How Exhaustion Helps Writing

By Trai Cartwright

How does exhaustion help writing?

It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t.

Writing through mental and physical exhaustion has always been a struggle of mine, and it seems in the past year or two, I’ve heard much the same from many of my writer friends. Whether it’s acute over-programming or serious health ailments, managing their lives drains away their precious creative time and energy.

It’s gotten to the degree that they don’t get any writing done.

Does being a writer attract a heightened level of affliction? Is that how we know we’re writers—not because we’re sicker than everyone else but because we feel the terrible intensity of our failings all the more for their negative impact on our art?

Are we as a tribe, too tired to do our jobs? Did the writers who came before us suffer these same maladies to the same extent, and if so, how did they manage to get their work done?

How do we, as an afflicted body of scribes, manage to get it done regardless? Or do we?

I read “Z” not too long ago, a book from Zelda Fitzgerald’s point of view (genius, by the way), and not only was her own mental health eroding, but she had to rely on a husband who’s proximity to drink determined his own daily output.

Scott wrote dozens of short stories because it was all he could manage around his alcoholism.

Stephen King, on the other hand, used his prolific drug habit as a production tool for his writing. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can tell when King’s addiction began impacting his writing negatively—there are a couple dozen books that, well, suck. But his habit never impeded his output.

The tales of mental illness among writers and artists in general is prodigious. Their careers seem to go in two directions: one, they waited for bouts of sanity to work; or two, their affliction seemed to drive them to produce.

Myself, I was a chronic insomniac. The longer a person goes without the required sleep (seven hours uninterrupted), the worse their brain, organ, and nervous system function. A fugue state takes over and soon cognizant thinking becomes impossible, much less creative thinking. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a torture technique.

We all have our afflictions, don’t we?

But does the human condition make writing impossible? And what a terrible joke that would be, with so many of us with something to say.

And now that our lives are so overly complex with 24/7 jobs, family schedules that require herculean efforts to maintain, and increasing health issues across all ages, is there any way our artistic pursuits won’t suffer?

How do we compensate?

Or do we give in?

A friend of mine, Amy Kathleen Ryan, had triplets a few years ago. She still wrote two books around their tyrannical infant demands. You might have read them.

Another friend of mine has been diagnosed with MS, making it impossible to type some days. Many days. He still finished his most recent mystery novel.

Another woman I know has worked full time, pursued two advanced degrees, and raised her kid for the past five years, and is inches from finishing an epic fantasy we all know will publish the second she finishes.

Another has taken over the care of both her invalid parents while raising her own family. She’s learned to write in doctor’s offices.

A man who attends most of my library creative writing classes tells me he’s on the road three out of four weeks a month, but he’s taught himself to write on airplanes and in hotels.

A woman in my MFA program walks with two canes and is in constant, chronic pain from a back injury. She still got her degree and recently published her first short story.

There are lots of examples of life becoming what really ought to be written off as unmanageable, crushing our creative selves, making writing laughably impossible. But even these people find ways to write.

They all tell me the same thing: writing is their life’s blood. They’ve learned to stop making attachments to the outcomes and just be glad for the days they get some words on the page.

Is that enough?

As more and more novels are written under the pressures of our modern, debilitating lives, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Exhaustion may not help our writing, but it doesn’t have to stop it entirely.

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

Pitch it to Me, Baby

By Karen Duvall

Wow! I can’t believe the Colorado Gold Conference is only one month away. I’m refraining from packing my bag too early, but I mentally add to my packing list every day. I’m all registered for conference, my plane reservations are made, my hotel room is set, I’m super excited to see my kids and grandkids while I’m there, and I’m eager to visit with all my Colorado writer friends again. This promises to be an incredible trip.

As I prepare for my journey, I’m also preparing for the conference itself. I feel very lucky to have made it into a critique workshop with Kensington editor Peter Senftleben on Friday morning. Though I have an agent, it never hurts to network and the manuscript pages I’m having critiqued is from the book my agent is preparing to submit to publishers. I want my pitch to be tighter than a banker’s wallet.

It’s fortunate for me that I’ll be teaching a “Pitch and Query” workshop for the Central Oregon Writers Guild on Saturday, August 23, at COCC in Redmond, Oregon. Perfect timing, yes? Because not only will I be helping guild members work on pitches for their novels, they’re going to help me with mine. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Guild members aren’t preparing to pitch at any specific conference I’m aware of, but it’s smart to have one ready for any situation when you might need a tight description of your book. During the workshop we’ll be working on queries as well. Conferences aren’t the only opportunities to pitch a novel. There are now many pitching opportunities online that include blog events with editors and agents, writer group forums, Twitter, Facebook and online writers’ conferences that are growing in popularity.

This is all the more reason why a pitch should be brief and effective. Step one — It needs three vital components for a solid hook:

  • Paint a compelling mental picture.
  • Offer an idea of genre.
  • Have a killer title.

What elements go into the pitch? First we state who the hero is, what his goal is and why he must have it, and what prevents him from getting what he wants. It’s vital that we focus on the conflict at the heart of our book. Put this all together and you have an ironclad formula for a successful pitch. If it falls within the purview of an agent’s or editor’s acquisition needs, you’ll probably get a request for pages.

I recommend writing several versions of your pitch. When you think you have a good one, don’t stop there. Polish it, let it sit for a while, then read it again out loud. The goal is to hook your audience, so it should be short and to the point.

As usual, it’s easier to use movies as examples because popular movies are the most familiar. Here are two fairly good single-line pitches:

“A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.” – Die Hard

“A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.” – Pretty Woman

Both these examples use hooks to grab attention. Once you capture an editor’s or agent’s interest, you can take it one step further. Both these one-liners set the stage to continue on with the hero’s character arc and the emotional stakes that embroil him and the antagonist. The first line of your pitch is usually conceptual, an overview of the big picture. Once your hook has found its mark, it’s time to reel in your audience with theme and conflict.

Be prepared to answer unexpected questions that may not be covered in your pitch. You might be asked something like: Who’s your villain and what does he want from your hero? Where did you get the idea for your story? Who are the other characters and why are they important? Plus myriad other possible inquiries. Know your story inside and out.

Practice your pitch on a fellow writer or critique partner. If you pre-registered for the one-on-one pitch coaching sessions on Friday at conference, you’ll have a chance to try out your pitch and get feedback from a professional.

During my workshop here in Oregon I’ll be breaking up the class into groups so they can brainstorm and practice writing their pitches. But as a warm up, I have an exercise planned. They’ll get a list of vague pitches for popular movies that that can be “beefed up” to power pitch level. Vague pitches can be misleading and lose power due to a lack of specificity. I’ve collected a bunch and the class can revise as many as they want as practice for creating their own pitches.

Can you revise any of these poor pitch examples?

Batman: A man deals with the deaths of his parents.
Superman: A Kansas farmboy moves to the big city and helps people.
Spider-Man: A nerdy teenager learns to stand up for what he believes in.
Captain America: A troubled young man takes steroids, attacks foreigners.

Feel free to post in comments whatever you come up with.

Though I won’t be giving my pitch workshop at Colorado Gold, I will be presenting a workshop on Plot Devices: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on Saturday, September 6, at 4:30 p.m. I’ll have a few tools to share for your writer’s toolbox so don’t miss it. See you then!

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Karen Duvall lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. She’s an award winning author published with Harlequin Luna and is currently working on a new contemporary fantasy series.

http://www.karenduvallauthor.com

The Effects of the Relativity of Time on Writing

By Kevin Paul Tracy

I just finished writing a particularly irksome passage in my latest project, Bloodtrail, the sequel to Bloodflow. Irksome in that the choreography and the chronology, like a pair of cranky siblings, were fighting each other and would not agree. I was having difficulty getting characters to where I needed them to be when I needed them to be there in a logical progression, without drawing the question from readers, “Wait, how did she get over there so quickly when she was all the way over here a second ago?”

TIME RELATIVITY

I was working so hard on this section for days, that when it was done, I had this distorted sense of the scene’s place in the book. Having worked on it for so long, I had this sense that the scene, which was an important one but not particularly pivotal, had become too large in the narrative, took too many pages, and was longer than other scenes in the book which were in many ways more pivotal.

So I went back and I reread the entire passage, paying close attention to page-count and the pacing of the scene in relation to other passages. I came to the realization that my concerns were unfounded. The scene was well placed within the narrative, paced on par with other scenes, and took up just as many pages as were needed, to convey the import, no more, no less.

I realized that my sense of this passage and it’s place in my story had become distorted by the amount of time and concentration I had exerted on it. Upon realizing this, it occurred to me that there have also been times when I feared I’d given a scene short shrift, and felt that I needed to flesh it out more to give it the weight and gravitas in relation to the rest of the narrative I felt it needed. Those times, when I went back, I again realized I’d been mistaken, that the scene was exactly how I had intended it to be. Once again my sense of the scene had been affected by the time it took to write it, in this case by coming together so smoothly and effortlessly that it seemed to take no time at all to write it.

And then, of course, are the bad times, when you think everything is fine, but a read through, often in critique group, brings out the glaring problem of pacing, timing, and impact in transitions from one scene to the next.

This distortion of perception is an effect of time relativity on writing. As writers, we sometimes lose perspective on the project we’re currently developing. Especially if we walk away from it for a day or more and come back. We lose the sense of continuity in the narrative because to use it isn’t a smooth, single-strand, linear process. If you have experienced this time-stretch, time-shrinkage in your own writing, you are not alone. We all encounter it.

For me, every time I sit down to write I go back and reread the prior scene. This has the effect of centering me on the pacing of what I’m doing, and of getting me back into the mood, the atmosphere, if you will, of the current project on which I’m working. I write two series: the Laine Parker Adventures (Rogue Agenda, The Lucifer Strain (pending)) are a collection of light thrillers with similar pacing and flavor to the TV show Castle or the Stephanie Plum books; while the Kathryn Desmarias Gothic Mysteries (Bloodflow, Bloodtrail (pending)) are dark, baroque, chilling tales of romantic horror on the order of Wuthering Heights and Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. These two genre’s have wildly differing pacing, atmospheres, and plot progressions. I sometimes will work on them interchangeably. The only way I can do so is to reread the prior passage, to put myself into the world I’m going to be writing about, before adding additional scenes.

In short, when first-draft writing, don’t fret about time relativity and the sense that you are writing unevenly paced or balanced chapters or scenes. The important thing is to get something on the page. There will be plenty of time to even things out in rewrites, and you just might find it isn’t as uneven as you think it is.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Library by Guest Author Travis Heermann

Research and Cultural Connections in Fictional Worlds

by Travis Heermann

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation about surgical masks. A member of my family recently was forced to wear a surgical mask for a time to reduce risk of infection due to a compromised immune system. When I was living in Japan a few years ago, I often saw people wearing such masks in public, and during this conversation someone assumed the motivation behind masks in public was fear of infection.

“That’s not why they wear the masks,” I said. “They wear the masks because they’re sick themselves and don’t want to infect other people. They’re protecting the community.” This cultural practice was explained to me while I lived there, probably because I once made a similar assumption.

This is a striking example of behaviors that are similar on the surface, but for which the underlying values are drastically different. In the West, and in the U.S. in particular, the Individual has been elevated to greatest importance, with Community relegated to secondary status to a degree that puzzles natives of the Far East. In the Far East, that dynamic is profoundly reversed, such that Family and Community come first to a degree that mystifies Westerners.

When writing fiction not set in one’s own neighborhood, writers need to realize that we swim through our native culture like fish through water, largely unaware of its effects on our values, on our underlying assumptions about life, on our daily behaviors, on our perceptions of Others, the Outsiders who are intrinsically Scary and Not To Be Trusted. An individual from another culture, whether from a tribe in New Guinea or from Planet 10 Across the Eighth Dimension, may exhibit similar behaviors to someone from middle-class America, but the underlying value system and cultural reasons for those behaviors may be poles apart.

So for writers, the key to getting it right is research. The key to good research is to access the most direct sources you can. By direct sources, I mean museum exhibits of real medieval weapons, letters and documents from the time period, scholarly work, textbooks, etc. I do recommend you don’t use derivative works; for instance, using medieval fantasy novels, or even historical fiction, to learn about medieval culture is a bad idea.

If you find a good resource, search out the research sources that author used. Better still—and I realize this is not always feasible—travel to the locale yourself. If you’re wearing your Writer Eyes and Ears as you should be, you will pick up untold little details in the area, its people, its customs. In a country as big as the U.S., with so many different ethnic groups, even an area across the state—or across town!—can exhibit striking differences culture, dialect and attitudes. Barring the possibility of travel, Google Earth can be an astonishing resource for getting a look at the area, in conjunction with a library card and the will to use it.

The good thing about research it can be recycled over and over. If you’re writing science fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, anything that requires creation of a non-mundane world, all kinds of research, academic and experiential, is melted into the bottomless, cast-iron cauldron of your subconscious and can be used to season alien worlds with enough verisimilitude that your readers will devour it with relish.

One of the cool things about being a writer is that we have a wide range of disparate knowledge, some of it as thorough and detailed as any academic’s. Fun on the page, fun at parties.

 

Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII.

http://travisheermann.com/

http://travisheermann.com/blog/

https://www.facebook.com/travis.heermann

https://twitter.com/TravisHeermann

Here Comes the Judge

By Mark Stevens

Who am I to judge? No, really?

I’ve judged the Colorado Gold contest for many years. I take on five or six entries each time around. That’s not many pieces to rate. Some judges handle dozens—and more.

Five or six entries take time—twenty pages of each novel and a three or four-page synopsis to go with it. First, I read each entry straight through and then I embed comments on the second pass.

Then, the real work: filling out the score sheet.

Is the “emotional content” a five or six?

Is the “scene craft” a four or a five?

The totals add up. The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight. (And, yes, years ago I entered the contest a few times. I was crushed when my scores didn’t add up.)

This year, alas, I struggled to connect. With anything. I shipped back a whole lot of misery for contestants to absorb. (I am very glad each entry receives scoring from at least two judges; I am not alone.)

So I’m here with a few humble suggestions.

  •  Keep it simple.
  •  Give me one character with a strong point of view.
  •  Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
  •  Don’t give me blah.
  •  Or ordinary.
  •  Give me edge; risk.
  •  Convince me that the story starts on this day.
  •  Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
  •  Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
  •  Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
  •  Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
  •  But, mostly, keep it simple.
  •  Really simple.
  •  No, really.

www.writermarkstevens.com
https://www.facebook.com/AllisonCoil
@writerstevens
https://www.facebook.com/theasphaltwarrior

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

RMFW Spotlight on Judy Matheny, Volunteer Coordinator

The first Monday of the month on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog we spotlight a board member or volunteer to help you get to know our leaders and members a little better. Today’s Q and A is with Judy Matheny, the person you’ll want to contact when you’re ready to jump in and help keep this wonderful organization humming.

Matheny at Stanley1. Judy, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I was drafted from my Capitol Hill Critique Group to seek “higher office”. When I joined the group in 2010 I just thought it was stocked with great people and wonderful writers, but I have since learned many of RMFW’s leaders have come from the Capitol Hill Critique Group. Scott Brendel got my name on the ballot for Secretary in this past election, hoping that I would lose and be able to take over his position as Volunteer Coordinator. I did lose, which has been a blessing and I am now the Volunteer Coordinator for RMFW. It’s a wonderful post because I learn the inner workings of this organization and its needs. I also connect with new members and those wanting to help out. I attend the Board meetings and witness first-hand the energy of this organization. I believe our membership would be surprised by the extent of operations, offerings and projects that are underway at any given point and the volunteer support that keeps them going. If you’re interested in volunteering please send me a note at volunteer@rmfw.org.

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

Right this moment I am linking two mystery manuscripts written ages ago into a series that my agent, Cricket Freeman (The August Agency), will be advancing for me. Each came so close to publication over the years and had been gathering dust until I was inspired at last year’s Colorado Gold to seek a more modern publishing route. The titles are Need to Know and Signed Statement. A female FBI Agent is caught up in task force intrigue in New York City. I stole from past experiences since I was an agent with the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force in NYC for many years. More to come on this! I have a musical in development in Denver taken from The Princess in My Head, a story I wrote for my daughter when she was eleven. Several talented theater people I know wrote a wonderful score aimed at the middle and high school audience, and now we’re finalizing my script. My new novel is roughly titled The Sylvie Dyer Mystery and is a Colorado historical fiction set in 1892. I hope to finish it by Christmas!

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?

Making my living as a fiction writer is a primary one. In the meantime, I dream of taking month-long writing trips each year to France – picking a spot steeped with history and charm, propping my keyboard and concocting my stories. I learned French wines many years ago, so my destinations would be Provence…Beaune in Burgundy…the Loire Valley. I suppose learning to speak French beyond my current high school competency should also be in the bucket.

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

I get distracted by life. Right now I am living in Frisco. I thought it would be a great move – I could tele-commute with my work as a financial investigator, and write during off hours inspired by our beautiful mountains. However since I ski and bike and participate in the great social activities up here, I’m struggling again for more time and focus. But it is a fun struggle and one that I am happy to have!

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

I love getting lost in my story and my characters. Creating conversations and dialog among my characters and as they speak, getting to know them better. I also love other writers. I love to learn about their work, their inspiration and their individual disciplines. It helps me.

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

My advice to me would be to seek out a critique group – one with thoughtful people whose feedback can be trusted. I was afraid of what might be said about my writing when I started out. I was afraid I’d be too crushed by critiques to continue. I refreshed my writing approach four years ago when I joined the Capitol Hill group after six years away from writing, and vowed to do it all better this time. So far, so good.

Matheny Desk7. 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 am seriously boring in this department, although I do like to have a nice, interesting lamp. And a clock. A Thesaurus is mandatory since I wordsmith just about everything.

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

I just finished The Voice is All – The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson. It’s a biography that focuses on how he acquired his writing voice. It made me happy I’m not destined to be an important literary author. On the fiction side, one of my favorite things is reading books by RMFW writers. Ian Ballard was a Capitol Hill Critique Group member and his debut Total Victim Theory is powerful. I picked up The Big Bang by WOTY Linda Joffe Hull at last year’s conference and just sent it off to my mom – she’ll love it. Pam Nowak inspires me with her historical research. I am finishing Teresa Rizzo’s latest, He Belongs to Me. Great entertainment and great resources right here in my own backyard!

Thanks, Judy! We appreciate all you do and hope you always find all the volunteers you need so we can continue to grow.

Why I Write

By Mary Gillgannon

When people ask me why I write, I have some pat answers:  The stories just come to me and I have to write them down. I enjoy living vicariously through my characters. I feel like I was born in the wrong time period, so I write about the past.

But none of those things represent the real reason. Which is that it’s an addiction. I crave writing the way some people do a drug. Without it I go into withdrawal and get cranky and anxious and depressed.

My addiction used to be much worse. If I went a day without writing, I would almost immediately feel my stress levels rising. But the last few years, I’ve had enough money that I’ve been able to replace my writing addiction (which is relatively inexpensive) with other methods of boosting my mood. Gardening and doing creative things like planning a remodeling project seem to do some of the same soothing things to my brain. Travel, or even planning a trip, has a similar effect. And shopping also fills the void and provides a sense of gratification. These replacement vices work so well, I almost think if I had enough money (and lived in a place where gardening was a year-round activity instead of the five months, if I’m lucky, I can do it in Wyoming.) I might be able to survive without writing.

What all these activities have in common is a kind of hyper-focus. My brain is engaged in a way that concentrates my naturally intense intellectual and emotional energy on a specific project or goal. So instead of all that seething yearning and need looping endlessly around in my brain and making me crazy, as it did for much of my life, it gets utilized in a satisfying way. These activities provide a channel to direct that energy, a creative outlet to free me from the destructive force of my restless and passionate nature.

But like most vices, all these activities are only satisfying while I’m doing them. So if I have a week, or several, where I don’t have time to indulge in any of these things, including writing, the emotional energy builds up and up, until I start each day with a vague sense of doom hanging over me. Now that I’m older, it doesn’t take too much to get me out of a funk. A little sunshine, some social contact, the comforting rituals of life, something that makes me laugh, any of those things can put me back on the right path, as long as my life is essentially all right.

But let things get genuinely stressful and my carefully constructed optimistic persona starts to get more and more cracks, and it take a lot more positive things to get me back to that baseline of relative happiness. Until one day I realize I’ve regressed to that person I used to be, the one who barely survived adolescence and walked around under a cloud of anxiety and subtle dread for much of their early adulthood. Nowadays, if I consistently suffered from those mood issues, I’d probably be on antidepressant drugs. But drugs have side effects and often cause other issues. And finding just the right balance is very tricky.

Which takes me back to my original “drug of choice”: writing. Because writing does more than just provide a creative outlet and a focus. I’m convinced that the act of writing actually changes my brain. Maybe it supplies it with endorphins or boosts the serotonin levels, similar to what mood-altering drugs are supposed to do. But it is more long-lasting than a drug. And doesn’t wear off as quickly.

And by writing, I mean fiction. Not a blog or an email or something like that. That sort of writing helps, but it doesn’t work the magic that writing fiction does. Because nothing quite beats the incredible moment of having your characters come to life and the world they live in becoming utterly real. It’s a high, as intense and vivid as any drug can offer. (Although, admittedly, I haven’t tried any of the really powerful euphoria-producing ones.)

So I’m going back to my original addiction. I’m going to let the emails pile up in my inbox until I have to delete most of them unread. I’m going to shun my internet shopping sites, and neglect my garden and my house. And probably my family, to hear them tell it. And continue to truly suck at promoting my already-published books. But I need my drug. I can’t live without writing fiction anymore.

So, that’s why I write. Because I have to.

Raising the Bar

By Shannon Baker
Photos by Mark Stevens

I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be named Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. See how many times Writer is used in that title? That means it’s an award for a writer voted on by writers. And for this one moment in time—well a whole freaking year!—I get to be The Writer of the Year. That probably sounds self-promoting and egotistical, but I’m throwing manners out the window and, in fact, might actually shout it out that same window. I get to be the Writer of the Year!

Shannon Baker WOTY2It was such a thrill to be nominated with Christine Jorgenson and Terry Wright. Christine has penned two series and this year was nominated for the Colorado Book Awards. She also received the Writer of the Year honor in 1995. She’s not only an accomplished writer but is the nicest woman on the planet. Terry has his own publishing company and is a legend creating book trailers. Even his name is all about writing.

We writers can be a funny lot, or as the man I live with says, crazy. At least, I can. Among other issues, I have what I call Raising the Bar Syndrome. It goes something like this: I get a glimpse of something I want to achieve, I set a goal. I work really hard toward that goal. If I finally get there, I spend about 1.5 seconds of happiness and then see that I’m nowhere near successful because if I were a real writer, I’d be (points finger into the distance) there.

I came to my first Colorado Gold conference somewhere around 1994, toting my second completed manuscript, sure it was brilliant. It wasn’t. A very New York editor pointed out to me just how far from brilliant it was. I was smart enough to believe him. I needed to learn a ton just to know the basics of why it failed, let alone how to go about fixing it. At that conference, I sat at the banquet and watched as the contest winners were announced. Wow, I thought. If I could only win the contest, I’d know I was a real writer.

I set about the painful task of learning to write. I hate to say that for me, as it is for many, it’s a slow process and one that will never end. I can improve, and improve, and still, there is room for improvement. But after a couple of years, I did win the contest. Twice. That’s a thrill and a milestone and should be celebrated. It means a writer has reached a certain level and should be congratulated.

But self-congrats were soon replaced with a new goal. Look at those writers getting their Pen Awards, RMFW’s acknowledgement of a first sale. If I got one of those I’d be a real writer. I kept at my craft. I worked hard. I sent out hundreds of query letters. I tweaked and revised and rewrote. After a very long time, I finally joined the ranks of the traditionally published and took home my Pen Award.

But that contract wasn’t all I’d hoped and I wasn’t satisfied. I told my husband, “If I can get a contract for three books with a decent press, I’ll be happy. I can say I’m a real writer and will never have to write another book.” And guess what? After a few more years, that’s exactly what happened. Two books of that contract are on the shelves with the third due next spring.

But I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of publishing. I know some big deals in that world and I can tell you, I’m small potatoes. I’ve just finished the first book in a new series and maybe if I sell it and it takes off I’ll really be a writer. Raising the Bar Syndrome is in full flower.

Shannon Baker WOTY1But here’s a twist. This summer, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers honored me with Writer of the Year. That’s as high as the bar goes. For twenty years I’ve seen that title awarded to the creamiest crème de la crème. This is a rare time in my writerly journey when I will pause and let myself revel. For once I’ll make no excuses or justifications or downplay it. I’m going to be a big, fat, obnoxious self-centered peacock. Further, I’ll frame the certificate and display it proudly and go to it whenever I feel like a failure or a poseur. It is my proof that I AM a writer. My writer tribe told me so.

Thank you, RMFW. Thank you very much.

Please join 2013 Writer of the Year Linda Joffe Hull and this year’s nominees, Christine Jorgenson, Terry Wright, and me at the Tattered Cover on Colfax August 14th at 7:00 PM as we rev up for the Colorado Gold Conference. One free conference will be given away, as well as lunch with lunch with J. Ellen Smith, publisher of Champagne Book Group, lunch with Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher at Elora’s Cave and lunch with NYT Bestselling author William Kent Krueger.

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Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Broken Trust, book two of the series, takes place in Boulder, CO and was released in March. She serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is nominated for 2104 Writer of the Year. She is a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

Writer’s Block? Surely you jest!

By Terri Benson

Terri Benson1Who’s Shirley? But seriously, folks (OK, not really seriously, but kinda), have you ever suffered from Writer’s Block? I hear about it all the time, but I think I’m immune. Even if I wrote 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, I don’t think I could empty out the ideas and words writhing around in my head. And on top of that, every day I add more ideas and words. One of these days my head might explode (I can see it now – Exploding Head at Library: Story at eleven!).

If you find yourself stuck, and I think this applies to just about every fiction genre, go to the mall. Listen to the kids talk to each other—you’ll get YA ideas, sci-fi (you can’t get more alien than teenagers!), dialect, swear words, current clothing, technology, and lots more. Or how about wandering down Main Street and observing the architecture – don’t you wonder what went/goes on behind those covered windows on the upper floors over the stores? Who might be looking out at you right now, and why?

Unless, or even if, it creeps you out, wander through the cemetery – you’ll find tons of names to file away, see interesting art, and read some great epitaphs. Like that Masonic symbol over there. Was he one of the secret society who held the key to great riches or knowledge, or did his poor wife have to take the only headstone she could afford, one that had been “returned” by another wife who decided instead of a formal burial, she’d just flush her old hubby and call it good?

Once in a while the newspaper will run an article about some obscure crime, location, or person that you can use as inspiration in your story. The Nobel Laureate who recently died could be your character’s college roommate who invented time travel in the alternate universe your story is set in, or the little old lady found dead after begging on the streets for years who was worth millions – maybe she was a famous cat burglar, or the character’s long lost mother, sister, or even your character in later years.

Benson_monkey flowerTake a hike – literally. Check out the flora (that’s flowers and green stuff to most of us) – look close – you can see creepy faces in those things sometimes. I saw a story today on a vegetarian spider (REALLY!). I don’t think I could convince anyone spiders come with stripes of red, blue, yellow and checkerboard – unless they saw a photo of that spider. In an alternate world the spider could be the good guy for a change, up against human-eating, fluffy, sweet looking, killer gerbils.

Benson_spiderPay attention to the temperature and how it makes you feel. Remember the feeling of sweat rolling down your back and wetting your waistband – it could be blood. Goo squishing up between your toes on the riverbank? Maybe not mud.

TV, bane of our existence, can offer up a host of inspirations as well. With the History, Science, Discovery, Military and other specialty channels, you can get all kinds of ideas to research – just don’t let the research suck you down the Rabbit Hole (hey, I resemble that blog!).

Even the stupid shows might help. How about Bar Rescue? You see weird people screaming, crying, and insulting each other. Let’s see: a story about the owner of a bar being renovated who kills the reality host and tries to pin it on the sex offender posted on the city website that lives in the scary old mansion-turned-flophouse down the road, who is actually the father of the highest ranking senator in the state, and the murder weapon was a 3D printed candy cane sharpened to a point with an electric pencil sharpener located in the office of the local Clerk & Recorder under investigation for fraud and involved in an affair with the bar owner’s wife (and If I see this in print, I’d better be in the credits. Seriously. No, really!)

Writer’s Block? Not me, and not you, if you just get out there and let yourself be inspired.

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Benson_Unsinkable finalA life-long writer, Terri Benson is published in historic romance, has written award winning short stories and over a hundred newspaper, magazine and e-zine articles – many award winning.

She has been a member of RWA for decades, and RMFW for the last several years. She promotes Western Slope events for the RMFW Publicity Committee, pelts RMFW with articles for the newsletter, and randomly blogs.

An Unsinkable Love (with a gorgeous new cover), is available from Amazon.

An Interview with Shannon Hassan, Literary Agent with Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

shannonhassan“Shannon Hassan, an agent at the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, brings a depth of business and editorial experience to her role, having worked in publishing and law for more than a decade. She represents authors of upmarket and literary fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, and select nonfiction. She is drawn to fresh voices, compelling characters, and crisp prose, and she enjoys both contemporary and historical settings. Based in Boulder, Colorado, she is also eager to hear from authors with a unique perspective on the New West. She does not generally represent genre fiction in the areas of horror, sci fi, or epic fantasy for adults. Before becoming an agent, Shannon was the Acquisitions Editor at Fulcrum Publishing, and prior to that a corporate attorney at Arnold and Porter in New York. She received her JD from Harvard and her BA from George Washington University.”

Pat: Shannon, thank you so much for allowing us to ask you a few questions. We’re hoping conference attendees will benefit from these interviews and that potential attendees will click that “Register here” button.

You’ve had a varied career, not only in publishing but also in corporate law. What lured you away from the legal field and led you to becoming a literary agent?

Shannon: I followed my passion into publishing, and couldn’t be happier working with authors and helping them achieve their publishing goals. Becoming an agent was good a fit for me because it combines the editorial skills and business experience I’ve gained over the years.

Pat: You joined the Marsal Lyon Agency in late 2013, but it looks as though you’ve jumped into your new position with great energy and enthusiasm. You have at least five conferences or major book events scheduled this year. What do you like most about attending conferences?

Shannon: The best part about conferences is the chance to get to know so many great people who share a love for books and publishing– authors, editors, and other agents alike. Not only have I found terrific new authors, I have also made new (or deeper) connections with others in the industry. I also love the relaxed environment that conferences offer. I just went hiking with an editor at my last conference—what a fun way to get to know someone!

Pat: Writers get a lot of advice about how to deliver elevator pitches, but I’m not sure agents enjoy that process very much. When a writer meets you on the elevator (and gets past the initial shock of suddenly being face-to-face with the very agent she wants to meet), should she avoid mentioning her novel and offer to buy you a drink instead? Could you talk a bit about those accidental meetings and how a writer can be professional but still get your attention?

Shannon: I don’t mind accidental/unscheduled meetings at all, as I enjoy getting to know new writers. I would just recommend that a writer try to read the situation before diving in. In other words, does the agent seem open to chatting? Maybe introduce yourself and start a conversation. Or is the agent rushing to an event, or on the way to the bathroom? Maybe not the best time!

Pat: When you participate in those 8 to 12 minute pitch sessions at conferences, what do you consider a great—and hopefully for the author, successful—session? What makes you uncomfortable? Do you have a “worst pitch appointment ever” anecdote for us?

Shannon: Be able to describe your book succinctly. Know your genre and target audience and have some similar “comp” titles in mind. Also, have a few general questions about your work and/or the publishing process prepared in advance. That way, in case your project isn’t sounding like a fit for the agent for whatever reason, at least you are making good use of your time together.

In terms of what NOT to do—well, don’t start off by comparing yourself to Shakespeare or other luminaries (This has actually happened to me). And I personally don’t like to receive pitches for multiple projects—choose your strongest idea.

Overall I’d say just try to relax and make it a conversation– it’s about trying to connect with the agent, not about delivering the most perfect pitch since the dawn of time.

Pat: If an author has successfully pitched his project to you at Colorado Gold, and you’ve requested at least a synopsis and three chapters, how soon would you expect to receive the submission? Can you pin down the top three qualities in that submission that would prompt you to ask for the full manuscript?

Shannon: I don’t have an expected timeline and would hate to see someone rush to send me a submission that is not ready. It is an opportunity—take your time, and do it right. And then when you do send it, make sure to remind me in the subject line that we met at Colorado Gold and I requested these pages.

As to the top three qualities that I look for: (1) exceptional writing, (2) compelling characters, (3) a strong hook.

Pat: Would you tell us about a few of the authors’ books you represent and those you expect to see released in the next few months? We’d love to hear about the projects that get you most excited.

Shannon: I’m excited about a lot of things! I just saw the cover mock-up (always fun!) of THE AFTERLIFE ACADEMY, a funny, imaginative middle grade novel by Frank Cole, coming out by Penguin Random House next year. I’m also looking forward to the September launch of VISION, a gripping YA suspense by critically acclaimed YA author Lisa Amowitz. On the adult side, I am excited about the recent sales of MOON IN THE PALACE, a page-turning historical series by debut author Weina Randel, and ALMOST ANYWHERE, an exquisite memoir by award-winning conservationist and photographer Krista Schlyer.

Pat: What genres do you represent? What genres do you read for fun (assuming you do occasionally have time to read for fun)?

Shannon: I am looking for upmarket and literary fiction, and fresh-voiced YA and MG fiction. I am most interested in smart, character-driven stories that straddle the line between literary and commercial, and enjoy both contemporary and historical settings. You can read more about my background and interests at the agency website.

Pat: You are based in Boulder, Colorado. That seems very logical to me because we have an amazing number of outstanding writers in this state. Others wonder if that puts you at a disadvantage when trying to place your authors’ books with New York Publishers. How do you deal with that distance issue? Do you miss living in the big city?

Shannon: No, I don’t find the distance to be an issue. I used to live in NYC and I go there quite often (I went twice last month!) and stay in good touch with editors there. Not to mention that there are also terrific publishers that aren’t based in New York. I do occasionally miss the energy of living in a big city and my friends there, but after a few days of getting my “city fix,” I am ready for a long bike ride or hike in the foothills.

Pat: Finally, and way off the subject of writing and getting published, would you tell us something fun about yourself that most people don’t know?

Shannon: I love to travel. My family (husband and ten-year-old twins) have been all over South America, including Patagonia and Easter Island, and to parts of Asia. More on the horizon I hope!

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to our questions, Shannon. We’ll be looking forward to meeting you at Colorado Gold.

Thanks for the interview Pat. I have heard such great things about Colorado Gold and I am really looking forward to it!