it.

The secret has been revealed.

Nobody leaked me anything, at least not intentionally.

The kid me is to blame.

Rest in Peace , Kitty

Many years ago, I interviewed twenty-two women for a proposed book: Who Am I Now? Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home Moms. Though agents loved the proposal and the sample chapters, the book was never published. The nonfiction industry prefers celebrities, people whose names alone sell books. I was not a celebrity and self-publishing was an expensive option at the time.

Still, I have no regrets.

The project gave me the unique opportunity to dive into the lives of some amazing, strong and insightful women, a privilege I will always cherish. Kitty, an anthropologist and teacher, who had put her career on hold to stay home with her then-toddler son, was among them.

I connected with Kitty immediately. We were both older moms who were well-established in our careers before we had children. We both had spouses who traveled often, though she usually had no idea where her husband was, when he might return or whether he would come back alive. She had a sense of humor I appreciated and a take on life I found refreshing.

After we spoke, we became friends on social media. Though I never met her in person, she has been a strong influence in my life, an ally in the struggle to redefine ourselves as our identities shifted from childless career women to stay-at-home moms to something else, something much more complicated, but all the more valuable because of those struggles and our experiences.

Sadly, Kitty died unexpectedly this week, a victim of a blood clot. Her son is still young, not even a teenager yet. My heart aches for her husband, her son and the rest of her family and friends. Her loss is a loss to all. In memory of Kitty, I would like to, once again, offer her story, which I posted on a blog four years ago.

Rest in peace, Kitty:

She gave up her career for her son and our country. Meet Kitty, former teacher and stay-at-home Navy mom.

 

 

Embracing ignorance

I entered my first marathon as a favor for a friend. He wanted to surprise his girlfriend by running one with her, but he needed a training partner.

I was fueled by ignorance.

I didn’t train enough. I wore shoes made for running 5Ks. I knew nothing of protecting myself from chaffing and other long-distance injuries. My legs were leaden pegs when I crossed the finish. My toes bled through my sneakers (I eventually lost nine toenails.). I was so sore in the days after that even driving was difficult.

Still, I finished the 26.2-mile route in less than four hours, pretty respectable for a first-timer.

I wrote my first novel the same way. I knew nothing of novel writing. I had too many primary characters in the first draft. The pace in the first half differed from the pace of the second half. I edited as I wrote, which slowed me down. It took me six years to write my first novel, and I spent another two years revising it.

Still, it was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, respectable for a first novel. It remains my favorite and it has been the favorite of two literary agents. I have shelved it for another look at a better time in my career.

I credit ignorance for my success in completing that first novel, the same kind of ignorance that carried me through my first marathon. I believed all through the writing process that novel would sell, and I became more firm in that belief when I signed with my first agent. I even told the kids we would celebrate its sale by buying a Wii.

A year later, my husband and I caved and bought them a Wii anyway.

For first-timers, the novel-writing process can seem daunting and the goal, unachievable. The greatest obstacle is self-doubt and the greatest feat is pushing through that doubt to cross the finish line. So why not allow them that ignorance? Why clue newbies in on the perceived impossibilities?

Let them write. Let them make mistakes without knowing they are mistakes. Let them cross the finish line just once with pure joy, unaware of the bleeding toes, chaffed skin and torn muscles they acquired along the way.

I had started my next novel before I knew the first one wasn’t going to sell immediately, and that was a good thing. I had learned from my mistakes and inefficiencies. The next novel took two years to finish and that is a pace I feel comfortable with at this stage in my life, with young children to raise and elderly parents who need me.

I recently signed a contract with Black Opal Books for that second novel, a thriller entitled No Stranger Here, and for the two novels I wrote next, which are part of a mystery/suspense series. I am happy with my work and thrilled by the contract, but I’m not sure I would have made it to this point without the gift of ignorance that first time around.

I ran five more marathons after the first one. I trained smarter and ran faster for the second two. For the last two, I focused only on finishing injury-free, relying on my previous experiences as a guide. I ran a few minutes slower than my first marathon, but I finished without lasting pain and was able to hit the roads and the track again two days later.

I loved it.

I stopped running marathons when I started my first novel. The two decisions were unrelated, influenced by other factors in my life, but I am not sure I would have succeeded in one without the experience of the other. Marathon training prepared me for novel writing, but it was ignorance that got me hooked on both.

 

 

 

Happiness is a book contract

I have waited a long time to say this, and here it goes:

I have signed a contract with a publisher, a three-book contract with Black Opal Books.

I am beyond thrilled.

I am beyond giddy.

I am sore from jumping up and down, but I still hop whenever I think about it

I have no release dates yet. The editing process takes a while — anywhere from six to eighteen months — but my thriller, No Stranger Here, and the first two books of my mystery/suspense series, A Dead Man’s Eyes and Never Broken, will finally make their ways into readers’ hands.

I have Pennwriters to thank.

I first heard about Black Opal Books in May during a Pennwriters conference, where I met a couple of authors who had signed with the Oregon-based company. It is important to be cautious with small publishers. I’ve heard stories about contracts and rights lost when small publishers folded, but Black Opal Books has been around for a while. They are also approved by Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, two high-profile groups that advocate for crime writers.

Even more important though was that the authors I met were happy. Black Opal Books was founded by people in the publishing industry who wanted to do more for authors. They wanted to publish high-quality, well-edited works while offering a percentage of royalties that surpasses the big publishing houses.

I looked into submitting when I returned, but the publisher was closed to submissions until June.

The summer got busy with a family reunion and the high school graduation of our oldest. In the midst of it all, I forgot about submitting to Black Opal Books, focusing instead on writing a new novel. Then I got an email from Pennwriters. I had won first and second places in the organization’s 2017 Novel Beginnings Contest. Pennwriters wanted updates from past contest winners for its newsletter. I remember my conversations about Black Opal Books.

This was in November. Black Opal Books was open for submissions until Dec. 31.

So I did it, and I am glad that I did.

I will post more about the release dates when I know more.

And now, if see me hopping, you’ll know why.

 

Authors: Don’t quit your day jobs

A friend once confided in me that he was nearly finished with his first novel, but that he was keeping it secret from his co-workers. He planned to quit when the novel sold and earn a living as an author.

He was young, optimistic and enthusiastic.

I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said nothing.

We all believe we will defy the odds, and maybe we will. Maybe my friend’s novel will earn a huge advance, the movie rights will sell immediately and the never-ending sales of licensed t-shirts, trinkets and video games will keep his coffers full. Then, maybe the second novel will take off, too.

But a new survey from the Authors Guild, the largest of its kind, suggests otherwise. The Authors Guild, in cooperation with 14 other author organizations, collected surveys from 5,067 published authors who are U.S. residents about their 2017 earnings, and the picture it paints is rather grim.

The median incomes of all published authors (This includes part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors) was $6,080, and that’s not just royalties. That figure includes money earned from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching — anything writing-related.

From books alone, authors earned a median income of $3,100.

But those figures include everyone.

Here is a more specific breakdown:

  • Median income for full-time authors for all writing-related activities: $20,300.
  • Median book-related income for self-published authors: $1,951. (That climbs to  $10,050 for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers.)
  • Median book-related income for traditional authors: $12,400.

These figures do not include the 25 percent of all published authors and 18 percent of full-time authors who earned no royalties on their books in 2017.  Yes, that happens. Books often take a long time to write. In a year without new publication, it is possible to earn nothing at all.

It’s not all bad news though. The highest paid authors in 2017 still did well:

  • Traditionally published: $305,000.
  • Self-Published: $154,000 

But that is for just one year. It is possible to get a large advance from a publisher for a book, and then never make anything more. A writer’s income is rarely consistent, which is another reason so many writers need day jobs.

Does that mean my friend should give up his dream? Absolutely not. Most of us write because we have a passion for writing. It’s in our blood. If we can make money doing what we love, even if we still need to hold onto our day jobs, why shouldn’t we?

We can also work together to improve the situation for each other. We can share ideas on marketing and promoting books. We can join organizations like the Authors Guild, which advocates for writers by keeping them informed and providing access to free and discounted services.  We can promote the love of reading and writing in our communities.

Maybe I should have warned my friend about the financial status of the industry, awakened him to the reality, but I was selfish. I wanted him to enjoy the ignorance a little longer. I learned these things piecemeal, beginning in my college days, and each time a bit of industry news got me down, something else pulled me back up — a published short story, a friend’s success story, a contract offer from a publisher 17 years after starting my first book. (Yes!)

I want that for him.

A career as an author does not make financial sense, but a trip to a local book store is evidence that writing is about more than the money. All those authors. All those books. They happened anyway. He will find out soon enough, or maybe he already has, but I still expect to see his name on those shelves someday alongside my own.

 

 

 

On the verge

Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!

We all handle rejection differently.

Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.

My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.

I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.

I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.

My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.

It was okay, I said. I could wait.

But the kids are older now.

I am ready and so are they.

I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.

More next week!

Where am I now?

I was recently asked to write an update for Penn Writer, a publication of the Pennwriters organization, about the impact its writing contest had on my writing life. It was excellent opportunity to reflect. So here it is:

The 2017 Pennwriters Novel Beginnings Contest came at a critical time for me. I was feeling down about the business and about my role in it. I had just parted ways with my agent of four years in search of pressure-free time to regroup and figure out whether I even had a future as an author. I entered the contest because I wanted validation. So, I was thrilled when No Stranger Here won first place and A Dead Man’s Eyes won second place.

My agent had submitted both those novels to publishers. The general response was that they enjoyed my writing, but that the novels weren’t quite commercial enough for the current mystery/thriller market. I had previously accepted that verdict, but those wins inspired me to dig deeper into genres as they are defined by publishers.  I succeeded in finding published novels like mine, ranging from mid-list to best sellers, and I contacted some of their authors. I learned their works were not initially promoted by agents as mysteries, but as women’s fiction or as southern fiction. Book sellers generally market them as both.

That revelation revived me, but I wasn’t ready to submit those novels again just yet. I had revised them so many times in attempts to appease major publishing houses that I felt the need for some distance. Instead, I started a new novel with a better feel for the expectations of mystery/thriller market. My progress has been slowed by a teaching gig at a local university and by the usual challenges of raising four kids, but I am now 20,000 words from the finish. I am confident that this new novel is more “commercial” than my previous works, but I don’t feel that I sacrificed the strength of the character arc to get there. It feels balanced. I feel better about my previously completed novels as well. I have even submitted No Stranger Here and A Dead Man’s Eyes to a few small publishers, though they remain in limbo.

Along with insight and confidence, I gained a whole new group of writer-friends thanks to the Pennwriters contest. With the contest wins came free registration to the 2018 conference and half-price registration to the 2019 conference. I met dozens of wonderful people last year with whom I remain in contact. I look forward to seeing them again in May and meeting many more. I also came away from the conference with some valuable advice and information. Someday, I hope to return to the conference with a published novel in my hands and advice of my own to give. So thank you, Pennwriters.

For more information about Pennwriters or to join, click here.