Kate White is a master of suspense novels, but she comes to the genre via an unusual route: magazine editing. For more than a decade, White was the editor-in-chief of the iconic Cosmopolitan magazine. Here, in honor of the release of her latest book Such a Perfect Wife, White reflects on three surprising lessons she learned about writing suspense novels from her time as a magazine editor.
For 14 fun and crazy years, I was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, at the time the number one women’s media brand in the world. I worked with an incredibly diverse and dynamic staff, and almost every day was exciting, often filled with wild surprises.
One morning, for instance, Pharrell Williams called to say he’d written a song using Cosmo coverlines and wanted to come over with a singer and have her perform it for my staff. We’d have a party, he said, and oh, I shouldn’t worry about drinks. He’d bring them.
During most of my tenure at Cosmo, I was writing mysteries and psychological thrillers on the side. Seven years ago, I left my position in order to do that full-time. It wasn’t as tricky of a decision as it sounds because by then I was longing for the autonomy that would come with going out on my own. Plus, editing Cosmo was just so weirdly different from penning suspense novels, and I was beginning to find the juggling tough. At times my brain felt like the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans make an attempt to equilibrate—but don’t do a very good job of it.
Well, the autonomy has indeed been wonderful, and I love being able to focus on writing without all the crazy demands of a corporate role. But to my surprise, I find myself as an author relying a lot on some of the lessons I learned running a billion-dollar brand. And they’ve also served me well in life in general.
Three of my favorites:
When You’re Stalled, Increase Your Information Input
Though I tried to always trust my gut as an editor, I also did a ton of reader research, working specifically during my Cosmo years with an old friend who ran a boutique research company. One day, frustrated because I couldn’t make up mind about who to hire as an art director, I asked her advice:
“When you can’t come to a decision,” she told me, “it’s often a sign you need more data.”
Okay, interesting. I stopped endlessly mulling over the situation and instead re-interviewed my top two candidates. Suddenly I had my answer.
That piece of wisdom has been really valuable in my writing, too. If I feel stuck and the words aren’t exactly flowing, I’ll spend more time sketching out the bios for certain characters or do more research online. I was a bit stalled lately while working on my next standalone thriller, so I used part of the morning to research the drug digitalis, which one of the characters uses to murder someone. I felt totally energized afterwards, and a tiny piece of information I found on a poison website gave me a great idea for a plot point.
Go Big or Go Home
The Cosmo I inherited was a very successful magazine, which was due in large part to how much it dared to push the envelope. I knew that in order to personally succeed in the job, I was going to have to stay on brand and always go big––not only with covers, coverlines, photos, articles, fashion, etc. but also with the projects we worked on.
To avoid becoming complacent, I forced myself to ask what I called “the 4 Bs” about every idea or project I was considering: Could it be better, bigger, bolder, or more badass? And if the answer was yes, I got busy.
When I’m writing suspense, I sometimes make the mistake of pulling my punches with a plot, and, the 4 Bs have been my salvation. They’re always a helpful kick in the butt, forcing me out of the weenie zone.
Dare to Look Failure in the Eye
I never understood exactly why, but I had a knack for producing winning Cosmo covers. During my time at the magazine I increased circulation by 30 percent, mostly based on newsstand sales. That said, I had my share of duds. Though my first instinct when a particular issue wasn’t selling well was to have all copies removed from my sight, perhaps even from the damn building, I would finally summon up the nerve to try to figure out what went wrong.
To help me, I did something I named “the rug test.” I’d toss the offending issue in the center of the carpet in my office. Just above it I’d lay a row of top-selling covers from previous months and below it I’d line up past losers. Then I’d spend up to an hour making comparisons. What did the current issue have in common with other failures? What didn’t it have in common with the winners? At times I felt like a member of a CSI team, examining a corpse at a crime scene and trying to determine the exact cause of death.
But guess what? By the time I was done making comparisons, I’d have gained insight. I could venture an intelligent guess as to why the cover hadn’t worked, a factor (unfortunately) I’d been too close to determine when I sent it to the printer weeks before. Maybe the outfit on the actress or model wasn’t as appealing as I’d thought or all wrong for the season. Or maybe the coverlines were too vague and not grabby enough. Looking backward enabled me to be smarter about how I moved forward.
And this works with my books as well. Some of my 13 novels have done better than others, and though my knee-jerk response to a softer than desired sale is to order a frozen margarita and assure myself that “tomorrow is another day,” I take a deep breath and do the rug test instead.
How does this book’s cover compare to my previous ones—or to other books in the genre currently on sale? Was the marketing plan all it should have been?
And yes, what about the book itself? Did my readers like it as much as the others? It can be dangerous to read reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, particularly those with a single star. Many of those seem to be written by people who enjoy pulling the wings off flies as long as they can keep their identity secret. But as an author pal once told me, the three-star reviews, in small doses, can offer insight. And so I take a peek at those and see if there’s a pattern that I can learn from.
And then I have a margarita—because at that point I really need it!
Kate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, is the New York Times bestselling author of the standalone psychological thrillers The Secrets You Keep, The Wrong Man, Eyes on You, Hush, and The Sixes, as well as seven Bailey Weggins mysteries. White is also the author of several popular career books for women, including I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion, and Create the Career You Deserve and editor of the Anthony and Agatha Award nominated The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. She lives in New York City.