[Interview] P. T. Harris

P. T. Harris is an MBA and Citizen’s Police Academy graduate.

Her books include the Detective Priscilla Taylor novels, ASSISTdead and REGRETdead. Currently, she is working on a third detective novel, DICTATEdead.

In this email interview, P. T. Harris talks about her concerns as a writer.

When did you start writing?

Like many, I wrote poems and short stories as a kid and I've always read voraciously, dreaming -- with each "The End" -- of someday penning my own stories.

Three years ago, after corporate America and I got sideways one too many times, I decided that my talent for "too long emails" might be better utilized. So, instead of crafting another resume, I began my Priscilla Taylor detective series.

How did you decide you wanted to be a published author?

The idea always burned in me, but the monthly nut called louder. When the epiphany hit that job security is an oxymoron and trying to fit into someone else's suit had worn me out, I did the most irresponsible of all things. I chose writing as a career. This, mind you, is not a sane decision, so perhaps I had progressed beyond "worn out..."

As an MBA with thirty years of corporate experience, I tackled the project as I would any new product launch.

I designed a product, my character, Priscilla Taylor. I decided on her "features and benefits." The spreadsheet began. Peripheral characters joined her on the sheet -- a partner, the M.E., the department shrink, a best friend. Never would I forget who had blue eyes or how tall I might have made them. She needed a "hook" so I developed one. Every title would end with "dead" in place of the "ed." With forty-plus Priscilla Taylor titles and corresponding mental issues on my spreadsheet, I began writing.

How would you describe your writing?

My genre is crime/detective, but I'm focused on the psychological aspects of crime; what I call "scintillating psychological suspense". I address the scientific aspects minimally -- you won't find a CSI type education in my work. Instead, I prefer to engage the audience in the why versus the how or who.

Do I want to make people think? I suppose to some degree I do. Not too much, though. My work is definitely entertainment, with maybe just a tad bit of thought-provoking thrown in.

Who is your target audience?

Anyone who loves to think, solve mysteries, root for a flawed character, revel in humanity's imperfections.

I couldn't write anything else. I love mysteries, law and order, crime, psychological thriller pieces. They've kept me company on countless flights and entertained me through many sun tanning summers.

What separates us from the rest of the species is our minds. Nothing could be more fascinating to me than stories which delve into our motivations, reactions, and their resultant outcomes.

Who influenced you most?

I'm a Kellerman fan, Jonathan and Faye. I love Patricia Cornwell, John Sandford, Richard North Patterson, David Baldacci, Robert K. Tannenbaum. Did I mention, I'm a law and order mystery buff?

I love the mind; how it works, the challenges it overcomes, the disastrous situations it (often) leads us into. It's the why, always the why that fascinates me.

If life had do-overs, I'd probably have chosen a career in psychiatry or law. Now, I fulfill both of those fantasies in my writing. I can play arm-chair psychologist or put away the bad guys with my keyboard.

As a writer, what are your main concerns?

Evoking emotion. Keeping the reader engaged. Not crossing the line between making them think and making them uncomfortable.

I write, with my voice, and accept the reality every author faces. Fiction is like food and everyone has different tastes. My work won't please every palate.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Eating. Paying the mortgage. I thought I understood the business end of writing; that I'd done my research like grad school taught me. I hadn't.

I didn't realize agents/publishers see 1.3 million submission annually for a publishing schedule of maybe 200,000 books. I didn't realize the average author makes about $4,000 a year, or that almost 80% of books sell less than a hundred copies.

I didn't realize that writing the book was the easy part. The true challenge is selling it.

Would that have changed my direction? No.

I've loved every minute of writing; every critique class that's made me go home and cry; every rejection letter I've received. Why? Because I love my work. I love when I get it right, love when I'm eating out and a couple walks in that I can't wait to write into a scene, love when I'm researching. I love the process. You can't write for wealth and fame. You have to write for your soul.

How many books have you written so far?

I've completed two novels, ASSISTdead and REGRETdead, both self-published in 2007 as ebooks.

ASSISTdead introduces Detective Priscilla Taylor, who takes every murder personally. As she struggles to find the killer, more than a few of her most private failures make front page headlines. Can she unravel the case before she unravels, or will she succumb to this most public psychic persecution?

In the sequel, REGRETdead, Detective Priscilla Taylor faces a case that won't go away, a case too vile for words, and a personal onslaught that just might destroy her as she addresses the toughest of questions: Everyone has regrets. What if yours killed?

Do you write everyday?

Lately, I haven't been writing, except in my head. I'm not suffering writer's block; in fact my notes list is growing daily. Other things have simply kept me from organizing all those notes.

One of the things I love about writing is I'm always working, whether it's while I'm pulling weeds or cleaning the bathroom. Some people use storyboards to capture their plot. I don't. I free-write sequentially. The notes I make help me throw in a unique character, some line I found funny or compelling, or toss in some fact I stumbled across.

I always carry a 3x5 notepad with me and jot down ideas as they come, then transfer them to a word document.

When I sit down to write, I review my notes list first, then reread the last couple of chapters to refresh myself on where I am in the storyline. The storyline itself has a begining and an end. The part in between? I rely on my characters to lead me there.

How did you chose a publisher for the books you've written so far?

I completed my first two books in about a year and a half. It was important to me, before I sought publication, that I proved I had more than one book in me.

Secondly, I thought demonstrating my ability to deliver more than one manuscript would make be more marketable. Once "The End" hit the page for REGRETdead, (after numerous editing and rewriting) I began the query letter process.

Six months later, I had 67 rejection letters, one agent who agreed to represent me, an "I really thought about it, but no," agent response, and a contract from a new publisher. The agent had a poor reputation and the new publisher wouldn't be able to deliver my book for two years.

The question had to be asked. Would that publisher survive two years? I researched self-publishing, and in the end, I chose ebooks. My capital outlay for the software was low and, no matter who published me, it would still be up to me to sell my work.

What advantages or disadvantages has this presented?

The challenges are many. Ebooks are in their infancy as far as acceptance, with a few major sites dominating ebook sales. A stand alone website in the Internet universe is tough to generate a presence for. Without a tangible product, readings don't result in sales.

The advantages? I set the sales price. This is the key reason I didn't go with another ebook site. I couldn't get my head around the idea that I, no-brand-name P. T. Harris, could sell tons of books at the same price or higher than say, Kellerman or Sandford.

Since most authors make little on the first couple of books, I sought to use the ebook format as a venue to build my own brand by delivering great fiction at just $3.99 per book. Then, two or three books later, my major publisher (she dreams) can reissue ASSISTdead and REGRETdead.

Time will tell whether the strategy pays off.

Like writing itself, success as an author seldom arrives in one moment. It's a series of moments that work toward the end result.

Which aspect of the work you put into REGRETdead did you find most difficult?

Editing! I hate the process, but it's necessary, and I use the following quote to remind me why: " "You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke" -- Arthur Polotnik.

Editing is boring, redundant, takes time away from creating new words, and never ending. I can't stop tweaking. Thank God! I'd probably edited REGRETdead five or six times before I realized a major plot gap. This is where free-writing can kill you.

Now, to make it easier, I edit as I go along. When I reread a chapter, I'm also editing. Second, I build the chapter by chapter synopsis as I go along. Some agents require them and it helps me keep the plot in line.

What did you enjoy most?

I love dialogue. In fact, writing description is work. (Maybe I should try screenplays?) I love humor, which can be dangerous, and I love inner thoughts.

I write first person and Priscilla is always in her head. Well, sometimes those thoughts that should remain unspoken pop out, but most of her sarcasm and distaste for others rambles in her brain while she smiles sweetly.

Again, it's the psychological aspects of human beings that I find fascinating -- their self-doubts, their humor, their concerns, their convictions. Dialogue and inner thoughts let me express those ideas.

What sets REGRETdead apart from other things you've written?

In the corporate world I wrote proposals and programs. In my youth I wrote about teenage angst. (Didn't most of us?)

Now, I've written two almost four hundred page novels.

The accomplishment of weaving together plotlines and characters and ideas, twice, is what sets these works apart.

In what way is it all similar?

Grammar counts. Punctuation counts (and, oh, do I struggle with commas -- like using them way too often.) Spelling counts. You need a beginning, middle and end.

You are trying to compel people to read on; you have to use "the word." You need continuity of thought, a logical progression, understandable and believable situations.

Anytime you put words to paper you are asking someone to accept your voice, whether it's a sales proposal, a love letter, or a fiction novel.

Honor your reader by presenting your absolute best.

What will your next book be about?

The third novel in my series, DICTATEdead, finds Detective Taylor facing the police chief's retribution for some of her questionable actions during REGRETdead.

Now, as punishment, the highly successful homicide detective isn't working a heinous murder; she's investigating a series of dummy dissections left in city parks. Under the guise of having an opportunity to stop a potential murderer, and with the Chief's nephew as her new partner, she again finds herself under the media's microscope. Can she figure out what rage drives her perpetrator before she faces an actual corpse, or will this case be the embarrassing end to her career?

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I have a one minute monologue due for publication in an actor's handbook this fall, and a piece in an anthology that is still seeking a publisher, but my greatest achievement is that I have completed two novels.

Many start out with the same goal I did.

I actually achieved it.

This article was first published by OhmyNews International.


Anonymous said…
great!.. working on my first book!

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