Before I was a published writer, I used to read writers’ biographies and letters for inspiration. I still do, but not so much. Instead of biographies, written by biographers sometimes even after the writer is dead, writers often pen their own memoirs these days. I love them. I’m not sure writers write letters to each other anymore–they’re more likely to email or chat in a private Facebook group. The internet has changed everything about the way we write. It has changed the entire writing landscape. Author websites and interviews abound online and of course they inspire, but best of all is hearing an inspiring writer speak IRL. Nothing beats it.
Yesterday, Michigan Sisters in Crime (writing groups like Mi_Sinc are where you go to find great writer/speakers) hosted Michigan writer Karen Dionne, whose novel The Marsh King’s Daughter captured the attention of thirty publishing houses a few years ago. I’d heard Karen speak before, at another conference. Her story six or seven years ago was inspiring, but what was still to come would be a very happy surprise.
Karen had written in school, but didn’t continue writing once she married and had kids. In the 1970s, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula invited homesteaders, so Karen and her husband (along with their six-week old baby) moved to the UP and lived in a tent while they built their cabin. Karen remained busy for a long time making a home in a fairly isolated area and didn’t think much about writing until her son won a creative writing award at school. Karen found that several famous writers would be at the award ceremony, and she was determined to go.
Those famous writers inspired Karen so much she set about writing a book and finding an agent. She credits her agent with teaching her how to write as they went through six drafts of her first (still unpublished) effort at a novel. Then she snagged a book contract with two science-based thrillers. When they didn’t sell zillions of copies, her publisher dropped her. But her agent stuck with her and she landed a project she calls “work for hire.” A television show wanted her to write a book using the characters and setting of that show. She was paid a flat fee and does not own the rights to that work.
Meanwhile, she was busy in the writing world with her public speaking and with an online community she helped form. The popular writer’s conferences they held in New York each year took lots of planning. She wasn’t writing, but she was in the writing world, putting on conferences, speaking about writing and helping to nurture new writers. She was learning and networking as she went along, too. Then, after a number of years, the conferences came to a natural stopping place, and Karen was suddenly free to write another book.
She wasn’t sure she had one in her, but the first sentence of The Marsh King’s Daughter came to her as she was falling asleep one night. She remembered it the next day and she still thought it was a good first line. She was intrigued by the voice that had spoken and wanted to see what else this voice had to say. She worked on the novel steadily for a year and a half with no contract and no publisher. Her agent encouraged her and praised an early draft as her best work yet.
When the book was ready to be submitted to publishers, Karen received dozens of offers from major publishing houses. Editors loved it. There was a buzz about this fabulous new work. Many offers were made by editors and finally she signed with her dream editor and her first choice publisher for lots of money. The book went on to receive praise from The New York Times Book Review and many other literary stars, authors and reviewers alike. The book, still with that same first sentence that came to her in the night, became a best seller.
It was an overnight sensation that was some thirty years in the making. Karen had set her book in the small UP homestead where she’d lived as a young wife and mother. The authentic feel of the setting is one part of the book that makes it special. The voice of her main character is also often singled out for praise. Then there’s the brilliant concept: the story is told by the adult child of a woman who had been kidnapped, raped and held for years against her will. There’s a dual timeline as the reader slowly gleans what life was like for the young girl who thought her family was perfectly normal.
Karen is warm and funny. She’s also a generous writer who answered all our many questions about the craft and the business of writing. I know I was not the only writer to come away with a new determination to keep pushing myself even when it seems like that big break is never going to come. Because if you keep writing, you never know where your career will go next. If you don’t write the book, there is zero chance of landing a fabulous publishing deal.
Many of us wanted to know Karen’s secret formula for success. Her #1 piece of writing advice was to fearlessly write the best book you can. Follow your gut, not the writing rules. Try new things if they feel right. She promises that if you write a great book, agents and editors are out there ready and waiting for it.