You know the writing business like few others–as an agent, a content strategist, an editor, a teacher, an author of fiction and non-fiction alike–and now you’re nominated for one of the most prestigious awards in suspense for A Borrowing of Bones, the first in the Mercy and Elvis series. How are you feeling?
Paula: I have to say I’m feeling pretty good—and pretty lucky—right now. To be nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award for my first series novel is just astounding and astonishing.
I feel like things are coming together for me now, after making the big transition from acquisitions editor to agent in 2012. I wasn’’ sure that I could do it. I liked the idea of being an agent. I liked the idea of helping my favorite writers get published. I liked the idea of having the time to write and having the time to teach, both things I enjoy very much, as well as the time to sell my clients’ work.
This change coincided with my youngest child leaving home. As a working mom, I was busy all the time and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was bereft when I found myself living alone for the first real time in my adult life. Yoga and my new role as agent and author saved me from the depths of empty-nest despair. All that effort and energy and enthusiasm I poured into my new life has been put to good use, and I have succeeded in transitioning not just from acquisitions to agenting, but also from full-time mom to happy grandmother.
For anyone who doesn’t know Mercy and Elvis, can you introduce us?
Paula: Mercy Carr is a female veteran who served in Afghanistan. She was wounded in the same battle that took her fiancé, leaving her without her man and bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois Elvis without his dog handler.
I was inspired to write about Mercy and Elvis when I helped out at a fundraiser run by thriller author Leo Maloney for Mission K9 Rescue, an organization that rescues military working dogs abandoned in shelters after serving our country and finds them forever homes. Usually the Army takes care of its Army dogs, but defense contractor dogs often face uncertain and unhappy futures. I fell in love with these dogs and their handlers at this fundraiser and was inspired to write about them. Elvis is modeled after one of these dogs.
When Mercy’s fiancé is mortally wounded, the last thing he says to Mercy is, “Take care of my dog.” He does not want Elvis to suffer the fate that often befalls these defense contractor dogs. So, she finds him, rescues him, brings him home and together they walk off their grief and survivor’s guilt in the Vermont wilderness. On the Fourth of July weekend, Elvis finds an abandoned baby squalling in the woods near a shallow grave, and they have to team up with the local game warden, Troy Warner, and his search-and-rescue dog Susie Bear (inspired by our own rescue Newfoundland-Retriever mix), to save the baby’s mother, solve the murder, and prevent disaster.
It’s been great fun to write A Borrowing of Bones. I love dogs. I grew up in the military, and I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for all military personnel. And I love New England and the wilderness in and game wardens, so for me it was joy to write about these elements as well.
Any chance for a sneak peak into Blind Search?
Blind Search is the second novel in the series, which debuts in November. The plot was inspired by a true story about a boy with autism who was lost in the Vermont woods—and found thanks to a huge search-and-rescue effort.
Which led me as a novelist to think: What if? What if a boy with autism was lost in the Vermont woods and while he was missing, he witnessed a murder?…. That’s the premise for the second book. Thank you for asking.
You’ve written a number of books, but, as far as I know, this is your first series. How does writing characters and plot lines that may not end with the final page of a book differ from writing your stand-alone works?
Paula: I’ve never written a series before. What’s interesting about writing mysteries is that you have to have increasingly challenging crimes for your protagonist to solve in each book, along with a personal arc that goes from story to story involving not just your protagonist, but also your supporting cast of characters.
What I love about writing a series is that you come back to these characters over and over again, and they grow over the course of the series. There’s the storyline of Mercy and Troy, but there are also the storylines of the dogs, Mercy’s friends and family, Troy’s friends and family, and the townspeople—and how they all come together to help one another through tough times.
Now I’m going to ask you to wear three of your hats: writer, editor, and agent. First, as a writer, what advice do you most wish you’d known early on in your career, but didn’t?
Paula: I have to say the thing I wish I’d known earlier was that all the work that I was doing, networking, going to conferences, becoming a reporter, writing non-fiction, acquiring and editing projects for publishers, all those sort of ancillary aspects of publishing that seemed like detours at the time were not, in fact, detours. They were part of a process that benefited me enormously. By the time I came to writing my first mystery series, I had a lot of contacts, I had a lot of experience, I had a lot of general and specific knowledge about the industry, all of which helped me every step of the way.
For many years I thought I had abandoned the novelist in me for the midwife. When you’re an acquisitions editor or an agent, you are in effect the midwife. The child is not yours. You just helped birth that child. I didn’t realize at the time how much that experience as midwife would facilitate my fiction—when I finally got around to writing fiction. Which I did when I was ready, and I found then that everything—the editing, the teaching, the reporting, the agenting—all prepared me for this.
Now I have the best of both worlds. I get the interaction and engagement with my fellow agents, editors, and authors that I love in my role as agent, and the solitude and creative outlet that I love in my role as writer. It’s the perfect job for me.
As an editor, what should writers do to make you happy?
Paula: Listen. I say this having put my own editor Pete Wolverton through hell on Book 2 of this series. Like most writers, I suffered as much from Second Book Syndrome as many of my clients did. Of course, my editor suffered along with me. I’m very grateful to him for being so patient.
As a writer, all you can do is simply write and keep writing, knowing that you will work your way through it. Your editor is there to help you. Trust that help—and listen to the advice you get. Trust that if your editor says, “This doesn’t work,” it doesn’t work. You may not like the solution your editor provides, so come up with another (better) one. The best thing you can do to make your editor happy is actually listen to what they have to say and act on it.
As an agent, what advice do writers need to know, but least like to hear?
Paula: There are several things that writers don’t want to hear, and I don’t blame them, because this is a very tough business. But the truth is this is a business for the patient and the persistent because patience and persistence are the qualities you need to succeed as a writer.
Persistence in the face of revision, revision, revision and persistence in the face of rejection, rejection, rejection. And patience, because even when things go well, it can take a long time. It can take a long time for you to get your manuscript in the kind of shape it needs to be, and to get an agent. It can take a long time for your agent to shop it. It can take a long time to get answers. It can take a long time to get published and it can take a long time to establish yourself as a debut author. What writers often fail to understand is how hard the work is and how long it takes. It takes as long as it takes. The good news is that it’s all worth it in the end.
Keep at it!
Thank you, Paula!