MJ LaBeff is an American author best described as the girl-next-door with a dark side. MJ grew up in northeastern Ohio but traded snow for sunshine and moved to southern Arizona where she lives with her husband and two dogs. She’s drawn to writing suspense novels, featuring complicated characters and twisted plot lines that will keep readers turning page after page. When she’s not writing or plotting her next novel, MJ enjoys reading, running, lifting weights, and volunteering for the American Cancer Society.
What is your latest book?
My latest book is Last Spring’s Stranger which was released on January 12, 2021. It’s part of the Last Cold Case series. In this fourth book, I’ve upped the stakes for Homicide Detective, Rachel Hood.
Secrets can have deadly and life altering consequences. The legend of Verch’s Hollow has intrigued the residents of Snug Harbor, Ohio for generations. Myths about the abandoned property abound. When a teenage girl is murdered in the Hollow, her gruesome death threatens to expose a secret from Homicide Detective Rachel Hood’s past. Forced to face the truth of her deception, she reopens a cold case that could jeopardize her career. A victim of adolescent cyber-bullying, messages fill her personal inbox with threatening undertones from years ago. Do keep evidence and share it with an authority.
Enter FBI Agent Nick Draven an occult crimes specialist and Hood’s fiancé. As they delve deeper into the sender’s motive, Rachel has to confront the harsh reality she left behind over twelve years ago: a murdered friend, Tina; a glimpse of the killer at the scene of the crime, who she can’t identify despite her psychic empathy; and her own involvement with the evening’s sinister events.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
My goal with each book in the series is not to have any spoilers. I want a reader to be able to read book 2 or 4 and have just enough information from a previous book that will encourage them to go back and read the others. That can pose challenges but I’ve found clever ways around it. The other challenge is keeping all of the main characters back stories straight and other details. I’m a big fan of character enneagrams so I rely on these as my guide along with notes regarding a character’s physical looks, ticks, catch phrases and so on. If you’re writing a series I strongly encourage taking the time to keep a journal of the characters.
How many unwritten books are in your head?
At the moment two. I have an idea for a single title thriller that I’m really excited about and looking forward to writing in the future but after I finish Murdered Last Summer book 5 of the Last Cold Case series; I’ll probably write Disappeared Last Fall book 6.
How do you decide which ones come to life now and which ones stay on the back burner?
Great question and until July 2021 I would have replied: as long as MuseItUp Publishing want more books in the Last Cold Case series, I’m committed to writing those first and then fitting in a side project. Unfortunately, MuseItUp closed its doors and so now…dun…dun…dun…I’m on my own! When I received the news via email it was a heartbreaking moment. The publisher sent such a sincere and heartfelt email, making it evident how sad she was to be closing the company. I was blessed that she worked very closely with me so that my books could easily be published again once she “took them down.” Although I was devastated losing my publisher, the experience with them until the very end was more than I could have anticipated. They provided me with formatted manuscripts so that I could release the books on my own in digital and print, and I was able to retain the original cover art. I realize this might not always be the case.
Upon the advice of a friend, I used Draft2Digital to launch the eBooks to all ebook sellers except for Amazon. She advised that it’s best to use Kindle Direct Publishing. I was familiar with KDP as my first book Mind Games was self-published via it. Uploading the manuscripts and cover art on either platform was quite easy!
The challenge is that I don’t know how to format a manuscript and I’m not a graphic designer; I’ll leave that heavy lifting to the experts! So, as long as I have formatted manuscripts and book covers I can self-publish. Again, I was lucky that my former publisher provided all of this to me. Formatting a manuscript is tricky business, I’d encourage any author to work with a professional so that the final product is beautiful in digital and/or print. Same goes for choosing a cover artist to design your book cover.
My hat is off, and I courtesy to the authors out there who can do it all. You are creative beings and true entrepreneurs. You are my heroes!
The biggest piece of advice I can give to any author in this type of situation is to ask your publisher to sign a reversion of rights agreement. If it weren’t from some really close author friends (who helped me during this difficult time) I might have not started with this first step. I had multiple books with MuseItUp. I had signed 5 contracts with them- 4 for the eBooks in the series (3 of the 4 contracts included print books), and there was a separate contract for the series. I had to ask for my rights back for the 4 books plus the series. Why is this important? There’s always a chance of running into a stumbling block when an author re-releases books that were once with a publisher. I was cautioned that Amazon for example might ask me for reversion of rights letters.
I had been nearly halfway through writing book 5 of the series when I received the news but I continued writing. I can’t say what the future holds for Homicide Detective, Rachel Hood and FBI Agent, Nick Draven. Perhaps I’ll start writing Disappeared Last Fall book 6 or that single title thriller tentatively titled, Dead End.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
Many years ago I attended an in person workshop given by a widely acclaimed author who told us writers in the room- never use the verb “was” in a sentence. At this point in my writing career, I had completed writing a third book and was working on a fourth. I remember going home and painstakingly working on eliminating “was” from my novel, Haunting Lyric. At my wits end, I called another author friend and she chastised me for believing such nonsense.
C’mon! I understand the advice given to choose a solid verb and avoid using “to be” and other lazy verbs and do your best to avoid adverbs but as a writer you also need to be mindful of how people speak and think. Characters are human beings of our creation so bring them to life appropriately. How’d ya like that? I used “to be” and “was” in my response, HaHa!
BTW, Haunting Lyric has suffered through so many edits and revisions from me that I had an editor say, “I feel like the author has chosen her words too carefully.” No kidding! It remains unpublished.
New York Times Bestselling author Vicki Lewis Thompson offered me the best advice. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Just write.”
Any advice you’d like to offer to writers?
I give writers the same advice she gave me. Just write. There are plenty of rules to learn about but the best thing you can do for yourself is just write. Get the story out and then make it shine during the editing and proofreading process. I also encourage writers to join a professional organization at the national and local level even if you don’t write in that genre. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow and of course meet other writers and authors.
I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and when I first started writing I was a national and local chapter member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) for 8 years. I learned so much from RWA and had the opportunity to pitch to agents and editors. If you’re familiar with my books, you know I write dark thrillers but the advice, workshops, and fellow writers and authors I met through RWA shaped my career and inspired my confidence.
One more piece of advice, find a good critique partner or critique group to read your work. You’ll want them to be familiar with the genre you’re writing and provide gentle guidance and advice.
What are some of the crazy things people have said to you upon learning you are an author? How have you responded?
I guess I’ll start by saying that when someone asks, “What do you do?” My reaction isn’t to say, “I’m a writer.” I work in the financial services industry so I usually reply with the name of my employer. When someone does know I write and mentions it, I’m always a bit bashful. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about my books or writing but sometimes people get a little starry eyed. They don’t realize I’m not “big time stuff.” Of course, my close friends know what a time consuming commitment writing books is for me and that I’ve enjoyed small rewards along the way, but everyone does not know my name. If ya know what I mean!
Recently, I was talking with a neighbor and he was introducing me to some other neighbors and said, “It’s really exciting to have an author in the neighborhood.” I could feel the blush rising on my cheeks. What could I say or do? I just smiled and said, “Thank you.”
The only other funny thing that happened to me was after the Tucson Festival of Books a few years ago. I was shopping at Macy’s with a friend and a woman stopped me and said, “Oh my gosh, you’re that author I met at the festival.” I’m certain if the event hadn’t just been the previous weekend she would’ve walked right past me. We briefly chatted, and I was happy to hear she was already enjoying one of my books. It was a surreal moment to have been remembered.
Care to brag about your family?
Two men who inspire me daily are my husband and my dad.
My husband is smart and a risk taker. He sets out to do something and does it. Failure is never an option with him. He’s the kind of person who makes things happen. I admire his tenacity and confidence, kindness and generosity.
My dad is a first generation American whose parents were immigrants from Croatia. Deda, my dad’s father worked in a coal mine and brick yard, and my dad discovered how physically demanding those jobs were early in his life. He learned English while going to school and after graduating from high school went to college. He earned an Associate’s Degree in Business. Although, he had planned to acquire a four year Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting being married, working fulltime and going to college was hard and another opportunity outside of the bookkeeping job he had presented itself. My dad was very successful as a car salesman and eventually went on to start his own Ford dealership. I marvel at his entrepreneurial spirit and grit to walk away from a great job.
What I’ve learned from both of them is that you have to believe in yourself because if you don’t, no one will.
If you had a million dollars to give to charity, how would you allocate the funds?
I would donate one million dollars to the American Cancer Society and allocate funds for research grants to advance medicine and for travel expenses to help people living in remote areas that are in need of transportation and housing while undergoing treatment in a nearby city.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have what would it be?
I like old cars. If I could have another skill I’d like to be a mechanic and own a ’78 Vette and other classic cars. I think it’d be fun to work on a classic.
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