Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Jennifer Soosar, Debut Author Finds Suspense in the Classroom

Introducing ITW Debut Author Jennifer Soosar. She's joining me this week to talk about her experiences writing her first novel. 

Jennifer Soosar watched too much 'America's Most Wanted' growing up and has been writing about shady characters ever since. She was born and raised in Toronto and has a degree in anthropology from York University. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. 

She is a member of International Thriller Writers, the Crime Writers of Canada, and Sisters in Crime.

For more information about Jennifer, you can find her online at:

Tell us about the road you took to write and publish your first novel, Parent Teacher Association.

Since childhood, I had written a lot of screenplays and short stories, but never a novel. A novel always seemed like such a daunting project. “I’ll get around to it one day,” I told myself. Once my kids were older, I discovered I had more free time so it seemed like the best opportunity to finally give it a try. The first idea that popped into my head was “why not set the story in an elementary school?” I outlined a basic story with conflict between two characters—a parent and a teacher. The whole thing grew as my imagination took the concept to a much darker place than your typical school environment, but I think that’s what makes it fun. I can admit, I was a bit of a ‘helicopter mom’ (like my parent character Naomi) when my kids were little. I had some fears letting them go out into the world. Writing the novel allowed me to purge a lot of that.

While hammering out the first draft during the late summer of 2014, I was excited to learn about the annual ThrillerFest conference in New York. One of the best things about it was PitchFest, an opportunity to pitch your novel to literary agents. I quickly signed up for the next one in July 2015 because I wanted to give myself a hard deadline. I now had nine months to produce an 80,000 word manuscript I could sit across from agents and pitch. There was no going back now. I had to finish this book…and it had to be good!

The deadline weighed constantly on me. Between mini-panic attacks of “what have I done?” to doubts that I could deliver, the deadline ended up being the best favor I could have done for myself. There was absolutely no way out (well, technically, I could have cancelled the whole thing and gotten my money back but that would’ve sucked). I had to ignore the negative, skeptical thoughts and just keep pounding the novel out. Months went by and it started to take shape. By late June 2015, I finished what was probably the fifth or sixth draft of it. It was finally ready. It was time to head down to New York City.

ThrillerFest was an amazing, positive experience and I learned so much. I ended up pitching Parent Teacher Association to ten different agents and nine of them asked to see more. While I didn’t end up landing an agent, I did meet a fellow author who was published at Black Opal Books.  Later in the fall, I queried a few publishers, including Black Opal. Five months later, in March 2016, the acquisitions editor at Black Opal said she was delighted with Parent Teacher Association and wanted to publish it. I got a contract in the mail a few days later.

To return to ThrillerFest in 2017 as a Debut Author is an amazing, satisfying feeling. Every bit of hard work, sweat, and tears was worth it to get here. It’s also great to be on the other side of the project, stepping into a brand new world as an official, published author.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a crime novella called Cayo Cuba. It’s a noir-suspense set on the tiny island of Cayo Guillermo on Cuba’s north shore. I’ve travelled there four times and was inspired by the resort workers and the fact that Ernest Hemingway had spent time on the island. In fact, Cuba’s best beach, located on the tip of Cayo Guillermo, and is named after Hemingway’s boat, Pilar.
The tagline: ‘A mysterious blonde manipulates a restless dancer to perform a dirty deed in exchange for freedom.’ 

I realize it’s an uphill battle for a new author to find readers and fans so I’m writing Cayo Cuba as a promotional giveaway for Parent Teacher Association (with an excerpt and buy link at the end!) I plan to have this novella ready for Bouchercon which takes place this coming October in my hometown of Toronto.

Final words of wisdom?

Inspiration for stories is everywhere, and ideas come in little scraps. You gather up these scraps, combine them and your imagination turns them into a bigger idea. Since there’s no predicting when a scrap of an idea will come, you always carry a small notebook with you. I love mixing unrelated scraps of ideas because the outcome can be something you never would have thought of.

Barbara Bourland: Launching a Novel, Multiple Book Deals, and Terry Gross

So happy to interview Barbara Bourland, ITW Debut Author for this week's blog. Barbara is the author of I'll Eat When I'm Dead, a murder mystery set at a fashion magazine. She is at work on Maniacs, its sequel, and her third novel, Pine City, is also forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing and riverrun. Find her @babsbourland on instagram and twitter. Click on her name to visit her website

You went from being an unpublished author to having three books scheduled. I'll Eat When I'm Dead (launched May 2 from Grand Central & riverrun) its sequel—Maniacs—and Pine City, (a standalone from Grand Central & riverrun, launching in 2019). What was the process that got you to this awesome trio of books?

Leaving Brooklyn and moving to Baltimore made all the difference. I'm easily distracted, and it's been a gift to experience a slower pace of life and discover how much I can get done every day. To be really productive, you don't need a standing desk, you don't need powdered meal replacements, you don't need a life coach: just stop doing things that don't matter. (This is something I need to be reminded about every couple of months!)

Between the two in your series and the stand alone, you go from characters in high stress careers in New York City to an artist at an abandoned resort in the Hudson Valley. How did you arrive at such different backdrops for your storytelling? 
I think those are two sides of the same coin. Creative work is more solitary than the business side, but it takes an enormous amount of pressure and discipline to produce something from nothing. 

The protagonist of Pine City is incredibly driven, just like the women of I'll Eat When I'm Dead and Maniacs; it doesn't necessarily matter what their physical locations are, because they're all in the same mental place. 

What would you like to be asked in an interview, but no one ever does?

"Can you hold for Terry Gross, please?" And we would talk about my book, but then! I would make the perfect joke and Terry would laugh, and laugh, and for the rest of the call we would be so busy becoming friends that the interview would be unusable. 

(But wait, that's MY answer! We love you Terry Gross!)

How did your experiences writing for magazines inform your novel writing?
It taught me to embrace the garbage can. I'm ruthless in draft. I feel little or no agony about moving on from prose or plotlines that aren't working, and I'm more efficient about working through a sentence or an idea that needs to be picked apart and/or rebuilt. Unless I think something is so funny that it can't be abandoned—I'm still precious about jokes, mainly because I think if you can make yourself laugh the one thousand times in a row that you read a joke while a novel is in process, then you're not delusional, it's probably hilarious.

Your first novel only launched a month ago, any surprises in these early days of being a published author?

It's really touching how many people have reached out to say they're loving the book. I didn't think I needed to hear that stuff—you have to really let go of a book when it comes out in the world—but of course it's lovely to hear from readers.

What are you working on now?

I'm working away on Maniacs, the sequel to I'll Eat When I'm Dead

Final Words of Wisdom: Get off the internet. 

(Except of course, for reading Elena's blog. Okay, Barbara didn't actually write that ... but I'm sure that's what she'd say!)

Thanks for visiting with us today, Barbara. See you in New York!

Debut Author Shaun Harris Describes His Journey to Publication: Query Angry

I'm very pleased to host ITW Debut Author, Shaun Harris as a guest blogger this week. Shaun Harris grew up the son of a homicide detective in Southern New England. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with degrees in both American Studies and Film and Television. 

As such he has a crippling obsession with Fighting Irish Football. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife, two kids, and a dog. Jim Rockford is his spirit guide. The Hemingway Thief is his first novel.

Query Angry

Last week Stephen Hunter posted an article on Buzzfeed and I can’t believe I just started this by referencing Buzzfeed. Regardless, stay with me. Mr. Hunter posited that in order to get published you have to write every day and if you don’t write every day then you should quit. There may have also been something in there about dedication to craft, effort, and stick-to-itiveness, but I can’t be certain because I only skimmed it. I’m sure there will be many think pieces in response to his article and I’m sure I will, at best, skim those as well. This article isn’t about that. It’s about filling a thousand words because I promised Elena I would and because, much like poor Desmond pressing the button in Lost, if I don’t write every day the world will end.

Also it’s about Luck.

My first novel, The Hemingway Thief, came out last year. I wrote it in 2010. It took me four months to write and five years to sell. Most of the interim was spent looking for an agent. One of the unfortunate, yet unavoidable, parts of the publishing industry is the querying process. The tracking down and landing an agent part of the game is a completely different skill set than the one needed to write a novel. It’s like a baseball player trying to move on to cricket. I suppose, I don’t really know anything about cricket except for what Peter O’Toole explained in King Ralph. I recommend anyone trying to hone these skills, querying not cricket, to head on over to Janet Reid’s blog QueryShark. That’s where I learned how to write a query letter and everything else about agent hunting.

Now The Hemingway Thief is my first novel to be published, but it is not the first one that I wrote. That honor belongs to a bloated 100,000 plus word manuscript that I buried in the backyard and had a Voodoo priest say a couple of nice words over to make sure that it never came back. As terrible as it was, however, it gained the notice of an agent, who liked it and worked with me on it for a month, promising the whole time that when it was ready he would sign me. It was an exciting time to be alive in the Harris household. Then the agent’s boss died, which was not great, and the agent decided to leave the business, which was tragic. His parting words to me were to quit the business as books were dying as a medium. He suggested I go into the finance industry as he was doing. This was June of 2008, by the way. Yes, God loves me. 

Instead of despairing, I mean, after I despaired for several weeks, I decided to write another book while still querying on the old one. I added it up a while ago and I think I sent out over seventy queries on that first book. I took a shotgun approach and by that I mean a sawed-off shotgun wielded by a blind man on cocaine approach. Eventually, I finished the Hemingway Thief, put the first manuscript aside (the Voodoo priest was called in at this point), and moved on to a new query letter. I sent it to some of the same people and some new ones. Learning my lesson from the last time I started a new novel almost immediately. My first child was also born around this time, but who keeps track of such distractions.

I got a couple of bites and a few requests for the full manuscript for The Hemingway Thief, but once I finished the new book, a semi-sequel to Thief, I decided to move on once again. I started querying for the new book. At this point it had been about six years since I first started writing for realsies (realsies is an industry term meaning you open a Word file for the first time since college). It was looking more and more like I was going to be a professional stay-at-home Dad, which is awesome work if you can get it, and maybe I would write another book some day, but probably not. Then it happened. An agent called me, yes, called me, with an actual phone and everything. He loved the new book and wanted to sign me, but first he wanted to do a little editing.

Editing. If at some time in the Spring of 2014 you felt a gust of uncommonly bitter wind carrying along the faint whisper of a thousand curses, that was the sigh I let out at that moment.

But I went along and did the edits, and to be honest the book was better for them. The back and forth lasted about a month and at the end of the month this agent told me to wait by the phone. And he called just as he said he would. And he said he was no no longer interested.

It occurs to me, just now, that my hunt for an agent was eerily similar to my dating life in high school.

So, frustrated, some would use the phrase “massively pissed off”, I did the thing that I always do when I get a rejection; I send out a bunch of queries. Ordinarily I would not suggest sending queries while angry. Mistakes can be made. In fact, mistakes were made and I sent the query for the new book along with the first five pages of The Hemingway Thief. I did not realize this until a couple of days later when I got a full request, but the agent couldn’t decide which book she wanted. Don’t try this at home kids. I’m a professional. 

She signed me, but that’s not the punchline. I’m not sure there really is a punchline in this story. It’s more like a death slog of rejection and frustration, but hey, that’s what I signed up for. The coda then, we’ll call it a coda, is that this agent was not the agent that sold my book although she made a great effort until she too left the business. She was great and a wonderful guide for me. In the end she helped set me up with my current agent who is a bulldog and a good friend (though I have never actually met him, he may very well be a sentient telephone for all I know).

The point, if you’ve stayed with me this long, is that after eight years between typing the first line of a book and selling one there was a lot of ups and downs. I didn’t write every day. In fact, I didn’t write every week. I did stick with it though. The important thing is that I didn’t give up. I kept going. So there’s your bit of wisdom which I guess could have been summed up with a poster of a kitten hanging from a branch. Hang in there, kids.

Thanks for joining me this week, Shaun, and sharing your story! Looking forward to seeing you at ThrillerFest and celebrating your debut novel with the rest of the ITW Debut Authors!