Today we are lucky enough to be joined by clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib, the author of eight mysteries published by Berkley Prime Crime--most recently ASKING FOR MURDER.
As you all know, my (Carolyn's) "thing" is helping writers get the psychology right in their stories, and I cheered all the way through Roberta's Advice Column Mysteries. Not only are they a great read with wonderfully engaging characters, they're also the best example I've ever seen of psychology wrapped so beautifully (and accurately!) into a series. Put her novels on your Do Not Miss reading list!
Roberta's books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. She is the past president of National Sisters in Crime and is presently serving as the chair of the Edgar best novel committee for Mystery Writers of America.
QueryTracker Blog: How did you start writing?
ROBERTA: I’ve been a student for so many years (Ph.D in clinical psychology) that I should say I’ve always written. But I started writing articles about the psychology of golf in the mid-nineties, as a way to try to make use of the time I spent learning to play golf (too much—you can’t imagine.) Then, because I’ve always read and loved mysteries, I began a story about a neurotic professional golfer wannabe who became a murder suspect while trying to make it onto the Ladies golf tour. Hence, the Cassie Burdette golf mystery series was born.
QT: Please tell us about your road to publication.
ROBERTA: Since I knew no one in the business, I studied books on publishing like Elizabeth Lyon’s The Sell Your Novel Toolkit and Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.
I made huge charts of agents who had interests like mine (mystery, sports, psychology), or who had some feature in their personal background that made me think we might connect, or who had sold books with some similarity to mine. I attended mystery conventions (Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and Left Coast Crime) and talked with people there about the publishing process. And I sent out almost thirty queries over a year with no success.
One day, I dragged myself into New York City for an International Women’s Writers Guild “Meet the Agents” panel. One hundred and fifty wannabe writers crowded the hall to hear nine agents speak about their areas of interest. Then we rushed to the front of the room to give our two minute pitches to the agent we felt most closely matched our interests. The agent I chose asked for a three-week exclusive look at my manuscript. I sent it off. Two weeks later she called with the news that a second agent had seen the manuscript on her desk, read it, and wanted to represent me. Hurray! She’s been my agent ever since. (Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Management.)
QT: You have two ongoing series. The Golf Lover's Mystery series features Cassie Burdette and the Advice Column Mystery series features psychologist Rebecca Butterman. Could you tell us a bit about each series and what inspired you to write them?
ROBERTA: There were five books in the golf lovers’ series, all featuring Cassie Burdette and her sports psychologist sidekick. I had so much fun researching those—had the chance to play many wonderful golf courses and meet pro golfers and others in the golf world. After five books, Berkley asked to see another idea and I so I created Dr. Rebecca Butterman, clinical psychologist and advice columnist. ASKING FOR MURDER is the latest in that series, which takes place in the town next to me on the Connecticut shoreline. I find the work of a psychotherapist to be very similar to that of a detective—so this path turned out to be a natural progression!
QT: What are you working on now?
ROBERTA: I’m finishing a new standalone suspense novel with the working title “Married Seeking Married.” It goes like this: Just after hearing that her husband has left her for another woman, Mirabelle Conti finds a business card on the bulletin board in a local coffee shop: Married Seeking Married. Reacting from grief and anger, she contacts the card owner to try to understand her husband’s desertion and ends up a suspect in a suburban prostitution ring.
I will be sending it off to my agent soon and if every one of your readers crosses their fingers, maybe she’ll sell it quickly!
QT: What is the hardest/least favorite part of being a writer?
ROBERTA: The business part of writing is hard--the part I have no control over. I can produce a fabulous book, but unless the publisher really gets behind it and I have a bit of luck somewhere along the line, it's unlikely to be a commercial success. That's why I do as much as I can to promote, as long as it doesn't interfere with my writing! I want to be able to say I gave it my all without killing myself in the process.
QT: What is your favorite part about being a writer?
ROBERTA: My absolute favorite parts are seeing the books out in the world and then hearing from and meeting readers. These two things make all the agony worthwhile!
QT: Do you have a quote that motivates you?
ROBERTA: I love quotes from writers on writing. Here’s a good one that gets at the idea that you must treat this as a job, not wait for the muse to strike:
“Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times, I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing. If an idea does come between 9 and 12 I am there ready for it.” — Flannery O'Connor
QT: What is your advice to new or unpublished writers?
ROBERTA: Okay, you asked for it!
1. MAKE A PLAN THAT INCLUDES LOTS OF LITTLE, MANAGEABLE GOALS: As I begin a book, I look ahead to the due date and figure out how many pages I’ll need to write each week in order to hand it in on time. I build in time for trips and family and time for my writers group to read and critique, and then time for me to rewrite. Then I have a page goal for each week. I write until I’ve hit the goal, sometimes even getting a little ahead. If I have an unproductive day, it just means writing a little faster later in the week to keep up.
2. HAMMER IT OUT: Get it all down, even if it's awful. You can always go back and fix things later. Anne Lamott called this “the shitty first draft”—she had it right!
3. SET YOUR SIGHTS HIGH: As a psychologist, I know the importance of having "big goals" for my subconscious to aim at. So I keep a copy of the NY Times bestseller list pasted up over my computer. Then I forget about it and work on the books word by word...
4. YOU’VE GOT TO HAVE FRIENDS: Writing can be such a lonely, discouraging business. I’ve gotten very involved with mystery organizations (Sisters in Crime and MWA,) and joined Romance Writers and Yahoo groups such as Fiction That Sells. I also have a very supportive and loyal writers group and a group blog, Jungle Red Writers. The friends I’ve met have saved my sanity and supported me endlessly along the way. I was president of national Sisters in Crime last year—a very rewarding and time-consuming experience! http://www.sistersincrime.org
5. TAKE YOUR TIME: Don’t rush off too soon to try to get your work published. This business is extremely competitive so it’s crucial to have your writing polished before sending it out. The Internet makes querying too easy—don’t press send until you’re sure the piece is the best it can be. I have lots of info on my website about agents and getting published and some of the scams writers fall for. http://www.robertaisleib.com
And meanwhile, there are lots of conferences that are attended by literary agents. It’s not a bad idea to get some face time with an agent—this personal contact could be what helps your manuscript get a serious look.
QT: Our readers are very interested in platform. What kinds of things do you do to promote your books?
ROBERTA: Right now I’m taking a little break from maniacal promotion to write. But in the past, I’ve done a lot of promoting, making use of niche markets in psychology and golf, social networking, viral marketing, book signing tours alone and with other writers, blogs and blog tours, sending out books and bookmarks, a good website…hmmm, what have I forgotten? My greatest coup was getting interviewed by Sports Illustrated about the golf mystery series in 2006.
The SI writer came to my house in Madison, CT and walked the local golf course with me (where PUTT TO DEATH was set.) A week later a pair of photographers drove out from New York and took lots of photos of me looking very fierce in the marsh where the fictional body was found. So much fun!
With promotion, you never know for sure what will work, so you’re throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. For the advice column mysteries, I consulted with Laney Becker, a very smart agent and former PR maven at my agent’s agency. She reminded me to use the advice column angle in all my publicity. So press releases were sent out in the format of an advice column and I even got Margo Howard (Ann Landers' daughter) to blurb the first book.
But I still believe the best thing a writer can do is to write an outstanding book!
Thanks so much for inviting me to stop in at Query Tracker. Hope some of this information proves to be helpful—and I’m always happy to answer questions.
Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist and professor residing in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she runs Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers and an associated blog. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource.
Have a psychology/writing question? Ask here (or using my email address to the right) and you may see it answered on the QueryTracker.net Blog!