The Sun City Sluts, that is.
Three talented women who shared a dream, a few bottles of wine and a fantasy — revenge, and otherwise – that they needed to get out of their very pretty and slightly wicked heads.
So they wrote a novel. Together. Planned it, nailed it, lived to tell about it.
They did it working from a well-crafted story plan and… well, I’ll let them tell you.
The result is Murder at Cape Foulweather, a self-published novel with attitude, a twised sense of humor and some ironic twists. All strategically sound, dramatically compelling and… did I say a little twisted? I think I did. That’s the part that sticks.
Here’s why you’re going to like it: it’s about writers and writing workshops and grouchy irascible writing teachers with an attitude and perhaps an agenda of their own.
They swear it’s not me, even though all of them have been in my workshops, where I tend to work myself into a dither. I was secretly wishing it was, but hey, I’ll settle for a subtle and sweet nod in the interview that follows… right now.
Here’s what you’ll learn: what the process and challenges to self-publishing are, what is feels like, and now to not kill your writing partner(s). Or yourself. Give this a shot. They’re good. You’ll relate, too.
The Sun City Sluts are: Marjorie Reynolds, Susan Clayton-Goldner and Martha Miller.
Larry: How did three experienced writers, each with your own projects and goals get together to write a collaborative story?
Marjie: The five women who became the Sun City Sluts met at a workshop on the Oregon Coast about eighteen years ago and soon were friends. Each winter after that, we gathered at Jane Sutherland’s house near Palm Springs to write, talk writing and critique each other’s work. When we’re together, we can’t seem to stop laughing. That’s one of the best things about our group—that and the love and support we get from each other. We have our own creed. “Men come and go but girlfriends are forever.” I think our sisterhood is unique because we really believe in each other’s talent and we cheer when one of us has success. When Susan, Martha and I acquired agents, all five sluts were overjoyed.
Martha: It was during one of those get-togethers, which always brings out the party girl in us, when someone held up a wine glass and piped, “We should write a book about us.” We had already jokingly dubbed ourselves the Sun City Sluts, a name that both tickled and embarrassed. The idea stuck and it wasn’t long before we started the actual writing. Once we got going, we couldn’t stop, because the words came without the usual writerly angst or the old editor-on-the-shoulder curse.
Susan: Two of the five women opted out of the actual writing due to the distance involved and the desire to work on their own projects. So, three of us, Martha Miller from Portland, Oregon, Marjorie (Marjie) Reynolds from Camano Island, Washington, and Susan Goldner from Grants Pass, Oregon, decided to write the book. We put together some character sketches. Susan Domingos from Lafayette, California and Jane Sutherland from Seattle and Palm Springs contributed their own character sketches for the Paige and Babs characters.
Larry: What did the process look like? Did you work from a story plan (and how did you get to THAT?) or was the story truly “pantsed” from the like-minds of three authors?
Martha: We definitely had a story plan. We came up first with the concept: What if five best friends went to a writing workshop in a remote area, got trapped by a destructive storm, witnessed a murder and had to find the killer or be killed themselves? From there, the story took shape. Hey, I didn’t take Larry’s class on story structure five times without having his structural paradigm burned into my brain. Marjie had long ago internalized story structure and Susan is a fabulous writer, so it all came together.
Susan: Martha, Marjie and I live a few hundred miles from each other but Martha’s house was equidistant for both of us so we tended to gather there. Why not? She’d already dubbed her house The Write Place. Set on the banks of the Columbia River, it is a peaceful and beautiful spot to put the creative forces to work. Once we’d developed a rough outline, we assigned writers for the individual scenes. We have all read books written by this incredibly handsome and very nice instructor (with a cameo in our novel, I might add), who has convinced us that writing by the seat of our pants rarely results in a cohesive book. Whenever possible, the three of us met for planning and writing sessions. We also used email and phone calls to work out problems. Marjie coordinated the project and edited the final manuscript.
One of the most important things we did was to write up a contract in which the proceeds of the book would be distributed according to the amount of effort each writer put into the process. At first it didn’t seem necessary because we were just having fun, but it turned out to be a very good idea. It’s the best way to avoid resentment, and we would recommend a contract for any group who wants to collaborate on a book.
Marjie: The conception was easier than the lengthy pregnancy (about a year and a half), and choosing the book’s name set off grueling labor pains. The delivery was also an ordeal, but Murder at Cape Foulweather has been born as a Kindle book and a paperback on Amazon and is doing well. Believe it or not, the three of us are preparing for another pregnancy as if we’ve forgotten all about the labor pains.
In Murder at Cape Foulweather, the Sun City Sluts attend the writing workshop on the pretense they want to learn more about the craft, but what really attracts them is Seamus O’Brien, a gorgeous hunk of a man who runs his classes like a drill sergeant. Several sluts try to seduce him but only one succeeds. We each took on one of the slut personas and wrote the scenes from our character’s point of view.
I’m Jamie, a shy, willowy brunette. Susan is Ruby Jean, a southern belle, and Martha is Roz, the wild one in the group. We took turns writing from the POV of the other characters: Paige, a wealthy socialite, and Babs, a mother hen who unsuccessfully tries to organize us and keep us in line. We have all grown as writers over the last eighteen years and some of us have published our work through traditional channels. We know the craft and agree on the same writing principles. Martha and Susan are natural comedians, so the wacky humor in the book comes from them.
Larry: Any war stories?
Susan: War stories? Not really. Over the past 20 years, the three of us have become close friends and know each other the way sisters often do. The writing process went smoothly until my knee surgery slowed me down and I was unable to make the trips to Portland. Martha and Marjie took up the slack and wrote the remainder of the scenes. I still did some editing when possible via email.
Martha: There was no warring between the three writers. And while uploading the manuscript to Kindle was easy, when the Sun City Sluts met CreateSpace, our choice for the print edition, it has been a little like war: laborious, frustrating, with a clear winner not yet in sight. Perhaps that’s because we did it ourselves. It was/is a real learning process. Thanks to Marjie being a whiz at Microsoft Word, we managed to publish it this time, but next time we might hire a formatter.
Marjie: When I researched indie publishing, I felt overwhelmed by the information available. I attended workshops and read books and blogs on the subject until my eyes crossed. Although I had once worked in a movie advertising agency, the prospect of marketing our novel seemed tremendously daunting. We had to learn how to use resources such as Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace, LinkedIn, Good Reads and Weebly. When would we have time to write? We’ve had to learn to compartmentalize. We’re making progress on the process day by day, handling the promotion in small bites, building an audience as we go. It’s nice to know the book won’t be pulled off the shelf in a few months so we have plenty of time. And, of course, we’ve started our new Sun City Slut mystery, tentatively titled Murder Aboard the S. S. Kevorkian.
Larry: You all have relationships with agents. Did you pursue any traditional publishing options before going the self-publishing route? What was your experience in getting the book out there? Is the conventional wisdom on this process accurate, or were there landmines along the way? Did you use a third-party formatter? How about cover art?
Martha: All three of us have agents but they passed on this project. We queried other agents and had some close calls, but no brass ring. We decided to go ahead and self-publish, because we continued to believe the book had merit and could make others laugh. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all I really wanted this book to do: to make people laugh. There’s plenty of dark stuff out there already.
Susan: One agent almost took on the manuscript, but at the last minute decided it wasn’t for her. We were disappointed but not deterred. After the usual licking of wounds, and a few glasses of bubbly, we decided to pursue the self-pub avenue.
Marjie: It took twelve drafts for us to get the formatting on CreateSpace accurate, but it will be easier for the next book. Martha’ s son, Keith Miller, generously created the cover art, using an image we purchased for $21 from Shutterstock. We tried to stick to the “make-it-eye-catching-but simple” philosophy we’d read about on some self-publishing blogs. Indie publishing is great but it unfortunately has a reputation for shoddy production values. Too many self-published books are filled with typos and awkward prose. We went over and over our book, trying to make the whole package as professional as possible.
Larry: Can you describe the emotional experience of this journey so far? Have you encountered the unexpected? Marjie: What I like most about self-publishing is the freedom I feel. It brings back the joy of writing and reminds me of those early days when I was so deep into my fictional dream that I lost track of time. It’s sheer creative flow and I love it. We don’t have to worry whether we’re pleasing an agent or an editor. We simply write the story that delights us and makes us laugh. It’s relaxed and unfettered, but we still keep our high standards. We want a book we can be proud of. We hope there are women out there who see life the way we do and who value their friendships as much as we do.
Martha: The positive response to this light-hearted little book is surprising and rewarding. We don’t expect to be laughing all the way to the bank (pardon the cliché), but when someone says our story is fun to read, I feel rich.
Susan: All of us will consider self-publishing for some of our own projects. It is important to have a professional editor before putting your project into print. Marjie acted in this capacity for us. Get input from others. And carefully proofread. Mistakes are embarrassing.
Larry: What have you learned from this, and what would you do differently next time, either with the next book in this series, or your own projects?
Marjie: What have I learned? Instant gratification. We don’t have to wait the years it takes to go through the New York publishing route. We can hold our novel in our hands within weeks after finishing the final draft. What a good feeling!
Martha: I feel a little bit like I’ve been let out of prison. I’m no longer bound by the need to snag and then satisfy an agent who then must snag and satisfy an editor for traditional publication. I now know here’s another way. But it requires accomplished craft, a cracking good story and a willingness to work at marketing.
Susan: I have to admit I had more fun writing this book than any of my others. I let go of the internal critic and just wrote for the pure joy of it, making myself and others laugh.
Larry: Feel free to add anything that you believe contextually contributes to this path.
Marjie: In one of the scenes, the sluts are discussing the killer’s motive. Here’s the passage:
Paige raised her hand. “I have an idea. Let’s brainstorm what Norman’s motive might be. We can do the ‘what if’ exercise we learned at the Portland workshop last summer from that fabulously handsome instructor named Larry.”
“Okay,” Roz said. “Let’s try it.”
Can you guess who the “fabulously handsome instructor” is? We swear we put that in months and months before we knew Larry was going to interview us.
Martha: Many people have commented that they think writing a novel collaboratively would be difficult, but in this case, it made the process easier. We apparently share a similar sense of humor; there’s no jealousy or rivalry between the three of us, and we all believe in the importance of good craft.
Susan: I think Marjie and Martha covered my additional insights. But I do want to express my gratitude to Larry again for posting this interview. One of the things I’m realizing as I move forward on the writing path: Friends are important and we need to help our fellow writers in whatever ways we can.