Back in 2017, I finally started penning my first crime thriller. The idea had been whizzing around in my head for some time, but finally enough of the pieces had clunked together and I was ready to tell the story of Veronica (a wannabe thriller writer who fell into the middle of the one serial killer case that could mean her own death). I had the opening sequence and the final scene written, and I knew the key moments in the middle, so off I went.
Two full years to write that thing, and a lot of self-discovery about the type of writer I am. I learnt so much about my writing process, and I learnt a lot about what it would take to survive as a writer in this highly uncertain business. (Hint: Perseverance is the key.)
I worked with a developmental editor to make the story top-notch, and come August 2019, I began the query process for that manuscript. I was extremely proud of what I had produced. (I still am.)
Then 2020… and the panic set in.
The story centers around the homicide unit with the Atlanta PD. With the current animosity towards US-based police, was this a fatal mistake? And if it was, how was I to know back in 2017 when I first started writing the manuscript that the entire world would go topsy-turvy in 2020? Hell, how was I to know that in 2019 when I started querying it?
But the more important question: Should I even worry?
It all started with a Google search.
In 2015, I was asked to help a friend with a pseudonym search. She was starting a podcast about international politics and news, and she wanted to protect her husband, who was active military, in case things went a little south. So, with my knowledge and expertise in internet security, she came to me for help in building this persona online to keep her real identity hidden.
She had a particular name that she was keen on, and I worked my Google-foo tracking down any issues with the name in question. It didn't take long at all (one Google search) to turn up police rap sheets for multiple women, all with the same name—and all of them with an impressive array of misdemeanors and petty crime.
"Um… Sweety… You might want to rethink this name."
"But why? I love it. It's so generic."
"And the top five search items in Google are rap sheets."
Yeah, she went with a different name.
But my writer brain had taken over. What if it wasn't just police rap sheets I had found? What if it was something much more sinister—like a website filled with death and torture? And… and… ooo… what if there was a loved one on that website locked in her final scream? And, ooo… what if the police knew nothing about the website? And what if…
You can sort of see how the story just took on a life of its own. Once I started asking that what-if, it was a story that would eventually demand to be written.
I had deliberately set the novel in Atlanta, GA because the Atlanta PD has ALL of its operational procedures publicly available online. Their website was a treasure trove of information and everything that I needed to make the story feel real was right there. And what I didn't know, I could ask a friend who I knew was from Atlanta, GA, or just let the imagination run wild.
I'm well aware that my main character in the novel was not your typical crime thriller character. Veronica has zero filter on her mouth and says exactly what is on her mind, damned the consequences. Every time she says anything that is entirely insulting under normal circumstances, I just crack up and fall in love with the character even more.
FYI, Veronica is the main character in the novel I'm currently writing, and boy, oh boy, is she struggling in a big way with that broken filter of hers.
The overall concept of Pen Name (a serial killer who finds his victims through social media) is timely. The main character might be a pain in the ass, but she's a lovable pain in the ass. And the interplay between her and the police characters just has me laughing—and crying.
Pen Name is the type of story I want to read. To say that I'm anything less than proud of it would be a complete lie. I believe in the story, and I don't think that will ever change.
One act could change everything.
May 25, 2020, and the landscape for stories involving the police changed in an instant. I got word of what happened in Minneapolis and I about panicked.
I don't want to diminish what happened to George Floyd. No one should die like that. But I could see how this would go bad against the police—and quickly.
Early June 2020, and Atlanta PD is in complete disarray, with the Chief of Police standing down and 6 officers brought up on felony charges.
And here I was with this manuscript, set in Atlanta, GA, that could easily be rejected by agents and publishers simply because of the connection with the police and the Atlanta PD in particular. Or at least, that's what was going through my mind.
Yes, you can say that it was a selfish thought. I totally admit it. But I have to look to my future and the future of my family with everything that is happening around me.
I'm not the only writer with these panicking thoughts. Several other crime writers that I interact with are also concerned about the future of their own stories, simply because of the police connection. It is a comfort to know that this particular variant of the self-doubt monster is not attacking just me.
And it also tells me that even as police departments throughout the US have a rough road ahead, there is still a market for books that center around the police.
My decisions for the next steps in my journey.
Everything about writing is a journey, and that self-doubt monster has reared its ugly head multiple times over the years. No doubt, I'll need to perfect my batting skills to keep that monster in its place for the rest of my life. But with every word I write, I come one step closer to where I want to be.
What's more important is the joy and pride I feel when I look at how far I've come.
Pen Name is something that I'm exceptionally proud of for a variety of reasons. As such, I will continue to query Pen Name hoping to get it published by a traditional publisher. I have made mental notes of subplots that might be political hot potatoes, but I won't be taking any steps to change them until I'm asked to do so by an agent or publisher. There's no point.
Any changes I make now could be slanted in the direction of the next disaster, or the next one, or the next one. Why, oh why, should I stress myself about something that is 100% out of my control when there isn't even a publication offer on the table yet?
No, in these uncertain times, I'm choosing to focus on what I can control. I'm going to write the stories that make me proud of how far I've come as a writer, and I'm going to keep writing them.
Here's hoping that I get the opportunity to take that next step towards traditional publication with my fiction soon.