Agatha Best First Novel Panel


We are honored to have the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel Finalists here today, who have agreed to answer a question for us–congratulations to you all, and thank you for visiting us!

After the process of having your own first novel published, what words of wisdom do you have for future first-time novelists? What surprises or challenges have you encountered?

TESSA ARLEN: I wrote Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman for myself. I wrote the story that I would most enjoy reading. I took my time and I had a lot of fun with it. I did not ask myself what sort of book would sell, because I didn’t think of selling it. I didn’t worry about whether or not it would be published, because I didn’t for one moment imagine that that would happen. When my husband suggested I look for an agent, knowing me as well as he does he said: “Make a game of it, see if you can get an agent!” So I did, I set it up like a game and it worked.

The greatest challenge was the second book! I was writing to a deadline, and I got very tense about it. Then I realized that after all what does it really matter whether I make a bish of it and it falls flat on its face? The minute I let go of the fear of failing it was a piece of cake!

Now that I have less time to play around with writing a new book I am very disciplined, especially with my first draft. I sit my butt down at my desk and write and write until I have a first draft. Then I go through and edit and after that I put it aside for at least  6-8 weeks. It is amazing when you go back to it how you can see exactly what needs to go and what needs more detail. All your mistakes just leap off the page!

JULIANNE HOLMES: Never stop trying to be a better writer. Take classes, get advice, read books. But also know that there is no right way to write, there is only your way. The only way to do it is to sit down and do it. All of that are things you’ve heard dozens of times. And they’re all true. Other things I’ve learned? I’ve learned that writing is a slog, but you have to keep going. I’ve learned the joy of revising and the importance of an editor. Most importantly, I’ve learned that you need a support team, preferably other writers who will give you tough love when needed.

CINDY BROWN: Never say die! I know that’s a cliché, but it’s also a mystery pun (I do love a pun) and a piece of heartfelt advice. I almost let Macdeath die several times. The first time I nearly let it go was when I realized I had a HUGE rewrite to do. The book was originally written in shifting first-person points of view. I loved the idea of hearing the story from all of the characters’ perspectives, but a very wise agent told me that the changing POVs made for difficult reading, which is not what most readers want when they pick up a light mystery. I did the rewrite, then had another problem: the murder happened too far into the book. I moved it up, but not enough for the agents and publishers who had requested it. I tried a prologue, but its serious nature (it was murder, after all) changed the screwball tone of the book. Sigh. I put Macdeath aside, and began work on Ivy’s second book, The Sound of Murder. It received a very good reaction, even placing in a contest judged by Sue Grafton. I was sorely tempted to make it the first book in the series, but…I loved Macdeath. So I kept tweaking it and sending it out. When Henery Press’s Kendel Lynn called me, I was thrilled—until she remarked that the murder was too far into the book. “I know,” I said, barely keeping from wailing. “But,” said Kendel, “I think I know how to fix that.” God bless good editors.

ART TAYLOR: As I wrote in the acknowledgements to On the Road with Del & Louise, I always thought of writing as a solitary art, but especially during the process of putting out this first book, I was reminded again and again how large the community is that contributes not just to the success of a book but also to getting it into the world in the first place. I wouldn’t have gotten this book written and published with the support and encouragement of a wide range of folks: writing groups and beta readers; the editorial team at Henery Press and, in my case, the editorial team at Ellery Queen as well; organizations like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America; and then just patient friends and family members, even those who never read a word of it pre-publication. And after the book is in the world, there’s no doubt in my mind that readers wouldn’t have found it without the support and enthusiasm of bloggers, interviewers, and reviewers who read and wrote about my work and brought it attention.

“It takes a village” may have become a cliché, but it’s the truth.

Second revelation: Despite all that, I still find passages that I want to rewrite. The night before contributing to this discussion, I gave a reading from a section of the book I haven’t read from publicly before—and I kept cringing. Oh, that part of the sentence could’ve been cut, trimmed, rewritten, etc. etc. Revision never ends.

ELLEN BYRON: I’ve written for shows I’d never watch and magazines I’d never read. With Plantation Shudders, I wrote a book that I would actually read. But I’ve always earned my living through writing, so I was dedicated to keeping a schedule, getting feedback, and trying to sell it. Write with passion and write for yourself, but be brave and get your work out there. It may not be an easy road—this is my second book, my first didn’t sell and trust me, that engendered a lot of tears—but a book that sits in your computer isn’t a book, it’s a file.
BUT I would add to that, don’t rush! Get notes from beta readers, decipher and distill them. Put the book away for a few weeks, a month even, then read it again as if you yourself were a beta reader and not the author. You may not get a second chance to make a first impression, so make sure your book is a hundred percent ready to go out into the world.


Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. Tessa’s first novel is Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman. She lives with her family on an island in the Puget Sound.

Cindy Brown is a theater geek, mystery lover, and award-winning writer who recently combined her passions to produce madcap mysteries set in the off, off, off Broadway world of theater. Her books star Ivy Meadows, actress and part-time PI, and are published by Henery Press. They include Macdeath, The Sound of Murder (3rd place in the 2013 international Words With Jam First Page Competition, judged by Sue Grafton), and Oliver Twisted (coming June 2016). Check out Cindy’s slightly silly look at mystery, writing, and drama at

Ellen Byron’s debut novel, Plantation Shudders, was nominated for a Best Humorous Mystery Lefty Award, as well as being chosen by the Library Journal as a Debut Mystery of the Month. Body on the Bayou, the second in Ellen’s Cajun Country Mystery series, launches in September. Her television credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me and Still Standing, as well as pilots for most of the major networks; she’s written over 200 magazine articles; her published plays include the award-winning Graceland and Asleep on the Wind. Ellen is a recipient of a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for mystery writers.

Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime. The first in the series, Just Killing Time, debuted in October. Clock and Dagger comes out in August. As J.A. Hennrikus, she has short stories in three Level Best anthologies, Thin Ice, Dead Calm and Blood Moon. She is on the board of Sisters in Crime, and Sisters in Crime New England and is a member of MWA. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.  @JulieHennrikus

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. He has won two Agatha Awards, the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and a selection from On the Road with Del & Louise was chosen for the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine.


18 thoughts on “Agatha Best First Novel Panel”

  1. Welcome all of you! As I regretfully start to think that my first novel (like you, Cindy, a novel I truly love) is reaching the end-of-life stage for querying with few bites, this was great to read. Thank you all a million times over! I’m sorta-kinda glad now I can’t attend Malice because for sure and for certain I wouldn’t know which of you to vote for. Good luck and enjoy!


  2. Oh Art – I forgot. A friend of mine who teaches creative writing tells a story of when he was asked “when do you know it’s done?” A multi-published, award-winning writer (not him and he refuses to give a name) was giving a reading of a published work. He stopped mid-sentence, picked up a pencil, made a note in the text, and moved on. The answer? It’s NEVER finished!


  3. Welcome, all, and thank you for your words of wisdom! I found every comment to be helpful and inspiring. Congrats on being finalists and best of luck!! 🙂


  4. Wonderful advice, and thanks for visiting us! I wish you could all win, but then, you’re already winners. Wish I could make it to Malice this year.


  5. WISE words from all of you! Thank you for sharing your advice with us today. Very inspiring.

    And congratulations to you all for being finalists–it’s so wonderful. Hope you have a fantastic time at Malice!


  6. Thanks so much, everyone—and Mary, I’ll echo what Cindy said: Stick with it, and that book will find a home! (And I’ve thought about doing the same myself—just keep one copy of the book with all the changes in red that I’d love to make now!) 🙂


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