In Praise of Will Schilb

Last night Bill and I went to dinner at John Howie Steak. It was a three-pronged celebration.

For one, it was a way to take a victory lap over the fact that Nothing to Lose hit The NY Times Bestsellers List. For “a girl from a small mining town in the West,” making the list continues to be a big deal and a cause to celebrate. In the past we’ve had much larger gatherings with kids, grandkids, and any number of others along for the ride. Last night it was just the two of us.

Second on the list was acknowledging finishing the work on Collateral Damage necessitated by the editorial letter. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the “editorial letter” is the publisher’s first response after an author delivers a manuscript. In it the editor lays out any changes needed before the next step occurs which is “Delivery and Acceptance.” That’s what triggers the next paycheck.

Collateral Damage was a tough book to write. I spent a full year on it, almost twice as long as on any of my previous books. The story seemed to move at a glacial pace and by the time I turned it in, I was pretty much sick and tired of it. Usually the editorial letter comes back within a week or two. In this case, the manuscript arrived just prior to my editor’s wedding. As a consequence, there was a month long pause before it was time for me to work on the book again. When I did, I was amazed. The story wasn’t glacial at all. It moved. There were parts of it that gave me goosebumps. In other words, it works. Now it’s back in New York, and the check should be in the mail.

But the third reason for celebrating is by far the most important, because this month it’s 37 years since Bill and I first met. Our initial encounter was at a widowed retreat where we discovered that our first spouses had passed away on the same day of the year, two years apart. That coincidence was enough to spark a first conversation. Many more followed, and six months later to the day, we married. Friends and relations wondered why we were in such a big hurry. Well, we’d both lost the previous loves of our lives, and, with the clear knowledge that life doesn’t last forever, we didn’t want to waste a single minute.

I was very much a beginning author at the time. In fact, our first official date was my inviting him to the grand opening party for Until Proven Guilty, my first Beaumont book. For the first ten years of our marriage, while I was making less than minimum wage, he supported the whole family—his kids and mine. My occasional paychecks went to fund oddball treats like a remodeled powder room, a hot tub, and a trip to Disney World. His income was what kept a roof over our heads and food on the table. That changed in 1994 when lightning struck in my career. At that point he was able to stop “working outside the home,” as it were, but he continues to work to this day. For as long as we’ve been married, he’s handled the business end of the writing business—paying the taxes, doing the bill paying, and making sure our finances are in order.

When people asks if he writes, too, I often say, “I write the books; he writes the checks.” That may be a quip, but it’s no joke, because I couldn’t do my part of this job and his as well. But he’s also an important part of the creative process. In his previous life, he was an engineer, and what do engineers do? They fix things. From book number two on, he’s been my first reader—the guy who reads the stories sometimes on a chapter by chapter basis as the words leak out through my keyboard. And then, brave man that he is, he lets me know what he thinks—for good or ill.

Early on, I was having trouble with Beaumont number five, Improbable Cause. The story was stuck and wouldn’t move forward. “You need a parrot,” he said. So I put in a parrot, one that had lived its life next to a TV set filled with police dramas. When Beau and Big Al enter a house and hear the chilling words “Freeze, sucker,” it was just the boost I needed, and the book began to come to order. Shortly thereafter, when fellow mystery writer named Stella Cameron was suffering a similar case of writer’s block, I passed Bill’s “you need a parrot” suggestion on to her. She put it to work with similarly salutary results.

When I finally finished the manuscript, I handed it over. Bill read it, thought about it, and said. “This last part reads like an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. You need to put the characters back in it.” As it happens, Bill was traveling to Vancouver B.C. on business the next day. I didn’t use laptops back then. We loaded my desktop PC into the back of his car and off we went. Believe me it was a dead silent drive as we headed north. Once we arrived and my computer was unloaded in the Westin, I went to work, and soon realized Bill was right. The first thing I noticed about the characters was that Big Al’s feet hurt, and once I dropped Beau in the elephant enclosure at the Woodland Park Zoo, Improbable Cause was a done deal. I finished the rewrite in our hotel room, working far into the night and keeping him awake with my clicking keyboard.

Years later, working on an Ali book, Deadly Stakes, I was down to the last few chapters when the story came to an abrupt halt. I turned to my resident fixer and said, “Please read this and tell me how to end it.” After the read, he looked at me and said, “Why don’t you do it the easy way?” I swear, that’s all he said, but it worked. I ended the book the easy way.

In the Ali books, he’s the one who suggested that I bring an AI into the picture. Frigg was the result of that piece of advice. In Nothing to Lose, Bill is the reason Twinkle Winkleman drives an International Harvester Travelall.

This year, when I was in the throes of writing Collateral Damage, I once again handed him an unfinished manuscript. He gamely took a shot at it but finally gave up in despair. “This is a mess,” he told me. “You need to time stamp each chapter so readers will know exactly where they are.” I’m here to report that once again his engineer propensity to fix things worked its magic, and that’s one of the reasons Collateral Damage flows as it is now, not as it was before.

So yes, as we toasted one another with Kier Royale’s last night, the writer and the engineer had a whole lot to celebrate. At thirty-seven years and counting, we continue to do so—every single day.