Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's never too late: Part II

HALLIE EPHRON: Today we look at second batch of writers who didn't get started writing fiction until late and ask them how they did it. 


  • Sara J. Henry
  • Edith Maxwell
  • Barbara Ross
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan
Here are the questions everyone answered:
  • When did you start writing?
  • What career did you have before you published your first crime novel?
  • Why did you start writing fiction?
  • How long did it take from when you started writing fiction to seeing your first book published?
  • Did you take writing classes or complete an MFA program and did that help?
  • Were you in a writing group and/or hire an independent editor to work with you on your first published book?
  • If you could do it over, what would you do differently?

Sara J. Henry
Latest book: A COLD AND LONELY PLACE, Broadway Books
Crime novels published to date: 2
Before writing: USDA plant and soil scientist, columnist, newspaper sports editor, newspaper editor, magazine editor, health/fitness writer, book editor, bicycle mechanic, in roughly in that order.
Started writing: At 6 I was writing one-page short stories, and at 12 started a novel. Then I stopped, and didn’t try fiction again until my early 40s.
Why started: I quit at 12 because I didn’t know what to do after the first chapters. I started again nearly three decades later because life was ticking by, and writing fiction was my dream.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: I put my first finished novel in a drawer in 1999; took it out and tackled learning to rewrite in 2008. Book deal in 2009; publication in 2011, at age 54.
Classes, MFA: No fiction writing classes. I took some journalism classes, which gave me confidence I could write, and later got a masters in journalism.
Writing group, independent editor: I joined a writing group when I moved to Nashville – I don’t think I would have started a novel without them. No editor, just trusted readers (I self-edit as only a right-brain/left-brain person can do).
Do over: Not be so scared. Ask more questions. Have more faith in myself.

Edith Maxwell/Maddie Day
Latest book: FLIPPED FOR MURDER by Maddie Day, Kensington
Crime novels published to date: 6
Before writing: Auto mechanic, conversational English teacher in Japan, adjunct professor in linguistics, speech recognition researcher, at-home mom/organic farmer/childbirth educator/freelance editor, technical writer.
Started writing: 1994
Why started: My now-ex-husband, when our younger son headed off to kindergarten, said, "You like to read mysteries so much, why don't you write one?" One of the best things he ever did for me, other than help create our sons.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: 18 years
Classes, MFA: I took workshops at Crime Bake and with SINC-NE, and a few online classes with the Guppies (I've never studied creative writing in an academic setting). All of that really helped; I wouldn't be published without Sisters in Crime.
Writing group, independent editor: I joined Susan Oleksiw's writing group when I first started writing crime fiction, and I learned a huge amount about POV, use of weather to advance the story, keeping characters' names distinct, and so much more, and I'm still in an in-person writing group. I didn't hire an independent editor for my first book, but now either Sherry Harris or Ramona DeFelice Long edit all my books before I send them in.
Do over: Start earlier, I guess, so I would have more time in my life to write all the books I have ideas for! But I am loving the ride now as a full-time fiction writer and I have no regrets.

Barbara Ross 
Latest book: MUSSELED OUT, Kensington
Crime novels to date: 4
Before writing: Mostly, I worked it tech start ups with the most challenging and rewarding years, as a Chief Operating Officer in higher education technology, coming after I started that first book in 1996.
Started writing: I always wrote, but I didn't start my first novel until 1996.
Why started: I sold my stock options from the first start up I worked out and took a year off from working. My kids were in middle school. It was a now or never type of thing.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: This always embarrasses me, but it was 14 years. I finished the book in 1998 and got an agent easily, but the book didn't sell. Meanwhile, the tech startup I co-founded survived the dotcom crash and, against all odds, took off. I was crazy busy. Finally, when we sold that business in 2006, I took another year off and rototilled that first book.
Classes, MFA: Lots of classes--at the New England Crime Bake, at Seascape, at Grub Street and online. I loved taking classes and it's one of the things I miss now that I'm a working writer with tight deadlines. I never have time to do the homework.
Writing group, independent editor: I have been in the same writers group for 20 years. Love them. My life (and my work) would have been so much less without them.
Do over: When my first book didn't sell and my agent dropped me, I went into a bit of a tailspin. Yes, my business was taking off and I had teenagers, so I was busy, but I wish I'd been more resilient. That really set me back, the net net of which is, I have less time and I'll get to tell fewer stories. That said, writing a novel, much less several novels requires a lot of skills--the ability to recognize a story, an ear for the words, the discipline to finish and do all those rewrites, the drive to get an agent, etc. Some people have all those skills when they're young, and God bless'em, but I had to grow into it.

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Latest book: WHAT YOU SEE, Forge
Crime novels to date: 8
Before writing: Investigative Reporter/television. Still on the air at Boston’s NBC affiliate.
Started writing: 2005
Why started: I always wanted to write crime fiction! But I simply never had a good idea for a plot. One day in 2005—I did!
From that moment on, I was obsessed. My husband said—but Hank, do you know how to write a mystery? I said—how hard can I be? I’ve read a million of them. I was so wrong. But that one good idea propelled me. My first manuscript was 723 pages long. I had to CUT 400 pages! Best education ever about my writing. I learned more about myself that way than from any other writing experience.
How long from starting writing to publishing first book: Two years.

PRIME TIME was my first novel, and it sold. It also won the Agatha for Best First novel.
Classes, MFA: I took one two-day writing class—yours, Hallie! I had almost decided not to, and then I remember, clearly, saying to myself—you wouldn’t attempt to make a cake without a recipe. So why are you trying to write a book without any guidance? It made a profound difference. Partly craft, partly attitude.
Writing group, independent editor: I hired an independent editor, one of the best decisions I have ever made. She is brilliant, and 10 years later, I would not consider turning in a book she didn’t read and work on with me first. The influence and guidance of an experienced second set of eyes is beyond valuable. The suggestions and changes and observations she made turned my manuscript into a different—and better-- book, and turned me into a different—and better--writer.
Do over: One, I realized that some of the decisions I made in the first book were made too quickly. It seemed natural and organic at the time, but I should have worked harder, even though, back then, I thought I was working as hard as I possibly could. I didn’t comprehend how lasting each and every choice is to the book. And in a series, even more so. I would have made a better mailing list. But would I have started sooner? No. Absolutely not. When I was cultivating my career as a journalist, in my 20, 30s and 40s, I was not the person I am today. I started writing at 55—and that was the perfect time. I am convinced these things begin exactly at the right time, and I am very grateful for how it turned out.

HALLIE: My favorite thing here is all the different careers we've all had. Plant scientist. COO. Corporate trainer. Psychologist. Investigative TV reporter. Linguistics professor. The list goes on... And none of it goes to waste, because we weren't wasting time, we were just doing research for our writing. We just didn't know it.


  1. Such amazing, inspiring stories . . . congratulations to each of you on your writing success.

  2. Delightful and inspirational. Congratulations to all.

  3. Thanks Joan and Kait. Some pretty amazing stories, there. Thanks to Hallie for asking the questions!

  4. I love reading about all the different paths--thanks Hallie! It takes a certain amount of bravery and chutzpah to start down this path so late, doesn't it?

  5. File this under "inspirational." Great advice and such candid admissions from all, but what grabbed me was Sarah's "Don't be so scared." Fear is paralyzing. You have to ditch it before you can do anything else.

  6. So many wonderful stories. We're all on a path, it seems, and the mystery and awe of living is how many different paths and destinations there are. And that is why we live for the stories in books, too, right?

  7. I waited until today to comment. Thanks for sharing, ladies. You give me hope.

  8. Great stories! I think a writer's voice often gets pushed away: "I can't do that; I'd never get published; who would read anything I might write; I can't do this now--I need to finish school, get the babies to sleep/dressed/fed/to school, to college; get on with my career, help my husband, etc." And so we write anyway, because that's what we do. We can't drop it, even if that first or third or fifth novel languishes in a drawer, under the bed, on 5" floppy disks. But there are always MORE stories we need to tell, we want to tell, and so, we try again.

    It's that persistent voice in all of you, pushing you to sit down and write. And rewrite. And write some more. And success--measured by publication and receptive readers, is your well-deserved pay-off. Congratulations to all of you!

  9. Thanks so much for the interview, Hallie!

    I come away from this struck by how true it is that there is no one way to be a writer. Writers group? Yes, no, some of the time. Independent editor? Yes, no, some of the time. Classes? Yes, no, some of the time.

    Don't ever let someone tell you if you don't do X, you can't be a writer.

  10. What a wonderful group-I am inspired by each of you! And I do l agree, Barb, about the "not one way." This is such a perfect reflection of this. ANd it shows the pathways can be so surprising, you know?

    It's persistence, certainly. ANd a whole lot of luck, too. Isn't it? HOw much do you think luck and timing as to do with it?

  11. I loved reading these and seeing how "yinz guys"--as we say in Pittsburgh--got to where you are now.

  12. Persistence, luck and timing, you are absolutely right, Hank. Persistence so you're prepared when the luck bus comes along. Timing so you recognize the luck bus for what it is and jump on!

  13. Thank you for the insights and inspiration. Right now, I'm contentedly reading and reading and reading, and very grateful for the writers who make the reading possible. Who knows what the future will hold . . . you serve as such good examples and give such good advice. For now, I'll read and write the occasional review. ;-)

  14. Great reassurance that I haven't missed the boat yet!

  15. Love hearing all these back stories to each of these authors' experiences in writing and publishing. Gives me hope that I, too, will one day be able to mesh my many and varied jobs into a career --- not writing --- involving books, publishing, literacy, etc.

    Thanks for these past two days' post.


  16. Indeed, folks, it's never too late. Barb and Hank are absolutely right about persistence,timing, and luck. If I hadn't persisted in writing short stories while I was on hiatus from novel writing, I wouldn't have been ready to jump in with a proposal when the lucky break of an agent (Barb's and mine) came to New England looking for authors at just the right time.

  17. I love these posts from yesterday and today! Thanks for sharing them!

  18. So glad you all started writing, thanks from us readers! I am either eagerly (and not patiently) awaiting your next books or have them on my TBR. Latest read is WHAT YOU SEE, another can't-put-it-down-read-in-almost-one-sitting thrill, full of surprises.

    And don't stop writing any time soon, please.

  19. Hallie, I, too, am amazed at all of the different careers these and other writers have had on their journey to author (and still have, Hank). As we say in Kentucky (see Joyce Tremel's Pittsburgh take), y'all, or you all, have such interesting stories of transformation. Barb, I love your term, the luck bus.

    I do have a question that has nagged me for a long time, as people have urged me to write and I have wanted to, but talked myself out of it time after time. When you go to seminars and the such, did you have to have a formed idea in your head for a book, or can you go to just learn and soak up the information about what makes a good story work? In other words, I do love writing and working with writing. I worked with students from elementary through high school on writing, and there were a few bits of advice I was able to impart. So, the whole process of writing interests me without even thinking of writing my own story. I would like to attend some workshops without having a book idea in progress. Is that possible?

  20. Of course it's possible, Kathy - unless one of the course requirements is to bring a finished manuscript or chapter! It's always good to learn new things, right? We all need to stretch our brains. And who knows, you might figure out what you want to write about.

  21. This is great, so interesting and so encouraging.A late starter myself, sometimes I find myself telling "aspiring" writers that they have to just jump in, accept that it will be bad at first, but do it. Hands on keyboard. ( Of course that part is true forever)

  22. You definitely can attend most writing workshops without a work-in-progress, Kathy, but I would urge you to consider doing some writing--daily journaling, or responding to writing prompts. Because nothing begets writing like writing. (There are classes you can take where the in-class exercises involve writing to prompts supplied by the teacher. I took some of these to limber up when I returned to writing in 2006.)

  23. Thank you all -- yesterday's contributors as well as today's. This was the most inspiring pair of blog posts ever. I really needed to hear these stories!

  24. Thank you, Edith and Barb, for answering that question for me. You authors are so generous sharing your stories.

  25. All of us have had an amazing array of jobs (I hesitate to say careers, because many didn't last long). How much do you all think this has contributed to what and how you write? Or have you found yourself writing about something in which you had no experience? (Oh, right, murder qualifies.)

  26. Loved this. My first book was published when I was the grandmother of five. I had many jobs even while writing--day care teacher, pre-school teacher, owned and operated a home for women with developmental disabilities --finally retired from that one. I'm not famous like your contributors, but I've enjoyed every bit of my writing time.

  27. As a Lady of a Certain Age and another author who came late to the party, it was gratifying to hear the stories of your journeys. George Eliot got it right--"It's never too late to be who you might have been."

  28. I'd like to emphasize that there's no right way or wrong way to go about writing a novel. If I'd attended fiction writing classes or seminars, I never would have had the nerve to write a novel. Even reading a chapter in a writing book someone handed to me brought me to a grinding halt, because I couldn't do it the way that writer said to - it didn't work for my brain or the way I write. On the other hand, I have dear friends who relish classes and seminars that would paralyze me. Do what works for you. Don't let anyone - not even yourself - convince you that you can't.

  29. Michele Dorsey mentioned how fear can paralyze you - I say do whatever it takes to ditch the fear. If you can't avoid it completely, work around it. Write in the wee hours of the morning before that I can't possibly do this voice kicks in - or late at night when you're too tired to listen. Figure out a way to write through and past the fear. Write as if no one is even going to read what you write. Let yourself feel free to build a world and characters on the page in a way that speaks to you. (You can clean up what needs to be cleaned up later.)

  30. Superb advice and inspiration from each of you! I'm a big admirer of each novelist here today. Very cool.