We were thrilled to learn the Novel Chapter 1st Place winning entry in our 2013 Writers-Editors Network International Writing Competition had also “won” its author a book publishing contract.
Carol J. Perry is the happy author of Nightshades, which Kensington Publishing bought and will publish as Caught Dead Handed. Even more exciting, Nightshades garnered Carol a three-book deal and will be the debut mystery in the “Witch City Mystery” series.
For your reading list, the retitled Caught Dead Handed is scheduled for publication in September, 2014, and you can pre-order at Amazon.
In the meantime, Carol graciously took time off from her deadline-driven schedule to share with our members and visitors the details about her book deal, writing novels, and entering contests. We also asked about her journey as a writer so others can compare and see how life experiences can impact and propel a writing career.
How did you get started as a writer – and how has your career evolved?
When I was in the seventh grade I read two books, back to back, which influenced my writing future: Natalie Enters Advertising and A Star for Ginny. In each story, the heroine gets a job in advertising, and I determined right then that I wanted a job in that field myself. I wound up with a couple of nice college scholarships, but took the advice of the Salem, Mass., High School guidance counselor (also the boys’ basketball coach), who told me the only way a woman could get into an ad agency was as a secretary. So I went to Boston University, took shorthand and typing, and business math.
I’d been editor of the school magazine, so had met a few of the city’s advertising folks. I must have made a good impression because after one year at B.U., I was offered a job as assistant advertising manager at Salem’s Pickering Fuel Company. The take-home salary was a little more than my Daddy was making. Being of sound mind, I took it. Never have regretted being a drop-out for a minute. I was an ad “executive” at the age of 19, learning to write about coal, oil burners and major appliances!
Then I got married, had babies, did a little freelancing around Gloucester, Mass., where we were living. Because of the ad background, I was asked to “fill in for a while” as ad manager for Gloucester’s main department store, Brown’s of Gloucester. Stayed there for 11 years and loved every minute. Wrote ad copy, radio copy, national catalog copy, and did newspaper layouts. Wrote articles from time to time for retail trade papers. Became New England correspondent for Handbags and Accessories.
Then I moved to Florida in the early ‘70s and met Dana at a Suncoast Writers Conference and started writing for other trade papers as well. Joined a writing class at the Madeira Beach Library and started doing travel pieces. We had a speaker who had written a middle grade novel for Willowisp Publishers. I thought I’d like to try it, and at the time had an assignment from Southern Travel for a piece on the World’s Tallest Sandcastle, which was being built in nearby Treasure Island. So I wrote my first kid book, Sandcastle Summer, for Willowisp – followed by four more novels and a couple of biographies. These books were distributed internationally by School Book Fairs. Then came a travel book for John Muir – Florida Gulf Coast Travel Smart.
Next I switched over to articles on antiques and collectibles for magazines and papers all over the country – and am still doing that.
What is your “award-winning” mystery about?
Carol: This is the back-cover blurb Kensington prepared:
“Most folks associate the city of Salem, Massachusetts with witches, but for Lee Barrett, it’s home. This October she’s returned to her hometown – where her beloved Aunt Ibby still lives – to interview for a job as a reporter at WICH-TV. But the only opening is for a call-in psychic to host the late night horror movies. The former psychic, Ariel Constellation, never saw her own murder coming.
“Lee reluctantly takes the job, but when the obsidian ball she’s using as a prop begins to show her visions – not only of Ariel’s murder, but of a second killing – she wonders if she might really have psychic abilities. Members of a local coven reveal that Ariel was a powerful, practicing witch, and Lee and Aunt Ibby inherit Ariel’s cat. O’Ryan, who seems to have some strange powers of his own. Halloween is fast approaching and Lee must focus on unmasking a killer – or her career as a psychic may be very short lived . . .”
How long has this novel been bubbling up inside?
Carol: The germ of the idea for Nightshades started in my mind back in the late ‘80s – when I watched a TV show where a psychic took phoned-in questions from the audience. I outlined it and wrote a couple of chapters but didn’t do much except think and talk about it.
Where did the characters come from?
Carol: The main character, Lee, was inspired by the woman on the TV show who took calls from viewers. Aunt Ibby is a combination of my favorite aunt and my dear ex-mother-in-law. The house on Winter Street was the home of a childhood playmate. The other characters just wandered in and invented themselves. I knew from the start how it would end and who the killer was.
Dana: In her “judge’s comments,” Kay wrote, “ Sometimes a first person novel does not work, but in this case, the first person viewpoint is used very well and successfully.” Why did you select first person viewpoint?
Carol: At first, the book was written in third person. After about eleven chapters, I thought first person might work better. (All of my kid books had been in first person.) I like that format, especially for mysteries, because nothing can happen that the lead character – and therefore the reader – doesn’t see or know about. It’s more challenging that way!
Dana: Kay, Can you recall what you saw in Carol’s chapter that placed it above all others?
Kay: Among the dozens of manuscripts, Nightshades went to the top of the list right away, along with Flight 1715 to Havana (Cindy Pontrelli, author) and Hellgate (Patricia A. Cox, author). What made me place Nightshades as “first” were the characterization and most especially the verbiage. The author’s words seemed effortless, yet they were carefully chosen and flowed beautifully – just lyrical. In that respect, the chapter was a step above second and third place.
Carol, did the editor suggest any changes? And if so, did you incorporate them?
Carol: Other than a word here and there, editor Esi Sogar made few suggestions for changes. She did offer one suggestion for a plot point, but I disagreed. So I strengthened the original manuscript to make my point clear and she accepted that.
What made you decide on entering the book in the writing contest versus searching for an agent and/or publisher first?
Carol: Placing first in the contest was important on several levels. I thought Nightshades was a good piece of work . . . my critique group thought so too . . . but no one outside of my husband and this small group of fellow writers had read it in its final form. Entering the first chapter in the contest meant that “real people” would read and judge it! When it was awarded first place, I knew it was good and actually believed it would sell to a publisher.
How did you make it over the “finding a publisher” hurdles? Did placing first in the contest help in securing a publishing contract?
Carol: I submitted queries to several agents, following their guidelines exactly and sending just what they requested . My first choice was Robin Rue at Writers House because when I’d met her years ago at a writers conference she had expressed an interest in it. “Send it along when it’s finished,” she said. Of course, years had passed since then. Her assistant said she was not accepting new clients. So I sent it to about a dozen other agents and I began to get “polite rejections.”
Some said “not for us,” most said “good luck finding a home for it.” One even said he couldn’t see how he could interest an important New York publisher in it. Since I’d never had an agent for all those middle-grade books, and I’d found the John Muir assignment myself through the Writers-Editors Network site, I decided to submit to a publisher myself. Several publishers have the kind of “cozy” mysteries I like. One was Berkley, but they don’t take unagented work. Next choice was Kensington, and they do.
I know what happened next was partly luck. My cover letter, three chapters, first place certificate, sheet of covers of previous books with print histories, and synopsis landed on the right desk on the right day and was read by the right editor. Kensington’s guidelines said it might take six months to hear from them. It took a little less than four weeks for editor Esi Sogah to ask for the rest of the book. Within the week she called with an offer of contract.
At this point I sent an email to Robin Rue’s assistant, saying, “Have 3-book offer from Kensington – need rep.” That prompted a rapid response! Writers House wanted to see the manuscript. The woman must have stayed up all night to read it. She called the next day, but admitted that she couldn’t improve on the contract I’d been offered. The best part was to hear an agent say, “I wish we hadn’t turned it down in the first place!”
What is your advice (and/or suggestions) to other writers who submit to the writing contest?
Carol: The advice I’d give to other writers is to study the kind of books you want to write. I read (and still read) cozies by the dozens. This serves two purposes. First, you begin to understand the pacing of the genre. What happens in the beginning third? The middle? The end? When you find an author you admire, study the way he or she handles things. What happens in chapter one? Two? And so on. You’ll see a pattern.
Studying other authors also gives you the opportunity to read some really bad work, which can be very liberating. You say to yourself, “If somebody sold this piece of crap, I know I can sell mine!”
Polish every word.. Let a few other writers, whose writing you admire, critique your work as you go along. Remember, editors don’t want to edit. They want it right in the first place. Believe in yourself. Be patient. I know more than one writer who has self-published because it’s faster and easier. But their work was really good – sometimes better than mine, and with a bit more faith and effort they could have sold it to a traditional publisher.
I highly recommend entering the contest. A top spot in a national competition gives that big boost of confidence some of us need to keep trying!
What are the plans for this series?
Carol: The series – called “The Witch City Mysteries” – will all take place in Salem and all feature Lee, Aunt Ibby, O’Ryan the cat, and Lee’s new gentleman friend, a handsome detective named Pete Mondello. I know the city well – I was born and raised there. (Born Halloween eve, as a matter of fact, which pleased the PR people!)
In the second book, working title, “Blood Runs Deep,” Lee is teaching a class at a theater arts school housed in an old department store. The third book has something to do with a murder in an antique store. Haven’t worked that one out yet.
Do you schedule your novel writing time?
Carol: Although I had years to think about the first book, there is a six- to eight-month deadline on each of the subsequent titles. At first the idea of writing a completed 100,000-word book in 243 days (working a six-day week) is daunting. But it isn’t so bad when you break it down to 370 words a day. So that’s what I strive for. I write best early in the morning when no one is around to interrupt and the phone isn’t going to ring.
Related to that, how do you go about planning and writing a novel – in particular, a mystery?
Carol: When I was writing the middle grade books, I always started with a place, generally a place I had already researched for a travel article. But these mysteries seem to start with a person. The first one started with the psychic, Ariel Constellation. The second book started when the name “Kelly Greene” came to me from who knows where. She is quite young, a student maybe. I had to find a place for her in relation to Lee, so the converted department store school came into being. (Of course, that background came from my years as ad manager at Brown’s of Gloucester.)
The next book starts with another name from thin air. Shea Tolliver is an antique shop owner. (Background comes from writing about antiques.) I think poor Shea is going to be murdered.
A writer’s mind is a strange and wonderful thing!
Please add to the dialogue in the “Speak Your Mind” comments box below with your questions and input. How has entering contests helped you in your writing and book publishing career? (First-time commenters may see a delay before your comments appear.)
Asking Carol the questions were:
Dana K. Cassell, executive director of Writers-Editors Network. Dana has had published more than 2,000 articles in nearly 200 publications, has provided editorial services to several dozen clients, and has authored or ghosted a dozen books. The three latest: Encyclopedia of Pharmaceutical Drugs (Facts On File, 2012), Encyclopedia of Autoimmune Disorders – Second Edition (Facts On File, 2013) and Encyclopedia of Obesity & Eating Disorders – Fourth Edition (Facts On File, 2014). In addition, she is editor of Freelance Writer’s Report, the newsletter for serious writers.
Kay Harwell Fernández, the Fiction judge for the 2013 contest. Kay is a long-time journalist, editor and writer, as well as a long-time writing contest judge. Kay notes, “I have been an editor for 30-plus years, although I think my being an editor harkens back to being co-editor of my yearbook. I’ve had ‘ink in my veins’ ever since then. I love being an editor, and I think I have a ‘good eye’ for good reads. I loved being a magazine editor, but if circumstances had been different, I believe I would have made a very good book editor.” Each year when we call out to Kay for judging help, she responds, “Of course, I always look forward to this!”
Photo credit for Carol J. Perry profiles: Tropical Focus Photography