Monday, January 9, 2017

The backstory

How did I go from being a bossy brat in the 3rd grade to being a not-quite-famous author today?

-from Susan

I have a brother three years younger and a sister six years younger. I remember arranging them under a mulberry tree and writing spelling words on a leaf with my fingernail for them to learn in my writing class. Seriously.

By fifth grade, I was publishing the Wolff Weekly, fortunately only within the family – editions of three papers (two carbons) complete with heds, deks and ledes, a masthead and ‘photos’ drawn by me. I kid you not. In the tenth grade, I was not only an editor on the school newspaper but had a regular single-panel cartoon in the Rochester something-or-other – can’t recall but it was the morning daily. In my senior year I was co-art director and an editor of the yearbook. You’re getting the pattern here?

With two parents in journalism and a stepfather who was a filmmaker, there was no way I was going to be a writer or reporter, of course, so I became a Practice of Art major. But the resolve to find a different path from my writerly family faded and I graduated from college with a double major (actually I had three but that’s another story and the university told me I had to choose only two for the record): English Lit and Comparative Lit. I used to enter New York Magazine “write this in the style of…” contests all the time and actually won a few – heady stuff.

But what do you do with those shiny degrees when you have two young children? When we moved to California, I became a freelance newspaper and magazine writer. In my best year, I was published in almost a dozen local and national publications, some almost weekly, and was loving it until I looked at my income and realized I was the hamster on the wheel.

Somewhere along the way, I won a newspaper contest to finish a serial novella by the great John D MacDonald (he was the judge). The prize was a year’s membership in Mystery Writers of America. I met so many cool people and they seemed to be having an awful lot of fun. Softly, quietly, an idea began to form…

For income, however, I pivoted to public relations, worked for several wonderful college and universities, did reams of writing, a lot of it at the senior exec level because the presidents of those schools trusted me with access and the power to put words in their mouths and on paper, lots of the work being sensitive. Along the way I picked up fundraising skills and special event assignments and wrote a lot of wonderfully persuasive pitches and encomiums. I ran a consulting practice for almost 11 years, and had the thrill of working with a handful of the most important human origins scientists on the planet. When a university came calling and offered me the kind of salary and position I couldn’t refuse, I settled in for what I thought would be the duration of my career. But that little voice…

My sweetie finally nudged me off the end of the diving board, pointing out that we only go around once, at least in this form. I wanted so much to write one mystery and so I quit my day job (gulp), wrote the book, and found an agent, who – wonder of wonders – sold it. Today, that series is three books and the first in a brand new series comes out from St. Martin’s Minotaur in May. If you strip away all the fluff, it’s a pretty straight line. Start writing at eight, get a book contract five decades later. Easy peasy.


Art Taylor said...

Love the story here. Impressed by so much of it, but having John D. MacDonald judge your work and give you a win... Wow. Nice way to kick off your mystery writing career! And such great success since too. Look forward to the new book!

RJ Harlick said...

Writing has been in your blood from the very beginning and what interesting jobs it has taken you to. Great post.

Susan C Shea said...

Art, thanks and isn't it strange the things that can get us moving in the direction of a particular career?

Susan C Shea said...

Robin, That's it - in the blood for sure. Do you think, as I do, that you'd find that in most writers if you scratched beyond the surface?