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

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.

IT’S BACK

red-skyI knew the second revision letter on RED SKY would arrive at some point, but I didn’t expect it the day before Thanksgiving with a December 5th deadline for turning it around.

I’m thankful I have a contract.

I read the email, but I haven’t opened the document yet. This weekend was earmarked for family and friends. It will end short—tomorrow.

I’m thankful for the three day holiday and for turkey.

One of the most difficult things for me is finding a way to balance the writing time with personal time with the business of writing time.

In the past three weeks, I’ve had three events—a presentation at Chautauqua, the Boulder Audubon Holiday Sale and a signing at the Covered Treasures Bookstore in Monument this afternoon—and there are still more to come: RMFW’s Holiday Party, Colorado Authors’ League Holiday Party; a bookclub event in Pueblo; and the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America’s “Mystery and Mistletoe” Holiday Celebration at the Denver Press Club on December 8th. Twelve of us will be reading. Margaret Coel will be honored. Francine Mathews is emceeing. The Broadway Book Mall will handle book sales. It’s from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. You should come. Tickets are $10 at the RMMWA website.

I’ve also written two blogs, updated my Facebook and Twitter pages, and read a number of books for a competition I’m judging.

The business of writing.

lightsWith the holidays, we have family in town, dinners to cook, presents to buy, a Christmas letter to write. This year we’re in a new house, and I’m excited to decorate and make it feel more like home. Downsizing has been a hard transition for me and I need to take time to put up and decorate the tree, hang the lights and fill the house with the smell of cookies.

Personal time.

But what happens when the RED SKY revision is done? The publisher is already asking what’s coming. I have an idea. I’ve done a little research, done a little plotting. I need to open a new WORD document, type Chapter 1 and put down the next 99,998 words.

Writing time.

I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given, excited for the coming opportunities and busy making New Year's resolutions.

1. Work on creating better balance in my life in 2017. Or as Jedeane Macdonald would tell me — learn to say NO.

Here's wishing all of you a very happy holiday season. See you in the New Year!!

THOUGHTS ON MARKETING

I'm in the dreaded days between turning the last revision into the editor and waiting for the acceptance so I can get paid. How do I fill my time? By working on the next book, of course, and, no, I don't do NaNo. I find it stressful, and a way to focus more on how many words I'm writing than the quality of the work on the pages. But I also catch up on my correspondence and turn to marketing. A dreaded word, but something that's necessary if you want to sell books.

"What, you want specifics?"

Rogue Women Writers blog

Take Social Media, please.
We all know what we're supposed to do—Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc. In my case, I Facebook some; I Tweet some; and I write on two group blogs: RMFW and the Rogue Women Writers. Sharing the blogging breaks up the workload (which I appreciate), and I think it keeps the blog pages interesting.

But here's the truth. I hate Goodreads. Okay, okay, I dislike Goodreads.

I know, I know, it's a problem. Goodreads is where a lot of readers hang out. Unfortunately, because of the set up I must have two separate pages for my two separate series, and that means twice the work. I was just out there today—first time since August—and I had invites to accept and comments to respond to, on both pages. In order to look active, I have to sign in on both pages, post something, post up books I'm reading, books I've read, rate books.... It's not fun. It's work. Facebook is fun. Twitter is fun. I like writing the blogs. But I may just stop doing Goodreads altogether, except...it's where readers hang out.

Tip: Focus on what you like and have a venue that doesn't appeal to you send notices when someone posts a comment, asks a question, etc. That way you're not ignoring someone by default. It's saved my bacon a time or two.

At the Tattered Cover with Susan Spann (2015 WOTY), Mark Stevens, me, Carol Berg, Lisa Manifold, Nathan Lowell and Sue Duff.

Factor in Signings
If you think just because the book is out and has been out for a while that you won't do any more signings and/or events, think again. This week alone I've gotten calls to sign at a bookstore for Indies First (a movement to support our Independent Bookstores) and to appear at the Boulder County Audubon's Annual Holiday Sale. I said yes to both, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes I strategically say no.

"Why?" you ask.

Because you want exposure, but you don't want to be overexposed. I run that risk. I get around. (Get your minds out of the gutter.) It's a good problem to have, but it can also be a negative. In the past year, I've had two books out. Since mid-April, that's meant nine Front Range signings—three of them at the Tattered Cover and two at the Denver Book Bar. Granted, three were because I was fortunate enough to be nominated for several awards and the WOTY, but that means I had to make six others worthwhile for both myself and the bookseller.

Don't believe for a minute that a signing is about selling books. That has little to do with it. You can't sell enough books at a signing to make it worthwhile financially. What you can achieve is meeting booksellers and creating rapport so they hand-sell your book and want you to back again. It's also about introducing yourself to a few people who might not otherwise have heard about your book.

Tip: Set up signings in different venues that reach different groups of people. Go for one or two bookstores, book clubs and group events. For instance, my book that came out in May has a birdwatching theme, so I'm signing at the Boulder County Audubon's Holiday Event coming up November 22nd. Find creative places to find new readers who would be interested in your work.

Eyes on the Future—Conferences and Workshops

This is where it gets harder. What's coming? There are a myriad of conferences and events that seem worthwhile and tug at you, but what's to your best advantage? This is where you have to get serious, look at your income, look at your costs, weigh the benefits and be brutal with choices. Look at when your books are coming out, so you can plan based on what give you the biggest bang for the buck.

At ThrillerFest with Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, Francine Mathews, K.J. Howe and S. Lee Manning

I live in the mystery/thriller world. My next book is coming out June 13, 2017, so what are a few of my considerations, ThrillerFest (July in NYC, 2017), Bouchercon (October in Toronto, 2017) and Left Coast Crime (March in Reno, 2018). These are the ones that I should do, if possible. This year I'm skipping LCC. It's in Hawaii, and I will have just married off a daughter on Kauai the month before. Two trips to Hawaii in two months seems excessive. But these are all "FAN" conventions. They draw more readers than writers, and play to building readership. They fit with my genre and connect me with people who are the most interested in reading what I write.

Of course, this list multiplies if you add in Killer Nashville, Magna Cum Murder, Malice Domestic, etc., etc. The thing to remember is—you have to approximate spending $1K for every con you attend out-of-state—$2K for NYC. Pick the winning combination.

And what about Colorado Gold, Pikes Peak Writers, SleuthFest and any number of other conferences held across the country? RMFW is a must for me because I see my old friends, it's my hometown conference and I have only missed two (maybe) in the past 30+ years. The rest are teaching conferences, so if I'm not teaching, I'm not going. It's just that simple.

Tip: Look at your publishing schedule, then at the coming year. Figure out what you can afford to spend on travel to promote your books, and then choose accordingly. Maybe it's better to go to the Southwest Book Festival, or Tucson Festival of Books or on a book tour vs. a convention. Maybe you can combine a tour with a convention—for example, ThrillerFest comes closer to my pub date than Bouchercon, and with added benefit of face time with my agent and editor.

Once you've made a schedule, commit to it and move on to promoting it via Social Media.

Most importantly, write. Everyday! Write on that new book. All the marketing in the world won't do you any good if you don't have something to sell.

The Afterglow of Revision

At last, I hit Control Save on my revision of my second thriller, Red Sky, and emailed it to my editor. Woo hoo!! As writers I’m sure you all know how great it feels to type the end and know you’ve finished a scene, a chapter, a book. You also know how painful it can be to have someone critique your work.

I am a true believer of critique, but it didn’t prepare me for the editor.

When I sent in my first completed manuscript in 1999, I was sending it to an editor who hadn’t bought my series. The editor who had signed my three-book contract had moved on and a new editor inherited my series. To say she was less than enthusiastic about the book I turned in is putting it mildly. She sent me a three-page single-spaced revision letter that told me to remove one character completely from the story. She never wanted to see him again.editor

I cried, then I called my agent.

My agent, being a wise man, explained to me how I had two choices. Do the revision or let the editor pay a “kill fee” (essentially the advance money I’d already received) and revert the rights to the series back into my name. Of course, I wanted to have my book published, so I tackled the revision. It took me a month and half and, after I turned it in, my editor told me she was surprised that I had pulled it off, then offered me two more books on the contract for a total of five.

With her, my longest revision letter was the first one. The second book didn’t have any revisions. The third book a few minor things, the fourth book needed a thread tied up, and the fifth book went straight to copy edits. None of it prepared me for the revision letter I received on DARK WATERS, the first book in my thriller series. That revision letter was over seven pages long single-spaced and the manuscript looked etched in red track changes.

I cried, then I called my editor.

I asked him why he had paid me for a book he didn’t like. He laughed. He said he loved the book, but he thought it would be improved by a few small changes. The “small changes” turned out to require a total restructuring of the first half of the novel and some not so small changes to character and plot. Again, I buckled down to the work, finished the revisions in a month and half AND I got back another three page single-spaced revision letter.

I cried, then I called my editor again.

He calmly assured me that he loved the book, that we were almost there and then complimented me. He told me that I had shown the mark of true writer. When I asked what he meant, he told me that often authors dig in their heels about making changes. They like their book the way it is, they resist any changes or suggestions, and they insist their purple-ist prose is golden. From his perspective, an editor is there to make your work the best it can be.

For what it’s worth, I agree.

dark-waters-final-cover-200x315DARK WATERS ended up nominated for multiple awards, sold to book clubs, sold internationally, sold in audio. That book got wonderful praise from colleagues, friends and authors I respect and admire. The book was better for my editor’s work and suggestions, and I thank him and share with him the credit for how well that book has done.

The second book went to a different editor for the first go-round. She was a bigwig at HarperCollins and now does freelance editing. She had four single-spaced pages of revision suggestions and the manuscript was etched in purple track changes.

I cried. (Have you noticed the trend?)

Then I didn’t call anyone. I complained to my husband, stomped around the house and complained to my dog. I let the revision letter sit for a week, took another look at it, let it sit a while longer, and then I picked it up and got to work. I didn’t agree with all the recommended changes (I never do) and I didn’t make every suggested change (I never have), but she was dead on with about 90% to 95% of what she felt didn’t work. The issues were different than the issues my editor had with the first book, and yet some things had a familiar ring. I’m a quick learner, and I’m not. This time it was the second half of the book where I needed to do some restructuring, fortify character motivations, and lay things out more clearly.

Now my original editor has the book, and I truly expect to get another revision letter before we’re done. I look forward to it. Having finished the hard work of going through the manuscript and making the first set of changes, RED SKY is a much better book. If going through it again will improve it more, I’m game. In fact, the final edit is sometimes the best. It’s when you can tweak the words, change some of the passive verbs to more active verbs, rewrite the clichés and make the similes and metaphors more original. It’s when you can put that final polish and touch on the book making it stand out as yours.

It’s my belief that every book is better for having a good editor—someone who takes the time to look at the big picture of what you’re attempting to do, who scrutinizes the story line and is willing to point out where things go awry. It’s also better for having a good writer—someone willing to take a hard look at their own work, to dig in and to make the necessary changes.

Go forth and revise--and if you have any revision stories of your own, I'd love to hear them.

Chris

The Evolution of a Writer

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At Bouchercon 2016

2016 has been the year of the question: What kind of writer do you want to be?

It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for years. When I was young, I loved writing stories. Then in Middle School, I wrote a column for the school paper, The Ram Page, and decided I wanted to be a journalist. I studied Journalism in college, and started writing columns and articles for a regional paper. Then six years post college, two years post marriage, I found myself writing stories again. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I had a lot to learn.

With very limited options, I signed up for an Institute of Children’s Novel Writing class, sent off my money, received my course instructions, read the first chapter of the workbook, wrote a chapter, sent it to my instructor, repeat. She (or he—I never knew) read my work, critiqued the pages, sent it back with suggestions and instructions, repeat. By the end of the class I had a YA novella that was totally unpublishable.

Then I met Maggie Osborne. She was speaking at the local library, was well-published and willing to teach. Under her tutelage, I wrote a Harlequin Intrigue that was totally unpublishable. A few years later, my husband and I were moving back to the Front Range and she introduced me to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. That was in 1988. Since then I have been part of the RMFW family, made a number of lifelong friends, found my voice and a support system that has sustained me through the good and the bad of publishing.

In the summer of 1998, I was offered a three book contract for my Birdwatcher’s Mysteries. Then, with the first book in the series scheduled for release, the second book turned in and three more books on contract to write, life threw me a few curve balls. One required I spend two months in Israel in the Fall of 1999 while one of my daughters received medical treatment for an auto-immune disorder; the other required a prolonged battle against breast cancer (ultimately successful) that delayed the fulfillment of my contracts in a timely fashion.

It turned out serendipitous. In Israel, I came up with the idea for DARK WATERS (published in Sept 2015), while the battle against cancer meant I was late turning in manuscripts in the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, impacting the momentum of sales. While my editor was supportive and understanding, the publisher viewed it smart business to cut their losses and chose not to renew my contract. I was devastated. BUT being out of contract meant I could focus on writing DARK WATERS.

It was a joy to have the time I used to have to write books. I could write at my own pace, ruminate over story, research to my heart’s content and polish my prose to perfection. Fast forward, I now have two publishers—one for the thrillers and one for the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series. DARK WATERS is out, Book #6 in the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series is out, and I’m midway through my editor’s revisions on RED SKY, scheduled for June 2017. AND yet I’m once more facing decisions.

Writing two books last year was hard. So, do I write Book #7 in the Birdwatcher's Mystery series or work on another thriller? Do I sign new contracts or take the Tony Hillerman approach, write a complete book nomatter how long it takes, polishing until I'm satisfied, and then try and sell it? Or do I sign a new contract with my traditional publisher, opt to go Indy, or quit and take up traveling full time?

Simple choices? Not!

While writing is art, it’s also a business. We may love to write, to play with words, and create stories that captivate readers, but once we’re under contract, there are expectations. It becomes a job! So, do I want to work on deadline, do I want to make money, do I want to practice the art of writing, can I do all of the above? Do I want to keep writing to a theme, or branch out and write a different book, a different genre altogether?

As a new monthly blogger, I plan to tackle some of these questions, share some of my own insights, struggles and perspective. If any of you have a topic you’d like me to address, please send me an email.

Bouchercon in New Orleans 2016
Bouchercon in New Orleans 2016

Meanwhile, for me, September has been the month of conferences. First there was Colorado Gold (a great con), and now there’s Bouchercon. These are two very different conventions. Colorado Gold is a teaching conference where you can take writing classes, meet agents who may want to represent you, read for editors who may like your book. Bouchercon is a mystery fan conference designed to showcase mystery writers and introduce them to readers, where already established writers can meet with their agents and editors and attend publisher parties. This year at Bouchercon I was up for an Anthony Award for Best Crime Fiction Audiobook, a big award in the mystery community. I didn’t win. Hard! But “it’s an honor to be nominated.” In truth, I had several people tell me that “the win is in being nominated.” Maybe, but I thought winning meant walking away with the Anthony. One dear friend put it best, “It sucks not to win. I’ve been a loser seven times and it never gets easier.” She bought me a drink and made me laugh. But, while it may suck to lose, I'm counting my blessings. It’s much better to have lost to Louise Penny than Paula Hawkins.

The real “win” for me was the opportunity to sit on a panel with Lee Child. The Rogue Women Writers (a group of eight women writing international espionage and geopolitical thrillers, who blog at www.roguewomenwriters.com) were assigned a Friday afternoon slot with Lee moderating. For those who don’t read the genre, Lee Child is the #1 international thriller writer of the Jack Reacher novels. Now, I’m smart enough to know that nearly everyone in that room was there to see Lee, but still…what a thrill it was speaking to a standing-room only crowd. Thanks to all my RMFW friends who attended. A lot of you know how intimidating it is to sit in front of an audience and talk about yourself. Not only were you there to support me, but you Tweeted, Facebooked, shared photos, posted comments and took the time to tell me you thought the panel went well. FYI, I thought you all did well, too!! In my book, RMFW and the whole Rocky Mountain writers’ community rocks!