Sarah M. Chen is a children’s author and award-winning short story writer. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn was an Anthony finalist and IPPY Award winner. She’s the co-editor for several anthologies and her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Hapa Mag, among others.
About Cleaning Up Finn
Cleaning up Finn: Life is a constant party for restaurant manager, Finn Roose. When he seduces an underage woman on one of his booze cruises and loses her—literally, it sets off a massive search involving the police, her parents, and a private investigator. Finn scrambles to make things right which may be too much to ask from a guy who can’t resist a hot babe and a stiff drink.
Hi Sarah! Can you tell readers what inspired you to write Cleaning Up Finn?
I wrote Cleaning up Finn originally as a short story for a specific anthology call but it got rejected. I set it aside and then a fledgling e-publisher asked if I had anything longer. They were looking to publish only crime fiction novellas. I really liked this short story so decided to try expanding it. I had yet to complete anything longer than 7000 words so it was a fun challenge for me.
It’s based on my experience working in the restaurant industry as a bartender and server. It was a crazy time in my life and it goes to show you never know what will serve as inspiration in your writing. I enjoy the challenge of writing about flawed, unlikeable characters, yet readers find themselves rooting for them anyway. If not, hopefully they’re at least entertained.
Can you share your journey to publication?
My background is in the entertainment industry. I spent most of my time in Hollywood as a studio script reader while writing screenplays. Then I got a divorce and it made me re-examine my life. I was disillusioned with Hollywood and felt aimless. I decided to shift my focus from screenwriting to books. I always wanted to be a published author as a kid.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to write but when I went to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I met my soon-to-be mentor. He invited me to a Sisters in Crime meeting. Sisters in Crime is an international organization that offers networking and support for mystery authors. I’d never tried writing mysteries but I loved reading them.
I followed my mentor’s path to publication by writing short stories to hone my craft and get my name out there. A year later, I got my first short story acceptance from a small press, and it was so exciting. I did a whole book tour around Southern California with four other Sisters in Crime members/fellow contributors. We even got paid an advance and our short story collection came out in hardcover. I soon learned that this is not normal, but it was an experience I will never forget.
I published many short stories after that, and eventually, editors were coming to me to see if I’d contribute which was a nice change of pace. Now I’m focusing more on writing full-length books so am only writing maybe one or two short stories a year. I’m an extremely slow writer who can only focus on one thing at a time.
Do you have any publication tips for querying authors?
I’d have to say that you never know what your path to publication will be or what roadblocks you will encounter. I assumed I would write short stories until agents would be knocking down my door, haha! One agent did approach me and asked if I had a novel in the works, but I wasn’t ready.
Cleaning Up Finn was all set to go with the e-publisher, but then they went under. As luck would have it, a small press who published one of my short stories wanted to read it and they ended up publishing it the following year. The novella earned me several nominations and awards and I’m so grateful to All Due Respect Books for taking a chance on me.
So when things may seem disheartening (i.e. a publisher folding), don’t despair because other opportunities you may not have considered could arise. Just keep persevering and submitting.
Do you have any favorite writing tools?
I’m old school and use Word! For this latest WIP, I’ve been trying the 4-act structure by author Jamie Pacton and it’s helped me feel less overwhelmed with the saggy middle.
What are your favorite writing resources?
I love Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. I map out my story beats using this book and even took an intensive 2-day workshop in Downtown L.A several years ago. They only allow 8 students. It really energized me, not only with my WIP but my whole outlook on writing.
Has anything about the writing surprised you?
The supportive and generous writing community. Writing can be lonely and I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without Sisters in Crime, my writer group, the editors/publishers who took chances on me, and the many fabulous writers I’ve met on social media!
What’s Next? Do you have another project you are working on?
My latest short story “A Family Matter” just came out in the anthology Witnesses for the Dead, edited by Gary Phillips and Gar Anthony Haywood. It’s with Soho Press, my first publication with a big 5. The stories examine the question: how does witnessing a crime change a person? All proceeds go to the Alliance for Safe Traffic Stops.
Right now, I’m working on my 3rd draft of my YA thriller. I queried it last year to a small batch of agents and got a lot of full requests but ultimately all passes. Fortunately, I received some helpful feedback so am re-writing it from scratch. It’s quite different from the original version. I’m hoping to have this draft done by the end of the year so I can revise and start querying!
What is your number one tip for writers?
Don’t fight your writing process or compare yourself to others. If it’s working for you, just go with it and get the story/book done.
In closing, where can readers find you?
I’m on Instagram and Twitter at @sarahmchen
My website: https://sarahmchen.com
Thank you so much, Sarah. I agree with what you said about the writing community being supportive and generous. We are in a YA support group together, and I love how everyone encourages each other when we need a little push, and raises the roof in celebration for each of our wins!
I look forward to following you in your query journey in the new year! I signed up for your news letter to keep up and everyone else should, too!