Author of The Blackbird Sisters Mystery Series

First of all, the best way to start writing is…to start writing. You can talk about your ideas until the cows come home, read how-to books until you’re cross-eyed and whine that you can’t find the time to fulfill your dream because of your job, your family or other outside pressures. Thing is, only you can make a career in writing happen. Make the time and start writing now. Use a pen and paper or a fancy computer. Just do it. Experiment. Give your creativity some free rein for a while. Sure, your first drafts are going to be messy. Mine are sometimes incomprehensible! Just get some fresh ideas on paper. Re-writing to mold your story into something marketable comes later

After you’ve allowed your inner child to play and new ideas are bursting out of you, consider taking a class. Everybody can use a brush-up of basic writing skills, and early feedback can be helpful as long as you don’t allow someone to stifle your creativity. Always be open to improving your writing, though, and taking a class can be invaluable at any stage of a writer’s career.

Once you’ve started generating pages, join a group that best represents your genre. Because I write cozy murder mysteries, I belong to Sisters in Crime. The national organization is terrific, but my local group meets frequently, conducts workshops, sustains critique groups and generally supports each other. You don’t have to be alone in your struggle to write.

I also belong to Pennwriters, an organization for writers in Pennsylvania that has one of the best annual conferences in the nation. When I first began writing I lived in a rural area with no writing groups nearby. So some friends and I banded together and created our own group. Today, Pennwriters has several hundred members and conducts wonderful events all over the state. Every year, Pennwriters holds a conference and brings a top agent or two, a handful of New York-based editors, several well-published authors and plenty of experts who all conduct workshops and make themselves available for one-on-one meetings and discussions. The conference is a great place to meet agents and editors under casual circumstances. Even if you don’t live in our state, this conference is an excellent way to meet industry professionals. Check

There are lots of other conferences for writers--probably one near you. (Try local colleges first, as well as your local library or bookstore.) Yes, conferences can be expensive, but who gave you the impression that starting a new career was going to be free? You have to spend money to make money. And conferences are tax deductible! It’s wise to wait until you have something on paper before you attend a conference, though. You can’t attract the attention of an agent or editor if you don’t have a manuscript.

Of course, sometimes big events can be overwhelming. When I came home from my first big convention. my loving family rushed to the door to greet me, and I burst into tears. I was shaken by what I perceived as the competition and insurmountable odds I absorbed at the convention. After drying my tears, I put the competition out of my mind and focused on writing my own work. Conquering my fear and self-doubt wasn’t easy, but I have managed to generate a great many published books since then.

If you’re feeling braver than I was, search the web for regional and national conferences. Because I write mysteries, I sometimes attend Malice Domestic, held every May in Washington, DC. I’ve also attended Bouchercon, which is a huge mystery convention that travels around the US and Canada. Left Coast Crime is a convention held in California once a year. Magna Cum Murder, Murder in the Magic City, Bloody Words, Deadly Pleasures, Sleuthfest and other mystery-related events are listed on such websites as or

One of your first questions is going to be, “How do I find an agent?” Well, let me tell you that’s the very least of your worries. Please, please, please don’t focus on getting an agent UNTIL YOU HAVE A FINISHED BOOK to sell. I know it’s hard to put this seemingly difficult task out of your mind, but truly, the best way to acquire an excellent literary agent is to write an excellent book. You cannot sell a book that isn’t written, and you’re just wasting your time and the time of agents and editors if you try to sell your first book on spec. There’s no sense building name recognition either, unless you have a product to sell. If you insist upon making yourself well-known in the biz too early, you’ll simply become known as a wannabe—all hat and no cattle. Write the book first.

Once your book is finished, it should be thoroughly critiqued by someone other than your spouse or your mother. Get an educated reader to look at your work. I value critique groups very highly, although sometimes you can find yourself in a group that focuses too much on grammar, spelling or naming characters and not enough on the larger picture of story telling. Find a critique group through a local bookstore, a college, a library. Or create your own group by posting notes in those places. Look for partners who share your desire to be published. Don’t feel you must limit yourself to writers who focus on your chosen genre. It can help to get an outside opinion. Try to keep your critique group small—I think more than six becomes unwieldy. My experience is that groups who read pages aloud to each other are not as effective as groups who share hard copy. You want a group that takes the time to read your pages and compose intelligent feedback for you, not just popping off opinions in the moment. Share at least twenty pages at a time and specify up front what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Carefully read the work of others and prepare your remarks thoughtfully before you attend a face-to-face meeting. Respect each other’s work by offering only input the writer requests and be aware of how group dynamics can both help and smother creative work.

You may feel impatient about critique groups because you feel you are slowed down by being forced to read the work of other amateur writers. Okay, maybe everybody’s not as skilled as you are, and that can be frustrating. Occasionally there’s a critique group member whose skills are really poor. But I truly believe you can learn as much from reading a bad writer as you can by reading a good one. Basic storytelling problems become more apparent. Good sentence structure, use of metaphor, emotional impact and pacing are just a few qualities that become more obvious as you read and critique the work of others. You can better see your own story-telling faults by studying the problems of other writers, too. When you are immersed in your own story, it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees sometimes, and looking at other people’s trees can help.

While working with your local critique group, you might consider joining some online critique groups and/or services. Try: Yahoo Groups Writerscorner1, an excellent resource for how-to articles and opportunities for networking with other writers. Maybe you’ll find a critique partner among the other members.

During the critique process, I hope you’ll keep an open mind, listen to the opinions of your peers and make changes according to your own feelings. After all, it’s your book, not a group project. Use what critical advice you find useful, but be prepared to ignore kindly meant advice that doesn’t fit your vision.

A tip: Don’t fall into the trap of trying to entertain your critique group as if they are readers of your story. Keeping them in the dark about what happens next is counter-productive. How can they help you hone your story if they don’t know where it’s going? When your draft is finished, you can find a new reader who hasn’t read every word as it was created, and that’s the person from whom you can get audience input.

After saying up front that you should spend some early writing time letting creative ideas flow freely, I’ll tell you now that I come from the Construct An Outline school of writing. It’s really hard to feel your way instinctively through a story and have everything turn out right. It can take years and years to come up with a complete and satisfying story that way, and writers have been known to spend ages becalmed in a manuscript that has nowhere to go. So I always create an outline.

Although I create a detailed outline (sometimes twenty pages or more) I don’t necessarily follow the outline. My outline is a roadmap. It takes me to my destination—a place where all the loose ends are tied up. But having the map allows me to take detours along my journey. When good ideas strike, of course I use ‘em. Maybe during the writing process my story goes in a whole new direction, which can be great, but at least I have my road map to come back to if I get lost.

For help creating a story that takes your reader on an exciting and entertaining journey that comes to a satisfying conclusion, you’ll need to understand the basic concepts of plotting. Everybody believes they can tell a story, but it ain’t necessarily so. To create a truly satisfying tale, you really ought to study up. There isn’t enough space here for me to tell you what I’ve learned, and I certainly haven’t learned it all!

     So I suggest you take a look at these resources:

     1 Donald Maass’s book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL

     2 Robert McKee’s STORY

     3 Evan Marshall’s THE MARSHALL PLAN


     5 Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY

As you create a story, keep the reader in your mind at all times. As I outline my plots, I constantly remind myself that I must entertain my reader. Keep her laughing, surprise her, intrigue her. I am also careful to choose story elements with my reader in mind, too. I’m pretty sure my audience doesn’t want to see my character spending dreary days in an office, talking to dull people, so I’m always looking for fun stuff to use in my books—material that will entertain my readers. My readers want to get an insider’s view of a world they’ve never seen before, so I’m always on the lookout for issues that interest women, subjects that are current in the news, fashion trends, etc. These elements make my editor sit up and take notice, too.

New writers often plunge into writing a story too soon, before all the necessary plot puzzle pieces are in place. You may write fifty or a hundred pages in a blaze of excitement about your characters and suddenly find yourself floundering around or stopped dead and wondering what’s wrong. That’s normal. You’ve probably painted yourself into a corner. Chances are, you need to go back and work on your outline again. Do it. Try to step back from the details of the story and look at the big picture. Get some help from your critique group. Does your protagonist have a clear problem to solve? Is the character highly motivated to solve the problem? Will something really bad happen if the character fails to solve the problem? Looking at the overall story and finding its weak spots will often kickstart your writing again.

Okay, you’ve outlined your story, written it all, sent it to your critique partners for review, so what’s next?

A re-write. A complete overhaul of your manuscript isn’t out of the question. Comb through the pages until every word is important and necessary. Cut all the badly written junk or extraneous lines. Then do it again. (I go through more than twenty drafts of each book. That means I print out the entire book at least twenty times and revise, revise, revise.) I think the very best writers are the ones who love the re-write process. When I worked in theater, I found myself loving the rehearsal process more than the performances, so I guess that means I love the endless tinkering and tweaking to get every detail just right. It’s a habit that has served me well.

Once your manuscript is polished to perfection, you finally have my permission to start agent hunting.

It’s very difficult to sell a book these days. Mind you, I am not talking about vanity presses, e-books, self-publishing, print-on-demand, vanity presses or even the rip off schemes that masquerade as so-called small presses. I advocate trying to sell your work to the top publishers of your genre, only the best publishing houses. And it’s hard. But not impossible. Many rookie writers find themselves taken in by money-making schemes because they don’t know how to approach the big publishers in New York.

So how do you find a reputable publisher and avoid the money-grubbing vanity presses?

You get yourself an agent


Getting an agent is not as hard as it looks. What you need is an excellent manuscript. Any agent worth his or her salt is going to want to represent excellence. (So ---duh!!-- go back to the re-write process before you start submitting!)

     Resources for finding good agents:

But the best ways to find a reputable agent? Ask around. Ask local authors, attend conventions to network with other aspiring writers, stay current with news in the publishing world. ( has an excellent email service that sends a weekly list of what authors are selling what books to which editors through which agents.—It’s a great way to identify a writer who produces work similar to yours, and it’s a short step to approaching that author’s agent.) Talk to people, make friends online, get to know others in the biz. Often, authors will thank their agents in the acknowledgments of their books. Check what your favorite authors have to say about their agents.

Keep in mind you can often meet authors at your local bookstore. Independently owned and genre-specific bookstores often invite authors to visit and meet readers. My local fave, Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA ( ) hosts over 75 visiting authors from the US, Canada and England every year. I could visit the store twice a week and sometimes do! Many major cities have mystery bookstores, and you should plan to travel to visit one every time an interesting author comes to call. Authors really do want to meet and talk with you (of course, you’ll buy their books, right??) so don’t hesitate to speak to your favorite authors. They will no doubt be unwilling to give you the name of their agents or recommend theirs to you (it’s bad form to ask) but they might have some suggestions for other agents you can try.

Create a list of potential agents for yourself and prioritize it. This is homework you must do yourself. Just going down a line of agents listed in a book isn’t the best method to find the right person for your personality and your material.

I recommend finding an agent who is located in New York City or the surrounding area. You want a representative who knows everybody, goes to lunch with editors regularly, does business with the pros, right? So don’t walk down the street in Small City, USA and find a person who calls herself an agent and promises you the moon. Look for an agent in the New York area who is well-connected, has many clients in your genre, a proven track record of published books and has helped build solid careers for successful authors.

And swing for the fences. There’s no reason to start at the bottom of the heap! Choose the best agents you can and submit your query letters accordingly.

For help writing your query letter, check a resource like Evan Marshall’s book THE MARSHALL PLAN. Evan is an excellent agent with plenty of common sense, and his book contains one of the best all time chapters on query letters. (I heard Evan speak at a conference recently. I thought this was his best advice: “Be a normal person.” It cracked me up, but it’s true. Don’t try to act like what you think an author should be. Just be yourself. Agents aren’t looking for nut cases. They’re looking for pleasant, smart, sensible people to be their partners.)

     Other recommended resources:

What happens if your top agent rejects you? Don’t curl up and cry. Don’t get mad. And don’t beat yourself up. Books are a matter of taste. Maybe your particular manuscript just doesn’t appeal to the first agent you tried. Try another one. And another. If you are rejected more than a couple of times, though, perhaps it’s time to go back to the manuscript and make some changes. I feel strongly that books ought to be revised and polished until they are ready for the big time. Maybe you need to face the idea that you’ve got mediocre work on your hands. Re-write until your material is the best it can be.

A reputable agent may give you advice on revisions before s/he will send it to a publisher. If you feel strongly that your book is perfect the way it is, okay, don’t take the advice that’s offered. But keep in mind that a reputable agent didn’t get that way by being an idiot. Listen to the comments made by your professional partner and revise accordingly.

When your manuscript is accepted by a publisher, trust your agent. S/he is the expert in the biz, and you are the writer. Stick to what you do best and allow your agent to do his/her work in negotiating the contract.

I haven’t yet mentioned one vital part of a writer’s life. Reading. I’m sure a love of reading has already sent you on the path to becoming a writer, so perhaps I don’t need to emphasize how important it is. I try to read two books a week, but it’s often more. I read as much of my own genre as I possibly can. I started out reading the classics, but I believe it’s vital to keep up with trends, too, so I try to read a variety of current authors. Okay, so I don’t always finish the books that don’t appeal to my taste, but I feel the need to be familiar with the state of my art. (If you were a house painter, you’d know all the varieties of paint as well as their textures, colors and staying power, right?) I also read literary fiction and pop fiction bestsellers. I read good and bad writers so I know the difference. I am learning to appreciate all kinds of styles and storytelling structures. I study cover art, blurbs and plot summaries. I receive newsletters from bookstores that summarize and review books, and I search the internet, read catalogs and talk to booksellers to learn what’s new and fresh in the marketplace. If writing is your business, you need to read, read, read.

Writing can be a rewarding career, and a wonderful lifestyle. I love looking for story ideas, gathering details to use in my pages, daydreaming silly twists and turns to use in my plots. But the way I have achieved success is basically by keeping my behind in a chair and writing. Nobody can write for you. It’s work you must do yourself. Yes, discipline is one of the keys to success. As you learn about your craft, improve your skills and grow as a writer, you must also continue to maintain good work habits.

I love writing. I like nothing better than to spend a day at my keyboard with my characters. If you love it, too, I wish you the best of luck. Enjoy!