Q: Fiction or Nonfiction? A: Both.

I spoke to a writers’ group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the publication at age twenty-six of my first book, a nonfiction guide to backpacking and camping in developing countries. I described the vagaries of finding an agent and publisher, and revealed to the audience my real dream as a writer. I told the group that while I was proud of my nonfiction debut, what I really wanted was to write and publish fiction.

I made clear in a know-it-all way—as twenty-somethings are wont to do—that while nonfiction was all well and good, I saw fiction as the only true form of writing.

An elderly woman in the crowd was kind enough to not put me on the spot during the Q&A se

ssion that followed my remarks. Instead, she confronted me afterward, face to face.

She told me she was writing a memoir about her family’s roots, and that she’d found her nonfiction work to be extremely challenging and wholly satisfying, even as she was aware that her manuscript—nearly complete after several years’ work—had little chance at publication. Why, she asked me in conclusion, was I disparaging the very type of writing I’d been so fortunate to have published?

I backpedaled clumsily and offered the woman my apologies.

In the years that followed, I poured myself into writing and publishing several more nonfiction books, one of which won the National Outdoor Book Award. I wrote each book with pride and enthusiasm, and always with the woman’s comments in mind.

But I always kept alive, in the back of my mind, the desire to write fiction.

 

Four years ago—twenty-five years after the publication of my first nonfiction book—Torrey House Press published my debut work of fiction, Canyon Sacrifice, book one in my National Park Mystery Series. I’ve written three more installments in the series since then, with book four, Yosemite Fall, scheduled for release by Torrey House in June 2018.

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing fiction these last five years—so much so, in fact, that I had assumed writing nonfiction was forever in my past. But when I ran across a fascinating, true-life historical tale while researching Yosemite Fall, I surprised myself by leaping at the chance to develop the story as a work of narrative nonfiction.

In returning to nonfiction after my mystery-writing stint, I’ve found tha

 

t the woman who confronted me thirty years ago knew what she was talking about. I’m relishing the challenge and satisfaction of writing nonfiction again.

Moreover, I’m leaning hard on everything I learned while writing my mysteries to make my new book as compelling and fully realized and many-layered as anything I’ve ever written.

After three decades as an author, it took my move from nonfiction to fiction and back again to recognize what the woman in Albuquerque tried to impress upon me at the very start of my career: it’s the writing itself that matters. When the question is fiction or nonfiction, the answer, I’ve finally learned, is both.

 

Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The fourth book in the series, Yosemite Fall, will be released in June 2018. Graham lives in Durango, Colorado. Visit him at scottfranklingraham.com.

Life’s Wake-Up Calls

For the past few months, I've been so focused on my own stuff that I realize I've been missing the bigger picture. Time to reevaluate.

As some of you may have heard, we've been moving—downsizing—and I've been angsting over a variety of things:

1. Downsizing.

How do you get rid of a thing that someone else has saved for you and that goes back generations when it's something that doesn't fit your life anymore, maybe it never fit your life, but the guilt of letting it go is numbing?

Case in point: the secretary desk that belonged to my grandma Esther. She loved that desk, used it daily and thought I would love it. I did, for a while. Then I put it in my daughter's room. She used it, and her sisters used it, all through high school. It had a glass display case above a desk top that folded down to reveal cubbies and drawers. They loved it.

Now, with no place to put it in the new house, I thought one of the girls would want it. Not! However, with the brilliance of the Millennials, one of my daughters suggested I take a picture of the secretary and post it up to a private account on Instagram. That way I could see it whenever I wanted, remember Gram whenever I looked at it, and free myself of the tangible object. We snapped a photo, then she helped me place it up on Craig's List. It sold right away, and I had an anxiety attack! BUT, lo and behold, the young woman who bought it was so excited to get it I forgot all about feeling guilty. It turned out that her grandmother had a desk exactly like it. After her grandmother died, her estate went into foreclosure and everything had to be sold at auction. I now look at the picture I have and am delighted to know that Gram's secretary is somewhere being cherished.

2. My identity.

I grew up in Evergreen. After a few years at CU in Boulder, I moved to Frisco (CO) and became a ski bum for a while, married, had kids, and moved back to Evergreen. We lived in the Country Club neighborhood of Denver for a few years while my kids were in high school, but we always had our house in the hills. Now, for the first time in nearly 60 years, I live in Denver. But I'm a mountain girl, I tell you. Except I now own a home and live in the DTC area. I can see my mountains (notice how possessive I am), but I no longer reside in a house tucked back into the woods. Who am I?

3. My career.

While I was at Bouchercon in Toronto, I met with my editor. To my dismay, he told me that international thrillers across the board just aren't selling very well right now. Even the superstars writing espionage and geopolitical thrillers have seen a drop in their numbers, though you're still hitting the list if you're one of the big boys. My editor told me he wants the next Raisa book, just not now. He wants a "different kind of thriller, perhaps a standalone" for my next book. That means if I want to continue writing for Crooked Lane, I need a new premise.

F*^k! I have a few more Raisa Jordan books to write, and I was deep into plotting Book #3.

On that note, I headed to Maine after Bouchercon to visit a friend who had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had undergone chemo, the tumors had disappeared and her blood counts were good. I had planned to visit in July after ThrillerFest, but I ended up with pneumonia then and figured that someone on chemo didn't need to be exposed to me. The fact she was doing so much better had me really looking forward to seeing her. I called her the night before I was scheduled to arrive and she said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're coming. I didn't tell you before because I was afraid you wouldn't come, but the cancer is back with a vengeance. They started me on hospice care last week."

F*^k! I'm not ready to lose a friend. And the world's not ready to lose a New York Times bestselling romance writer, who—despite the ravages of cancer—lamented, "I'm not ready to die. I still have two more books in me." It turns out she'd been stringing her fans along with the promise of something to come in her series, only to run out of time.

Sort of puts it all in perspective.

C

Driving for a Paycheck

I’ve finally figured it out! There are two signs on each car I drive seen only by Special Drivers. (Special, of course, meaning unusual, distinct, specific and obviously run-of-the-mill.)

I’m sure the sign on the front bumper says, “Pull immediately in front of me, proceed really, really slowly, and then wash your windshield.” The sign on the rear of the car has got to read, “Please tailgate.”

And don’t get me started on weekend traffic.

I’m not perfect, and I have vowed to change my ways: turning weaknesses into strengths like…say…cussing at, cursing, or calling other drivers dirty names. Currently, my employment involves driving various vehicles. I had almost made my nearly unachievable goal of being cuss-free for an entire week, but then...

Back up the truck to last Monday and find me buckled in, engine running and sitting at a stop light. With my own eyes I witness not one, not two, but three drivers speed past me and through the intersection—through the red light. What? Only one car was hit and it wasn’t mine. (I was happy as h*ll is hot about that.) Before I realized, words escaped over my tongue and between my lips for God and everyone with a window rolled down to hear. I called all three of the Special Drivers the same bad name.

Tuesday, different intersection and one car length ahead of me, a driver decides to change lanes. Oops—doesn’t see the car next to him. “D*mn, that’s gonna hurt.” The word blurted itself out of my mouth as though my voice had a brain of its own.

On Wednesday, I figured saying Sister and Brother to acknowledge the sobs are children of God too would be a good thing. Plus, and this is a big plus, instead of saying naughty words, I substituted good words. For instance, Sister Wad of Dip, Brother Adam Henry, Sister DS, Brother What are You Thinking? Are you thinking? Sister were you born (insert word of choice) or are you practicing for a contest? That kept the cussing away until a semi truck came inches from rear-ending my 2018 automobile.

Honestly, Thursday began with cussing. An oil truck, complete with a dirty, round tank, (one that either delivers clean auto oil or picks up used oil), was eastbound down Mt. Vernon hill. Rear brake (singular) was a-burnin’. I sped past that driver, who reminded me of a supervisor I once had—round and constantly smoking.

On that very Friday I created fictional—sort of—characters from dippy drivers I witnessed behind their wheels. Not one of my creatures received a dirty name! I know, b*tchin’, huh?

But I learned not all idiotic things happen while driving.

There I was delivering paperwork to the Jefferson County Courthouse (not my own). Alas, I was NOT in the now, not focused on the job at hand, head in an imagined book… I lost the one and only key to my employer’s new car. Wait—there’s more. Wearing out my shoes, I repeatedly raced to the parking lot to ensure the car was still there. The last time out, I ran into one of the sheriff’s deputies—he was on duty—Sh*t! Armor is stiff. In my defense, he stood on my side of the walkway.

I’m humbled now and mending my ways. However, I’ve enrolled in Cussing Anonymous because I still drive for a paycheck.

Why is it at least 60% of gray or white vehicles being driven in fog are done so without headlights on?

Why do people signal after they’ve changed lanes? Why do so many new vehicles have broken blinker bulbs? Why do blinkers not shut off after people have turned?

How in the world is it possible to read a Playboy Magazine and drive at the same time? (rhetorical question only)

I find my morning commute to work is indicative of the rest of the day.

When there are three lanes headed in the same direction, why can’t some drivers pick one—just one?

Indie Basecamp

When it comes time to make the decision about publishing path, too often indie writers overlook the fundamentals until the lack of foundation feels overwhelming. Once overwhelmed, the situation doesn't get any better. For this year's Colorado Gold, I put together a list of things to do - and the sequence I believe makes the most sense.

Here's my checklist*:

Day 0:

These are the things you probably didn't think about while you were writing your book.

  • Hang out a shingle. Get the URL and establish a website. Your website is the place where you gather fans. Set up a shell so you have a place to link to when you need it. Don’t worry about content there yet.
  • Set up a mailing list. Your mailing list is the one channel you have that goes directly to your audience. Don't abuse it. Mailchimp is your friend. Start an account and add their signup widget to your website.
  • Write your author bio. Make three versions – 50/100/300 words long. Don’t recite the facts. Tell a story. Add them to a page on your website (often labeled "Press Kit") so you can find them again when you need them.
  • Get a photo of your face. Professional is good, but a selfie that says “Hi there!” will do at this stage. Add it to your "Press Kit" page
  • Get a Twitter account. Use the short bio and the headshot. You'll use this to talk with readers.
  • Get a Facebook account. Use the medium bio and the headshot. You'll use this to talk with readers and writers (via closed groups)
  • Get a Google+ account. Use the long bio and the headshot. You'll use this to talk with writers.
  • Put the links to all three on your website.
  • Decide if you want to play in any other gardens.
  • Begin cultivating your network of peers

Week 1:

A lot of these things need more than a week to do. My editor asks for a month to work her magic. I only give my betas three days. I've bundled these together because you can't really get ahead in the process until you've done all these things. While you're waiting, you could start the next book and reach out to indie authors in the niche you're about to become part of.

  • Pass your final manuscript to beta readers. First time authors find this difficult because they have no betas. (It's easy. Ask me how.)
  • Decide how much of the feedback to incorporate. Just because they said it's a problem, doesn't mean you need to fix it.
  • Pass your final manuscript to your editor. You'll need at least a copy editor. Plan for this.
  • Decide on how much of the feedback to incorporate. Just because the editor noted it, doesn't mean you have to change it.
  • Get the cover art

Week 2:

These are the "publish it" steps. There are a lot of different paths. Mine is more complicated because I'm fussy about the ebook formatting. I've taken the time to learn the skills necessary to publish the ebook in the format I want. In the beginning, I'd have done this if I could have. While I've labeled this week 2, it shouldn't take more than a morning.

  • Get an account at Draft2Digital
  • Upload your final manuscript but don’t publish it there
  • Upload your cover art
  • Download the resulting .epub file
  • Get the Amazon Offline Previewer
  • Open the epub with the previewer to convert to mobi.
  • Decide what markets to participate in (Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iBook)
  • Upload your files (cover and interior) to each one directly

Week 3:

After you've hit publish, there's not much you can do. Especially not with a first book. What you need to do is start the next one and work on your foundation.

  • Profit. (not really)
  • Work on growing your network of peers
  • Join RMFW

I appreciate that this laundry list doesn't actually tell you everything you need to know - like what to do with your new accounts (play with the people you find there) or how to get people to sign up for your email list (I support the "one at a time" strategy as most valuable). One of the difficulties is that there are as many different ways to use social media as there are people.

Leave me a comment and I'll do my best to answer.

* The steps assume you're writing long-form fiction (novels) and have a completed manuscript in your hands. You can't get fans for a book you're going to write so having the manuscript done is a watershed event. Non-fiction authors may discover their process works a bit differently.

This post tries to answer the question "Now what?"

Image Credit:Image Credit:cotaro70s: Everest Base CampCC BY-ND 2.0

The Black Bourgeoisie and Acting White

For those who don’t remember learning about Marxism, the Bourgeoisie were those who stood at the top of the economic ladder because they controlled the means of production. They were the land owners and factory owners. When discussing African-Americans, the “Black Bourgeoisie” are the very top of the socio-economic period. They are the doctors and business owners. The ones who attended traditional black colleges and joined traditional black fraternities and sororities.

For many people, the idea of acting white seems odd. How do white people act? Is there a secret handshake or something? Do all white people act the same way? The answer is, of course not. But one way African-Americans have traditionally defined themselves is in opposition to the dominant, white culture. When a black man or woman becomes economically successful, they usually take on the cultural norms of the peer group they associate with. In my opinion, this is only natural; if you want to be a successful lawyer, you hang around successful lawyers. However, once a black person begins to acculturate with their new peer group, a group which is probably sparsely populated with other black people, tensions can arise within the black community and family they live with. More on this later.

There has always been a black bourgeoisie. Going back to before the Civil War, there were community leaders in the free black community that owned business, owned farms, even owned slaves. (Yes, it was legal for free blacks to own slaves in the American Antebellum South.)

When the Civil War ended, abolitionists went south to start colleges for former slaves who showed the drive and the ability to better themselves. Colleges like Morehouse and Spellman, private schools that opened in 1867, were followed later by dozens of segregated schools of higher learning, both public and private, throughout the American South. It was here that the elite of the African-American community learned, socialized, and prepared themselves for leadership in the black community. They even formed their own fraternities and sororities.

Alpha Phi Alpha was the first black fraternity, formed at Cornell in 1906. It quickly spread to traditional black colleges across the south. Its members include W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Justice Thurgood Marshall, to name a few.

Middle class African-American women attending a women's club, circa 1950s

Through traditional black colleges and the exclusive black fraternities and sororities, leaders were molded throughout Reconstruction and most of the 20th century. These leaders, while clearly middle-class by American standards, and affluent by the standards of the black community, were always aware that their position was precarious. That their wealth or political clout within the black community did not shield them from systemic racism. I believe this began to change in the early 1980s.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took a turn toward the radical with the rise of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement. While previous generations of African-Americans tried to work within the system with legal proceedings and civil discourse, some in the Black Power Movement argued for separation of the races and a consolidation of black people in their own communities, with their own schools, with the power to physically defend themselves. (In light of 100+ years of lynching in the south, as well as police violence nationwide against peaceful leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., self-defense was seen by many as the only option.)

They began to separate and distance themselves from traditional organizations, like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Paralleling to Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party, as well as Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, began to mirror, roughly, the same message of self-reliance, self-restraint, self-discipline and segregation from the greater American community.

These people began to openly criticize the traditional Civil Rights Movement. They also criticized the traditional leaders of the black community, the black bourgeoisie. They mocked them for “acting white,” for selling out and for playing Uncle Tom. They might even be called Bourgie.

At the same time, a social movement called Black is Beautiful sprang up in the late 1960s. The people involved were black artists who tried to embrace black skin and kinky hair. If this makes no sense to you, please understand that many of the original members of the black bourgeoisie were the descendants of slave owners; they were mixed.

The racism of the time was mimicked by the black community; lighter skinned African-Americans felt superior to their darker skinned brothers and sisters. African-Americans tried to emulate white people by dumping chemicals in their hair to make it straight and wavy. They put harsh chemicals on their skin to bleach and lighten it up.

I am a mixed race child. My hair is dark and curly. When I was growing up, all my relatives said I had good hair. Why? Because it wasn’t kinky. This is institutional racism. Hair isn’t good or bad, it’s just hair!

The Black Power Movement fought against that. It openly mocked black people who tried too hard to emulate the dominant culture. Many of the Black Power leaders (though not all) came from severe poverty and single-parent homes. Consequently, if embracing “Black Power” meant rejecting those who emulated the dominant culture, it also meant embracing, in many ways, the culture of poverty.

This tension is strongly related to the tension felt by middle-class black people with relatives still in poverty. When it comes to wealth, the tension is: How and when do I stop helping those in the community I feel some responsibility for? When dealing with the issue of acting white, the question becomes one of identity and authenticity.

What is authentic for me? Am I more authentic when I’m around my professional peers and my fellow hobbyists? Or when I am around my own people?

Are these speech patterns I use around my professional peers authentic to me? Is this how I sound when I think to myself? Or am I mimicking speech that will make me fit in?

Do I feel like I don’t fit in when around other African-Americans? Or when I’m around white people?

OK, why is this important to your character?

If you’re writing fiction set in today’s world, and your black character has a white collar job, chances are they struggle with the transition from the culture they’ve grown up in, and the culture they now inhabit. Conversely, if they grew up middle-class, how do they interact with other African-Americans who are poor? Do they mimic the language of Black Power? Do they reject cultural differences? Do they look down on other black people and adopt the dominant culture? Are they ashamed of their success? Defensive?

If they are artists, musicians, love something quirky like ballroom dancing or they read steampunk; if they worked at the Renaissance faire, or voted Republican; if they loved comic books or ballet; they had struggles within their community or their family about being a sell-out. They might be accused of being fake. They might be accused of being a sell-out, even by those they help. They might get called an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside).

Fortunately, my own experience with these issues has led me to believe that things are changing. As more African-Americans claw into the middle class and stay there, a new hybrid identity develops that takes the best of both worlds. A new black bourgeoisie that is aware of black history and black struggles, while unashamed to participate in the broader culture on their own terms.

 

Here are some writing exercises.

#1.) Write a scene where your black character is surrounded by his professional peer group at a restaurant, a sporting event or wherever. Have your character run into a friend they grew up with, or know from a long time ago. How will your character react? Will their speech patterns change? Will this person’s presence make them feel uncomfortable? If so, is your black character embarrassed because her peers see her black friend? Or, is she embarrassed because her black friend sees her peers? How will your character get out of the situation?

#2.) Write a scene where your black character is explaining to his white friend a confrontation they’ve had with family or friends. They’ve been accused of selling out because of something they love to do. (Ballet, opera, comic book conventions, acting, etc.) Make a point of having the white friend not understand the issue. Will the black character be able to explain it? Or just give up?

 

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Check out my website at www.jasonhenryevans.com

Writing Romance: The Inciting Incident

Last month, we compared and contrasted WANT vs. NEED. Again, we’re using Jami Gold’s beat sheet as a basis for these articles. This month, we’re moving on to the Inciting Incident.

If you research “inciting incident,” you’ll find that most definitions include the idea of thrusting the protagonist(s) forward into the main action of the story. It’s the event that hooks both the readers and the characters. Note: The term is most often used in the Hero's Journey plotting.  In the beat sheet it says, “Give a glimpse of how right the characters could be for each other (Essence), but they’re not ready yet (identity)."

In a romance, this is usually the first time the hero and heroine cross paths, the first time they meet. It is generally found in the middle of Act One.

This scene can be a reflection or bookend to the Final Image/Resolution of the story. It can happen in the same place, or use similar words. Note: How much fun is it to actually see that Final Image that was used in the beginning and see how perfect this pair of lovers is for each other? If you’re thinking about doing the reflection/bookend thing, feel free to write both scenes right now. That doesn’t mean that last scene is set in stone. It probably isn’t.

Remember, this scene is all about the possibilities. Why should these two be together? What attracts them? Why might they want to fall in love?

I hate, hate, hate to throw this monkey wrench in here. But I have to. Since we’re using Jami’s beat sheet, I’m sticking with the point-by-point within it. But don’t get me wrong. It is not the ONLY way. How many of your favorite romance novels have the inciting incident be volatile and negative? Before they get out of the room, these two detest each other? That’s certainly a valid “inciting incident” as well. Then, they have a mountain to overcome right off the bat.

But let’s say you do it Jami’s way. Does that mean there’s no mountain? Well, shoot, no. There has to be a mountain. It just comes a bit after that first meeting, that first inciting incident. After they’ve met and smiled at each other and left that place with that warm, fuzzy feeling. After they’ve maybe even smiled for the rest of the day and fantasized about that perfect person.

It won’t be long until they find out who that person is - the guy that holds the mortgage to the ranch - the girl that got the job he wanted. Conflict! But for now, there’s that amazing moment in the coffee shop when they are perfect for each other. The realization that crashes the dream is so much sweeter then.

This inciting incident will be a scene you want to work hard to get right. Whose Point-of-View should it be in? What will the characters remember from this moment? The lighting? The music that’s playing? What he’s wearing? Her perfume? It’s important to get the details right. The takeaways for each character.

Craft this scene. Make it sing. Is that easy? Not really. But who told you writing a great book was easy?

Oh, and by the way, you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can write that scene and keep going - as a matter of fact, you should. If you get hung up with your inner editor making that scene perfect the first time through, you may never get the book written. Just know that it’s an important scene to get right.

Your homework is to take a few favorites off your keeper shelf and study the “inciting incident.”

Until next month - remember, Campers, BIC-HOK. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.

Jax

 

Thrillers, Part 2 of 4: Heroes

HeroHeroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.

A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.

Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.

I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.

What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.

Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.

Montana: Big Book Country

Jane Smiley

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

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

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

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

'The Inlanders' panel

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

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

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

Montana Noir panel

Hilarious. And true.

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

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

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

The 'Montana Noir' crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Subtle Art of Similes and Metaphors

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Example: Her mouth fell open like a trapdoor.

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

 

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

Example: He swung his fist like an enormous club.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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