Monday, August 1, 2011
Happy Memories From a Dark Oak Winner.
The call I received on that warm September evening eleven years ago changed everything for me. At 8:30 P.M. on the Monday of a Labor Day weekend, Billie Johnson of Oak Tree Press telephoned with mind-boggling news. My first Lake George Mystery, An Affinity for Murder, had been chosen one of two winners in her 2000 Dark Oak contest. Although Billie had notified me a few days earlier that I was a semifinalist and asked me to fill out a marketing form, I hadn’t jumped to any conclusions. I’d already experienced enough disappointment in the book publishing world that I thought her request might be only a formality. Marketing wasn’t my strong suit, but I developed a plan.
In her call that evening, Billie explained she’d intended to use the marketing form to help her choose between me and the other finalist, Wendy Howell Mills, author of Callie & the Dealer& a Dog Named Jake. Since she’d liked both our books, she said, and had been pleased with both our marketing responses, she’d decided to declare us co-winners.
Billie filled me in on the details, her voice fading in and out as she traveled along a Pacific coast highway. Almost three thousand miles away in upstate New York, I stared out my kitchen window, watching the sun sink behind the trees in the back yard and struggling to assimilate what this news meant.
The back story -- For me, getting words down on paper or up onto the computer screen provided the ultimate high. I’d found a variety of ways to make books and writing an important part of my life. I’d been a small town correspondent for an area newspaper, a high school librarian who loved reading, selecting and promoting books, a yearbook adviser and, after I became involved in our school’s career education program, a contributor of more than 100 articles on career topics to three magazines for young people.
My life was busy at home and at school. My husband and I juggled two full-time jobs, six children and lots of responsibilities. I loved writing for Career World Magazine, free-lancing for other career publications and submitting occasional pieces on books or travel to other magazines. In our lively household, I’d found the best way to squeeze in my writing was to set the alarm for 5 A.M. and get to it while the house was quiet.
Once I understood the basics of writing for publication, it was a hop and skip to writing mysteries. The nearby Lake George area, rich in history with present day tourism and environmental concerns, offered a terrific setting. Topping my list of possible subjects – Georgia O’Keeffe who’d spent fifteen summers at the lake and painted some of her best loved masterpieces there. Great research possibilities there for a librarian.
In my efforts to craft a story around long-lost O’Keeffe paintings, I was aided and abetted, as mystery writers like to say, by a terrific young writer, Matt Witten, at the time from nearby Saratoga Springs. When Matt taught a course for the Lake George Arts Project, he proved to be an inspiring teacher and pushed his students to try for publication. A few years before, he’d been awarded an Unpublished Writers Grant by the Malice Domestic mystery writers’ organization for his first book, Breakfast at Madeline’s. He urged me to apply, and I want to pass on his advice to others. I suggest that anyone reading this who has not yet published a book check out the information about the grant on the Malice Domestic website.
There’s plenty of time to apply before this year’s deadline.
Winning a Malice grant propelled me into another extraordinary time. Not only was I awarded $500 (the grant is $1000 now) and admission to the Malice Domestic Conference, but that was just the beginning. Soon after, an agent telephoned me. I had no idea how unbelievable that was. I put him off, not once but twice, before he called a third time and I agreed to have him represent me. Affinity made the rounds of New York publishers but, despite the agent’s efforts, it was rejected by one after another.
“Tell me what they don’t like and I’ll make changes,” I said, but it wasn’t that easy. “I liked it. I just didn’t like it enough,” was one of the standard responses. Comments like that didn’t help me discover how I could make the book more appealing.
By this time, Matt Witten had moved his young family to California where he’d become a writer for Law and Order, already a television hit. When he read about Oak Tree’s Dark Oak contest, he urged me to apply. Once again, his advice was right on target.
At the 2001 Malice Domestic Conference in Washington, D.C., co-winner Wendy Howell Mills and I signed books for one another, received our Dark Oak awards and appeared on panels to talk about our books.
The next year, An Affinity For Murder (unchanged) was nominated as a Malice Domestic Best First Mystery – another terrific time. Seeing news of this year’s Dark Oak contest on the Oak Tree website has brought back many happy memories I thought would be fun to share.
Check me out at www.annewhitemysteries.com
Anne White’s Lake George Mysteries: An Affinity For Murder ( Oak Tree Press,c2001). Other Lake George Mysteries: Beneath The Surface, c2005, Best Laid Plans, c2006, Secrets Dark and Deep c2007, Cold Winter Nights c2009, with Hilliard and Harris. Available on Kindle and Nook.