Please welcome the phenomenally talented (she’s won a Mary Higgins Clark award, you know) and wonderful Lori Rader-Day with some words of advice for writers everywhere.
A story about saying yes
I tell this story a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever written it down.
One of my pieces of advice for building a writing career is to say yes. A lot.
Not always, of course. You have to say no to protect your writing time, to protect your family time, to make sure your life belongs to you.
Sometimes, though, say yes and see where it takes you.
The year before my first novel came out, I got an email from Sisters in Crime. The email offered a seat at the SinC booth at the Public Library Association’s annual conference to any SinC member who would give away signed books for an hour. The conference that year was in Indianapolis.
I’m from that area. Friendly relatives in that area have guest rooms.
I said yes. And then I reached out to my publisher and told them what I had volunteered to do. Could they get me some advanced reader copies of my book for that event?
They said yes. (It helps, when saying yes, to have other people say yes to you.) More than that, they suggested that the Big 5 publisher they used for distribution might be interested in this information.
Within a few emails, the plan expanded. I would give away 50 ARCs at the Sister in Crime booth at PLA but I would also sign and give away 200 ARCs at the Big 5 booth.
Also, would I like to attend a meet-and-greet with Booklist on the floor of the conference along with other authors, including Walter Mosley?
Yes. Yes, I would like that.
And would I also be willing to hang out with librarians that evening, as part of the prize in a Meet the Authors dinner?
Yes. Make me a prize.
Let’s pause to remind you that all I did was to say that I would give away a few unpublished books for one hour, at my own cost.
At that event, I signed my very first book, met a lot of librarians who would later put my book on their shelves; great outcomes, but the kind of stuff you can expect from this sort of event.
But then things really started to roll.
At the dinner where I was a prize, two other authors were also prizes. I was excited to meet them both because they were members of Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter with me, but more than that they were Laura McHugh and Ben H. Winters. Laura was on her debut, too; we hit it off. Ben had already won the Edgar Award for his novel, The Last Policeman; I fangirled. We exchanged books.
Put a pin right there, to remember later. This is Exhibit A.
At the dinner, I talked to fifteen librarians from all over the country, a prize for me. I sat between a librarian from Evergreen Park, Illinois (Exhibit B) and a librarian from Destrahan, Louisiana (Exhibit C). We all hit it off. Maybe it was the drinks.
Hit, instead of the pause button, the fast-forward button. Fast forward to an invitation to talk at the library at Evergreen Park, Illinois. Fast forward to my fourth novel, Under a Dark Sky, being published August 7. Check my event calendar. Yes, there’s a launch party at the library at Evergreen Park, Illinois, for my fourth novel. I’ve been there probably five times over the years, and met Sophie Hannah at an event she did there. I’m now friends with Sophie Hannah and, yes, several librarians in Evergreen Park.
Fast forward to an invitation to talk in Destrahan, Louisiana, the entire trip arranged by the library. Fast forward to me in my provided rental car driving down to the French Quarter to visit the World War II Museum, which might come in handy for a book I want to write someday. More library friends, book research. Who knows where this might lead?
Did I forget Exhibit A? No, I’m saving it for last, because it’s the most bonkers of all. Fast forward from that dinner in 2014 to the summer of 2016, when I find myself teaching at Yale University’s Summer Writers’ Conference. It’s a direct line from one to the other. The mystery course teacher from the year before, Ben H. Winters, isn’t available, and he suggested you. Would you like to teach at Yale?
Yes. Yes, I would like to teach at Yale.
You get the idea. So much of what writers spend our time on (other than the writing) can seem like wasted time, wasted energy. And it can be. Or it might not be. The trouble is that there’s no way to predict which small yes will turn into something bigger. We talk about what’s “worth it,” but hardly ever know for sure.
My advice is to seek opportunities that have meaning for you regardless of what else might come of it. Also, say yes sometimes when you’d rather not, because saying no to the new and unknown is no way to expand your reach and make yourself available to what might come.
I don’t get everything right. I have talked to nearly empty rooms. I have sent effort, time, and money down avenues that were dead ends. And I’m sure if I stopped putting effort into making my books the best they can be just to say yes to some event that pulled me away from the writing desk, well—results may vary.
I’m far enough along in my career now that I have to say no more than I would like. I have to say no, in fact, to make room for opportunities I can’t even predict. Early in this life, though, it can be easier to say no. It’s already so scary to write and share our stories that we might be too afraid to venture further. But you didn’t start on this path to stop so soon. Fast forward: where might you go?
Lori Rader-Day is a three-time Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, winning the award in 2016 for her second novel, Little Pretty Things. She is the author of Under a Dark Sky, and of The Black Hour, winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, The Day I Died, a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Thriller Award, Anthony Award, and Barry Award. She lives in Chicago, where she is active in Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and co-chairs the mystery conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago.