Rocky Mountain Writer #48

Lisa AdamsLisa Adams - Nuts & Bolts of Tax Law (For Writers)

The guest is writer and attorney Lisa Adams, who is giving a master class at Colorado Gold conference in September called Avoiding Real Life Drama, The Nuts & Bolts of Tax Law.

Lisa Adams is an Arizona-based attorney. Her expertise is in federal tax law, federal Indian law, criminal law and procedure, and complex business transactions. She is also the author of Bound Justice.

As a writer, do you know the basics of what counts as income or how to track expenses? If you’re going the indy route, do you draw up contracts when you hire a graphic artist or an editor? Do you think you should?

Lisa’s got some great advice—and experience.
 

 

Lisa Adams
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

Things That Keep You From Writing: The Fear Factor

 

FEAR"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." ~Frank Herbert, Dune

Today's motivational writing post is brought to you by the emotion fear.

Fear is a tricky emotion. It doesn't always manifest with a pounding pulse, shaking hands, and chills up and down your spine. Sometimes, when it comes to writing, it can masquerade as boring, ordinary, avoidance.

You sit down to write. You open up your manuscript. You stare at it. It stares at you. You feel a sudden need for another cup of coffee. Or maybe a snack. Brownies would be good. You don't have any brownies in the house, but there's a box of mix in the pantry. Or, better yet, you have a made-from-scratch recipe which will allow you to feel creative and virtuous for eschewing chemicals and the make-it-quick mentality of our modern society.

While the brownies are baking you have a good thirty minutes of writing time, but it occurs to you that the dishes need to be done and the floor should be swept. The cat rubs around your ankles. When was the last time she saw the vet? You can't remember. Maybe she needs shots. Rabies would be a terrible thing. That horrible scene from Old Yeller is permanently etched in your memory and the thought of a rabid cat shredding you with her claws is terrifying. You don't own a gun, unlike the Old Yeller kid. Maybe you should think about that. What would it take to own a gun?

By the time the oven alarm goes off to let you know your brownies are ready, you've researched vet appointments and guns.

Now you have brownies, though, and it's time to go back to writing.

That manuscript is still staring at you. There's a small uneasiness in your belly. A sudden desire to go outside. Or vacuum. Forget vacuuming, the carpets haven't been cleaned in forever. This really is the day to go rent a carpet cleaner and get that done.

Of course you really want to write and you're very sad that life keeps getting in the way, but that's just how things are...

Next time you sit down to write and feel this huge resistance thing going on, consider staying right there in your chair and checking out your emotional state. What is your body telling you? Can you feel the tension of resistance in your shoulders and your thighs? Is there a weight in your belly? Or butterflies?

Take out a sheet of lined paper or a notebook, if you have one. Get a pen. Now write, at the top of the page, these words:

I am afraid that...

Now free write for five minutes, keeping that pen moving and not stopping to think about what is going on the page.

In my world, it's going to be something like this:

I am afraid that I can't write this book, that it's going to suck, that I'll lose all of my contracts and my former readers will hate me. Maybe I have Alzheimers or something and have forgotten how to line up words on the page. I'm afraid that everything I've ever written is horrible. I'm afraid this book is too big for me. I'm afraid I won't get done in time, that this deadline is too tight, that I've bitten off more than I can chew...

Whatever your version of the fear may be, this emotion is a strong deterrent to writing.

Anything.

Ever.

And the only real solution I know is to push past the fear. To write through it. I find that this is easier if I write every day. It's like that old "get right back in the saddle after you fall off the horse" cliche. The longer you wait, the longer you let the fear keep you from the page, the harder it will be to overcome it.

Here are a few methods that have helped me get past my fear.

  1. Write something. Anything. If the manuscript proves too formidable, write something else. A blog post, say. Or some free writing in a journal. Anything that gets the words flowing and begins to dissolve that big, cold, lump of fear labeled I Can't Write.
  2. Actively give yourself permission to write crap. Yep. Sometimes I sit down at my computer and consciously tell myself, maybe even out loud, "Go ahead. Write something that sucks."
  3. Make friends with the fear. Talk to it. Bribe it with treats. Name it, even. Because it's probably not ever going to actually go away. Ten books down the line it will still be sitting on your shoulder, much like Poe's raven. So you might as well get used to it.

And that's about it. I've made a little permission slip for you, to help you get started. Print it off, put your name on it, sign and date it, and keep it where you write.

Permission Slip
Permission Slip

Character Flaws: Heil Hydra

***Before I get into my post, I wanted to acknowledge the lives lost on Sunday. My heart breaks for Orlando. 

 

For those who aren’t nerds like myself, you might not be aware of the recent issues surrounding the Captain America

Star vector shape

comic. Apparently Captain America is a double agent. He’s a hydra operative. Hydra are the bad guys, Nazi really. Good ole Captain’s sudden outing as part of Hydra has the nerd community up in pale arms (you know, because we never walk in the daylight, sort of like vampires but without the sparkle).

Now don’t stop reading. This isn’t a commentary on the Captain America clusterf***k. I want to discuss responsible character actions. As the creators of characters, we have a responsibility to our readers. Heck, JK Rowlings admitted she shouldn’t have killed Harry off.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t kill off your characters. I’m merely saying, if you decide a character needs to die, make sure it’s true to the story. That’s what has people angry. This goes against EVERYTHING Captain America is, was or will be.

I can think of a million (okay, maybe a few less) ways to write one’s self out of the Captain America controversy. He could be a triple agent for example. Really a good guy all along. Yet if you kill off a character, like Harry, you’re pretty much screwed for the next book.

If you feel like being done with a character or storyline, I beg of you, give it a happy ending. My greatest reader fear is Robert Crais will kill off Elvis or Joe (if this is a shared fear, facebook Robert Crais and beg or bribe him not to do it). I also worry about Harlan Coben’s  (@HarlanCoben)Win character (the finest example of loving an anti-hero).

I’m a wimp who can’t take it when my fictional heroes die.

Everyone should live happily ever after, damn it.

And yes, my nickname is Pollyanna.

 

How do you feel about the controversy surrounding Captain America? And for you non-nerds who actually see sunlight, what say you about killing off a character to end a series?

Master Classes at 2016 Colorado Gold

RMFWConference_Chalkboard_MasterClassesLooking to dig deep and expand your learning at conference? Master Classes are back this year and we've added new times for more offerings!

These classes are four hours in length and provide more specialized instruction on writing and the business of being an author. This year’s classes are scheduled for Friday morning and, based on attendee feedback surveys, we've added a new Saturday morning and afternoon class as well.

The fee to attend a master class is $60. Space is limited.

Check out this year's lineup:

Friday Morning Master Classes

Avoid Real Life Drama: Nuts and Bolts of Contracts and Tax Law | by Lisa Adams
When you enter the digital or print marketplace, it helps to understand both the contract and tax aspects of your publishing adventure beforehand. This is true regardless of whether you are an indie author or traditionally-published. Knowledge is power and a wonderful drama avoidance tool.

Emotion in Fiction: Making Characters Real, Making Readers Feel | by Angie Hodapp
Memorable stories are rooted in emotion. Come learn how to make the three actors of emotion in fiction-writer, character, reader-connect on the page. Then learn dozens of ways you can use character, story, and prose to elicit emotion in readers-and make your stories unforgettable!

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: The Secrets of Book Architecture| by Stuart Horwitz
Have you ever asked yourself while writing: How many drafts is this going to take? It doesn’t seem like such a question would have an answer but Stuart Horwitz proposes it does–and that the answer is three, provided you approach each draft in the right spirit, and know what action steps to take between drafts. This presentation will discuss the best outlook and direction for each of the three drafts so that you can increase your efficiency, satisfaction, and engagement with both your writing process and your final product.

Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening | by Heather Webb (Submit pages by August 1)
Learn what makes an opening grabby-or trite-and how to win the agent's eye for which you're vying. The class will be divided into instruction and workshop time. Attendees are invited to submit up to five (5) pages ahead of time for feedback from the instructor, as well as during class from peer groups.

Writing a Killer Mystery | by Susan Spann
Plotting the perfect crime requires more than merely killing off imaginary friends. You need a sterling sleuth, well-crafted clues, a cast of (un)usual suspects, and a killer eye for details. Come learn the inside tricks of writing standalone and series mysteries, with useful techniques for both plotters and pantsers. Whether you’re a veteran mystery writer or plotting your very first (fictional) murder, this master’s class will give you the practical tools to write complex and compelling crime fiction.

New! Saturday AM and PM Master Classes

Vocal Training for Writers: An Introvert’s Guide to Developing a Fabulous Book Tour Persona | by J. Dylan Yates
55% of people fear public speaking more than death. Why? Lack of training! Writers can overcome public speaking fears using writing skills. This workshop helps align your storytelling talents with your vocal presentations. Get prepared to deliver your biggest promotional asset-your own voice! This fun, engaging workshop utilizes relaxation exercises, professional acting techniques and 1-on-1 coaching. You’ll be given the tools to create a polished, professional speaking presentation. Traditional public speaking principles will be used to develop individual promotional plans. We’ll use vocal and physical relaxation exercises, beginning acting techniques, individual vocal production feedback using personal writing pieces chosen by the attendees. Each attendee will receive a handbook for future reference. BRING: yoga mat or towel, a personal writing piece for reading, a sense of fun, humor, and wear comfy clothing.

Tell and Sell Your Story Smarter | by Betsy Dornbusch
Queries and Synopses are required sales tools for any writer who wants to be-and stay-professionally published. Besides being necessary to sell on spec, they can become valuable tools not just for selling, but for writing. A big secret for success is to write them from the very start, before you get much past the idea stage, and let them evolve with your book. They can validate your idea and give you a process to balance market vs. craft. But even if your book is finished, you can figure out how to write selling copy for your story. In this workshop we'll learn how to write queries and synopses to use not only as sales tools but as novel-crafting aids. There will be plenty of writing time and work-shopping opportunities so participants can walk out of the class with a solid query and synopsis. BRING: Laptop and/or pen and paper.

Bootstrap Your Book

BootsOne of the biggest problems facing new self-publishers is the capital investment required. Almost all the advice on how much it costs to self-publish suggest that it takes thousands of dollars. It’s no wonder that new writers turn to the scammers who promise success for mere hundreds (plus the hidden up-sell once they’ve hooked the mark).

Once an author has a few books out and earning, justifying the expense of self-publishing becomes a little easier, but how do you get that first book into the market without robbing the kid’s college fund or dining on ramen for a year?

First, start with a reasonable budget. A first time self-publisher has no gauge for what kind of return to expect. Generally speaking, that first book takes a long time to gain traction so shelling out cash that may not come back for years – if ever – is a hard nut. Start small and calculate your return on investment.

Example: A novel selling at $3.99 on Amazon earns around $2.50 per sale. It only takes forty sales to earn $100. A first time self-pubber with a good marketing plan can probably do that in a month. It might take two. It will certainly take less time than writing the next book.

Second, produce the best book you can within that budget. Three things sell books--cover, blurb, and sample.

The cover has to be eye catching, indicative of the genre, and clearly recognizable in thumbnail size. Too many first-timers make the mistake of creating their own covers to save a buck when they could be grabbing a pre-made ebook cover for as little as $50. In many cases that includes a paperback format cover, too, but don’t get hung up on the paperback. The market is in ebooks. You can add paperbacks once you have some cash flow generating revenue to invest.

Blurb in this context means product description, not the one-liner that somebody more famous than you gives you to promote the title. The purpose of the blurb is to convince the potential reader who has seen your cover and looked up your book on Amazon to grab the sample. If it convinces them to buy the book, that’s just gravy. Don’t try to sell the book in the blurb. Just hook them into the sample. Too many first-timers over do the blurb and turn off the reader before they even get to the story.

Sample is where the book needs to sell itself. A good opener, a solid follow through, and a decently formatted ebook will pull the reader all the way to the “buy me” link at the end of the sample. If you’ve done your work correctly, that link will be a siren’s call to lure them deeper into the story without making them feel like they’re being held up at the troll booth.

Third, wait! What about editing and formatting and layout and design and advertising and marketing and … stuff I need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for?

Purists might want to look away. I’m about to commit heresy here.

You probably can’t afford to pay an editor for your first book, but your book needs a copy edit as a minimum. You also should get a development editing pass and some line editing wouldn’t be amiss. Frankly, you can't afford it so here's what you do instead.

Beta readers can tell you if the story works. They can tell you where the story bogs down, or where it moves too quickly. They can tell you if your characters are believable or if the dialog is stilted. They can point you to the problem spots or tell you that the story is good. Unlike a developmental editor they can't tell you how to fix it, but knowing what's borked is half the battle.

Note: Let's be brutally honest here. At this point, unless you’ve got a million words behind you, this story is not Good. You may think it’s Good. You might be an outlier on the curve and actually have written something Good, but if it’s your first book, it’s nothing like the book you’ll write five titles down the road. That’s not a problem. That’s an advantage. You’re not aiming for Good. You’re aiming for good enough.

If that last bit of heresy wasn’t enough, here’s another.

Editing can be crowd sourced.

Not the cash-raising, gofundit kind of crowd sourced. The actual process of giving the book to about a dozen people who will send you back corrections crowd sourced. Ideally some of them will be fellow writers who have some idea about things like where the quote marks go and when you might use an m-dash instead of an n-dash. They’ll recognize realities like dialog shouldn’t be corrected for grammar, but might need you to add the missing word.

This will not result in a perfect book. If done properly, it can result in a book that is good enough.

So, give the manuscript to two or three colleagues to mark up for you. Get their feedback and figure out whether to accept it or not. Some you’ll agree with. Some will be in the class of “how did I miss that?” and some will be “Uh. No.”

Once you’ve got those changes in, send it out to two or three more colleagues to mark up and repeat this process two or three times. Save your better readers for the last pass. That’s where you can get the most benefit from the nit-pickers and analytical readers.

There’s actually a rationale behind this iterative, crowd source approach. From a quality assurance standpoint, more eyes mean higher probability to catch the errors. Nobody will get them on the first pass, but by correcting those before handing it off to the second and third and forth, each new reader will have fewer to find and will more likely find the less obvious ones.

You can also use beta readers for this. Most of them will tell you anyway, but if you ask them to look, you’ll get some typos along with the story feedback. It’s also a good way to get early buzz. Readers who liked your story and have an investment in making it better are more likely to tell their friends about it.

This can take a while, but don’t fall into the Perfect Trap. There are no perfect books. None of the Bigs publish perfect books. A librarian once said “I’m not that worried about typos and grammar. I still buy books from Harper and Random House.” If you spend all your time making it perfect, you’ll never publish and that is the fatal flaw. The reality is that you can’t prove there are no typos. You can only prove there is at least one more – by finding it.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this process is that it forces you out of your comfy spot. It makes you begin to forge connections with other writers in your genre and the readers who are most likely to be in your audience. These connections will make the difference when it comes to sales and promotion of your book when it’s finally released into the wild.

Remember you’re aiming for good enough and good enough is sufficient. In fact, I still aim for good enough, but I also look at better than the last one. You’re still on the first one and good enough is hard enough to hit the first time. Eventually your books will have earned enough--or sold enough--to justify hiring a real editor for the next one. This isn't the best way to publish a first book, but it's head and shoulders above many of the alternatives.

Next Time: Publish Or Perish

Image Credit:
John Lobb Boot by Robert Sheie
Creative Commons BY 2.0

Never Do Your Own Cover Art. Unless You Want To.

Author Pic 2016-smallerThe continuing saga of KK’s quest to conquer Kindle Scout.

Last time, I talked about Kindle Scout, a book I wrote, and my decision to see what I could accomplish by trying out the program. In order to submit your book to KS, you need to have 1. A book. 2. A cover. 3. Lots of editing and formatting shizz. This post is going to cover number 2—the cover. And my apologies in advance—it’s a long one.

FIRST: If you'd like to Scout a book, here's one from an online acquaintance of mine. Moonlight's Peril, by Ashlynn Monroe.

One of the first things self-publishing gurus tell aspiring self-publishers is, “Never make your own cover art.” This is probably a good piece of advice. Unless you want to make your own cover art, and are willing to put in the due diligence to make one that doesn’t look like you put it together in MS Paint (unless MS Paint is an important theme of the book, of course [sets aside plot bunny for another day]).

So…confession time. I do my own cover art. Some of it is stanky (and is on my list to be redone). Some of it is, in my own humble goddess-like opinion, not too damn bad. Why do I do my own art? Because I like doing my own art. I like learning about graphics and Photoshop and Canva and GIMP and whatever else. For the most part, I enjoy the challenge and the process.

I learned to use Photoshop making Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fan art. I made wallpapers with half-naked (and sometimes totes naked) David Boreanaz on them because it made me happy. And I learned a lot. When I started self-pubbing, I used those skills to start making covers. The first few I made—not so hot. But I started learning. I have a friend who works for the cover art department at one of my publishers, and she vets my work. My daughter is about to become a photography major, and has a great skill and eye for art. My college-age son has been making computer graphics for ages, and also has a great eye for art. So they give me feedback, too. Which leads to feedback like, “Mom, her face looks like it has a tumor on it,” and “No, those colors look like three-day-old poop.”

That’s the kind of feedback you need for this kind of venture.

So what do you need to make your own covers aside from somebody—preferably multiple somebodies—to tell you when your painstaking work is a piece of crap?

1. An idea of how cover art works. There’s all kinds of advice on the internet about how to improve/create cover art. My current favorite guru is Derek Murphy, from creativindiecovers.com. On his site, you can find templates, author tools, and even an online tool where you can create your own covers (I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know how well it works, but give it a go if you’re so inclined). He also has published a book on the topic, which has some interesting advice in it, much of which seems to fly in the face of the advice of other cover gurus. For example, Murphy says it’s not necessary to make the title big enough to read on a thumbnail, which you’ll find as the Number One Guideline for Proper Ebook Cover Art just about everywhere else. Since I’m super contrary, I figured this was the advice for me.

His templates are very cool, but they’re in Microsoft Word (!) and MS Word hates me, so I was unable to bend them to my will. However, I imported some graphics into one of them, got a general idea of what I wanted my cover to look like, then assembled everything in GIMP.

2. Some graphics software. I used Photoshop for a very long time, then I upgraded the OS on my computer and the old, old copy I had stopped working. This was very stressful. I swore a lot. Then I consulted my Tech Department (above-mentioned son and daughter) for recommendations. After some fiddling with various freeware packages, I ended up with GIMP. It’s free, and it does darn near everything Photoshop does, and with a similar workflow. (I still needed a tutorial from my son, who helped me with my cover for Lord of the Screaming Tower, but I’m getting the hang of it.) I recommend finding something you’re comfortable with, and then playing with it until you feel comfortable. Find online tutorials or a mentor-type to get you on your feet.

3. Some PICTURES!! Pictures are the most important part of cover art. Because cover art, duh. There are lots of places to find photos—istock photo, fotolia, bigstock, dreamstime, etc. Some pictures are pricier than others. My favorite price is free, so I’m going to talk about how to get free pictures you can use for your covers.

Firstly, though, you have to be VERY CAREFUL about this. Be absolutely sure you have the right kinds of licenses for your photos before you put them on your book cover. Some places, like morguefile.com and Wikimedia commons, are mostly public domain, but still be sure to read the fine print. Some pics at both these places require you to change the picture, or require you to credit the photographer. Don’t take shortcuts here—respect the photographers.

Anywho… Another way to get free pics, almost all of which will have the right type of licensing for book covers, is to wait for free trial memberships for major stock photo sites. I coincidentally was offered a free trial to graphicstock and bigstock within a couple of weeks of each other, and as a result ended up with close to 150 images for free. Once the trial is over, you just cancel, and then feel guilty every time they offer you another free trial (in all fairness, though, I’ve spent quite a bit of money at these sites, so I should probably chill). All the pictures I used for this cover came from the collection I downloaded during these free trials, and I have a bunch more that I grabbed with an eye toward future projects.

4. Fonts!! Never underestimate the power of a flippin’ awesome font. You’re probably good with two for a book cover—one for the title and one for your author name, possibly with an eye toward future branding. You can spend as little or as much as you like for fonts, from what I’ve seen. Again, I like free. My current site of choice is fonts101.com. They have a gajillion fonts, and they have a Font O’ the Day mailing list, and how cool is that?

You also have to look at licensing with fonts, so keep that in mind. If it says only for personal use, I’d suggest not putting it on a book cover. Look for fonts that are free for any usage or that specifically say free for commercial use. Or, of course, pay for the commercial upgrade if you really like the font.

That’s my basic how-to when it comes to covers. If you’re comfortable doing it, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t. If you’re not comfortable doing it, it’s probably better to outsource it.

So here’s my cover, if you’re interested in having a look-see. I’m fiddling with the eye/font color. If you want to weigh in with your favorite, feel free.

Call Me Zhenya-goldCall Me Zhenya-redCall Me Zhenya2

 

Which is Stranger—Truth or Fiction? … by Margaret Mizushima

“Humankind cannot take too much reality.” ~T.S. Elliott

Margaret MizushimaI love it when a grizzled detective on Dateline or 48 Hours shakes his head in amazement and says to the interviewer, “This crime is so twisted. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.” As a mystery writer, I can’t help but think, Oh, but we do.

Crime fiction writers spend countless hours researching their novels—the law, law enforcement, crime scene investigation and technology, the elements of their crime, you name it—but we still rely on our imaginations to utilize the information and create scenes from what we’ve learned. And you know what happens when a writer’s imagination kicks into gear? Mighty chaos can break loose. We try to “stick to the facts, ma’am,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. The truth might get tweaked or facts might be dramatized for fictional purposes.

Still, facts and fiction intermingle. I’d like to give you a few examples from my debut, Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery. Prior to writing the book, I was fortunate to shadow two skilled police dog trainers and watch them work with dogs and handlers. These professionals told me stories about the amazing things their dogs accomplished on the job. The crime fighting duo in my Timber Creek mystery series are Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9 partner Robo, a dog cross-trained in narcotics detection and patrol. So when I sat down to write, what does Robo do? He finds the body of teenage girl!

This discouraged me, because patrol dogs are typically trained in cadaver work or narcotics detection but not both. A phone call to one of my consultants solved my dilemma. “The trainer could have tested the dog for cadaver work when he was young but ultimately decided to go with narcotics detection training,” she said. “Some of these dogs remember everything.” Ah…okay then. Keep writing.

Mizushima_Killing TrailHere’s another example: My husband is a veterinarian and he helps me plot my stories. Before I wrote Killing Trail we brainstormed elements of the crime and came up with the idea that drug traffickers would use large dogs as mules by force-feeding them balloons filled with cocaine. Several months later, I was walking the treadmill while watching television and saw a news clip on drug traffickers in Columbia who used greyhounds as mules by surgically implanting bags of heroin under their skin. This example of how reality followed fiction told me a couple things—one, our idea wasn’t too far-fetched, and two, these crooks can be more cruel and inhumane than my husband and I can imagine.

And one more: In my series, ranchers and merchants of Timber Creek are concerned about drug traffic through their community, so they donate money for the sheriff’s department to buy a narcotics detection dog. After the book was written, a friend of mine sent an article from a small town newspaper about townspeople organizing a committee to raise money for a narcotics detection dog for their police department. The town council nixed the concept. Some speculated it was turned down because several council members were participants in the local drug traffic problem. Hmm…fact or fiction?

Don’t you think T.S. Elliott would be shocked by the reality television shows we have in our world today? I know I am at times, and I agree that it’s debatable whether or not some of these shows are scripted. But I’ve come to believe that both fiction and reality can startle, shock, and sometimes be downright unbelievable. And as to which one is stranger—I think it’s a toss up.

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

Margaret Mizushima has a background in speech pathology and practiced in an acute care hospital before establishing her own rehabilitation agency. Currently, she balances writing with assisting her husband with their veterinary clinic and Angus cattle herd. Her fiction has won contest awards, and her short story “Hay Hook” was published in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 anthology, Crossing Colfax. She enjoys reading and hiking, and she lives with her husband on a small ranch in Colorado where they raised two daughters and a multitude of animals. She can be found on Facebook/Author Margaret Mizushima, on Twitter @margmizu, and on her website.

This post was previously published in December 2015 at Patricia Stoltey's blog.

Backstory Feeds Frontstory

Whack me upside the head – go ahead.

I was putting together a presentation recently for a workshop about writing mysteries and I wanted to make the point that the variety of ideas for mysteries—setting, characters, plots and themes—is endless.

I thought it might be insightful and instructive (maybe even interesting) to look at recent Edgar Award Winners.

So I made up a nifty PowerPoint slide for three books and included, verbatim, the description of each story.

JuneBlog2016LouBerneyThe first was Lou Berney’s The Long and Far Away Gone, winner of the Edgar Award for best paperback original.

(What a great title.)

Summary: In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved. Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives. A private investigator in Vegas, Wyatt’s latest inquiry takes him back to a past he’s tried to escape—and drags him deeper into the harrowing mystery of the movie house robbery that left six of his friends dead.

 

JuneBlog2016LoriRoyThe second was for Lori Roy’s Let Me Dies in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. (Best novel!)

Summary: On a dark Kentucky night in 1952 exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but, armed with a silver-handled flashlight, Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place. At the stroke of midnight, she gazes into the water in search of her future. Not finding what she had hoped for, she turns from the well and when the body she sees there in the moonlight is discovered come morning, Annie will have much to explain and a past to account for.

 

JuneBlog2016LoriRaderDayThe third was Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things, winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. (Love this title, too.)

Juliet Townsend is used to losing. Back in high school, she lost every track team race to her best friend, Madeleine Bell. Ten years later, she’s still running behind, stuck in a dead-end job cleaning rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, a one-star motel that attracts only the cheap or the desperate. But what life won’t provide, Juliet takes. Then one night, Maddy checks in. Well-dressed, flashing a huge diamond ring, and as beautiful as ever, Maddy has it all. By the next morning, though, Juliet is no longer jealous of Maddy—she’s the chief suspect in her murder. To protect herself, Juliet investigates the circumstances of her friend’s death. But what she learns about Maddy’s life might cost Juliet everything she didn’t realize she had.

I haven’t read any of these books—but I want to read them all!

Right?

In putting together the presentation, it was easy to spot the fuel for each fire.

Berney: Twenty-five years later…

Roy: Two decades before…

Rader-Day: Back in high school…

I know it’s obvious.

It’s a simple point.

But characters are nothing if not for their backstory.

Brighton - Michael HarveyCharacters don’t walk onto the page without having been bruised or beaten or worse. They have had a life.

If your character’s past is dull, gray, bland, flat, flavorless, vanilla, and drama-free, you may not have a character. Or much of a story.  Sure, it’s what happened to your character but it’s also how your character responded to those key moments. That’s where character—and your story—is forged.

Now I see backstory everywhere I look. “Happy Valley”—the best Netflix thing I’ve seen in a long, long time. The writers backed up a dump truck full of backstory and piled it on West Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. (The "happy" in Happy Valley isn't so happy.) And I just read a taut novel called Brighton, by Michael Harvey, and backstory drives “front” story like a seamless Mobius strip of tension and action.

As I said, an obvious point.

But if you’re struggling with a plot or the “now,” you might take a look at the past.

Shining the RMFW Spotlight on Kevin Paul Tracy

KevinPaulTracy HeadShot1. Kevin, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I am a regular contributor to the RMFW Blog and I host a critique group called Dynamic Critique which isn't exactly RMFW sanctioned, but we are all RMFW members. At one time or another I have been Critique Chair, Webmaster, Anthology Chair ("Tales From Mistwillow",) Gold Contest judge, and critique group moderator. It's entirely likely I've forgotten one. Sometimes I held these positions simultaneously.

I've been actively involved in RMFW for a couple of reasons. First, I am a steadfast advocate of the truism, "You get out of it what you put in." That applies to everything, especially life in general, but for our discussion here, particularly to RMFW. I have learned more by being an active volunteer for the organization than I would ever have learned merely attending workshops and conferences. I've met more people and made more friends, and I've gotten more personal and professional exposure, too.

The other reason is that, as a near-charter member of RMFW, I love the organization like family. I have a vested interest in seeing it continue to thrive and provide its unique services to the local writing community.

Oh, and the Golden Nugget awards are neat, too.

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

I have three current works in progress. By the time this article posts my latest thriller, Presence of Malice, will have dropped and will have made quite a splash. It's about a hired killer, an ex-Navy SEAL who may or may not have been driven mad by eight years of torture in a Chinese prison; two plastic surgeons who used to be friends and partners now at each other's throats; and an unlikely romance between an earnest young woman and a paraplegic hacker, both caught in the cross fire of a conflict turned bloody

I'm also currently working on a sequel to my most popular Thriller, Rogue Agenda, and a third in my Kathryn Desmarais vampire decology (10 books.) All of these books are/will be available anywhere books are sold, or you can email me for a signed copy.

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'd love to see one of my books made into a movie. I just think that'd be so cool!

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

That's a hard one. I would say it's that I love happy endings, except not all my books have one, not to mention that I know many who don't view that as a flaw. I might also say that I love over-the-top action which many people think stretches credulity, but I'm told by readers that's one of the things they like most about my books.

I supposed my great vulnerability as a writer is my self-confidence. I've already written about how I grew up being told I could never make it as a writer. My self-confidence is way too fragile. An editor's rejection, a bad review on Amazon or GoodReads, these things can send me into a tailspin of self-doubt that can actually make it hard to keep writing. But I've powered through and I must say the success I've experienced has gone a long way toward shoring up my confidence against future pokes and jabs.

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

In writing, I can make reality work the way I think it should. In a thriller, you can't change the laws of physics, and if you introduce a little fringe science it better be rooted in enough actual science to not totally insult your readers. But what I mean is, in the world I write in, bad guys lose and good guys win. Maybe not right away, certainly not without plenty of obstacles and setbacks along the way. And victory may even cost the good guy something by the end, sometimes something dear enough to leave the reader wondering if that sacrifice was worth it. Still, I get to leave readers with a fulfilling and satisfying end to a story, the kind of closure we almost never get in real life.

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

Easy: Never give up. Write and write and write, and completely shut out the doubts and the setbacks. In my opinion the only difference between success and failure is where you give up. If you give up after a setback, then you failed at being a writer. But if you never give up, then you never fail, you only continue to grow and learn. And when has personal growth and acquired knowledge not led to success, eventually?

Kevin Paul Tracy workspace7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Right now my work area is constrained by space - I am taking my familial turn caring for a disabled relative. My computer occupies a folding TV tray in a bedroom not much larger than most storage sheds. I have all my reference materials close at hand, but none of my usual inspirations or comfort items. Usually (and again very soon) my desk is designed to fit facing into a corner, to shut out distractions. I have paintings and posters on the wall I find inspiring, some of which might seem rather non-sequitur to an outsider. For example the picture of a beautiful woman, bare leg exposed through a hip-length tear in her long skirt, hand out as a majestic white unicorn eats from it. Why does a thriller writer find inspiration from a page torn from a fantasy calendar? It's hard to describe, but I love how real the painter makes a scene of pure fantasy look and feel. It reminds me that a writer's job is to make a story about something that never happened feel real to readers.

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

Most recently, out of some sudden nostalgic impulse, I've gone back to reread some of the books and novels that inspired me as a young writer: Lord of The Rings, Dracula, anything by Stephen King. Right now I'm rereading Ian Fleming's James Bond series. They are flawed and dated, but fun to revisit.

Rocky Mountain Writer #47

Heather Webb
Heather Webb

Heather Webb - Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening  

 

Writer Heather Webb stops by the podcast to give a sneak peek of the four-hour master class she'll be giving at Colorado Gold, RMFW's big three-day conference in September.

Her class is called Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening and it will give participants a chance to learn what makes an opening grabby, or trite, and how to win an agent's eye.

Heather also catches us up on all her projects, including a short story collection she spearheaded that was recently reviewed in the New York Times.

Heather Webb’s novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin's Lover are published by Penguin Random House and have sold in six countries. Both books have received starred national reviews and Rodin's Lover was a Goodread’s Pick of the Month in 2015. Heather’s works have been featured in national print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Elle, France Magazine, Dish Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and more

 

 

 

Heather Webb
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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