Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Like many of my writer friends, the road I have traveled so far in the quest for a “big” publisher has been long and hard.

In 1994, I finished my first book, a novel of romantic suspense. I landed an agent with the manuscript. He sent it out to six major publishers. They rejected the book, and the agent immediately dropped me.

I was so devastated and naive, I crawled away to lick my wounds for five wasted years, before taking several courses at the Bethesda Writer’s center where I learned not just how to write mystery fiction, but the elements that must be included. Stuff I’d never heard of, like story arcs, plot points. I learned how to write a synopsis, how to market, network, and that I needed to join groups like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. 

While taking these courses, I wrote the first book in the Nikki Latrelle series, FULL MORTALITY. With the novel finished some time in 2005, I queried 40 literary agents before securing one who believed FULL MORTALITY could attract a New York publisher. After months of this agent sending out and receiving rejections, I was disheartened to say the least. Of course, my agent avoided small publishers as the money was too meager for her.

In the meantime I wrote the second in the series, RACING FROM DEATH, which lingered at Bantam, New American Library and Berkeley for a total of 13 months before being rejected. Then, Marcia Markland at St. Martin’s Press requested an exclusive on RACING FROM DEATH before rejecting the manuscript nine months later. And so, another five years crawled by. 

I met John Betancourt, the publisher of the small DC area Wildside Press. He’d read parts of RACING FROM DEATH and offered to take it on, but I wanted to wait for the big NY deal. I waited on these NY publishers until the stock market crashed in 2008 and the Maryland horse market went down the drain right behind it.

In February of 2010, my favorite author Dick Francis passed away, I was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my horse farm was hit by the historic blizzard, Snowmageddon, the worst snow storm in the history of Maryland. 

The first hour of Snowmageddon

By now I was desperate and emailed Betancourt to ask if he’d look at the first in the series, FULL MORTALITY. He read the manuscript during the blizzard and accepted the book for publication the next day.

My agent informed me a NY publisher would no longer want to take on the rest of the series. We parted ways.

The treatment I underwent for my lymphoma was wonderfully successful, and miraculously, FULL MORTALITY was published in May of 2010, received rave reviews, and was nominated for both Agatha and Macavity Best First Book awards.

These nominations, and another big batch of query letters, helped secure a new, truly professional agent. But by the time I finished the third book, THE SEA HORSE TRADE, I knew my old agent had been right. New York publishers were not interested in a new book in a series already in the hands of another publisher–unless it had humongous sales. A word to the wise: you are unlikely to get humongous sales with a small press.

In the hopes of making some pocket change, I put a number of my short stories up on Kindle. I made a dollar here, a dollar there, almost enough to buy dog food.
My new agent told me if I wanted a bigger publisher that might provide me with a modest income, I had to start a new series. So I did, creating “Fia McKee,” a thirty-two-year old agent for the real life agency, Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB.) I drove up to Fair Hill, Maryland, in the winter of 2012 and interviewed with the President and Vice President of the TRPB. The President asked me so many questions I felt almost like a criminal under investigation.

TRPB in Fair Hill, MD

I started the first book in the Fia Mckee series after I moved to Aiken in the fall of 2012, but lost most of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 to selling the farm that had been in my family for over two hundred years, my horses, moving to Aiken, and settling in. I finished the manuscript with the working title FLAMINGO ROAD  around August of 2014. I started the second in the series in October of 2014.

My agent began shopping FLAMINGO ROAD in December of 2014. An editor at St. Martins Minotaur showed interest in FLAMINGO ROAD, but with some reservations about the public’s interest in a horse racing novel. I immediately went to work. Phone calls and research provided me with statistics on the surprisingly strong popularity of horse racing. I cited things like NBC’s unprecedented ten-year extension agreement to broadcast rights to the Breeders Cup weekend races as well as the eleven qualifying races that precede that two-day, all-star  event. I noted how a recent ESPN poll showed horse racing is the most popular non-team sport, beating out tennis, boxing, and even NASCAR! I managed to dig up and write two pages of statistics, and my agent sent them to the St. Martins’ editor.

Happily, less than a week after this, the Carrie McCray committee announced that my in-progress novel, the second of the Fia McKee series, had won their Best First-Chapter of a Novel award. How did this happen? When I moved to Aiken, I joined the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop, the state writer’s association, and got involved with the group.

Amazingly, that same week, my previously published Nikki Latrelle horse racing trilogy received a glorious endorsement from Steve Haskin, the senior Correspondent for the Blood-Horse, and a former national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form. The recipient of eighteen awards for excellence in turf writing, Haskin wrote, “Sasscer, the honor comes in your accomplishments and talent, and you should take great pride in such a magnificent trifecta. Congratulations!!! Well done. Dick Francis lives!” 


How did I get this 20015 endorsement? I befriended Haskin on Facebook in 2009, reading and commenting on his excellent posts and articles in the “Blood Horse,” for five years.

But the brightest star to align that very same week was a racehorse named American Pharoah. Deep in my heart, I’d believed if the colt could pull off the historical and momentous feat of winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, it might nudge a publishing offer from St. Martins my way. White knuckled, I watched the final race. When American Pharoah blasted around the Belmont track on the lead, rocketed down the stretch, pulling away from the Belmont field, I screamed, “My God, he’s going to win!” 

And when he opened up even more and won by daylight, I wept. I turned to my husband and said, “I think I’m going to get an offer.” I could feel the bright star that is my love for horses rising over me. Pharoah’s race drew 22 million television viewers, and the subsequent radio, television, and social media attention was phenomenal. Within a week, American Pharoah appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and a day later, I received a two-book offer from St. Martins Minotaur.

Inspectors McChickens inspect Hill's Trilogy and ten pages
 of  St. Martin's contracts for the new two-book deal!

Never give up.
Learn your craft, but follow your heart.
Always be kind and gracious, you never know if the person sitting next to you, or posting on Facebook might be a key to unlock a door.
Know your market.
Join groups, but don’t let them take too much of your time.
Nothing is a important as writing.
Network, but do so within reason. See previous sentence.
When you go to meetings note (A) writers you like and admire. Now, note (B)writers you don’t like or admire. Tip: for heaven’s sake behave like the A writers!


Hope Clark said...

Sasscer - you are a model of dedication. A big congratulations. You looked incredibly happy the last time I saw you, and you've worked hard for this step in your career.

Sasscer Hill said...

Thank you, Hope. I feel so lucky to have met you since I moved to South Carolina!

Unknown said...

So Awesome Linda!! Have loved all your books,you work hard,write excellent stories and I am very excited for this opportunity to finally come!! Congrats and best of luck as you continue your career!!

Betsy said...

Thanks for your very inspiring post!!

lrtrovillion said...

Thanks for sharing your journey...all the ups and downs. We are all benefitting from the fact that you never gave up and succeeded splendidly. I'm sharing your link with some critique group writer friends, as we all need that inspiration as we dip our toes into the riptide that is the publishing waters these days.

Sasscer Hill said...

Lisa, I know how hard you have worked as well. The business is not for the faint of heart. A bit of a roller coaster ride, but the rewards are wonderful.

Sasscer Hill said...

Betsy, so glad to give you a little shot in the arm. We all need one!

Sasscer Hill said...

Kathryn Moody, thank you so much for those nice words! Means the world to me when people say they love my books.

Kaye George said...

Nice summary! I'm SO glad that so much trouble and heartache is behind you, and I'm thrilled for what's ahead. I'm so proud that I knew you when!

Sasscer Hill said...

Thank you, Kaye George. You've been a good friend for a long time. Sisters in Crime totally rock!

Rhonda Lane said...

So very proud and happy for you I could just POP! From all those Guppies courses years ago to St. Martins Minotaur!!! What's that? Too many exclamation points? Well, TOUGH! :) :) They only show how stoked I am!!!

Congratulations, kiddo. You're a Stayer.

Sasscer Hill said...

Thank you, Rhonda Lane. I'm in for the long haul. Wish you were coming to BCon this year!

Polly Iyer said...

Excellent post, my friend. I'm sure your journey made the success all the sweeter. Congratulations. I look forward to the new series. Proud of your dedication.

Margaret Maron said...

See? I knew you were going to be a star. Keep shining!

Sasscer Hill said...

Margaret, Maron, thank you so much. Your support for me when my first book came out was so inspirational and so very, very appreciated! You're the star!

Sandy Semerad said...

Very inspiring! Thank you for sharing and congrats!

Sasscer Hill said...

Sandy Semerad, thanks so much for your kind words!

Mary Beth Gibson said...

Thanks for the inspiration. With your encouragement, I won't give up!

Sasscer Hill said...

Mary Beth Gibson, you'd better not give up! See you soon.

Will Jones said...

What an inspiring read for a cloudy Sunday morning. We're proud of you, Sasser.

Sasscer Hill said...

Thank you, Will Jones! I miss seeing you guys at the monthly writers meetings. If things slow down a bit, I'll return!

Karoline Barrett said...

Love your story! Congratulations! My agent was unable to sell my first book, but she didn't drop me, she formed a publishing company and published it herself. I then began writing a cozy mystery series. She got me a 2 book deal with Penguin last year. It's been a longggggg road! But totally worth it!

Sasscer Hill said...

Good for you, Karoline Barrett! Penguin's terrific. It is a hard road, but we don't travel it alone. Love the writing community--totally supportive!

Donamae Kutska said...

I'm excited to find and read your books! I just saw you on Facebook.