What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
My debut mystery novel, Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, was released in Fall 2009 by the independent publisher Mainly Murder Press. It follows Kris Langley, an obit writer and newsroom editorial assistant who stumbles across an unsolved murder on the microfilm. She grows intrigued by the cold case of Diana Ferguson, an artistic young cocktail waitress who was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. Kris shoulders tremendous guilt over a childhood prank which led to the death of her cousin, and she grasps onto the Diana Ferguson case as a chance to redeem herself. I once had Kris’s job, and I used my newsroom experience to create an authentic background for the book.
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.
My journey was a bit unusual. I wrote my first book, Face-Off, at age 16, entered it in the Avon Flare Young Adult Novel Competition for teenage authors, and to my delight, it won first prize. This was before the Internet and answering machines were popular, and I received a telegram from Avon as no one was ever home during the day to answer the phone. Avon published the novel when I was 18, under my maiden name, Stacy Drumtra. I naively believed that publishing subsequent books would be just as easy, but I went through 17 years of rejection. I was young when I started out, and needed to discover my niche, fine-tune my craft, and gain life experience beyond high school. Fast forward to the present…when I got the e-mail from Mainly Murder Press that they were offering a contract for Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, I was so excited that I was practically jumping up and down. Later, once it sunk in, I felt sheer relief that all my hard work had paid off.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
People have told me that I come across as self-assured, but self-doubts do nag at me. Things like: What if I can’t figure out how to end the book? What if I can’t think of an idea for my next book? What if I do all this work and no one publishes it? But, I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking. You have to push these negative thoughts to the back of your mind and stay focused. If you doubt yourself, why should a publisher take a chance on you? You have to trust that if you follow the writing path, it will take you where you need to go.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?
I started out writing young adult manuscripts, and there was one editor at a large NY children’s publisher who wrote me a personal note saying that the book was well-written and she liked certain aspects of it, but it wasn’t for her. So, then I sent her a second manuscript, and again she rejected it with a personal note. I mistakenly assumed that because she kept taking the time to write me a personal letter, she saw potential in my work and that maybe I just hadn’t given her the right project yet. A few months later, I sent the same editor a third manuscript. This time, she sent me a snippy letter back saying that she’d rejected every manuscript I’d ever submitted and that perhaps I should take the hint that they weren’t the right publisher for my work. I was absolutely mortified as I had never meant to come across as pushy. My personality is quiet and reserved, and I’m not aggressive at all, so that note really stung. I don’t think she handled it professionally, but perhaps I should have spaced out the submissions more or tried a different publishing house.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
I’ve heard it said that you should distance yourself from the manuscript before you send it off to publishers or agents. I think that’s good advice. It’s tempting to get your work out there and move onto a new project, but put it in a drawer for a few weeks. Take a break, read some novels, catch up on your TiVo, and then go through the manuscript one more time with fresh eyes. You’ll probably find at least a few minor changes to make. Then send it out.
How do you craft a plot?
I used to wing it a bit, but now I make a list of possible plot points and create an outline. I divide the outline into three acts. Act One is the book’s set-up, Act Two is the development of the crisis, and Act Three is the resolution. Within Act Two, I insert a couple plot points that take the story in unexpected directions and I give the sleuth a low point as the climax approaches. In Act Three, the pace quickens and pieces start coming together.
Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?
I write with an outline and a synopsis. The outline is longer, about ten pages of detailed notes on each chapter. It’s not written in stone and it might change a bit, but it keeps me on track so I always know what scene to write next. The synopsis is just a couple pages, and that boils down the story so that I stay focused on the most important aspects, such as: what the characters want, why they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it; what are the major obstacles; and does this all lead to a satisfying and powerful conclusion. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some talented writing instructors, including Kris Neri on mystery-writing and plotting, and Mary Buckham on synopsis-writing.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I’d known how to create a well-rounded character. My early rejections all indicated that my characters were flat and needed further development. Over the years, I’ve had editors and agents take an interest in my work and write me detailed editorial letters suggesting ways to flesh out my characters. I also took a few online writing classes, and finally, the missing pieces clicked into place. I started filling out character charts and figuring out what drives my protagonist? What does she want? What holds her back? How does she change over the course of the novel? The key is to convey all these qualities in bits and pieces through dialogue, narrative and internal thought, without dumping big chunks of back-story into the novel.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
I had a great agent who marketed my novels to publishers for almost three years, but when our contract ran out, the agency didn’t renew it as they felt they’d exhausted their list of contacts. The door was left open that they’d be happy to see my next novel when I finished it, however I was only a few chapters into it. I had a toddler and I was making money by writing magazine articles, press releases and newsletters, and it was hard to justify putting all the time and effort into rushing to finish yet another book that might not be published. I was happy with all the other aspects of my life, but with my fiction career, I felt as if I’d hit rock bottom.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
It’s a fun escape to sit down with a book that I didn’t write. I particularly enjoy reading mystery series and suspense novels. I plan to write a mystery series someday and I find it educational watching how other authors develop their series. I pay attention to details like how does the protagonist evolve over different books, what role do recurring secondary characters play, and how does the author keep the series fresh?
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m proud of my young adult book Face-Off, which I wrote during study halls during my junior and senior years of high school. It tells the story of twin brothers Brad and T.J., who compete with each other on the hockey rink and off, until they need to pull together for the sake of their team and their family. I’ve received many fan letters over the years from kids who said that they related to the characters and felt the book had made a difference in their lives. I was happy to learn recently that The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Junior Education Program has included Face-Off on its recommended reading list for the junior and intermediate levels. It has been out of print for many years, and I plan to update it and eventually reissue a new edition for today’s generation of readers. I also have a sequel in my drawer. I will contact publishers and agents at some point to see if anyone is interested in re-releasing it, and if all else fails, I’ll publish the books myself.
What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?
Make your manuscript as strong as possible. Get rewrites, proofs and paperwork returned to them by the deadline and do your best work. Be willing to assist with the marketing and promotion of your book. Keep your editor informed of your marketing efforts and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Realize that you’re not the only writer the editor works with and be respectful of his/her time. Be polite and express gratitude for their hard work on your behalf. An agent praised me once on my professionalism and politeness, and told me that in her experience, that type of writer is hard to find. I found that surprising.
How many drafts to you edit before submitting to your editor?
At least a dozen drafts. I generally write 4-5 chapters, send them to my critique partners, polish the chapters following their feedback, and tackle the next batch. I repeat this process until I finish the novel. Then, I sit down and go through the whole thing a handful of times. On one run-through, for example, I’m just looking at ways to punch up dialogue. On another round, I’m underlining all the nonverbal communication and challenging myself to find more original phrases than “She raised her eyebrows” or “He grinned.” I zoom in on the manuscript from all different perspectives, and then when I can’t possibly stomach reading it one more time, I take a break and hand it over to a couple critique partners who have never seen it before. Typically, I’ll make a few more changes based on their comments, and then I’ll have family members proof it and offer their opinions. When I think it’s as strong as possible, I send it off.
We often hear how important it is to write a good query letter to whet the appetite of an editor. What tips can you offer to help other writers pen a good query?
I always lead off with a teaser that offers a hook and sounds as if it could come off the jacket copy. If you have publishing credentials or a particular background that helped you to craft your novel, then by all means mention it, but if not, don’t apologize for your inexperience. Everyone has to start somewhere. At the end, thank the person for their time. Be mindful of how they like to receive queries. If they don’t take e-mail queries, then send it via regular mail and be sure to include a self addressed stamped envelope for their response.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
It crossed my mind several times. I’d ask myself why it was so important for me to get published and why couldn’t I just let writing fiction be a hobby? If all I received were form letters for years, then maybe I would have quit. And I did get hundreds of form letters. But, I also had editors champion my novels before Publishing Committees at three different publishing houses. Editors wrote me long letters inviting me to resubmit if I did rewrites. I’ve even had editors and agents brainstorm with me on the phone for an hour. I had an agent for a few years that believed in my writing and really went to bat for me. When that didn’t lead to a sale in the long-run, I contemplated giving up, but then I won the $1,000 William F. Deeck Malice Domestic Grant for my mystery-novel-in progress. Later, I had two different manuscripts final in the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Contest for the Best First Traditional Mystery. My rejections far outweighed the encouragement – I can’t even begin to guess how many rejections I’ve collected over the years – but the encouragement gave me hope. And it’s hard to let yourself give up when there’s still a glimmer of hope, especially when you’ve invested so much time, effort, and money into pursuing your goals.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
I do a ton of marketing/publicity. My first step was setting up a web site, http://www.stacyjuba.com/. I also created a database of review publications, interview publications, blogs and web sites that welcome authors, newspaper and newsletter contacts, bookseller contacts, and library contacts. It’s huge and is an ongoing work-in-progress. My second step was to schedule local author talks and book signing events, and to promote them through press releases and flyers. I also established a separate database with names and e-mail addresses of my mailing list, so I can send out newsletter announcements a few times per year. I got on Facebook and will explore Twitter at some point. My advice for new writers would be to plan for the future so you’ll have a head start once you make that first book sale. Visit author web sites and write down components that you like, join professional writing organizations, keep a folder of future promotion leads, and set up your social networking accounts now so that you’ll have less scrambling to do later.
Writing for publication is hard work, but it also takes luck to find the right people who can help you on your journey. I firmly believe you can help create your own good luck. A couple years ago, I made a Vision Board with words, phrases, and pictures that reflected my writing, publishing, and personal goals. I update it regularly and I keep it in my office so that it inspires me daily. Feed your mind with positive thoughts and believe that you deserve all the best the world has to offer. Then, go write that book!