Advice to Budding Authors

The first best piece of advice I have for budding authors is: pick a story you can commit to through umpteen revisions, those dark nights of self doubt, and rejection. It should be a story that resonates so deeply with you that when you receive a painful critique, a rejection or just dead air, you tell yourself: I didn’t write it well enough, I need to rewrite.

The second best piece of advice I have is: for your first story pick something you know really well. You should concentrate on learning how to write, not on getting the facts straight. There will always be some little thing you’ll have to google or ask someone but you don’t want to write around your lack of ballistics knowledge or some other arcane subject.

Now, before I tell you how I got my first idea, I want to emphasize one more thing: do not discount the cozy genre. Bringing joy, adventure and humor to readers fulfills a very important function in our culture. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have the number of successful cozy writers today and conventions like Malice Domestic, my home away from home.

I don’t write cozies.I admire those of you who can make other people laugh. You are special little angels descended from heaven. In the immortal words of Edmund Kean delivered so beautifully by Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

This is my first story: A young criminal defense attorney in Anchorage, Alaska is appointed to defend a homeless man accused of beating his drinking buddy to death. I was, at one time, young. I’ve been practicing law in Anchorage, Alaska for over thirty years. I practiced criminal defense for ten of those years. My daughter is a criminal defense attorney in Anchorage Alaska so anything I forgot, I can ask her. And I did a few murder cases in my time. See, I’m writing what I know.

This is the story of my first story:

Several years ago, there had been a series of homeless deaths in the summer. Now, this is an important point. It is a sad truth that homeless people tend to freeze to death in the winter. Those who made it through the winter rarely die in the summer. In fact, this particular summer we had twelve deaths in rapid succession. There was a large public outcry. We all suspected there was a serial killer afoot. Yet the authorities insisted that each of these unfortunates had died of natural causes.

A few years later, I was sitting in a workers compensation law annual review. The moderators were an employee’s attorney and an insurance attorney. They told the story of a case they’d had years prior in which they had to run to the Superior Court to obtain an injunction against the Medical Examiner prohibiting him from cremating the remains of a man who had died on the North Slope because (little known fact) the ME has the authority to dispose of the remains within 72 hours after he declares the death as naturally caused without doing an autopsy.  I emphasize: without doing an autopsy.

I slapped the table, startling the knitter next to me.  “That’s how he did it!”

“What? asked the knitter.

“Sorry. Nevermind,” I said as I began scribbling the story budding in my head.

As I suggested, I have loved, rewritten and polished this story cricket song, critiques and rejections, through writing seminars and after consuming countless how-to-write books until ultimately I was awarded the 2015 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant. I felt like Cinderalla. Harriette Wasserman Sackler, the grants chair, is my fairy godmother.

Many of the previous winners are now published: our own Cynthia Kuhn, Ellen Byron, Vince and Rosemarie Keenan writing under the name Renee Patrick and Gigi Pandian to name a few, so I know I’m on the right track.

And this is my last best piece of advice for the budding writer: apply for the grant.  It will change your life.

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13 thoughts on “Advice to Budding Authors”

  1. Wonderful advice, Keenan! So true about needing to pick a story you believe in. Congratulations on winning the grant! What an awesome opportunity!

  2. Love this story, Keenan. Congrats on the grant and I look forward to the day when we can add your name to the “grant winners who have been published” list (I, alas, am not eligible to apply since they consider me already published).

  3. Love this story! Isn’t it fun to have those eureka moments? After last year’s rising number of homeless deaths here, I wonder…? But I don’t have the legal background, and I completely agree about writing what you know. Congrats on the grant! Can’t wait to buy your book when it’s published!

  4. Great advice and super interesting story. I’m envious of authors who were cops/lawyers in another life. You have access to real-life information and details I can only assume. I have a rough draft of my first cozy complete. I’m going to revise it after my current series is done.

  5. As a reader, I can always tell when an author has personal background in the area that is the topic of the book. (No, I know that none of you have actually committed crimes …. at least I don’t think so ….. HUM maybe there are some of you who are REALLY good at deception … oh, never mind) Authors who know their subjects write tight, focused, stories with solid descriptions and believable action. These plot lines don’t wander aimlessly but have a clear path with believable distractions.

    You might think that readers won’t notice some unfocused ramblings, but we do. We don’t read (at least I don’t) the next book in a ambling series.

    If you want me to read more of it, stay focused, stay real, and don’t insult my intelligence. Write on and I’ll read on.

  6. Keenan, I LOVE this post. The advice is great, the story of how your book came to be is fabulous (literally was on the edge of my seat and when you slapped the table, I actually kinda jumped), and your grant reflections and encouragement to others to apply were lovely. (ps: I call Harriette fairy godmother too.) ❤

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