So What’s Your Novel About, Anyway?

I’m a bad writer in that I still don’t have a succinct elevator pitch for The Vanishing Season. On its face, it’s about a female police officer in Massachusetts trying to solve a set of disappearances from her small town. More broadly, though, it’s about issues surrounding identity. What makes us who we are?

Ellery Hathaway was kidnapped late at night on her fourteenth birthday by a famous serial killer. He became famous the only way serial killers can achieve real fame—by being caught—so Ellery theoretically gets to resume her normal life. However, public appetite for the sensational story lingers on more than a decade after her rescue. The killer is in jail but he still manages to follow Ellery around—on film, in books, in pop culture references ala John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. Ellery’s abductor didn’t succeed in snuffing her out but he did take her life, the one she would have had if he’d never kidnapped her. So Ellery’s journey is largely about whether she can reclaim her own narrative from under the weight of this infamous case.

Meanwhile, Ellery’s savior, Agent Reed Markham, is facing his own identity crisis. He’d played a hunch as a junior FBI agent and saved Ellery from certain death. In doing so, he’d also solved one of the FBI’s most infamous cases and his career rocketed to stardom as a result. He wrote a bestselling book about the case and Ellery’s rescue, telling himself through the years that he is the hero of this story. (Here we already see some conflict in their viewpoints, as Reed has helped further the fame of the case and feed public fervor, which hurts the very woman he waxes on about rescuing.) But Reed’s blown a recent investigation and his marriage is falling apart—maybe he’s not the rock star he’s always imagined himself to be. He’s on stress leave from the FBI when his greatest triumph emerges from the past, asking him for help in her missing persons cases.

What’s interesting to me about putting Reed and Ellery together is that they are bonded by the events of the night he rescued her, but they experienced that time in starkly different ways. The best time in his life is the worst time of hers. They’ve each told themselves stories about how the rescue went down and built up myths about the other one in their own minds. This book is about what happens when those myths meet reality. If Ellery remains damaged by what happened to her in the killer’s closet, does that lessen Reed’s heroics? Who is he without that label? Who is she apart from a famous victim? If public perception locks them into these roles, does it even matter what the truth is?

So, yeah. That’s what it’s about. Murder. Identity. Betrayal. The past coming back to bite you in the butt. All that, plus an extremely friendly basset hound.

Writing

How to Get Published in 1,372 Easy Steps

Last year, I read with interest The Usual Path to Publication: 27 stories about 27 ways into the publishing world. No two writers had the exact same route to success, and the road was not always linear. The book includes familiar tales of stacks of rejection notices and years of waiting to get an agent or editor’s attention. Success depends on an alchemy of hard work, talent, patience and persistence—and a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

I discovered I loved writing at eight years old. My old school notebooks are filled with tiny stories written in the margins around my more official homework. I had no concept back then of what it took to publish a book—I only knew that I loved to tell stories. In high school, I wrote my first novel, a romantic suspense yarn about a pair of lawyers on opposite sides of a murder case. I did a little research at my local library and discovered one needed an agent to get published, so I started researching agents through my various writer magazines. I found one who seemed to be a good fit and wrote him a query. Lo and behold, he called with an offer of representation! Pfft, I thought—look how easy this whole writer gig is!

Are you laughing yet? You should be. This agent was very nice and gave some thoughtful feedback on both my first book and the second. Before we could reach the part about selling the novel, though, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, not an agent. (Maybe he was inspired by all the steamy action my lawyer hero was getting in the book!) He dropped all his clients. I was in college by then, and busy with a heavy course load. I figured I’d get back to writing one day. There was lots of time!

Fast forward ten years. I’m now in graduate school, writing fiction for free and giving it away on the internet. A writer friend who had recently completed her first novel wanted to go to a major writing conference to network and learn about publishing opportunities. Shopping one’s work was a primary goal of the conference, and if I wanted to attend, I’d need something to show. I quickly wrote a mystery novel about a woman whose husband was killed in a car wreck in the wrong part of town. Feedback from an editor at the conference: This has potential—you should keep going! Spoiler alert: I did not keep going. I finished my degree and got a real job.

Suddenly it was fourteen years after that first agent call and I still wasn’t published! I decided it was time to Get Serious. I signed up for a novel writing course through Grub Street and drafted about six chapters of a story about female police deputy trying to solve a string of disappearances in small-town Massachusetts. My instructor was enthusiastic. “This reads like a real book,” she said, and recommended I take the advanced class. Instead, I got married and had a kid.

I didn’t write anything at all for about five years. Then one day I woke up and found the words tingling at the ends of my fingers, as if they’d never left. I wrote a bunch of novels in quick succession. The one about the female officer in Massachusetts still nagged at me, and I dug out my notes from the Grub Street class. I started over at the beginning and rewrote the entire book in the space of about two months. Then I submitted it to the Mystery Writer’s of America/St. Martin’s Minotaur first crime novel contest, and four months later I got the amazing call from St. Martin’s saying The Vanishing Season had won.

So there you go. It only took two decades and around twenty-two intervening novels to find the one that clicked.