Twenty-six years ago my husband attempted to teach me to drive a standard transmission. This undertaking had all the elements of good suspense fiction: plenty of conflict, mounting tension, hair-raising close calls, sudden jolts, and finally, a cryptic message from the frantic hero. “Feather the clutch! Feather the clutch!”
This rather oblique advice didn’t help me, and I’ve been driving an automatic ever since. However, I do understand how to shift gears, not as a driver, but as a writer. When I began writing fiction, I didn’t know squat about genres and markets. Innocent that I was, I just sat down and started writing the kind of book I liked to read: a traditional police procedural set in a small town, with a detective who spends more time talking than shooting.
Ten years of work produced TAKE THE BAIT and got me a wonderful literary agent. In a nifty stroke of luck, my manuscript crossed the editor’s desk just as Pocket Books was expanding its mystery line, and I landed a three book deal. Three years later, in a less nifty stroke, Pocket Books decided to scrap its mystery line, and my series lived no more. I took the news with equanimity. After all, once I had broken into the rarefied world of traditional publishing, how hard could it be to get another contract? “Write something different,” my agent advised. “There’s no market for traditional mysteries.”
Full of hard-won knowledge, I considered my options for producing a best-seller. Go bigger and add some crimes against humanity? Go woo-woo and add some undead? Go zany and add some madcap escapades? I tried them all and couldn’t get past 50 pages and some really convoluted synopses. Finally, I shifted from police procedural to romantic suspense, from a third person, male point of view to a first person female point of view, and from a murder-driven plot, to a character-driven story about a woman whose life is changed by a long-ago crime. A novel emerged, devoid of terrorists, or vampires, or screwball criminals.
My agent called it a personal journey thriller. I liked that description! I wasn’t aware it was a sub-genre, though. Apparently, neither was the rest of the publishing world. Every New York editor who read the manuscript loved it, but alas, none of them could buy it. Because they didn’t know where to “place”it. Or how to market it. Or how to guarantee it would make a ton of money.
Despair set in. Should I go back and weave in some wacky vampire serial killers? I know all about sub-genres and markets now. I know all about revision. But one thing hasn’t changed. I still only want to write the kind of book I love to read. ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE is that book. It’s got a heroine who’s funny, and brave, and stubborn, and a nervous wreck at cocktail parties. It’s got some good guys who screw up and some bad guys who try to do the right thing. It’s got a scroungy mutt named Ethel. You can read the first chapter here.
What it doesn’t have is a traditional publisher. Just me, in a new role as author, publisher and marketer. My choices were to throw the manuscript in the bottom drawer to collect dust or to self-publish. I chose self-publishing. My agent cautioned me, “It’s brutal out there. It’ll be very hard to attract attention. You’ll have to do all your own promotion. Only a few authors make any money by self-publishing.”
All true. But guess what? Traditionally published mid-list authors face all the same challenges. They get no support from their publishers, have to do all their own promotion, receive miniscule advances, and rarely make any money. What’s more, they live under the constant threat of being dropped by their publishers.
As an indie author, I have plenty of worries. But at least I know my contract will always be renewed.
Oh, and 26 years later, I think I finally know what “feather the clutch” means. It means do that thing that I can’t really tell you in words how to do but when you’re doing it right you’ll feel it and that sickening grinding sound will stop and you’ll sail along in the direction you want to go.
I still can’t drive a stick. But I can feather the clutch.
S.W. Hubbard’s most recent novel is Another Man’s Treasure. She is also is the author of three mystery novels set in the Adirondack Mountains: Take the Bait, Swallow the Hook, and Blood Knot. Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the anthologies Crimes by Moonlight, Adirondack Mysteries, and the upcoming Mystery Box. She lives in Morristown, NJ, where she teaches creative writing to enthusiastic teens and adults, and expository writing to reluctant college freshmen.