Part One of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Big Dogs and Big Ideas. Meg Gardiner presented the August 10 program for Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter in Austin at Recycled Reads.
In order to complete a 95,000-word novel, Meg Gardiner needed a compelling main character and a big idea to hang her story on. “It only took me decades to learn that,” laughs Gardiner, the Edgar-winning, best-selling thriller author of Phantom Instinct.
Gardiner’s parents were teachers who encouraged her writing in a pragmatic way. “My dad’s car was full of books, the trunk and back seat. I thought everyone lived like this. Dad said go to law school so you can pay bills while you are writing. Pay the rent. So I went to law school.”
Years after law school, when she came up with her first series character, Evan Delaney, Gardiner was married with three children. She could relate to Evan Delaney, a “girl lawyer,” although Evan was “more athletic than the author. My first attempt was horrible, deadly, nothing happened in it.” The book was shelved.
Her next novel got up to “thirty good pages” with a hit and run scene. The scene was long and slow. It turned out there was no reason for the hit and run driver to hit and run over anybody. In short, there was no plot. Project shelved.
Gardiner finally finished a novel with a cast of thousands. Although she called it a murder mystery, a friend pointed out that no one had been murdered. You guessed it—shelved.
When her children were out of diapers, Gardiner was living in London and trying to get an agent with only three chapters written for a new book. She found Giles Gordon, an agent in London.
“With thirty years in the business and lots of professional experience, I learned when he gives advice, it’s wise to listen.” Gordon said her first chapter was not working. She protested that it was funny, shiny, and clever. He said it was a cliché. It took her a long time to start listening, but she finally saw the light. “He didn’t have to come to my house and hit me with a two by four.”
She redid chapters but still got rejections. “I hope you’re feeling tough,” said Gordon on one memorable occasion, when he showed her a publisher’s reply to her submission. The two-page, single-spaced letter said the manuscript was horrible.
Giles said, “Read it, burn it, drink a glass of whiskey, then get back to work.”
Finally, China Lake, the first Evan Delaney novel, was ready for prime time. A British publisher made an offer and China Lake was published in London, translated into other languages, and sold in Europe.
But United States publishers did not want it.
When she wrote Mission Canyon, the sequel to China Lake, the land of her birth didn’t want that one either. It was snapped up by European publishers. This happened five times in a row with the Evan Delaney series. She could find a copy of her books in Singapore, but not in California when she went home for a family visit. She joked that her relatives probably thought she was fibbing about being published.
Then along came good ole Serendipity, AKA Stephen King.
“King’s got a closet full of books people have sent him. In preparation for a long airplane trip, he saw China Lake in his closet and took it with him. Why? It had nice big print, so he figured it was good for an overnight flight.”
And he liked it. He said, “This was good. Do you have any more?”
Gardiner’s British publisher gave copies of all her books to Stephen King, who mentioned her in a column he wrote for Entertainment Weekly and encouraged people to read her thrillers. Almost immediately, she got offers from about fourteen different U.S. publishers.
“Sometimes you need a very big dog with a very big bark to be in your corner.”
Had Gardiner been languishing with a hanky, worrying about not getting U.S. publishers all this time? She had not. Like any serious writer, she was working on new material, a series featuring Jo Beckett, a forensic psychiatrist. She took an offer from Penguin to have the first Jo Beckett novel published, The Dirty Secrets Club. “You must be ready when opportunity knocks.” You never know when Stephen King is going to turn your world upside down.
Gardiner thinks her very early writing attempts were “crap.” But, “If you believe in a book, keep trying to jump over the bar.”
Stay tuned for Part Two of the Gardiner Chronicles, wherein we learn about Writer Work Ethics and Plotting 101. Coming to a blog near you in a few weeks.