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Susan Cox on her cash advance and publishing contract after winning writing competition

By Mary Yuhas

Sue CoxSusan Cox is a former South Florida journalist who also lived and worked in San Francisco for more than twenty years. During most of that time, she was a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations, including the Bar Association of San Francisco and the University of San Francisco School of Law. 

She has a master’s degree in writing (MAW) from the University of San Francisco and has taught writing workshops. Cox maintains that as a teacher, she learned as much (or more) from her students than they learned from her.

Recently she moved back to South Florida to devote herself to her writing career. Her first mystery novel, The Man on the Washing Machine, will be published by Minotaur Books in the fall of 2015.

LitVote: You entered your book, The Man on the Washing Machine, in the annual First Crime Novel Competition, jointly sponsored by Minotaur Books (an imprint of St. Martin’s Press) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA). What happened next?

Sue: Two years ago, I left my job to stay home and write. I wanted a career as a mystery writer and couldn’t devote enough time to it while I was also committed to an absorbing day job. It was a financial risk; I gave myself 18-months to get an agent and a publishing contract before heading back to work.

In addition to plunging feet-first into new characters and new stories, I took another look at a novel I’d written some time before. It had taken me about a year to write, and I’d always liked the main character and the plot line. In the rewrite, which I did along with other things over six or eight weeks, I changed just about everything, from the opening chapter to the identity of the murderer, to the title. I thought of it as a learning exercise rather than with any real hope of seeing the book in print.

At about the same time I read about the annual Minotaur Books/MWA contest for new mystery writers and decided to aim at producing a polished MS in time for the December, 2013 contest deadline. The prize is a cash advance and a publishing contract–the Holy Grail for a first-time novelist. The winner is announced in March, so I knew I’d have three months to toy with the idea of winning the contest in the same way that buying a lottery ticket allows you to dream of buying a big house with a swimming pool on the Cote d’Azur. You can dream about the French Riviera without buying the ticket, but sticking the ticket up on your bulletin board makes it seem more real, right?

I sent off my MS–along with 500 or so other aspiring novelists–and sat back to wait.  The winner is contacted in March, and I did a lot of new writing in those three months. On March 31st, at about three in the afternoon I thought, ‘better luck next year’ with no great sense of surprise or disappointment. At almost the same moment the phone rang and Kelley Ragland, Editorial Director of Minotaur was calling with the news.

It’s difficult to explain my reaction because I honestly had no expectation of winning. I suppose dumb astonishment describes it best. I think Kelley had to repeat everything two or three times before I understood what she was telling me.

LitVote: After you learned you won the contest, how did you celebrate?

Sue: I was asked to keep the news a secret until the annual MWA Edgars Banquet in early May. I asked Kelley if I could tell family or friends, and that seemed to be okay as long as I didn’t announce it on social media or take out an ad in the NY Times. I called my mom right away and swore her to secrecy. Next I told my best friend and swore her to secrecy. Then I told more friends and swore them to secrecy. Before long I was telling strangers who called to sell me aluminum siding! For the next two weeks I had a series of (quiet-ish) celebrations with dinners and champagne. It was enormous fun.

LitVote: What are the steps once your book has been accepted until it is published?  

Sue: I’m still going through the steps. The first was the announcement at the Edgars Banquet, the mystery world’s Oscars (which I attended, and it was wonderful), followed by the very exciting arrival of my contract, then by a check for half the advance. In September I received editors’ notes. I made those changes and returned the revised MS to Kelley. Once the MS is deemed acceptable, the second half of my advance will arrive. At some time in the process (I’m not sure in which order) will be copy editing, galleys, choosing the cover, and being slotted into the publication schedule for next Fall. I can’t wait!

LitVote: Do you have a literary agent?

Sue: Because I had already signed the publication contract for the Man on the Washing Machine, I didn’t think there was any reason to sign with an agent this year. But the Editorial Director at Minotaur Books (who is editing my novel) and several writer friends (who have agents) convinced me that an agent’s skill set would be valuable beginning as soon as possible. After interviewing several I signed  with Susanna Einstein of the Einstein Thompson Agency in New York.

LitVote: How do you come up with ideas for mysteries?  

Sue: I read a lot of news and current events and that often contains the germ of an idea to build upon. In the case of The Man on the Washing Machine I’d been reading for some time about the multi-billion dollar illicit trade in rhinoceros horn. I’d also wanted to write a novel set in San Francisco. And, since the city is so open and progressive in its ideas, I thought it would be interesting to contrast that with a heroine who had dark secrets to protect.

LitVote: Are you strictly a mystery writer?

Sue: I think of myself as a mystery writer and that’s where my interest lies, but I’ve also tried my hand at romance and science fiction. I find mysteries appealing, both as a writer and a reader. There’s something about them that appeals to my sense of justice.

LitVote:  Do you recommend writers groups for first time authors?

Sue: I do, with a couple of provisos. The members of the group need to know how to give and take criticism as well as praise, which is not as easy as it sounds. I’m a former journalist, and, believe me, nothing knocks the “precious” out of you like an over-caffeinated city editor on a deadline. If you know you are very sensitive and every comma is critically important to you, then try finding one friend you know well—and who knows you–with whom to exchange your work.

Writing group members should agree on a few ground rules and, if possible, be writing in the same genre. I have belonged to several wonderful writing groups, but the most helpful has been the one I belong to now, which is made up of mystery writers. I met them originally through the Mystery Writers of America, so I would also recommend you join a professional association and go to the meetings; you will meet like-minded writers there who might be looking for a writers group, too.

LitVote: What other advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Sue: My own story is outside the norm, so I’m not sure I have a lot of advice to offer.  The most important thing is to keep writing, talk to other writers, and keep alert to changes in your chosen genre. The publishing field is changing every day it seems. Query agents when you feel ready. Ask writer friends for recommendations or, if you are a lone wolf, research potential agents, query them, and then send them your very best work.

Since I was so astonished by my win, I would recommend that you enter contests in your genre.  Because you should be submitting your most polished work, they are terrific learning experiences. And you might win! To give just two examples: The Minotaur/MWA contest for crime novels is annual, with a mid-December submission deadline. A winner is not chosen every year, but the prize is a cash advance and a publishing contract. For romance writers, look into the Mills and Boon “So You Think You Can Write” contest, which also offers a publishing contract. The deadline for 2014 has passed, but there’s always next year.  There are many others. Google, “writing contests.”

LitVote:  What are you currently working on?

Sue: I’m working on a sequel to The Man on the Washing Machine, as yet untitled, which will also take place in San Francisco.

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 Author Mary Yuhas, is the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Carol White says:

    What a wonderful interview by Mary Yuhas with a talented author, Sue Cox. I’m sure many of us are anxious to read Sue’s novel with such an intriguing title. Sue’s determination and success gives writers great incentive. Best of luck and I can’t wait to dig into that book!

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