A savvy approach to launching a second career as a novelist

If you asked me to come up with a fun title for the big career transition I made when I was in my early 60s, I’d probably offer something like, “How I Went to Bed the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmo and Woke Up Writing About Crime Scenes, Corpses, and Serial Killers.”

And though that’s a bit tongue in cheek, it’s basically what happened. After fourteen years running what was then the world’s best-selling women’s magazine, I left ten years ago to work full-time as an author. My 18th suspense novel, The Last Time She Saw Him, is out this month.

Editing Cosmopolitan was exhilarating, but my new job is just as fabulous in its own way. I get to be my own boss, write anywhere I want (including at our home in Uruguay all winter), interview fascinating crime scene investigators, and hang with other suspense authors, who are some of the most fascinating people I’ve met. You can bring up Ted Bundy with them and not feel weird.

Are you itching to make a change yourself? There are two things that helped me reinvent, and they might benefit you as well.  

First, I was willing to play the long game. By that I mean I wrote my first eight novels while running Cosmo. Yeah, practically the definition of burning the candle at both ends, and I often slept less than six hours a night, but I loved doing both. And I devised a system that kept the extra work from impacting my day job and family (more about this in a minute).

Plus, it ensured that by the time I was ready to transition, things were firmly in place for my new career: I had a nice nest egg and a contract with a publisher, and though I knew I’d miss my wonderful co-workers (and the 30% Prada discount!), I’d learned I could handle solitary work in a home office. Besides, magazines were about to go on life-support. 

The long game isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth considering.

I also relied on something called the “What if…?” technique, a trick many suspense writers use to come up with their plots, including those jaw-dropping twists. To better explain, let me take you back to my pre-Cosmo days when I was the editor-in-chief of Redbook. I was enjoying my magazine career, but I’d also begun fantasizing about an old dream I’d had (as a former Nancy Drew fanatic) of writing a series of books featuring a private female eye. I hated the idea that I might never get around to it.

There was no way I could just up and leave my job, so I started asking myself, “What if?” “What if I tried to pull it off while I was still at Redbook? What if I got up before my kids and tried to write just a page each morning (365 in a year!)? What if instead of writing about a private detective, I made my sleuth a magazine crime writer so I wouldn’t have to do as much research?”

I decided to give it my best shot and managed to crank out four chapters.

Then suddenly my plan went to hell. One Sunday afternoon I got a call from the president of Hearst magazines asking me to come to her office. Uh oh. By the time I arrived I was bracing for the worst, but to my surprise she said, “Kate, we want you to take over editing Cosmopolitan.”  

Of course, I accepted on the spot. It would be a fantastic opportunity. But at the same time, I realized, sadly, that I would have to give up my mystery since there was no way of running something as big as Cosmo with a side hustle.

But a few months later I couldn’t resist rereading those chapters, and I was gobsmacked by one particular image. Though I didn’t recall writing these words, I’d described how the corpse of the gorgeous nanny who dies in the book is discovered lying on a copy of Cosmopolitan.

So again, I played “What if?” “What if this is a sign from the universe? What if I at least tried to pull it off by writing very early each day?”

Three years later I published my first mystery, If Looks Could Kill, about true crime writer Bailey Weggins, which became an instant NY Times bestseller.

If you’re hoping to start a new chapter, give “What if…”? a go. Be bold and really willing to stretch. Don’t dismiss ideas that seem far fetched at first. Ask a supportive, affirming friend to suggest “What ifs” for you—and resist the urge to say “Yes, but….”

Just like a suspense writer, you might come up with a thrilling twist you never saw coming.  One that could change your whole life.

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