Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked in law enforcement for over two decades as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. She is the author of the Anthony Award winning SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels: : Every Move She Makes, Fatal Truth, Deadly Legacy and Cold Case. Her thriller about a forensic artist for the FBI, Face of a Killer, debuted November 2008. You can visit her website here.
What is your current project? Tell us about it.
I am currently finishing up the next book in my new series. The Bone Chamber continues with Sydney Fitzpatrick, FBI agent/forensic artist. This time, she’s off to Washington, D.C., then Rome.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
I started writing seriously in 1990, sold my first book in 1994. I came home for lunch, saw the answering machine blinking, and hit the button, hearing the editor from HarperCollins saying she wanted to buy my book. I remember jumping up and down and my gun belt and duty gear jangling as I jumped. Oh, and my cheeks hurt from the permanent smile on my face for the next three days.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
Always self-doubts. Every book I turn in I wonder if it’s right. So far so good, but those self-doubts don’t go away. In fact, they grow stronger with each book. I’m fairly certain that some of the stuff I have written since that first book came out is drivel, but like a good friend says: you can’t fix what isn’t written. So if you’re not having self-doubts, you aren’t writing.
And that is also the key. Some of that drivel has shaped up into great books. Case in point: I was certain after I had finished the early draft of FACE OF A KILLER, that it was horrible! But I didn’t give up, kept at it, made change after change and finally ended up with what became the final draft.
If I have one piece of advice, it would be to write first, then check e-mail. Oh, and remove all the games from your computer. They become time suckers.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I would have joined the proper writing organizations much earlier, started networking and learning the business.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
The best advice from John Lescroart, NYT author, who said, “A page a day and you have a book done in a year. The worst? Write what you know. It should be: Write what you love.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
History. Finding that bit of obscure knowledge that can be twisted into something relevant today. Also, I’m fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to experience the wilder side of things.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I’m sure I have, but most people dismiss my interest in the obscure as part of my profession. They are usually more surprised to find I write, than to find I am interested in how someone might die…
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
The first setback was an agent query letter returned (accidentally) with a rejection. The query letter had notes from a pre-reader on it, with the word “YUK” written across the description of my story. I’m sure they didn’t mean to send it back to me, but they did, and I cried, certain I was completely foolish to ever presume I could write to begin with. But I made a firm decision to put it from me and persevere. That book sold to HarperCollins, and I like to think that maybe the agent was sorry… The next setback was the birth of my twins right before that first book came out. Life instantly changed and I was not able to write for a couple of years. And I certainly have thought about quitting on more than one occasion. But every time, I remember why I started to write. I love to read, and I love to write, so I keep at it.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears if beginning this writing journey today?
Join a couple writing organizations and learn the business. For example Sisters in Crime is a great one for the mystery side, Romance Writers of America for romance and romantic suspense. Both are invaluable for networking and learning the business. If you’re going to take advice from someone, take it from someone with real publishing credits, or someone who has been there, done that. I took advice from a few who had been around, but didn’t really know what they were talking about, and it really set me back a couple years in my career.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
My husband, who, when I first started writing longhand, and showed him the pads of paper I had filled with my first story, told me to buy a computer, because it looked like I was serious. And again, when I said I wasn’t sure if this was a good business to be in, because it was so rocky and there were no guarantees on sales—he reminded me that I was writing for the love of it.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
Each book I write, of course. Most recently, FACE OF A KILLER. I think it moved my writing into a whole new direction. I moved from first person to third, multiple point of view. It is also high action and more complex.
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”
To tell a good story. I might add to write what you love, as opposed to writing what you think will sell, and you will never be disappointed—at least with what you are currently working on. I think that when a writer is writing what he or she loves, it shows in his or her work.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
I do. But I can’t think of anything off hand that won’t take up way too much space.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
I’m always dreaming. That’s how I got started writing! But the big dream? International bestseller. How is that for aiming for the top?
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
The favorite part is getting to use my imagination to create a story, then hearing back from readers about how much they liked it. The least favorite part is that I have so many ideas, and not near enough time to get them all into story form, which rather equates with the solitary sitting in front of the computer trying to get all that writing done.
How has your unique life journey prepared you to be an author? What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
Well, I think it’s my day job. Being a cop has definitely given me that advantage of writing realistic police procedure and exciting chase scenes. Goodness knows I’ve been in a couple during my years on the force. But the truth is that once I had kids, I saw things in a different light, and that also changed the way I write.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
Nothing special. A desk in my living room, now converted to an office. I use a space heater, so that I can heat the room without heating the entire house. It looks very normal.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Writing every day. Not sure if I have conquered that, yet…
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Open a blank page. It’s the sitting down and writing something on it that is the hard part.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
Actually, I like to go to bed and “dream” where I’m going with the book. Each night, I think about where I’ve left off and picture it in my mind, trying to imagine where I’ll go next. It’s almost like trying to force a dream. Quite often I fall asleep instantly. I think that thinking about the book helps me to relax. But every now and then I’ll find that I’m able to work out a problem that hasn’t been able to resolve itself just staring at the computer screen each day. When that happens, I have to get out of bed and write it down, lest I forget. Sometimes the idea is so strong, I’m sure I won’t forget, and then I wake up and can’t remember. Best to keep a pad of paper by the bed.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
First off, get it on a page. Can’t fix what isn’t written. But for me, the hardest is pulling together the ending, tying up all the loose ends, making it exciting without dragging it on and on while the hero confronts the killer in that exciting, are-we-gonna-make-it moment.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
Every time a reader writes to me, it’s memorable. I love hearing from readers. But I think it’s the young readers that stay with me. I’ve had a few teenagers, 13 or so, who acquired the book from a sibling or parent, then braved the internet to write to me. I’ve been in touch with a few of them for years, “seen” them off to college and their first jobs. That’s been very cool.
Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.
I think my favorite one was when I first broke into mystery and Lee Child e-mailed me out of the blue, saying he had read EVERY MOVE SHE MAKES, and that he “loved it!”
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
Good question. In this economic climate, buying expensive ads or spending all your advance on promo is just plain silly—especially when you consider what an average print run is these days. Better to build an internet presence, pick one or two good conferences to attend for networking and spend your time writing the next great book.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
What’s the name of your most recent book? Face of a Killer! (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Truthfully, I can’t think of a thing!)