Friday, January 29, 2010

Kelli Stanley: From Small Press to Big Success

Interview by Heather Moore

Welcome, Kelli, to our writing blog. We’re excited to hear about your writing journey and how you went from getting your first mystery novel, Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping, published with a smaller press to landing a contract with a major publisher for City of Dragons.

Heather: First of all, congratulations on your starred reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist for City of Dragons! Pretty amazing to say the least. But first things first . . . I recently read your award-winning mystery novel, Nox Dormienda (an Arcturus mystery) and really enjoyed the classic Roman noir setting. Tell us about the beginnings of your publishing career with this first book.

Kelli: Heather, thank you so much for having me over! It’s an honor to be here at Writing on the Wall. And thank you very much for the kind words! I wrote NOX DORMIENDA just a few years ago when I was in graduate school, earning a Master’s degree in Classics. It was the first novel I ever tried to write, but I’d written “stuff” my whole life, from poetry to screenplays. I wanted to do something creative with my degree—and my life. My choices were really to either go forward in academia, pursuing a Ph.D., or try something new. So inspired by the success of writers like Stephen Saylor and Lindsay Davis, I took the plunge and wrote NOX, which combines my love of noir and hardboiled fiction and film with the history and culture I’d spent so much time studying.

Contrary to expectations, I found an agent immediately—the first agent I queried, in fact. However, she moved out of the country and I was left—in my graduating semester—with very few prospects. That was a scary time, let me tell you. And to compound the stress, I was operating in a vacuum of ignorance. I knew no one in the community, I wasn’t a member of any organization—no Sisters in Crime, no Mystery Writers of America. I’m kind of mule-headed (some in my family might say VERY mule-headed, lol!), and I just didn’t feel comfortable investing any money in myself if all this publishing stuff was a pipe dream. So I wasn’t sure what to do. My former agent suggested I submit the manuscript to Five Star, a small, library press—they get their books reviews and it seemed like a good place to start. I thought to myself, “Just get a toe in the doorway.”

So I sent the book to Five Star and I was accepted. And it was at that point that I started to actually believe in myself, and promptly tried to make up for all the lost time and join organizations and learn as much about the industry as possible. After this start, you can imagine my surprise and gratitude at NOX winning the Bruce Alexander and becoming a Macavity finalist last year.
Heather: That must have been a thrill to have NOX in such a prestigious way. You have written a sequel for Nox Dormienda, but that’s not the next book coming out. City of Dragons was picked up by Thomas Dunne/Minotaur and will be out February 2, 2010. How did you find your agent for this book and how long did it take to secure a publishing contract?

Kelli: There are a lot of characters and plots roaming around in my head, and I never planned to just focus on Rome—too limiting. My true love is mid-century America, particularly the 30s through the end of World War II. So I planned to write a novel with a female private detective, and I was going to set it in 1939, at the San Francisco World’s Fair—the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Now, once I realized that it would be very, very difficult—almost impossible—to get my first series picked up by a major publisher, I knew that writing another series would provide me a fresh chance. Fortunately, I’d written CURSED, the sequel to NOX, in just a few months—before I submitted NOX and while I was waiting to figure out what to do with my life.

So I wrote CITY OF DRAGONS. The book became darker, set in 1940, and while the Fair plays a role—and is actually the setting for a Miranda Corbie short story that’s coming in the FIRST THRILLS anthology in June—Chinatown is the backdrop.

In the meantime, I was without an agent, and knew I’d have to go through the tortuous process of finding one. A friend recommended her agency, I sent them my work, and found the absolutely best agent in the world—Kimberley Cameron, of Kimberley Cameron and Associates. I finished CITY OF DRAGONS a few months after NOX was published, and Kimberley put it on the market in the second week of January, 2009. The market fell out and I was petrified it wouldn’t sell. But three weeks later we had a deal with Thomas Dunne/Minotaur, and believe me—I couldn’t be happier. I adore my editor and my publishing team!
Heather: I’ve heard Kimberly Cameron is an excellent agent. Congratulations. I think every writer was holding her breath when the market went south. But you are one of the survivors. The cover for CITY OF DRAGONS is stunning, so kudos to your publisher's design department. What are some of the key things or mottos that you believe have attributed to your success as an author?

Kelli: My family, number one. They’ve believed in me from the beginning, and help prop me up through all the self doubt. And the generosity of this community—the crime fiction community—is unbelievable. I have been helped and supported by so many people … and one of my goals is to be able to give back in any way I can.

I also think it helps that my expectations are fairly realistic—I want to write full-time. That’s it! And I recognize that publishing is a business—that writing is a business, and that authors really need to look at themselves that way.

And, of course, perseverance counts the most. You just can’t give up, though there have been times that I’ve thought I should.

Heather: Perseverance is even more important than ever. The typical writing process can take years from writing, to submitting, to a book release. I think it’s important for novice writers to understand that the success we see splashed in the newspapers and magazines has been a long time in building up. What are your writing habits—and how long does it take you from idea to completion of a novel?

Kelli: I hold a day job, so writing has to be worked in around everything else. And though I use a loose outline, the plot also develops as I write—characters come in I don’t expect, etc. I prepare a certain amount of research ahead of time, too, but also research specifics as they come up. So all in all, I’m usually a fairly fast writer, but how long it takes to get to the finished product depends, like everything else, on other demands: day job, personal and family life … and certainly, all the editing, marketing, etc. that goes into launching a new book.

Heather: Like the rest of us, you are juggling many things. Gratefully, the internet has given authors instant access to self-promotion. How important is internet presence (websites, blogging, social sites) to your marketing?

Kelli: Enormously important. The internet is where most people receive their news, their impressions of what might interest them. The trick is to figure out what—of the million on-line opportunities out there—might work. I wish I had the answer! Social networking is fun—and when you spend a lot of time staring at a page, it’s great to take a break and connect with friends and readers. But—the downside—it can be an enormous time drain. So you have to constantly remind yourself, again, that you’re a business, and you don’t have time to harvest your crops in Farmville.

Heather: LOL. The other day I deleted about 30 requests for Farmville and finally blocked it. Based on your experience, would you advise an unpublished writer to submit first to small publishers or to find an agent?

Kelli: Unpublished writers, in my opinion, should ALWAYS seek an agent first. Even with a small press, agents will recognize a one-sided contract when they see it. If I’d had an agent when I signed my contract for NOX, we could have bargained for a much better deal in terms of length of ownership of rights, etc. All kinds of things you don’t think about—or at least I didn’t, because I didn’t know any better. An agent will protect you from getting taken advantage of because you want something—to be published—very, very badly. That’s their job, and they can and should be a writer’s best friend.

That said, it takes time and perseverance to find the right agent for you. Think of it like a marriage—you wouldn’t fly to Las Vegas together on the first query letter, so take the time to research the agents you submit your work to, take time to ask them questions. Research their reputations, email their clients. It’s a personal relationship as well as a business one, and it needs to click.

Heather: Research is so important. I had an agent once send me a contract and only after the fact did I do the research. Every author I contacted told me NOT to go with that agent. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache if I’d done the research in advance. What additional advice would you give to those dreaming of becoming published writers?

Kelli: Take a piece of paper and paste this to your computer: Butt in Seat. That sums up what you have to do … sit there and focus and finish the book. Don’t send anything to anyone that is unfinished. Finish it, have done with it, make sure you’re happy with it, but don’t endlessly tweak it, either. Then start the query process.

And don’t repeat the mistake I made. Join Sisters in Crime, join International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America! You’ll learn so much, and all of it will help. You’ll meet writers who might blurb your book when you get your contract, you’ll meet agents, you’ll learn about the industry. If you’re serious about being published, you have to be serious about the business, and these organizations will help.

Heather: Excellent advice. Tell us about the book(s) you are working on now.

Kelli: Right now, I’m working on the sequel to CITY OF DRAGONS—the working title is COUNTRY OF SPIDERS, but that may change. I’ve got a Miranda Corbie short story called “Children’s Day” coming out—it’s a prequel to CITY OF DRAGONS—in FIRST THRILLS: HIGH OCTANE STORIES FROM THE HOTTEST THRILLER WRITERS, the next ITW anthology. It’s full of stories by stellar writers and bestsellers like Michael Palmer and Jeffery Deaver next to stories by “up-and-comers”, and it’s edited by Lee Child—so you can imagine how thrilled I am to be there! The book comes out June 22 from Tor/Forge.

And the impossible did happen! My editor bought the sequel to NOX, so both series are now with Minotaur. CURSED should be out maybe at the end of this year, maybe early next year—I’m not sure yet. Meanwhile, I’ve got my hands full with the second Miranda book and launching CITY OF DRAGONS!

Heather: Congrats, Kelli, and thanks so much for taking time out of your busy promotion schedule! You can read Chapter 1 of CITY OF DRAGONS here. Also, visit Kelli Stanley's website for upcoming events, reviews, book trailers, interviews, and more.
Kelli: Thanks a million, Heather—it’s been absolutely wonderful to be here, and good luck to all your Writing on the Wall readers for success with their projects!


Melanie J said...

What a great interview. I love hearing about other writers and their journeys. Thanks for posting this.

Nisa said...

Wonderful interview! I am excited to read City of Dragons!

L.T. Elliot said...

Great interview! My most heartfelt wishes for your continued success!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thank you so much, Melanie, Nisa and L.T.!! :)

I'm so happy to be here--Heather's a wonderful interviewer and a terrific editor, and I'm always hopeful that maybe talking about some of my experiences can help someone else.

All the best to you all with your projects, and fingers crossed for a super 2010!! :)


Julie Wright said...

Great interview!!! I loved learning more about Kelli and thought she had some excellent advice. It'll be fun to read more of her works in the future.

elizabeth mueller said...

Congratulations, Kelli and what a wonderful interview!

Jennie Bentley said...

Great interview, darling! Just a few days now... I can't wait to see the book in the stores!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks a million, Julie and Liz!! Heather's fabulous at asking all the right questions, isn't she? :)

Thanks for the stopping by this Friday, and hope you have a wonderful weekend ahead!!


Kelli Stanley said...

Jennie, sweetie--great to see your smiling face!! :)

Can't believe it's almost here ... and do send me photos if you see CoD anywhere, OK??

You know, Godmother shots and all. ;)

Thanks, you wonderful author, you!!


Josi said...

What a story. Great questions, Heather, and what a fascinating journey. I'm so impressed with writers that can do such detailed research.

Good luck!

Amy Dawson Robertson said...

Great interview Heather and Kelli -- it is truly an inspiration. And big congratulations, Kelli! I'm familiar with Kelli from International Thriller Writers and see how supportive she is of the other writers. Can't wait to read City of Dragons!

Terresa said...

Excellent interview, Kelli is a powerhouse!

PS: Good thing I don't find Farmville distracting. Just my children and blogging...

Kelli Stanley said...

Thank you so much, guys!! :) I really appreciate the comments and all the support.

If you don't already know, Macmillan authors are taking it on the chin right now, because Amazon yanked our books in a dispute with our publisher. Macmillan wants to stabilize the pricing structure and give more players a chance to play ... Amazon disagrees, and has basically blackballed thousands of us (and on a Friday evening).

Here's the Macmillan response:

The good news is that Macmillan books (including City of Dragons) are available everywhere else--B&N (including my CoD e-book), Borders, and, of course, our beloved and wonderful Indie bookstores and IndieBound.

If you wish to buy a Macmillan book, please visit IndieBound or one of the many other choices ... since Amazon isn't giving you one!

Thanks for listening, guys--not how I wanted to spend the weekend before my launch!



Julie Wright said...

Oh you are kidding! That is horrible! I would imagine that ISN'T how you would want to spend the weekend before your launch. Good luck and let's hope the market becomes a nicer place to play.