Elizabeth Spann Craig

The busiest writer in publishing spills the beans on how she keeps her many series straight

Elizabeth Spann Craig.

Over the past five years, Elizabeth Spann Craig has found herself working on up to three mystery series at once: the Myrtle Clover books, which she has self-published after starting the series with mystery book publisher Midnight Ink; the Memphis Barbeque series, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin, and written under the pen name Riley Adams; and the Southern Quilting Mysteries, published by Penguin/NAL. She drew on her traditional publishing experience to establish her personal production calendar, where she tracks everything for each book, from the outlining stage to the release date.

But it was the challenge of cover design, more than anything else, that led Craig to establish her production calendar. “I found that I have absolutely no talent in design,” Craig says; she hired a professional artist to create the covers for her Myrtle Clover series. But she also learned that she needed to schedule the busy designer months in advance, before she finished writing the book that was being illustrated.

“I'm very focused on what I'm doing,” says Craig, who usually produces between three and four pages a day, scheduling her writing time for maximum productivity. But there is more than just the writing to keep her busy. “I may get edits for one and be drafting another,” so she stays organized, drawing up detailed outlines for each book that have kept her from getting thrown off schedule because of plotting challenges or writer's block. “I do pretty clean copy,” she adds, which allows her to quickly send manuscripts to her editors.

For the Myrtle Clover books, a series of cozies set in North Carolina and starring the octogenarian mother of a small-town police chief, Craig relies on a group of contractors that includes editors, designers and an accountant. “I didn't need to do all the things I was doing” when she first explored self-publishing, she says. “I put together a team for myself. I did all the things someone who has a small business should do.” The division of labor allows her to focus on the writing process.

Pretty Is As Pretty Dies, the first Myrtle Clover book, was Craig's debut, published in 2009. When Midnight Ink rejected the sequel, Craig told herself, “I don't have anything to lose here,” and began publishing the subsequent books herself. Death Pays a Visit, the seventh book in the series, will be out this fall. “I'm publishing them as fast as I can,” she says, and her growing community of readers appreciates it.

Craig sees a successful series as a joint product of the author and the reader, and she relies on reader feedback to shape Myrtle's evolution. “The series, at this point, belongs to the readers,” she says. “They may not realize they're collaborating,” but questions and comments from readers have become a crucial part of Craig's writing process. She finds that reader reactions often challenge her to explore new approaches to developing the stories. What she finds particularly surprising is the amount of detail readers want from her.

“We keep hearing readers aren't interested in back story,” Craig says, but she suspects that minor details and background information take on more importance once readers become invested in the recurring characters who make up a series—and they email her to ask. Some of their questions force her to ponder ideas that she admits, “I'd never actually considered before.” For instance, she realized she had never named the street Myrtle lives on, where much of the books' action takes place. The street name, along with other tidbits, will be revealed as the series progresses.

For now, Craig has submitted all the books covered by her current publishing contracts and is focused on new Myrtle Clover books—“I'm definitely going to keep doing the Myrtle stuff,” she says. She is considering some new avenues for her writing but has not settled on any future projects. One thing is certain: If she makes a major change in genre or style, she will publish under a new pen name in order to avoid confusing readers who have established their expectations of an Elizabeth Craig book. “I don't want anyone thinking they're getting a cozy mystery and then they get zombies or something,” she says.Body at the Book Club

To Craig, being a hybrid author is ideal, and not only because of the control it allows her over her career path. “I feel like the traditionally published books I've done have helped the self-published, and vice versa,” she says. “Readers don't care, and they don't notice” whether a book comes from a traditional publisher. “It means I'm doing this well.”

Craig works with an agent who has sold her traditionally published books. The agent is not involved with the self-publishing process, but Craig points to her agent's role in making this hybrid career possible: “She helps me to make sure my contracts are all clean, with no noncompetes” that would prevent her from putting out work under her own imprint.

Craig is committed to sharing what she has learned about the publishing process with other writers. On her website, she often writes about her own techniques and strategies for writing, marketing and sales. The one piece of advice she would offer a beginning writer? “Keep your writing goals low and manageable,” she says, and don't be discouraged by occasional setbacks. “Start out with a blank slate the next day and don't try to make up for lost time.”

Fellow writers also appreciate the publishing resources she regularly compiles and shares. Developer Mike Fleming collects those resources at the Writer's Knowledge Base, a free database that Craig says is her way of helping new writers navigate the “wilderness of professionals” in the industry. “It gives them a starting point to put together the team they need,” she says, just like the group she relies on as she prepares the next installment for Myrtle Clover's fans.

Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.

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