April 30, 2012

Made It Moment: Steve Ulfelder

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 9:17 am

Purgatory Chasm

Steve Ulfelder, by almost anyone’s accounting, has made it.  His debut novel was nominated for a major award in the industry. But his Moment speaks of other forms of success. What it’s like to have a top agent in your corner, year in, year out. And at the end of the day, the only real measure a writer can use to gauge his or her success. What is it? Steve is about to tell you.

Steve Ulfelder

How did I know I’d made it?

Seems like a simple question – but the answer is complicated.

I thought I’d made it five years ago when a small publisher, the first I queried, agreed to buy my first Conway Sax novel.

That publisher spent the next 18 months going out of business. Turned out I hadn’t made it after all.

During that initial query process, I got the break I was (and continue to be) supremely grateful for: agent Janet Reid, known to many for her blogging prowess, agreed to represent me.

Between the near-miss with the first book and the day Minotaur agreed to buy PURGATORY CHASM, I would slog through some rough days. PURGATORY was the third Conway Sax book; the first two were rejected all over New York, then all over the country. Hell, I think they were rejected overseas a few times. Janet’s optimism and enthusiasm for my work were about all that kept me plunking away at the keyboard.

I know how hard writers work to find an agent. It’s only gotten tougher these past few years. I have nothing but admiration for unpublished novelists who keep slogging away, waiting for that partial, then full, request. I don’t know if I’d have kept at it without Janet.

How did I know I’d made it? This is the real answer: I don’t. Because I haven’t.

PURGATORY CHASM was nominated for the Best First Novel Edgar, and that’s fantastic. Conway2, THE WHOLE LIE, comes out in a few weeks and has earned strong reviews. That’s great too.

But every morning, when I pat the dog’s head one last time and don my noise-canceling headphones to attack Conway3, I feel the same knot in my stomach that I felt before any of these good things happened. I need to prove it all over again by writing the best thousand words I can come up with.

Writing books for money is a tough racket. There are talented, hard-working people all over the place. Want to know if I think I’ve made it? Ask me at about noon on any weekday. That’s when I can tell you if I wrote a thousand decent words that day, and that’s all that matters.

Steve Ulfelder is an amateur race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports Inc., a company that builds race cars. In addition to being nominated for MWA’s Best First Novel Edgar, his debut, Purgatory Chasm, has been named Best First Mystery of 2011 by RT Book Reviews. His second novel, The Whole Lie, comes out May 8.


  1. At the risk of sounding extremely self-involved (oh who am I kidding, I AM self-involved) this is a terrific post.

    Not for the kind words (but wow, thank you Steve!) but for the phrase “I need to prove it all over again by writing the best thousand words I can come up with.”

    That’s the “secret” of success right there. Writing. Every word. Every day.

    Thanks Jenny for getting a great piece from Steve. You rock!

    Comment by Janet Reid — April 30, 2012 @ 9:54 am

  2. Eeeep – this is both exciting and terrifying!!! Exciting to know I’m not the only writer plagued with self-doubt (are there any writers NOT plagued with self-doubt? I’m starting to wonder…). Also exciting that you were nominated for the Edgar – Congrats!

    Terrifying because I just had a small publisher agree to publish my first novel…now I’m just hoping they won’t spend the next 18 months going out of business.

    Fingers and toes crossed that we all one day feel like we’ve made it! Cheers!

    Comment by Leah Rhyne — April 30, 2012 @ 10:05 am

  3. Great post, Jenny. And I agree with Janet. “I need to prove it all over again by writing the best thousand words I can come up with” are words to live by.
    And I do.

    Comment by Michelle L. Johnson — April 30, 2012 @ 10:08 am

  4. Thanks for the reminder that we have to earn success every day. Even on a bad day when a rejection comes in, or when I feel like I’ll never sell a single book, if I managed to write something I can be proud of, I was successful today.

    Someday I hope to measure success in books sold, but even then, real success will always be one day’s work at a time. Thanks for the great post, and the great reminder.

    Comment by Laura Hughes — April 30, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  5. I definitely agree with this. Every time I sit down to write, that’s the challenge I give myself. Write the best words you can write, each and every time you sit down at the keyboard. And keep trying, no matter what. Keep plugging away.

    Congratulations on being represented by Janet Reid, I have the utmost respect and admiration for her and her work as the QueryShark. Also congratulations on being nominated for such a fantastic award. I can only hope to achieve this much success some day.

    Comment by Thomas A. Knight — April 30, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  6. This is so true. I almost dread that feeling of “made it,” because I’ve learned that soon to follow is a reminder I’m a long way off. This business is like riding a perpetual roller coaster.

    Comment by Kathleen Kaska — April 30, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  7. Great perspective from Steve and excellent post, Jenny :o)

    Comment by Tina-Sue — April 30, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  8. Thanks for the insight. I’m on the journey to finding an agent and being published. I’ve only vaguely thought about, “when I make it”, I’m not really sure when I will know I have, perhaps it really is a mixture of all you described above. Appreciate you taking the time to share your experience!

    Comment by TC Avey — April 30, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  9. Jenny, thanks for the opportunity to guest-blog. And thanks, all, for the kind words. BTW, I wrote 1533 words today. Some of them were good! Of course, figuring out which ones is the tricky part . . .

    Comment by Steve Ulfelder — April 30, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  10. Congrats, Steve, on the Edgar nomination. I loved Purgatory Chasm. For me, success is measured in the goals I’ve achieved. For many years, I dreamed of being a writer. For that to happen, it means actually writing! Finding the time was hard, but I did it. The first time I typed ‘The End’ was a goal achieved. After that, it was submitting to contests. After that, it was nailing the query letter… finding my agent… inking my first publishing contract….

    With each goal met, a new one takes it place. If I sat and waited for the millions, I’d go nuts. In other words, it’s not the destination… it’s the stops along the journey :)

    Comment by Patty Blount — April 30, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  11. I, too, congratulate you, Steve on landing Janet Reid and for the Edgar nomination. That, alone, is “made it” to me. Thank you, Jenny for introducing us to Steve and his work.

    I have to say, I was in another career before writing and I managed, somehow, to achive a moderate amount of stardom with it, but I NEVER felt I had made it. There was always so much more to learn or do or create. I’ve just had a book published and I still feel the same way. It doesn’t bother me at all, though. It’s kind of like something I heard Sophia Loren say once, “I’ll never grow old until I stop growing up.”

    Comment by Coco Ihle — April 30, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  12. Steve, I’m glad you perservered–I just finished Purgatory Chasm, and it was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Kudos! Can’t wait for the next one!

    Comment by Alan Orloff — April 30, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  13. Congrats Steve! You obviously wrote a great book and you a have a great agent on your side. Your perseverance seems to be key. Thanks for the tip on the noise-canceling headphones. (Will they drown out screeching cats?) Thanks Jenny for another great blog post!

    Comment by Pamela DuMond — April 30, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

  14. Great moment!!!

    Comment by Kellie — April 30, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

  15. So true. “Made it” is one of those goals that keep moving ahead of you – sorta like “tomorrow”. Great post and great-looking books! Best of luck.

    Comment by mountainmama — April 30, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  16. Steve … Great post! Congratulations on your successes – you’ve earned those and more.
    A wonderful look into the mind and heart – and soul – of a writer.

    Comment by P.L. Blair — May 1, 2012 @ 9:04 am

  17. Steve, maybe you *have* made it… Because you acknowledge you haven’t. Because you’ve realized there is no “making it”–it’s an ongoing process, an ongoing learning curve, an ongoing challenge. The next book is all there is–previous publication can soothe on those lonely nights when everything you write–every single word, damn it–is nothing but crap (it isn’t, but you can’t see it, or it *is*, and tomorrow you’ll delete the whole chapter and create genius). But, in the end, this authorhood thing is an ongoing thing. Realizing that is perhaps what separates the “successes” from the amateurs.

    Great post–thank you for sharing with such candidness!

    Comment by Guilie — May 1, 2012 @ 10:01 am

  18. I *LOVED* this. Thank you so much. I love how humble Steve is about his success, how generous he is in giving credit to his agent, and how dedicated and focused he is on each step of the process (or a thousand words a day). It’s so hard to stay that present, to look neither ahead or behind, but just stay totally focused on the task at hand without letting anxiety distract your brain.

    I dare say this is a very yogic mindset. Steve: May I ask if you have a yoga or meditation practice? Or maybe you’re just lucky to have a naturally stay-present mind ;)

    Comment by Sara — May 1, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  19. Hi Sara. I’ve never tried yoga (though my wife has, and loves it) or meditation. So maybe I’m just lucky!

    Comment by Steve Ulfelder — May 1, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  20. Steve, each afternoon when those thousand morning words are saved on Word, reward yourself by getting in one of those race cars!

    All the best, fellow writer….

    Comment by "Doctor Barbara" - Barbara Ebel — May 1, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

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