I’m so excited to have my favorite Cozy Mystery author
and now dear friend
V. M. Burns visit me here on my blog.
She talks about how she came to write such wonderful mysteries
and gives fellow aspiring authors the wisdom of her experience.
Why cozy mysteries?
I’ve loved cozy mysteries for as long as I can remember.
From Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie, I love reading and figuring out whodunit.
How did you come to write cozies?
The transition from reading cozies to wanting to write them was subtle.
I don’t recall saying, “one day, I’m going to write cozy mysteries.”
However, there were two glaringly obvious clues which pointed to career as a writer.
First, I mentally altered book/movie endings.
For as long as I can remember, I indulged in what I called, “my imaginings.”
If I finished a book and didn’t like the ending, I changed it.
If I watched a movie and thought the characters should have behaved differently, I “imagined” an alternative.
Or, if I read a book and wanted to know what happened next, I imagined the sequel.
At the time, I had no idea this would lead to a life as a writer.
I thought everyone came up with ideas for books/movies or thought out alternative endings and sequels.
Didn’t everyone standing in a crowded elevator imagine how someone could be murdered?
In addition to an active imagination, I also kept a mental “I wish there was a book” list.
I wish there was a book about a woman who owned a mystery bookstore who solved mysteries.
I wish there was a book about a policeman and his godmother who solved murders.
I wish…well, you get the idea.
One day, I told a screenwriter friend, one time too many, that she should write a screenplay about…
That’s when she suggested I should write it myself.
Once the seed was planted, I couldn’t dig it out.
I got every book I could find about writing.
Initially, I wrote screenplays and children’s books. I attended conferences and workshops and I wrote.
I completed four screenplays and two children’s books.
Unfortunately, no one was interested in producing my screenplays or publishing my children’s books. I got a lot of rejections.
I still read cozies and decided to write my first cozy screenplay, “Agatha and the Mysterious Museum Murder.”
Yep, no one was interested in that one either.
Hollywood is hard to break into, especially from Indiana.
A series of events led me to the Maui Writer’s Conference where I met book authors and publishers.
At the conference, I pitched an idea for a book to a big five publisher and guess what?
She liked it.
The only problem, I hadn’t finished the book. So, I went home and wrote my first cozy mystery.
Thankfully, I write quickly. So, I finished the book and thought, my road to publication was secure.
Uh…no. The publisher only accepted manuscripts submitted by an agent.
I sent queries to agents and got rejection after rejection.
Eventually, I got an agent who sent my manuscript to the big five publisher, who rejected my manuscript.
How did you keep going in the face of rejection upon rejection?
At this point, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
I wanted to be a mystery writer.
So, I continued to send queries.
What was your road to publication like?
“I revised my manuscript and I wrote the next book in the series.
Years passed and I racked up a lot of rejections.
Obviously, I needed to do something different.
One day, while glancing at the bio of one of my favorite cozy mystery writers, Victoria Thompson, I noted she was an adjunct professor at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA.
Ever heard of it? Me neither.
A little research showed that Seton Hill had a low residency MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction.
I applied and was accepted. That’s where I found my Tribe.
I learned how to write and I rewrote my book.
Since I write quickly, I even started a new mystery series (Mystery Bookshop Mystery).
MFA degree in hand, I sent queries to agents, editors and publishers and guess what?
I got more rejections.
Nevertheless, I kept writing.
Eventually, I got an agent who sold the second manuscript to a publisher who asked if I’d write a proposal for another mystery series.
I also sold my first book to a different publisher.
When all was said and done, I was under contract to write fourteen books!
Yes, you read that correctly, 14!
What advice would you give other aspiring writers?
So, what’s the key to my publication success?
I kept writing. I didn’t give up because of a rejection or two or three hundred.
My road to publication was long and rocky with lots of bends, but persistence pays off.
My advice to aspiring authors, don’t give up and no matter what happens, just keep writing.
V. M. Burns author page — check out V. M. Burns’ author page to see all her books!
And check out her own blog here V. M. web site
August is the month of the annual Poetry Postcard Fest,
brainchild of Seattle poet Paul Nelson.
In 2007, I was lucky enough to give Paul an assist on getting the first project started.
Back then, about 100 people from all over the country participated.
11 years hence, there are several hundred participants from all over the world.
But it’s been a long while since I participated.
I joined in this time because my current poetry project has been a bust so far.
I’ve written nothing I’m satisfied with. At all.
I wanted the challenge of having to write a single draft of a poem quickly, then send it off right away.
There’s pressure in knowing you only get one shot–but freedom from perfectionism too.
I bought a pack of random postcards.
I pull out a card, turn it over, and begin to write.
My only constraint (aside from the poem needing to fit in the small space)
is that the poem must have something to do with the concept of time.
It’s been quite crazy having to figure out how to work time into a poem about a giraffe or a monkey.
Even though it feels like I am writing in a vacuum, the poem is a missive to my audience of one.
Some of the poems came swiftly, without setting my pen down once.
Some of the poems have taken a bit more time.
But nearly all are silly, in some way.
Rarely, if ever, do I allow myself to just be silly.
And you know what, I can’t figure out why. It’s actually a lot of fun.
It’s okay not to take every endeavor so seriously.
Participating in the August Poetry Postcard Fest is reminding me that it’s okay to write mediocre poems.
It’s even okay to write bad poems.
As long as the postcard poems make the recipient smile, that’s good enough.
And good enough is sometimes good enough.
And I think there is a larger lesson in this postcard experience for me–
No matter what happens on the page, just write.
And don’t aim for perfection.
Just aim to put words on paper.
It seems like I knew all of this before, but I keep forgetting, and keep needing to remind myself.
I can fix the words later.
Or let the words go and write some more.
And some more.
And eventually, I might even write something I like enough to hold onto.
I left off part 1 of this topic saying that publishing my first book of family poems, Dance From Inside My Bones, was truly overwhelming.
For a number of reasons.
First, let me say, my experience with Snake Nation Press, where my manuscript won the Violet Reed Haas Award, was not one of those reasons.
The strong women editors at Snake Nation, Roberta George and Jean Arambula, were truly stellar to work with.
They lauded the honesty of my work, and had me attend the AWP conference in Atlanta for the book release.
Not for one minute, did I forget how fortunate I was to have my poetry manuscript published.
Getting a poem published is hard. Getting a book published is harder. I was one of the lucky ones.
Yet, a part of me believed it was some sort of mistake.
That they announced the wrong winner and would take it back.
A voice in my head (my mother’s) told me I didn’t deserve it.
Nonetheless, I was overjoyed, and deer-in-the-headlights scared.
At the AWP Snake Nation booth, I stood behind copies of my books, as thousands of people streamed by.
I am a terrible introvert. It took every ounce of bravado I had not to go to my hotel room and hide.
I smiled. I nodded I answered questions.
Mostly, the same one over and over–
My book is about family and growing up into a young woman.
And the response was largely–
Oh, childhood nostalgia.
No, not that at all.
Actually, it was more like this–
The problem was when I wrote the poems, I wasn’t thinking of some future point when I would have to physically stand in front of people and justify my work.
I wasn’t thinking about being there, in person with the book, putting a face to the autobiographical poems.
When I was writing the poems, I was trying to put my experiences into words that might connect with others on the other side of the page.
Being in front of people with my book felt like one of those dreams where you are suddenly naked in public.
I was more than uncomfortable. I was worried about being judged, or blamed.
I had written my truth, but I guess, I hadn’t yet claimed it. Not live and in-person, anyway.
I hadn’t accepted I had a right to that truth.
I hadn’t thought ahead to having to stand in front of folks and give readings.
But, I would give readings. And at Seattle’s Open Books, no less.
And I feared I would be hated for not saying Hallmark things about my mother. In this culture, and many others, the word mother is synonymous with sainthood.
But I didn’t have a Hallmark mother, nor a Brady Bunch family.
And I had been in abusive situations with family members, but never told anyone, other than my therapist.
Now that the book was out, it felt like I was shouting it from the rooftops, telling the world.
Well, anyone in the world who wanted to read Dance From Inside My Bones.
Then, there was the fact that all but one of those abusive family members were still alive.
What would they say, if they read my book?
Fortunately none of them wanted to read my book.
Which was a relief.
My mother said she knew it was “garbage” since I had written it.
I expected that. But it still hurt. Even now she’s dead, it’s still impossible to shut out my mother’s derisive voice in my head.
So what really happened at each reading I gave?
People were polite, applauded.
Several people bought my book.
Sometimes one or two folks asked me to sign it.
But one person came up and confided in me that my work spoke to them about what they’d been through.
That person thanked me.
And I cried tears of joy as we hugged.
I realized I’d come full circle.
Poetry saved my life as child in harrowing circumstances. Poems reached across time, distance, gender, culture, and spoke to me of survival. Poems taught me I wasn’t alone in my suffering. And if others could survive, so could I.
Finally, my poems provided that message and reached out as well.
My words only connected with one other living soul. And that was more than I could ever hope for.
I may not have changed the world.
I may not have bettered that person’s life.
But for one brief moment in time, that person knew they were not alone.
And it was enough. For both of us.
But still, I thought, I would publish no more autobiographical poems. I had said all there was to say.
Little did I know…
[Next time, Family Poems Are Hard–part 3]
Rejection never gets easier. Not for me. I know rejection is the more likely outcome whenever I submit a completed poem or fiction piece or essay.
If for no other reason, than because of the sheer quantity of writing being submitted everywhere. Publications have limited space and unlimited selection. It’s a numbers game.
But when rejection comes, it always feels personal. Even though I understand from a rational standpoint that it isn’t. I feel like I am being told I suck. I don’t matter. Nothing I do matters. I am the worst writer in the world. Maybe the universe.
As an editor myself who has to parcel out rejection–something that hurts as much as receiving it–I know rejection is about the taste of the people choosing. And their mileage may vary from my own.
Rejection is subjective. Taste is individual. Not absolute.
Editors’ differing aesthetics, their biases, having to read the thousandth dead grandmother poem that month. And their grandmother is in the hospital. And she may not live. Or maybe that editor just discovered their father cheated on their mother with a person who has the same unusual first name as me.
Whatever the reason, rejection still hurts. And for me, it’s a physical pain as well. A blow to the chest, making it hard to breathe. Which makes sense according to MRI research. Rejection lights up the same areas in the brain as physical injury. There’s a great article on the TED site by psychologist Guy Winch that talks about this: Why rejection hurts so much
The good news is, once I catch my breath, I’m ready to try submitting again. Mostly because of the voice in my head. Thankfully, that voice belongs not to me, but to my very first poetry mentor, Ottone “Ricky” Riccio, who taught at the Boston Center For Adult Education for several dozen years.
Ricky said, “Don’t call yourself a poet until you’ve received a thousand rejections.” What he really meant was that success at submitting doesn’t make you worthy. Passion for writing makes you a poet. And if you have enough passion that you’ve submitted a thousand or more times, you’ve got what it takes.
By these guidelines, I can call myself a poet many times over. Thousands of rejections.
Ricky didn’t place much value in the hierarchies of literary publishing. He encouraged sharing your work, but getting it out into the world any way you could. He suggested students take a handful of magnets and post poems on the refrigerators in the appliance section at Sears.
Ricky was an early proponent of self-publishing. Way before print-on-demand came into being. Many of his photocopied, hand-stapled collections stand among my all-time favorite poetry collections.
In my heart, I know sharing work matters. During my childhood, growing up in harrowing conditions, poetry saved my life. It still does. Every day.
As a child, I saw how people who’d suffered loss, and tragedy, and all kind of hurt, wrote about their experiences in poems. Across distance, time, gender, culture, these folks spoke directly to my wounds. They lived to write about what they’d been through–a testimony to survival, and likely, even thriving.
I’ve come to believe that our words reach those who need them most. However that happens–whether publication in a literary journal, or in the community newsletter, or posting online.
Poetry is my spiritual practice. Getting work into the world is a necessary part of that practice. Rejection is a piece of it as well. And the hurt. So I rest, take some deep breaths, and keep on. I hope you will too.
Some of you know that I’m a huge time travel enthusiast–reading about it, watching movies, delving into the scientific possibilities.
And I’ve always wanted to write a time travel novel.
Well now I finally have!
It’s a romantic adventure called Time Flash: Another Me.
There are no DeLoreans, but there is a wacky scientist.
And a possibly-magical cat.
I’ll be releasing my novel soon.
Stay tuned for more details!
Met my submission goal for the month of February.
Here’s what I sent out into the world:
1 personal essay
1 short story
5 poems to a contest
7 poems to several venues
1 application for a writing class
I’ve seen other writers set a goal of 100 rejections per year. I’m going to aim for 180.
That means I have to submit at least 15 individual things a month.
If I get rejected every time, I will easily slide into my goal.
But what if someone says yes?
Well then, good problem to have. I’ll just need to keep writing and keep submitting new work.
Either way, rejection goal, here I come!