Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stages in a Writer's Career

The day that you sell your first story or novel is one that few writers ever forget. This is the "made it" moment that Jenny Milchman and others talk about so eloquently. This step easily eclipses all else in our difficult journey to publication. But after thirty years as a writer (and more if you include high school and college), I've whittled the career of a writer down to a few important stages.

1. At a writers' conference, with a panel of distinguished writers who have lifetimes of fascinating experiences to share, the first question comes from the back of the room, from a woman (or man, it doesn't matter). The question is, "How do you get an agent?" After the panelists fumble on that one, the questioner leaves the room and the panel continues.

2. The annual Fourth of July neighborhood potluck is guaranteed to bring together a variety of people, including guests from out of state, perhaps distant relatives or the new girlfriend of the neighbor's son or college roommates. In general conversation, the published writer standing by the barbecue will be identified, and moments later a young college student (either gender) will approach and ask, "Will you read my four-hundred page memoir about my life in the chemistry lab, which blows up accidentally uncovering a body hidden in the closet during the Vietnam Era? I have a copy in my car."

3. A young woman who has recently sold her first story to a small literary magazine (payment in copies) begins to tell, in an offhand slightly humorous and self-deprecating manner, the story of getting published and manages to draw this out into a delightful, charming performance of twenty minutes, without once noticing that one of the men nodding and smiling and moving his old-fashioned glass from one hand to the other has been short-listed for the Pulitzer at least twice and is expected to win this year. His wife, who for some reason slipped away to the buffet table, is a successful novelist.

4. Through sheer perseverance, the heroine (or hero, it doesn't matter) of our tale attends the seventeenth conference of her career, where she spills wine on the woman sitting next to her at the dinner table, apologizes wearily because she is, after all, fed up with this business of conferencing, and then listens to the woman's complaints about having to spend a fortunate going to these things just to find decent mss, which almost never happens. She agrees to read our heroine's novel, by way of an apology for her whining (and wining).

5. Frustrated, exhausted, demoralized, and afraid she really can't write, which was her younger brother's litany through school and beyond, our heroine writes a message of complaint to a better published friend, who answers on Facebook. After a week, our heroine recovers from the embarrassment of being human, and apologizes for her semi-public meltdown.

6. At her twenty-fifth mystery conference, our heroine arrives at her panel with her new book, her very first, and finds her place on the panel, squashed in the center with three other writers on either side. She has to push aside at least five books on either side of her spot, so she can prop up her little paperback. She spends much of the time of the panel keeping the book from falling off the table.

7. At a library panel for local writers, our heroine arrives a few minutes early, takes her place at the end of a row of stools, and introduces herself to the other writers as they arrive. One is a poet with her first book coming out, another is a columnist for the local newspaper, and the third is a short story writer who has published three stories in local magazines. As they begin to talk, each competing with the other, our heroine leans back and watches, nodding with approval and understanding, and saying barely a word. Someone in the audience raises her hand and asks, "How do you get an agent?"

For a more serious look at the "made it" moment, you may want to visit Jenny Milchman's blog.

For help in getting through these stages, you may also want to check out the many truly worthwhile conferences available to mystery writers.

If you are fortunate enough to end up on a panel, be sure to follow general rules on panel etiquette. There are several sites that offer guidance, and here's one.


  1. This is why I never go anywhere--I just stay home and try to write. Very entertaining.

  2. I'm just glad I can look back on all my missteps and laugh at them. There's nothing like time and perseverance. And yes, learning to stay home and write. Thanks for commenting.

  3. As far as getting a first-rate agent, it's often more difficult than finding a publisher. However, the major publishers require that work be presented through an agent. And so we go around in circles.

  4. Jacquie, you're right about how hard it is to get an agent. But we stumble forward, with or without one. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Fun article, Susan. I loved #2. Going along with that is the "I have a great idea for a novel you can use. Let me tell you all about it."

  6. I missed that one, Catherine. You're right--that's an important stage also. I may have to revise my article. Thanks for coming by.

  7. You're funny, Susan. I've just started going to literary events and I've already seen some of the behaviour you describe. Thanks for the links too.

  8. Glad you enjoyed it, Allan. I do enjoy some events, and always encourage other writers to get out and meet people. Thanks for coming by.

  9. You hit it! And what about getting on a conference panel (after getting book number two published) and finding you're sharing space with two multi-published and much worshiped authors who tend to talk to each other or to the audience, apparently forgetting you're there? It was a fascinating and fun panel of two, and I could have sat in the audience and been lots more comfortable. :D

  10. Pat, you're absolutely spot-on. I've been on those panels too, wishing I could just move into the audience and watch. I think it's an achievement to have reached this level in my career and still have my sense of humor. Thanks for coming by.