Apr 092014

by Holly West

Last month, I attended Left Coast Crime in Monterey, California–my first conference as a published author.

Truthfully, I didn’t give this much thought prior to arriving. I’ve been attending mystery conferences since 2009, when I went to Bouchercon in Indianapolis. I’ve moderated panels at subsequent Bouchercons and elsewhere, and overall, I never felt like being unpublished held me back. I’d made enough friends in the crime fiction world (and continue to do so) that it didn’t seem to matter whether I was published or not.

I learned, however, that being published changed, ever so slightly, the way I was treated (for lack of a better phrase) at this conference. For the first time, I was on a panel as a panelist and not a moderator. People who’d read my book introduced themselves and told me how much they’d liked it. I was able to participate in the New Authors Breakfast, along with many other fellow first timers I have great respect for (special shout out to Terry Shames, Terri Nolan, and Matt Coyle).

And for the first time, I got to sit at the signing table.

I didn’t expect this last one to be of any great significance because Mistress of Fortune is an eBook. What was I going to sign? Nevertheless, several attendees asked me to sign their conference programs, and darned if it didn’t make me feel pretty good.


But there was another unexpected reason why sitting at that signing table meant something special to me.

Back in 2009, when I attended that first Bouchercon in Indianapolis, I met one of my favorite authors (and certainly one of the reasons I write crime fiction in the first place), Sue Grafton. A friend, Ali Karim, introduced us at the PWA Shamus Awards and she graciously spent about fifteen minutes talking with me about my project, writing in general, and her own writing process. I’ve met Sue a few times since then and she always pretends to remember me, which I greatly appreciate.

Holly West & Sue Grafton (or as I like to call her, my BFF)

After my Left Coast Crime panel, I dutifully went downstairs with the other authors to sit at the signing tables. The first thing I saw when I got there was that Sue Grafton, who’d had a panel during the same time I did, was at one end of the table and I was at the other end. We were “bookends,” if you will. This moment was not lost on me. In all the fantasies I’d ever had about being a published author, this had not been one of them–it had never even occurred to me. I was thrilled.

I waited until Sue’s long line of fans had dissipated and took the opportunity to tell her just what it meant to me. My first conference as a published author and here I was sitting at the signing table with my idol. Always a gracious one, she gave me a big hug and congratulated me.

I spend a lot of time complaining about how hard writing is but let me tell you–there are a lot of great moments along the path to publishing. This was one of mine.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me about one of the great moments you’ve had as a writer. Big or small, they all help to keep us going in this journey that sometimes feels like a fool’s errand.

Apr 022014

by Holly West

*More or less

This week, I’m finishing up copyedits on my second book, Mistress of Lies. It’s the last round of edits, which means that once it’s turned in, it’s pretty much done.

To be honest, it’s a little hard for me to fathom. For years and years and years I dreamed of writing just one novel. That was my holy grail, the pinnacle of personal success that I thought I’d never reach. That being the case, writing two books was out of the question.

And yet, here I am.

Book one, Mistress of Fortune, took me about two and a half years to write and polish (much longer to actually publish, but that’s another story altogether). Book two, my first under contract, took me about six months to write a draft suitable to turn in to my editor, meaning it was polished, but not all that shiny. Writing to a fixed deadline obviously required a lot more discipline than I’d displayed during the writing of the first book. Even so, I dawdled and complained, and generally waited until the very last minute to get that thing done.

It’s how I roll.

Initially, I’d intended to write book two “by the seat of my pants.” I’d written Mistress of Fortune with a loose outline but I didn’t write the scenes in order. I jumped around depending on what I felt like writing on a given day. This method worked, but revising it was a nightmare; going into book two I thought that writing it in order, as it came to me, would be a better strategy.

Not so much. Three months before my deadline, I had about 20,000 words written but felt directionless, unmotivated, and miserable. I had no idea how that damned book was going to get finished, let alone be even remotely readable.

I had 90 days to finish the novel. Here’s what I did:

Days 1-30: I’d sold the second book based on a synopsis and sample chapters, but the synopsis had been short and was an insufficient road map for going forward. Plus, I’d changed some major elements in the story with my editor’s blessing. Hence, I gave myself nearly a full month to write a detailed outline and synopsis.

Coming from a screenwriting background, the three-act format has always appealed to me and I stuck to it faithfully in writing the outline. I used the outline to write the synopsis (about twenty pages), then had my husband read it to make sure it made sense. He provided some useful feedback and I revised the story accordingly. In this way, the developmental part of editing the manuscript was, to a large extent, taken care of in the synopsis phase.

Days 30-60: I wrote the first draft. It was weak in some places, but I had a finished novel, gosh darn it, and that was all that mattered.

Days 60 – 90: My husband and I both read through the manuscript. I revised it based on both of our notes, taking care to polish it as much as I could along the way. I reserved the last four days to do a complete read-through myself, knowing there was no time to make any big developmental changes. It was mostly just copyediting at that point.

Day 90 (Deadline Day): I sent it to my editor and crossed my fingers.

Though I knew it still needed work, I was happy with the finished novel. The story is much more personal for my protagonist and in my opinion, has more heart as a result. And surprisingly, the first edit letter I received for this manuscript was pretty painless–there were some character motivations that needed strengthening and an important, but not too difficult, story element that needed changing, but that was pretty much it. Further edits have gone just as smoothly.

I kinda-sorta feel like I’ve hit upon my method when it comes to writing a book, though it might only work for genre novels. Do I think I can write my next novel in 90 days? Perhaps not. But having a process that works for me gives me confidence that I can do this again and again.

For those of you who’ve written more than one novel, how did your process change with subsequent books?

Apr 252012

Honored to have Holly West swing by today. First, let me remind you that you can get a free gift if you grab Dan O’Shea’s lovely Old School collection. I’m offering up Dan’s reading of my “Champion” story if you’ll grab his shorts. Details here.

Now, on to Diary of Bedlam. I’ll admit that I don’t read a ton of historical mysteries, but if more of them were like this one, I damn sure would. Folks who like Tasha Alexander’s work are going to love this book from Holly West. Her novel really nails the historical and the fiction — the period work is spot-on and the mystery-telling has great momentum. Diary Of Bedlam is one of my favorites from the last couple of years. I sincerely hope all of you get a chance to read this one soon. I also hope Holly keeps these books going. — Steve



By Holly West

I started writing my first novel, Diary of Bedlam, in June 2008, the summer I turned 40. I don’t remember thinking “I’m gonna be 40, life is passing me by, I gotta write a novel NOW.” I’d simply reached a point where I was ready. Good thing, too, because if I’d have known then it was going to take me nearly four years to write a novel (and still not be published), I might never have started.

I’ve reached a pivotal stage in the life of Diary of Bedlam–I’m officially querying agents. It’s actually the second round of querying for this novel, but really, whose counting?

When Steve Weddle asked me to write a WHAT I’VE LEARNED guest post for Do Some Damage, I accepted the challenge with enthusiasm. After four years, I must’ve learned something, right?

Here is the itemized list:

1) I am an obscenely talented writer.
2) I’m a no-talent hack.

Depending upon the status of my agent search, one or the other of these realizations will strike without warning, sometimes alternating by the half-hour.

It is maddening.

Like any writer I struggled between these extremes throughout the writing of Diary of Bedlam. It’s kind of a natural part of the process. During the worst times I wanted to quit, but I’d already revealed I was writing Diary of Bedlam on Facebook and Twitter and we all know what’s posted on the Internet stays on the Internet. There was no turning back, so I got used to the self-doubt and forged ahead.

But nothing activates the talent/no talent switch like querying.

My best advice for combating this soul-sucking state is write a few short stories and submit them to various outlets, like Needle magazine or Shotgun Honey. Getting accepted by your peers really helps to bolster your confidence. Keep writing, keep submitting. Hone those skills.

3) Joining Twitter was the best thing I’ve done for my writing career.

About this, I do not joke. Virtually every opportunity I’ve had with regard to writing has come about due to Twitter, or more accurately, people I’ve met on Twitter.

For example, I’ve had four agents contact me via Twitter asking me to submit my manuscript after seeing my profile (which is essentially just a link to my query letter).

At first, my only goal was to learn about the publishing industry and I followed every writer/publisher/agent/editor I could find. I did a lot of listening and a little interacting. It didn’t take long to become a part of the community, but the key here is creating relationships—not just promoting your latest book.

4) Just because an agent asks for more material doesn’t mean they’re about to sign you.

I’ve had a great response to my query letter, with a 35%-40% request rate for fulls or partials. The first time this happened the agent responded to my query within 24 hours and asked to see the full manuscript. With my brilliance thus confirmed, I expected an offer of representation would be forthcoming. She replied a few days later with an email saying she hadn’t connected with my protagonist and was therefore passing on the project.

I’m not gonna lie. I shed a few tears.

Then it happened again and again and I realized that a request for more material doesn’t constitute a marriage proposal. It’s just a request for more material.

5) Hope actually does spring eternal.

It’s tough not to get bogged down by the numbers. Agents report receiving two hundred or more queries per week and only end up signing two or three new clients a year. And honestly, I don’t even know the numbers when it comes to actually getting published. I don’t want to know, the same way I don’t want to know what a hotdog is made of.

The thing is, throughout the writing of Diary of Bedlam, I’ve met a whole lot of aspiring authors just like me who are now published. And let’s not forget that agents are out there actively looking for us—they need us as much as we need them. Yeah, I know it doesn’t always feel that way but it’s true. Just because the numbers err in their favor doesn’t mean they aren’t genuinely interested in finding their next big client.

That just might be me (or you. But hopefully me).

Thanks to Steve Weddle and the rest of the Do Some Damage crew for letting me visit!

Bio: Holly West lives, reads, and writes in Southern California. Her short fiction has appeared in NEEDLE: A Magazine of Noir and Shotgun Honey. She recently completed her first novel, Diary of Bedlam, and is currently seeking representation. Find her online at http://hollywest.com.