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 The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight.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!

Honoring Your Contract

By Katriena Knights

One of the most important things you can do is a writer is honor your contracts. I’m not talking about your contracts with your publishers. I’m talking about your contracts with your readers.

Wait, what? Authors don’t sign contracts with readers, do they? So what am I yapping on about this time?

Readers have expectations. These expectations vary depending upon what kind of book you’re writing. Or, in some cases, the kind of book you claim to be writing. Violating these expectations can lose you your readers—sometimes permanently.

Of course this is more true with genre writing than literary. Most mainstream books have some built-in expectations, as well, but they’re a bit more fluid. Still, when you move from writing for yourself to writing to an audience, it’s a good idea to keep those audience expectations in mind. Most of these expectations have to do with the book’s ending.

For example, in a romance, your reader expects a happily-ever-after ending—an HEA—or at least a happy-for-now—HFN. If your romantic couple decides to go there separate ways, or if one dies horribly, your book isn’t a romance. If you market it as a romance and it lacks the HEA or HFN, your readers will discover you’ve violated that contract and probably won’t come back.

Mystery readers expect the crime to be solved, whether it’s a murder or petty theft. The solving of the crime should drive the plot, and the solution should drive the climax. Loose ends might be left here and there, but the main crime should be wrapped up. If you decide to be extra “edgy” and “realistic” and leave the crime unsolved, you’ve violated your contract. (There are mystery writers who’ve successfully published books that don’t wrap everything up, but they were long-time, established authors with a fan base willing to go along for the ride.)

With any book, of any genre, readers expect a conclusion of some sort. If too much is left hanging, plot points are tied up, or characters are left without resolution, you’ll lose some readers. This is why my copy of Trumpet of the Swan fell apart after about ten readings, but I only read Stuart Little a couple of times. Louis got a nicely constructed happily-ever-after, but poor Stuart didn’t get a nicely tied-up ending. I suppose maybe it was appropriate for his story, but I’m still bitter about it.

However, that’s an example where the genre didn’t dictate the ending. It wasn’t a violation of a genre contract, but it didn’t live up to my personal expectations. As a writer, there’s nothing you can do about that, so there’s no point trying. But do keep in mind the expectations of your genre and of your average reader when you’re stitching that plot together.

Collecting People

By Liesa Malik

How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for “books, characters in fiction.” Whew!

As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren’t such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?

We’ve often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.

Here are some ideas for your “collecting” process:

  • Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
  • When you’re in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don’t know them? You’re working on fiction. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they’re glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You’ve just “collected” your first person. Here’s an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you’ll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
  • Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase “My favorite ___ is . . .” The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
  • Drive around and snap a photo of a house you’ve never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest, but I just love it. They didn’t say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or “casing the joint.” Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You’re learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
  • Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I’ll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends’ story. It’s good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like “true recollection” and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.

This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?

Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council’s Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy’s) from 1:00 to 2:30. I’ll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.

New Book? Don’t Poop on The Party!

By Aaron Ritchey

So I have a friend who didn’t do an initial book signing for his first book.  He didn’t do any sort of book launch party, nothing like that.  He just threw his book up on Amazon, did some online stuff, but didn’t really celebrate the fact that he had done something that very few people will ever do.

Very few people will ever write a book.

Very few people will ever spend the time to edit that book.

Very few people will ever publish that spit-polished book.

Just the facts of life.  So if you get nothing else from this little blog post, take away the idea that we have to celebrate every little victory, every little hurray, and what better way to celebrate the hurray than to have a party?

Yes, this is a party in your honor, about your book, and yes, it’s all going to be about you.  For many people, this can be hard.  Even though I’m an attention whore, I found it difficult.  Before my first book launch, I drove around and around the restaurant, afraid to park, afraid of the potential criticism, frustration, and disappointment.

What if no one comes?  What if they do come, but are resentful at me for putting on the party in the first place?  What if no one actually buys the book?  What if no one likes me or the book?

All of those thoughts are in the end selfish and self-centered.  I’m afraid that people aren’t going to like me or people will think I’m trying to guilt them into buying a book.  And the mother of all fears, what if I alienate all my friends?

On the one hand, book launch parties are all about the author and their book, but how about we look at this another way?  Book launch parties are a way to celebrate an accomplishment and bring together the people who love you and want to support you.  Yes, some people do NOT want you to succeed and will feel threatened by your success.  Sad but true.  I’ve lost friends since I’ve become published.  However, most of the people in my life are thrilled that I’m pursuing this dream,  that I’m writing books, and they WANT to be a part of it.  They WANT to support me.  If I don’t include them, I’m being selfish.

A book launch party is a way to include everyone in the victory.  It’s like the final scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, without the medals and droids.  I’ve done them across the country and yes, at first, it was hard for all the reasons I’ve listed.  But at some stage of the game, I realized I liked doing them, not so I could sell books, but so I could see people and talk to people and include them in the grand drama of the publishing game.

Where did I have my parties?  Book stores can be hard to get into, especially if you aren’t running with the big dogs, but I’ve used restaurants, coffee shops, and even an art gallery in Santa Clara, California.  Best venue ever.

I bring a box of books, I bring cash for change, and I have a Square account so I can accept credit cards using my smart phone.

The Facebook Event function and eVite.com are great tools to invite everyone you know .  And I encourage my friends and family to invite everyone they know.  I do so fearlessly because again, if I focus on the self-centered fear, I’ll worry that people will think I’m trying to dupe them into buying a book.  But if I focus on the love and support I feel from those people who want to celebrate with me, I get excited and this all becomes easier.

How long should the book launch party be?  Two hours is the perfect amount of time.  People arrive and I greet them.  Forty-five minutes into it, I give a little talk, read a few pages, and chat and sign books.  Thank God for Costco ‘cause they have catered most of my book parties.  What’s a party without a little food?

Yes, people are expected to buy books—some will, some won’t.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is that rather than hiding my books and myself away in a basement, I am opening myself up to the world and I am saying, “My books are good, I believe in them, and I want you to be a part of this adventure with me.”

So plan book parties, celebrate your books and your career, and be sure to invite me.  I love me a good party.

Emotional Barrier in Fiction: After You Cross It, What’s Next? (Part Two)

Today Tiffany Lawson Inman is continuing the discussion of the emotional barrier in fiction. If you missed Part One from last month, click here. 

Tiffany Lawson Inman, headshotby Tiffany Lawson Inman

Hello again!

We learned in Part One of this post, that the emotional barrier is VERY IMPORTANT, and very hard to break down without completely collapsing in on ourselves. We are all afraid of icky gooey stuff that seeps out when we are alone, and it takes skill to use the memories and gut-wrench that is on the other side, right?

Right.

And comedians like Louis C.K. have the ability to rip truths out of the air and make them tangible, right?

Right.

And you all are going to do whatever you can to:

  • allow yourselves emotional release.
  • learn how to cross your emotional barrier.
  • learn how to use the emotions you can reach.
  • be fearless and vulnerable when using your own emotions.
  • realize that emotions are one of the most important factors in fiction.
  • unplug from technology every so often to reconnect with yourself, people, and life.
  • write truthful human emotions and create a strong connection between your readers and characters.

RIGHT!

If you need a reminder, or didn’t get to read Part One, head on back to Wednesday’s post, Part One: Emotional Barrier in Fiction. Why is it so important for you to learn how to cross it? and we will see you back here in a sec.

Moving on to the meat.

Let’s assume that you have all either gone to a psychotherapist, been on stage, or have taken my class, From MADNESS to Method: Using acting techniques to invigorate your story and make each moment Oscar worthy! and can cross the emotional barrier with ease. *wink wink* And what you have found on the other side is absolutely amazing and totally usable for your fiction and you are raring to jump to the BIG emotional scenes in your novel and write write write!

No. I won’t let you. Not yet.

muppetAwww…come on!

First, we have to make sure your characters have a solid emotional base to jump off of, emotions to fly by, emotional places to visit, and an emotional crash pad. Donald Maass calls this an emotional landscape in Chapter Three of Writing 21st Century Fiction:

“To foster reader involvement it is first critical to map an emotional landscape which readers will travel. Readers must feel that they are on a journey, one with felt significance and a destination that we can sum up as change.”

Yes, your character has to start somewhere emotionally in order to have a journey. You can’t just plop them on the page and start writing events, plot points, outer conflict, and black moments without having an inner conflict jumping off point.  Starting with action is fun. Starting with dialogue, also fun.  But watch out, if the reader doesn’t know where your character is emotionally in the first few pages, their need to read on wanes. And if you, the writer doesn’t start out by mapping this emotional landscape, then you might end up writing the wrong level and wrong angle of emotion in those BIG scenes.

Let’s see how Lisa Unger starts her emotional landscape in Darkness, My Old Friend:

Darkness-My-Old-Friend-Mass-Market-ThumbPrologue

Failure wasn’t a feeling; it was a taste in his mouth, an ache at the base of his neck. It was a frantic hum in his head. The reflection of failure resided in his wife’s tight, fake smile when he came home at the end of the day. He felt the creeping grip of it in her cold embrace. She didn’t even know the worst of it. No one did. But they could all smell it, couldn’t they? It was like booze on his breath.

****

Wow, this guy is in a really good place in his life right now…. Sorry, couldn’t resist the sarcasm because it is painfully obvious he is on the wrong side of the happy-go-round.

Lisa Unger gives us one heck of an emotional base for this character:

  • Failure that leaves a taste in your mouth. That’s not a little failure, this, is a lot.
  • He can physically feel this emotion in his neck and head.
  • His wife fakes a smile at him.
  • Cold embrace means there is a lack of love and affection between them.
  • He tells us that all of this isn’t the worst of it, which means, this man has a BIG BAD secret.

All of this in the very first paragraph of the novel.

Unger used emotive words like:

  • Failure
  • Ache
  • Frantic
  • Tight
  • Fake
  • Creeping
  • Grip
  • Cold
  • Worst
  • Smell
  • Booze

We don’t have to hear the sirens to know the lights are flashing in this character’s future meltdown.  We know this character is bad news and we want to see how bad it gets. How many other characters can he take down with him? Or, will there be a surprise? Reader interest is definitely sparked and it’s because she started with emotion.

What if she had written:

Kevin felt like a failure. It made his neck tense and his head hurt. When he went home to his wife, she pretended she was happy he was home. They didn’t have much sex anymore. Probably for the best because he had a secret he hadn’t told anyone and it would probably affect their relationship.

Blah blah blah! My version opened the door for an emotional base, but it didn’t really let the reader in. Not a good way to start a book.

Okay okay, some of you think I cheated by showing the prologue, am I right? Because the prologue is supposed to be thick with emotion?  I agree. But I couldn’t not show you that, because I just think it’s a tasty start to a story.

Unger brings the emotional jack-hammer in Chapter One as well. Here you go:

Chapter One

Jones Cooper feared death. The dread of it woke him at night, sat him bolt upright and drew all the breath from his lungs, narrowed his esophagus, had him rasping in the dark. It turned all the normal shadows of the bedroom that he shared with his wife into a legion of ghouls and intruders waiting with silent and malicious intent. When? How? Heart attack. Cancer. Freak accident. Would it come for him quickly? Would it slowly waste and dehumanize him?  What, if anything, would await him?

****

See! Told you. Lisa Unger rocks at setting up the emotional landscape.  I have NO doubt that she is a frequent traveler across her own emotional barrier.

Part of Cooper’s inner conflict that we can see right away:

  • Will he live the rest of his life being afraid, allowing it to affect every day until a coffin surrounds his body?
  • Will he surpass his fear and surprise us at every turn?

What if she had written:

Jones Cooper woke up most nights with an extreme fear of death.

My version doesn’t have the same rhythm, cadence, intensity, or emotional resonance does it?

LOL, nope.

*Ah, before I go on, if you didn’t know already, if you have a Kindle, or a Kindle app, you can download a sample of most books on Amazon. It’s usually the first two chapters. This is a great way to see (and afford to see) all of your favorite authors and how they emotionally hook you in those two chapters. Unfortunately when a writer is as good as Lisa Unger, there is really no point in just reading the first two chapters, you simply must read the whole book. So head on over and read the rest (after you are finished reading this blog, of course). The prologue alone is worth its weight in gold.

Up next, Markus Sakey and the first few paragraphs of The Two Deaths Of Daniel Hayes:

Marcus cover                  He was naked and cold, stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goose bumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater in to his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feat crawling like a child.

                  As the wave receded it drew pebbles rattling across one another like bones, like dice, like static. A seagull shrieked its loneliness.

                  His lungs burned, and he leaned on his elbows and retched, liquid pouring in ropes from his open mouth, salt water and stomach acid. A lot, and then less, and finally he could spit the last drops, suck in quick shallow lungfuls of air that smelled of rotting fish.

                  In. Cough it out. There. There.

                  His hands weren’t his. Paler than milk and trembling with panicky violence. He couldn’t make them stop. He’d never been so cold.

                  What was he doing here?

****

From a quick first glance it seems as though these are all physical issues Sakey is giving his character. But if you take your pulse before you started reading this and after, you would most definitely have a difference in tempo.  This character is half dead and struggling to survive. He gives us some great images and metaphors to show emotion here.

  • Crawling like a child.
  • Pebbles rattling like bones.
  • Seagull shrieking its loneliness.
  • Trembling with panicky violence
  • “Cough it out. There. There.” As if he’s consoling a child, or his mother is there consoling him.

Not to mention ALL of the power words he uses. I’m pretty sure you can point them out. Too many to list!

Part of this character’s initial inner conflict:

  • Will he struggle to crawl out of the ocean to face whatever put him there in the first place?
  • Will he give up and die?

Hmmm… . I keep talking about inner conflict, Donald Maass defines it as follows:

“…don’t confuse inner conflict with inner turmoil, a messy indecision, waffling, and weakness  that turns readers off. Inner conflict is dilemma. A debate that can’t be won, an unavoidable fork in a road that leads to two equally feared or desired destinations. It’s a predicament that’s powerfully human.”

I love that. “…powerfully human.” Lisa Unger and Markus Sakey have done a brilliant job of showing a well defined inner conflict, and they have both done it on the first page!

Do you have to show a defined inner conflict on the first page?

No.

But if you are starting with deep POV, the emotion had better be there and inner conflict better be right around the corner (like on one of the next three pages.) If you are starting off with action and dialogue, then we should have a sense of your character’s beginning emotional state. Here’s a good example. I am currently reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Asher coverChapter One

                  “Sir?” she repeats. “How soon do you want it to get there?”

                  I rub two fingers, hard, over my left eyebrow. The throbbing has become intense. “It doesn’t matter,” I say.

                  The clerk takes the package. The same shoebox that sat on my porch less than twenty-four hours ago; rewrapped in a brown paper bag, sealed with clear packing tape, exactly as I had received it. But now addressed with a new name. The next name on Hannah Baker’s list.

                   “Baker’s dozen,” I mumble. Then I feel disgusted for even noticing it.

                  “Excuse me?”

                   I shake my head. “How much is it?”

                  She places the box on a rubber pad, then punches a sequence on her keypad.

                  I set my cup of gas-station coffee on the counter and glance at the screen. I pull a few bills from my wallet, dig some coins out of pocket, and place my money on the counter.

                  “I don’t think the coffee’s kicked in yet,” she says. “You’re missing a dollar.”

                  I hand over the extra dollar, then rub the sleep from my eyes. The coffee’s lukewarm when I take a sip, making it harder to gulp down. But I need to wake up somehow.

                  Or maybe not. Maybe it’s best to get through the day half-asleep. Maybe that’s the only way to get through today.

****

While we don’t know exactly what his inner conflict is yet, we have a ton of emotional hits and can get a pretty clear idea of what his emotional state is on the first page.

  • Asher starts the character in the middle of…something, and the character isn’t even paying attention. His mind is obviously elsewhere.
  • He’s rubbing his brow. Hard. A sign of emotion when coupled with the fact that he is having a hard time paying attention.
  • Throbbing in the brain is never a sign of something good.
  • Character says he doesn’t care.
  • Character mumbling to self, disgusted at self.
  • Not paying attention again when he shortchanges her.
  • Rubbing sleep from eyes. Normal action when you are getting out of bed, but this guy is already at the store with coffee in hand. Sign that sleep didn’t come easy if at all the night before.
  • Thinking that the only way to get through this day is to do it half asleep. Another clue that something crappy is going on in his life and it occupying his thoughts.

Have you noticed that even though these aren’t the BIG emotional scenes (that I won’t let you write yet without supervision) they are still stuffed with emotion?  ALL of that work that you did to cross the emotional barrier and everything you brought back with you WILL BE USED. Some of it in slivers here and there to help guide the reader on the emotional journey, and some of it in the BIG scenes.

But you can’t afford to save the whole bundle for that one BIG turning point, it won’t matter to the reader how much is in that scene, if they don’t know where the emotional journey started.

In the online course I teach, I work with writers to infuse emotion into their little moments as well as the big ones. Because so much can be shown in a “simple” scene between husband and wife over breakfast,  getting dressed for the day,  a phone conversation with your best friend, getting into a taxi, giving someone a gift, etc. These little emotional hops, skips, and dips might seem tedious to the emotional beginner, or be viewed as mushy gushy bits of language that could slow pace or veer your scene into a ditch, but as you can see from the above examples, pacing is not dropped and there aren’t any ditches.

Their writing is active.

And their writing is good!

****************

Thank you so much for reading today!  Stay tuned for Part Three!  Let me know if you have any questions. I won’t be teaching again until next summer, so I apologize, I can’t give any classes away today.

There are many MANY authors out there with the  ability to beat down emotional barriers with ease and skill.  Got a favorite?

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

Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online.

As an editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.