Saturday, January 3, 2015

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel

Bestselling author Hallie Ephron not only writes suspense novels, but how-to-books, including Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style, nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She was also the recipient of the Salt Lake Libraries Readers Choice and David awards and is the Ellen Nehr Award winning crime fiction reviewer for the Boston Globe.

Hallie, how did your early environment influence your career as a journalist and novelist?

I grew up in family of writers (my parents wrote plays and movies; my sisters Nora, Delia, and Amy are all well published) in a house that was wall to wall books. The pressure to become a writer was tough to resist. I tried for three decades and then succumbed.

Did you ever consider following in your parent's careers as a screenwriter?

Dialogue isn't my strong suit, and that's what screenplays are. So it was not the natural place for me to begin.

Where did you work as a journalist and did the experience serve you well when you began writing novels?

I never thought of myself as a journalist. I wrote essays and feature articles for magazines and now I review crime fiction for the Boston Globe. Reviewing books--and more importantly reading lots of them--has helped me see why some books work and others don't. So it's really helped me as a teacher, and also as a critic of my own work.

Tell us about your psychological suspense novel, Never Tell a Lie. How did the story come about?

I got the idea when I was at a yard sale near my house. It was a big Victorian house, one where my daughter used to play with the children of a former owner. I was dying to find out how the interior had been transformed. I drilled the poor homeowner with questions until finally she said, “Why don’t you go inside and have a look around?” I didn't wait for her to change her mind. As I wandered on, through the upstairs, I thought: What if a woman goes to a yard sale. Somehow she manages to talk her way into the house. She goes inside and…she never comes out.

The idea made the hair on my neck stand up. I knew right away that my next novel would start with that yard sale. I knew that the woman running the yard sale would be nine months pregnant, and the woman who comes to the yard sale and disappears would be nine months pregnant, too.

When did you decide to write how-to writing books and what do they encompass?

I didn't actually decide... I was teaching a class for writers and the acquiring editor for Writer Digest Books sat in on a bit of my class. Afterward, she asked if I'd like to write a book about mystery writing. I jumped at the opportunity. I started my career as a teacher, and this gave me a chance to combine teaching and writing.

How do you select books to review for the Boston Globe? And do you always try to find something good to write in each review or do you just cut to the chase?

I pick from the 80 or so titles sent to me each month. Yes, I try to find books I like. If I don't like a book I stop reading and go on to the next one in the pile. But if I review I book I don't like, I say so--but I try not to be flip or clever about it, just as specific as I can.

What’s the best way to acquire an agent and are they necessary to sell fledgling books?

Yes, they are essential if you want to be published by a mainstream press. Agents have become the arbiters of taste. The process is well documented--in Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents it's all laid out plus detailed information about each agent and how to contact them. Just follow the rules about querying. And be patient. And revise, revise, revise if you are fortunate to get comments back.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep at it. Perseverance pays. Grow a rhinoceros hide so you don't take criticism personally, but hear it and use it to make the work better.

What do you stress most in your fiction courses at writers’ conferences?

Not to send a work out too early--I see so many authors jump the gun and send out manuscripts that still need work.

Which writer, past or present, would you like to have lunch with?

P. D. James. That's easy.

Hallie Ephron's website:
Her blog:

Submitted by Jean Henry Mead


June Shaw said...

Hallie, how sweet to see you writing a post for our blog. If any of you mystery writers haven't had the chance yet to read everything Hallie writes (I mean novels and books -- not her grocery lists) -- make sure you grab all her works. And in case you haven't gotten to meet her, rush out to a conference where she's speaking. She's a great person who offers excellent advice!

Jean Henry Mead said...

June, Hallie Ephron's interview is an excerpt from my book, The Mystery Writers. I forgot to post that at the end of the article. Sorry!