Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Double Life: Sheila Connolly & Sarah Atwell

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Sheila Connolly, aka Sarah Atwell, was an art historian, investment banker, nonprofit fundraiser, and professional genealogist before she became a mystery writer. She does her writing in a Victorian house in Massachusetts, not far from Cape Cod, and shares her life with a husband, a daughter, and three cats. This month she debuts with Through a Glass Deadly, first in the Glassblower Mysteries series from Berkley Prime Crime, which she wrote as Sarah Atwell. In August she kicks off the
Orchard Mysteries with One Bad Apple, written as Sheila Connolly.

Q. You sold two mystery series to Berkley at the same time. How did that
come about? How long had you been writing before you sold these two series?

A. I had been writing for two years before I snagged an agent. Unfortunately he
was not a very good agent, but I was new to writing and what did I know? It took me two years to cut the ties with him, and then I started the agent search once again. Since I was writing mysteries (leaning more toward suspense in those days), Jacky Sach at BookEnds was one of my dream agents. I submitted several queries to BookEnds over a year or two, and all were rejected. And then one of the SASEs came back empty.

I went to high school in New Jersey, so I recognized the postmark, and made the brilliant deduction that the envelope had come from BookEnds. I sent a polite e-mail asking for confirmation that it had once contained yet another rejection, and Jacky got back to me quickly. Yes, it was a rejection, but she liked my voice and asked if I would be interested in writing a series for Berkley Prime Crime. She sent me the editor's "bible" (a brief description of the characters and the set-up) and I loved it–an independent, forty-something woman with a fascinating craft and her own business. I wrote three chapters and shipped them off. Jacky loved it; the editor loved it. Presto: The Glassblower Series.

I'm not sure I had even submitted the first book in that series when, with incredible arrogance, I told Jacky that I thought I could handle two series at a time. Luckily she didn't laugh at me. We kicked around some ideas and came back to the book she had originally turned down, which was about a woman who finds herself out of a job and a relationship, and decides to open a B&B in an old house in western Massachusetts. I loved the setting and the characters, but Jacky thought the B&B hook had been overused, and besides, there was this ghost in it. I sent the ghost back to wherever she came from, and started thinking what else was appropriate to the region and hadn't been done to death, and "apples" popped into my head. Jacky liked the idea and tried it out on the rest of the BookEnds agents, and they agreed, so we submitted a package (three chapters, a synopsis, and suggestions for the next two books in the series) and it sold to the same editor at Berkley seven months after the first sale.

Q. How much time do you have to write each book? What kind of writing schedule have you established for yourself – and is it working?

A. The interval varies. We've tried to keep the two series staggered, but sometimes the publisher has other ideas. For instance, the next orchard book is due on July 1, and the next glassblower book is due on September 1. No, I'm not panicking. I completed something like 16 books before I sold anything, which comes out to about three a year–the number is a little fuzzy because I kept revising books.

Of course, I'm still learning about editorial revisions and copyedits and galleys, etc., and it's hard to know how much time they will call for. Then my first editor moved on to another job a few months ago and handed me off to a different editor (who is wonderful), so I ended up doing two rounds of edits for the same book.

In terms of day-to-day work, I'm at my computer by eight most mornings, spend an hour or two clearing e-mails and reading blogs and generally taking care of business, and then dig into the WIP. Although when I started writing I worked on as many as three books at once, now I find I like to focus on one at a time, start to finish, although that's not always possible. I take a very quick break for lunch, then I'm back at the laptop. I do find my "creative" brain shuts down mid-afternoon. But I do this seven days a week, unless life intervenes. Fresh air, sunshine, and human contact can in fact be good for the creative process.

Q. The first book has just been published. How do you plan to promote it without cutting into your writing time?

A. I earned an MBA a couple of decades ago, and you'd think that would make marketing and promotion easy. Wrong! My degree is in finance, so I'm much better prepared to analyze how much money I've spent on promotion, and my expected return on investment.

I've collected a lot of excellent suggestions from other writers as I learned the ropes–and I belong to more than thirty loops as well as multiple real and virtual writing organizations, and I read plenty of blogs. My overall impression is, do what you can without breaking the bank (or losing your sanity), and do what you enjoy. And pace yourself. It's easy to get caught up in either writing or promotion at the expense of the other, and you need to find a balance that works for you. I'm still hunting for that. I like to attend conferences, I blog, I manage a contest for an on-line RWA chapter, and I plan to use all the alumnae and social organizations and craft-based resources I can identify. But the most important part is having a major publisher who can get my books on the shelves, and I've been very lucky with that.

I'm not sure signings are the best way to go, or at least, not a slew of them. My Berkley publicist recommends doing one or two regional (and well publicized) signings and making sure all your local contacts, friends and family know about them. I love independent bookstores, so I would be happy to offer my presence there, if they're willing, and will certainly sign stock wherever they will let me. And I would expect to tap both bookstores and libraries in the areas my series are set–Tucson (which has an excellent small mystery bookstore) and western Massachusetts.

Q. How are your two series protagonists alike? How do they differ? Do you find yourself getting ideas for one while trying to write about the other?

A. My protagonists are definitely different, and I want to keep them that way–that's one reason for not jumping back and forth between the books in the series. I love Em Dowell, my glassblower–she's written in first person, and she's got a sharp tongue and a warm heart. She doesn't take guff from anyone, whether it's her sometimes love interest, police chief Matt Lundgren, or the Chicago thugs who threaten her.

On the other hand, Meg Corey, my orchard owner, starts out bewildered by much of what has happened to her (not least, finding a body), and she's trying to come to terms with an unexpected new life. She surprises herself when she decides to commit to living in a small town and making the orchard pay, even though she knows nothing about growing things. I'm enjoying watching her develop her hidden talents.

I'd have to say that Meg is probably more like me, but Em gets to let loose all those zingers I wish I had the nerve to say. I see them both as women who are fighting to define their place in the world, and who have plenty of room to grow.

Q. How did you research glassblowing?

A. I've actually been fascinated by glassblowing for years, which is one reason I jumped at the chance to write that series. I live near two long-established glass centers, Pairpoint Glass and the Sandwich Glass Museum, so of course I made a beeline to those, found a woman glassblower, and asked all sorts of questions. And then I had to try it for myself, so I took a class. I've gotten to know some of the smaller shops around where I live, and all the artisans are very dedicated people, always experimenting and stretching themselves to try new things. It's a privilege to watch them. It's a very timeless craft.

Q. You’re publishing the Glassblower Mysteries under a pseudonym and the Orchard Mysteries under your real name. Will you promote both series at the same time, using both names, or will each booksigning focus on only one series?

A. My agent made a point of including in my Sarah Atwell contract the right to acknowledge and promote both names, singly or together. But each series offers different promotional opportunities. For the Glassblower Mysteries, I can tap into the crafts angle (and I'm hoping some of the local glassmaking institutions will carry the books); for the Orchard Mysteries I can build on the genealogy background, as well as harvest fairs and apple-related events (it's no accident that One Bad Apple is coming out in August, when apple-picking starts).

Q. Before you turned to writing full-time, you had several very different jobs. Did any of them prepare you for being a novelist?

A. Absolutely, although I didn't know it at the time. I worked as a non-profit fundraiser for many years, which involved writing grant proposals–which are often creative fiction! I also worked as a professional genealogist, both for an institution and as a private contractor, and that sharpened my research skills (as well as providing all sorts of interesting story ideas). Genealogy is always a mystery, and sometimes the best way to tease out a fact is to approach it obliquely or indirectly. That's very useful training for a mystery writer.

Q. What are you looking forward to most eagerly as a published writer? Is there anything you’re apprehensive about?

A. The fame, the glory, the adoring crowds, the wealth... No, I'm not that naive. Since I've loved books all my life, I feel incredibly privileged to have produced one (and then more than one) myself. My books are going to be sitting on a bookshelf next to those of writers I've admired for decades. I share a publisher with Agatha Christie!

And I do relish those moments when people ask, "What do you do?" and I can say, “I'm a mystery writer,” and watch their eyes light up.

Q. What aspect(s) of writing craft have you struggled with? What comes most easily to you?

A. I am extremely lucky that I write quickly. I know there are people who agonize over every word, and get hung up on getting a single paragraph or chapter just right before they can move on. I'm more the Nora Roberts school: produce a vomit draft. You can pretty it up later, but get it down on paper (or screen) first. I don't even hate editing (except maybe the third or fourth time I have to massage one manuscript and I can't remember what I wanted to say any more).

Q. Are you in a critique group – and if so, do you plan to continue working with critique partners after you’re published?

I have belonged to more than one online critique group. One fell apart quickly because our styles didn't mesh. The next one held together for over a year, and even survived some cast changes. It too finally petered out, but I'm still in touch with one member and we swap material. I also have one or two other people who I can turn to for a reality check: Is this working? What's missing here? Would this character do this? And we exchange, which is important. I don't see stopping that, because it's too easy to lose perspective when you're writing, and you need an objective outside eye, and especially someone who can be honest with you.

Q. You’re a member of the Guppies Chapter of Sisters in Crime. How has the group helped you?

A. The Guppies are wonderful. Writing is a solitary occupation, and you spend a lot of time alone, and in your head. And once you get those words out, there's the whole depressing process of submitting to agents and editors and getting shot down, over and over, and most of the time you don't even know why. The Guppies are incredibly supportive, and that's important. We all need cheerleaders who understand what we're going through.

Q. What advice do you have for writers who are still struggling to break into print?

A. Believe in yourself, and don't give up. Getting published is hard. Rejection is a big part of the process, and not everyone can handle that. You have to have faith in yourself and what you're doing. You have to keep writing, because even if you can't see it, you're getting better. And don't take all the advice that's thrown at you. Pay attention to what other writers, agents, editors say, and take from them what makes sense to you. And for goodness sake, enjoy the process!

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Darlene Ryan said...

Welcome Sheila. I'm impressed with how hard you work. Could you share how you keep track of the details and characters in your two series?

Sheila Connolly said...


I'm surprised that it's not that hard, although I do sometimes forget the names of my secondary characters, so recently I've started keeping a "cast of characters" list for each book. (I miss the good old days of English mystery fiction, when you had the characters and a map at the beginning of the book.)

Details are trickier. One piece of wisdom from my editor: you have to make each book a stand-alone, even though it's part of a series. So you have to remember what you said in previous books, so you're consistent (you can't suddenly add a sister, for example), but at the same time you can't give away too much of what came before or people won't want to buy the earlier books in the series because they feel they know what happens.

So it's a real balancing act, especially if you have any romantic interests that are ongoing, and you want your readers to know how the couple reached the current point in their relationship.

Both series are still new enough that I'm not swamped with details. I have no idea how writers who have produced twenty books keep it all straight.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Sheila:

Just saying hi and congratulations. Great interview--and great questions!

But one more quick one:
Is the apple series written in third person?

If so, what method do you use to click over into that mode?

(okay, that's two)

xoxo Hank

Kenna said...

Thank you for the inspiration to persevere, Sheila! Sometimes it's difficult when juggling the money-making work and the writing. It's a good thing I love writing!

Are you still planning on trying to ressurect the other stories you've written, or are you writing them off as learning experience? I'm struggling to decide whether to keep working on my first ms, or let it lie, while I work on the sequel. I'm kind of running along parallel lines right now, and it seems like I'm not getting a whole lot accomplished. It's frustrating!

Your story was uplifting for a newbie with a long way to go. Thanks, again for sharing!


Sheila Connolly said...

Yes, Meg Corey, my orchard owner (and discoverer of dead bodies) is written in the third person. It's fun and funny juggling the two very different personalities. Em is much more "in your face," while Meg is reserved and uncertain. It's easier to write Meg in third-person POV because it fits her personality better.

Actually I've only written one other book (unsold) in first person, and that protagonist was another no-nonsense woman. I wonder if I'm trying to tell myself something?

And Berkley left it up to me, so that wasn't a factor. Em just came out of my head as first-person.


Sheila Connolly said...


I never planned to quit my day job, but my last one quit me, so to speak, so I jumped into writing with both feet. I didn't want to waste the opportunity, and all that lovely time. But it took me a couple of years to establish any sort of discipline--at one point I was working on three books at the same time, and I don't recommend that.

I've recycled all sorts of pieces of earlier books--characters, scenes. As I said, One Bad Apple started out as a different book (and I still miss Deborah, my 19th-century ghost), but I saved the best parts of it. I've got a few on the shelf that I still have hopes for (and I hope at some point my agent will agree!).

I don't think anything is wasted.


RhondaL said...

Here's hoping that someday you find a home for Deborah, your fictional ghost you had to leave behind.

Two series at once! You are my hero.