“Saddle your dreams before you ride them.”
My writing journey started with a horse. It was late 2017, and I was a new Austin transplant. A friend of a friend was helping me build my address book with recommended local doctors, dentists, hairdressers, dry cleaners, and all the other important services that make our lives flow. My new friend ended her long list of numbers by asking if I wanted a riding coach.
Visions of me riding horseback over rolling hills of gnarled pecan trees floated through my head. “Sure. When in Rome,” I’d said. “Is the stable nearby?”
My friend furrowed her brows. “Not riding coach. Writing coach.”
Equally intrigued, I took the number. Some of my favorite childhood memories involved watching Murder, She Wrote with my dad. JB Fletcher had turned her writing hobby into a thriving, adventurous career. Why couldn’t I? I’m a voracious reader and have been writing throughout my entire life—academic writing, technical writing, writing content for marketing. With all that experience, I figured how hard could it be? [Insert thirty minutes of hindsight laughter here.]
Hitting the Trail
Three months later, and after only two sessions with my writing coach, I typed “The End” on the last page of my 50,000-word mystery manuscript. I brimmed with pride until a niggling thought hit me—how long should a mystery be?
According to Google, I was about 25,000 words short. But my enthusiasm didn’t wane. The problem was easily solved by killing another character, which I did within two weeks, and with glee.
Manuscript ready, I turned back to Google because I had no idea what came next. A quick search made me realize that maybe my manuscript wasn’t ready. [Insert gulp of strong margarita here.]
Book after book on the craft of writing appeared in my search results. None of which I’d consulted, so I purchased a few. Each book—from Sol Stein to Stephen King to Lisa Cron—taught me how much I didn’t know. I read about writing and selling mysteries (Hallie Ephron, Jane Cleland), breakout novels (Donald Maass), storytelling (Steven James, Michael Noll), editing (Tiffany Yates Martin, Matt Bell), and saving cats (Blake Snyder). Then I revised and revised. Beta readers provided helpful, painfully honest, feedback, and I revised some more.
Joining the Rodeo
Tired of going on this journey alone, I joined Writer’s League of Texas, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers for insight and connection. I became a class junkie—taking classes on the business and craft of writing from these organizations, as well as Writer’s Digest, Lawson’s Writers Academy, and Foxprint Editorial. I worked with a fantastic editor, who taught me a lot, and revised my manuscript again.
Then I discovered the thrill of mystery conferences. At the action-packed Writers’ Police Academy, I watched emergency responders put out fires, learned how to staunch a gunshot wound, and donned SWAT gear to run rescue drills. By networking at Malice Domestic and Boucheron, I made wonderful writer friends. ThrillerFest, WLT’s Agents & Editors Conference, and Killer Nashville gave me the opportunity to pitch my work to agents, which I did way before my manuscript was ready. [Insert headshake at rookie mistake here.]
I received some partial and full requests, but no offers for representation. I entered contest after contest, all without placing. Through it all, I realized that not only did I love reading twisty mysteries and nail-biting thrillers, but I also loved the people who wrote them, for each set-back I faced was countered with encouragement and support from the writing community.
My mystery had yet to gain traction, so I wrote a thriller with the aid of an insightful book coach to plot my story and a masterful writing instructor to help improve voice.
Riding the Old Town Road
In the spring of 2022, I attended the MIT Endicott House Intensive Writers Workshop, where in between advanced classes, I had the chance for in-depth discussions with award winning, best-selling authors (Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jessica Strawser, Brian Andrews, Paula Munier), a Big Five editor (Dana Isaacson), and a top-notch agent (Paula Munier). They gave me tips on writing, editing, and pitching—and from here, things began to change.
I was nominated as a Best Thriller Finalist at Killer Nashville two months later. At New England Crime Bake in November, my manuscript pitch ended with a full request. In January 2023, I was nominated as a Quarterfinalist in the ScreenCraft Cinematic Book competition. And a month after that, I accepted an offer of representation from the fabulous Paula Munier.
I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go in this journey. But the efforts and struggles of the past five years have helped me saddle my dreams, making me better ready to ride them.
Michelle L. Cullen has lived and traveled all over the world. For almost a decade, she worked as an anthropologist in conflict-affected countries, focusing on projects in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific, where she saw and experienced the best and worst of human behavior.
After (unsuccessfully) trying to save the world, she turned her focus to learning the craft of spin. She has over twelve years of experience with marketing and communications. ML is a member of MWA, SinC, ITW, and Writer’s League of Texas, and when not plotting murder, she’s either doing yoga or playing outside.