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Welcome to the Present Tense
What to expect from this Substack
When people ask me what kinds of novels I write, I usually say, “suspense.” (I try not to add that I’m still working on my second novel ever, but sometimes the asker gets an insecure earful that would have been better saved for my therapist.) It’s also what I say when people ask what I like to read, although I read lots outside of the genre as well. My brain tends to collapse in on itself when I think about the word “genre” anyway, but for now, let’s just say that I love to be held in suspense.
I also love a newsletter.
I signed up for Andromeda Romano-Lax’s in April of 2021, shortly after she called Ted Lasso “a balm” on Instagram and I thought, yes, I trust this person’s opinion about art. I wouldn’t have called her a suspense writer at the time, and I don’t think she would have, either. Mainly, she wrote novels that were literary and historical, more recently with elements of magical realism or science fiction. (In other words, really cool stories. Just not “suspense.”)
For the next year and a half, I read Andromeda’s newsletters, sponging up her writing advice and eventually reading her most recent novel, Annie and the Wolves. Andromeda quickly became someone I wanted to emulate: she was writing really freaking good upmarket books (if upmarket actually means what I think it does). But it was more than that. She was training for a triathlon. She was reading oodles. She was living on an island! I wanted her to tell me how to do this head-game of a job but also how to avoid becoming the job. So in September of 2022, I replied to one of her newsletters.
In that letter, Andromeda wrote about her recent itch to “jump genres” and attempt a more commercial suspense novel. She then told the story of her upcoming novel, Deepest Lake. At a pre-pandemic lunch with an editor, during a different proposal she could tell was flopping, she gave a slapdash pitch of a thriller set at a luxurious writing retreat in Guatemala, based on a recent trip to that country. The editor asked Andromeda if she thought she could get a draft done in two months. Andromeda did it in four.
To my dismay, that’s where the newsletter ended. At the end, Andromeda promised a part two, but I couldn’t wait. Apparently, I was too frantic to even open with a hello or an acknowledgement of her name. I wrote:
I always enjoy your newsletters!! Just putting in a plug for your Part II to address how "done" your manuscript is when you send it to an editor....purely a selfish curiosity. I'm working on my second novel and preparing to send it to my editors but would happily spend months longer editing it alone. Is this normal?! If you can't be as fast as you want and as good as you want, which do you choose? (This is like a "Dear Andromeda" column submission. Signed, Sophomore Blues.)
To my delight, not only did Andromeda respond to me, but she wrote me a real letter of a response: long and personal and comforting. She’d read my debut, The Damage, during a fifty-book thriller binge and kindly told me it fell squarely into the camp of suspense books she especially loves: those with an emphasis on character and intellectual or emotional thrills.(We have this preference in common.) She told me about her own sophomore blues many books back. She read between the lines of my email, aided by her knowledge of who I was and some of the circumstances of my first novel, and she talked about blockbuster pressure in the publishing industry. And, in a section about knowing when a novel is “done,” she wrote:
I don't think we can truly know. And sometimes we can stir the pot so long it's not improving anymore. I do think it's good to trust our gut (unhelpful) and to keep moving--to get onto a track where we think more about the writing of each successive book than the sales. (When you figure out how to do that, can you tell me?)
We’ve been emailing ever since, always asking each other questions, sharing what we knew, and qualifying that we had no idea what we were talking about. Andromeda was ahead of me in publishing, but I was ahead of her in writing suspense, and so we were a good fit for a months-long back and forth.
Early on in our pen-paling, Andromeda pitched a joint venture: a suspense-themed Substack. We have spent countless hours discussing it, trying to figure out what, precisely, it would be. Who would we invite to collaborate? What are we trying to accomplish? Do we have anything worth saying? Do we even know how to define “suspense”?
We have figured out some of those answers, but plenty has remained hard to pin down. I started trying to write an introduction to the Substack, and I went back to our very first emails. Everything we’re talking about doing in the Substack we’ve been doing privately, just the two of us. Asking questions. Oversharing. Talking about how the thriller sausage is made. Essentially, I think we’re just believing that other people–lovers of suspense fiction–would probably be jazzed to get in on what we have, and we would probably have even more fun if other people were part of the conversation. Kind of like an ongoing suspense salon.
In some of our early exchanges about the Substack idea, we started making jokes about being students. I was the sophomore, obviously. I had arrived at suspense school as a hot freshman but had started my second year feeling washed up and insecure. We could pull in some juniors and seniors with years of experience under their belts. And Andromeda was the foreign exchange student: she wasn’t a true freshman, but she was new to this school. I think part of why the joke worked for us is that we’re both goofy nerds who love to learn. In particular, we revel in both kinds of book research: what do I need to know to write this book, and what do I need to know to write any book?
So now, getting back to my homework assignment: what kinds of posts, specifically, might you expect from us and our collaborators?
Both of us being authors, there will be pieces that are of particular interest to writers. But we’re avid readers too, both aiming for maximum appreciation (be it pure escape or heady analysis). At this point, we have a handful of recurring columns and types of articles that readers of this Substack can expect. We plan to do our best to balance the interests of readers and writers, and so the article types may vary a bit from week to week. That said, subscribers can count on a new post every Thursday.
Next Thursday, Andromeda will share an interview of Ramona Emerson, the freshman—I mean debut—author of Shutter, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and is a finalist for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. Many more interviews to follow; being good nerds, we have a growing excel sheet of authors and other industry professionals willing to let us interview them.
We each have a column planned: Andromeda’s is lessons learned from a new obsession with Agatha Christie; mine is a written companion to some mentorships I’ve done for young Maine authors, teaching them what I know so far about how to write a novel.
And we have a list of writers to tap for a recurring panel piece where we’ll ask a crew of suspense authors to all answer the same question.
One of our (okay Andromeda’s)most recent ideas was to regularly answer readers’ questions in an Ask Us column. I love this, because it was what I was trying to get out of her the first time I emailed her. My dad–a man of many mantras–loves the saying: “Begin with the end in mind.” Our planning seems to have ended back at the beginning.
So here it is. Welcome to the Present Tense. We really hope you love it; I think we’re going to enjoy writing it.
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Andromeda admits the revisions and final submission process took much longer than the initial draft. Deepest Lake will be published in May 2024. Authors reading this may not be surprised, but some readers will be. Book publishing can be sloooooow.
Andromeda has taken over this footnote to add: I also loved the realistic legal framework, deep humanity, and slow-burn quality of The Damage, which manages to be surprising without relying on those surprises. Twists and redemptive, meaningful story-telling can co-exist!
I am definitely the Frank to her Bill, for my fellow The Last of Us Episode 3 cult members.
This is the second habit from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.