You Are in the Right Place

(Friends - I'm taking the cheap & easy way out this month by using the blog space to publish my Writer of the Year speech / comments at Colorado Gold on Sept. 9. I included a few illustrations to break up the long text. Thank you all so much for your support. As should be obvious below, it means so much!)

Recently I was doing a bit of digging into the background of my late pal Gary Reilly.

If you don’t know the Gary Reilly story, it’s pretty simple.

When Gary died in 2011, he left behind 25 novels in a variety of genres.

These books were finished, repeatedly edited, rewritten and edited again.

Again, 25.

During his lifetime, however, Gary was only published once.

That happened in 1977 when Gary sent a short story off to The Iowa Review.

The prestigious Iowa Review. If you don’t know it, The Iowa Review has published everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Ann Patchett to Kurt Vonnegut.

iowa-boxes-arrowsIn the issue that included Gary’s story, “The Biography Man,” Gary was alongside such greats as Ian McEwan, later the author of Atonement and many other great novels, and a writer named Ron Hansen, later the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

"The Biography Man,” in fact, was the lead entry in that edition of The Iowa Review.

The editor of The Iowa Review at the time was the incredible Robert Coover, who has a story in this week’s edition of The New Yorker called “Invasion of the Martians.”

The one-and-only and highly prolific T. Coraghessan Boyle was a contributing editor. I just think it’s so cool that Coover and Boyle had their hands on this story.

When I tweeted out a bunch of this information last week, by the way, T.C. Boyle replied promptly with a clarification about his role:


The next year, “The Biography Man” was picked up and included in the fourth volume of the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Again, he was published alongside some amazing writers—including John Updike and Jane Smiley. Thousands of stories are considered for the 60 or so that are included. (That story is now available, by the way, as an e-book here.)

pushcart-panelsWhen I tell this story to anyone who will listen, the immediate question is simple—why?

What happened?

How can you write 25 novels and not get published?

And what would keep you motivated to write 25 novels only to watch them stack up in your computer or on the shelf?


I met Gary in 2004. We hit it right off. And we started trading manuscripts. I had a few for him to read.

His manuscripts kept coming and coming to me—one by one. He’d never give me more than one to read.

I read—and read.

I couldn’t believe how good they were—funny, interesting, deep, scary, everything. He wrote humor, sci-fi, fantasy, noir and war-theme fiction based on his time as a military policeman in Vietnam.

Gary occasionally queried agents. I mean, occasionally. I’d have to sort of pump him up to get out there and do it. He didn’t talk about it much, but I know he had some big disappointments in his past. Some very close calls, including one offer to come write comedy in Hollywood.

It fell through.

europa-2One time—and I remember this so vividly—I brought Gary to an RMFW workshop at the Arvada library. Gary sat there but I could see how uncomfortable he was—this just wasn’t his scene, to sit in a room and listen to a workshop or interact with the presentation in any way.

I could never get Gary to come to another workshop or to come to one of these fabulous conferences. Quite simply, he wasn’t a “joiner.”

He lacked the “networking” gene, that elusive knack that some people are born with and others have to learn.

Gary liked his conversations one-on-one or small groups.

But he didn’t lack much else. He was a born storyteller. He loved movies of all types and quality.  He had an affection for weird, late-night flicks, B-grade stuff. And he prowled the paperback book shops along Broadway looking for old pulp novels or anything edgy or interesting. In fact, he loved the beat poets and beat writers.


Guess what? I also lacked that “networking” gene.

It’s true.

I wasn’t as reclusive as Gary in general—not at all. But when it came to writing fiction, I had a fairly abbreviated and isolated process.

I wrote my first mystery in the 1980’s. It took six years to write. I showed that book to a few friends before it went out the door and I quickly got an agent—in fact, a big-name New York agency that is still around today. I was so encouraged by this turn of events I quit a job and tended bar for a year to write another book.

Work on #2 was much quicker, but the money ran out and I went back to work as a reporter. I finished the second book in the early 1990’s and, in case it’s not obvious, nothing had happened with book #1.

I showed book #2 to a few friends, made a few changes, and went looking for an agent.

One day at work, the phone rang. It was an agent from New York, very eager to represent book #2. It turned out that the agency also represented John Grisham.

I said sign me up!

Despite the enthusiasm and despite the fact that my feet did not touch solid ground for about a week, nothing happened. Book #2 didn’t sell.

Around this time I met a real-life female hunting guide in the Flat Tops Wilderness of Western Colorado. I instantly believed I had a great character and great setting.

So I set about writing book #3, what was then going to be another stand-alone mystery. It took about three or four years to write.

I showed it a group of friends before it went out the door.

I eventually landed a good New York agency, one that is still around today. This is now the late 1990’s. After a few changes, we were on submission. No sale.

But we got enough feedback that the agent asked if I wanted to make some changes. I said sure. Nine months later, I had another draft ready and I sent it to my agent. I remember this was December because the agent said he would take it with him on Christmas vacation and we’d go out on submission again in January.

By mid-January, I’d heard nothing. By the third week, I started to call and leave messages. By the fourth week, I wrote a letter to the owner of the agency; what is going on?

In early February, I received a form letter rejection back, “I’m sorry your submission is not right for our agency at this time.”

Perhaps you’ve seen one or two of those kinds of rejections?

In the early 2000’s, I started writing another stand-alone thriller and I finished that a few years later. This time, a few agent nibbles but nothing really developed.

During all this time, I was vaguely aware of RMFW. I was vaguely aware of writing groups.

But what did I need? I had come so close. Yes, there were days and weeks and months where I thought, well, good try. You made the effort. You wrote some good stories, but that’s just the way it goes.

I had heard of writing groups but what could they show me that I didn’t already know? Many writers come close and fall short.

My relationship with RMFW was slow to develop.

I started doing the refreshments at the monthly workshops. Then I started running the monthly workshops—for years, in fact. I enjoyed the things I learned by attending all those sessions. And some of the day-long spring events were truly fuel for the fire.

I found myself making the transition from fully independent writer to someone who cared about all my cohorts were faring. I started to pick up tips and I started to look at my writing differently, with a better eye. And ear.

In 2007, a small, independent publisher outside of Boulder offered to publish Antler Dust, book number three in my four-book stack of unpublished manuscripts.

The publisher was small but he wanted to do it right—and gave me a standard contract with a very nice advance. He printed up 2,000 hardbacks, $24.95 a pop. Gulp.

After 23 years of working at the fiction thing, I got published.

And my networks grew—bookstores, libraries, conferences, all over the state. I had a blast getting out there and meeting readers.

And, guess what? My RMFW pals were extremely supportive, too—they came to readings, wrote reviews, cheered me on.

The reaction was so good to my main character Allison Coil that I decided to write a follow-up. When that was done, the first publisher had gone under but a medium-size house in Aspen gave me an advance and a contract and they got behind my second novel, Buried by the Roan. They also published a paperback version of #1.

Buried by the Roan was published about five months after my friend Gary Reilly had passed away and it’s dedicated, in fact, to him. He read many versions of that book and helped me immensely with it. Buried by the Roan was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in 2012 and, if I’m not mistaken, I lost to the inimitable Carol Berg.

By the time the third book was ready, the Aspen publisher had gone out of business.

It was the RMFW connections, specifically former Writer of the Year Linda Hull, who helped with the introduction to Midnight Ink.

She conveniently left a copy of the third Allison Coil novel on her kitchen counter when the editor of Midnight Ink was staying at her house. What are friends for?

Trapline won the Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the fourth, Lake of Fire, also published by Midnight Ink, was a finalist for the same award this year.

To me, looking back, everything changed when I got involved in RMFW. When I started taking a regular role.

Being around others who were successful made me ask writing friends, what are you doing differently? How do you approach writing? How do you approach agents? What other conferences do you attend? And, finally, the big one.

Who do you know?

That’s a network.

People in a network are connected around a central purpose or mission or interest. In our case, we share a common, simple goal—telling stories and finding readers.


Which brings me back to Gary.

He was missing, I believe, this one thing. This network. This chance to interact with editors and agents and fellow writers at a conference like this one where, I believe, his books would have ultimately found a home.

And, yes, networking is something you can learn. I did. I went from my little world to a much bigger universe of friends and supporters.

Gary poured his frustrations about the publishing business into his greatest creation, Murph.

8-coversMurph is the star of 10 of his novels. Murph is Brendan Murphy, a self-effacing Denver taxi driver and unpublished novelist. Murph dreams of becoming rich and famous through writing.

Murph is also a big fan of Gilligan’s Island.

Says Murph,

The windows were rolled up and the hot sun was streaming through the windshield. It was as warm as I imagined Gilligan’s island must be. The real island, not the TV island. By “real” I mean an island in the South Pacific where a writer could lie on a hammock all day long and think about the plot of his next novel. If he was rich enough, he could hire a Mary Ann look-alike to mix rum drinks and wait on him hand-and-foot. But there wouldn’t be any hanky-panky. Nossir. He would be a man of such impeccable integrity that the mere thought of dallying with Mary Ann would grievously offend his moral sensibilities. He would be the exact opposite of me.

Other than becoming wildly rich and famous through writing books, Murph has two goals in life—one is to earn as little money as possible and the other is to never get involved in the lives of his passengers. He’s pretty good at the first goal and terrible at the second.

When it comes to writing and the publishing business, however, Murph has choice insights.

Says Murph,

A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing – such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon – when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.

Says Murph,

A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.

Says Murph,

I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called “formula fiction.” I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?

Says Murph,

I came up with an idea for a novel about a gang of punk Martians who come to earth in a flying saucer for no other reason than to commit mayhem. Martians usually come to earth to study the habits of mankind and report back to Mars for reasons that are never made very clear, or else they give mankind scientific devices that will turn the earth into a paradise. But I had never read a book about serial-killer aliens. It seemed like I might have found a niche market, assuming there were science fiction fans hungry for police procedurals.


As many of you know, my friend Mike Keefe and I have published nine of Gary’s novels since he died. The tenth comes out in October.

the-detachment-cover-and-coffeeThree of Gary’s posthumously published books have been finalists for the Colorado Book Award. National Public Radio twice has raved about Gary’s work. Booklist has praised the originality of Gary’s work. And of The Detachment, Gary’s second novel about his experiences in Vietnam, a 154,000-word masterpiece, the great Stewart O’Nan called it a classic and Ron Carlson, who teaches elite creative writing classes in California, called it Catch 23 or Catch 24.

I feel honored to be part of the process of bringing his stories to the light of day.

And part of the process of finding readers.

That’s what it’s all about—telling stories, finding readers.

But of course I wish he was here to see the reaction, read the reviews.

So what is the lesson? Well, I hope it makes you, in some way, more determined. More focused on advocating for yourself. Not giving up.

Thinking about Gary and looking back, everything changed when I got involved in RMFW. When I started taking a regular role.

Being around others who were successful made me ask writing friends: What are you doing differently? How do you approach writing? How do you approach agents? What other conferences do you attend? And, finally, the big one: Who do you know? That’s a network.

People in a network are connected around a central purpose or mission or interest. In our case, we share a common, simple goal — telling stories and finding readers.


Looking back on my own experiences, here’s a few things I believe:

  • I believe that by your presence here today, you are in the right place.
  • I believe the answers to all your writing and publishing needs are right in this room, right now.
  • I believe those answers are here, that is, if you know what you are looking for and know how to ask for what you need.
  • I believe that you will find ways to improve if you work at the issues, whatever they are, and write more. And write more.
  • And keep working.
  • I believe if you are already published, then you are looking for ways to get better.
  • I believe there is no shortage of learning. Who can forget the sight of Jeffery Deaver in an RMFW workshop last year, sitting in the back of the room and taking notes? Right?
  • I believe if you are interested in writing fiction, it’s something you can learn.
  • I also believe if you want to get published, that the tools today allow you to get there — and to reach readers with the same level of impact as if you were published by the big five.
  • I believe that’s up to you

I’m extremely proud of my membership in both PAL and iPAL — my first two titles would have gone out of print had I not started my own company and kept them in print.

In a way, that’s one of the neatest things about being a writer. We can be independent about much of what we do — what is more solitary than being a writer? But ultimately, we need a network, too.

The opposite of independent is dependent, right? So I suppose if Lisa Manifold is the Independent Writer of the Year, I’m the Dependent Writer of the Year.

And at some point we are dependent on editors, critiquers, publishers — and readers. No matter the size or scale of our publisher, we are all dependent on each other to tell stories and reach readers.

I’ll close with a quick quote from the philosopher Alan Watts. While definitely not known for his fiction, I think the comment applies.

Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

This honor means so much to me because it comes from all of you.

RMFW made all the difference in my writing career. Thank you again so much.


Rocky Mountain Writer #60

nathanlowell_400x4001-300x300Nathan Lowell - A Field Guide to Amazon

At the Colorado Gold conference last month, Nathan Lowell gave a workshop called "A Field Guide To Amazon." Not surprisingly, the room was packed. On the podcast this time, Nathan offers the highlights from that standing-room-only session. He talks about Amazon rankings, about the possible advantages of going all-Amazon, about e-book promotions, the importance of your Author Central page and the difference between your sales rank and your popularity rank—and more.

Nathan, a 2016 finalist for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Independent Writer of the Year, knows his stuff. He’s an Amazon guy, with a many published works in two major series.

One quick glance at Nathan’s Author page and you’ll quickly be aware that he has a sizable audience of enthusiastic readers.

For more about Nathan’s writing, check out Episode 27 of the Rocky Mountain Writer, recorded last January.

Nathan Lowell

On Facebook

On Twitter: @nlowell

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:

The RMFW Spotlight is on Corinne O’Flynn, Conference Chair

Our monthly feature, The RMFW Spotlight, is intended to provide members of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers with more information about our board members as well as featured volunteers. This month we're pleased to finally corral the Colorado Gold Conference chairperson, Corinne O'Flynn. Her focus on Colorado Gold in Denver on September 9-11, 2016 kept her very busy, but she's finally recovering and ready to roll as one of our regular contributors.

2016_corinneoflynn1. Tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I am currently the Conference Chair for Colorado Gold. 2016 was my first year as chair, and I am super excited to be planning 2017 already. Before this, I was Technology Co-Chair with Wendy Howard. Before that, I was an aimless writer. I got involved because I believe in being active in the communities where I belong. It's the best way to meet people and be a part of the momentum. 🙂

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

My most recent publication is TICK TOCK: Seven Tales of Time, an anthology I did with six other RMFW members through our publishing company, Wicked Ink Books. It recently took home two CIPA EVVY awards! We’re working on the next anthology now. I am also working on PROMISE OF THE SCHOLAR, Book Two of my fantasy series, The Expatriates. You can find my books on my Amazon author page.

3. We've all heard of bucket lists -- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish-- what's one of yours?

I am currently working on meditation and making time to mindfully slow down in my life. I operate at a pretty high speed, which is great when there are a lot of balls in the air, but I find moving at this pace is less sustainable as I get older. I would love to make meditation a daily habit, but I struggle with finding time for everything.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

Ah... it’s like you saw that coming. My problem in writing and in life is time management. I am incredibly organized but not very disciplined. It’s something I struggle with daily.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

I love the discovery that comes with writing. Its seems like everything is an opportunity to dig into and develop. And, of course, I love my writing tribe!

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

I’d tell myself not to stress so much about the timing of everything. When I was first starting out I felt this urgency about getting it all done. There was a rush to write, to finish, to query, to enter contests, to publish, and, and... I’d tell myself that the urgency is not real.

2016_oflynn_office7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

I love my office! I am a memento keeper and I also hang on to most of the stuff my kids give me as presents. So, my office is like a gigantic scrap book. When I am sitting at my desk, I have a stack of books on my left that act as a lamp-table and a writing shrine full of things that inspire me and have meaning. One of my favorite things is my moss terrarium which was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. I loved that story.

One of the more inspirational things in my office are the sparrows. The morning I published my first book in 2014, I woke up to find a sparrow flying above me in my bed. We were in NY visiting family so it was doubly disorienting to wake in a strange room with this sparrow circling a few feet above me. It didn't seem real. One source of animal wisdom I found said that the sparrow signifies power, productivity, and self worth. It also is one bird that persists in many climates despite external factors. That felt extremely meaningful and resonates with me today.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

I’m currently reading CLOSER HOME by our very own Kerry Anne King (Kerry Schafer)! It’s fantastic and I highly recommend. Before this I read BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty and HEART OF THE GOBLIN KING by our IWOTY, Lisa Manifold. On deck is a re-read of DIVINE EVIL by Nora Roberts because it’s mentioned in a writing class I am taking and I am intrigued to revisit it as a writer with my class notes in hand!

Thank you, Corinne. Your hard work for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and this year's Colorado Gold Writers Conference is much appreciated. We'll be looking for your regular posts on the blog (the second Monday of the month starting October 10th).

Getting to Know You: The RMFW Q&A Project #7

The Getting to Know You Project is intended to introduce RMFW members with short responses to three questions, a photo, and a few social media links if available. If you would like to participate in the project for future months, please email Pat Stoltey at

Jamie Ferguson

Website & blog:
Google Plus:

2016_Jamie Ferguson1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write because I love writing. To me, crafting a story is like creating a sculpture. Sure, at times it’s hard work, but writing is by far the most rewarding type of work I’ve ever done.

My writing is very character-focused. I love to dig into what my characters think and feel. I primarily write contemporary fantasy and historical fiction, but I focus on writing compelling, character-based stories regardless of what genre they fit in.

I try to work on something writing-related every single day. This helps me keep my head in the game. For example, if I need a break from a manuscript I might work through a few lessons in a class, research something for a future project, or make progress on one of the many administrative tasks on my list. My favorite writing spot is sitting on the couch, with my dogs nearby to keep me company.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I have several forms of synesthesia, including the kind where numbers, letters, and words have associated colors and feelings. And yes, this does come into play when I’m naming characters in my stories.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Spending time with my dogs. I have two border collies who I take hiking, train/compete in agility with, and of course we spend a lot of time playing fetch. A LOT of time...


Mary Gillgannon


2016_Mary Gillgannon1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

Although I’ve been an obsessive reader since grade school, it wasn’t until I started working at a library and discovered the historical romance genre that I dared to believe I could write a book. My first “office” was a tiny corner of our family room. I wrote mostly in the mornings on weekends and after my kids went to school and before I had to go to work. I now have a beautiful upstairs office that I share with a dog and three cats. I still write best in the mornings, despite not being a morning person at all.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Jim Morrison of the Doors, and I credit a lot of my literary background to his influence. My obsession lasted into adulthood and right after college I moved to L.A. and lived in tiny apartment on Venice beach. Great atmosphere for writing poetry, but as a woman, I found L.A. a very scary place. I decided my dream life was elsewhere and moved back to Wyoming and married my boyfriend from college.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Although I still love reading and have become rather fanatical about gardening, my real passion outside of writing is travel. I’ve made five trips to various parts of the British Isles, including four visits to Wales, my spiritual homeland. I’ve also enjoyed “winter break” trips to Mexico, Belize and the West Indies. Travel feeds my creative spirit, offers research opportunities and fuels story ideas.


Janet Lane

Blog: and RMFW Blog

2016_Janet Lane1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write "History, made passionate in medieval England," aka historical romance and women's fiction. It's my passion because I firmly believe that "Amor vincit omnia" -- Love conquers all. I love exploring relationships and making the impossible, possible through my characters. My favorite reviews mention that my writing transports them to my story worlds and makes them care for my characters. I write from my home office at an elevation of 8,300 ft. in Morrison, frequently crashing my husband's home office (better view), and wherever my MacPro and I travel.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I directed my community's annual musical production for 22 years, and I ran away from home at 6, 12, and 14. Oh, and my husband, John, and I were married at the Renaissance Festival.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Must I choose one? I love to ski, spend time with my family and new grandson, and play tennis. And I love good treasure finds at estate sales and consignment stores.


Cindi Myers


2016_Cindi Myers1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write romance and women's fiction -- right now I'm writing Romantic Suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

I write stories because I can't NOT write them. I've been making up stories as long as I can remember. It's part of who I am. (And I've been making a living as a full-time writer since 1997, so if I quit now I'd have to go out and get a "real" job. At this point, I am woefully unsuited to the corporate world.)

When -- since I produce 6 or more books a year and have for years now, you could say I write all the time. I do try to keep to a 5 day a week schedule.

Where -- I have a lovely office in my home on the Western slope of Colorado -- Ridgway. The window over my desk looks out onto my yard. But I also write at retreats, on camping trips, on the sofa, on my front porch -- wherever.

How -- I'm a plotter. There's still lots of room for surprises and innovations along the way, but I like the security of having a road map.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I was once the only woman employee at an all-gay-male travel agency. Talk about a fun bunch of guys!

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

You're only going to let me choose one? Well, I never could follow rules (that non-corporate thing). I love to garden and grow vegetables, flowers and fruit.
I also love to sing and sing in two choirs here on the western slope.

Many thanks to Jamie, Mary, Janet, and Cindi for volunteering for the Getting to Know You Project. If you'd like to participate in future GTKY posts, please email me at

Rocky Mountain Writer #59

Photo of J.v.L. Bell by Mary Lynn Gillaspie.
Photo of J.v.L. Bell by Mary Lynn Gillaspie.

J.v.L. Bell & The Lucky Hat Mine

The Lucky Hat Mine is J.v.L. Bell’s first novel and it officially launches on Saturday, Oct. 1. The novel is a “light mystery” for all ages—it’s set in the 1860’s of Colorado, more specifically, Idaho Springs.

On the podcast, Bell talks about what inspired the story, her approach to research to get the details right and how she found beta readers on Goodreads. She also reveals that she found her publisher through unusual means—her search for a cover artist, at a time when she thought she’d publish the book herself, led to a chance introduction and a contract. She also talks about the production of an audio book of The Lucky Hat Mine—something she wanted right alongside the print version.

J.v.L. Bell is a Colorado native who grew up climbing 14,000 ft. mountains, exploring old ghost towns, and hiking in the deserts of Utah. Whenever possible, she and her family can be found hiking, rafting, or cross-country skiing.

She loves reading and researching frontier history and incorporating these facts into her novels.

This podcast includes a brief clip from Nancy Yu’s narration from the official recording of The Lucky Hat Mine.

J.v.L. Bell'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:


Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter

Here are three examples of a formula I’ve seen many times in our query inbox. See if you can figure out why the formula doesn’t work…and why we’re probably going to pass on reading the sample pages:

Example #1: Middle Grade

“Protagonist and his friends go on many exciting adventures. Along the way, they encounter a band of pirates, a herd of mystical unicorns, a swarm of angry fairies, and one club-swinging giant who just wants to find his way back to his home in the Mountains of Malfesioria.”

Example #2: Coming of Age

“It’s the last summer before college, and in the wake of his father’s death, Protagonist needs to figure out who he really is. He takes off on a cross-country road trip in Dad’s old Jeep. Along the way, he meets a wise homeless man who teaches him about gratitude, a scrappy orphan who teaches him about forgiveness, and a blonde cocktail waitress who teaches him about love.”

Example #3: Crime Fiction

“In her quest to capture a serial killer, Detective Protagonist must interview one quirky character after another: a past-her-prime exotic dancer who bakes the world’s best chocolate-chip cookies, a grouchy old chess champion with an eidetic memory, and a cynical comedian whose dark sense of humor has managed to offend nearly everyone in Setting City.”

Each of these story-summaries is based on the same formula—a formula I call “The Wandering Protagonist.”

Keep in mind that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a novel in which the main character goes on a journey. And, of course, anyone on a journey is bound to meet interesting folks (human or otherwise) along the way. However, journeys and interesting side characters are neither story nor plot. As such, these three summaries have all missed some very crucial marks. What they’re missing, in the immortal words of Debra Dixon, are Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I’d also add stakes. (Donald Maass puts his lesson on stakes at the very beginning of his book The Breakout Novelist.)

Let’s look at each example a little more closely.

In Example #1, our middle-grade protagonist has no goal—at least not one that’s mentioned in the query letter. (Hint: The protagonist’s goal should be present in the query letter!) What does he want? What is he looking for? Why? (That’s motivation.) What happens if he finds it, or doesn’t? (That’s stakes.) How can you (the author) make me (the reader) care about Protagonist’s impending success or failure? While this example does hint at conflict (pirates, angry fairies, a club-swinging giant), none of that conflict is directly hooked into the protagonist’s goal. Do the angry fairies want the same thing Protagonist wants, and will they do anything to prevent him from getting it first? Are the pirates the swashbuckling sort, or are they another antagonistic force standing in Protagonist’s way? Do our heroes end up helping the giant get back home? While the author might answer all that in the manuscript itself, this summary, unfortunately, is too vague and does little to pique my interest.

In Example #2, we have a goal, but it’s not a very strong one: Protagonist wants to find out who he really is. We’re missing motivation: Why does he need to find out who he really is (whatever that means), and what happens if he fails (stakes)? We are given hints of conflict: He’s mourning the death of his father, and apparently he needs to learn about gratitude, forgiveness, and love. But in this example both goal and conflict are internal to the protagonist. Remember that there are two kinds of dramatic conflict—internal and external—and that a good story develops both. Give this protagonist an external goal (to visit his grandmother in Sedona, or to scatter is father’s ashes at Niagara Falls, or to return something his father stole to its rightful owner) and some external conflict (the Jeep keeps breaking down, or the scrappy orphan steals his wallet, or his sister is chasing him across the country to stop him from, say, returning the object their father stole, etc.).

In Example #3, we have a goal that’s both clear and genre appropriate: To capture a serial killer. The motivation is implied: To stop the killer from killing again. The stakes are also implied: If Detective Protagonist fails, someone else will die. (Hint: For higher, better stakes, make the killer’s next target someone close to Detective Protagonist. Make the stakes personal.) So far so good. However, the author then wanders off into Wandering Protagonist territory, and there’s zero conflict in the rest of the summary. Perhaps this author, like the author of example #1, hopes to hook agents with his cast of quirky characters. But any author who thinks his secondary characters are more interesting than his plot probably needs to take a long, hard look at his manuscript!

To see if your query letter’s pitch paragraph is solid, print it out and grab a highlighter. Highlight your protagonist’s goal, motivationstakes, and conflict. If they’re all present and accounted for, you’re on the right track!


AngieHodappAngie Hodapp has worked in language-arts education, publishing, professional writing, and editing for the better part of the last two decades. After completing her master’s thesis, a work of creative nonfiction, and leaving academia, she gave herself permission to write what she really wanted to write: speculative fiction and romance. Angie is currently the contracts and royalties manager at Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She and her husband live in a renovated 1930s carriage house near the heart of the city and love collecting stamps in their passports.

On Being a Waffle

Yeah, that’s me. The human waffle. No, I’m not running for office, but I am trying to be Elastic Writer Girl and make my story fit all the different opinions I managed to attract at Colorado Gold.

waffleSee, I have this great story. Everyone I’ve talked to loves it. So of course I submit it for a Critique Roundtable, Pitch Coaching, Hook Your Book, professional editor discussion, and Pitch Sessions. Because, everyone loves it, right?

Hmmm. Not so much. My first indication that Houston has a problem is when I get in the Friday round table and the agent says they really don’t like the paranormal aspect of my mystery and suggest I “skirt around” that concept. Maybe just a hint of “unusual.” OK, that’s just one opinion, you know?

Then I have a pitch coaching and it’s a real struggle for my coach to come up with a concept that can be shoehorned into a short and snappy pitch. It gets done, while sort of downplaying the paranormal aspect. Hmmmm.

At Hook Your Book I get one “I don’t really think this concept will work” and another, “Great concept, but you might need to play the paranormal down if you really want to sell this.” Double Hmmmm.

The professional editor thinks I need to consider going Fantasy with Mystery, but it’s really not a fantasy and I can’t make it so.

And then another agent at a pitch says she likes the concept but tried to sell something along the same lines and couldn’t get a bite. “Could you just have your character have a bad feeling instead of ‘knowing’ something?” She was very gracious and offered to read chapters and a synopsis either way, but warned me it might be a tough sell.

So there I am, taking my first several chapters and writing multiple versions to see how I can alter the story, and still be true to THE STORY. I’ve talked my dilemma over with a couple BFaW (Best Friend and Writer-types) and they laid it on the line: WRITE THE STORY I want to write and not what someone tells me it should be to be marketable.

Yeah. I know. But… Ouch.

So I said to myself, “Self, just get on with it and quit waffling.” Really. I did. Just like that. And so I did. Quit waffling. I decided that while I COULD write the story with intuition and “skirt” the paranormal I didn’t like it as much. It was too vanilla. So, damn it, I’m writing the story I started with. I hope to hell I’m a good enough writer that when they actually read it the editors/agents will be so in love with the characters and the concept that it won’t even occur to them that it might be a tough sell and they will be my champion with the powers-that-be who try to tell them the story doesn’t fit in the box.

So, as a Human Waffle turned to a fat, syrup-sucking pancake, I’m writing the damn story. Just as you should make your story YOUR story.

So, let’s get with it and Write ON!

Concerning Conferences: A noob’s thoughts on time, worth, and industry

It's our honor to introduce new victim blogger, Josh Dorne, who you might've met at the Colorado Gold.

Take it away, Josh....

Let's pretend, for one second, that I know what I'm talking about. For our current intents and purposes, it doesn't matter. I mean, come on! This is the Internet. But as of this writing I've only just attended my second ever writing conference: Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer's, Colorado Gold 2016. So let's just say I've got some learning to do. That being said here's my perspective on writing conferences from the view point of a relative newcomer. At thirty-eight years old, I'm a bit late to the party. But regardless if you're younger, older, or simply just prefer words to things like real-life social interaction, a writer/author should always be moving forward in his or her writing career. Yes. It's a career. Maybe even a life choice...possibly an ill-advised one. But if you're reading this it's probably too late for you, so let's get started.

Is a writing conference worth your time?

Short answer...yes. Or no. Possibly, maybe. In the grand scheme, a weekend (as most conferences tend to last) is not a significant period of time. And if you're new or struggling (like me) in this highly competative industry where thousands of books are self published each day, and the traditionally published duke it out Thunderdome style, this is something you should consider including in your publishing/writing journey. Why? The answer's simple: Networking. A content loaded word that strikes fear into the hearts of men, women,  and whatever gender I might be by the time this posting is done. But something to remember: Everyone you meet at a conference is in a similar boat to you. Not only are conversations extremely easy to start, i.e. "What do you write?" "Are you published?" But the contacts and the people you meet are, in themselves, worth the price of admission. In my first conference alone I met two great people (and many more besides) whom I hope will be in my life and share my publishing/writing journey for many years to come.

Is a writing conference worth the money?

This question is more difficult, as is putting a price on things that are subjective depending on your position in life. Nothing can be promised inside of a conference. An agent connection or book deal cannot be guaranteed, nor should you expect one. The main things you can expect to get out of a conference are three-fold: connections (with other writers, agents, and editors), learning (such as how to write a bestseller, or the 3 Act plot structure), and experience (pitching, querying, and writering). I don't know about you, but before my first conference, not only did I have no idea how to query, but the thought of it sent my hizzie into a complete and total tizzie...because I'm hip, and with it.

So, is a conference worth it or not?

The answer to this is ultimately going to be up to you. Different people will take different things from the same experience. But if like me you're new to writing, new to publishing, or just need a new perspective from which to chase this elusive career choice, then for me the answer is yes. If you're expecting a miracle, or to be discovered and become the next JK Rowling, then it's possible that your expectation might need a slight (or drastic) adjustment. But if you want the opportunity to learn from people directly involved in the industry, speak to successful authors who've gone through what is currently keeping you up nights, and meet some cool people in the exact same boat you're in and possibly make some friends who you'll have for years to come? Then take the plunge and register for a conference near you today! You might only regret it a little bit. And that's nothing if not the dream.

Rocky Mountain Writer #58

jasonevans10Jason Evans & Writing Authentic African-American Characters

The guest this time is writer Jason Evans, who discusses the highlights of workshop he presented at Colorado Gold called "Writing Authentic African-American Characters."

He's reprising that workshop on Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Belmar Library in Lakewood. (Check the events page for more detail.)

On the podcast, Jason offers ideas for giving African-American characters something he calls “agency." He has a few book recommendations for research and he talks about what inspires him to write historical fiction set in the late 16th century in Ireland.

Jason Evans is a writer and educator with two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree. He has run an online magazine and has published two short stories and one essay.

Jason'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:

Get out of jail–er, writer’s block–card


To escape writer's block, douse the raging fears and critical inner voice, and find a route to fresh thinking. For me, that route has been to write to my friend, Pam, and explain what's blocking my writing.

How my BFF helps me escape writer's block

Dear Pam,

Here I am again, writing to you because of writer’s block.

Have I ever told you what magic it is, tapping your powers to unblock my thoughts and words?

When I have overwhelming doubts about my writing, the blank page stares at me. The curser blinks, taunting me, and I can’t move forward.

What works for me every time is to start writing to you, just as if we were on the phone, only on paper. I know I can joke with you, confess my fears and stumble along, and something happens. It’s like the doubts and fears vanish. My pen and paper melt away and I am in tune with my novel.

It’s been a long, successful escape for me, spanning decades.

It started in high school during study hall. I’d be procrastinating, avoiding work on an essay or report, unable to decide on a theme or position despite the looming deadline. In lieu of disaster, I stumbled upon this method of turning to you, and you have never failed me.

Let me count the ways you have helped me.

 #1. Reassurance.

Dear Pam, I have discovered fiction, and am so excited I’m paralyzed. I’m writing my first novel. It’s a time travel. I know the setting is England, but I can’t decide on which time period I’d like to visit. What makes me think I can write a novel? Okay, let me show you some time periods I've considered, and why...

 #2. Making decisions.

Dear Pam, On the advice of a literary agent who loves my writing but doesn’t represent my genre, I’m leaving the time travel genre to write a straight historical romance. I’m agonizing over dialogue. If I try to be accurate to the fifteenth century, only a few people will understand it. If I write with contractions will I be a laughingstock?

#3. Finding focus.

Dear Pam, I’m writing a contemporary women’s fiction novel loosely based on my mother’s trauma with Alzheimer’s. I’m scared, so scared I can’t plot the darned thing. What I’m sure of is …

 #4. Trusting my vision.

Dear Pam, my first book released! I’m writing about Gypsies, and rather than arm-candy, they are my protagonists. I want to make it a character-related series, but this second novel just sits there, frozen after the first chapter. I worry that the hero is too bigoted to be likable. Do you think it would be helpful if I...

 #5. Moving forward.

Dear Pam, I’m in the saggy middle and sinking fast. I’ve written myself into a corner, and I’m trying to find the way out. I can trash all I’ve written and start over. There has to be another option, though. Let me see. What if I…

You get the idea. I tell her my problem. Like a Dear Abby column, I lay it all out, crying on her shoulder, and in the process I discover my own answer. I have never sent any of these letters, but they always give me new ideas. It’s a simple strategy that works.

I’ve heard of other ways to break writer’s block that may also work for you. One friend of mine relies on showers to get the thoughts flowing. Works almost every time, she says.

Another has a special tea she brews and places on her desk with three lit candles.

Another walks in the park. Yet another meditates.

Many of my friends believe in the power of BIC (butt in chair), not budging until the words flow and if desperation sets in, writing stream of consciousness or drivel until ideas are nudged into motion.

Thank you for always being there, Pam.

And how about you? How do you escape writer’s block?