My First Sale by J.T. Ellison, Piecemeal Avenue
J.T. Ellison’s debut book, All The Pretty Girls, is a thriller featuring the first a series of books featuring female Lt. Taylor Jackson and her FBI profiler lover, John Baldwin. Her background is as varied as any writer’s complete with a graduate degree from George Washington, a Presidential appointment, positions as marketing director and financial analyst for defense and aerospace contracting firms. She spent many an hour working with the Metro Nashville Police Department to ensure that her police procedure novel is smart and accurate.
That may strike you as an odd title for a first sale story, but bear with me. Piecemeal Avenue is the road I took to getting published. When I’m asked what precipitated my deal, how I got an agent, how I got into writing, there isn’t a single good answer to the questions. My journey to publication can be compared to death by a thousand cuts, with a happier ending, of course. There wasn’t one seminal moment. It took three years of building, growing as a writer, learning the business, and most importantly, getting to know myself, to get there. Here is my tale.
How did you get into writing crime fiction?
That’s the easiest of all the questions, actually. For years I was a voracious crime fiction reader. But I was naÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ¯ve. I stuck to the bestsellers – Cornwell, Patterson, Grisham. I had no idea that there were awards called the Edgars and the Agatha. I didn’t know there were conferences, listserves, anything. I just read. Until one day, when I was devouring John Sandford’s Prey series, something clicked in my head. I was driving down the highway, thinking about Lucas Davenport’s icy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and that scar, and his depression, and realized I wanted to write about a woman in his shoes.
Taylor Jackson was born.
Which was all well and good, except for the fact that I hadn’t written anything resembling fiction for about twelve years. To be honest, I’d written nothing creative at all since a college professor told me I wasn’t good enough to get published. Stupidly, I had listened to her, and quit. So in order to write a novel, I had to start exercising my creative muscles all over again. I went to the library, and checked out a slew of books that met my search parameters. I ended up with a great stack of crime fiction, the likes of Tami Hoag, Tess Gerritsen, John Connolly, Stuart Woods, Lisa Jackson, Karin Slaughter. I read and read and read.
And just as quickly realized that reading was vital, but if Taylor was going to come to life, I had to do research too. I called the Nashville homicide offices and talked to a detective who suggested I come on some ride-alongs. Those experiences helped me write my first book, in truth a really terrible novella. It was 50,000 overly melodramatic words. But I finished it. It had a beginning, middle and end. I got a copy of Writer’s Market and following the guidelines for agents who liked mysteries, submitted it to about thirty who matched my criteria. Cue daily depression as the rejections rolled in. Only one agency bit, but they wanted to charge me a wad of cash to get started. A google search showed me a site called Preditors and Editors, where this agency was listed with warnings. As depressing as it was, I passed on their offer. But through P&E, I discovered Writer’s Digest, and subscribed. I was slowly learning the business.
How did you find an agent?
After the debacle with the novella, my eyes were opened. I realized I needed another book, one that was bigger and stronger. I scrapped all but the opening paragraph and started over. I had just finished writing this book when I went to my very first book signing – John Connolly, now a literary hero. I was bound and determined to talk to him, to buy him a drink and pick his brain. And God bless him, he let me. I stumbled through my elevator pitch, and he smiled kindly, told me it gets easier with practice. He gave me practical advice, and encouragement, and stayed in touch, answering all my silly questions. That night was also vitally important because I met my mentor, Del Tinsley, who told me about Sisters in Crime, and DorothyL, and just plain adopted me. She invited me to her critique group too, so now I had a chance to see if my work flew. It did. They liked it. They liked me. My confidence as a writer was growing.
I had a book, now I needed to place it. I began doing intensive research on the industry. I found Publisher’s Marketplace, made myself a mini-website and checked the box for “This writer is looking for an agent.” I looked at conferences, joined a few online groups. I found an agent I was over the moon about, and was writing him a query letter just as he saw my PM profile and sent me an email requesting the manuscript. Within a week, I’d signed with him. Now everything was happening.
I started writing another book while I was on submission, which ended up being a very good thing. My novel wasn’t generating enough interest. My agent broke the news that he felt he couldn’t go further with it and I should write another. It was devastating, but I listened. As I wrote the new book, I also got involved in a group blog called Murderati. I started blogging every Friday, and the discipline that imbued was priceless. I went to my first conference (Murder in the Magic City) and met some other writers, who encouraged me to write and submit short stories. So now I was blogging, writing shorts, polishing a final edit on ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, subscribing to Publisher’s Marketplace, going to my critique group, participating on several listserves and organizations . . . makes me tired to think about it. But this combination, the piecemeal of efforts paid off.
How did you get your deal?
My agent took the book out in April of 2006. We got interest right away, then I heard nothing. No news, and I got scared. But I kept writing. I started working on a new book. I wrote and placed several short stories. I blogged. I read. And I waited. Wrote more. Prayed a few times for good measure.
My agent called me a month later to let me know we had a deal. It was one of those conversations that you remember as if it were a dream. My parents were visiting, we were watching a movie, and the phone rang. I saw the 212 area code and my heart started pounding. I answered, and my agent, who’s a great, funny guy, teased me for a moment before he broke the news.
It was the longest thirty days of my life. But worth every minute. I landed at Mira Books, the publisher I really wanted, and got a three book deal. Nirvana.
It took nearly three years from starting my first book to getting my deal.
This journey was circuitous at best, and the result of two things. One, I never doubted for a moment that I was going to be published. Two, I learned that writing is a business. This is my job. Granted, it’s the best job in the whole world, but it is a job nonetheless. I still work on short stories. I still blog every Friday. I help found Killer Year, an organization designed to raise the profile of some of 2007’s debut authors. I write daily. I try to balance business and writing by scheduling time for both. And I read.
There is no right way up the publishing mountain. But Piecemeal Avenue, with its switchbacks, rock-strewn roadblocks, beautiful scenery and dark tunnels took me there. Stick with it, my friends. It will happen. Luck to you all!