An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of three books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box. With Murder at the Blue Plate Café, she moves from inner city Fort Worth to small-town East Texas to create a new set of characters in a setting modeled after a restaurant that was for years one of her family’s favorites.
Before turning her attention to mystery, Judy wrote fiction and nonfiction, mostly about women of the American West, for adults and young-adult readers. Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame at the Fort Worth Public Library.
Judy is retired after almost 30 years with TCU Press, 20 of them as director. She holds a Ph.D. in English from TCU and is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven.
My Rocky Road to Publication by Judy Alter
I came to mystery writing with a cockiness I soon came to regret. I had published with New York houses, I’d had agents, I had a lot of books, fiction and nonfiction for adults and young readers, on my list of publications. As the director of an academic press, I knew publishing—and knew people.
The first and best advice I got was to join Sisters in Crime and then Guppies. I soon learned I was not only a newbie to mysteries, I was a very small guppy in a large pond. I sent the mss. to an agent in Dallas I knew, expecting him to love it and start submitting it right away. Instead, eventually he called to say, “I liked it but I didn’t love it.” I didn’t yet know that was agentspeak for “No.” I sent it to an editor I knew in New York who was by then editing a cozy series. He wanted me to make the second book the first. I balked, because there was too much back story in the first book. He stopped answering my emails.
I joined the Guppy subgroup, AgentQuest, and began submitting, only to learn some authors had as many as 200 rejections in their files. And I was boggled by the “science” of seeking an agent—never could understand not submitting to your first choice first and on down the line. I picked agents I thought were likely to represent the kind of cozy I wrote and fired off about twenty requests. The first agent was sure he had read it before—I knew he hadn’t. Some agents never replied; others sent terse rejections.
I submitted to a medium-size, non-New York publisher affiliated with a larger company that had several times asked me to contribute to anthologies. I figured they knew my work. They asked for an exclusive, promising to get back to me in three months, and I naïvely agreed. When I’d inquire after five, six, seven months, it was, “We’re just about to make a decision.” After a year they rejected my manuscript, said it “almost made the cut,” and invited me to submit again. No thanks!
I submitted to a brand new agency late one night, and the owner of the agency called the next morning. He’d read my thirty pages and “loved” them. Turns out he was new to agenting but not publishing and had been a sales manager for Bantam when I published with them. He’d sold a lot of Libby, my fictional biography of Elizabeth Bacon Custer. I signed a year’s contract—naïve again.
Gradually his enthusiasm for both my manuscript and my career diminished; he didn’t answer emails; he didn’t tell me where it was shopped; a promised assignment didn’t come through. When the year drew to a close, I wrote to say I had several things to discuss before I renewed the agreement, and he promptly released me. The manuscript had been shopped to all six New York houses, though with what skill and enthusiasm I’ll never know, and was dead for any other agent.
I joined the Guppies subgroup SmallPressQuest, liked the first publisher I read an interview with, and submitted thirty pages. Kim Jacobs requested the entire manuscript, promised an answer in three months, and wrote a month later to offer a contract. That was February 2011. Thanks to Turquoise Morning Press, things have been a whirlwind ever since. Eighteen months later, I have three mysteries in print—Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box (now in e-book with trade paperback coming soon), all Kelly O’Connell Mysteries. One stand alone (or start of a new series), Murder at the Blue Plate Café, will come out in February and I’m writing the fourth Kelly O’Connell Mystery.
When I first started this, I told myself I’d be happy with one mystery in print, but I soon discarded that notion. No, I’m not a big seller like Carolyn Hart or Susan Wittig Albert, but I’m delighted to have found my niche with a small publisher and a happy home with Turquoise Morning Press.
Judy, thanks a bunch for being my guest today.