Rocky Mountain Writer #46

Susan Spann
Susan Spann

Susan Spann - Writing a Killer Mystery 

This time on the podcast we welcome back RMFW Writer of the Year Susan Spann, author of the forthcoming The Ninja’s Daughter.

Susan is giving a master class at Colorado Gold in September and she’s here this time to give us a sneak peek of that class, Writing a Killer Mystery.

Susan talks about the key elements every mystery writer needs—the crime, the sleuth, clues, the setting, how to ramp up tension and much more.

 

 

 

Susan Spann

Seventh Street Books

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

The Freedom to Write

Happy Memorial Weekend!  So many things to celebrate—the beginning of summer, the joy of family, our gratitude to veterans and those who lost their lives in war.

Like most of us, I hate the idea of war.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one suddenly, and to have my child killed in action in a place far away under conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy would be a trauma I don’t think I could endure.  It all seems so senseless. But wars have been fought since humankind first began to gather in tribes across our world. We are a violent species, and our children of 18, 19, 20 years pay the price for this.

Photo for the freedom to write.
Thank you to all our service personnel who protect our right to write.

What soldiers do, though, is bring you and I as writers a solemn and precious gift—the gift of a free press. The gift of being able to say and write what we feel is important.  The US Constitution in the first amendment recorded under our Bill of Rights guarantees our freedom of expression.  Our military personnel protect that freedom in a very real way.

I don’t know if my uncle worried about the specifics of a free press when he went to war in the 1940s, or when he had to shoot or be shot in the South Pacific.  He was just a kid who did what he was told. In all the years I “knew” him, Uncle Jack only talked of his military service once. That was just a year or two before he died, but the stories he told were frighteningly vivid even after almost 70 years had passed.  Uncle Jack’s service and the service of his buddies in WWII guaranteed that a book like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would be published and not burned as so many books were by the Nazis. Thank you, Uncle Jack.

And even when journalists and soldiers come in principled conflict as happened in the 1960’s, our freedom to write, to challenge our mores and common thinking are protected.  While young men and women sailed across to Vietnam to, as the posters said at the time, “meet new people – and then shoot them,” our journalists at home and in the rice paddies far away were protected and even encouraged to write, to discover, to unearth the important stories.  That’s how we ended up with such classic writing as the Watergate investigations by Woodward and Bernstein, published in the Washington Post, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, and the television show, M.A.S.H. that criticized American involvement in foreign wars.

Today, journalists travel with armies, report in countries about political and human rights violations, cover our world with information.  According to the website cpj.org (Committee to Protect Journalists), there were 73 journalists killed in 2015, and so far in 2016 there have been 10 killed as they did their jobs of writing.  Today, people still sacrifice their lives so that crucial truths have the chance to thrive.

This leaves you and me with an important role in the story of human history.  If we have the freedom to write whatever we want, we have the obligation to write and reflect our world passionately in our stories.  Whether we write romance, or crime, fantasy or creative non-fiction, let our writing be from our hearts, and be as honest as possible.

This Memorial weekend, as we acknowledge our fallen soldiers who protect our freedom of expression, perhaps we can also spare a moment for the journalists who exercise that protected freedom. And in the process of remembrance and gratitude we can encourage our own growth as humans and writers.

And Aaron Michael Ritchey Waves His Magic Wand! Poof!

I am going to wave my magic wand, and I am going to make all your writerly dreams come true.

Yeah, my magic wand. No sex jokes.

Like Sigmund said, sometimes a magic wand is just a magic wand.

Here I go.

Do you know that story you were so excited about but every single short story market rejected you?

Poof.

You sent in query letter after query letter on the short story, and bam, a total acceptance for professional rates, ten cents a word, and you were included in a “best of” anthology. Suddenly, a hundred literary agents are knocking on your door wondering if you have a novel they can represent.

You can thank me later.

What about that cover you weren’t quite thrilled with?

Poof!

You have the ultimate cover drawn by either Frank Frazetta or Michael Whelan. Your book cover could be a movie. No, seriously, and not a movie released in January to a limited audiences, but a movie released in July with Florence +t the Machine on the soundtrack. It’s such a great cover.

You can thank me later.

What about that agent who loved your story idea, asked for the full manuscript, then eighteen months later rejected you because the market changed?

Poof!

Ten minutes after reading the full manuscript, that agent immediately called his go-to guy at HarperCollins and you are offered a six-book contract including a movie deal, and you get to meet Joss Whedon who is interested in the project.

You can thank me later.

What about that time you Indie published a book you loved more than life, more than sleep, more than donuts? It sold five copies and a week later its Amazon ranking sank into the low two millions. It’s still falling and threatens to become Amazon’s least sold book of all time.

Poof!

The day after you published the book, the Amazon ranking shot into the top one hundred. By noon? The top ten. By twilight, it was number one across all of Amazon and across all of the major categories. Suddenly, there’s a Huffington Post article on your book! How can this Indie book be dominating Amazon for weeks on end? Someone from Amazon calls you to apologize because they don’t have enough money to pay you. They’ve never seen such a book break those records. A month later, Joss Whedon calls you, personally, to ask if he can turn your book into a Netflix series.

You can thank me later.

What about that book where you did your homework, sent out review copies, made people sign blood oaths, all to get at least fifty Amazon reviews on the release day? Then? Yeah, you had two reviews. Amazon removed one, and the other was a one-star review that confused your book with the latest from Chuck Tingle.

Poof!

Not only did you get fifty five-star reviews, no, you got a hundred reviews total. And more are coming in each day. Joss Whedon left a review. And the bots working the interwebs saw all those reviews and emailed everyone across the globe—anyone with an email address—a “Buy Me” promotion about your book. You sold gazillions.

You can thank me later.

What about yesterday, when you promised yourself you’d get up early to write that one scene, which you were originally excited to write? Instead of getting up, you slept in, then wasted what little time you did have on Facebook, and then the day hit and you won’t be writing a single thing.

Poof!

Wait…

Dammit. Nothing happened?

Let me try again.

Poof!

Still nothing?

Let me check out my magic wand for a minute (no sex jokes). It’s working. I mean, it did all of that other stuff.

Oh, wait. That’s right. I can’t magic you into writing your book. That’s something firmly in your control, and yeah, it can be rough, life is busy, and dude, the Preacher comic has its own AMC show. I know. How cool is all that?

The magic wand only works on things outside of your control.

All of the wonderful things I’ve done on this blogpost are possible. They happen all the time. Magic happens to writers who finish books and get them out into the world. Sometimes great big magic. Sometimes teeny-weeny magic. But magic happens.

So do what you have control over. Write those books.

No need to thank you. You know what to do.

Terri Benson Sets Fire to Words Along with Genre Con (Literally)

I’m coming out of the closet. Yep. I’m an…introvert. What, you already knew?

That’s a pretty simple reveal. Most writers are introverts, and since writing is a fairly lonely job, it can have theWhy-Introverts-Are-Like-Cats makings for hermithood (you know, like motherhood—no wait, it’s not at all like motherhood unless you’re a mother and don’t have any friends with kiddies). Anyway, you know who you are, and what it’s like to try to network in a busy room, or to stand in front of a group and say things that make sense: right up there with a trip to the DMV.

I’m learning to come out of my shell. And the major reason is that I volunteer for RMFW. It started perfectly innocently, helping Vicki Law with the Western Slope workshops. Then, when Vicki decided to run for President of RMFW, she asked if I’d be willing to step in to run the W/S workshops, and be the Education Chair. Innocent that I was, I accepted, thinking it would be a piece of cake. Hmmm, maybe an upside down cake. I quickly realized I would have round up speakers, arrange a venue, stand up and talk in front of large groups, and all kinds of scary things.  And guess what? I survived. OK, except for the fire alarm and smoke and firetruck at the annual event last month in Golden. But there was that hunky fireman….which sort of made up for it. And despite rumors, I DID NOT set e fire. So our romance workshop got a little hot…it wasn’t my fault.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say (oh, no, there goes that song again) is that to grow as a writer I believe you have to do two things: learn to do new things, and get yourself out there. Become an ambivert - that’s someone with a little of both introvert and extrovert. The perfect place to debut the new you is at Colorado Gold. It’s too late to present, but you can still submit your story to the contest (until the end of May), which can be a little scary, but might get you a read by an agent or editor, or at least will be a good learning experience. And then there’s the Gold Conference itself. Three days of non-stop immersion in writing. You’ll be surrounded by other intro/ambi/extr-overts, all of whom are writers like you. THEY have the same worries, fears, and interests you do. They want to talk about their WIP just as much as you do. They want to discuss genres, protagonists, POV and all that ad naseum, just like you.

Take the plunge. Go to Gold. Don’t make excuses. It’s the best money you’ll ever spend. You will learn more than you ever imagined about the craft of writing and marketing, you’ll make friends that will last as long as you do (and if they put you in their book, longer), and you’ll have a chance to strut (or show) your stuff to agents or editors, but only if you DO IT.

Come on, if I can do it, so can you. It’s much more difficult to take that first step than it is to be there, in the moment. Trust me. And Write ON!

Yee Shall Not Judge or Should Yee?

Recently I’ve struggled with writing, publishing and the whole caboodle (yes, caboodle is an actual word though it shouldn’t be). I am not complaining, not in the least. No really. I swear

My issue is a matter of self-doubt. Which is my problem and mine alone. Or so I tell myself when caught whining to uninterested family members or friends. Nobody cares about how hard it is to publish or gain new readers. How the deck seems stacked against you. That is, nobody but your fellow tribe members suffering similar self-doubts and annoyances.

I love you guys!

While I am not turning this into a whine-a-thon (yes, again an actual word according to word), I wanted to preface my post with the above.

My post is about judging. Not being judgey (Caught me. Not a real word, but a good one that should be). I’ve long judged contests for various organizations. Every time I’m asked it brings up this issue of self-doubt. Who am I to say if a submission is good? Or more importantly, what it is about said submission that makes it worthy of a high score?

Yes, I’ve gotten books published. People have read them. Some liked them. Some didn’t. But I’m pretty much a hack. It was a fluke. 9 times over. I won’t ever see another word in print…

See how self-doubt derails me? It makes me feel unworthy of making simple contest judgments.

And they are simple. It’s about engaging me as a reader, not as a writer. The writer in me has a list of do’s and do nots. A bunch of reasons for every writerly action, and the consequence of opening a scene with the weather. But the reader in me doesn’t. I like certain styles more than others, sure. But any voice can engage me. Every well crafted scene can make me gasp in surprise.

I might have points to make for the writer, things I’ve experienced in my own publishing journey, but those are asides. If a writer opens with the weather, and makes me a believer in the reason for it, I, as a reader will be just fine.

Do you judge contests? If so, do you feel differently? What about critiquing? Do you read as a writer or reader? And hell, let’s open this up to self-doubt. What’s your greatest downfall when it comes to self-doubt?

3 Quick Tips to Avoid Dumb Mistakes with Writing Contests

The 2016 Colorado Gold Writing Contest is still accepting entries.  (Hot tip: the romance category needs entries—this is your chance to shine!)  It is the contest that led to my first published novel, so I’m thrilled to pass the information on to you. The contest accepts the first 4,000 words of your fiction manuscript (and 750-word synopsis) in the categories of action/thriller, mystery suspense, romance, spec fic, YA/middle grade, and mainstream/other.

Here are some tips so you can avoid some of my past mistakes.

1.  Remember the rules. Find them at rmfw.org/contest. There are just seven of them. I made a ColoGoldDeadlineJune1dumb genre mistake with my first novel. I had no fiction writing experience, and had just joined RMFW. I wrote a romance in which the hero died.  It’s amusing in hindsight, but just a reminder, be sure you’re entering in the right genre. Be attentive to format requirements, too. At the contest preparation workshop in March, Pam Nowak pointed out that you can guarantee yourself something like 9 or 10 points just by being certain the basic formatting and genre requirements are met.

2.  Don’t fudge on entry length. Way back in another century, I read on a writer's loop about circumventing contest length requirements. I thought I could fudge on the line spacing and submit a skosh more than the maximum number of pages. The contest is now run with a maximum word count, so this strategy of jiggling the line space settings is no longer an option. However, there are always some who think they can duck under the boundary rope and send more than allowed.

The contest folks note on the entry where the maximum number of words are reached. The judges are advised, and entries are not read past that point. If it’s blatant the entry may be rejected. Play it safe and follow the rules.

3.  Avoid eleventh hour panic. It’s easy to be overly confident and wait until the day before the deadline to review the entry. After all, it’s perfect as is—isn’t it? There’s an old joke about parents. When children are in their teens, their parents are really stupid. As those teens enter their twenties, their parents aren’t quite so stupid. By the time the children enter their thirties, their parents are pretty darned smart. This same focusing mechanism applies to writers as they look at their work just before a contest deadline. Their vision improves, and flaws can suddenly be seen that weren’t there before. This eleventh hour editing session quickly becomes a nightmare. In the panic that ensues as midnight approaches, massive cutting occurs, leaving hastily chopped gems lying on the cutting floor. Give yourself adequate polishing time before sending your entry.

These are the mistakes I made in my early contest career. Well, all the mistakes I’ll admit to having made, any way.

Get your entry ready, and good luck to you!

Rocky Mountain Writer #45

Stuart Horwitz
Stuart Horwitz

Stuart Horwitz - Finishing Your Book in Three Drafts

This podcast is the first in a series of conversations with key presenters who are coming to Colorado Gold, RMFW’s big annual three-day writing conference, in September.

This time the guest is Stuart Horwitz, who is leading a master class on Friday, Sept. 9 and that workshop follows the approach in his new book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It. That book is set for publication on June 6 and it’s the third in Horwitz’ Book Architecture trilogy.

Horwitz is founder and principal of a company called Book Architecture. He’s spent over fifteen years helping writers become authors, signing with top literary agencies, sealing deals with coveted publishing houses and forging a successful path through indie publishing.

Stuart Horwitz is an award-winning essayist and poet. He has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds two masters degrees—one in Literary Aesthetics from NYU and one in East Asian Studies from Harvard with a concentration in Medieval Japanese Buddhism.
 

Book Architecture

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

Play and Explore

Last month, when I finally overcame my fears and reached a big goal, I felt giddy the next day . . . I tried to write, but instead I pretty much explored the net . . . I saw an interesting article and followed a link, then another and another. The next thing I knew I'd crossed the world – from underwater treasure hunting in the South Seas, to listening to a piece of music composed to play for a thousand years – with no notes repeating.

I looked at skeletons and read ghost stories, admired castles and art deco townhouses. I searched for a tearoom that looked "just right" inside for one of my settings (still haven't found one). I explored islands with volcanoes, outer space and a fly's eye.

Obviously, my mind needed to rest, and the inner child who I think of as my most creative self, needed to play.

Pretty pictures (pre-Raphaelites), kitties and puppies and foxes (well, I write about telepathic animal companions too). How some dogs have problems with stairs. How scary animals look without fur.

How people danced through the ages, set to "Uptown Funk." Historical film heroes, set to "Sharp Dressed Man."

I absorbed all these – ideas and visualizations and places and items that will lie in my subconscious and might, someday, spark an idea when melded with another idea that I might write a line or two about.

That didn't matter. What mattered was getting a sense of exploring STUFF that I never knew about, some scientific theories that I will never understand (yes, particles or waves...). And maybe I won't use this or that or t'other, but it took my mind down pathways I don't often go (English gardens, Zen tearooms, castle ramparts, meteorite craters, birds sitting on telephone lines as notes of music).

Yes, it made me giddy, but it was also extremely fun, and reminded me of an important truth, which is, let yourself go sometimes – DO explore the internet for hours see the wonder that is our world and human imagination and ideas.

Or get away from that computer and take a trip to the mountains and look at a meadow, hike a trail, find a waterfall. Explore a ghost town or a mesa or a cliff dwelling or a graveyard. (I've been in a lot of graveyards these last few years, ask me about my favorites). Experience something different than is in your usual route. Step outside your bounds.

Or take a look at the town around you and places you wouldn't ever go (like, for me, a hockey game), or roller derby, or ballet (yes, ballet, men, you know those male dancers are strong and sexy, don't you?). When was the last time you were in the Art Museum? How about at Buffalo Bill's grave? Ruby Hill? Canoeing down the Platte? At a stand up comedy show?

What about meditation at a Buddhist center? Or drumming? Or Universal dance? Or attending a Society for Creative Anachronism heavy fighting practice (being a spectator is free).

On and on and on and on. Be open to wonder. Connect with new people.

What Should an Author Expect from an Agent?

In the months between now and Colorado Gold, my guest posts here at the RMFW blog will take a lawyer's eye view at some issues that may be relevant to authors trying to choose a publishing path or figure out who (and how) to pitch their work at conference. Today, we'll kick that off with a little introduction to some the things agents do...and a few they don't.

Mismanaged (or mismatched) expectations are a fundamental cause of problems in the author-agent relationship. Before signing an agency contract, authors should understand the business and try to establishrealistic expectations about the author-agent relationship.

Know What Agents Do … and What They Don't.

A literary agent can fill many roles in an author’s world. Some of the common ones include:

- Line editing client manuscripts ("editorial" agents do this, but not usually at the first draft stage).

- Pitching manuscripts to publishers, and negotiating contract offers.

- Consulting with authors about new ideas and series development.

- Discussing short-term and long-term plans for the author’s writing career.

- Marketing advice (but they don't do the marketing - that's the author's job).

- Mentioning clients' work on the agent’s social media feeds.

- Acting as an intermediary between the author and publisher (especially when conflicts arise).

- Selling foreign, translation, and other subsidiary rights, either directly or through sub-agents.

Not all agents fill all of these roles. Investigate agents before you query, and talk with an agent who offers representation (before you sign!) about his or her preferences and business practices.

All agents should review client’s manuscripts, pitch and negotiate deals, and act as an intermediary with publishers on some level (some do more, and some do less). Beyond that, your mileage may vary.

Know What You Want YOUR Agent To Do (Within Reason)

Consider the list in the heading above. Do you want an editorial agent? Someone who’s active on social media? How involved do you want the agent to be in your long-term plans?

Beware the temptation to say “I want it all” (or "I don't want any of this") without more thought. Publishing is a business, and authors need both a business plan and a solid concept of how an agent fits (or, in some cases, doesn't fit) within it. Make a list, and be reasonable...it doesn't much matter whether or not you want your agent to give you a magical glitter-and-book-deal farting unicorn. You're not going to get it. 

Do Your Research, and Find an Agent Who Matches Your Expectations

After you know what you want from your agent, you need to focus on finding an agent who matches your expectations. If you only query agents who aren't editorial, you have only yourself to blame when the agent you sign with doesn't edit your manuscript.

It can be difficult to determine, with certainty, whether an agent's business model matches your own before you receive an offer of representation. That’s okay. “The call” is a perfect time to talk about expectations—the agent’s, as well as yours.

Obviously, authors only get to choose from the agents who actually offer representation. That’s why "doing the research before you query" is such a critical step.

If you're planning to pitch agents at conferences (including this September's fabulous Colorado Gold - registration is open now!) do your research in time to choose your pitch appointments wisely. Don't limit yourself to the conference website. Google the agents and editors, visit their websites, and find the ones who seem like a match for your preferences and your work.

Realize: There is No Magical Ring to Rule the Publishing World. You Won't Get One - And Your Agent Won't Have One, Either.

No matter how well an agent matches the author’s business expectations, we have to remember that no one can guarantee an offer, a publishing deal, or a place on the bestseller list. Sometimes a manuscript doesn't sell, no matter how hard an agent works. Sometimes publishers drop a talented author.

Publishing failures often aren't the agent’s fault - and the possibility of failure even if you do everything correctly is a sad but real expectation authors need to manage.

On the other hand, if the agent isn’t living up to the author's expectations, authors have the right to consider a change. Just make sure, if you make the decision to terminate an agency contract, you make it on the basis of an objective, honest evaluation—what the agent has done (or not), in comparison to industry standards—not on the basis of emotion or unreasonable expectations.

Managing expectations in publishing is a lot like herding cats or nailing Jell-o to a tree. It's a constant process, and it's going to get away from you at times. 

Even so, it’s worth the effort. The better you know the industry, and treat publishing as a business, the more likely you are to find an agent who meets your needs and becomes a beneficial partner in your publishing career.

What do you expect your agent to do for you? How do you manage your "agent expectations"?

 

The Writing Habit

If you want to be a productive writer, then you need a habit.

Not this kind of habit:

singingnun

THIS kind of  habit:

Butt in Chair

Yeah, I know, we writers are creative people. We like to have muses and write when we're inspired. We want all of the rainbows and unicorns and leprechaun gold while we're at it. Habits are boring and stifling and structured, for God's sake. We get enough structure from our day jobs and our family responsibilities. Writing should be spontaneous and fun and happen when we're really feeling the love.

This is all true UNLESS you want to write professionally. Because here's the fly in the ointment, my friends. If you want to be published - and continue to be published - then writing becomes a J-O-B.

Yep. I said it. Writing professionally is a full on responsibility.

Sure, it's still fun - some of the time.

Magic still happens - some of the time.

The Muse still sings songs of enchantment and wonder that get you lost in Storyland - some of the time.

But that isn't going to cut it if you're trying to build a career. Your capricious Muse won't help you meet deadlines, and neither will fitful inspiration. There will be days when writing feels like the last thing on  the face of the planet that you want to be doing. There will be days when it feels hopeless, pointless, and maybe even stupid. This happens to every writer, even, I dare say, to those who are highly successful and appear to have "made it."

You have to find a way to write anyway.

I am going to offer a caveat here. Yes, there are days when "writing" means thinking. There are days when the best thing you can do is step away from a manuscript and take a walk, do some brainstorming, or talk to a friend. Some writers take regular, planned days off from writing, in order to rest and refresh. This advice is for writers who are struggling with getting the writing done.

I've talked in previous posts about setting priorities and finding your focus. These things are hard.  I'm not sure what Life has against writing, but I can tell you that Life does not want you to write. It will throw things at you overhand, underhand, and sideways. It will screw you over six ways from Sunday. If you wait for those wonderful, golden moments of sheer writing bliss to be handed to you on a silver platter, you're going to be waiting until you're in the ground and fodder for the worms.

Ever notice how you don't have to carve out time for your habits? If you're a morning coffee drinker, you don't have to think about that in the morning. Imagine if, when the alarm went off and you managed to drag yourself into the kitchen, you spent fifteen minutes debating about whether or not to make coffee.

God forbid. That would be one question too many in your decaffeinated state. Nope. Before your eyes are open, you're fumbling through your morning coffee ritual. Maybe you were really smart and loaded the coffee pot the night before.

Everything in your morning routine - from taking a shower and brushing your teeth to getting dressed - happens pretty much on auto pilot. These things are habits (at least for most of us.) We do them every day, whether we feel like it or not.

A writing habit serves the same purpose. If you have made it a habit, when your allotted writing time comes up, you write.

You write whether you feel the writing love or not.

You write whether you're brimming with inspiration or feeling jaded and tired and beset by doubt.

Writers write. Regularly.

Some of you are going to tell me that your days are too unpredictable or that you don't have time. If this is true, chances are it's time to rethink your priorities. If you REALLY WANT TO WRITE then you will find a time to fit writing regularly into your life. But I will also tell you that something else that you love may need to go, because we don't get anything for free.

Even when you've developed the habit, there will be days where writing doesn't happen. There are probably days when you don't get dressed or brush your teeth, and maybe - gods forfend - days when you don't drink coffee. Life is like that. But the thing about habits is that once they're established, they are hard to break. So if you have a Writing Habit and you miss a day, you'll find your way back to it the next day, or the next.

When you don't write, you'll feel that something is missing, just like when you forget to brush your teeth. Words will get written.

Chances are, once you establish it, this is one habit you'll never want to break.

I'll be teaching a class on getting writing done at Colorado Gold 2016 called Write Now: Making Space for Writing in a Busy World. It's scheduled for 8 am on Sunday, which is either appropriate or ironic, or maybe both.