I guess you could say I took a long and winding road to becoming a published author, but that’s not entirely true. It’s more accurate to say things moved quickly for me since I finally sat down and wrote my first novel five years ago. The past three years have been a whirlwind of activity with four books and nine short stories published, with more of both on the horizon.
I’ve been involved in the mystery writing community for fifteen years now, mostly through my role on the Board of Malice Domestic. In that capacity I’ve met hundreds of authors, editors, publishers, agents, industry professionals, and readers who gather each year to celebrate the traditional mystery in the Washington D.C. area.
I’ve always been a writer at heart, penning my first (not excellent) story at eight years old, then improving and going on to win best creative writer in my high school class at graduation. In college I majored in English, where I was encouraged by more than one professor to pursue writing full time.
On New Year’s Day 2014, I had completed the manuscript of my first book, which would become Murder on a Silver Platter. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to proceed with it, but Malice was coming up and I knew I’d see a few agents there. One I’d known for several years took me out for a drink to discuss my book and publishing goals. She offered to read it on the train back to New York and give me her thoughts, to which I happily agreed. The following week, she called me and said she loved the book and knew she could sell it. She also told me to hurry up and write the second one, so the editors she planned to submit to could see I could carry a series.
I worked on the second book, writing it in just a couple of months, charged by the anticipation of hearing what I was sure would be excellent news from my agent. When she called again a short time later she had good news and bad. Which did I want to hear first?
The good news: All of the feedback on my writing and the book itself was positive. I received comments that I was a strong writer, an exciting new voice with a fresh perspective, and other wonderful things that had me ready to pop the champagne corks.
The bad news: An editor from one of the larger publishers was excited to work with me, but wanted me to forget about the movie catering angle and think of a new premise. She wanted a new series, with new characters, and please nothing about the movies (those books don’t sell).
So that was a weird week or two, juggling the validation I’d received with the thought of abandoning my two books and coming up with a completely different idea. I told my agent I’d think about it and let her know.
At this point I’d spent a year writing, getting up at five every morning to work on them before my young son woke up and we began our day. I wasn’t ready to let the series go, no matter how tempting the other option was. My agent encouraged me to follow my gut and write what I felt most strongly about. I let her know I was sticking it out with Penelope, my protagonist. She wished me luck and told me she was retiring. I was on my own again.
I felt (and feel) strongly about my books. My main character is a determined woman who works in a male-dominated industry as a professional chef, catering to the male-driven movie making business. Penelope is fiercely loyal to her friends and employees, and doesn’t back down from challenges or adversity. I could envision her in any number of scenarios, encountering many different situations in a variety of settings. To me, the series had legs.
Malice came around again a few weeks later. I’d been thinking about a publishing home for my books, and decided to approach Henery Press. Henery had been gaining momentum for several years, and I thought my books might be a good fit. I’d done my research beforehand, checked out their submission guidelines to see what they were looking for, read a few of the books they’d published, and followed them on social media. I was impressed in many ways: Their professionalism, branding, and reputation were solid. And I’d taken notice of the smiles on the faces of their authors as they approached the registration desk. Happy authors make for a good publisher, at least in my experience.
Over the years I’ve met debut authors who have gone on to the highest level of author fame. And I’ve seen the flipside, watching writers burst on the scene and then fade away a few years down the road. I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. I wanted a long term career and commitment.
Henery Press was excited to read my books and a few weeks later, I received a three book contract from them. Naturally I was thrilled. And even more so when my contract was extended the next year to six books, and then just this past spring to ten. So Penelope and I will be sticking around for many years to come.
So just do what I did. Volunteer at a mystery writing convention for ten years, work up your nerve to write a book or two and then just ask around at the bar if anyone wants to read it. It’s all very easy.
Just kidding. But it is good to use one aspect of my experience. Networking is essential, even if it’s not a natural fit or makes you uncomfortable. The mystery writing community is huge, and it’s also very friendly and inviting. There are gatherings, conventions, meetings, retreats, you name it, they have it, every month. Getting involved takes a bit of time away from the writing desk but the rewards in the end are priceless.
Shawn Reilly Simmons is the author of The Red Carpet Catering Mysteries featuring Penelope Sutherland, an on-set movie caterer, and of several short stories appearing in various anthologies. Her fifth book, Murder on the Rocks will be released on February 6, 2018. For more information, visit Shawn at www.shawnreillysimmons.com, on Twitter at @ShawnRSimmons, and Facebook at @RedCarpetCateringMysteries.
For more information about Shawn Reilly Simmons’ latest book, click on the cover below: