Life’s Wake-Up Calls

For the past few months, I've been so focused on my own stuff that I realize I've been missing the bigger picture. Time to reevaluate.

As some of you may have heard, we've been moving—downsizing—and I've been angsting over a variety of things:

1. Downsizing.

How do you get rid of a thing that someone else has saved for you and that goes back generations when it's something that doesn't fit your life anymore, maybe it never fit your life, but the guilt of letting it go is numbing?

Case in point: the secretary desk that belonged to my grandma Esther. She loved that desk, used it daily and thought I would love it. I did, for a while. Then I put it in my daughter's room. She used it, and her sisters used it, all through high school. It had a glass display case above a desk top that folded down to reveal cubbies and drawers. They loved it.

Now, with no place to put it in the new house, I thought one of the girls would want it. Not! However, with the brilliance of the Millennials, one of my daughters suggested I take a picture of the secretary and post it up to a private account on Instagram. That way I could see it whenever I wanted, remember Gram whenever I looked at it, and free myself of the tangible object. We snapped a photo, then she helped me place it up on Craig's List. It sold right away, and I had an anxiety attack! BUT, lo and behold, the young woman who bought it was so excited to get it I forgot all about feeling guilty. It turned out that her grandmother had a desk exactly like it. After her grandmother died, her estate went into foreclosure and everything had to be sold at auction. I now look at the picture I have and am delighted to know that Gram's secretary is somewhere being cherished.

2. My identity.

I grew up in Evergreen. After a few years at CU in Boulder, I moved to Frisco (CO) and became a ski bum for a while, married, had kids, and moved back to Evergreen. We lived in the Country Club neighborhood of Denver for a few years while my kids were in high school, but we always had our house in the hills. Now, for the first time in nearly 60 years, I live in Denver. But I'm a mountain girl, I tell you. Except I now own a home and live in the DTC area. I can see my mountains (notice how possessive I am), but I no longer reside in a house tucked back into the woods. Who am I?

3. My career.

While I was at Bouchercon in Toronto, I met with my editor. To my dismay, he told me that international thrillers across the board just aren't selling very well right now. Even the superstars writing espionage and geopolitical thrillers have seen a drop in their numbers, though you're still hitting the list if you're one of the big boys. My editor told me he wants the next Raisa book, just not now. He wants a "different kind of thriller, perhaps a standalone" for my next book. That means if I want to continue writing for Crooked Lane, I need a new premise.

F*^k! I have a few more Raisa Jordan books to write, and I was deep into plotting Book #3.

On that note, I headed to Maine after Bouchercon to visit a friend who had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had undergone chemo, the tumors had disappeared and her blood counts were good. I had planned to visit in July after ThrillerFest, but I ended up with pneumonia then and figured that someone on chemo didn't need to be exposed to me. The fact she was doing so much better had me really looking forward to seeing her. I called her the night before I was scheduled to arrive and she said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're coming. I didn't tell you before because I was afraid you wouldn't come, but the cancer is back with a vengeance. They started me on hospice care last week."

F*^k! I'm not ready to lose a friend. And the world's not ready to lose a New York Times bestselling romance writer, who—despite the ravages of cancer—lamented, "I'm not ready to die. I still have two more books in me." It turns out she'd been stringing her fans along with the promise of something to come in her series, only to run out of time.

Sort of puts it all in perspective.

C

The AHA Moments

Every writer has one—or two—or three.

When I first started writing fiction, I was writing blind. I was a trained journalist and understood non-fiction, but writing a novel… Suffice it to say, it presented a number of new challenges. At the time, we were living in Frisco (Colorado), and there were no writers groups, no published authors, and no creative writing classes offered at the mountain college. Then in rode Maggie Osborne.

Maggie, a founding member of RMFW and an award-winning romance writer, moved to Summit County around 1986. Her first summer, she gave an author talk at the Frisco Library. I went up at the end to chat, and ended up cajoling her into putting on a workshop. By the time the librarian barred the door, Maggie had agreed to teach 5 two-hour sessions, once a week at her house, for $20, provided I could find at least two other writers to join in. A bargain, to say the least.

It didn’t take long to find two other interested parties, and we were brimming with excitement that first session. Maggie focused on character—point-of-view, motivation, physical attributes, flaws, strengths, desires… At the end of the session, she asked each of us to go home and write a few paragraphs from the POV of our heroine and bring back the pages the following week.

I was the only one who showed up. During the course of the week, the others had decided it was too much work, claimed Maggie was demanding too much. But I wasn’t complaining—we’d paid upfront, which meant, I had four one-on-one sessions coming with a master.

My first AHA moment came during that second class.

Here’s a sample of that early work.

“Why should I?” Lauren stepped back as Alex moved a step forward. “Look, my ex-husband introduced us. Once. I hardly know the man.” She returned Alex’s defiant glare.
Alex felt the muscles twitch in his neck. He had been furious when his contact suggested Lauren was involved in her partner’s business indiscretions. If they discovered that she knew Woodley, it would only fuel his colleague’s doubts.
“Did you mention Harmon’s accident in the conversation?”
“Yes, I didn’t realize it was a secret.” She studied him with dark eyes. “Now, it’s your turn to explain something to me.”

The important lesson that night was about POV. As Maggie pointed out, in addition to wonderful choreography, the above four paragraphs included four POV switches. Not to mention that Lauren can magically see her own “dark eyes.” It was like a lightbulb went off.

Is it any wonder that this book never got published?!

My second AHA moment came during critique.

I was at Lee Karr’s, another founding member of RMFW and award-winning romance writer. Here’s a small slice of what I offered up:

“Hello, how are you?”
“Great, great. Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful. They say it’s supposed to reach 90 degrees.”
“A scorcher, which reminds me, you were getting hot when you started asking questions about…”

The important lesson that afternoon was about Dialogue. When it was Lee’s turn, she pointed out that the dialogue served no purpose whatsoever. Her advice, make sure your dialogue does one if not two of the following things:

1. Advance the plot.
2. Characterize the characters.
3. Create suspense and intensify the conflict.
4. Reveal motivation.
5. Control the pace.

Another lightbulb moment.

My latest AHA moment came during this year’s RMFW conference. I signed up for a master class with Stuart Horwitz, Book Architecture. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. His method encourages a pantzer-plotter-pantzer/plotter type of model. In the first draft, you just write. Whatever you want, in whatever order you want. Pantzer technique. In the second draft, you apply a method for structuring the novel, cutting up the scenes and reordering them as necessary, discovering what you put in that you don’t need and what you didn’t put in that you need. Plotter technique. In the third draft, you rewrite, in any order you want. You punch up the scenes already written, write the scenes that you left out and add transitions between chapters. Of course, this is a very encapsulated version of a four hour workshop, but the point is—I think Horwitz’s method may be just what I need.

Here’s to all the AHA moments.

Including the ones yet to come. That’s why I still go to critique, still attend conferences like the Colorado Gold. It’s important to me to stretch my abilities as a writer, to always write a better book. It’s my hope that the AHA moments keep on coming.

FREEZE! SMOKE POLICE!

I’m sure most of you have heard of Writers’ Police Academy, the four day conference offering an exciting and heart-pounding interactive and educational hands-on experience designed to enhance a writers understanding of all aspects of law enforcement, firefighting, EMS, and forensics. If you’re writing anything with a cop in it, I highly recommend the experience.

Day One

The first session is all about Drones! The expert had six or seven drones, 3D glasses so you could see from the perspective of the drone, and in-depth information on types, uses and hands-on demonstration! Registration fee justified!

At the opening ceremony, the Oneida Tribal Police blessed the WPA – the campus and conference hotel are located on tribal lands. There are dancers, and then I’m one of 10 people chosen to wear a gun belt. It comes complete with an orange gun (a solid plastic training gun) and blue taser (again, solid plastic). My assignment—wear it ALL day Friday. Things I learned:

  • The belt is heavy. It adds about 20 pounds around your waist. Add the Kevlar vest (which they want their officers to wear 24/7) and I was lugging around an extra 35 pounds. It makes it hard to run!
  • You’re told to take it the gun belt off when you go to the bathroom, but there’s a problem. Where do you put it? Place it on the floor? Yuck. On the back of the public toilet. Yuckier. If you hang it on the back of the door, it’s apt to get stolen. It’s happened. Tami Hoag solved the problem by pulling it up over her boobs. Brilliant! Maybe that’s why she’s a NYT bestselling author.
  • It’s hard to draw the gun and/or taser. But then, just wearing it was enough to scare some people. Take the stoner smoking within 5 feet of the hotel door. He saw the belt and his demeanor changed. He stepped away trying to gauge 25 feet. He glanced warily over his shoulder at me a number of times, and then seemed truly scared with my “police” dog (a 13-year old, 14 pound, black, miniature poodle) trailed out the door behind me. Freeze! Smoke police!

Day Two

This is a full day of classes. Six sessions a day, with some special assignments. These were hands-on trainings where you shoot real guns, drive real cars, search real buildings, and blow off real doors. I was assigned to “Handgun Live Fire” and I want to go back to try “Building Search/Room Clearing,” “Pursuit Immobilization Technique (PIT),” “Wait Explosive Entry.” “Defense and Arrest Tactics.” FYI, this is where you learn to handcuff people, but I’ve already done that. At a Rocky Mountain Chapter or Mystery Writers of America workshop I handcuffed RMFW’s own Jedeane Macdonald. Only one problem, the handcuff keys were missing. No problem! We just took a field trip to the closest Fire Station and had them cut off.

Regular sessions included things like “Incognito, Exploring the Undercover Experience” (with a real undercover cop who busted drug dealers in New York City), “Blood Spatter” (with a real dummy that spatters blood when he’s struck in the head), “Arson Investigation” (where they actually teach you how to start a fire with three different accelerants), “Federal Law Enforcement,” “Prison Gangs,” “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs,” and the list goes on. Too much to do in one year. Too much to do in two years.

Day Three

I was assigned to “Shoot, Don’t Shoot.” This was a special setting with a simulator that presented various scenarios the cops might encounter. I went first, with a partner, and we were called to a building with an intruder. We had no idea what we’d encounter, then a guy came out of the front door shooting. I fired three shots. My partner emptied his gun. Neither of us got shot. 15 rounds were fired, and only one shot connected, bringing the bad guy down—mine!

Other scenarios included a domestic dispute, an attack on an electrical transfer station, a attempted mugging in Central Park, an encounter when off-duty… Here’s what I learned:

  •  Shoot until the danger is neutralized.
  •  Shoot if there is eminent danger to you or others.
  • If you empty your gun when it’s not necessary, you may find you’re out of ammo and still facing danger.
  • I want one of these simulators!!

Banquet

Tami Hoag ran the live auction, and there was one item of note. Dr. Katherine Ramsland, an expert on serial killers and author of CONFESSION OF A SERIAL KILLER: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DENNIS RADER, offered a “personalized (to the winner) drawing, done by and signed by Rader, of one of his crime scenes.” Most people know this man as the BTK killer, an acronym he gave himself which stands for “Bind, Torture, and Kill.” No doubt the sketch will be a collector’s item. And, he fancies himself a poet, so it might even come with prose. Yet… It drew a final bid of over $800. Writers are a strange lot! Now, I’m fascinated by serial killers, and I’ve studied a lot of them, but I can’t imagine having something with such negative energy in my home. I actually went out to see if I could find an example on line and couldn’t actually bring myself to cut and paste one here. They’re just too creepy. Interested, here’s a link.

Day Four

I was ready to come home, and yet I attended the debriefing. Lee Lofland, the writer and ex-cop who put WPA together, led a rousing Q&A session with all of the guest presenters that had attendees rolling in the aisle.

WPA Cost: $395 registration; $20 t-shirt; $55 banquet; $500 (approximate) hotel bill; $30 in extra meals; $600 travel (approximate)

Value: Priceless

On The Road

This year I decided to try something different with the launch of my new book and attended the American Library Association's Annual Convention held in Chicago, June 22nd to 27th. My goal this year was to try and get the word out about RED SKY to those living outside our region. When Sisters in Crime offered member authors the opportunity to sign and giveaway books from their booth, my publisher generously donated 50 HC of RED SKY. And, adding to the fun was the chance to spend time in the Windy City with my youngest daughter, Addie. She teaches 8th Grade Social Studies in Grand Rapids, MI, so she drove down and met me for the weekend.

Day 1

We both arrived at the hotel about 11 am. Amazingly our room was ready and had a nice view of the lake. We ate some lunch, then sauntered over toward the aquarium and caught the water taxi to Navy Pier. After walking the beach and wading in the water, we caught a bus back and opted for room service and a movie.

Day 2

This was ALA day. I had a great time signing and giving away my books, and Addie had an even better time hauling in volumes of books for her classroom--books generously donated by the publishers. Since she teaches in a Title 1 school, she has at least 12 students in her classroom that speak no English. 4 of them speak Swahili. And while she didn't find any books written for kids in that language, she did find several books written for ESL learners that spoke about what it was like assimilating into American culture. She must have scored 50 books, and we were ready for a rest by the time we hauled them back to the Congress Hotel.

That night we dined at Remington's, a fabulous steak house on Michigan Ave. Then we walked some more, went to Navy Pier for the fireworks, rode the new Ferris Wheel and made our way back along with the mad crush of people who'd ended the night with the same idea--most of them in town for the next day's Pride Parade.

Day 3

Knowing we were going to have to travel the Pride Parade route to get back to Addie's car, we headed out early. Good thing. We made the last reasonably packed red train headed north. While we boarded a different train to continue our journey, the next red train that pulled into the station had people hanging on the sides.

Did it help with sales to go to ALA?

There were thousands of librarians there, and only 50 copies of my book. But there were lots of librarians that picked up a postcard about the book instead of taking a copy, because they didn't want to lug books back home. Did they order it for their libraries? I'd like to think yes, but the truth is, I'll never know.

ThrillerFest

And just this morning I got back from a weekend in NYC for ThrillerFest. I had a great time and saw some fellow RMFW writers, but I didn't fare as well there as Chicago. I had a great day volunteering on Thursday, going to panels on Friday, but then I started feeling a little puny. I skipped the party that night, went to the drugstore, grabbed some DayQuil, went back to the hotel and ordered some tea. Saturday morning I had to drag myself to an early morning breakfast meeting with my agent and editor, went to my panel (moderated by none other than David Morrell), then arranged for someone else to present the award I was supposed to present at banquet and went back to bed. I ended up sleeping a day and a half. I missed seeing my daughter, Gin, who lives in NYC, missed seeing "Come From Away" on Broadway, and had to cancel my trip to Maine to see a friend with cancer to fly home this morning. Chemo and viruses just don't mix!

What did my agent and editor have to say?

Stay tuned. I'll make that the subject of next month's blog. Meanwhile, I'm headed straight back to bed.

Chris

Launch Week

Okay, I'm writing this on Launch Week, so my mind is focused on trying to juggle normal life, extra life events (which are part of normal life) and the launch of my second thriller, RED SKY.

The book officially came out on June 13th, so most of the "heavy lifting" for launch was done in the weeks and months prior. My blog "Singing the Book Promotion Blues" detailed how and when things were done, which were the responsibility of my publisher, and which were on me. So what didn't I tell you? Note: I did factor these costs into my overall budget, so I'm not going to break them down here, except to demonstrate the payoff (or lack thereof).

Weeks ahead of the launch.

The likely response and attendance rate to event invitations varies widely depending on the event, the target audience and the relationship of the sender to the sendee. You can expect an 83% RSVP and attendance rate from most wedding invitations, according to RSVPify—a stat borne out by my daughter's wedding in February. Even though she was married in Hawaii (or maybe because of it?) approximately 80% of the invitees attended, regardless of whether they lived on island or on the mainland. That said RSVP and attendance rate for direct mail is more like 2%, according to McCarthy & King. That's two for every 100 mailed.

Just to set the stage, the Tattered Cover-Colfax launch had about 40 or 50 in attendance (depending on who was counting). A great turnout for me, and I was thrilled to learn that I had sold the bookstore out of all but five books. I couldn't have asked for better. To be fair, there was a mixture of family and friends, but there were also a number of people I didn't know that showed up. So what helped the most?

Who knows? Maybe it was the TC promotion (the ad in the paper they always take out, and/or the in-store promotion they do prior to launch), or maybe it had something to do with my efforts. To up the hope that I would have good attendance at TC, I did a couple of things:

1. I sent snail mail postcards to 180 people—friends, family, grade school classmates (I grew up in Evergreen, so we're talking locals)—inviting them to come to one of two signings: TC on June 15th or Hearthfire Books in Evergreen on June 22nd, and adding a personal note. The list can effectively be divided in half for who would come where. Out of 90 postcards sent, at least 10 of the people attending the signing would have received the postcard. That's 11% on a direct mail campaign. Better than the norm for attendance. The cost of that mailing (90 pieces, postage, etc.), meant it cost me $7.16 per person. I needed to sell 26 books to break even. Was it worth it?

2. I did an email campaign. My email list has over 3,000 names on it, so I sent an e-blast about the release and included my signing dates. I have no idea how many people that were in attendance received that, but that comes out to something like .02%, so much lower than the estimate for attendance. Still, how many of those folks bought the book? Who knows? The cost of getting that info in front of that many people totaled about $40, and as a traditionally published person I need to sell 110 books from that mailing to break even. Was it worth it?

3. I posted events on Facebook and to the various writers' list serves I belong to, put notices in the writers' organizations newsletters, etc. Of the group in attendance, there was only one person who would have heard about the signing from ONLY that venue. Of the rest, there were seven or eight others who received at least one of the other type mailings—snail or email. Big plus—this notice was free to send. No reason to question whether or not this was worth it. The answer is yes.

Spreading the Word

That is how one has to think about this. A basic marketing tenant says that someone needs to see or hear about something three times. With some folks, they've seen RED SKY or my name at least three times. With others, you hope they mention it to a friend, who then reads about my signing in TC ad, who then sees the book on the shelf at the Barnes & Noble, and buys it.

What about the people who I didn't know from anywhere? Were they TC patrons? Had they read about the book in a Publishers Weekly, Kirkus or Booklist review? Were they fans of Lee Child or Catherin Coulter, and found me because of the blurb on the cover of my book? (FYI, I've received several emails saying that someone read my book because, "If Lee Child liked this, I knew I would, too.") Were they waiting for the release because they'd read DARK WATERS?

I have no clue. A signing where so many who showed up and wanted books signed, was not the place for a survey. One person, I learned, was an old classmate of my daughter's who hoped to run into her there. He bought a book, so...

The Bottom Line

For me, the promotion is worth it. Locally, it's easier to have a profile. I do a lot of volunteering for my writers' groups—I present workshops, judge contests, participate. The more you give or give back, the more you receive in return.

National recognition comes harder. But I know I'm increasing my profile, if only because more people are offering to buy me drinks at the bar. More agents, editors and "big namers" recognize me. Does it mean I'm ever going to reach "star" status? Who knows? Would I love to have someone make a movie of one of my books so I can complain like every other author I know who has had a movie made from one of their books? Hell, yes!

There's only one thing I know for sure is I am thankful every day for the support of such a wonderful writers' community—thankful for all the pushes, for all the tips, for all the critiques, but mostly for all the friends that I've made. You guys, rock!

Now, however you decide to do this, go forth and tell us your stories!

Singing the Book Promotion Blues

With a new book coming out in June, I have had the pleasure—and the pain—of deciding what I need to do to get the word out. My decisions are similar to the ones anyone launching a book makes. Being realistic, there is only so much time and money, and never enough. There is also a limited payoff to the some of the choices, so where do you get the biggest bang for your buck. I figured I would share the marketing plan for my upcoming release, RED SKY, in the hopes that it might help some of you.

Timing is everything

There are a lot of things you can do to promote your book, and some of them must be done months in advance. Early in the year, my publisher sent me a marketing plan with the dates of actions to be taken and the name of the person responsible for taking those actions--one advantage of having a traditional publisher, and still the tasks are the same. I added to it things like signings, travel, promotional items. The time frame goes something like this:

6 months ahead of pub date

                               RED SKY Advance Reader's Copy    

Pitch the book for print reviews, guest articles and to local media. This includes sending galleys and later finished books to reviewers. My publisher's PR department took responsibility for this, and it resulted in some nice reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, as well as guest blog assignments and local media interviews.

Give away galleys and books to help create buzz. There is a community of booksellers, librarians, media professionals and book lovers interested in reading e-versions of pre-published books. My publisher puts my book up on NetGallery, and later does Giveaways to boost reviews on sites like Amazon, B&N and Goodreads.  I've added to it by doing Giveaways of the book once I receive my author copies--but those are limited. Sometimes you have to buy more, and that can get expensive.

Set up signings at the local bookstores. Some stores have longer lead times than others, and if you want a time close to your launch it doesn't pay to wait. Once you know your pub date, have your publicist call (r you call) the bookstores where you want to appear. My advice is to choose wisely. Venues differ. Upside, at Tattered Cover you'll be asked to speak and then sign books. Downside, if you don't have a traditional publisher willing to pay the fee, it will cost you $150 to set a date and you may have to consign your books. At a Barnes & Noble, you'll find yourself at a table in the front of the store hawking your book to their customers. Mark Stevens is the king of hawking, and he enjoys this type of venue. I don't, so I avoid this type of signing like the plague.

Promotional Poster for Hearthfire Books

OF NOTE: A publicist once told me not to set up too many signings in one locale. The theory being, you can only ask your friends, family and fans to show up so many times. With Red Sky, which launches in June, I've only set up two signings—one at the Tattered Cover-Colfax store; the other at Hearthfire Books, in my hometown of Evergreen.

Two months ahead of publication

Order promotional materials and swag. Most authors do bookmarks or postcards. Some give out chocolate. Some do tchotchke items. For example, Suzanne Proulx, who wrote a series of books featuring a hospital risk manager, ordered pens that looked like hypodermic needles to promote her novel, Bad Blood. Robin Owens printed the cover of her book on the back of a pocket calendar. Brilliant! I carried that card around for a year, flashing it numerous times in front of numerous people. The key is to be creative. Put something into the hands of bookstore owners, librarians and fans that will make them want to order and buy your book. Make sure you have a good design, and research your printer. There are a number of companies that offer discounted printing, but quality differs—and quality matters.

OF NOTE: One of the best promotional values around is Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blue Mailer. If you’re a PAL or iPAL member, for a modest fee you can place a blurb about your book in three consecutive bi-monthly mailers sent out to regional booksellers and librarians. For an additional charge you can include an insert. NOTE: there are specs for mailings and inserts, so be sure you meet expectations.

One month before publication

New Ebook cover for down-priced version

Take advantage of other opportunities

Library talks are fun, and a great way to get your book in front of readers. So are local book club talks. I've been lucky and my books have sold to the national book clubs, including Harlequin Book Club for my upcoming RED SKY. The entry on my publisher's marketing plans reads, "Cross promotion between all clubs. Coming soon email, new arrivals email and comparable titles email." I have no idea what that means, but I'm thrilled the publisher is handling things.

Agree to speak or teach, or sometimes you can simply show up.  Just make sure it fits with your goals. Last weekend Mario Acevedo, Nathan Lowell and I attended "Books and Brews" in Greeley. What can beat twelve authors, and a room full of readers playing trivia, and specialty beer? In June, I'll present a workshop at the Parker Writers Group monthly meeting, and in September I'll teach a workshop at the Colorado Gold Conference along with WOTY Nominee Shannon Baker.

Donate to auctions. I am constantly being asked to donate signed books to auctions. I usually do, but I always try for added value. I want not only the winning bidder to remember the book, but the lookie-loos, too. For example, my fellow Rogue Women Writers and I donate baskets to mystery and thriller convention auctions. We each contribute a signed book, and then we add interesting things from the Spy Museum in Washington D.C. in keeping with our international espionage themes. Things like: Campbell soup can concealers, "rear view" mirror sunglasses," truth detector" devices, top secret bags, mugs and hats.

Segueing to conventions, every genre has one. In the mystery field, it's Bouchercon. The regional equivalent is Left Coast Crime (LCC). For cozies it's Malice Domestic. For thrillers it's ThrillerFest. And, trust me, they can cost you an arm and a leg. Mike Befeler and I once calculated that it cost a minimum of $1,000 to attend an out-of-state conference. Double that for ThrillerFest. We were taking into account airfare, hotel costs, meals, promotional items, and registration fees--yes, unless you're a star, you're expected to pay your own way--so there may be some additional hidden costs. The message is not to not go, but to figure out which cons are important for you to attend. For instance, at ThrillerFest I can meet with my editor and agent, as well as rub elbows with the big hitters in my genre—many of whom I can later ask for book blurbs. Colorado Gold is near to my heart, and I would go just to see all my friends.

OF NOTE: Always accept a panel assignment, and try not to be that difficult writer who can only speak at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday alongside Lee Child. Word gets around.

There are other cons, too. The Independent Booksellers across the country hold conventions, and a number of states sponsor book festivals. Many of the writers groups will have a presence at these events, and it's worth it to volunteer to man the booth for an hour and meet the booksellers. This year, I'm going to Chicago for the American Library Association convention in June. I'm paying my airfare, but my publisher has agreed to donate 100 books for me to sign and giveaway.

Be sure and budget!

Rogue Women Writers promo poster at ThrillerFest

Only you know what you can afford to spend. My advice, make a plan and stick with it! Don't be me. I'll admit, there have been times when I've transferred attending a con into the "personal fun" category rather than assess the expense to my book promotion budget. Don't tell!

Seriously, if you're not careful you'll spend every dollar you make writing books, twice.

This year my goal is to expand my readership, so I'm going to ThrillerFest and Bouchercon for some face time with my editor and agent, and to connect with East Coast and Canadian readers. I'm sending out mailings, creating a display poster for the ThrillerFest hall, making donations, guest blogging, speaking at several events. Just to give you a sense of the cost, my total in expenditures to promote RED SKY so far are—wait for it—a whopping $5,660. Not as bad as you might think. I budgeted $5,000.

OF NOTE: For what it's worth, Diane Mott Davidson second-mortgaged her house to fund a tour of the west coast with four prominent cozy writers. She also gave away scads of cookies, sometimes with the help of friends. Ask Chris Jorgensen about how she and I sat in the back seat of Carol Caverly's car and stuffed chocolate chip cookies into small giveaway bags enroute to the Omaha Bouchercon. In addition to writing good books, Diane's marketing efforts eventually landed her a gig on "Good Morning America" and a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Now, I'm not advocating you refinance your home, or that you sell your first born. But give some thought to how much you can afford to put into promotion, and make a plan. Allocate wisely and it just might pay off!

True Confessions of a Midlist Writer

Okay, so, you know how everyone asks you "where do you get your ideas?" And you know how most writers say they have more ideas than they have time to write?

Not!

At least not me. Sure, I have things I know I want to write, but I also have:

#1 – Fear of Commitment

How do I know my idea is good? What seems to be a sure fire sell these days are young adult novels. Or crime novels with vampires, a cat and culinary recipes. Or maybe I missed that boat and I should be thinking psychological horror novels. I know, I know, you should never write to trends. But writing is hard work, and I don’t want to spend nine month writing a book that isn’t marketable.

#2 – Fear of Execution

Once I have an idea that I think is good, how do I execute? Do I focus on my plot? Important when writing a crime novel. Do I focus more on characters? Important when writing any novel. What happens when plot and character diverge rather than come together? And what happens when I get a third of the way into the book and discover it’s crap?

Mary Higgins Clark once told me that she often writes the first 100 pages of a book before she finds her story, and then she throws those pages away and starts over. Wise woman! There’s little I hate more than reading a book only to come upon a point in the story where the writer has tried to fix a gaping hole by manipulating the plot or characters. Trust me, if you’ve had to contrive a solution to fix a discrepancy, your readers noticed.

#3 – Fear of Narcissistic Tendencies

Okay, okay, I'll admit it—I think I’m a good writer. I hope other people think so, too. Let's face it, who doesn't want people to like their work. But I know how snarky I can be at times, and I've been on the receiving end, too. Maybe some of you don't fear reviews and critiques, but I do!

After my editor sent me a seven page revision letter for DARK WATERS, I lamented to Lee Child. He responded by saying we all get them, and finished by telling me to suck it up and just do what the editor asked. “Then, if the book tanks, you can blame him.”

Critics run rampant in today’s technological world. Writers are bombarded by reality bytes through any number of social media venues. We've empowered the Amazon critics by ensuring their opinions matter. Heaven forbid your average rating drops below 4 stars, or that you don’t get at least 50 reviews. That’s the minimum threshold for snagging a BookBub promotion with your second novel, and marketing is critical.

#4 – Fear of Putting it Out There

The bottom line, sending out your work is painful. With the exception of the one or two of us, those whose work is picked up by the first agent or editor they send it to, most of us will face some rejection. I’ve had my share. I remember Robert Crais once telling a room full of writers at Pikes Peak Writers Conference that he submitted his work something like 119 times before someone bit.

NOTE: critique is a good place to test the waters—a baby pool before throwing yourself off the deep end. At least, when you’re talking about my critique group. The key is making sure it's populated with writers who want to see you succeed, but will also demand that you give them your best. Don’t argue , don’t make every change, but listen. More often than not something will resonate, and just because you don’t want to hear it doesn’t mean you should ignore the message.

I just read my review for RED SKY in Publishers Weekly. It was a good review. On the other hand, Kirkus was snarky. But by far, the worst critique I ever received was an Amazon review for my very first Birdwatcher’s Mystery, A Rant of Ravens. The book was nominated for a WILLA Award for Best Paperback Original, kindly reviewed in PW and Romantic Times, and sold internationally. But what do I remember most? The only review I can quote word-for-word after all these years? It's the one offered up by someone named Anonymous (likely a full blown ornithologist), who gave me 1 star and told readers, “You’d be better off buying birdseed.”

Yet...

In spite of it all, I write. RED SKY is my eighth novel. I'm not very prolific, especially when compared to someone like Nora Roberts or some of my fellow RMFW writers. Still, it's respectable. My books have been nominated for lots of awards, none of which I’ve won. I’m RMFW’s Susan Lucci. Over and over my colleagues have come home with the honors, and more power to them. I wish it were me, but, overall, I’m happy to have been in the mix. I truly believe that every success is a success for all of us. Every new thriller or mystery published expands the genre. Every new writer breathes life into our profession.

So, as I wrestle to come up with that new idea, that story that only I can tell, as I grumble that maybe it’s time to quit and rail against my chosen profession, I will acknowledge—writing is part of my makeup. It’s embedded in my DNA.

Thanks, everyone, for having my back!

Contests and Competitions

Tis the Season

NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Atmosphere at the 2010 Edgar Awards banquet at Grand Hyatt Hotel on April 29, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

Now is a unique time for writers. In the mystery world, early in the year is the time when judging is beginning, nominations are being requested for a number of prize awards or Awards are being announced. Probably because the awards are for books published in the previous year. That said, RMFW's call for judges got me thinking—what is it about awards that make them so important? Who nominates your books for awards? Should you submit your own book? How does it all work?

Unpublished

Clearly there's a difference. The competitions for the unpublished are geared toward evaluating manuscripts and proposals for submission to editors and agents. The plus for entering is, in nearly all the contests held today, your work has a chance of getting into the hands of an editor and/or agent—once it passes the hurdle of the published writers who are judging most of these competitions.

Traditionally vs. Independently Published

For anyone published, honors are awarded based on any number of criteria, and they're usually readers' choice or judges' choice (including librarians, readers, writers, reviewers, etc.). Sometimes they are for best overall, sometimes they are for best in a genre, they can be given by any number of writers' groups and organizations, and who is eligible to enter varies.

I know the mystery genre, so I'll speak to that. For the Edgar Awards (the Oscar for Mystery Awards), up until now, entries must be traditionally published. Even so, judges receive hundreds of books in a number of categories. I have judged the Edgars twice in the Best Novel category, and both times we had over 500 submissions. There are also awards given at many of the conferences: The Anthony Awards at Bouchercon, The Lefty Awards at Left Coast Crime, the Agatha Awards at Malice Domestic. Writers' organizations also offer award opportunities. The Private Eye Writers of America have the Shamus Awards. There are the Barry Awards, the Macavity Awards, etc., etc. Many states have individual book awards, like the Colorado Book Awards, and then there are also a number of national awards, such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize Award, etc. Just know, as long as you meet the criteria, all of these are available for you to enter.

Note : Independently published authors are sometimes barred from entering some of the organizational awards, but they have their own list of opportunities. Some indie-pub only awards include: ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Award, the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Natilus Book Awards, and here at home the Colorado Independent Publishers Association Evvy Awards.

So why enter?

For the unpublished, the most important thing is feedback. I am constantly amazed at how many people don't request critiques on their work. The fee for a critique when entering these contests is so nominal. Don't pass up the chance to learn what works and what doesn't work in your manuscript, something crucial to your ultimate success as a writer. Plus, I'm blown away by how quick we are to discount criticism of our work. As unpleasant as the message can sometimes be, we should be grateful that someone (almost always a volunteer) cares enough to tell us what works and what doesn't work for them—for them being the key words. You're bound to get some bad or conflicting advice, or advice that just doesn't resonate with you. However, never forget, the intent of the judge is to help you in your quest for publication. This isn't about them showing off their own skills, or about anyone trying to change your work or your vision. They just want to offer assistance to you in reaching your goals. In my opinion, it should be welcomed.

For the traditionally and independently published, awards are all about increasing exposure for your work. Nearly every award receives some media attention, which results in additional book signings, which means more sales, and that's what it's all about—at least for most publishers. Winning an award (even being nominated) is also a sign that others love your work, and that's invaluable to the author who writes alone and wonders what type of reception their work will receive. Last, awards can open doors!

Which award contests are worth entering?

This is where you have to do your research. You need to be cautious. All of the awards are run differently, and certain awards are more prestigious than others. It depends on your interest what will serve you best. There are hundreds of literary awards given yearly in the United States.

Be sure and weigh the costs. Many charge a fee for entry. In Colorado, the Colorado Book Award's entry fee is $53. They accept ALL published works. Plus, some competitions pay prizes. The National Book Awards has an entry fee of $125, but the winner in each category receives $10,000.

If you win, milk it!

Get as much mileage out of being nominated and/or winning as you can. Get the word out early. Tell your publisher, your agent, your family and friends. Shout it out through social media, on your website. Attend any and all scheduled signings in relation to the awards.

Many organizations will give you stickers for your books. Use them.

Make bookmarks, stickers, flyers.

Leverage solo appearances at bookstores that may not normally welcome you to sign and get in touch with your local library. Consumers like to read books that have hit the bestsellers list and/or won awards. It signals that the book is worth their time to read it.

Send out press releases.

Remember the rule of three. It takes at least three times of someone hearing about your book or reading about your book before it sticks in their memory. Make sure to use every avenue you have to get the word out multiple times in multiple ways.

So, how do you create a winning book or proposal?

The correct answer is: write a great book. But even with a great book, you may need to generate some buzz to make it successful. Buzz garners attention. Buzz drives book sales. Awards help create buzz.

Beginnings

Good News.

I'm finally DONE with the second book in my new international thriller series, RED SKY. I've done two revisions, looked at the first page pass, the second page pass, and just turned in the final page pass. The ARCs are in the hands of a couple of reviewers, the launch date is set (June 15 at the Tattered Cover-Colfax). Now is the time for setting up signings, figuring out blog tours AND...STARTING A NEW BOOK.

The fact is I've been working on a new book since I first sent RED SKY to my publisher. The past two months I've been in what I call the "Thinking and Planning Phase." This is when I test my latest idea. I play with the characters. I brainstorm different ways to tell the story. I make sure I have enough story to write a book.

Raise your hand if you've ever started a book to discover halfway in that you don't have enough story or that your plot idea won't work?

Okay, so maybe you're smarter than I am, or a better writer, but my hand is up. Hence, I decided to heed some advice and emulate a few masters.

Writing like Mary Higgins Clark.

Experience tells me that I can't contrive story. Readers notice! This means, I need enough twists and turns to fill up 400 pages. The only way I can figure it out is to test the waters. Mary Higgins Clark once told me she writes the first 100 pages of her novels, figures out what her story is, and then throws away the pages and starts again. Writing helps her figure out where the story is headed. So, taking her message to heart, I write until I find the story, then pitch the pages and begin again.

Researching like Francine Mathews.

I've learned that research is the key to a novel that rings true, and I love to research. Once I have an idea, I research the heck out of it. With RED SKY, I researched Ukraine. Once I'd learned all I could about country and its people, I realized I had to expand my research to include Russia, China and Poland. Eventually, I felt the need to visit Eastern Europe in order to better understand the people. While I was there, the idea expanded more, and I added things to my list that I needed to research. I read, I talked to experts, I browsed the internet (always finding at least three sources to verify collected information). In doing all of this, I continued to collect precious kernels of information that sparked new ideas and set me off in different directions. But, it was Francine Mathews, one of my fellow Rogue Women Writers, who taught me when it's time to stop. Her rule of thumb, when you find you know the information, when you're rereading things or listening to stories about things you already know, you've researched enough. At that point, you can move to the next phase and research only new things that require additional Intel.

Plotting like Mark Sullivan.

For my genre, plot is crucial. At the very least it's important to know where you're starting and where you want to end up. Mark taught a great workshop at a Colorado Gold Conference years ago called "The Controlling Premise" (CP). In that class, he detailed how he crafts the "elevator pitch" that we all attempt to create. Done properly, it gives you two sentences, no more than twenty-five words that guide you from start to finish. It can take days to get the CP right. Then, from that moment forward, everything you write must in some manner pertain to your premise.

Developing characters like Robin Perini and Laura Baker.

Every now and then you can find a "Discovering Story Magic" (DSM) being taught online. It's another Colorado Gold Conference gem, a course developed years ago by two authors, Robin Perini and Laura Baker. This method takes you to the heart of your characters and then—by using a step-by-step process—helps you to build three-dimensional characters and draw out your story. It's not that different from advice you'll be given by other writers at other conferences, but Robin and Laura roll it all up into one package and make it easy to understand. Using their character worksheet and putting must-have scenes into a storyboard while staying true to my controlling premise, I come away with a plan every time. I've been using this method since writing my second novel, DEATH OF A SONGBIRD, in 2000.

Ready. Set. Go!

Sound like a lot of work to get to the starting line? It is. But it's worth ounce of effort. Once I've done the above, I have a clear road map for my novel-in-progress.

Do I deviate from the plan? Yes.

Do I go off-road? Yes.

Do I go back and tweak the plan, tweak my CP, and rethink my characters? Yes, yes and yes.

There are always different ways of getting from the start to the finish. And I know authors who have taken every shortcut and side-road known to man. Some of them are still working on the same book now as they were when I met them. That's why I explore different routes of getting from Page One to The End, but I don't wander far off path. Why? Because once I'm done with doing the hard work laid out above, I know I've constructed a pretty solid route from here to there.

So, where am I in the process? Currently, I've started writing pages to explore the idea, I'm deep into the research, and I'm working on my controlling premise. Through writing, I'm learning quite a lot about my characters. I'm nearly ready to discover magic.

2017 – THE YEAR OF BALANCE

I am not a big believer in your standard New Year's resolutions. They tend to be broad and sweeping statements like: I will lose weight. I will exercise more. I will finish my book. But I am a believer in setting goals, so when I received J.T. Ellison's 2016 Annual Review, I took it to heart.

For the past eight years, J.T. Ellison has been doing annual reviews of her life and work, based on the format first posted on Chris Guillebeau's blog. Here's a link to the actual post entitled "How to Conduct Your Own Annual Review." J.T. notes that his method is incredibly detailed, and she's right. I downloaded the spreadsheet link on Chris' website, and it's daunting. Still, I looked at several of J.T.'s past year's annual reviews, read Guillebeau's how-to, and tackled the job. Here's what came of it—and I expect you to hold me accountable. I am going to detail my goals (just like J.T. did), but I'm going to keep the focus primarily on my work goals (as I doubt most of you are interested in my personal life).

2017 is the year I find balance in life.

For me, sometimes the lines between my work life and my personal life blur, making it hard to juggle all the demands of either. Using the spreadsheet I downloaded off of Chris Guillebeau's website, I have come up with a game plan I hope will allow me to be more productive, increase my visibility as a writer and develop more time for me to regenerate my creativity.

Work Life:

I am most productive when I write consistently for a set amount of time, and I can be easily distracted by social media. I tend to check email and binge on Facebook, Twitter and blogging, which eats up a considerable amount of time. And it isn't an effective use of my social media, marketing and writing time. Scheduling time in each day for writing and then the business side of writing will create a better balance in my professional life. By setting word count goals, defining the purpose for my social media/email time, and defining tasks that will help improve my productivity and profile, I will achieve more success and be more fulfilled as a writer.

Personal Life:

On the personal side, by devoting/designating time to family and friends and creative endeavors outside of my writing, and through continued downsizing, de-cluttering and implementing practices that improve my health, I will replenish myself, enabling me to better both at work and at play.

The Specifics

It's easy to give broad strokes (like above), and harder to outline specific goals with specific deadlines. Here's what I came up with. NOTE: this isn't everything, but it's a start for sharing on a blog.

Category #1 – Writing Production

 Dedicated writing time. I am most productive in the morning, and I'm only really productive for about 4 hours at a time. Beginning immediately, I plan to devote 4 hours every day, every morning before 1:00 PM, Monday through Friday, five days a week.

 Dedicated writing business time. By afternoon I am not as creative. Beginning immediately, I plan to devote a minimum of 2 hours every day, Monday through Friday, five days a week, to answering emails, updating websites, writing and commenting on blogs, perusing and posting to social media sites, in conversation with my agent, publisher, publicist, etc.

 Set specific writing goals. I decided, writing 4 hours a day, I could produce at a minimum 600 words a day, 18,000 words a month and 216,000 words a year. I didn't set any goals for non-fiction, though I think I'll try and track it. It might be interesting to see how much time and how many words I spend writing for blogs, etc. I will not be as detailed as J.T. – figuring out time for writing emails and Tweets, but I figure by tracking word count for blog posts and other things I can quantify, and by tracking my hours spent on non-fiction, I can see if I am giving more weight to the business of writing or writing.

Category #2 – Increase my Writing Profile (In other words, work on my "branding," and building readers.)

With a book coming out in June, I have a lot to do in this realm. I write in two genres (mystery and thriller) and the books and audiences are very different. Figuring out how to best present myself on social media, my website and in marketing materials has been a real challenge. This year my main focus is on marketing my new thriller, RED SKY, scheduled to hit the stands on June 13th. All of the following goals need to be completed by June 13th.

 Learn how to better use social media. I will hit up friends, my children, and attend a few writers' workshops and online courses to try and figure this out. My main focus will be on my blogs (I write for RMFW and Rogue Women Writers), my Facebook page, my Twitter page and my website.

 Update my social media platforms. I have a nice head shot that has served me well for two years (thank you, Mark Stevens), but I just had some new photos taken for my new book cover (watch for the reveal). To tweak my brand, I need to upload new pictures, new book covers and new links across my social media platforms.

 Set up appearances. This gets expensive (figure $1,000 per out-of-town conference and sometimes a bookstore charge for a signing, though usually that's paid for by my publisher). Because it's easy to over-saturate a market, I plan to limit the number of local signings, and do some regional and national outreach.

 Set up a blog tour.

Categories #3 to #8 address my personal goals—specifically improving my health through diet and exercise; spending time with family and friends; reducing debt; focusing on creative projects; continuing my downsizing efforts; and planning some personal travel. (I want to go somewhere with my husband to celebrate our 35th anniversary, coming up in April.)

As I said, this is just a sliver of the commitments I have made to myself. I'm optimistic that with specific goals coupled with specific deadlines, I may have a chance of reaching my objectives. Of course, reading J.T.'s 2016 review, it's clear that many things may fall by the wayside. Still, intent and effort count for something. I may not achieve everything, but I know I'll achieve something—and there's hope I will find balance in 2017.