Rocky Mountain Writer #116

Alissa Johnson & Setting Achievable Goals 

Award winning writer and WritingStrides coach Alissa Johnson recently presented to the Western Slope branch in Grand Junction and she will give RMFW's free monthly talk in March, "Writing Reset: Setting Achievable Goals." (That workshop is Saturday, March 17 in Denver.)

On the podcast, Alissa talks with guest interviewer Natasha Watts about her WritingStrides community and how to balance creativity with your career.

Ever wish you could hit the reset button for your writing? Perhaps return to the energy and enthusiasm you felt at the start of the year or create a fresh start? You can.

Alissa Johnson is a nationally published and award winning writer whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Masters Review, Wilderness News, and Dirt Rag Magazine among other publications. She was associate editor at the Crested Butte News until 2017, and her writing has won awards from the Colorado Press Association and FundsforWriters.

Alissa holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University.

Alissa's website

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Words Matter

As a mere child, I’d cut letters from words to make more words. For example, from the title of this blog, Words Matter: matt, rat, as, word, sword, words, matter, toward, wad, or, more, war, roar, stat, at, dot, draw, date, mate, rate, ate, watt, smart.

Then, I’d form silly sentences:

Draw Matt as a rat

Or a dot like dat.

I confess, libraries were far and few, and both television channels broadcasted in black and white. But we had running water.

Then I’d say something like, “Ouch! That smatted.” Can you believe nobody understood me? Although, thinking back, the family dog made an occasional effort.

When I discovered that one guy—what’s his name?—J.R.R. something created a language for elves, oh my gosh, I immediately set forth cutting letters from Sears and Roebuck catalogs again!

Writers must love words and choose them wisely and consistently for their characters. (I’m doing the best with the mind I have.)

Elton John wrote and sang: "And I would have walked head-on into the deep end of the river." What a great line.

Cowboy poet and veterinarian Baxter Black—in his own spelling—penned:

"…It’s a comf’terbul feelin’ when you don’t have to care

‘Bout choosin’ your words or bein’ quite fair

‘Cause friends’ll just listen and let go on by

Those words you don’t mean and not bat an eye…"

Baxter’s one of the funniest ol’ coots there’s ever been!

William Shakespeare, in his play The Tempest, left this immortal advice: "What's past is prologue." One cannot avoid liking William.

In Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George, we not only see what Zed looked like, but feel how stressed he was:

"…Zed looked up thoughtfully. He glanced at the window. It was pitch-dark outside, so all he saw was his own reflection: a redheaded giant with worry lines becoming incised on his forehead because his mother was attempting to marry him off to the first willing woman she was able to find and his boss was ready to deposit his well-written prose into the rubbish and he himself just wanted to write something marginally worthwhile…"

Whoa.

What about words from a character who packs chewing tobacco between his lower lip and gum? “To” may sound like, oh, anything from “yu” to “ooo” to “tvo” (isn’t that how you pronounce the number two in Swedish?). Seriously, put your tongue against the inside of your lower lip, push out, and converse away.

In Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel, one of his “assignments” is to create a chart. For example, write a common item, and then write how five characters refer to it. (Charles the plumber says “toilet.” Dani the sailor says “the head.” A homeless man from England says “loo.” A teenager from Georgia says “goin’ naw.” A mom from Texas says “ladies’ room.”)

Do your protagonist, their nemesis, and all secondary characters sound alike?

Please, say it isn’t so.

I hope not.

Dang, what are you tellin’ me?

Plug my ears and cover my imagination.

Start over.

Next month: Ideas—where’d they go?

A special thank-you to the organizers, crew, and guests of Western Reboot: Authors of the Modern West. Excellent program!

Rocky Mountain Writer #115

Mike Houtz & Dark Spiral Down

Mike Houtz just signed a deal with Wild Rose Press to publish his first novel, Dark Spiral Down.

The deal wouldn’t have happened had Mike not signed up for one of the key features at every Colorado Gold conference—to pitch to the many agents and editors who fly into Denver every September for the express purpose of meeting new talent.

One thing to led another and Mike signed the deal with Wild Rose Press just a couple of weeks ago.

After a career in medicine, Mike Houtz succumbed to the call to hang up his stethoscope and pursue his other passion as a writer of fast-paced thrillers.

A rabid fan of authors such as Tom Clancy, Brad Taylor, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor, Mike loves series writing with strong characters, fast pacing and international locations.

When not at the keyboard, he can be found on the firing range, coaching youth sports, or trying out the latest dry-fly pattern on a gold medal trout stream. Mike lives with his wife and two young sons at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver.

Mike's website

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Writing Romance: A Word About Sex

Hello Campers,
Last month I promised to take a side trip here and discuss – ahem – sex.

Is sex necessary in a romance novel? That’s a huge question. Before I move into the real discussion, I’ll point out that my romances do not have sex in them. That is a personal decision I made, and I’m not here to get preachy in any way. I fully realize that this decision will result in some folks not buying or liking my books. Disclaimer done.

In preparation for this post, I googled “sex in romance novels.” The first hit was a Goodreads discussion titled “How Important is Sex in a Romance Novel?” It’s an interesting read. There’s everything from “super important” with points deducted if there is not sex, to folks who skip the sex scenes altogether, to one guy who says “Any good Romance story must include the points of love lust, sex & the aftermath, the sweaty bodies, the stained sheets or the unconventional romp in the park.”

Most said that it depends on the characters. That may or may not be true. It may completely depend on the target market.

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel for an erotica publisher. I didn’t enjoy writing it, and on the 1-5 flame rating system, it got a 1. I didn’t write for them again. It wasn’t my forte. Another two-book “series” I wrote – before my change of heart – did contain sex, though it wasn’t a main focus of either story. I so love those two stories. Recently I went back to the first one to see if I could take the sex out. What I found out: sex changes everything. But you likely already knew that. If I took the sex out of that book, I’d have to go about setting up dominoes that were knocked down by that act.

What this means, though – and I think it’s a positive – is that that sex scene was integral to the story. It was not just obligatory.

That being said, I’m glad there’s a romance market for every reader and every writer. (What I’d like to see is a rating system – but that might be just me.)

Let’s look at some of the submission guidelines for various Harlequin brands.

DARE
• The heat level is explicit and graphic. The hero and heroine have a powerful sexual and emotional connection.
• We’re looking for authors who have a distinct, memorable voice and write stories with a high level of sexual tension as well as graphic sex.

DESIRE
• Sizzling sensual tension between the hero and heroine.
• Sexual language that leans more euphemistic and romantic rather than explicit.

PRESENTS
• A hero who will command and seduce. There's nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can't buy…except the love of a woman strong enough to tame him!
• High sensuality and sky-rocketing sexual tension to quicken your pulse.

HEARTWARMING
• Plots unfold in a wholesome style and voice that excludes explicit sex or nudity, premarital sex, profanity, or graphic depictions of violence: references to violent incidents or premarital sex in the past are acceptable if they contribute to character development.
• Physical interactions (i.e. kissing/hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality: low level of sexual tension; characters should not make love unless they are married.

The inspirational imprints that have a “mandatory faith element” and no premarital sex.

As you can see, the HOT value of each of these imprints is different. So your decision on sex with these imprints is a market-based one. That may not be true for other publishers. Check submission guidelines for your target publisher.

Obviously, if you’re self-published, the decision is entirely yours. But you will still be targeting readers. That, of course, may not be your focus when writing your novel. It will be more about what you like to write – what you like to read. Let me assure you, then, that there is a market for every SIZZLE level out there. Write the book of your heart.

Your readers will find you.

Okay, enough sex talk. Next month we’re back to our outline, and we'll tackle the MIDPOINT.

Until then, BiC-HoK: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

Cheers, Jax

February isn’t just for lovers. IT’S FOR WRITERS!!!!!

February is made for writing. Seriously.

The weather sometimes sucks (unless you live in Colorado, like most RMFW writers), leaving us with no excuse but to get some words on the page.

We’re also still in our honeymoon period with the hastily made New Year word count resolutions (by June it’s all over) we’ve made.

We can often use our Valentine’s Day gift goodwill with our partners to sneak off for an extra writing session or two without risking bodily harm (unlike in June).

It’s a short month, forcing us to push for more words daily so as not to throw off our monthly word count.

For how many of you is November your highest word count month?

Agents and editors are finally digging out from the holidays and New Year submitters. Which means they are all but begging for your beautiful words!

And then there’s President’s Day. A time to remember what words can mean for a country.

One more reason February rocks for writers is Groundhog Day. Not the rodent, though he’s super cute, but the movie. Fiction is just like that movie. We write, then edit, and rewrite, until we get the ending right!

What is your favorite writerly month? And why?

Rocky Mountain Writer #114

Pamela Nowak & Colorado Gold Workshop Proposals 

In the words of Pamela Nowak, there are “tough decisions” ahead.

That’s because she and her committee will receive three times as many proposals for workshops at Colorado Gold than she has room to book.

Yes, planning for the 2018 edition of September’s Colorado Gold conference is well underway and that includes determining the topics and presenters for the 70 or so hours of programming that is being selected and organized.

On the podcast, Pam takes us behind the scenes of the process and offers some tips and suggestions how you might put yourself in a good position to be given a slot. You may have a “cute idea,” as she puts it, but you’ll need to give that proposal some real meat.

Pam Nowak, who is co-chairing the 2018 conference with Suzie Brooks, is a former and longtime chair of the conference herself and she is also a past president of RMFW.

Pam is also a dedicated and award-winning writer and she is currently working in a new genre, as you will hear.

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Mambo No. 5

It’s not so much a rule as a repeated observation. While the plural of anecdote isn’t data, there comes a point where something happens often enough that one has to believe there’s something other than divine intervention at work.

The observation is that many authors don’t begin to get traction until they’ve published five novels. More specifically, they’ve published five novels in the same recognizable niche—ideally, in a series.

There are two reasons why this observation is important.

First, the goal is to gain an audience for your work. Having an audience means people like to read the stories you like to tell. Everything else comes from that basic premise. Fame, fortune, or just seeing your name on the cover of the book a stranger is reading, you can’t get very far in publishing without an audience.

To gain that audience, you need to be putting books in the places they look. For the average indie author, that means in a sub-sub-cat on Amazon. This creates a problem if your five novels are all in different categories. Sure, go wide if you want. Kobo and Nook and iBook, oh my, but the same observation holds across vendors and even formats. (Can you say "audiobooks?" Of course you can.)

For an example:

In the old days, science fiction was on the Science Fiction shelf. Today it might be on the Space Opera shelf or the First Contact shelf or the Colonization Shelf or the Military SF shelf. If I want to gain an audience, I need to know who that audience is with a much greater degree of specificity than I might have had to in the past—and what kinds of stories each of those shelves hold. I write science fiction, but if I want traction, I need to pick one of those shelves to focus on because that’s where the most likely readers will look.

Which is not to say I need to run up the demographics on those people who have bought my books. I already know their most salient characteristic: they read space opera. Sure, they might read other niches as well, but in order to get their attention I need to have a big enough footprint in one niche to show up on their radar.

Second, amortization of your promotional investment becomes easier when you have more properties. As I wrote last September, backlist is your lever. The five-novel rule provides a rule of thumb for how long that backlist might need to be to effectively amortize your promotional investment in time, money, and focus across your catalog. When you can realistically expect buy-through on your catalog—because the books are in a series or at least all in the same niche—then justifying giving one book away for free becomes a lot more palatable.

This second bit is why I generally don’t recommend that new authors spend time, money, and attention on paid promotion. A Bookbub is great when you’ve got five books, but not so great when you spend $500 to give away a few hundred copies of your only title.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t work on gaining some early fans, but more like maybe focus on what matters most—having your five novels in play—and work on building relationships with the other authors in your chosen niche.

The career path for indie authors involves a different kind of dues. We don’t have to ride the query-go-round, but we have to look past the sales levels of our earliest works and grit through to at least five novels in order to find traction. While it’s true that some people capture lightning in a bottle on their first time in the rain, the odds of winning the lottery are still pretty small.

Somebody cue up Lou Bega. Suddenly, I want to mambo.

 

As an aside, what would you like me to write about as 2018 unwinds? Leave a comment or email me at nathan.lowell on the gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.

How to Write Memorable Villains

Villains.

You can’t have a good story without them. We loathe them. We hate them. Sometimes, we admire them. While we know the protagonist, the hero, must prevail, deep down inside, we sometimes still root for the bad guy.

So how do we create a memorable villain? The first thing we have to remember, to quote Tom Hiddleston, is that “Every villain is the hero in his own mind.” We have to remember that the villain, however horrible their deeds or deplorable their actions, believes on some level they are doing the right thing.

How is this possible?

Villains should have a sympathetic background.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity that no one does evil for evil reasons. They do evil as a shortcut to doing good. We must remember that every vain, head-of-the-football-team villain in a YA is really craving the respect and attention they feel they deserve. Every mad terrorist in a globetrotting thriller is really looking for justice for their people. Their methods are skewed, but once upon a time, their hearts were pure.

See, I think the best villains have sympathetic backgrounds. You may completely disagree with their actions and methodology – but if the writer can make the reader feel sympathy for the position the villain is in, then we are moving toward a memorable villain.

Of course, having sympathy for the villain's circumstance doesn’t mean you have sympathy for the villain.

A really great villain must be thoroughly irredeemable.
Did you read Frankenstein? I did. For most of the Monster’s story, I felt bad for the shambling corpse. He moved in with a blind dude living in the forest. (BTW, who leaves their blind relative living in the freakin’ forest?) He serves the old man. He cares for him. The old hermit introduces the Monster to reading. I started rooting for the Monster – especially considering the good doctor abandoned his creation.

Then the old, blind hermit’s family comes visiting and drives the Monster off. Still, I am filled with sympathy for the Monster – until he murders a little girl in his rage. As bad as the monster’s life has been, nothing justifies a child’s murder. Frankenstein’s Monster has truly stepped into his role of villainy once blood is on his hands.

A villain must also be more powerful than the hero.
Ever wonder why every teen movie starts with the “new girl” or the “new boy” in town? Ever wonder why these characters are lovable misfits? Because the new person, or the outsider, has no social cache with the school community they’re forced to join. The villain in these stories are more powerful than our hero because they have social power. The hero's journey will be about gaining and creating their own community – a goal opposed by the villain.

This is why political thrillers are crammed with governors, senators, and titans of industry as villains. They are inherently more powerful than the protagonist. If you were to write a story where the local office manager was our hero, but his nemesis was a lowly custodian, things would turn to comedy and farce very quickly.

A memorable villain must be an opposing force.
What’s the point of a villain who’s never in the hero’s way? Everywhere the hero turns, they should see the villain or the villain's handiwork blocking their success and frustrating them. If you’re writing a story where the stated bad guy is just grousing at the protagonist and not actively getting in their way, then you don’t have a villain. Make sure the villain is always in the way of the hero. Always thwarting their hard work and ruining their plans.

PLEASE NOTE: This doesn’t mean the villain has to be on the stage. But it should be apparent that the villain is the root cause of the hero’s problem.

A memorable villain must make it personal.
A great villain will always take things to the next level and make things personal. Whether they just want to throw the hero off their game and get in their head, or they truly want to cause the hero pain, a memorable villain will find and dig at that open wound the protagonist has been trying to hide.

Years ago I saw Prince’s Purple Rain. In it, Prince plays “The Kid,” an up-and-coming musician and his band in Minneapolis. There is a big battle of the bands competition coming up, and The Kid’s nemesis is Morris Day and the Time (another band). The Kid comes from an abusive home where his dad hits his mom. At one point we see our hero step in and defend his mother. Toward the end of act two, the father commits suicide, throwing The Kid into a tailspin right before the finals of the band contest.

As the villains, Morris Day and his band, come off stage from a triumphant set, they sing “Let’s get crazy” in a mocking tone as they pass The Kid’s dressing room. Suddenly, they stop and back up. Morris Day turns to Prince’s character and says before running down the hall, laughing, “Hey man. How’s the family?” The Kid breaks down in tears. Brutal. Just brutal. NOW, it’s personal.

If you want to learn more about villains, you can listen to the current RMFW Podcast, where I talk to the esteemed Mark Stevens about it all. On Saturday, February 17th, I will be giving an RMFW free program at the Sam Gary Branch Library in Denver on this very subject. The program starts at 2 PM, but get there early if you want a seat!

When I’m Sixty-Four

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me?”

Fill in the blank…

Of course: “…when I’m sixty-four.”

Yeah, I played the HELL out of Sgt. Pepper when it came out.

My older brother and I each had record players, but one copy of the record between us. We would sit in each other’s rooms and listen. Rapt. Over and over. The White Album, too. Holy smokes. We were nuts about The Beatles. When a new album came out, we would own it within the week.

I liked The Stones better than he did; he liked The Who more than me. (Tommy changed my mind. But every band took second place to The Beatles).

But that song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Catchy, bouncy, plaintive—impossible. And so clean and melodic, the second song on Side Two after the psychedelic “Within You, Without You.”

Sixty-four seemed ancient. I pictured a wheelchair, watery oatmeal, infirmity. Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?

Then my father died at age 54 in 1979, and seven years later, my mom died at the same age. By the late 1980’s I thought maybe there was some sort of ticking time-bomb inside me, too.

You know, an expiration date.

By the time my mother died, I had been writing fiction for a few years. I was working on a draft of an early novel.

Three years after my mother passed away, I got married in a double wedding on the top floor of an old funky warehouse in LoDo (when the buildings were empty). It was 1989. I had just landed a good agent in New York for that first book, a mystery, and quit a good TV news job to write a second book. The first book had taken six years. I didn’t want the second book to take that long.

At the wedding, the bar was open before the ceremony started. We had a great rockabilly band on hand for the dancing.

And we walked down the aisle to…

“When I’m Sixty-Four.”

Our friends loved it. We laughed.

Sixty-four seemed, still, so distant.

Eighteen years later, I finally got published at age 53—a small, indie press. I had a great time seeing a book reach readers. Phew, published. Right under my personal deadline (literally).

Did I have one year left? It didn’t feel like I was about to die. I mean, what does that feel like?

A second book came out when I was 57 and a third when I was 60. Then, a fourth at age 61. The third and fourth with Midnight Ink, a fine house.

Last week, I turned 64. (No wheelchair! No watery oatmeal!)

I Feel Fine. (Another Beatles song.)

And I am making plans to publish Book #5 next fall—the fifth book in the Allison Coil series. It’s called The Melancholy Howl. At the same time, my amazing agent in New York is shopping a standalone mystery. It’s called No Lie Lasts Forever.

And I’m starting to write a new one.

My heroes are writers like Pat Stoltey, still in her mid-70s and cranking out books. Or James Lee Burke (born in 1936) and Lawrence Block (1938) and still, yes, cranking out books. How about Mary Higgins Clark? Born in 1927.

Every day I write is a good day. Every day I wrote was a good day.

There are lots of cool things about the writing business, starting with the writing itself.

But here’s one more. As I start to think about winding down the professional career (Note to my mortgage holder: starting to think about it, not actually doing it yet!) I am glad to have writing out there as something that will keep me going, interested, engaged. Most of all, it will keep me writing.

No matter what happens to the stories I put together, I’ll be writing.

Maybe even when it’s time for watery oatmeal.

Rocky Mountain Writer #113

Jason Evans & Writing Memorable Villains

On Saturday February 17, Jason Evans is leading RMFW’s free monthly workshop and if you have trouble developing and writing your bad guy, this session might be just what you need.

The program is about writing memorable villains and on the podcast we’ve got Jason Evans here for a preview of what he’s going to cover—and exactly how he’ll inspire you to get it right. Your villain, Jason says, needs to be a “fun house mirror” version of your hero and “great villainy” grows from true pain.

Jason Evans always wanted to be a writer, he just didn’t know it. He grew up in Southern California and taught high school social studies after college until he got married and moved to Denver in 2004.

Jason continued in education until he realized his heart was in fiction. Since 2012 Jason has had several short stories published, ran an online magazine, and became a regular panelist at local conventions. He blogs regularly on his own website and Writers from the Peak, in addition to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

This Spring the WhimsyCon Anthology will be published, giving Jason his first credit as an editor. Jason earned a masters in history in 2012 and, as you’ll soon find out, also has a bit of major news about his publishing career that was announced just this week.

Jason Evans' website

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com