Author Archives: RMFW Guest

Trust is Earned in the Details … by Tracy Brisendine

Tracy BrisendineI have a confession, but it’s not that juicy of one. I won’t be sharing any of those until the statute of limitations expires. But…I have anger issues.

I have thrown books, slammed the cover shut on my Kindle, and cussed so profusely that it alarmed the dog. I once boycotted an entire genre for over a year because I was so fed up.

So what makes me so frustrated and angry? Authors who don’t research or only do it half-way.

Nothing ruins my trust as a reader faster than a faulty action scene, inaccurate firearm portrayal, careless crime scene processing, or shoddy police procedure (unless your character is a dirty cop then by means cut those corners, plant evidence, and line their pockets with the bank heist money).

I’ll admit I’m far more critical than the average reader when it comes to crime and police-related stuff. Yes, I too have watched my fair share of NYPD Blue, Dexter, and CSI. But I have also worked as a street cop, processed crime scenes, attended autopsies, and gone to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations’ Crime Scene Approach and Investigation School.

Obviously I’m not an expert on every topic that appears in my writing, but I learn enough so that I can realistically tell my story. And I expect other writers to do the same.

As authors, we have to know enough to get our readers to buy into what we’re telling them. It’s about trust, and trust is earned in the details. Every time I pick up a book, I trust the author to hook me, keep me interested and entertained throughout, and not leave me feeling gypped when I reach the final line. Readers have to trust that we’ve taken the time to learn about our subject matter. If they utterly trust us, they will be fully sucked into our story, and we will have earned a fan. They’ll stick with us, and repeat business helps keep the lights on.

So how do you learn, especially if it’s police procedure, criminal law, uncovering dead bodies, and processing crime scenes? I’d highly recommend a ride along with your local police agency. Most departments have instructions and the requirements on how to set up one online. Another thing to do is read. Read the law (the Colorado Revised Statutes are available online through Lexis Nexus). Read non-fictional texts and text books, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service has thousands of downloadable PDFs available ranging from drugs and the justice system to processing a death scene.

Brisendine_Colorado Gold 2015I also just so happen to be teaching a class at Colorado Gold. How convenient is that? This particular class, Homicide for Writers Not Criminals, will be focusing on well, you guessed it, homicide. It’ll be a nitty-gritty and graphic look at the basic characteristics of gunshot wounds, stabbings, and blunt force trauma. But before I dive into the gore, I’ll be talking statistics, motives, and scene investigation.

The first time I taught this class it gave one guy nightmares and made two other attendees ill. So for those of you not interested in looking at a ton of pictures of bloody injuries, violence, and death…I’d skip the second hour. It might save your lunch. And I promise I won’t think less of you. Not everyone loves this stuff as much as I do.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Vernon Geberth of the New York City Police Department once said, “Death investigation constitutes a heavy responsibility, and as such, let no person deter you from the truth and your personal commitment to see justice done.” He was speaking to law enforcement personnel, but it could apply to any character (fictional or otherwise) involved in the solving of a crime. Death and the bodies it leaves in its wake lead people to want the truth, and as authors we have the ability to make it a colorful, exciting, and satisfying.

As the schedule current stands, I’ll be teaching Friday at 1 pm. I hope to see all of you at Colorado Gold! If you can’t catch my class but have a question you think I might be able to answer message me on Facebook or Twitter. I love talking about this stuff. :)

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Tracy Brisendine’s invisible pet dinosaur landed her in the principal's office in second grade, and it was downhill from there. To protect her mental health, she allows some of her ideas to bleed out onto the page. Her short story Ghostly Attraction appeared in RMFW’s 2014 Anthology, Crossing Colfax. When Tracy isn’t battling demons of deviance, she lives happily in Denver with her husband and snaggle tooth dog. She has seven years of experience working in law enforcement and a degree in criminal justice from Colorado State University.

My Name’s Jeff, and I’m a Failure … by Jeff Seymour

Jeff SeymourLast year, I failed hard as a writer.

I did everything right before I self-published Soulwoven. I cultivated an audience, created a marketing plan, wrote a solid book that I was happy with and that got good reviews, arranged an eye-catching cover and a professional interior, networked, tweeted, Facebooked, pushed. That first book did okay, but it was on life support toward the end of the year. Because I’d done everything right though, I had its sequel ready to go. It was an even better book than the first. It got better reviews. It dealt with serious issues. It was good art. It made a Best of 2014 list. It mattered. I pushed some more.

Thud, went my sales. We don’t care about your books, said the world. You’re going to bankrupt your family and destroy your life, whispered my fear and my self-doubt, and I had very little to say back to them.

I was not prepared for this. I’d told my wife, years before, that the hardest thing for me to handle as a writer would be a low-to-moderate level of success—enough to know there wasn’t some secret ingredient I was missing or some great conspiracy I wasn’t involved in, but not enough to justify the massive investment in time and money I’d put into becoming a writer. It was hard. Things got very, very dark for a while.

Soulwoven by Jeff SeymourBy the spring, I was still struggling. Writing was painful, because there seemed to be no point in pushing through. Getting out of bed was painful, because all my hopes for the future had been tied up in succeeding commercially as a writer and that path seemed closed to me forever. Worse, I felt I had to lie profusely about how I was doing. Nobody wants to hear a writer talk about their problems. We’re supposed to project an image of success until we become successful, and only then do our struggles (safely in the past, allegedly) become acceptable conversation.

I thought that was pretty unhealthy, so I decided to hurl an axe through the image of Jeff the Successful Indie Author. I proposed a panel on failure and self-doubt for Colorado Gold 2015. I didn’t know anyone interested in similarly tomahawking their successful image, so I shared the idea with an RMFW loop to see if any other authors wanted to join me.

People came out of the woodwork. I had more volunteers than I could fit on a panel, and in September we’re going to sit down and have an honest conversation about failure, what it looks like for different people, what it feels like for different people, and how to live through it and keep working.

I hope you’ll join us. Failing is part of making art, and preparing yourself for it is as important a step in learning to be a writer as figuring out where to put the commas, discovering what makes a character come alive on the page, or seeing the structures that underlie stories and learning how to work with them.

My name’s Jeff. I’m a failure, and it’s okay if you are too. We can hang out and be friends, and I won’t think less of you for failing or suggest ways you can be successful if you just do things the right way. See you at conference; I’ll be the one in the black-and-neon-green toe shoes.

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Author and editor Jeff Seymour has been creating speculative fiction since he was a teenager. His writing covers genres from magical realism and horror to science fiction and epic fantasy. Jeff’s nonfiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine and on the website Fantasy Faction, and his series Soulwoven got over a million reads online before being self-published in 2014. As a freelance editor, he helped Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press build its science fiction and fantasy line, and he has worked on titles for the Nelson Literary Agency Digital Liaison Platform and bestselling indie authors. In his free time, Jeff blogs about writing and editing, pretends he knows anything about raising two energetic cats, and dreams.

You can find Jeff on Twitter, Facebook, and at jeff-seymour.com, and you can buy his books on Amazon and at most other major online retailers.

Working with an Editor … by Mathiya Adams

Mathiya AdamsI am very fortunate to have an editor with whom I have a great working relationship. I had first approached my editor when I was trying to publish a sword and sorcery fantasy book under another pen name. I had been following this editor's blog (Tara Maya's Tales on http://bestfantasynovel.com) for some time and thought she would be sympathetic to my desires to get published. She read over my story, told me she liked it, agreed to publish it, but warned me that she did not expect it to sell very well. I asked her what was wrong with the book, and she said "Nothing. The problem is, it's only one book. Readers of this genre like to have a series of books."

I tried another series of books, under a different pen name. She reviewed them, politely told me they were nice stories, but had major structural defects. I thought that was kind of cruel, so I fought back, as any good writer would. "What kind of defects?" She started to list them. First, my stories did not fit any clearly defined genre. What difference did that make? A lot, she explained. Having a clearly defined genre, even a mixed or a new one, makes it possible to market the book. She asked me to search Amazon and find books similar to mine. I tried, and failed. Unfortunately, she was right, and the series has never gotten very far.

The Avid Angler by Mathiya AdamsFinally, about a year and a half ago, I sent her the first of a new series of stories, this time about an ex-cop who becomes a hot dog vendor, and then ends up solving crimes. Tara Maya said she was not familiar with the cozy mystery genre, or even the mystery genre, but she would do some research and get back to me.

Research for an editor like Tara Maya consists of reading a hundred books in the genre, making extensive notes about their structure, characters, themes, conflicts—everything that makes the genre distinctive. She finally got back to me and said my book had possibilities. Did I have more than one written?

Yes, I did, and I began to send them to her.

That's when I found out what working with an editor really means.

Over the next six months, as we went over book after book, my editor helped me refine my plot structure, introduced me to new tools to help organize my story, manage the flow of events so that the story built up to a climax and ended with a satisfactory resolution. She forced me to confront my characters, understand their motivations a lot more clearly, and make them behave in a more consistent manner. She challenged scenes I had ("Do you know how deep the South Platte River is there? Is it deep enough to break someone's fall? Most readers won't know, but what about the one or two who live within a thousand feet of that location? When you combine fiction with reality, the reality better be believable!") That meant I now had to go on auto excursions around Denver to check out the scenes in my book. "Your readers don't believe in Magic, Mattie. They believe in police procedures, wits, and courage. When you write, always think of your reader. Will they believe your story?"

There were a lot of times when I resented her criticisms. It's easy to point out problems, I thought, it's a lot more work to fix them. But that's all part of the writing process.

So, here is a summary of what I've learned about working with an editor:

1.  Communicate regularly with your editor. She is your ally, not your adversary.
2.  Listen to what she says. You may be the writer, but she often knows what's selling and what's not selling. If you want to sell books, she can help.
3.  She is not always right. If you feel what you've done is the best thing for your story, explain your logic, give her an understanding of where your story is going. If you can convince her, fine. Otherwise, review point 2.
4.  Keep your commitments. Yours is not the only book she is handling, in all probability. Editors are more likely to respond to the authors who meet their deadlines, follow-through on a timely basis, and help them get the book ready for publishing.
5.  No matter how much you think you can go it alone, don’t do it. Get an editor. An editor, plus your talent, just might make you a successful author.

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Mathiya Adams grew up on the East Coast (Massachusetts and New York), moving to California in her early teens. She's always been interested in writing, first trying her hand at science fiction, then dabbling into mysteries and adventure stories. Mathiya tried to study writing in college, but became discouraged when her application to a writer's course at UCLA was turned down because "you don't show any real talent." A stint in Peace Corps over in India whetted her appetite for the strange and exotic, and once again she took up writing. This time she tried her hand at sword and sorcery, and while she had lots of ideas for subsequent books, real life—work, children, family—always seemed to provide ample excuses not to persevere.

After Mathiya's retirement, she dived into the writing life head first, coming up with dozens of story ideas she wanted to pursue. Some of them were actually good ideas and she thinks they might actually see the light of day. But one series in particular caught her interest. It was a story about a hot dog vendor, one of those people you sort of ignore except to buy a hot dog from them. What kind of life could they possibly lead? When Mathiya asked that question, the answer hit her. The hot dog vendor secretly was a phenomenal detective who only solved crimes that the police couldn't handle. That was the birth of the Hot Dog Detective series.

Now her days are filled with exploring Denver, checking out the locales frequented by Mark MacFarland and his associates; recounting the exploits of MacFarland; and occasionally attempting to write a blog to help other aspiring authors.

You can learn more about Mathiya's novel at her website. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Are You Pantsing Through Your Writing Life? … by Corinne O’Flynn

Author OFlynn HEADSHOTWhat does your plan for your writing year look like? Are you a schedule plotter (step-by-step) or a calendar pantser (by the seat of your pants)? Do you find yourself struggling to maintain writing goals and deadlines? Are you overwhelmed by the idea of finishing your first novel, or making time to write your next book while juggling your author business and your life? Are you often stressed about how much writing you’ve got to get done in what feels like very little time?

By now I’m sure we’ve all been asked if we’re a plotter or a pantser when it comes to our writing. As far as that goes, I think you should do what works for you. But when it comes to managing your writing time and how it fits into your writing life, I’d like to make a case for plotting your time on paper.

Last year, I attended a goal-setting class that spoke about scheduling yourself a year ahead. My first reaction was, “A year ahead!? I barely know what’s going on next week!” But after giving it a go, and now living it for almost a year myself, I can tell you that it’s worth trying.

OFlynn calendarTo get started, you need a year-at-a-glance calendar. You can Google sites that have free printables. Calendarlabs.com has many to get you started. I use a spreadsheet set up so that each quarter fills a single printed page.

Getting Started

The first thing you need to do is load your calendar up with all the “off time” things like trips, events, conferences, vacations, kids’ school breaks, and other time-heavy things that will take place over the year that will interfere with your writing time. Then, fill in the deadlines you’ve got for your writing or writing business.

Work Backward to Break Up Your Work

Once you’ve got your “off time” noted and your writing deadlines in place, work backward to break the writing goals down into smaller chunks. Let’s say you’re drafting a novel, and you plan to send it to your editor on December 1st. You’ve got to build time in for your writing, deadlines to send to your critique partners, reading time for beta readers, and your own revision time between each of these stages. All of this so you’re ready by your main December 1st deadline.

The value of the year-at-a-glance calendar is that you’ll know well ahead of time that you’ve got family in town for one week and you’ll be traveling over a long weekend right in the middle of your working window. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by these events when they creep up on you, you can plan ahead and adjust your writing time accordingly so you can meet your deadlines and enjoy your off time.

OFlynn_Expatriates_CVR_LRGLIGHTThis Technique Works For Anything

The same holds true if you’re launching a book, scheduling release parties, promotional events, online blog tours, cover reveals, etc. It even works for non-writing goals. I’m using this process to schedule the re-org of my house! There’s no need to panic when you’ve plotted out your time.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Granular

Once you have your year plotted, break it down by quarter, then by month, week, and day. Allow yourself to get as detailed as you need in order to really see what your daily and weekly goals must be in order to hit your big-picture deadlines. You might be surprised to see how manageable your writing goals become when you break them down like this. Alternatively, unrealistic goals stand out when you do this, allowing you to adjust your time so you can be successful.

Allow Yourself Adjustments

Granted, nothing is ever 100% perfect. But I can attest to the value of seeing the year ahead when it comes time to make the inevitable changes and shifts. Life happens and things get in the way. Being a life plotter, at whatever level of detail, can go a long way toward keeping you on the path toward achieving your goals in your writing and your life.

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Corinne O'Flynn is a native New Yorker who now lives in Colorado and wouldn't trade life in the Rockies for anything. She loves writing flash and experimenting with short fiction. Her novel, THE EXPATRIATES (Oct. 2014) is the first in a fantasy adventure series with magic and creatures and lots of creepy stuff. She is a scone aficionado, has an entire section of her kitchen devoted to tea, and is always on the lookout for the elusive Peanut Chews candy. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, Corinne works as the executive director of a local nonprofit.

Learn more about Corinne and her writing at her website. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Cause for Whine or Food for Thought? … by Chris Mandeville

Chris MandevilleI’ve been perfecting my recipe for Coq au Vin for years. I use the happiest, most humanely raised poultry, a decent French Burgundy, organic farm-fresh veggies, and my own secret blend of herbs. The other night I prepared this special dish for my critique group—we always eat dinner before discussing our writing—and because my critique partner Aaron is a vegan, I also prepared an eggplant Wellington just for him.

As I proudly placed the food on the table, alongside a nice Cabernet, I asked the group, “So, what do you think?”

The guests tasted and slurped and savored and pondered, then they let me know what they thought of the dishes I’d worked so hard on.

Wine, not whine.

Photo “Wine” by Evan Wood, courtesy of Creative Commons.

“It’s pretty good, but I think there’s a little too much salt,” Morgen commented.

“Yeah,” Todd said. “Too much salt, not enough garlic. And the carrots are too crunchy.”

“I don’t love the wine in the dish,” Giles said. “It doesn’t seem to go with the wine we’re drinking. I would have made a different choice on one or the other.”

“I like the wine,” Aaron said. “But my vegan Wellington doesn’t relate at all to the Coq au Vin. It would have been nicer if there were at least some parallel to the dish the rest of you are eating. Besides, I personally don’t enjoy eggplant.”

“Of all the nerve!” you may be thinking. “These guests are so rude. Chris’ feelings must be hurt after putting so much time, effort and love into creating that meal. And that Aaron—what an ingrate! He shouldn’t complain, especially after she went to all the trouble to make a vegan dish just for him.”

Hold your horses and your happy chickens.

This is a happy chicken. He has not been turned into dinner because the prior story was all made up.

Photo “Don’t be a chicken” by Helgi Halldorsson/Freddi courtesy of Creative Commons.

This is just an imaginary dinner party, so don’t be too hard on my friends. The real Aaron would never say those things about a real meal I cooked for him, but he might say something like that about a story I ask him to critique. I can almost hear him:

“I like the voice [wine]. But the subplot [vegan Wellington] doesn’t relate thematically to the main plot [Coq au Vin], and I personally don’t like ‘fish out of water’ stories [eggplant].”

“Ah,” you may be saying. “I see the parallel now.”

Yes, this dinner party conversation is an analogy for CRITIQUE.

Now that you know that, let’s go back to the dinner party and change things up a little. Rather than simply asking “What do you think?” when I put the food on the table, let’s say instead I explained things this way: “I’m working on some recipes I’m going to cook for the producers of the Food Network, and they’re going to decide—based on this one meal—whether or not to give me my own cooking show. I need this meal to be perfect, so please evaluate these dishes as critically as possible.”

Would the same comments from my dinner guests feel any different to you after that?

“Sure!” I imagine you saying. “Absolutely.”

Knowing the context of the situation—that a career milestone hinged on the outcome of this event, and that I really wanted critical feedback—makes all the difference, right? The criticism at the dinner table doesn’t seem so harsh once you know that it was my goal to make the dinner the best it could be and that I was inviting criticism so I could improve.

Although we writers communicate for a living, we’re not always clear with ourselves and with others about the nature of the feedback we’re seeking when we offer up our work with a question like “What do you think?”

In my fictional dinner party scenario, without knowing the backstory about the Food Network’s interest in me (which is also sadly totally fictional), there’s no way of knowing if I’m asking for critical feedback or simply looking for a pat on the back.

Sometimes all we want is for someone to say, “You look nice,” not “Well, your butt does look a little fat in those pants.”

Sometimes we want constructive criticism, and sometimes we just want a little praise. Both are fine when it comes to cooking, to writing, and to everything else for that matter. The important thing is to be cognizant of which we’re seeking when we ask for feedback, and state our requests with a bit more specificity than the simple “What do you think?” By being clear and explicit with ourselves—and with others—about what kind of feedback we’re seeking, it can save us from a whole lot of heartache.

When it comes to writing, if you show your work to your best friend or a family member and you aren’t looking for critique, be sure to say that. But when you submit your work to a critique group, be prepared for criticism. That’s because whether you verbalize the request for criticism or not, the job of a critique group is to LOOK FOR THINGS TO CRITICIZE so that you can learn from it and improve. It would be a waste of time to belong to a critique group that said nothing but “This is awesome,” wouldn’t it?

The moral of this story is, when you submit your work to your critique partners and ask “What do you think?” be aware that what you’re really saying is: “Find problems. Poke holes in it. This needs to be perfect so please evaluate as critically as possible.” For the sake of your morale, try to prepare yourself emotionally for responses like “there’s not enough salt” or “the Wellington doesn’t relate to the theme of the meal.”

This is good. This is what we want. We like the color red.

Photo “I tend to scribble a lot” by Nic McPhee, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Remember: we want critiquers to be critical.

Even when you’re expecting criticism, it can still sting to have your precious words criticized. I find that it helps to remember that we want critiquers to be critical. Recently I had to remind myself of this as I prepared to send my debut novel, Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure to my publisher. My critique partners dealt out some heavy criticism, but I set aside my feelings, remembering I’d asked for tough feedback. Even though it was still a little painful on an emotional level to hear that my story wasn’t perfect, on an intellectual level I viewed their critiques as food for thought. I accepted the criticism and advice that resonated with me and revised my story accordingly (a process I repeated when I received feedback from my editor). In the end, my story was greatly improved as a result of all the criticism it received, and I believe it now has the exact right amount of salt, if I do say so myself.

This is not to say that critics (and dinner guests) shouldn’t be complimentary and kind and constructive with their criticism. Of course they should be.

This is to say that we—the cooks and writers—should be aware of what kind of feedback we’re looking for and prepared as much as possible to receive that feedback. If we’re clear with others about what we want, and we’re clear with ourselves about what to expect, there will be a lot fewer hurt feelings, and a lot less vegan Wellington hurled at our friends and critique partners.

So at the next meeting of your critique group, I encourage you to set ego and emotion aside and prepare yourself to receive criticism with an open mind. In fact, welcome the criticism! Because that’s what we’re seeking by being part of a critique group, right? Consider the criticism food for thought. Let it digest, then use it to make your stories better. And bring on the wine, not the whine!

Photo “cheers” by dutchbaby, courtesy of Creative Commons.

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Mandeville_SeedsMandeville_52waysChris Mandeville writes science fiction/fantasy and nonfiction for writers. She served as Pikes Peak Writers’ president for 5 years, and has taught writing workshops for 10 years. She’s teaching a Master Class “Everything You Need to Know to Write a Novel” at Colorado Gold 2015. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. For information about Chris’ books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, visit www.chrismandeville.com.

Coming soon: watch for an interview with Chris on the RMFW podcast!

A Writer is One Who Writes … by Linda Berry

Linda Berry 11-06When asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I usually say it was about fourth grade. That's when, as a big fan of the feature called “Life in These United States” in The Reader's Digest, I realized it made a big difference how a story was told. I began to appreciate humor, brevity, and careful word choice. Looking back, I realize that long before I had professional ambitions, I would often volunteer to take the notes of the meeting or write the blurb for the newsletter. In sixth grade I won $25 in a national contest for saying (in 25 words or less) why I liked a certain toothpaste. It was fiction. I had to borrow the required box top from a neighbor, since we didn't use that brand.

Years later, I have some solid publication credits that range from poetry and plays to a newspaper activity column and six cozy mystery novels. Of course (of course!) my career as a writer has not been one huge success after another. In the olden days, when manuscript submissions still involved postage, SASEs, and, all too often, paper rejection slips, I sometimes gifted special writer friends with wastepaper baskets covered with decoupaged rejection slips.

My dedication to the job--as well as the rewards--still waxes and wanes. Good times, bad times, blah times, discouraging times, productive times--they're all in there, so I've developed several writing-related activities designed to keep me moving and productive, and remind myself that I am a writer. The very best of motivators would be a contract and/or a deadline. I'm talking about those other times. If you've ever suffered from the blahs, maybe one of these ideas will help you.

WRITE SOMETHING
Draft a query letter describing your idea to an editor or publisher. Draft an application for a writing job, even an imaginary one. Write a thank you note or a letter to your mother. Write a letter to the editor. Almost certainly, you'll find yourself editing and improving what you've written, as well as clarifying your thoughts. Flannery O'Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” How can that be a waste of time?

POSITIVE THINKING
Find some motivational slogans to post near your work station. “The only unforgivable sin is giving up.” “Even Babe Ruth struck out most of the time.” A little of this goes a long way with me, but it's far better than thoughts like “What made you think you could do it?” and “Who cares, anyway?”

RESEARCH
Find out about markets, contests, conferences, organizations, classes and workshops for writers. Check on details for a story.

NETWORK
Put that research to use. Enter a contest (which might come with a deadline, a focus, and feedback). Get into an existing critique group, or form one. Join a group (like RMFW) of people who face the same challenges and have the same goals. These people are the ones who can help you over the bad spots and re-direct you when you go astray. Sometimes they'll have useful marketing information.

FANTASIZE
Why not? Sometimes I fantasized about what I would wear at my first book signing. Write jacket copy or a review for that as yet unpublished, or unwritten novel. (This might help you find your focus. What IS that book about?)

TEACH
Teaching is a great way to sharpen your own skills and understanding. Lately, I've been tutoring a Korean woman who wants to improve her writing in English, and I recently presented something I called “Working With Words” for a high school career day. I tried to give these hopeful high schoolers an honest assessment of their chances of making a living as writers. At the end, I gave each one a certificate (which I had downloaded and customized) that read: “A writer is one who writes. Abigail Authoress (not her real name) is a writer.”

TAKE A CLASS
Attend a conference like RMFW's Colorado Gold, where you can learn craft and marketing and meet people at all stages in their careers. I'll be there, presenting a session called “Show AND Tell,” discussing how to apply the advice, “show, don't tell,” and another session addressing ways to expand or compress your manuscript to make it the length you need. I'll also be facilitating a discussion called “Birds of a Feather,” for writers of mysteries. If you come, say hello. And if you need one of those certificates I mentioned, either download and customize it yourself, or let me know and I'll have one ready for you. A writer IS one who writes.

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Linda Berry's mystery novels are set in the small Georgia town where she was born. For more information about Linda and her books, please visit her website.

Lesson Eleven –The Market –Big Press, Small Press, Self-pub

By Jeanne C. Stein

We’ve reached the last lesson. I hope I’ve given you one or two nuggets to strengthen your writing. This lesson will increase your understanding of the business. The two go hand in hand. If you are truly serious about a writing career, it isn’t enough to immerse yourself in the creative process. You must also be aware of how publishing works. Publishing, for good or evil, is a business and as such, profitability is of utmost importance. The authors that sell are the authors who will continue to be published.

Last time, we talked about agents. This time we will look at the different publishing venues. I must add here that I’m not going to be talking in depth about e-pubbing. There are lots of venues you can check if that’s what you’re interested in. Just google JA Konrath and you can get a wealth of information. I’m going to talk about the mainline route—Big houses, small presses and self-publishing.

We’ll start with the traditional publishing houses. The big boys with the familiar names: Penguin/Random House, Harper Collins, Kensington, and on… What are the advantages of going with a big house? Are there any disadvantages?

To start, lets look at the process. For those of you already published, this will be a review. For those of you YET to be published, this will be a brief overview of what to expect. Some people are surprised.

We’ll talk about money first. If your manuscript is accepted at a big house or small, whether through an agent or plucked from the slush pile, you’ll be offered a contract. The contract will stipulate the amount of your advance (upfront money paid against future sales) and how the balance will be paid out. For instance, you’ve been offered a $5,000 (which seems to be the norm now) advance for your first book. Your first check will be 50% or $2500. If you have an agent, he will get 15% of that (that’s the usual fee.) The remaining $2500 will be divided into two payments—$1250 upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript and $1250 upon publication of the book. Again, the agent gets 15%.

So far so good—what about royalties? Let’s say your book is published in trade paper back—the larger paper back size. Retail price is $15.00. Your cut is most likely 8% of $15.00 or $1.20. To make back the $5,000 advance, you have to sell roughly 4100 books. That means, 4100 books sold before you see a royalty check. Okay, you’ve sold 4100 books according to the latest statement. But where’s the check for your full royalty? All you’ve gotten is maybe $300? Why? Because publishers hold money back against returns. In other words, publishers want to hedge their bets. They want to make sure if Barnes & Noble returns 400 of your books, they haven’t paid you for them. They can hold that money for as long as your contract stipulates.

That’s the way the money works. What advantages are there to going with a big house? First off, you’re probably going to get a larger advance. The big houses have thousands of authors generating millions of dollars. Those big names who get the seven figure contracts really pay the way for the mid list writers. The Stephen Kings and Nora Roberts of the publishing world bring in vast amounts of revenue.

Secondly, large houses have marketing and publicity departments. They send out bound review copies ahead of publication to generate interest in an author. They have art departments to design original covers. They have contacts with the media. They have a sales force to make sure your book gets to the stores.

What don’t they do? Generally they don’t pay for a first-time author to go on tour. They expect you to arrange your own book signings although they will make sure a supply of your books gets to wherever you intend to be. They won’t pay for advertising in magazines but they will design the art if you want to pay for the space. In other words, they rely on you to do most of your own promotion.

What about a smaller publishing house? I’m speaking here of independents. The little guys who put out 12-20 books a year. Most likely, you will get little or no advance--$100 - $1000 is the average. They may not have the distribution channels available to make sure your book is available to the B & N’s and Border’s or the contacts to get your books reviewed. Cover art may be less professional, i.e., generic or stock. You may get less editorial support. Small presses operate on a shoestring and sometimes, they go under, taking your book with them. It is so important if you go with a small house and you are unagented to have an entertainment lawyer check out the contract. Things to check are ebook and media (TV/Movie) rights. You don’t want to sign these away. It will cost you down the road. There should be a clause stipulating when you get the rights to your books back—especially if something happens and the house either goes under or doesn’t publish your book. This sometimes happens with a small house.

On the other hand, you may get much more personal attention with an editor who has ten rather than thirty authors to work with. Your book may be released months rather than years after purchase. You may have more input into cover art and cover copy.

Pros and cons. Look at each. I’ve been published by both a big and a small house. In my case, bigger was definitely better. More exposure, more reviews, more professionalism by far. But if you think you’d like to start small, by all means do it. Your comfort level is what’s important. How do you find the small imprints? Join writers’ organizations—Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers of America—most have local chapters in big cities. Investigate local groups. Find them through libraries and community colleges. Then attend the meetings. Often the speakers are editors of small houses (and agents looking for new stuff) who will listen to your pitch and ask you to submit. Just like polishing your query letter, practice a one or two line pitch.

What about self-publishing? We’ve all heard about the Christmas Box. Richard Paul Evans wrote the book, self-published it and sold it out of the trunk of his car. Now it’s a mega-best seller picked up by Simon & Schuster and sold around the world.

Lightning does strike.

But the truth is, self-publishing a book is fraught with problems. Most bookstores will not carry a book unavailable through one of the major distribution channels. Neither will they invite you to sign. Self-publishing is expensive and time consuming. You must design your own cover and format. Register your own copyright. Reviewers are seldom interested in a self-published book, no matter how well written. You are the sole marketing agent, warehouser and distribution agent for the book.

So why do people do it?

Frustration with normal publishing channels is the most common reason people choose to self-pub. They have a story to tell and want to find an audience. They are too impatient to wait the one-two years necessary for a book to go from acceptance by a publisher to print. They want to keep all the money for themselves, not understanding that often to make back the cost, they have to charge an exorbitant amount for each book.

But again, like choosing a big house or a small house, self-publishing is an option. Just do your homework before you decide. And remember, there are literally millions of books out there. The trick to successful self-publishing is to have three or four books ready to go before you publish your first. Then release a second book four to six weeks after the first, the third, four to six weeks after that, etc. Build a readership. Make them eager for your next release. In the meantime, be writing books five, six, seven and eight.

Rinse. Repeat.

We’ve reached the end. Writing is a solitary endeavor and it’s important to find support and encouragement. Here are a few of the national writing organizations I mentioned before you might want to check out:

Sisters in Crime http://www.sistersincrime.org/

Mystery Writers of America http://www.mysterywriters.org/

Romance Writers of America http://www.rwanational.org/

Horror Writers Organization http://www.horror.org/

There are many others and most have local chapters, too.

I hope this class has provided you insight into what genre writing encompasses. Many of you are well on your way to writing your own. You have the tools to write a well-crafted book, the knowledge to avoid pitfalls and mistakes, an awareness of what publishing venues are available to you.

I want to thank all of you for participating. I’m always available at Jeanne@jeannestein.com and will answer every email.

Below is a list of a few of my favorite writing books in no particular order:

Jack Bickham SCENE AND STRUCTURE

James Frey HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL

Dwight Swain TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER

Lawrence Block WRITNG THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT

Carolyn Wheat HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION

Patricia Highsmith PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION

Happy Writing!

What’s In Your Bucket? … by Kay Bergstrom

Kay BergstromMany writers have Bucket Lists of the good stuff they hope to accomplish before they kick the aforementioned bucket. It usually starts with “write a book” and ends with “#1 NYT Best-Seller Five Years in a Row.” Take that, Harry Potter.

“Write a book” is an appropriate listing because it’s within your power to do it. Being a best-seller does NOT fit the Bucket List because it depends on somebody else. Example: Writing a book and entering a contest are Bucket List-worthy. But you have no control over whether or not your masterpiece wins the prize.

For years, I’ve had a series of inappropriate Bucket List wishes. Example: Get Five Star Review. Get Four Star Review. Two Stars? Ignore All Reviews. Kill Reviewer. Kill All Reviewers.

Clearly, I need to re-think my Bucket List...which is not to be confused with my goals and planning. As a chronic procrastinator, I’m familiar with the concept of goal-setting. Practical goals, such as writing a certain number of words per day or hours per week, are important. As are promotional goals, such as chatting on Facebook, updating the website, tweeting, etc. Goals are part of the job. They’re the tools used in the craft of writing.

A Bucket List is different.

A combination of plans and dreams, a Bucket List is both reflective and aspirational. When you look back at where you’ve been in your career, you can see how your bucket list has changed and become more realistic. Once upon a time, I envisioned being carried through the halls of publishing on the shoulders of my editors while the peasants chanted: Genius! Genius! Now, I’m thrilled with a happy face on the copy edit pages. After you look back and reflect, you’ve got a better idea where you want to go.

My Bucket List

Number One: What got me started writing? That would be reading. Over the years, I’ve gotten lazy with my book diet, going back to the same authors over and over or the same type of book. Bucket List says: Branch out. Maybe read all the books that won Pulitzers or the Top 100 Novels of all Time. Instead, I decided to: Read one book per month from the NYT Top Ten Best-Sellers. This book can’t be by an author I already know and love. So sorry, Lee Child.

Number Two: When writing toward a deadline or a goal, I am Grumpy Cat. Really? I mean, why write if it isn’t fun? Enjoy the process. Every day, I’ll try to write one sentence that makes me laugh or one scene that scares me more than zombies. This shouldn’t be hard because I really like my romantic suspense genre. My books are short, punchy and have happy endings...kind of like me.

Number Three: It’s entirely possible that I’m not going to win any big awards or land a multi-million dollar contract. At one time or another, those things have been on my Bucket List. Not anymore. The best prizes are the ones I give myself. Celebrate Moi. When I finish a project, I will throw myself a party or give myself a shiny gift.

Number Four: My dad used to love poetry. When he’d call me and read his fave new poem over the phone, it made the world “puddle-wonderful” and the “goat-footed balloon man whistled far and wee.” Try Writing Something Different. A new manila folder is on my desk, and it’s for poetry (gasp!), which I will print in hard copy because my dad didn’t love computers.

Number Five: Supporting and sharing with other writers is fun (always a motivating factor), interesting and a great way for me to continue learning. I’ve been plowing this field for a long time with my first Harlequin published in 1984 and a total of 79 books sold so far. Writing has given so much to me, it’s time to give back. Become a mentor. I can’t wait to get started on this Bucket List item. Over the years, I’ve stumbled into jobs with copy editing, developmental editing, ghost writing and pre-plotting.

If I were thoroughly altruistic, I’d dress in flowing mentor robes and give away free advice. But that’s not going to happen. Development and editing will be a business.

Enough about moi... What’s on your Bucket List? Remember: it has to be something you can do for yourself. Endless possibilities: Start a blog. Write in a different genre. Publish an e-book. Find a critique partner. Brain-storm. Get fifty thousand followers.

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Kay Bergstrom (aka Cassie Miles) has sold 79 novels of romance and suspense, 4 super-short e-books, 2 audio plays and 2 screenplays that went straight to video. Her teaching experience ranges from college level to fifth graders. She’s been on the USA Today Best-Seller List (extended) and been RMFW’s WOTY twice. You can find her books listed on Goodreads.

Three Traits of Truly Fascinating Villains … by Bonnie Ramthun

Bonnie Ramthun1When RMFW blog editor Pat Stoltey asked if I'd like to write a post I jumped at the chance. I enjoy these postings and learn a lot from them. Then the panic set in. What do I have to contribute? I looked at my current writing research and found an answer. I've recently been working on making my villains more villainous. I know that the hero of a story is only as brave and strong as the opponent he must vanquish, but I have a tendency to spend more time on my hero development than my anti-hero. Imagine, though, if Ian Fleming's James Bond did nothing but carry secret documents around from place to place with no one trying to stop him. How incredibly boring! Instead, Bond faces criminals like Blofeld, Goldfinger, and Oddjob, powerful and unforgettable enemies who threaten the world. The villain of my novel must be formidable and interesting so that my hero is greater for overcoming him.

As the writer of thrillers and mysteries for adults and middle-graders, I've been researching anti-heroes in this quest and I've discovered that there are some common traits that define an antagonist worthy of a hero's battle. In fact, a truly great evil character can almost steal the show from the hero. So let's look at three traits of exceptional villains and examine them in the context of some of the most complex and fascinating characters in three recent American television series.

1.) They are physically benign.

This is odd, isn't it? But it's true. The most enthralling villains are not towering mountains of muscle. They are instead unassuming, sometimes beautiful of feature, and never outwardly dominating. Operatic opponents like Darth Vader or Goldfinger are caricatures of evil. They certainly have their place in literature and film, but the most complex and horrifying villains are usually ones that aren't imposing in their physical form.

2.) Their goals are important to them.

The great villains of stories are never the bad guys to themselves. They are trying to achieve a goal or goals and this is deeply significant to them. If your antagonist doesn't have a clearly defined goal, they won't have the weight of their own desires to contrast with the hero. Your villain must care passionately about his goal and he will do anything to achieve it.

3.) They have a heartbreaking back story.

Fascinating bad characters always have heartbreak in their background. Some are abandoned as a child, others tormented by malevolent parents or stepparents. Some experience a trauma that forever changes them. A villain who just wakes up one day and becomes evil for the sake of doing evil isn't particularly captivating, is she? A heartbreaking backstory can bring the reader to feel sympathy for this character. The betrayal of this sympathy with evil acts makes the villain even more despicable and the protagonist is more heroic for overcoming her.

Now let's look at some villains in recent American television series. The episodic content of current television is terrific for revealing complex backgrounds of characters, good and bad. Each of these three characters show the common traits of truly fascinating villains.

Regina Mills, Once Upon A Time

Regina is both the iron-fisted mayor of Storybook and the mass murdering Evil Queen of the Enchanted Forest in the television series Once Upon a Time. She's also lovely and very small. (Trait 1.) As played by Lana Parilla, she's a 5'5" package of pure evil who transported the entire population of the Enchanted Forest into Maine so she could torment her nemesis, Snow White. This Evil Queen is not tall and skeletal and aging. Instead, she's vibrant and young and yet she commits horrifying acts. Her goal is revenge towards Snow White, who is responsible for the death of her lover, and anyone who cares for Snow White -- her husband, Prince Charming, her daughter, Emma, and anyone who befriends them, from Hook to Ariel the mermaid. (Trait 2.) Her backstory is tragic and heartbreaking, her mother a humiliated miller's daughter who crafts her child into a Queen. Regina is forced into marriage to an old King. (Trait 3.) She's a tragic figure but so sympathetic that by the fourth year of the series this mass-murdering evil Queen is turning into a hero. That's quite the journey.

Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica

Dr. Baltar is a famed scientist, a kind of science rock star, in the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series. He's so famous that a fleet officer gives up his seat to him on the last escape ship during a genocidal attack on the planet of Caprica. He's also a weak, narcissistic, self-serving coward. Slight of stature and with fine, almost delicate features, James Callis as Gaius Baltar doesn't appear to be capable of being a villain. (Trait 1.) Yet his manipulations and cowardice lead to the near destruction of the human race. His overriding goal is to save his own cowardly skin and he goes to great lengths to stay alive at all costs. (Trait 2.) Finally, his background is revealed as a Caprica pretender, a common street boy with smarts who clawed his way to the top echelons of power. He started out with nothing but his intellect and his ambition and his survival against all odds is admirable. (Trait 3.) Well, if you don't count his participation in the near destruction of the human race, that is.

Gustavo Fring, Breaking Bad

One of the most memorable villains of Breaking Bad -- and if you've seen the series, that's saying something -- is Giancarlo Esposito's portrayal of Gustavo Fring. Gus is owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos and also a major drug kingpin. He's a ruthless, vicious killer. But he doesn't dress in black robes and stride around with a booming voice. He's slight of stature, unassuming, bespectacled. He doesn't look like he could cut a man's throat with the speed of a striking snake, but he can. And he does. (Trait 1.) Gus has a passionate goal to destroy every member of the Salamanca family drug cartel, a carefully plotted plan that has taken twenty years to achieve. (Trait 2.) His backstory is heartbreaking. He was in a committed relationship with his partner, Max, and created a restaurant with him called Los Pollos Hermanos. An attempt to get funding from the Salamanca family went terribly wrong and Max was murdered in front of Gus. (Trait 3.) He is alone, lonely, dedicated, and quiet. He's also one of the most chilling villains to stride across the screen.

Billowing robes, giant stature, big voices and operatic evil have their place. But the fascinating villain I'm attempting to create in my latest novel will be quiet, unassuming, complex, and deadly. I hope this examination of villains helps you in your craft. Happy writing!

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Bonnie Ramthun is a Colorado mom, wife, and mystery author. Her Eileen Reed mystery novels include GROUND ZERO, EARTHQUAKE GAMES and THE THIRTEENTH SKULL. Her middle grade novel, THE WHITE GATES, was a Junior Library Guild premiere selection and a finalist for the Missouri Truman award. The sequel, ROSCOE, is available now. She’s a former chapter president of Mystery Writers of America and served as the published author liaison for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter where her motto is: Every day is a gift.

P’s in Publishing … by Margaret Mizushima

Margaret MizushimaWhenever there is a first time published author panel at conferences, I’m often in the audience. I never tire of listening to the different ways authors connect with their publishers. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers played an important role in my story, and while this blog might be aimed more toward those seeking publication, other members could still be interested. I’ll tell you how the P’s in publishing worked for me.

Persistence. Don’t give up. Like many of my writing friends, I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve attended writing conferences including those presented by RMFW, bought a bookshelf full of how-to books, attended creative writing classes and writing institutes, and studied my favorite authors to see how they crafted their novels. I’ve written several novels that are buried in my storage cabinet and will never again see the light of day. I’ve wanted to give up, but I didn’t; and persistence finally paid off, resulting in a publishing contract. Continue to pitch your work to agents and editors if you want to go the traditional route. Take classes in indie publishing if you’re interested in going that direction.

Positioning. I found both my agent and my publisher at writing conferences. Position yourself so that you can meet yours. Pitch your work at conference pitch sessions, sit at a meal table with the person you want to meet, introduce yourself in hallways and elevators. Be polite; ask permission to pitch outside of scheduled pitch sessions. I met Matt Martz of Crooked Lane Books at the RMFW Conference 2014, sat at his table on Friday night, and asked if I could pitch to him after dinner. He agreed and told me to send it, which I did as soon as I could. I know how scary it feels when you sit at the computer with your finger hovering over that send button. Be brave. When you get the nod, be sure to follow through.

Mizushima_Killing TrailBe Pliable. Matt Martz passed my manuscript to Nike Power, editorial and publishing assistant at CLB. She loved the characters, setting, and writing, but not the plot. She asked if I was willing to talk about it, and of course I said yes. We began an exchange of emails leading to suggested revisions that would require a large amount of time. My novel fit between genres, and she thought it would find readers more easily if I made it a solid mystery. I hesitated. There were no guarantees, and approximately two months of work lay ahead. Besides, I liked my story. But…although the work had generated some interest, I had not yet received an offer. I decided I had nothing to lose except time, and maybe I’d end up with something I liked even better.

Be prompt. If I wanted to make their 2016 publication schedule, I needed to meet the deadline that Nike suggested for me. This is important at this stage for other reasons, too. Editors want to make sure you can get your work back to them when they need it. They may offer some flexibility, but it’s still an opportunity for them to see if you can be on time, even before you’re offered the contract. In my case, the resubmission worked. Nike told me she liked the new version, and she would talk to my agent. I’m delighted to say that she remains my editor, and we’ll be working together on two books, the first two in The Timber Creek K-9 series.

Promote. Promotion starts before you publish. In reality, it should start when you set a goal to write a book. Marketing should include taking a look at what readers want. I don’t mean try to follow a trend, things move too slowly in this industry for that. Write the story you want, but keep your readers in mind. Research by reading popular books, study how bestselling authors develop their characters and structure their stories, and strengthen your writing skills through education and critique. Network at conferences, listen to authors who already know the ropes and are willing to offer guidance, set up those social media sites and accounts. Attend workshops at conferences to learn about the different ways you can promote, both online and off.

And that brings me back to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. This organization can help you achieve your writing goals. At RMFW 2014, conference chair Susan Brooks stated that this is our tribe. Be a part of it, and benefit from all of the many opportunities RMFW has to offer. I’m very grateful for everything it has given me.

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Margaret Mizushima is the author of Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery to be released December 8, 2015 by Crooked Lane Books, available now for preorder on Amazon. Her fiction has won contest awards, and her short story “Hayhook” was selected for the 2014 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers anthology Crossing Colfax. She likes reading, hiking, and yoga, and she lives in Colorado with her husband and a multitude of animals.

Learn more about Margaret at her website. She can also be found on Facebook at Margaret Mizushima Author and on Twitter @margmizu.