My Publishing Journey: Becoming a Professional Writer

Agatha Christie, 1949

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.” Agatha Christie.

I spent the better part of my teen years and early twenties devouring Agatha Christie books, until I’d read every one, though my preference leaned heavily to stories featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I even went so far as to read Christie’s six romance novels, penned as Mary Westmacott.

My fascination with Christie fueled my desire to write murder mysteries. But like Christie, for many years I was an amateur. Actually, amateur is overstating it. I was more of a “want-to be” writer. You know the type: the person who says they’re going to write a book “one day.”

For me, “one day” took about three decades from the time I put down Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s final mystery. In between, I worked as a Credit & Collections Manager, a Sales and Marketing Coordinator, and over the past thirteen years, a freelance writer and editor. It wasn’t my fault, you see. I was waiting for the muse to show up. I knew once the muse made an appearance I’d be ready to write that book.

Except the muse never came for a visit. Not even after I bought some shiny new writing software for my computer. [Here’s a head’s up for those of you who don’t know: you still have to WRITE the story!]

Barry Dempster

Sometime in the early 2000s, I decided to take a creative writing class taught by Barry Dempster, an award-winning Canadian author and poet. It was Barry who told me, “The muse will never come unless you let her know you’re going to be there. Make time to write every day, even if it’s only for thirty minutes, even if all you’re doing is sitting there, staring at a blank page. One day, the words will come.”

They did. Faced with ten days off of all my freelance gigs, I started writing my first book, The Hanged Man’s Noose, on Christmas Eve 2011. I wrote every day, including Christmas and New Year’s Day. By the end of that ten-day period, I had a few chapters written. It never got easy…but it did get easier, and by February 2013, I’d finished writing and revising the book. Then I tried to find an agent, and when that didn’t work out, I went to work looking for a publisher.

I knew how elusive that muse could be, and I knew I should start another book, but I couldn’t bear to write the sequel to a book I hadn’t sold. I started Skeletons in the Attic, determined to make it as different from Noose as I could: Noose is written in third person, with multiple (primarily two) POVs. Skeletons, on the other hand, is written in first person, and entirely from the POV of the protagonist, Calamity (Callie) Barnstable. But this time, the Christie quote actually applied to me. Somewhere along the line, I’d stopped waiting for the muse to show up and graduated from want-to be writer to amateur writer to professional.

Some days, the muse is slow to appear, but that doesn’t stop me any more. To quote Agatha Christie once again, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

7 responses to “My Publishing Journey: Becoming a Professional Writer

  1. oh, yes, writing the books 😉

  2. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks Jennifer, I appreciate the praise! As far as new directions, the one thing I do know is that I have to be open to all possibilities. That might be going indie, or trying for an agent on a third series. The possibilities are endless these days. Of course, I do have to write the books first 🙂

  3. Judy, this is a great article. In your comment above, you mention the idea of going indie in the future as opposed to going with a traditional agent.

    That’s an interesting perspective since the two paths are polar opposites both in terms of author-control and in terms of technology and the evolution of the publishing industry. But whichever route you chose, I’m sure your determination and hard work will make it a success. 🙂

  4. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Yes, our situations were very similar — you even recommended Lourdes Venard to me, a great move for me. She really helped. I’ve been told by a couple of very successful authors that I should try for an agent now that I’m more established, with the view to getting into a large press, but it would mean writing a third series to pitch, and probably one that was very cozy. I don’t do “very cozy” very well. I leave it to others who are far better at it than I am. I used to think having an agent was the only way to go, but now I’m actually thinking if I do come up with a third series, I might self publish and become a hybrid author. I do like both the small presses I am with, but I do find that I’m responsible for most of the promotion, including paying for it, so self-publishing is definitely an option I’m considering. But first I have the commitment to write the sequels to Skeletons (book 2 and 3), and I’d like to write a novella/prequel to Noose that tells Emily’s story. I’m also working on a collection of short stories that take place in Northern Ontario. One thing I have learned along this journey is to be open to all opportunities.

  5. That’s right. Now I remember that your situation seemed parallel to mine. Have you given up now on looking for an agent? Sticking with publishers?

  6. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Hi Susan, a good question. Here’s the answer: http://wp.me/p3yeUA-DE

  7. So what happened between “no agent” and “have found a publisher”?