In spite of the radical paradigm shift that has led many in the book business from authors to booksellers and librarians to wonder if books or even reading will survive—and fewer and fewer of those in the business making even a marginal living—plenty of people still want to write mysteries. Mystery Writers of America has launched its low-cost MWA University, bringing established writers with academic credentials and college-level teaching experience to cities around the country to teach aspects of their craft. Sisters in Crime’s online Guppies chapter, first established for the Great UnPublished, has a membership of more than 500 and acquires new members every month, with more and more publications (some self-published but the great majority still traditionally published) and award nominations every year.
I always enjoy reading the Fresh Blood column in MWA’s national newsletter, The Third Degree, which lists those who have joined the organization every month. The Affiliate Members section lists those who have not yet published a book according to MWA’s standards: an advance, royalties, a certain print run, and publishers who offer an editorial process and don’t limit themselves to writers who are members of their own family. I get a big kick over the wide variety of backgrounds from which the new affiliate members come to mystery writing.
Some professions recur frequently. There’s always another retired or recovering attorney to write a legal thriller, doctor cooking up a medical thriller, mental health professional working on anything from psychological suspense to suburban cozy, and cop planning a police procedural. Editors, technical writers, and nonfiction writers are no surprise either. But there’s always a sprinkling of professions that suggest that everyone wants to write a mystery. A sampling of recent new MWA affiliates includes the following vocations and day jobs: social media marketer, antiques dealer, headhunter, retired federal prosecutor, race car driver, US Army (retired), webmaster, seamstress,and, my favorite until I found out what it meant, “Oracle/DBA.” I imagined something arcane and sibylline. But when I consulted Google, this job title turned out to mean, disappointingly, the database administrator of an Oracle server.
What are these aspiring writers thinking? Are their dreams and expectations any different from those of us who started “wanting to be a writer” between ten and fifty years ago? Do they dream of getting reviewed in the NY Times and making money? Or do they expect to distribute their novels on the Internet? Do they know how much promotion they’ll have to do either way? Are they willing to revise and seek critique? Are they willing to keep going through rejection after rejection? Do they understand that the fact that some bestselling authors break a lot of rules and that not every popular book is well written have nothing to do with their chances of breaking in?
If they’re starting out by joining MWA or Sisters in Crime, at least they're making a good start, because becoming a published writer is almost impossible to do alone. Mystery writers have an advantage in that our community is rightly known for being particularly generous and helpful to each other and welcoming to beginners who are willing to do the work. Their dreams may even come true, if they can believe the simple precepts they’ll hear from more experienced authors. The three most important of these, in my opinion:
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
Learn to kill your darlings.
Don’t quit your day job.