Success Story Interview - J.J. Murphy

An Interview with J.J. Murphy (conshyhonky on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent John Talbot of Talbot Fortune Agency, LLC.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
J.J. Murphy:
MURDER YOUR DARLINGS is a historical murder mystery set in New York in the Roaring 20s. A dead body is found underneath the famous Algonquin Round Table. Now it’s up to Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley—martinis in their hands and quips on their lips—to solve the murder.

The inspiration for the book actually started with the title. Every writer has heard that advice: murder your darlings. It occurred to me that it would be a great title for a murder mystery set among writers and editors. And somehow I got it into my head that one of the members of the Round Table originally coined the phrase. So I simply put the two together. I’ve been a fan of Dorothy Parker since college, and I’m a member of the Dorothy Parker Society. I love her sharp wit, her cynical humor, and her piercing eye for emotional insight. She’s a natural to be the detective in the story and, by contrast, Robert Benchley makes the perfect happy-go-lucky sidekick. (There’s an element of romantic tension there, as well.)
QT: How long have you been writing?
J.J. Murphy:
This is my first novel to see publication, but I’ve been writing professionally for magazines for more than 15 years. Writing on a daily basis for newspapers or magazines is a great boot camp for any kind of writing. Not only do you learn to write “tight and bright,” but you acquire the discipline to meet a deadline and the perseverance to write a full novel. Also, it toughens your skin for the inevitable revisions and rejections.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
J.J. Murphy:
The writing took me three years, soup to nuts. And then a full year of querying before I snagged an agent. I’m writing the second in the series now, and it has to be completed in a year. So far, so good.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
J.J. Murphy:
I didn’t give up as I was writing because I always felt that this idea is a winner. But after a year of querying without any offers, I almost threw in the towel. If my agent didn’t contact me when he did, that would have been all she wrote.
QT: Is this your first book?
J.J. Murphy:
Nope. I wrote two other mysteries, neither of which found an agent. I thought they were solid at the time, but in writing MURDER YOUR DARLINGS, I recognized--and learned from--the shortcomings of those manuscripts.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
J.J. Murphy:
I do the best I can. I have a full-time job and five-year-old twins. So, the only time I have to write is at night after the kids go to bed and the dishes are done. I write for 2 or 3 hours two nights a week on average. Some weeks, I have no time or energy to write. I don’t have a special writing room or office either. Most of MURDER YOUR DARLINGS was written on a beat-up old laptop at the kitchen table. So, if I can find the time and energy to write a novel, almost anyone can.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
J.J. Murphy:
I like to outline as much as I can, because I hate the idea of a lot of re-writing. Re-writing seems like time wasted. Also, once I have a chapter written, it feels like it’s hardened into concrete. It’s hard for me to even think about out how to bust it up. So outlining is like re-writing before the fact. I go through at least three “levels” of outlining. First, I write a synopsis of the book, perhaps three pages long. Then I make a spreadsheet with a row for each chapter. From that, I write a one- or two-page synopsis for each chapter. Then actually writing the chapter is like filling in the blanks of the synopsis. It sounds rigid and formulaic, but it’s not. By the time I get to the actual writing part, I’m done worrying about the plot and other mechanical details. I know exactly where I’m headed. So I’m free to focus on the characters, their motivations and their dialogue.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
J.J. Murphy:
Thanks to QueryTracker, I know exactly how many query letters I sent out: 59. Of those, 7 asked for partials or fulls. One offered me representation.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
J.J. Murphy:
I targeted agents who represented historical fiction—historical mysteries in particular. I didn’t hear back from most of them. I guess they had all the clients they wanted. I probably had better luck with agents who represented general mysteries. But the agent who said yes represents cozy mysteries, and my story falls squarely into that category.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
J.J. Murphy:
Yes, but I’m not sure if it made a difference.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
J.J. Murphy:
Three things: First, write a detailed but very concise letter with a very good hook. Make the hook your very first line. Second, if you don’t get much of a response from appropriate agents after a handful of queries, rewrite your letter and really analyze your hook. Third, it’s anyone’s game and anything can happen, for good or bad. You could send your letter to the perfect agent, but she’s having a bad day and doesn’t give it due consideration. Hang in there. Try another agent. Revise your letter and give it another go. Oh yeah, write a good book. And, don’t write it longer than 100,000 words or the agent likely can’t sell it.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
J.J. Murphy:
You bet.

Query Letter:

Mr. A. Gent,

Dorothy Parker said, “I don’t care what is written about me, so long as it isn’t true.” My humorous historical whodunit, MURDER YOUR DARLINGS, takes Mrs. Parker at her word.

In the Roaring 20s, Mrs. Parker and the rest of Manhattan’s literary libertines gathered around the Algonquin Round Table. Now there’s a dead body beneath it.

All the clues point to young William Faulkner, and only the wisecracking wits of the Round Table can save him. Mrs. Parker and Robert Benchley, armed with dry martinis and drier wit, turn detective to exonerate the young bookstore clerk and aspiring author.

But when Faulkner goes missing, the police, the press, and even bootlegging gangsters begin to incriminate all the members of the Round Table. Now, Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley have a real killer deadline: They must find Faulkner, clear the reputation of the Round Table, save their favorite speakeasy, and uncover the actual murderer--all before the murderer puts an end to their party for good.

For my part, I’m a successful magazine editor with a long list of writing credits and awards in health care publishing. I’m also a member of the Delaware Valley Sisters in Crime and the Dorothy Parker Society.

I’m writing to you because MURDER YOUR DARLINGS seems somewhat similar to other mysteries you represent. It has been professionally edited and is complete at 85,000 words. The first chapter is included below.

Kind regards,

J.J. Murphy