Superior Death: The
birth of a novel
Who would be silly enough to engage in a business where the potential
buyer takes your product, demands exclusivity, consigns it to obscurity
for up to a yearoccasionally feeding you tiny morsels of hope
that they may buy itthen crushes your ego with an unsigned, form-letter
That person would be a writer, someone who subjects themselves to lengthy
periods of introspection at the keyboard, talks to him or herself more
often than to other humans, and who has an ego resilient to repeated
Most writers also have redeeming personality traits, otherwise wed
One of those traits is believing that with patience, perseverance and
luck, we will someday catch a break. Last year, after thirteen years
of freelance writing and four completed, book-length manuscripts, I
caught that break when I was offered a contract for a manuscript with
the working title The Long Fall.
That story arrived in bookstores this spring as the mystery novel Superior
Death, published by Avalon Books, an imprint of Thomas Bouregy &
In the beginning
I started Superior Death in October 2001 while living in Baltimore.
Embarrassed that my previous three manuscripts generated minimal interest
from the publishing world, I wrote this one clandestinely, sneaking
out to the computer each night after my family was asleep. Without fail
I cranked out a thousand words. Being a former newspaper reporter, I
was good at thatcranking out words, I mean.
It was not a labor of love. It was a penance, done to assuage the guilt
I felt at having such a fun daytime life. During that year, my three-year-old
son and I spent the days touring East Coast museums and parks while
my wife Suzanne slaved away in a research lab.
Too much fun is not good for the writers soul. (Isnt art
born from angst?) So, like Arthur Dimmesdale, I subjected myself to
nightly self-flagellation, using a mouse in lieu of a cat-o-nine-tails.
My spouse, to her credit, never questioned my midnight forays to the
keyboard, though Im sure the habit smacked of Internet romance
or some other tawdry addiction. As gratitude, and also to prove I was
not consorting with some electronic vixen, I promised myself Id
complete the story and present it to my wife as a 2002 Valentines
A month before that happened, however, I realized that Id written
a disjointed, juvenile-sounding story that Id be embarrassed to
show to anyone, especially my spouse. I also had the germ of an idea
that I found exciting, forgot that writing was supposed to be my punishment
and while imbibing massive quantities of caffeine and surviving on a
few hours of sleep each day, I trashed and rewrote the entire story.
On February 14, 2002 I presented my wife with a fat stack of paper.
She didnt whack me upside the head with it, although Im
sure the thought crossed her mind. Instead she put on a polite smile,
went out and bought her own chocolate truffles and plowed through a
rough, early edition of the mystery.
To this day, my wife buys her own stash of chocolate prior to each holiday
in case I ever pull this boneheaded stunt again.
Publish or perish trying
Writing the story was easy compared with getting published, a challenge
Id failed on previous occasions. What follows is a brief outline
of how I succeeded.
I first sent a query letter to numerous literary agents and publishers.
This is a single-page letter that pitches your story and yourself in
four to five paragraphs. It must stand above thousands of other queries,
and Im convinced luck is as crucial as style. The query letter
that eventually led to my contract is posted at www.mysterymatt.com
for those interested. I dont claim its great, but it worked.
Notice I queried both literary agents and publishers. Therein lies a
crux facing many writers. Good agents arent interested in unpublished
authors unless you have connections.
Most publishers will look at book proposals submitted only through an
agent. Its a process designed to weed out the mounds of poorly
written material, but challenges those with skill too. I approached
both, figuring Id increase my odds, or, at the very least, keep
the U.S. Postal Service operating in the black for another season.
Once Id hooked a few agents and editors with my query, they asked
me to send sample chapterstypically the first fifty manuscript
pagesand a synopsis. A synopsis is a thorough summary of your
book condensed to two double-spaced pages. It should introduce all the
major characters, give a taste of their personality and tell the entire
story. I didnt post my synopsis on the Web site because, well,
it blows the story for those who plan to read Superior Death, but there
are plenty of examples available in writers manuals.
If you make it to the next step, youll need patience. Boatloads
of patience. Having another life comes in handy, too.
An agent or editor hooked by your synopsis and writing sample will ask
for an exclusive look at the entire manuscriptexclusive meaning
no one else gets it.
A writer who reaches this phase should do a little more homework. There
are plenty of scam artists known in writers jargon as preditors.
These folks pose as legitimate publishers or agents, but make money
preying on unsuspecting and desperate authors by collecting fees for
various services. A helpful place to learn about preditors
I was fortunate to have four legitimate businesses interested in my
manuscriptthree agents and a publisher. All four eventually rejected
the manuscript, but it was the third, ego-bruising rejection that changed
That refusal was a letter from Katharine Kidde of the Kidde, Hoyt &
Picard Agency who wrote something to the effect that I had a decent
story and plot, but that she wouldnt consider the manuscript because
it completely lacked humor, wit and personalityOuch!
Heres where the resilient ego comes in. I rewrote the bookagain.
I changed the story to first person narrative, injected personality
into the characters and resubmitted it to Ms. Kidde. She needed less
than a week to reject the new manuscript.
Avalon, however, after considering the project for a year, liked the
revised story, or at least decided it was salable with further changes,
such as cutting the number of characters, changing character names that
sounded too similar, tightening a few scenes and reworking the relationship
between the main character and his wife. Avalon told me what changes
were needed to improve the story and earn the contract, but gave me
the freedom to accomplish those changes my own way. They also offered
contracts for two unwritten sequels.
When Avalon called last spring with the offer, I suppose I needed to
change my hat size for a few days and friends probably wondered about
the silly grin I couldnt hide, but the romance of a contract offer
Within a week I had a document filled with fine print and legalese that
left me scratching my head. At that point I realized the first of many
challenges Id face by not having a literary agentI was going
to have to wade through and negotiate all the fine points alone.
I tamped down my enthusiasm, took time and researched both Avalon and
book contracts in general. Many published authors shared their experiences
and suggestions with me. Bookstore owners also were helpful, giving
me a handle on the distribution questions I should ask. Im indebted
to those who saved me from mistakes Id surely have made on my
Just when you think its over
Once I had a contract in hand, the next six months went fast. I was
asked to suggest scenes from the book for the artist to use when designing
Instead I took a photo at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore of a place
that somewhat resembled a scene in the book. New York artist Eugene
Mollica used the photo along with the books description to create
the cover. If people pick up the book in a store, its thanks to
his fine artwork.
I had to submit copy for the author bio and the book jacket and help
my editor develop a list of reviewers and media outlets where Avalon
would send advanced copies. In November I received a typeset copya
copy that looks exactly like the final version, but is printed on letter-size
paper. The typeset copy had been reviewed and marked by a copy editor
to correct grammar, spelling and style problems and it was my last chance
(I had seven days) to find any errors. Even in that late version, my
wife found a discrepancy in the storys timeline that I was able
to correct, and, after a recent experience, Im glad she did.
Last month I was the guest of the Marquette-based Between the
Sheets Book Club whose members chose Superior Death as their May
selection. Those club membersin a very polite waygrilled
me over the details and taught me that readers pay attention to all
the little nuances of a story. If you want to earn their trust (and
your next sale), youd better take care of the small stuff as well
as the large.
I went home from that book club appearance and began re-editing book
two (working title Superior Deception) with a renewed focus.
What makes a book good?
The next step is getting the book from the publisher to the bookstores.
To paraphrase a saying in writers circles: a good book isnt
good if no ones reading it.
This process can be fun, but also challenging. For a first-time author,
the learning curve is steep. Again, Id be lost without the help
of local bookstore managers and other authors whove shared their
knowledge of discounts, returns, distribution and sales.
The end, or the beginning
Someone recently asked me if I still would be writing had my fourth
book languished with my earlier manuscripts. The sad truth is this:
I was well into another novel during the time I thought Superior Death
From the time my first published piece, a short-short about a boy who
refused to eat sauerkraut, went to print in second grade, to the unpublished
novella about a cadre of machine gun-toting grannies who robbed banks
that I wrote in the back of my eighth-grade classroom when I was supposed
to be reading Pride and Prejudice, I always have made up stories and
often put them on papereven after the numerous times I swore Id
find a better use of my time.
Like it or not, Im a writer. I cant help myself. I think
Suzanne would tell you I could be hooked on worse things.
Spruce up your home with USDA loans
The Forsyth Senior Center in Gwinn had the privilege of hearing rural
development specialist Darryle Stevenson present information about the
availability of housing repair loans and grants. She shared that the
mission of her program is to increase economic opportunity and
improve the quality of life for all Rural Americans.
Many seniors qualify and benefit from the USDA Rural Development Home
Repair Program or Grants.
A home repair loan is a federally funded loan to persons in rural areas
who meet the guidelines.
These loans can be used to install insulation, new windows, doors, siding
and roofing. Homes can be remodeled to accommodate physical disabilities,
including bathrooms. Loans also can be used to upgrade heating and electrical
systems, even hot water tanks and furnaces. Necessary repairs to mobile
or manufactured homes qualify. The loan can be used to replace septic
systems and wells.
To qualify, clients must:
Fall into a low income bracket.
Lack personal resources to do the repairs.
Own and occupy a single family home.
Be at least eighteen years old and a U.S. citizen or resident
Have an acceptable credit history.
Have repayment ability.
Comply with asset limits and minimum site requirements.
The interest rate on a Rural Development Loan is very low at one percent,
and loan terms are based on ability to repay the loan. Loans cannot
exceed $20,000; a loan of $7,500 or more will require a mortgage on
Grants have the same purpose of as the loan program, except that repairs
generally are restricted to the removal of health and safety hazards.
No cosmetic improvements are allowed. Grants can be used to remodel
for physical disability needs or to make a home handicap accessible.
Certain repairs to mobile or manufactured homes also qualify.
The maximum lifetime limit of a home repair grant is $7,500. An agreement
must be signed providing for the repayment of the grant if the property
is sold or transferred to the grantees heirs within three years
after the grant is issued.
To qualify for a grant, clients must:
fall into a low income bracket.
lack personal resources to do the repairs
own and occupy a single-family home.
be at least eighteen years old and a U.S. citizen or resident
To make a one-on-one appointment with Stevenson or to have her as a
guest speaker at your agency, call (800)944-8119 and ask for the Sault
Ste. Marie office.
Some examples of situations where clients benefited from loans and
Client A received a grant for $7,500 to replace and update
to an energy efficient furnace and replace some windows. The client
also had a rickety porch reinforced and stairs to the porch replaced.
Client B had a bathroom remodeled to make it handicap accessible.
The doorways were widened for wheelchair access and the bathroom was
fitted with a raised toilet and sink that does not have legs, so the
wheelchair fits right under the sink to allow easy access to the faucets.
The walk-in shower was equipped with seats, grab bars and safety valves
with a scald control feature to avoid burns. This client also had plumbing
and wiring upgrades for the washer and dryer.
It really makes my day when I pull away from a home and an applicant
is smiling from ear to ear because they are so pleased with their new
shower that will provide healing for their pain, Stevenson said.
Forsyth Senior Center Director