Monday, September 13, 2010

Two Steps Up, One Step Back -- My Road to Publication

By Lisa Black

My writing career began one night when my mother, who had apparently exhausted her repertoire that particular evening, told me to make up my own bedtime story. It involved a prince, a princess, and a bat (as in the animal). It was my first thriller, the suspense of danger and, of course, the all-important romantic subplot.

Han.Solo Later on I became a prolific letter-writer, and in letters to my favorite cousin I would always include a story—storyboarded with little stick figures (I couldn’t draw). I don’t know how old I was, but I remember that a first-class stamp was 8 cents. It wasn’t until I saw Star Wars in high school that I began to write serious stories—serious meaning they didn’t include pictures. Today they call that fan fiction. To me it was simply another artifact of my serious crush on Harrison Ford.

However, also in high school I visited Washington DC and fell in love with the city, meaning I loved the monuments and the buildings and the marble, not what people did there. What people actually did there bored me silly. I should have been an Stacked books architect but instead I majored in political science, so that I graduated with no marketable skills whatsoever except typing. I became a secretary, which meant I sat in front of a word processor all day. So what the heck, I’ll write a novel.

I wrote six.

By the third book I actually deigned to offer it to an agent, though I felt sure I didn’t really need one. (I opened my query letter with “I don’t think I need an agent….” I’m sure that scored two points in the circular file in record time.)

Woman with microscope After the sixth book I decided I not only needed an agent, I needed a new day job, so I went back to school and got a degree in biology, specifically to go into forensics. I wound up with a pretty cool job but no time to write until my husband shanghaied me to southwest Florida. Now I had no job, no friends and no family. I started writing again just to stay sane, and sensibly applied my new forensic expertise to my mystery stories.

I kept querying. I was quite organized about it—former secretary and all—and had a 6 page single spaced Excel spreadsheet of agents, addresses and pertinent facts along with columns for date mailed and any response returned. With my 9th book—Trace Evidence—I decided to mix it up and start with the Z’s instead of the A’s. Just for fun. Meanwhile, back at the ranch: CSI premiered. Everyone began to look for the next Patricia Cornwell.

Woman_jumping_for_joy Then one momentous day my agent—a K—called and asked to represent me and I said okay, without discussion or negotiation. (I had already vetted via Google.) I did not know her, I had no sort of ‘in’ with her at all. I was just another query letter she received. We hashed out Trace Evidence for eight months before she auctioned it to Hyperion in a two-book deal.
And I lived happily ever after?

Yes, to some extent. But there was still the occasional pothole. 

I wrote most of the second book while we were still working on the first one, and, naive soul that I am, assumed the public had had enough of serial killers killing beautiful young women. What was to be my second published novel involved a dead child and a suburban household. It did have problems, I’m not denying that. So finally the publisher said we really need you to write something else. I had been gathering ideas for what became Unknown Means as the third novel, so I simply moved it up to the number two slot. I wrote the first draft in 3½ months, 4000 words at a time. It was grueling. Unknown Means got great reviews but it was too late. I was not to be the next Patricia Cornwell.

I trod on. I’d already written the next book and my wonderful agent and I loved it, but we knew that even if publishers loved it as well, they would make decisions based solely on the sales figures from Trace Evidence.  Upon her advice I changed my name (from Elizabeth Becka to Lisa Black) and the names of my characters. She sold it to William Morrow (Harper Collins) and I couldn’t be happier with them.

Feet_on_sand Takeover
got a big push, Evidence of Murder has held its own, and Trail of Blood is looking good. But what would have been the sixth book? My agent didn’t like it. The plot didn’t come together as well as it needed to, and she didn’t think meth addicts made sympathetic victims. (After all, everyone in a book has to be young and rich and sexy or no one will care that they’re dead!)

So I threw it out, and started over. Again.

Because even with two steps up and one step back, I’m still moving forward. 
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Trailofblood_16 Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, working as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence lab until her husband dragged her to southwest Florida. Now she toils as a certified latent print analyst and CSI at the local police department by day and writes forensic suspense by night. Her books have also been published in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Japan. Her fifth book, Trail of Blood, involves the real-life Torso Killer, who terrorized Cleveland during the dark days of the Great Depression. For more information visit her website: www.lisa-black.com
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4 comments:

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Lisa,
Your story has a good ending - you're still wowing editors and getting published. Kudos to you for all your accomplishments. I enjoyed reading about your writing journey.
Maggie, a Sister in Crime
maggietoussaint.com

Ricky Bush said...

Dang. Four thousand words a day is humping it. You've made me feel like a slacker. What an inspiring story, full of the perseverance that we all need to reach deep to grasp.

Lisa Black said...

That was an emergency. My last few books, I've done 1000 words a day, 7 days per week. It's a much more comfortable pace!

JB Lynn said...

I admire your tenacity. Thanks for sharing your story, it's an inspiration.