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Jess Lourey writes about secrets. She is the bestselling Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty-nominated author of the critically-acclaimed Mira James mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." Jess also writes nonfiction, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, magical realism, suspense novels, and thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a Psychology Today blogger, and a TEDx presenter (check out her TEDx Talk for the surprising inspiration behind her first published novel). When not teaching, reading, or dorking out with her family in Minneapolis, you can find her dreaming of her next story.
How did you come into writing?
Where do you get your story ideas?
How do you find an agent/publisher?
Do you have a disciplined writing schedule?
What do the people of Battle Lake think of your mystery series?
What are you working on now?
I received four hundred and twenty three rejections before I signed my first book contract. Not very good odds, but I'm running with them. It started when I was six. I wrote this Minnesota haiku for my awesome grandpa:
Grandpas are full of love
Grandpas are full of tickles
But grandpas are especially full of pickles.
People loved it. Aunts hugged me, cousins were jealous, uncles asked me to immortalize them next. My poetry skills have not evolved since that day, but the enchantment with words and their power grew inside me like a watermelon seed.
I wrote my first novel when I was 26. It featured three women traveling across the United States, three women suspiciously like myself and the two best friends I had taken a road trip with a couple years earlier. Like most first novels, it was embarrassingly self-involved, full of overwritten description and twenty-pound dialogue tags:
"Why doesn't my alcoholic father accept me for who I am?" Hannah asked pityingly, rubbing the burning, salty tears from her chocolate brown eyes.
Amazingly, no publisher would take a look at the first three chapters. (The fact that I was submitting directly to publishers shows just how green I was.) I tried some light revising, working under the misconception that my work was great and the world just wasn't ready for it yet. When the adding of more adjectives didn't net me a three-book deal, I took a sabbatical from writing the Great American Novel and got a real job. (By the way, I'm forever thankful it wasn't so easy to self-publish back then, or that stinker would be out there, following me everywhere.) I ended up with two Master's degrees, one in English and one in Sociology, and a teaching job at a rural technical college.
But, like most writers, I couldn't stop thinking of book ideas, scribbling down sparks of description or snatches of conversation that I overheard and would love to work into a story, feeling lazy and envious when I read a fantastic novel. When a traumatic life event reminded me of the true power of writing, I started penning MAY DAY, the first in my Murder-by-Month mysteries for adults. Complete story here: Rewrite Your Life TEDx Talk.
It turned out mystery writing fit me well. I enjoy structure, adventure, humor, justice. My first draft was complete, I thought, at 45,000 words. Confident that I had found my niche, I sent out 50 query letters and received 50 rejections. I researched the field, poring over the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime websites, reading all that Preditors and Editors had to offer me, camping out in Jeff Herman's fantastic reference book as well as the Literary Marketplace and AAR. Out of all those resources, two points stuck with me: no one would read a book shorter than 50,000 words, and if you're writing a mystery, publishers only want series.
I hired a freelance editor and pumped MAY DAY up to 52,000 words. Next, I wrote JUNE BUG. Then I implemented my systematic plan to wear down the publishing behemoth. I sent out 200 query letters. When the rejections started trickling in, I sent out 150 more. Not an agent or small press was spared. If they represented mysteries, they were queried.
If you're keeping score, that was three books written, zero books published. Why did I put so much effort into this? Because when I write, I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time. How did I know MAY DAY and JUNE BUG didn't suck on five different levels like my first novel? Because they were inspired by crucible experiences and I had done the research, including reading nearly forty books in the mystery genre. I had studied what made them great, and I had sought out and adhered to feedback from a reliable and well-recommended editor.
Finally, a bite. I found an agent. We never met -- she lived out west on a commune, where she edited technical manuals and studied the healing power of crystals. After six months and a handful of offers from publish-on-demand companies, we parted ways amicably. I found another agent shortly after that, and after a year of rejections from New York publishing houses, she found my books a home with Midnight Ink, an innovative new imprint of a respected Minnesota publishing house.
MAY DAY was released in March of 2006, happily received critical acclaim, and is available anywhere you can buy books. The rest of the series followed, published one or two a year. I love reading and writing mysteries, but in 2008, around the time my kids started reading chapter books, I realized that there is this amazing genre called young adult (YA). I started devouring my kids' books (figuratively speaking, munch munch bwahaaa, crazy mom), and somewhere in there, the kernel for my own YA trilogy sprouted. I called the series THE TOADHOUSE TRILOGY, and the first in the series Book One (Yes. I know). Alas, although my agent loved Book One, she couldn't sell it, and so began my odyssey into the world of self-publishing.
I've written two books a year since 2006, and I write whatever story idea captures my mind at the time, regardless of genre. As of today, I'm at over 400 rejections, sixteen novels, and one nonfiction book. Most people would have given up a while ago with those odds, and there is a word for those type of people: sensible. The rest of us, we're called writers.
The good stuff comes from my life experience. Sometimes, I see how it can be woven into a novel in my dreams dreams and I subsequently sleep with a journal next to my bed. SALEM'S CIPHER, my witch-hunting thriller, came to me as a very vivid dream. I also pay attention to the world. I'm an avid people-watcher, eavesdropper, and listener, and much of what I see, hear, and read morphs into stories. Finally, some of my story ideas come out of whole cloth--I am at my computer, committed to turning out at least 2000 words. Once the pump is primed, the story unfolds from the cosmos, through me, and onto the page. For example, THE CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS, a book and characters I'm in love with, came to me foggily. I wanted to explore the poison and power of secrets--a theme I was immersed in growing up--but also the magic of strong women because I am surrounded by them. Until I sat down and started typing (and revising, and typing, and sketching, and typing), though, I didn't know how that book was going to play out.
The idea for the THE TOADHOUSE TRILOGY came from the alchemy of these three things: 1) reading Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series, Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Treehouse series, and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series, 2) a sense that I was shortchanging myself by never reading the classics outside of college, and 3) raising my two amazing kids, an older sister and her younger brother, who like most kids their age were struggling to figure out their place in this world. All of that was rolling around in my head the same year that I was really focused on helping my kids to overcome some lumps, and I had a thought: what if a sister and brother one day realized they'd been living in fiction all along, and they had to travel into their favorite books to save themselves? That idea snowballed, and from it, THE TOADHOUSE TRILOGY was born.
Books are magic.
Dogged determination or a pathological unresponsiveness to reality. They're the same thing, so pick whichever sounds better to you. If you want more specifics, here you go:
After you've fully and honestly revised your novel based on feedback from at least three trusted sources, write a query and a synopsis. This requires a whole 'nother kind of writing -- sales and marketing. Get feedback on your query and synopsis, and consider hiring a professional editor. I've had great luck with Laine Cunningham of Writer's Resource editing my marketing materials.
Get a list of potential small presses and agents who would be a good fit for your work. Don't ever submit to any source that requires a reading fee or any other money up front; the only money you should pay out is postage and printing costs to an agent. Places to look to compile this list:
»»» Preditors and Editors
»»» Jeff Herman -- Insider's Guide To Book Editors, Publishers And Literary Agents (Check your local library)
»»» Literary Marketplace (Check your local library.)
»»» The Association of Authors' Representatives
»»» The Writer's Market (Check your local library for the latest edition).
Consider reading all of Jeff Herman's book or all of The Writer's Market before you submit; if you can afford it, buy one or the other. They're both full of excellent tips.
Submit your work to at least 100 agents and small presses. If they all reject, consider what your initial readers said and look for patterns in the rejections to find areas you still need to revise. If you didn't earlier hire a professional editor, seriously consider doing so now (I've had great luck with Jessica Morrell). After you've made significant revisions, submit to another 100.
Keep Andre Bernard's Rotten Rejections (Pushcart Press, 1990) close at hand. It's an inspirational collection of rejection letters received by Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Jane Austen, and others.
While writing and submitting, attend conferences for writers in your genre. Often, there will be agents and publishers there willing to hear a pitch from you. Organizations that represent the type of writing you do (Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, Writers Guild of America, The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) should have a list of relevant conferences.
I do not. What I do have is a full-time teaching job, two great kids, two wonderful stepsons, a husband, a dog, five fish (scratch that--zero fish; this section is old), and stories that won't leave me alone, so I make it work. With every book, finding time to write is like wrestling with a monkey. A clever, strong monkey that doesn't want to wrestle and would rather watch TV, or read someone else's book, or clean the bathroom with a Q-tip. Some nights, the monkey wins, and I watch John Oliver on Youtube or go to bed at 9:00, but I come out on top often enough that I can churn out a book every six months.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: when I write, I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time, and that is not a sensation to be wasted. But even though it's always satisfying, it's never easy.
I set the Mira James mystery series in the real Minnesota town of Battle Lake because that's where I was living when I first hammered out MAY DAY. I was impressed with the warmth and humor of the people in the town and the beauty and variety of the landscape, but also disturbed by the number of unusual deaths and quirky characters. In other words, it was the perfect place to stage a long-term mystery series. Overall, I've gotten very positive feedback from the residents of Battle Lake. It's Minnesota, though. Here we only say nice stuff. (Out loud, anyhow.)
The best way to find out the latest is to sign up for my newsletter, which I send out four times a year. At least I mean to. Sometimes it's less. My molasses blog is another good place to get up-to-the-minuteish news.