a guest post from Dandi Daley Mackall
Since then, Dandi Daley Mackall has become an award-winning author of over 400 books for children of all ages, with sales of 4 million copies in 22 countries. The Silence of Murder is winner of the 2012 Edgar Award and is nominated for ALA Best Book 2013. Dandi is a national speaker, keynoting at conferences and Young Author events, and has made dozens of appearances on TV, including ABC, NBC, and CBS. Visit Dandi at www.dandibooks.com, winniethehorsegentler.com, and www.silenceofmurder.com; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85oaIUbJ8j8
First off, thanks for letting me onto this amazing website. Great tips, great comments…and there’s something about being surrounded by writers that makes me think that maybe I really am one. Yep—over 450 books under my belt and about 50 YA novels, plus the fact that I’ve actually earned a living writing books, doing what I love for a couple of decades—but I still have those raging doubts. On my worst days, a knock at my door makes me jump because I just know that it’s the Real-Writers-Police, here to tell me that they’re finally onto me and who did I think I was kidding (they’d say “whom,” of course), and they’d take away my computer to give it to a real writer.
Like you guys, I love to write and always have. I’ve published books with about every publisher out there, and definitely books for every age group, from still-in-the-womb (2 babybooks where Moms-to-be record everything), through rhyming board books, picture books, I-Can-Read books, early chapter book series, chapter books, middle grade novels and series, young adult novels and series, and grown-up fiction and nonfiction. I’ve even written Scooby-Doo and Flintstone and other licensed character books once upon a time.
Write What You Know
But I keep coming back to YA, as if my mindset is still back in my teens. I’ll bet you’ve heard this bit of advice: Write what you know. It’s good advice. I’d given it out freely. I sort of followed it in writing My Boyfriends’ Dogs, a funny, romantic comedy (soon to be a Hallmark movie!) that tells about the 3 loves of “Bailey Daley,” a thinly-disguised version of “Dandi Daley” before I become Dandi Daley Mackall.
And then one day I realized that I know more about horses than I know about anything. I grew up riding bareback (couldn’t afford a saddle), and I’ve always had horses. But I’d never written a horse book. So I did—several series, in fact: Horsefeathers!, Winnie the Horse Gentler, Starlight Animal Rescue, Backyard Horses, and some stand-alones too.
Then I realized there might be something else I knew a lot about and had never written: mysteries.
I adore mysteries. I’ve always read mysteries, usually right before I go to sleep. So I also dream mysteries. I love British mysteries on BBC and cop shows and anything with trials and lawyers and whodunits. Sure, I usually managed to make at least one book in each series a mystery—but never a murder mystery, never a trial…until…
The Silence of Murder
Believe it or not, I wrote the first chapter of this book as “play” a decade ago. Whenever I finish a book and send it in, I reward myself by giving myself 2 days to “play-write.” I write anything that comes into my head, knowing I won’t have to finish it or be on a deadline. It’s just for me. So I wrote what became a first chapter, then put it into my “Play” file on my computer, where it sat. Every year I’d take it out and fiddle with it. But I couldn’t see where it was going or what kind of book it was.
Jump forward 9 years, and I decided I’d make myself write Chapter 2. The first words I typed were “Your honor, I object!” And all at once, I got it! Don’t you love those epiphanies? I knew that Hope was on the witness stand, testifying on behalf of her brother, who was on trial for murdering the town’s beloved baseball coach. The first chapter had taken place a decade earlier, the last time her brother had spoken. And Hope, now 10 years older, is the only one who believes her brother didn’t murder Coach.
The Mystery Process
I learned a lot about mysteries by writing that book. I read trial transcripts. I talked to lawyers and police. I got a judge, a defense attorney, and an assistant DA to read the manuscript. About halfway through, I knew my murderer was too obvious, so I changed everything, including the murderer. With my agent’s input, I added another strong suspect. And for the first time, something I wrote went to auction! It’s as fun as it sounds—publishers (4 of them) had 24 hours to bid on the manuscript. I was in the hospital for those hours (no big deal—I’m fine now). Nurses broke rules and let me take calls,(even while being X-rayed) from my agent reporting each upped bid. Doctors, nurses, and techs cheered when the auction ended and I got my dream publisher—Knopf/Random House—in a 2-book deal. Only, you guys, that was just the beginning of rewrites and more rewrites. But the book got better and stronger with every revision. I love rewriting—all you can do is make things better (usually).
The Edgar Awards
So now I’m finally getting to the reason I was invited to chat with you. Sometimes I think I probably dreamed this part. The book had just released when I got an email from someone I didn’t know. She said she’d meant to write me after reading my Advanced Reading Copy of the mystery, but now she could tell me she loved it and congratulate me on the Edgar nomination. I grinned at the email, wondering how she’d gotten so mixed up. I knew only real mystery writers ever got nominated for the Edgar Award. I tried to read every nominee every year. But hours later, I got word from Knopf/Random House: The Silence of Murder was one of 5 books nominated as the Best YA Mystery of the Year, along with Harlan Coben, Todd Strasser, Maureen Johnson, Kathryn Miller Haines. And unless the Real-Mystery-Writers police showed up, I’d be going to NYC for the Award Banquet and Presentations.
At dawn on April 25th, Hubby Joe and I were flown to NYC for four fantastic, dreamlike days. I met all the wonderful mystery writers I’ve been reading my whole life, attended Mary Higgins Clark’s cocktail party, posed for photos with Martha Grimes, and got to hang out with my wonderful Knopf editor and my amazing agent. I sat on a panel with bestselling authors Sandra Brown, S.J. Rozan, and Meg Gardiner at the Mystery Writers of America symposium. Our panel was: Agatha’s Heirs: Smart Women: Smart Fiction, and I clarified that I was just a very blessed woman, grateful to tag along. I looked forward to the awards banquet because I wasn’t concerned about winning—I was sure I wouldn’t win. The word was that nobody wins the first time anyway—maybe the second or third time as a nominee.
On April 26th, Joe and I got all gussied up for the banquet in the Grand Hilton ballroom, and it was even more wonderful than I’d imagined. Think Academy Awards, with long gowns and tuxes, etc. My whole Random House team sat at our table—all there to support me. And Joe—I didn’t know it then, but while I met with my editors, Joe had been walking the streets of New York, checking pawn shops and jewelry shops until he found the perfect gift: a 56-year-old gold typewriter charm with tiny pearls for keys, engraved on the back: For my love at the Edgars. He hid the tiny, wrapped gold box in his coat pocket and planned to hand it to me when they didn’t call my name as winner.
One of the Edgar judges read the names of the nominees as the covers of our books flashed onto a big screen. She opened the envelope (yep—really opened an envelope)…and called out my name. Joe and I turned and stared at each other…and stared…and stared, until my agent poked me to go up and accept my award. I had no acceptance speech ready and barely remember what I said. (Later, Sandra Brown said my first 2 words were “Holy cow!”) I hope I thanked the right people. I recalled—out loud—that when Joe and I met in grad school, he spotted me, then waited for me to come out of my classroom, which happened to be How to Write a Mystery. His first words to me were: “So what’s your favorite way to kill people?” A couple of months later, we were married.
So, I hope I haven’t talked too much about me, me, me. I hate that! Maybe the best advice I can give is that it’s okay when you don’t feel like a real writer. Those feelings didn’t leave me because I won a fancy award. One week later, when I struggled with my next YA, I was sure I’d never finish another book. And if I did finish, no one would want to publish it. And if they did publish it, no one would read it. And if they did read it, they’d hate it. But I wrote anyway.
And you…So, please talk to me now. Do you ever feel like you’re not a real writer? What would it take to make you feel like one? And if you tell me you never doubt yourself as a writer, I may have to send the Real-Writers Police to your house next time they knock on my door.