Montana: Big Book Country

Jane Smiley

Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres) is on stage at The Union Club Bar & Grill in downtown Missoula. Earlier in the week, she turned 68. Jane Smiley has been publishing books—26 by my count—since 1980. Short stories, essays, non-fiction, young adult stories, and more. She is wearing blue jeans and a checked shirt. Unassuming? To say the least. She takes her turn at the “Pie and Whiskey” night like just another writer reading her stuff. She moves her hand around her chest and neck to emote and underscore her words.

Among others in the lineup are Bill Kittredge (born in 1932). He wrote A Hole in the Sky: A Memoir and many other books. He co-produced the movie “A River Runs Through It.” He taught creative writing, too, at the University of Montana.

The rules for the evening are that your readings have to mention pie (there is a whole table full of yummy pie slices, including Sweet Potato) or whiskey. Or both. It’s a much-anticipated event at the Montana Book Festival and the room is packed and stiflingly hot.

The MC’s are Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo. This a franchise, it turns out, and there’s a book called Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Ligon’s reading is hilarious, full of energy and attitude.

'The Inlanders' panel

The Montana Book Festival started a day before I arrived, on Wednesday. It ran through Sunday, Oct. 1. Panels, pitch sessions, readings, presentations, workshops, and awards. It’s a big whirling Mix Master of words and ideas. Events stretched from 9 a.m. into the evening every day through the weekend at a variety of venues in downtown Missoula—senior centers, art galleries, libraries, schools, bars, and two (count ‘em!) independent book stores mere blocks apart. It’s hard to imagine a hungrier flock of readers. The presentation space at Fact & Fiction Bookstore was small but packed for a 75-minute reading called “Bold Women and Rebels of the West” at mid-day on Friday. Packed, I tell you.

At a panel called “Inlanders: A Reading and Publishing Panel With Fugue And Willow Springs,” the aforementioned Ligon tells the assembled writers to not be discouraged even though his magazine accepts “one tenth of one percent of fiction submissions.” Ligon is the editor at Willow Springs Magazine, published within the MFA at Eastern Washington University. He’s also a novelist.

It’s “liberating,” Ligon argues, to know that there is “nothing you can do” to get published. It’s ALL subjective, he says, so just write the best piece you can. Whatever the magazine recently published, he said, is exactly what they don’t want next. And don’t submit any nature poetry. “I do not like it,” says Ligon, as proof of subjectivity itself. “I do not want the moon to be a bruise.” And don’t mention that you were nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he says. “What else did you not win?” he asks. “The National Book Award?”

Montana Noir panel

Hilarious. And true.

To understand how good you are, says one of Ligon’s fellow panelists, get a job reading submissions for a literary journal. “You will see what sucks.” One of the panelists reads a funny—very funny—poem about nipples. More specifically, hairy nipples.

At Shakespeare & Co., across the bridge over the Clark Fork River by the road heading south out of town, nine short story writers talk about their entries in Montana Noir, the latest in a series (90-plus volumes) of short story collections from Akashic Books.

The store is bright and sharp. My friend Keir Graff, who co-edited the volume with James Grady (the author of Six Days of The Condor, many novels, short stories, screenplays and journalism, too) said he and Grady tried three times to interest Akashic in the project. Their final pitch effort was “The Last Best Pitch.” It came in the form a noir short story about their plans and apparently one of the Akashic editors was a character in the story. Sold! They weren’t going to be outdone by Zagreb Noir or Brussels Noir. One of the stories in the volume is called “All The Damn Stars in the Sky,” by Yvonne Seng. (A title that begs the reader to devour it, no?) Grady’s entry, a powerful piece called “The Road You Take,” is about strippers ferried from Montana town to Montana town.

The 'Montana Noir' crew

At the Dana Gallery at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, about 30 people turn out to listen to a panel I’m on with fellow mystery writers Christine Carbo, Gwen Florio and Leslie Budewitz. Carbo has three mysteries out, a fourth on the way and a fifth in development. Florio has four mysteries out, a fifth on the way, and a stand-alone literary novel due out next summer. Writers write... Florio is one of the “Montana Noir” authors, too. Budewitz, author of two series of cozy mysteries (seven books out so far), is finishing up a darker stand-alone novel of suspense that sounds anything BUT cozy.

Leslie’s idea stemmed from an incident from her high school days. It’s been brewing all these years. On the panel, Leslie makes a great point about the need for fictional characters to change. When characters get punched, she says, they don’t bounce back up in the same shape. “They aren’t like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” she says.

At a panel on women’s fiction, all the projects sound interesting. Compelling. Again, Fact & Fiction Bookstore is packed. SRO. Jamie Harrison, whose novel The Widow Nash apparently includes lists of earthquakes and all the damage they have caused, quotes Hilary Mantel (“Every novelist is failed historian”) and Mark Twain (“Figure out your facts and then drop them like a hot potato”).

Montana mystery writers Leslie Budewitz, Gwen Florio, Christine Carbo with a writer (yours truly) from Denver. Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America panel.

Back at the Union Club Bar & Grill later that night, the Montana Noir writers read samples of their work and, yes, the bar is full again and the patrons are rapt and attentive and appreciative. A bottle of “Noir Creek” whiskey is passed among the writers. It would take you years to read all the books produced by the Montana Noir crew.

Graff opens the readings with a sample of his story, “Red Skies of Montana,” about erstwhile arsonists and a skiing development on Lolo Peak. Apparently Lolo Peak had its own forest fire this summer, one of the hottest and most fiery summers in recent memory in Montana. The real-life fire happened long after Graff conjured it in his story. Graff promises to “use his powers for good” next time around.

When Graff finishes dropping a few f-bombs from his story on stage, two young boys approach him holding out a copy of Graff’s middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle. They ask him to sign it. Graff writes both adult novels and middle grade novels. Yep, writers write.

Fall festivals are cool—beer, cider, pumpkins, you name it. Make mine books. The Montana version is bustling and energetic. A worthy destination and totally worth the trip. Next chance I get, I’ll be Montana bound.

++

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
― Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

The Subtle Art of Similes and Metaphors

We’ve all read them—those little would-be jewels of description that make us pause, furrow our brow, and say “Huh?” We’ve all been guilty of them, too, especially in the early stages of our writing careers.

They’re bad similes and metaphors, and they stick out from a manuscript like a sore thumb—but it can be difficult to pinpoint why they aren’t working. In this post, let me count the ways in which a well-meaning simile or metaphor can turn ugly. To help you follow along, I’ve taken some cringe-worthy examples from my own first novel (the one that’s been living in a drawer for 10 years—and you’ll see why).

 

It’s clichéd. This goes without saying, but it’s so common in similes and metaphors that I had to mention it. Resist the urge to take this easy, and often eye-roll-inducing, route.

Example: The creature’s face was like something out of a nightmare.

Not only is this a cliché, it doesn’t tell the reader anything new. It suggests the creature is scary-looking, but it doesn’t provide any specifics to help the reader envision it.

 

It’s unnecessary. If the action it’s describing is straightforward, the comparison may not enhance the reader’s understanding. Adding a simile or metaphor where it isn’t needed takes up valuable word space and makes the writing feel like it’s trying too hard.

Example: Her mouth fell open like a trapdoor.

This simile doesn’t work for a number of reasons, but really, do we need a simile at all? We all know what someone looks like when their mouth falls open in surprise; adding a comparison doesn’t enhance the story in any way.

 

The items being compared are too similar. Using a simile or metaphor to compare two nearly identical items doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding, and ends up feeling redundant rather than illuminating.

Example: He swung his fist like an enormous club.

Our forearms are shaped like clubs, and in hand-to-hand combat, we use them essentially like clubs. Thus, this simile is almost as useless as “He swung his arm like an enormous…arm.”

 

The items being compared are too different. Although the two parts of a comparison must be fundamentally different in order to enhance the reader’s understanding, they must also be similar enough for the reader’s mind to connect them smoothly. If they’re too different, the reader will be left slack-jawed and confused.

Example: The melody floated through the air like a great butterfly.

Butterflies don’t make noise, and we generally associate them with visual rather than auditory beauty. Melody engages our sense of hearing while butterfly engages our sense of sight, causing this off-key insect to crash and burn.

 

It doesn’t suit the tone or voice. Even the best similes and metaphors can pull readers out of the story if they don’t mesh with their surroundings. If you’re writing a scene with a spooky, dark tone, you don’t want a simile that feels too lighthearted or comical. Similarly, if your protagonist has no sense of humor, a funny simile won’t feel authentic to his voice.

 

It’s crowded by other similes and metaphors. I once read a manuscript where the writer incorporated several similes per page; some paragraphs even had one per sentence. My brain felt like it might short-circuit trying to envision one comparison after another, with no breaks in between. Plus, the narrative dragged because I kept having to pause and think about the next simile.

Example: Her eyes shone in the moonlight like glass marbles. He stretched his two fingers and pulled her eyelids gently down over them, like shades drawn one last time over two windows on the world.

This one kills multiple birds with one stone. Besides having two similes in as many sentences, it compares eyes to windows on the world, which is a cliché. Plus, the comparison to something as mundane as window blinds doesn’t fit with the tone of this scene, in which a main character has died.

 

It’s too difficult to convey. Say you get a great idea for a simile or metaphor. The comparison is spot-on! The imagery is stunning! It’s rich with thematic symbolism! But if you can’t find the right words to convey it to the reader, it won’t work.

Example: Their faces were like something carved out of molten lava, similar to those of men but warped, misshapen, with eyes like burning embers and gaping black holes for mouths.

There’s a lot to digest in this one sentence—molten lava faces, burning ember eyes, black hole mouths—making it too convoluted for easy reading. In many cases, it’s just a matter of trimming the fat and rearranging the words until it works. But if you can’t get the idea across without a run-on sentence, multiple clauses, and a pair of parentheses, don’t force it. Keep brainstorming until you find a comparison that’s more conducive to the written word.

 

These are some of the most common pitfalls when it comes to crafting similes and metaphors. Avoid them, and you’ll be well on your way to similes that sparkle and metaphors that mesmerize.

Rocky Mountain Writer #101

Shawn Harper & Matryoshka Blues

Shawn Harper calls it "the good kind of hurt."

That’s the hurt from hearing a comment at your critique group that means there’s work to be done, that your work in progress is not quite ready for prime time.

On Oct. 7, Shawn is one of four panelists leading RMFW's free monthly workshop called Getting the Most Out of Your Critique Group.

On the podcast, Shawn passes along a few pointers and suggestions if you’re thinking of diving into the critique group scene. And Shawn would tell you it’s a good idea. As he puts it, the process “helps you ways you don’t anticipate.”

Thanks to Shawn’s own critique group, a would-be short story morphed into Shawn’s first novella, Matryoshka Blues, the first in the Average Joe Mysteries. That book is now being expanded into a full-length novel and there’s a second title in the works.

In fact, the title of that book leads to a question about whether a writer needs permission to use a song lyric as a title and stay tuned after the recording for a few thoughts on this topic from an RMFW expert.

In addition to the chat with Shawn, we’ve got a new installment of Writer’s Rehab with Natasha Watts. This time, Natasha is here with some cautionary thoughts about the temptation to summarize conversations.

Follow Shawn on Twitter

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

Why I Belong

Belonging has always been hard for me. I’m not a team player. In high school, when phys-ed was a team sport like softball, I asked to run the track instead. Yes, I was happier running laps alone for 50 minutes than playing with a group. My best sport was, unsurprisingly, track and field. Sprints. I was on the relay teams only because I had to be (but I didn’t like it).

I don’t do group aerobics because I don’t do groups.

I’ve never put the words “enjoy working with internal teams” on a resume because, honestly, I’m happier knowing if something is screwed up it’s my fault and no one else’s.

I am a planner, and I’ve found that people generally don’t like being planned. My kids and husband occasionally put up with it or pretend to, but still, think they should have some say in said plan.  Although they are happy that when attending “spontaneous” events, all required condiments, chairs, fire starting materials, and other needful things are there when needed. (We need not discuss the hours of pre-spontaneous effort this requires because it’s not germane to this blog - Corinne O’Flynn may relate to this.)

But when I get together with RMFW-ish people, it’s like sinking into that really squishy, comfortable chair that everyone keeps trying to throw away. I know I belong in RMFW. I know RMFW members accept me. I know I’m really one of them. I don’t have to plan where anyone’s writing is going, except mine – and that’s subject to sudden “U” turns if I decide I want to.

I also know that if I need writing advice, have a question, don’t know where to look or who to ask, someone at RMFW will help me. Someone will know someone, or has done something, or been where I am and got through it. Or they just see me looking like I’m lost or uncertain, and they ask me what I need.

That's me, third one down on the right, kinda behind all those other guys or, um, gals?

I’m a dedicated introvert, like most writers. But when I’m immersed in this group, I see all of us managing to step just a bit out of our usual space and allow ourselves to belong, to befriend, and to be writers. (No, I’m not going to launch into another To Be or Not To Be thing, although it was tempting.)

So that’s why I belong. That, and I always wanted to be part of a seahorse herd, at least ever since I heard Susan Spann’s great speech. For those of you who are members, I’m so glad you belong, too. And for those of you who aren’t yet, think about it. And to everyone, Write On!

Two steps from scattered–to focused!

I've been experiencing a little post-conference paralysis. Have you, too?

The rosy conference glow has started to fade. Have you harnessed the energy and inspiration of the Colorado Gold, or, like me, have you slipped into the Dreaded Distractions?

Stay focused. No one will make your dreams come true but you. Only you.

You know them --

Email

Youtube

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

Pinterest

…even Google Earth.

All useful when harnessed, these websites and services have a dark side. Yes, they may produce useful information that can boost your creativity or provide key marketing information that may help you in your writer’s journey.

Or they may burn through that most precious commodity:  time.

Because you’re on the Internet right now, reading this blog, I don’t want to waste your time, so just do these two things:

One. Applying what you learned at the RMFW conference, make a checklist for what you know you should be doing. What you should be doing today, not in some vague, distant future. Two or three goals--don’t make it overwhelming. Add a box for your reward—one of the websites above.

Examples:

Set new goals based on tips/insights gained from conference workshops.

Complete character sketch for my villain.

Write X new pages in my WIP.

Two. Scan the following checklist. If you answer “No” to any of these questions, GET THE HECK OFF THE INTERNET!

/__/ Do you have a specific reason to go to [name of website]?

/__/ Can you name the writing goal that visiting [name of website] will help you achieve?

/__/ Can you set your timer for fifteen minutes, and exit [name of website] if it hasn’t helped you toward one of your writing goals within that time?

Once today’s two or three tasks are checked off, treat yourself. Give yourself a half hour on one of those “rabbit hole” websites---then check it off.

Repeat Steps 1 and 2 above, and keep working toward your dreams.

I hope this is helpful to you, and I’m cheering you on!

I could hardly breathe, listening to Yunike’s story.

Our kids were playing marbles in the dirt road outside of her Borneo home. The electricity had been off in my friend’s neighborhood for hours. The stifling air added to her story, the heaviness of the moment turning into sweat running down my face. Yunike Hermanus, my Indonesian friend, was telling a part in her life story I’d never before heard.

She was dying on that day almost 20 years ago, in a remote Borneo village where she and her husband worked, unconscious from her sickness. Someone took her on a boat to a village with a dirt airstrip that villagers had carved out of the jungle by hand years beforehand. A small Cessna 185 plane picked her up and took her to a hospital—where she spent three months recovering.

“I don’t know if I’d be alive today if that airplane hadn’t taken me,” she said, then leaned closer to me, studying my face. “I told you all this before, right?”

I shook my head. I’d heard other stories from her life since I’d moved to this Indonesian town with my relief pilot husband, Brad, whose job it is to fly those little planes in the remote jungle villages like hers. Yunike had told me the one about how her daughter was born two months early—in that same village—and how she’d kept her frail body warm by heating up water and pouring it into plastic bottles that flanked her daughter. And then there was the one about losing her husband. She moved afterward, as a widow with young kids, to this town where we both live, making a life for herself there.

But she hadn’t yet told me this one—this long-ago trauma that was still so impactful that she was weeping with the telling of it.

I’ve lived in two different Indonesian towns for 12 years now. I’ve listened to many stories of life in the midst of some difficult circumstances. This is due, in part, to a culture rich in story-telling. Stories of war and love are told by dancers with glorious feathers on their heads, or by musicians with instruments made of bamboo, or by my neighbors in words over cups of hot tea—the ticking clock of time going disregarded.  Sometimes I watch painful stories unfold with my own eyes, like the sick baby girl my husband flew in from a remote village, who only ended up dying soon after in the hospital.

Many of the stories haunt me. I can picture the pain, the violence, and the desperation late into the night.

I started writing novels right after the death of a close, young Indonesian friend. I was pregnant with my first child when her accident happened. I turned on the computer and wrote the first two scenes for my fictional characters—one of a child’s birth and one of a funeral. I had so many questions. I needed to figure it all out.

I didn’t. Not all of it.

Instead, created characters who were on the same quest as I was, who made it all less lonely. And also, I discovered something that felt powerful—with the good kind of power. I started to learn how to shape a story in a world that seems, at times, to run amuck against our wishes.

On that recent hot Borneo day, I drove home, mulling over the parts of my friend’s stories in which bad things that shouldn’t happen to anyone had happened to her. And then I remembered all the other stories Yunike had told me…the ones in which she happened to her stories. Her ingenuity saved her daughter’s life. Her courage helped her heal from her sicknesses. Her friendship with me connects me, the foreigner, in a deep way to this community. And her generosity in giving me permission to share her story here broadens its impact.

I see the power of her trauma. But I see the resilience from her courage. I’ve got my own struggles I’m working through right now. But I’m finding my own courage. And we connect through our stories—through the choices we make, the redemption for which we pray and the good that somehow emerges from the worst of circumstances.

Today I’m partway through a several-month visit to the States after three-and-a-half years of being away in Indonesia since my last visit (and a total of 12 year of living abroad). But I have to admit, I was nervous about returning to the States at the time that it struggles with racial tensions, refugee needs, political division.

America’s story has some difficult pieces right now. It has had hard chapters at different times in the past. The future will, inevitably, contain pain, too.

I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish everything was going well and nothing was wrong and evil didn’t exist.

But I’m doing what I’ve always done when it all disorients me and I start to lose hope. I lean into the stories. I listen to people I meet at the pond share their own stories of courage and redemption while our kids, oblivious, chase after the ducks. I go to concerts and close my eyes and let the crescendos expand over me until they end on a satisfying note.  I go on hikes through the mountains with my husband and I talk and he talks and we listen and keep going and sweat and enjoy the vistas and look back and see how far we’ve come.

And I write.

“It’s a gorgeous cycle,” K.M. Weiland writes in a blog post, How to Benefit from the Biggest Reason for Storytelling, on her site www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com . “We use our art to interpret life, but, as artists ourselves, we also get to use our art to create and expand upon life.” (link https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/benefit-biggest-reason-storytelling/ )

Weiland next quotes author Caryl Phillips: “A writer begins by breathing life into its characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins writes young adult novels while living in a world of ancient jungle tribes, sea-dwelling gypsies and isolated Balinese hand signing villages. It’s a world she’s trying to make her own—Indonesia. She’s lived in Indonesia with her relief pilot husband and three kids for twelve years. Read more about her writing and life in Indonesia at www.rebeccahopkins.org .

Finding the Courage to Walk Away

"Sometimes, the thing you most wish for is not to be touched." 

The quote above comes from the musical Into the Woods and offers a caution that doesn't apply only to fairy tales . . . it's important advice for publishing too.

It took me ten years, and five full-length manuscripts, to find an agent (and get my first publishing deal). During that time, I received a great deal of important advice and information and learned as much as I could about writing, the publishing industry, and the various choices available to me as an author. I wrote, I read, and I dreamed . . . and I hoped, above all, that one day those dreams would become a reality, in the form of published books with my name on the cover.

That dream had been with me since childhood. It burned in my heart like nothing else and remains a burning drive to this day. I love to tell stories. I love writing books. It's who I am at my core - and that means it also makes me vulnerable.

If you're reading this, you're probably vulnerable that way, too.

I often start my workshops on the legal aspects of the publishing industry by saying "charlatans and scammers flourish at the intersection of art and dreams" - and that statement is true. However, something else flourishes at that intersection too ...

... bad deals, inappropriate deals, and deals that an author will later regret.

In some ways, these are even more dangerous than the charlatans, because sometimes there's nothing obviously wrong with the deal . . . it's just not right for the author (or the work) at the time.

Writing is a critical skill for anyone who wants to be an author, as is good business sense, but the third thing an author needs to succeed in the publishing world is the ability to say NO when the deal isn't right.

When people find out you're an author, everyone from your mother to your plumber will be glad to tell you exactly how to run your publishing career. Advice is everywhere, some of it even worth remembering. The problem is, only you can decide when an offer is worth accepting--and you have the right to accept or refuse any offer, even if people around you--including people you trust--think you should make a different decision.

But how do you recognize a deal you should refuse?

The honest answer is a lot like the famous Supreme Court definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it.

On a slightly more practical level, here are some situations when authors should seriously consider walking away from a publishing deal:

1. The deal is really a scam. Do not fall for publishing scams. Learn to avoid them and walk away.

2. The publisher isn't offering industry-standard terms. Traditional publishing and self/author/indie publishing both have standards--the usual, expected terms and conditions authors have a right to expect. If anyone offers you less, remind yourself that you and your work deserve the industry standards at a minimum, and be willing to walk away.

3. The publisher acts like a bully even before you sign the deal. This happens. For real. In business, as on the playground, you have the right to a life free from bullying. If someone tries to make you feel badly about yourself or your work, walk away and hold out for someone who treats you right.

4. The deal doesn't fit your plans (for the work or for your career). Many authors seem to believe that they have to compromise "to get started" or "to get a foot in the door." NOPE. It helps to be realistic. For example, most first-time authors don't get million dollar deals (though it does happen occasionally). That said, if you're willing to write as many books as it takes and you want to hold out for the giant advance, you have the right to do that, and you should never let anyone tell you otherwise, if that's your vision.

5. You don't want to sign. Listen to your instincts. They are generally wise. If something feels "wrong" about a deal--whether it's with an agent, a publishing house, or the printer you want to hire to print your author-published books--have the courage to think the matter through carefully, evaluate the facts, and walk away if you still think the deal is wrong for you.

6. Any other reason you want to say no. It's important for authors to remember: you, and only you, are in control of your publishing career. No matter what you hear, read, or are told by others, at the end of the day, your books and your publishing career belong to you. You get to make the decisions (and live with the consequences). YOU get to say yes or no.

Walking away from a publishing deal may be the hardest thing you ever do in your publishing career. But if the deal isn't right for you, or your work, it's also the best and the wisest thing you can do. The tricky part is: only you can make the decision whether to sign or to walk away, and you'll have to make those decisions one at a time, as the deals come.

Never forget: it's better to have no deal at all than to have a deal you regret, and today's hard "No" leaves you and your work available for tomorrow's better opportunity.

Best Writing Books

How do, RMFW? Shannon Baker and Jess Lourey here again with the Lourey/Baker Double Booked Blog Tour redux. Between us, we’ve published over twenty books (S: I love saying that because I get the credit for the bulk of the publishing Jess has done.) Shannon’s latest is the second book in the Kate Fox mystery series, Dark Signal (Forge). Jess’s newest addition in her humorous Murder by the Month series is March of Crime (Midnight Ink). We hate to tras

 

h our reputations, but the honest-to-goodness truth is that we did not shoot from the womb knowing all there is to know about writing. (Jess here: but we did shoot from the womb with a full head of hair each, so picture that as you read.)

Almost everyone needs to learn their craft. Teachers earn an undergrad degree and have continuing education, accountants and lawyers get diplomas and study to pass extensive bar exams, doctors and veterinarians go to school ‘pert-near forever. So why should anyone think great writers are born, not made?

There are any number of terrific workshops and conferences, online classes, MFA programs, not to mention the Colorado Gold Conference, where I learned so much. But today, we’re going to go the self-help route. What are the best writing books you know? (Book links point you to Indie Bound, because we love our indies!)

Shannon: Since I get to go first, I’m going to rattle off the low-hanging fruit of Best Writing Books Of All Time. Let’s start with the ever inspiring and practical, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, and On Writing by Stephen King because they will speak to the writer in your heart and teach you to translate your passion to the page.

Jess: You stole the best ones! Fine. When it comes to plotting, I recommend A Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Also, although I hate writing short stories, I stumbled across Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction a few years ago and found the advice game-changing when it comes to structuring novels. Shannon, do you have plot and structure go-tos?

Shannon: Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, Save the Cat by Blake Synder, and of course, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. All of these are loaded with step by step plans to get you from the opening sentence, through the sagging middle, and cruising to the exciting cli

 

max. I recently picked up Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. This book lays it all out, with exercises and downloadable worksheets.

Jess: I couldn’t agree more about Hallie’s book. It’s worth its weight in royalties. Shannon, we’ve both listed a few different books that have taught us to deepen our craft, but if you had to pick a single one, above all others, what would it be?

Shannon: My true writer’s Bible, the book that taught

 

me the most basic terms, structure, detail, logic, and by far, the driest book on writing I’ve ever read is Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. This book was published in 1981, and believe me when I say it will teach you how to write a novel. You have to add the creative and color, because ol’ Dwight won’t provide it on the pages of this book. But, hands down, if you could read only one how-to write book, this would be my choice.

Jess: I’ve never read that one and now I must. I personally don’t have a single Writer’s Bible, but the last couple books, I find myself returning again and again to The Emo

 

tion Thesaurus so I don’t keep reusing the same old words to describe fear, terror, shame, etc. Love that book!

Shannon: This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are more books I’d shout my praises for if we had the space, but that’s what the comments are for, right? I do want to jump on the rooftop with my megaphone for this addition to the cannon of great writing books. Jess Lourey’s newest classic Rewrite Your Life. I promise, this book will take you to your deepest soul so you can write your truest stories.

Jess: Thank you. J I’m proud of that one.

Okay, this is where you help out your writing comrades by telling us your favorite writing books. We are each giving away three books on the Double-Booked Tour. Each comment you make on our tour will net you a better chance at winning, so comment now, comment often.

September 2            Mysterious Musings

September 5            Janice Hardy

September 7            The Creative Penn

 

September 9            Write to Done

September 12          Wicked Cozy Writers

September 20          Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog

September 21          There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room

 

September 23          Femmes Fatales

September 24          Writer Unboxed

September 25          Dru’s Book Musings

September 27          Do Some Damage

October 3                   Terry Ambrose

October 12                Jungle Red Writers

 

 

Jess Lourey (rhymes with "dowry") is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." S

 

he is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 201

6 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk. March of Crime, the 11th book in her humorous mystery series, releases September 2017. You can find out more at www.jessicalourey.com

 

Shannon Baker is the author of the Kate Fox mystery series (Tor/Forge). Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, Kirkus says, “Baker serves up a ballsy heroine, a colorful backdrop, and a surprising ending.” She also writes the Nora Abbott mystery series (Midnight Ink), featuring Hopi Indian mysticism and environmental issues. Shannon makes her home in Tucson where she enjoys cocktails by the pool, breathtaking sunsets, a crazy

 

Weimeraner, and killing people (in the pages of her books). She was

 

voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 and 2017 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com

Rocky Mountain Writer #100

Jeffrey Lockwood & Poisoned Justice 

Episode #100 of the Rocky Mountain Writer podcast comes down to three things: insects, noir and a preview of the upcoming workshop this weekend on bone forensics.

The guest is writer Jeff Lockwood, who earned a doctorate in entomology and who has worked for 15 years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming.

But Jeff is also a writer and last year published his first crime novel Poisoned Justice featuring ex-cop turned pest exterminator C.V. Riley, who plies his trade in the very noir streets of 1970’s San Francisco.

Jeff has found a way to merge his work in science with his work in humanities. His second novel, Murder on the Fly, comes out later this year.

Jeff is one of two presenters, along with Dr. George Gill, at the upcoming workshop this weekend in Denver regarding bone forensics that is being co-sponsored by RMFW and Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America. Dr. Gill has studied bones and crime scenes, both new and old, around the world for many years. More about the workshop here.

Jeffrey Lockwood

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 AHA Moments

Every writer has one—or two—or three.

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

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

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

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

My first AHA moment came during that second class.

Here’s a sample of that early work.

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

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

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

My second AHA moment came during critique.

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

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

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

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

Another lightbulb moment.

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

Here’s to all the AHA moments.

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