Category Archives: General Interest

Six Short Story Traps and Quick Escapes, Plus a Giveaway

By Lori DeBoer

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Henry nailed it; writing short is more challenging than writing long. There is promise and magic inherent in the short story, but there are common common traps that waylay unwary writers.

Many traps are caused by the form itself. Short stories create a sense of mystery, because their small footprint requires them to allude to larger themes, rather than hitting readers squarely over the head with them. Short story writers should look for the epiphany, the transcendent moment. A strong piece of short writing almost always focuses on a moment of profound realization, of creating that singular, atmospheric effect.

As V.S. Pritchett noted, a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”

Joseph O’Connor, writing in Dublin in 1997 in his introduction to his Fish Anthology: Dog Days and Other Stories, had this to say about the form: “The short story is one of the greatest, most challenging, most infuriating forms of literature. They look so easy! That’s the thing about really good short stories. They don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page. When we read the work of a short story maestro like Joyce or Frank O’Connor or Richard Ford or Alice Munro or Mary Lavin, we think, yes, there is just a rightness about that sentence, that image, that line of speech. But anyone who has ever tried to write a short story will know just how tough it is to hit that reverberating note, to say something – anything at all – worthwhile about the human condition, in five thousand words or less. It’s hard.”

The shorter the piece, the more perfect and polished it must be. That’s why many writers come to short stories later in their careers. Writing in this genre requires a sense of precision; everything counts, nothing is extraneous or by chance. A short piece of fiction at once a work of art, as closely related to poetry as it is to its long cousin, the novel. Yet, it still must still contain elements of story.

With these parameters, it’s relatively easy for a newbie writer to go astray, but it’s also easier for a beginner to fix short pieces. Let’s talk about some traps that imperil the untutored writer.

 

The trap of writing too large

A good short story is concise, I repeat, and creates a singular effect. For example, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories create a sense of dissonance and eerie unease in the reader. Kevin Brockmeier’s short stories rely on a punchy absurdity with profound moments of realization. Antonia Nelson’s short stories contrast everyday reality with points of pain and crisis. Beginners go awry by trying to say too much. They cram too many story lines or encompass too large a period of time into their stories. When you do this, you simply skim the surface, and end up writing a story treatment or plot outline for a novel.

Quick escape:  Contain your short stories to a short time frame and only two or three settings. When I write a short story, I find it useful to shoot for something really short, such as a prose poem. When things get out of hand, as they often do, I’ve then ended up with an actual short story rather than a novel.

 

The trap of writing too small

It’s fine to shoot for shorter, but a typical short story is larger than a poem or piece of flash fiction. You end up writing too small when you have a weak premise or trivial theme; the result is a story that lumbers along, trying to pick up speed. Trivial themes arise when there’s nothing at stake and really no point in the main characters to pursue their story goal. You’ll know you have a trivial theme when you are finding it hard to stretch your story out to five pages or more, or if your characters are all sitting around drinking coffee or smoking weed. If you find yourself not caring about what happens to the characters, neither will your reader. If you feel you are writing a narrative that is merely experimental or for effect, chances are you are writing too small. If there’s no heart in your story, you might also be writing too small.

Quick escape: Make your story events arise out of character goals set in each scene. The stories unfold because of the consequences of each decision the main character makes. Doing so automatically enlarges the story.

 

The trap of too much backstory, too early

If you’ve been trapped at a party with a stranger who is regaling you with all the sordid details of their life, you’ve experienced too much backstory. It’s harder for writers to realize they are doing this, because you don’t actually see your reader backing away. Backstory for the fiction writer functions the same as research; as a creator, you need to know all that background to make sense of what you are writing. That doesn’t mean the reader needs an info dump at the beginning. A prologue is nothing more than formalized backstory, and unless it’s done very cleverly, most agents and editors hate prologues. Backstory works best when it comes in at points where the reader needs to know some personal history to make sense of the character’s motivations. The current story line needs to be taut and tense enough—like a clothesline—to hold up a certain amount of backstory.

Quick escape: Think of backstory as being on a “need to know” basis. Dribble it in judicious, gossipy bits, instead of throwing it in one big chunk at the front of the story.

 

The trap of too many characters

Unlike the novel or the epic series, short stories occupy a small stage. If you have too many characters crowding that space, it becomes difficult for the writer to clearly convey what’s going on. Too many characters dilute a story’s singular effect. The crowd of characters makes it difficult for the reader to hone in on individual voices or mannerisms, to differentiate the important players from the walk-ons. As a bonus trap, when you have a group of characters on the stage, beginning writers resort to moving them around as a group, rather than letting each person occupy space fully. Symptomatic sentences read like this: “Everyone chuckled” or “we all nodded our heads.” If you can’t move your characters around individually, they are just cluttering your story up and taking up word count that you could better use for something else.

Quick escape:  Think of the cast size of your short story as being akin to a duet or quartet, rather than a full orchestra.

The trap of writing too loose

Short stories are typically more experimental and atmospheric, with an attention on the language as much as the actual action. While it is true that short stories do not need to be as plot driven as novels, beginning writers should stick with the tried and true elements of storytelling. In the hands of a beginning writer, a postmodern, nonlinear story is harder to pull off. A short story that is too much a pastiche, or series of impressions, tend to make something read in an episodic manner. The longer the story, the more strain on the reader. It’s hard to build a singular effect if the disparate scenes don’t hold together and showy writing can turn quickly into something that is self-indulgent. As a bonus trap, without a traditional narrative, it’s hard for beginning writers to sort out what happens next. Without the main point of view character having story goals and consequences in each scene, the writer may end up writing in circles.

Quick escape: Have a little structure, a blueprint, a map, a plan. Understand the traditional function of storytelling and break that rule only when you have mastered the ability to keep tension on the page and your story in motion.

 

The trap of moralizing

It is true that stories have profound power, but writers who come to their stories with an agenda—to instruct, convert or reform the reader—put the storytelling in the wrong harness. Such stories always suffer from becoming thinly-disguised lectures, with the narratives so stilted and dull that readers simply stop reading.

Quick escape: Be aware that you are standing on a soap box and then step off it. Let the moral lessons stem naturally from the storytelling, and not the other way around. Throw yourself into telling a riveting story with engaging characters and trust that your values and beliefs will be present in an organic, natural way.

 

These are just a few of the traps that short story writers can fall into, but there’s more. If you’d like the full list, plus some of simple strategies for making a short story more publishable, please hop over to my website and sign up for my monthly newsletter. The address is: www.lorideboer.net. The signup form is on the home page, two-thirds of the way down.

I’d also love to hear your suggestions for traps that waylay unwary short story writers. If you comment below, before May 1, 2014, and give me permission to quote you, I’ll throw your name in the hat for a drawing for a $20 gift certificate from Amazon.com. You’ll use it only on books, of course.

Happy writing!

 

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog or connect with her on Google+.

How and Why Would You Choose a Pseudonym?

A couple of weeks ago, a reader of this blog contacted us to ask how she could go about selecting a pseudonym—one she could live with forever without regrets.

We thought that was a pretty good question, so I asked three writers in different genres how they chose their pen names.

 

Wendy Howard, our website goddess, has a plan.

“I’ll be publishing under 3 names eventually: W.J. Howard  for a mix of YA and adult, Wendy Spurlin for kids and Ruby Blythe for naughty sci fi.

I started with W. J. Howard years ago when I was mainly writing horror. Reason being, back then, women weren’t taken seriously as horror writers. That’s certainly changing. I think we’re more gruesome than men and don’t hold back.

Wendy Spurlin is my maiden name so that was easy to settle on, and Ruby Blythe took me forever to think up because you have to come up with something sexy and mysterious and consider domain names and competition on internet searches. Yeah, it’s not so easy a thing to settle on.”

 

Romance writer Thea Hutcheson also writes sexy adult romance as Theda Hudson,  so she wanted to help readers easily distinguish between the two genres.

“In the mid-eighties, I found myself unemployed, and in the course of scouring the want ads for jobs, I found an interesting ad under a general office category. The ad wanted someone for general office work — answering phones and performing paperwork, but was worded in an intriguing way. I called the number listed and it turned out it was for the Rocky Mountain Oyster, a local singles rag that was famous for personal ads. I applied and got the job.

We all used a pseudonym to work under to protect our identities. I chose Theda because I had a friend by that name so I would recognize it easily and it’s similar to Thea, and Hudson because it is enough like Hutcheson to sound familiar. I had lots of fun adventures working for that company, and, when it came time to brand my erotica, Theda was ready and willing to jump into the fun.”

 

Mystery writer Cricket McRae  has several series going under different pseudonyms plus a standalone novel. I knew her for quite awhile before I figured out she had a real name, too. She writes the home crafting mysteries as Cricket McRae, the magical bakery mysteries as Bailey Cates, her standalone as K.C. McRae

“Pen names should be memorable. A reader might not recall a particular book title, but if they can remember the author they can easily access all the books published under that name. However, memorable doesn’t necessarily mean odd. I personally tend to gravitate toward androgynous names. Someone who writes frothy romances might opt for a frothy, romantic name. A writer of hardboiled street stories might choose a pseudonym to reflect that particular sensibility.

Whatever you decide on, it’s important that the name feels like it really could be yours, that it’s something you identify with. Other people are going to expect you to answer to it, after all. Bailey is my grandmother’s maiden name, my father’s middle name, and I know two people who are named Bailey – one man and one woman. Cates is a play on another family name and rolls easily off the tongue after “Bailey.”

My final tests? Say the name fast twenty-five times. It should be relatively easy. Then write it on a piece of paper like a teenaged girl experimenting with the last name of her current crush. It should feel good to write as well. After all, you could be signing an awful lot of title pages with that name!”

 

If you’re a writer, do you use a pen name? If so, how did you choose it (or them)?

If you’re a reader, do you prefer a writer use pen names for different genres?

How Amazon Turned Me into a Serial Killer

Prior to September of 2012, my life was perfect. I had friends, my books were selling, and all was well. Then Amazon went and ruined my life. Forever.

And no, I am not being melodramatic.

Okay, I am, but just a little.

For those who have an Author Central page on Amazon, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who don’t, let me give you a little insight into the madness. An Author Central page is a page dedicated just to you, to your books, to your social media, to your profile and customer reviews. It’s a great one stop for all you. A writer/megalomaniac’s dream.

Except for one small thing.

It’s nothing really.

Just a ranking of you versus all the other authors on amazon.

Considering there are over 8 million books on amazon (probably a few million more since I typed that) you can see how you stack up against the population of Colorado and Nevada combined. Good times. Good times.

Now you’re probably asking how an author ranking made me into a serial killer. Well, it wasn’t hard. I was halfway there already. Amazon just added fuel to my fire, along with a target. 15,413 of them as of right now. Updated hourly. Makes it much easier when I don’t have to troll for victims…

You better watch it number 15,412. I’m headed your way.

No really. I have no designs on murdering at least 15,000 authors.

Not anytime soon. You can drop the restraining order Christopher Moore. I promise *wink*

So why in Amazon’s infinite wisdom did they start ranking authors, and more to the point, provided the same authors with said rankings? What can they and you possibly gain?

I wish I had a good answer.

The only foreseeable advantage I see, other than making us nuts (which while fun, probably doesn’t help amazon’s bottom dollar), is to grow more home-grown kindle authors and to have more people buy into Author Central, thereby, in the end, making for lower ebook prices (which equals more units sold) and no traditional publisher middle man.

While it can be easy as an author to get caught up in your author rank, because, let’s face it, we don’t get a lot of ego boosts otherwise. Most days are filled with mediocre reviews and rejection, often from my cat. He really hates when I serve him chicken and salmon cat food. You should check out his yelp reviews, they are downright catty.

But I digress; my point is the ranking system is a trap.

If you looked at my overall author ranking since it was born in 2012, you might think, hey, she must be doing all right if she’s ranked below 20,000 (as an author, the sanity question is still out). But you’d be wrong. While I make some money on book sales, I don’t even make enough to hit the poverty line from my amazon sales. That means, chances are, rank 15,415, 15,416, 15,417 and on and on probably aren’t either.

Now I’m not suggesting you don’t sign up for Author Central. They have a lot of good, helpful tools too for all authors. But remember, there is always an author ranked one number higher looking to bump you off.

And amazon offers plenty of shovels for sale.

Any other thoughts on author rank? Or better yet, anyone know where 15.232 lives?

*All kidding aside, I take any amazon ranking with a grain of salt. For one thing, we have no idea what sort of algorithm they’re using to rank authors. Does the number of books, the sales numbers, and how cute you look in a bathing suit matter? And what’s in a number anyway? Writers are bad at math. We’re lucky if we can add 2 +2, which is why publishers make royalty statements so hard to read.

** This is a follow up post to Amazon Ranking: From Loser to Bestseller and Back Again which I wrote on March 25.

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J.A. (Julie) Kazimer lives in Denver, CO. Novels include CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story, FROGGY STYLE and The Assassin’s Heart, as well as the forthcoming mystery series, Deadly Ever After from Kensington Books. J.A. spent years spilling drinks as a bartender and then stalked people while working as a private investigator.

Learn more at www.jakazimer.com or on her writerly talk blog More Than a Little F***ed Up. She can also be found (way too much of the time) on Twitter as @jakazimer and on Facebook as Julie Kazimer.

The Curse of the Critique Button?

I’m cursed. I can no longer watch a movie, attend a play, read a book, or (now) enjoy television without the writer in my head critiquing. And while that means I’ve finally internalized many craft lessons, it also means entertainment is much more complex. Last week, when I started griping about the slipping plotline on The Following, my man just rolled his eyes and nodded.

This was something I first noticed several years ago and, because I used to direct community theatre, I thought it was a result of directing experience. I found that I paid more attention to what other directors did in terms of lighting, costuming, and set construction. That was bad enough. When I became hyper-aware of choreography, line delivery, and how actors developed their characters, I realized writing was the culprit. I’d translated craft lessons first into my directing, then into how I watched a play.

Then, it was books. It became nearly impossible to shut off the critique in my head when I read. That aggravates me because I love to read. I focus on favorite authors but run out of books. That puts me on a search for new authors which sometimes means I grumble for a while—until I find the joy of a new discovery. I’ve learned, over time, to overlook small things but it still gets to me when I come across unmotivated characters. Especially because that makes me look closer at my own characters and necessitates editing. That’s a good thing, in the end, but it does make me complain. Ken just smiles.

Recently, though, I find it’s bleeding over into movies and television. I used to always notice costuming. Now, I see lack of motivation, manipulated plots, and lack of character arc. I leave movies knowing that I once would have been entertained but now see flaws. Television shows I enjoyed before now prompt negative comments. I can’t seem to turn off the darn critique button! I suspect it drives my family as batty as it does me but I have to give them credit for not laughing.

All that said, I’ve also developed a wonderful appreciation for things done right. I adore a well-written novel and will praise the authors who write them to no end. A well-scripted, well-directed play leaves me smiling for days. Great movies stay with me, becoming those I purchase to watch again and again.

This past month, I began to notice timing, motivation, conflict, character development, and surprise hooks as well as flaws in series TV. My list of favorites has narrowed, but I’m seeing a lot more “things done right.” This season, I’ve praised The Good Wife, True Detective, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, and Game of Thrones—an eclectic collection, each doing something different but all of them discussed in the living room as well-done.

So, yes, I’m cursed…or am I simply seeing things differently?

I suspect we all are, those of us who write.

What about you? What does your critique button have you noticing?

Taxes 101 for Authors*

*Note:  If you haven’t figured out why I picked today to talk about taxes, you probably need this post more than you think you do… 

Most people in the United States work for someone else, as employees or independent contractors. (And, statistically, most people are employees.)

Most writers have “day jobs” to help support their writing careers.

For those who are self-employed, business owners, or primarily independent contractors, the tax obligations of a writer are probably already familiar. For those whose primary work experience comes as an employee, however, making money from writing means it’s time to think outside the W-2.

WRITING INCOME IS SELF-EMPLOYED INCOME

U.S. residents (and foreign citizens living abroad who pay taxes in the United States) will not receive a W-2 (report of wages earned by employee) from the publisher at the end of the year. Independently published authors won’t get a W-2 from the distributions sites through which they sell their books (for example, from Amazon). Instead, an author receives Form 1099 – report of income other than wages, salaries or tips.

People who receive Form 1099 are considered self-employed or independent contractors by the IRS, which is relevant because people in those categories must pay quarterly estimated taxes during every calendar year. As soon as you start making income from writing, you must calculate and pay estimated taxes too.

WHAT ARE ESTIMATED TAXES AND HOW DO I PAY THEM?

Four times a year, on the 15th of April, June, September and December, authors and other self-employed people must estimate the taxes due to the IRS and their state of residence (if the state has an individual income tax – some don’t) on income earned during the previous calendar quarter. On the due date, the author (or contractor) must send a check for the estimated tax amount due (if any) to the IRS (and the state, if appropriate) along with the relevant estimated tax forms.

If you fail to pay estimated taxes on time, or fail to pay enough, the IRS and/or state may assess a monetary penalty against you.

The obligation to pay estimated taxes often comes as a shock to authors who previously worked only as employees or whose employers withheld taxes from the authors’ paychecks.

BE PREPARED: ORGANIZE YOURSELF FOR ESTIMATED TAXES

Don’t incur a penalty because you were unprepared! As soon as you (a) sign a publishing contract or (b) self-publish your first manuscript:

1. Find out what you need to know about paying estimated taxes. Get the necessary forms and mark your calendar. If you can’t figure it out on your own, attend a local workshop or talk to an accountant.

2. Set aside a portion of every royalty check or periodic self-publishing income to cover your tax obligations – don’t anticipate having enough left over from then-current income when the payment comes due.

3. Don’t forget to document your deductions! Authors may be able to deduct certain costs, including some expenses associated with research, writing, and publication. Consult an accountant or tax advisor to learn which ones, and don’t forget to save and mark receipts to document deductions.

I’m not a tax advisor, and this post should not be taken as tax advice. Consult a qualified accountant or other tax advisor before making decisions on tax-related issues.

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Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California publishing and business attorney who also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. Her second novel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases July 15, 2014. Susan’s legal practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

Going to the Garden to Eat Worms

By Kerry Schafer

 

“I’m a failure.”

“I suck.”

“I wish I were a better writer.”

“If only I were smarter/had more talent/had a different brain…”

Sound familiar?

Most of us humans are really good at beating ourselves up.  As writers, I think we are even more adept at this fun and dangerous pastime than the average denizen of the human race. We say things to ourselves that would be considered abusive if we directed them at our partners or our children or our friends. And yet we say them to ourselves, over and over and over again.

Conjure up some of the things you routinely say to yourself when you haven’t lived up to your own (or somebody else’s) expectations. Even better, actually jot them down. I know time is precious and it takes a minute, but it’s worth the time to gain the awareness of the soundtrack playing out in your head.

Here’s one of mine. Every single time I check my email and there isn’t any (or there is only spam), or if nobody is talking to me on Facebook or Twitter at a given time, I catch these words running through my head and heart:

“Nobody loves me.”

If there’s no publishing news, this turns into, “My agent doesn’t love me. My editor hates the book.” Now, this is untrue and I know it. A lot of people care about me and have shown this over and over again. My agent is awesome and my editor is a dedicated professional who has done wonderful things for my novels. The truth is that the people in my world—family, friends, and publishing people–are busy doing many and varied things. They have lives.

The lack of activity on social media or in my Inbox has no direct association to the number of people in my world who care about me and my career. I know this. And when I catch those words running through my head I’ve learned to take immediate corrective action.

When I tell you I say this to myself, though, it’s sort of acceptable, right? A little human quirk. Yep, writers are like that. No big deal. We tend to sort of shrug and smile and acknowledge that yeah, we’re not as nice to ourselves as we could be. And then we keep right on with the self abuse.

Make no question about this: it is abuse.

Picture this. You and I are out for a  drink or a cup of coffee, and I look at you across the table and say, “Nobody loves you.” As soon as I say these words out loud and direct them at another human being I’ve stopped being quirky and turned into a bitch. Especially if I follow up with some other gems like, “You’ve got no talent. I don’t know why you’re trying to write this novel because it’s totally beyond your grasp. Why don’t you just give up? You’re never going to succeed in publishing…”

At this point you’d be justified in throwing your drink in my face and never talking to me again.

Abuse is destructive. It does nothing toward inspiring creativity, motivating us toward goals, or becoming better human beings. And yet we go on, day after day, indulging ourselves in this litany of hateful commentary towards our selves. It’s time to stop it, people. We’ve gone on long enough. We need to be kind to ourselves, encourage ourselves, motivate ourselves to be the best writers we can be.

For some of us that’s a very difficult thing and some time talking to a good counselor might be in order. Since I actually am a counselor and have spent a lot of time working with clients on this issue, I’m offering five tips to get you started on changing the way you talk to yourself.

Try this:

1. If you skipped the opportunity to write down your negative self talk, take a few minutes to do it now and then come back here.  Done? Good job.

2. Now imagine that you are talking to somebody you love and value. Choose somebody who matters to you. A writer friend. Your child. Your lover. Image their face as clearly as you can, and now picture yourself saying these things to them.

3. Shift the self talk into something positive that you would actually say to somebody you were trying to encourage. (I suggest that you do write this down. There is something in the physical act of putting those words on paper that helps us rewire our brains.)

Example: “If only I had more talent…” might change to “I am working every day on mastering my craft and learning new skills.”

“I’m never going to succeed in publishing” might shift to, “I’m going to write the best book I can. And then I’m going to write another one. The more I write and the more I hone my skills, the more likely it is that I will succeed.”

Take the time to shift every one of the abusive self statements you wrote down earlier.

4. Monitor your thoughts. These patterns of self talk are engrained and don’t just magically go away. Watch for them. When you have a sinking feeling of doom and gloom, check what’s playing in your head and change the station.

5. Adopt a zero tolerance policy for self abusive thinking. Just don’t allow it. When you catch yourself doing it, make yourself stop. Make the shift to something positive. Have some compassion for yourself, as you do for others.

Remember: you are stronger and braver than you believe yourself to be.

 

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Kerry Schafer loves to hang out where the weird things are—in the space where reality and fantasy meet. She is the author of The Books of the Between, published by Berkley Press. Her bestselling debut, Between, is available in mass market paperback, Kindle, and Nook. The second book in the trilogy, Wakeworld, releases in April 2014. For more about Kerry, visit her website.

Writing for TV – Then and Now … by Trai Cartwright

I love Downton Abbey. I love House of Lies, House of Cards (both UK and USA), Orange is the New Black, Black Orphan, Girls, and I especially love The Walking Dead.

I’m a TV junkie, have seen since I was parked, along with the majority of my Generation X co-horts, in front of a TV rather than sent to after-school programs. My babysitter was Wonder Woman and reruns of One Day at a Time.

To this day, I don’t need bowls of macaroni and cheese or a glass of wine after a hard day – I need a marathon of The X-Files.

When I first moved to Hollywood in the 1990’s, I had a yen for TV writing, but it just felt insurmountable. I’d never even seen a teleplay, much less had any idea of how to write one. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on TV and I had dozens of Buffy episodes dancing in my head. I knew I needed to write TV spec scripts, because that’s how writers got started in TV.

But what exactly was a spec script? How did I write one? And what did I do with it when done?

I got lucky. My temp agency sent me to be the writer’s assistant for a legendary TV writer named Jay Tarses. He wrote for The Bob Newhart Show, and that infamous clown funeral episode on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? That’s him.

His first and best writing lesson to me was this: “See that bookshelf packed with TV scripts over there? Start reading.”

So I did. I spent the summer transcribing his notes into teleplays (he still wrote longhand, four hours every morning), answering his phone, making him coffee, and eavesdropping on all the meetings for his new show. And I read. And read and read and read.

Then I started writing. I loved it—just loved it. Something about the way Act Breaks formed the structure and how every episode followed a pattern that pleased rather than bored audiences.

I was hooked. I wrote a dozen spec scripts (turns out, this meant I wrote sample episodes for a range of shows on “speculation” – the speculation being that an agent would see talent and send me out to interview for the writer’s staff of a show. Not the show I loved, see, that’s not how it worked—any show that was willing to talk to a baby writer.)

That summer was blissful, and I thought my future was sealed: I’d be Jay’s assistant on the show I was transcribing scripts for, I’d get to learn TV on the set and in the writer’s room, and eventually, I’d get a chance to write an episode for that show, and boom! zang! I’d be a TV writer.

It didn’t work out that way.

The show was a sitcom about a police vice squad, and as it turns out, no one found sexual assault funny. We didn’t even make it past the pilot.

I shook hands with Jay at the end of the summer and he said, “You got talent, kid, keep at it.” I swooned.

I kept at it, but I never could get those writer’s room interviews. I wrote pilots no one would look at without it being packaged with a prominent show runner. Hacking into TV was damn near impossible back then—assisting a show runner like Jay really was my best shot, and I never got another shot like that again.

Meanwhile, the siren’s call of feature length film was louder than ever, and hacking into films was way easier than TV, so I walked away from my dreams of TV.

Still, every now and again, I’d get an idea for a TV pilot and couldn’t help myself—I’d dash it out with a mad gleam in my eye.

Now that I live and teach screenwriting in Colorado, I’ve had an audience-member’s seat for the radical, unprecedented changes in the TV business model over the last few years. TV is no longer a tiny pipeline you could only squeeze into if someone on the other end was yanking you through.

TV has been democratized, and the old rules (and rulers) are dead. Love live TV!

Now anyone can create a series, and there are dozens of “distribution outlets” awaiting—from Netflix to the internet, from cable to Amazon.com, for goodness sake. The pipeline is so vast that there is a desperation for content I haven’t seen since the indie film revolution of the 1990’s.

You don’t need showrunners, you don’t need season bibles, you don’t need an agent making magical phone calls. What you need is an amazing idea for a TV series.

That, and some teleplay writing skills.

So welcome, TV lovers and dreamers, to RMFW’s first ever Writing for TV class in Denver. 8 weeks to pilot. $225 for RMFW members. Begins May 13.

Teleplays have their own formatting and structural secrets, and the range of approaches are numerous. From sitcoms to network procedurals to mythology series to straight up dramas, we’ll discuss the most current techniques in putting your show to paper. This class will help you to identify and develop the storytelling elements at the core of every episode, every series, and every pilot. Don’t have a pilot in mind but want to start building a spec portfolio? No problem—come with an episode of your favorite show in mind.

See ya on the small screen!

Register here.

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

Authors Behaving Badly … by Kris Neri

By Kris Neri

???????????????????????????????As Charles Manson once said, “Are people strange, or am I just crazy?” Call me naïve, but as a published author myself, I assumed other authors must interact with booksellers as courteously as I do. I’ve always believed intelligence and sensitivity to be typical traits among those who write. For the most part I’ve found that to be true. But I’m also a bookseller— my husband and I own The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, Arizona. During my nine-year tenure as a bookseller, I’ve discovered that, for a substantial minority, common sense among authors is not as common as you might think.

So here are a few of the things I’ve observed that the authors among you, and those who hope to be, might want to avoid:

* Don’t threaten the bookseller. Even before we opened our doors, someone wrote to say, “I have many friends in that area, and I’m going to send them all to your store to buy my books. But if you don’t carry them, they’ll never shop there again.” Now I like threats as much the next person, but that one got my back up. I decided they would sell snow cones in hell before we’d carry those books. To date, nobody has asked for one.

* Don’t expect the bookseller to take a loss for you. This advice is directed to those published by presses that don’t offer traditional terms. Someone emailed us to say she was published by a small press and asked if we could host an appearance for her. I told her to send a copy of the book, and I mentioned if wasn’t available through traditional outlets, she would have to provide it on consignment at a 40% discount. For a store to take less means they must sell that book at a loss.

The “small press” turned out to be iUniverse, a subsidy press that only offers a 20% discount and doesn’t allow for book returns — two conditions that make it impossible for most stores to carry their books. Yet the book was well written. But when I offered to give her an appearance, she thought it was time for negotiations. “I just bought a $32,000 truck,” she wrote in an email, “I can’t give you 40%. I need to make money from this book.”

Okay, let me take a moment here to laugh my butt off at that idea. I wish I could say this was an isolated case, but it’s happened too many times. Every spot on a bookstore shelf is a space that could just as easily go to someone else. When it’s a book of marginal interest, that’s a gift. If they have any issue with anyone, it should be with publishers who aren’t professional enough to understand how other books are sold, and price and sell their books accordingly.

* If you don’t read, keep your mouth shut. I assumed that, like me, everyone who writes is also a reader. Man, was I wrong! Incredibly strong numbers of published authors display no interest in any book without their own names on the cover. Okay, that’s their business, and in my opinion, their loss. But why would anyone who hopes to sell copies of their books share that fact with the members of their audience. Yet they brag about it, displaying superior contempt for those who are so uncool as to still read. Then they’re surprised when those uncool people don’t choose to buy their book.

* Don’t tell them where they can buy books cheaper. Some authors who do read will note for their audience all the covers of books in our bestseller section that they have read. But they don’t stop there. Oh, no. They share how much less they paid for those books in Costco, the supermarket or used on Amazon. Then they’re surprised when someone asks how little their book is going for used online.

* Don’t treat a bookstore like a free swap meet. Some authors have discovered that they can make more money selling their own copies of their books direct to the store’s customers. We learned that the hard way, when an author seized a moment alone with a customer to sell her own copy of her book for cash, rather than the ones we had stocked. Do you think there’s a chance we would ever have that author back?

Well…you get the idea. Authors should display the same level of courtesy to booksellers that they show in every other area of their lives. And if they aren’t polite and considerate — they should learn how to do be.

Now, most of the authors who visit our store are great! They’re considerate, fun, and they see booksellers as their partners in the book-selling process. But the numbers of rude, thoughtless authors are higher than I would have imagined. Wouldn’t you think that, if they aren’t naturally courteous, they’d be more practical? Selling books is hard. Why sabotage the efforts of the people trying to help you? Some days I think it would just be easier to sell “Authors Behaving Badly” DVDs on late night TV.

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Neri_Revenge cover artKris Neri writes the humorous Tracy Eaton mystery series, featuring the daughter of eccentric Hollywood stars, the latest of which is REVENGE ON ROUTE 66, a madcap romp along the Southwestern Mother Road.

She also writes a humorous paranormal series, featuring a questionable psychic who teams up with a modern goddess/FBI agent. Her latest magical novel, MAGICAL ALIENATION, was a 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award winner for fantasy. Kris teaches writing online for the prestigious Writers’ Program of the UCLA Extension School and other organizations, including the Sisters in Crime Guppies. And with her husband, owns The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, AZ.

Interview With Literary Agent Margaret Bail

MargaretBail

Margaret Bail, Inklings Literary

I recently had the good fortune of chatting with literary agent Margaret Bail (@MKDB) of Inklings Literary. She’ll be one of the agents attending the 2014 Colorado Gold Conference.

KD: How and when did you become a literary agent?

MB: I’ve been an agent for a couple of years, now. I started out by doing an internship with an agency and when that was over, I signed on with another agency as a junior agent and started the learning process. I ended up at Inklings because I’d met Michelle and Jamie during my internship (they were interns too), and when they opened Inklings and Michelle invited me to join them, I jumped at the chance.

KD: What fiction genres are you looking for this year? Is there anything special you’d love to see?

MB: I’m always looking for romance in all subgenres except Christian/inspirational. I also like science fiction, fantasy (though I’m really picky about this genre), historical fiction, western, mystery, thriller.

I’d like to see a fresh take on cozy mystery; a time travel romance; a good epic fantasy that doesn’t include a dozen (or even half dozen) points of view, or names I can’t pronounce, or every mythical creature ever imagined, or magic (think Dark Tower, which admittedly has a few of those elements but is so awesome it doesn’t matter).

KD: Is it harder these days to place authors/novels with the larger publishers? How does the increase in smaller and/or regional publishers, especially those who also take unagented submissions, impact your job?

MB: I don’t know if it’s harder per se to place with larger publishers, but the increase in mid-sized and small publishers, especially digital-only presses, means that advances from larger publishers are lower, and often publishers will acquire to their digital imprint before or rather than print imprints because there’s less cost and risk involved. They can offer even lower advances, and in many cases no advance at all, for digital-only or digital-first acquisitions.

As far as my job is concerned, this means often I’ll receive offers for digital-only with no advance when what we really wanted was print. However, were it not for their digital imprint, the publisher may have rejected outright, so at least the digital imprint gets an author’s foot in the door and gets them a publishing credit.

I don’t think that publishers who take unagented submissions affect my job at all. Generally, those publishers have laxer guidelines (than the larger publishers) as far as the quality of the work they accept and publish, so often they end up taking work I would have rejected, so it saves me the time of going through those queries. I know that sounds insensitive, maybe even brutal, but that’s the truth of it for most agents.

KD: Has the increase in self-published books had an effect on your agency? If so, what?

MB: With regard to self-published books, publishing companies are wary about taking those on unless they’ve had phenomenal sales. Once something is published – even self-published – it’s ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED, so a publisher doesn’t want it unless they can make oodles of cash off something that’s really taken off.

This affects our agency because authors don’t understand that publishing requires infinite patience. If you self-publish and your sales are bleak, or not what you expected, and then you go back to querying agents in hope of still going the traditional publishing route, you’re crippled yourself with the self-publishing. Most agents won’t touch a self-published book unless it’s had outstanding sales, which doesn’t happen often. I get many, many, many queries from authors who have self-published, but are still querying agents. I can’t sell those books, so I have to reject.

KD: What gets you excited in a query letter? What makes you hit the delete button?

MB: Excited:  Concise, well organized, outstanding voice, great story and characters.

Delete: If you don’t follow submission guidelines; if you attach information instead of pasting it into the email; if the query letter is long, rambling, incoherent; if you’re querying a genre I don’t represent; if you spend paragraphs tooting your own horn and then the writing is atrocious; an incomplete manuscript; work that isn’t fully edited and polished.

KD: Writers are often advised to have a web presence before even selling their first manuscript. Of the following web and social media opportunities, which do you consider most important for the debut author: a website, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads? Are there any others you recommend to your authors?

MB: “Platform” is more important for non-fiction than fiction, but a “presence” is always valuable. However, I don’t think that having an active web presence is absolutely necessary for fiction authors. I’ve sold authors who barely have any presence at all. In my opinion that whole presence thing is over-hyped for fiction. But that’s just my opinion. Other agents will likely tell you otherwise.

KD: How closely do you work with the authors you represent? Are you editorially involved, or do you prefer only to handle the business side of things?

MB: I work very closely with my authors. I tend to be laid back and casual, and end up developing great working relationships with my clients. Communication is very important to me.

As far as editing, I try to take on work that requires as little editing as possible because I just don’t have oodles of time to be an editor. It’s the author’s job to do all that before they query. That being said, I do a thorough developmental and copyedit for everything I take on. I probably do more than I should, actually, but the English professor in me just can’t help it.  And I have taken on a couple of projects that needed significant work, but were so outstanding I couldn’t turn them away. I try to stay away from those, though, because they’re so time consuming.

KD: If a manuscript piques your interest, what’s your next step? How often do you request revisions on a manuscript you want to represent? Do you offer representation before or after revisions are made?

MB: If something piques my interest and it needs very little editing, I’ll just offer representation. If it’s something I like but needs some work, I’ll ask for revisions. I don’t do that often, and if I do I wait to read the revisions before (and if) I offer representation. Just because an agent asks for a revision, doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get an offer to represent, though.

KD: When reading the beginning pages of a manuscript, what’s an immediate turn off? Consequently, what gets you excited about those first few pages?

MB: Immediate turn offs to me are:

1. Badly copyedited writing – word clutter, passive or incomplete sentences, grammar/spelling/punctuation issues.
2. Cliché openings like characters waking up, descriptions of weather, long exposition, back story, flashbacks, etc.
3. I really don’t like prologues and I don’t even read them. In pre-published work I’ve found that 99% of prologues are unnecessary.

Immediate turns offs don’t mean I stop reading immediately, but often they end up meaning rejections.

What gets me excited in first few pages:

1. Strong voice which is, admittedly, difficult to define.

2. Action with necessary exposition/back story woven in sparsely.

3. Clean, concise writing.

4. Clear setup of the story and characters.

KD: What are your thoughts on the current market for fantasy romance and paranormal romance? What areas of this genre do you think editors consider over done?

MB: Unfortunately both urban fantasy and paranormal romance are really glutted markets right now, and editors at big houses aren’t buying those genres as furiously as they were not so long ago. Stories in these genres now need to be very unique and stand out against everything else in the genre. Frankly, I’m sick to death of vampires and werewolves. I don’t know that anything new can be said about them anymore.

I think there’s still room in the market for both genres, but there’s got to be really unique angles and/or twists on it.

KD: What are your thoughts on New Adult? It’s very hot right now. Do you think it’s a fading trend like chick-lit was? 

MB: I think NA is definitely hot and on the upswing. It started out as what Michelle (my co-agent at Inklings) calls “college f**k fiction” meaning that it was just stories about college girls getting laid. But it’s developing into a genre similar to YA in that it’s all about people in this age group finding themselves, learning how to live in an adult world, and dealing with adult issues, and it’s spreading into all genres. Personally, I don’t like the college student stories, but I would like to see NA stories in any genre that deal with people that age. I don’t think it’s fading at all, and I don’t think it will.

In fact, I just talked to an editor not too long ago at St. Martins who said that although paranormal is kind of dying now, she sees NA paranormal as a growing market, which kind of ties both your questions together!

KD: How often do you communicate with your clients?

MB: Like I said earlier, I’m very laid back and often end up chatting with clients frequently either by email or social media.

KD: What do you do for fun when you’re not working? Any unusual hobbies?

MB: Not working? There are people who actually do that????

KD: What advice would you like to give authors who plan to pitch their novel to you at Colorado Gold?

MB: Relax.

Make sure the novel is complete and polished – then polish it some more. Get help if you need it, but not from your mom/brother/uncle/cousin/BFF.

Be sure it’s a genre I represent!

Relax some more – I’m a person just like you, and I write, too, so I know how you feel.

I hate the term “elevator pitch” but be able to describe the essence of your story in a few short sentences.

Relax and enjoy yourself!

Thanks so much, Margaret! We’re all very excited to see you at conference in September. Counting the days!

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Karen Duvall

Karen Duvall is an award-winning author with 4 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013. She released a romantic suspense novel, Desert Guardian, that she published herself in June of 2013.

Authors Who Overcame Hardships and Still Kicked Butt … by Lori DeBoer

By Lori DeBoer

The road to publishing can take years to travel, and it comes with a steep learning curve. Sometimes, the obstacles to success seem insurmountable. Life gets hard.

Everyone has off periods, when your writing time gets waylaid by other responsibilities. And it’s a real kick in the teeth if, when you do finally find yourself in your writing chair, the work itself turns out to be hard going. Like hauling rocks.

When I feel like I am hauling rocks, it helps to pull out my list of authors who had to overcome problems, the kind of problems that would make me roll up in a ball and never get out of bed. These are not the kind of first-world problems I currently have, such as, coffee hurts my gut and I can’t drink milk in it anymore. I whine about it a lot, but it’s not a genuine problem.

The authors I am talking about had great Dickensonian personal tragedies to overcome. (You’ll see how ironic my use of the term “Dickensonian” in a moment.) Some of them are modern, of course, but the fact that they were born into a time with electricity and flush toilets does not make their problems trivial.

Example one:

Lauren Hillenbrand was just nineteen years old when she became bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In an interview with Beliefnet.com (“What Price Glory?”), she says that her biggest challenge has been exhaustion. “I’ve spent about six of the last 14 years completely bedridden,” she said. “At times, I have been unable to bathe myself. I have gotten so bad I couldn’t really feed myself and a couple of times I needed someone to spoon feed me. I have had trouble rolling over in bed.”

Nevertheless, in 1988, after watching the Kentucky Derby, she was inspired to submit a piece to a racing magazine, Turf and Sport Digest, who asked her to keep writing. In 1996, while doing research, she gravitated to the story of Seabiscuit, one of the greatest racehorses in history, and his trainer and owner, who all overcome extraordinary odds. The book became a New York Times bestseller and was made into a movie. Hillenbrand said that writing the book was difficult, on the physical level, but that it fed her emotionally and spiritually.

Example two:

Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated his bestselling book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his left eye. It’s a beautiful little book that was made into a motion picture and is well worth picking up for anyone who loves transformative storytelling. Bauby, a former Elle editor, wrote it after a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. The dictation process took around ten months. His assistant recited the French alphabet in order of its most frequent letters and Bauby blinked to chose letters. Each word took approximately two minutes to formulate. Three days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia.

This list goes on: Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first book while suffering from insomnia while she was pregnant; she had to hide in the closet while writing so she didn’t disturb her ex husband. Victor Frankl wrote one of the most influential books of this century, Man’s Search for Meaning, despite having spent time imprisoned in concentration camps and having his wife and family killed by Nazis. We all know that J.K. Rowling was a struggling single mom when she created the Harry Potter series, although she really downplays that story these days. John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” after he went blind at the age of 43. He was also poverty-stricken.

You probably don’t know that, two days after his twelfth birthday, Charles Dickens was sent to work for a little over a year at the Warren’s Blacking Factory in a desperate attempt to keep his father out of prison for his failure to repay a debt. It failed, and the entire family, except Charles and his sister Fanny, moved into his father’s cell at Marshalsea Prison. His books capture the straits in which the lower classes found themselves at that time, because he lived it.

I’d like to add to my list of tragedy-surmounting, butt-kicking authors. Who inspires you?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog.