Renee James: On Writing a Trans Crime Novel
Author: Mitch Kellaway
June 30, 2014
Your novel has been self-published. It’s already won several indie awards. You tread new ground as a transgender author writing an authentic transgender heroine—one appreciative readers have both struggled with and adored. Your work is done now…right?
Actually, it could be just the beginning.
Meet Renee James, the Chicago-based writer of Coming Out Can Be Murder (2012), a quirky crime novel recently reworked into Transition to Murder (March 2014) and released by well-respected LGBT imprint Magnus Books. I talked to Renee about her experiences of taking a long look at a solid self-published novel and still wondering: How can I keep improving it? Her answer to that question brought her into a fruitful editing experience with Don Weise (Riverdale/Magnus Books), a radical update to her book’s ending, some food-for-thought for the transgender literary community, and insightful reflections on the do’s and don’ts of teaching yourself how to publish your first book.
Your new book Transition to Murder is actually not quite a new book—is that right?
It’s a new version of Coming Out Can Be Murder, a book that was originally published in 2012. Transition to Murder has a really significant plot change; it is a similar, but different, book.
Do you want to discuss what the plot change is?
I’ll tell you a bit about the plot, but I would prefer not to ruin the reading experience for somebody who hasn’t read either of them. In [both Coming Out Can Be Murder and Transition to Murder], the narrator, Bobbi Logan—who is a trans woman going through transition—becomes the target of a psychopathic killer who wants to take her out. She’s faced with the prospect of either killing him or being killed by him…[spoilers removed].
When I went to [publish with] Magnus Books and started working with editor Don Weise, he suggested that we change the original plot. And I thought about it for a really long time, and decided “OK.” So in Transition to Murder [the ending changes]…It makes for a really good sequel. Which I’m rewriting for the third time now! [laughter]
I’ve read some reviews of Transition to Murder that call the book a murder mystery. Its new cover calls it a crime novel, which sounds more accurate to me. Readers actually know who the main murderer is from the very first page because you show him in the first scene committing the act. So to me, the story is not a mystery—it’s actually about Bobbi’s evolution as a person told through this language of a murder mystery.
Who was your publisher for the book’s first edition, Coming Out Can Be Murder (2012)?
I used a boutique publisher. In other words, I essentially self-published while using the services of a company called Windy City Publishers, located here in the Chicago area. Basically, they sell you any service you want. I bought a package that included editing, production, and marketing. The marketing, though, was really suggestions on what you can do to market your book.
My frustration with Coming Out Can Be Murder was that I could never get a mainstream reviewer to look at it—not even Publishers Weekly. And I couldn’t get bookstore distribution; I couldn’t get library distribution either. I really just didn’t know how. And I was hoping to get that with Riverdale/Magnus…but they’re actually going a different way. They’re marketing it online.
Sorry, I’m rambling on.
No, no—this is all really valuable. Because I see this interview as being partly about your book, but also partly about other trans writers who are hoping to get their books out there. They can learn from your experience.
So, what led to your original decision to self-publish?
I couldn’t get an agent to even tell me to “go to Hell!” [laughter]. I must have queried forty or fifty agents.
Whatever I am as a book writer, I really am a good journalist. I worked for over 30 years as a magazine editor and writer. I write a good query letter. So that [experience] was just very frustrating. Because I knew I had good material, and I knew my query letters were pretty decent. So anyway…I heard about Windy City Publishers and talked to them. I was still very naive about what a skilled marketer I was [laughter]. I thought they had everything else I needed, so I went with them.
Do you think the lack of agents interested in your material was related to the trans content?
I did at first, and I think that did eliminate some for sure. But the fact of it is: there’s over 10,000 books published [in the US] every month, and well over 120,000 a year. The logistics of it are just overwhelming.
Actually…having a transgender [main] character was a problem, but not, I think, because lots of agents have negative feelings about trans people (though that may be true). The problem was that I always wanted to market this book to the general public so we could get “straight” people to climb into our world and walk around in it. Thus, I was soliciting many agents who don’t handle LGBT books. And even among those who do, I don’t think trans literature plays to a very big market.
I also had another problem I didn’t really realize until I took an intensive seminar on plotting (and you also made this point initially): I wrote a book that didn’t have a genre. It’s a “crime novel,” but it’s not a mystery. It doesn’t fit into the jargon that agents and publishers have been using. So in that respect, I didn’t present it that well in my queries [when] I presented it as a murder mystery.
The last thing is that—and I’ve found out a lot since I went through this experience—much of this agent and publisher stuff gets done through networking. If you just try to write them a query letter, they’re “full.” But if you meet them at a convention or seminar and they see that you’re serious, you can get them to take a look at [your manuscript]. So I’ve done a lot of networking and gotten active in a couple writer’s groups in the Chicago area. I really need to do more. There’s a conference this summer in New York…where for three days all you learn is how to pitch your book, and then pitch it to agents and publishers. That’s the kind of thing you can do to get noticed and get your stuff read.
It sounds expensive to fund your own publishing bootcamp.
It absolutely is. I spent $10,000 to self-publish my first book, Coming Out Can Be Murder…Probably half or more of that sum total went to editing. I had three different editors: one for who looked at nothing but my content, characters and plot development; I had one who looked at all of the above plus my style; and I had a proofreader. And this investment produced a well-written book—my editor at Magnus Books kept commenting on that. Coming Out Can Be Murder was already a good book, in terms of craft, when Magnus started on it. And that was because of all the editing that went into it.
I make this point because [when] I was judging the self-published entries for the Chicago Writer’s Association Book of the Year competition, two books that I read probably could have won if they’d had the editing that I got. They were that close. The material was there, but the writer[s] were just new to writing books and had the same problems all writers do. But they didn’t have the safety net of that nasty editor saying, “This character is embarrassingly incomplete; you’ve got to do more here.” [laughter]
Oh those nasty editors!
So how did your book go from you self-publishing Coming Out Can Be Murder (2012) to Riverdale/Magnus publishing Transition to Murder (2014)?
Two things happened almost at the same time. [First], I reviewed a book for the Chicago Writers’ Association that was written by a local writer. She had self-published it about five or six years ago—a long time ago—and she’d sold a few copies, and all that. And just by circumstance, she sent a copy to a friend of hers who worked for one of the big New York publishers. Her friend wasn’t an editor, she was on a lower echelon—but she loved the book. She got the editors to read it and they republished it. It was a critical hit; I believe she sold quite a few copies too. Beautiful book. [That author] and I became friends, so I was aware that you could republish a self-published book. It’s something that’s done, and it’s done at the highest echelons.
At the same time, I read an article online about this new company called Magnus Books, and how Magnus and Riverdale Ave Books had combined forces. Magnus’ editor, Don Weise, is a gentleman who is well-respected in LGBT publishing circles, so I wrote him a query letter. They were interested—that’s how it happened!
So when Riverdale Ave Books and Magnus Books combined forces, Magnus became Riverdale’s LGBT imprint. Is Magnus actively interested in trans writers?
Don Weise told me on a couple different occasions—both at Magnus and previously as an editor at other houses—that he had published a number of trans novels, which had made him somewhat unique among LGBT presses. So yes: he will consider [trans-focused works]; he will look at them.
You’d had this prior experience of agents and publishers blocking you with Coming Out Can Be Murder, then two years later you have this experience of a green light with Magnus Books. What do you think was the difference?
I’m only guessing because I can’t really speak for Don or Lori Perkins, the president of Riverdale Ave Books. But I think one thing was that Coming Out Can Be Murder had won some awards. It wasn’t the New York Times Book of the Year-type awards, but [it was] the Chicago Writers’ Association Indie Book of the Year and a couple of awards from ForeWord Reviews. So that was reason to at least read the first 2,000 words.
Secondly, I had initially sent [the manuscript] to Lori Perkins at Riverdale, and she sent it to Don. They [explicitly] publish LGBT books, including the “T.” That opened the door to at least look at my book and see if they liked it.
The third thing—and I’ve heard agents say this too—was that my book was already edited. Of those 120,000-150,000 books that are published every year, I think it’s a safe bet to say that 90% are poorly written and not edited at all…That’s one of the barriers that you have when you’re trying to get an agent or publisher to look at your book. They’re just overwhelmed by books, and a lot of them are bad books. You have to somehow get through that clutter.
I think I’ve heard you say elsewhere that you had a positive experience with the editing process at Magnus Books. What did that look and feel like?
Not all writers like being edited; the struggles are notorious. But because I was an editor for so many years myself, I really appreciate the process. Especially in a book, where the logistics are so overwhelming, and where you’re writing and rewriting, then editing and more editing. I’ve already been through my book about 50 times, and it’s very hard to keep any kind of perspective on it. Is the plot good? Are the characters working? So you get this professional person who comes in with a third party point-of-view, very objective.
In Don Weise’s case, he made suggestions. He marked up the manuscript and made a lot of margin notes, but left it up to me what we would ultimately change. And I took almost all of his suggestions because, first of all, I could see that they were good.
And second: for me, if I’m working with someone and I can see that they’re professional, I give a lot of weight to the objectivity they bring to my work. That objectivity is something I can never accomplish again myself because I’ve read my own book so many times. The other part of the equation is that Don is a really good editor. He’s very respectful of the writer, but really good at craft. He’s got a strong sense of rhythm—which sounds funny, but even in long fiction writing, there is a rhythm that’s part of the style of each book. You don’t really notice it until you read a book that doesn’t have it.
Then there were Don’s comments on the plot. He made me think about things I hadn’t thought about before. He added a lot of weight in terms of the plot change [between Coming Out Can Be Murder and Transition to Murder] that I ultimately did decide to do. There was a lot of weight in him saying it. This sounds awful, but when readers…were saying it—and they were all women, some genetic and some trans—I was thinking, “they just haven’t had the life experience I’ve had.” I came of age in [the Vietnam era]. But when Don said it, I really had to sit back and think, “This isn’t personal.” He’s talking about what would make a better story.
I think some trans writers worry that a non-trans editor just won’t get their trans characters and will try to edit in a way that isn’t true to the character’s experience as a trans person. Thoughts?
I think if you hook up with a professional, that’s not going to be a problem. If you’ve written a really good plot and sketched out one or more really good characters, people will identify with them. That’s what I’ve found with Transition to Murder. There are some flaws in my book—I know that—but 95% of my readers really identify with [the book’s narrator] Bobbi and get into her story.
A couple of the first reviews I got were from conservative Christian women, one who lived…in the Deep South and had never read any kind of LGBT book before. But they got into Bobbi. And [my editor] Don Weise got into Bobbi. So if you have a good character, you can overcome reservations people have about trans people.
I have to ask: why the title change between Coming Out Can Be Murder and Transition to Murder?
Because we changed the book. Don Weise thought we could give it a fresh start. There would have been a lot of confusion if we’d kept it the same name and changed the ending. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Do you like your new title, “Transition to Murder”?
I do. When it comes to titles, I learned as a magazine editor to give a lot of weight, again, to people who can bring objectivity to the subject. The titles I had conjured up [originally] were kind of literary—“The Transition,” and things like that. I’ve been told countless times by book publishing professionals “in today’s market, a book title has to get you into a niche.” Publishing, marketing, and buying are all genre.
I actually like “Transition to Murder” better than I like “Coming Out Can Be Murder.” Neither one was a title I suggested—which reflects on me, not the people who suggested the titles. [laughter]
When I was in at the Rainbow Book Fair (NYC) talking to of [Riverdale/Magnus owner] Lori Perkins and she was telling me about Transition to Murder—you know, trying to make the sale [laughter]–the first thing she said was, “This is a crime novel written by a trans woman with a trans woman as the hero.” That made the sale for me right there. I want to see trans characters written by trans people. We need more of that, and it’s one of the benefits of your book for the wider trans community.
Have you gotten a sense from any trans readers how important it is that you’re a trans person writing a trans character?
No, not specifically. What I have gotten is a lot of appreciation for creating a character who is authentic and that a reader could identify with…Bobbi’s not a buffoon or for comedy.
And perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but: while I share with many in the community a disappointment that television and movies have been so slow to come around to projecting positive transgender characters, and even while I hear leaders in the community lament this, I can’t help but think of the frustrations I had…getting visible trans women to read Transition to Murder and to—if they liked it—give me a sentence to use in promoting it. I couldn’t get any of them to read it, period.
I got as much rejection from them as from the New York Times reviewers or the Chicago Tribune reviewers. And I understand why; it’s the same problem: they’re called upon constantly to give of themselves, and they have a limited amount of time. But [lack of support to positive trans characterizations in novels] is part of the reason, I’m sure, that we don’t have lots of trans characters available for movie, TV scripts, and, indeed, for best sellers. It’s very hard [for trans writers] to get their books launched.