I Became A Writer By Accident

A frequent panelist, moderator and speaker, Morgan St. James also presents writers workshops. She writes for the Las Vegas and Los Angeles editions of Examiner.com with her weekly “Spotlight” and “Writers Tricks of the Trade” columns.  A founding member/Vice President of Sisters in Crime Southern Nevada, she is also editor of their monthly newsletter, and belongs to five additional writers groups in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Her upcoming book, Writers Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction will be released later this year.

Morgan and her sister Phyllice Bradner co-author the award-winning Silver Sisters Mysteries series. A Corpse in the Soup was followed by Seven Deadly Samovars. The third book in the series, Vanishing Act in Vegas is scheduled for release in late 2011. She authored a set of romantic suspense novels. Devil’s Dance (Book 1) and The Devil’s Due (Book 2) were written as Arliss Adams.

Her short stories appear in many anthologies, including stories for two Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Women on the Edge, The Mystery of the Green Mist, Dreamspell Revenge, Dreamspell Nightmares and more.

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Now my columns have inspired the upcoming book Writers Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About The ABCs Of Writing Fiction.

I’ve had many careers in my life, but never thought writing would be one of them. My partner and I owned an interior design firm in Studio City, California. Through a mixture of talent and luck, we designed some very interesting projects. A few of our clients were sports figures or people in the movie business.

Designers West, a prestigious West Coast design magazine, approached us about writing an article for them. Of course, we said yes. What incredible exposure for only the price of writing an article. But there was a hitch. We were designers, not writers. The photographers took photos to accompany our article, and the deadline for submitting the copy inched closer and closer.  Then the deadline date picked up momentum, speeding toward us like a train roaring into the station. The day before the submission was due, we had nothing—nada, not even a word.

The wastebasket overflowed with crumpled papers, and still we rejected each stab at writing the how-to article about a beautiful wood floor my partner created from packing crates. As the sun descended in the summer sky, the remaining hours ebbed away—a reminder of how little time we had left. So we sipped wine and commiserated. We had failed and would look like fools. Fortunately, desperation sometimes spawns genius. The idea of writing our article like a noir mystery instead of a serious techie piece penetrated our air of defeat. The editor might hate it, but anything was better than coming up empty-handed.

There were no computers back then, just trusty typewriters. We brainstormed, and the words literally flew from my fingers to paper.  “The Case of the Disappearing Crates, or Things Are Not Always What They Appear To Be” took shape.

The detectives on TV are not the only ones constantly solving seemingly unsolvable problems. In fact, the head of Burton Advertising jokingly calls us the Starsky and Hutch of the design field.

This day started like any other day. We were sitting there in our Ventura Boulevard Studio reviewing blueprints and drinking tea when the telephone rang.

By midnight, we had the equivalent of a one-page pulp fiction mystery. Our design sleuths searched waterfront docks, freight depots and industrial area warehouses, hunting for crates. The piece wrapped up with the phrase “case closed.” The editor loved it. That story ran in the August 1978 issue of Designers West Magazine.

When I went to the supermarket and saw the magazine on the stand, a wonderful feeling invaded my soul. I was hooked. I was a writer. I still have a copy of that magazine, and if you would like a copy of the story, just email me at stjameswriter@gmail.com.

Still working as an interior designer, I wrote many more articles for Designers West and also wrote for other magazines and newspapers, covering a variety of topics as far afield as dementia to barter.

In the late 1990s my sister Phyllice Bradner and I decided to write our own funny mystery series. We both had lots of publication under our belts and figured it would be a snap. After all, she won Alaska Press Club awards for her journalism, produced the copy for political campaign pieces for the Governor of Alaska and a U.S. Senator. Her tour book and cookbook are still listed on Amazon. As for me, I had many published articles and feature stories. How hard could it be? Looking back, we had absolutely no idea what we were getting into.

Rejection notices piled up for our first Silver Sisters Mystery. The discouraging lesson we learned was credentials in one segment of the writing world do not mean you know the “Tricks of the Trade” of another. In our case, despite our publication credits, we were ill-prepared to write fiction. Our writing was professional, but contained many faux pas. It turned out that techniques that screamed yes-yes in our body of work were complete no-no’s in fiction.

Unlike many unpublished authors, we actually received quite a few personal responses from agents. Although they rejected our submission, the notes said they could see we were polished writers and mentioned areas where we were missing the boat. A big weakness was understanding point of view.  At the suggestion of one agent, we researched, found and hired a manuscript evaluator. In the process we learned the craft of writing fiction. After a year and quite a bit of rewriting, A Corpse in the Soup was published and launched the series. It was even named Best Mystery Audio Book 2007 by USA Book News. It was followed by Seven Deadly Samovars and within the next few months Book 3 in the series, Vanishing Act in Vegas will be released.

In the ensuing years I attended many writers’ conferences, took workshops and continued to learn. I now give workshops on the very things I didn’t understand back then.

Fast forward to early 2010. Through the years I’d learned so much, I was delighted to be able to share it. I’d taken on writing the column Writers Tricks of the Trade in two editions of the online newspaper www.examiner.com. Each column presents an overview of another aspect of writing fiction. Many of the topics I presented in workshops and talks at writers’ conferences and writers’ group meetings found their way into my columns.

I started my writing career with how-to articles and I’ve now come full circle by writing about a craft I am passionate about. I love teaching in a fun way. Writers Tricks of the Trade is a compilation of the conversational, lighthearted information in my columns dealing with the many of aspects of writing fiction—a bit of the approach I took when studying interior design.

I never finished my degree because I was mainly interested in taking courses critical to the design field I aspired to enter. I didn’t have time for ones I knew I wouldn’t use. Even though I lacked a degree, or membership in ASID, through my self-imposed curriculum I became Director of Design for two developers, established design departments and trained designers who had the degree I didn’t. I wrote many articles targeted to degreed designers. That’s my objective with my upcoming book. To offer tips and techniques you can use immediately, but allow you to pick and choose areas for further exploration.

The biggest lesson I learned since becoming an “accidental author” was to learn your craft and keep the faith!

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