December 16, 2013

Made It Moment: Sally Wright

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 8:38 am

Breeding Ground

Every Made It Moment tells a story. The story of a book, of an industry that’s in continual flux, and ultimately of a writer. Some parts of Sally Wright’s story will be familiar to us–the near-successes, the hitches, the times it seems like it’s t-h-i-s close (but isn’t), and what happens after the happily-ever-after. But there are some unexpected elements in here as well, including the bucked death sentence. (As befits any good mystery). Read on to get a feel for what this business looked like a long time ago, and what an Edgar-nominated writer who has survived decided to do.

Sally Wright

The Elusiveness of Made-It-Moments

Well, the first almost-made-it-moment was when an editor promised me a contract within a week for the first Ben Reese mystery, Publish And Perish. I waited four, and phoned, and his secretary told me to call him at home. He said he was on another call and would phone me back as soon as he got off. I waited four hours, and called again. He said he was on another call, but would call me back immediately.

He didn’t; his secretary did, and said he’d asked her to tell me that “he’d have to pass on the book” (which brought the word “wimp” rapidly to mind, and made me assume he hadn’t gotten Publish through his publishing committee).

My next semi-made-it-moment felt like a real one because I actually GOT a contract, and a modest advance, and spent a month doing revisions for the editor – before she told my then-agent that the publisher had decided to “get out of fiction altogether.”

Then, another editor, Rod Morris, at another house, who’d liked Publish And Perish but had had it turned down by his publishing committee, heard the book was available again, and asked my agent to resubmit. The former committee members were now gone, and Rod ended-up offering me a three book deal.

He was a wonderful editor whom I loved working with, and I felt incredible relief that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life unpublished. I’d started my first novel seventeen years before (which, along with a second, and a work of non-fiction, still haven’t been published), and seeing a book in print made me feel as though I wasn’t just a self-deluded fool.

When I sent a trade paper copy of Publish to a former-editor-of-a-writer-friend to ask marketing advice, she sent it to Joe Blades at Ballantine without mentioning it to me. He was known in NY as “Mr. Mystery” then, and two days later, he, much to my amazement, bought the mass market rights for all three books.

When Pursuit And Persuasion, the third Ben Reese mystery, had been out a few months (and I’d spent every cent of my advance paying a NY PR firm to get me reviews), I got home from the horse barn where of a friend of mine kept Max (the one-eyed horse in Watches Of The Night) for me, and saw the light blinking on my answering machine. I was freezing, filthy and covered with horse hair, and our only good rug was between me and the machine, but I walked over and pushed the play button, expecting it to be one of our post-college kids.

Doris Ann Norris, who calls herself the “thousand year old librarian” (and appears to have hung-out with every mystery writer in the last fifty years), had left me a message. “Congratulations! I just heard that Pursuit And Persuasion’s been nominated for an Edgar Alan Poe Award by Mystery Writers of America!”

MWA called later and confirmed, but hearing Doris Ann’s message made my heart stick in my throat. That was the moment for me … since I’d first been published … since Ballantine bought the books … since Marilyn Stasio at the NY Times Review of Books had favorably reviewed Publish and Perish (my first book! of all things) as well as Pursuit And Persuasion.

And yet, the path wasn’t straight from there, even after the fourth Ben Reese came out. Editors – who think your fifth book’s the best, and intend to put real money behind you for the first time – get thwarted by company presidents and suddenly retire. Other publishers don’t want a new book when they don’t own the series backlist … and you end-up scrambling again, trying to find a publisher for the next two books.

This is an oft told tale. Which makes me ask, “What do we mean by ‘made it?’” I’m very grateful that I was published by the editors who published my six Ben Reese novels. I’m extremely glad I was nominated for an Edgar. But don’t we always want the next thing – the one we haven’t got?

I’ve been told three times in the last two years that I only have six months to live. I wrote a new mystery during that time about a woman architect in the early sixties in Kentucky horse country. It’s been the writing, the thinking, the work itself that’s mattered to me – much more than the hope of success, or the hope of praise, or any possible award. Breeding Ground – being able to work with the horse world in Lexington, to write about three family horse businesses fraught with family conflict, about caregiving, and discouragement too, and what can come out of suffering – actually being here to publish it myself, and begin to plan the next book – that’s what’s meant the most.

When I got discouraged (which I did fairly often) in the seventeen years before I was published, my husband would say, “A writer is someone who writes.” It’s getting to do the work, to write something that I think is worth writing about, that – excluding my faith and my family – is the gift I’m most grateful for every day I’m given.

Sally Wright is the author of six Ben Reese mysteries: Publish And Perish, Pride And Predator, Pursuit And Persuasion (a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award Finalist in 2001), Out Of The Ruins, Watches Of The Night (published in June 2008) and Code Of Silence, a prequel to the series (published in December 2008).

Wright was born obsessed with books, and started pecking-out florid adventure stories with obvious endings by the time she turned seven. She wrote and performed music in high school and college, earned a degree in oral interpretation of literature at Northwestern University, and then completed graduate work at the University of Washington. She published many biographical articles, including pieces on Malcolm Muggeridge and Nikolai Tolstoy, Leo’s grandnephew, before she wrote her Ben Reese books.

Reviewers compare Wright’s work to that of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. Wright herself says that her literary influences range from all of those to Tolstoy and Jane Austen, from P.D. James to Dick Francis.


  1. Bravo, Sally~ I appreciated reading about your journey. One thing we writers are is persistent – you have to be. This business is not for the faint of heart. But oh, the rewards are great. That of hearing a reader say ‘Your darn book kept me up all night’ the most satisfying. Congratulations on the Edgar nomination. A huge feat.
    And thanks to Jenny for this, who also published my own ‘Made it Moment’. :) You are such a friend to authors, Jenny, along with being an amazing author yourself. Continued success to both of you.


    Comment by Joan Hall Hovey — December 16, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  2. This was such a beacon of well-reasoned thought on this chilly morning. I’m at the beginning of the submission process for my new novel. It’s scary. Someone passed. I, predictably, burst into tears. There are all the questions and self-doubts and more questions, but today your post reminded me that most people don’t have a single moment. It’s a collection of moments that are gathered and appreciated along the way.

    Thank you!

    Comment by Johanna — December 16, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  3. A fascinating (and all too common) story of a traditional publishing career — I hope this new phrase brings you every possible satisfaction, Sally!

    Comment by Sandra Hutchison — December 16, 2013 @ 9:40 am

  4. Phase, not phrase. (I need a morning copy editor!)

    Comment by Sandra Hutchison — December 16, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  5. Joan, thank you as always for your kind words and warmth. You’ve been a beacon to me all along this road–not least because of your wonderful books.

    Johanna, ooh, I am wishing you much, much, MUCH success on submission. One pass is nothing. Don’t even think about it–onward now to the next. You have an agent who believes in you, a GREAT agent, and will have as you say, many Moments along the way.

    Isn’t Sally’s story great??

    Comment by jenny — December 16, 2013 @ 9:42 am

  6. Sandy, I think what you say is true–but not ALWAYS true, you know? The #1 question I get in workshops is, How do I decide which path is right for me? And what they’re essentially asking is, How do I know if traditional OR self publishing will go well for me?

    Answering that question is a) impossible but b) worth a workshop in of itself, to my mind.

    Comment by jenny — December 16, 2013 @ 9:45 am

  7. Sally, love the photo. You look like the determined lady I know you are! I loved BREEDING GROUND, as you know, and am so glad you decided just to go ahead and publish it yourself. I think many agents and publishing committees are beginning to wake up to the fact that it’s a whole new world and finally the author is in charge.

    Keeping my nose to the grindstone and my ear to the ground (hard to type from that position) I have noticed that more and more agents and editors are bailing out from the publishing conglomerates and setting themselves up as freelance editors. More power to them, I say.

    I read e-books almost exclusively these days. I read a print book only when an e-book is not available and I can’t wait for one.

    But enough about you. Let’s talk about me. (lame humor, sorry about that)

    Best of luck. I hope your health is improving. Sending you the warmest thoughts for Christmas and the brand new year.

    Comment by Pat Browning — December 16, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  8. Thank you all so much for your very interesting and kind remarks. Ralph McInerny (the Father Dowling mysteries and well known professor and philosophy scholar) told me when I first met him that the mystery writers’ community is more generous and helpful to each other by far than other writing group he’d encountered (and he’d encountered several). I met him before I’d published, and his endorsement of my first Ben Reese undoubtedly helped get me reviewed as a first time author – for Ralph was a VERY kind and generous man.

    He was right too. Mystery writers and readers go out of their way to encourage and help each other, and I appreciate the friendship and support I’ve been given – especially Jenny. She goes out of her way for us all.


    Comment by sally wright — December 16, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

  9. Sally, such an inspiring post! I thought I had been through a lot before finally grabbing the brass ring, but you are proof that there’s always a story that can top “anything.” So glad you persevered, and sending best wishes for health and new horizons.

    Comment by Terry Shames — December 16, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  10. Sally, I’m still amazed at the back-stories I hear to anyone who pursues a creative career. What looks like a smooth ride to the top is often quite harrowing. Perseverance is the key and it’s probably best to learn that early.
    I had just read your post, Sally, when I turned to the news and saw this bit from the autobiography of Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine (who died a few days ago) and immediately I thought of your posting!
    From her book NO BED OF ROSES (1987) — “Looking back on Hollywood…what it possesses is not the lavishness, the perpetual sunshine, the golden opportunities, but fear. Careers often begin by chance there and they can evaporate just as quickly.”
    So, write on, Sally, write on! Here’s to healthy sunshine for you in 2014 and waaay beyond. Kay

    Comment by Kay Kendall — December 16, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  11. I’m starting to think you’ve made it if you get up one more time than they knock you down. I’m also starting to think part of being a writer is having your heart stomped on by agents, editors, publishers, and even readers.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — December 16, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

  12. I agree with Carolyn, but would add that being a writer also includes getting a wonderful note from a reader just when you were ready to stay down. Welcome to your new adventure, Sally.

    Comment by Nancy Lynn Jarvis — December 17, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

  13. Sally, your story is similar to mine, except that I needed even more than 17 years to get published. My first published book (which was rejected by 20 NY imprints before Poisoned Pen Press bought it) won the Agatha Award. But did that mean I was firmly established, successful and famous? Excuse me while I roll on the floor laughing. Unless you’re in the very top tier, it will always be a struggle.

    Comment by Sandra Parshall — January 5, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

  14. Sally, your story is hugely inspiring to all of us – Jenny, thank you so much for publishing it.

    In the short time since first publishing, I have found writers in every genre willing to spend time and effort in helping others – it is the most uplifting experience. Ralph’s comments about mystery writers can be extended to pretty much every genre IMHO.

    I hope you all have many joys in 2014 and will be sending healing energy and keeping an eye on this blog and Sally’s website for good news.
    Many Blessings and good wishes to you both. xxx

    Comment by Jacky Gray — January 10, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

  15. I haven’t read the comments here since mid-December because I’ve been virtually asleep – like many others – with one of the season’s more vicious flus. I am happy to be vertical and reading the kind, serious, thoughtful posts of Jenny’s obviously loyal followers.

    Ours is an interesting path in life, is it not? Nikolai Tolstoy (who’s a British historian and non-fiction and fiction writer who’s well known in the UK – and is also Leo Tolstoy’s grand-nephew) allowed me to write about him when I was trying to get my first novel published. He told me then that he thinks one of the differences in our work and most others’ is that a waitress, or an accountant, or a lawyer, or a floral designer get feedback every day. If they don’t do a good job, there’s some kind of upfront reaction. We write and write and write alone without objective feedback, and they we send our books out – our children, in some visceral sense – in a complete vacuum – only to have them rejected (usually, certainly when we’re starting out). Nikolai thinks that makes us sensitive and vulnerable and that part of the process of trying to get published is to teach us to accept and learn from criticism.

    I think he’s right, and confronting our rejection helps us to get better – to listen to those with experience. Which has changed in various ways with the self-publishing movement today. There can be wonderful books self-published, but there are also author’s who’ve never been trained and disciplined by the feedback of a hostile world.

    That concerned me with Breeding Ground – that I didn’t have the input of an editor I respected. Which means when you folks read it and tell me what you think, I really appreciate the feedback.

    Anyway, thank you all so much for taking the time to comment on the piece Jenny very kindly gave me a chance to write.

    Comment by sally wright — January 10, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

  16. Such an inspirational piece and such determination. I enjoyed reading it and am filled with respect. Having been through similar experiences with Record Companies – the constant mobility of staff who matter – and all that it entails, I can relate totally to your frustration, then the joy and amazement when it all falls into place. Good luck with the future and all you write and publish. :)

    Comment by Jane Risdon — January 30, 2014 @ 6:59 am

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