Volunteers, How Does RMFW Love Thee? … by Angela La Voie

2016_angela-lavoie2As RMFW volunteer coordinator, I keep trying to count the ways.

To the Breadth and Height

More than one hundred volunteers contributed to the success of Colorado Gold this September. Thank you!

What on earth takes a hundred volunteers?

Some of the most visible roles at conference include working at the registration and information desk, serving as conference chair, and monitoring workshops. Have you ever thought about all of the other volunteers you see, such as those who check in attendees for pitch appointments, round-table critiques, mentor sessions, and pitch-coaching? Don’t forget the people who welcome first-time conference-goers and transport VIPs from the airport to the hotel and back. There are volunteers who organize the author readings and the author signings, as well as those who help set up the bookstore. Throughout the conference, there are people who run errands and arrange supplies. There’s our photographer, too. Table hosts facilitate conversation at the Friday-night dinner. Other volunteers coordinate and present the awards and raffle prizes.

To Everyday’s Most Quiet Need

For all of the volunteers you see at the conference, there are several more you don’t. Our technology team keeps the Web site updated with information and enables online registration. Volunteers provide items for the gift bags and stuff them. There are volunteers who process and assemble all of the items you receive in your registration packet. And long before conference starts, volunteers recruit keynote speakers, agents, and editors. Volunteers arrange travel for the special guests. There are those who review workshop proposals, those who arrange the conference schedule and set up all of the various appointments, as well as those who manage each of these disparate activities. Planning for next year’s conference began before this year’s event took place.

And Beyond

While the work of our volunteers might be most visible and most concentrated in our largest event of the year, volunteers make each of our events come to life and provide for every task, large and small.

There are plenty of ways to get involved. Here are just a few:

• Write a blog post.
• Write a newsletter article.
• Lead a program in Denver or on the Western Slope.
• Help manage the Web site.
• Set up and manage a critique group.
• Help with social media.
• Volunteer for the History Project.

Which volunteer job is right for you? Think of the skills in which you have expertise. Maybe you’d like to volunteer in one of those skill areas. Is there a skill in which you wish you had more knowledge? For example, have you wanted to host a podcast, but want to learn more about podcasting and are willing to put in the time and effort? Offer to help our Podcast Chair. Do you feel shy on social media but ready to overcome that anxiety? Help our Publicity Chair.

Time is also a factor in volunteering. Do you prefer to focus your efforts in a defined timeframe or like to spread out your efforts over time? Have you volunteered in the past, but are looking to contribute in a new way? Do you feel ready to take on a bigger role in the organization? If you’d like to brainstorm ideas, send me an email at: volunteer@rmfw.org.

Some of the benefits of volunteering include making new friends, giving back, and learning new skills. Health studies have shown that volunteering can improve weight loss, memory, cholesterol, stamina, and even memory. When you volunteer with RMFW, you are helping writers live their dreams of sharing their stories and seeing their work in print. You. You are doing that. How amazing that is!


Angela La Voie serves RMFW as newsletter editor and volunteer coordinator. Her articles have appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times, Daily News of Los Angeles, The Dallas Morning News, Detroit Free Press, on MS-NBC.com, through The New York Times News Service, and elsewhere. She holds a BA (Phi Beta Kappa) in English and communication from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.

You can learn more about Angela at her website and on Facebook and Twitter. And please check out the RMFW Blog Spotlight featuring Angela that was published August 1st, 2016.

You Are in the Right Place

(Friends - I'm taking the cheap & easy way out this month by using the blog space to publish my Writer of the Year speech / comments at Colorado Gold on Sept. 9. I included a few illustrations to break up the long text. Thank you all so much for your support. As should be obvious below, it means so much!)

Recently I was doing a bit of digging into the background of my late pal Gary Reilly.

If you don’t know the Gary Reilly story, it’s pretty simple.

When Gary died in 2011, he left behind 25 novels in a variety of genres.

These books were finished, repeatedly edited, rewritten and edited again.

Again, 25.

During his lifetime, however, Gary was only published once.

That happened in 1977 when Gary sent a short story off to The Iowa Review.

The prestigious Iowa Review. If you don’t know it, The Iowa Review has published everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Ann Patchett to Kurt Vonnegut.

iowa-boxes-arrowsIn the issue that included Gary’s story, “The Biography Man,” Gary was alongside such greats as Ian McEwan, later the author of Atonement and many other great novels, and a writer named Ron Hansen, later the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

"The Biography Man,” in fact, was the lead entry in that edition of The Iowa Review.

The editor of The Iowa Review at the time was the incredible Robert Coover, who has a story in this week’s edition of The New Yorker called “Invasion of the Martians.”

The one-and-only and highly prolific T. Coraghessan Boyle was a contributing editor. I just think it’s so cool that Coover and Boyle had their hands on this story.

When I tweeted out a bunch of this information last week, by the way, T.C. Boyle replied promptly with a clarification about his role:


The next year, “The Biography Man” was picked up and included in the fourth volume of the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Again, he was published alongside some amazing writers—including John Updike and Jane Smiley. Thousands of stories are considered for the 60 or so that are included. (That story is now available, by the way, as an e-book here.)

pushcart-panelsWhen I tell this story to anyone who will listen, the immediate question is simple—why?

What happened?

How can you write 25 novels and not get published?

And what would keep you motivated to write 25 novels only to watch them stack up in your computer or on the shelf?


I met Gary in 2004. We hit it right off. And we started trading manuscripts. I had a few for him to read.

His manuscripts kept coming and coming to me—one by one. He’d never give me more than one to read.

I read—and read.

I couldn’t believe how good they were—funny, interesting, deep, scary, everything. He wrote humor, sci-fi, fantasy, noir and war-theme fiction based on his time as a military policeman in Vietnam.

Gary occasionally queried agents. I mean, occasionally. I’d have to sort of pump him up to get out there and do it. He didn’t talk about it much, but I know he had some big disappointments in his past. Some very close calls, including one offer to come write comedy in Hollywood.

It fell through.

europa-2One time—and I remember this so vividly—I brought Gary to an RMFW workshop at the Arvada library. Gary sat there but I could see how uncomfortable he was—this just wasn’t his scene, to sit in a room and listen to a workshop or interact with the presentation in any way.

I could never get Gary to come to another workshop or to come to one of these fabulous conferences. Quite simply, he wasn’t a “joiner.”

He lacked the “networking” gene, that elusive knack that some people are born with and others have to learn.

Gary liked his conversations one-on-one or small groups.

But he didn’t lack much else. He was a born storyteller. He loved movies of all types and quality.  He had an affection for weird, late-night flicks, B-grade stuff. And he prowled the paperback book shops along Broadway looking for old pulp novels or anything edgy or interesting. In fact, he loved the beat poets and beat writers.


Guess what? I also lacked that “networking” gene.

It’s true.

I wasn’t as reclusive as Gary in general—not at all. But when it came to writing fiction, I had a fairly abbreviated and isolated process.

I wrote my first mystery in the 1980’s. It took six years to write. I showed that book to a few friends before it went out the door and I quickly got an agent—in fact, a big-name New York agency that is still around today. I was so encouraged by this turn of events I quit a job and tended bar for a year to write another book.

Work on #2 was much quicker, but the money ran out and I went back to work as a reporter. I finished the second book in the early 1990’s and, in case it’s not obvious, nothing had happened with book #1.

I showed book #2 to a few friends, made a few changes, and went looking for an agent.

One day at work, the phone rang. It was an agent from New York, very eager to represent book #2. It turned out that the agency also represented John Grisham.

I said sign me up!

Despite the enthusiasm and despite the fact that my feet did not touch solid ground for about a week, nothing happened. Book #2 didn’t sell.

Around this time I met a real-life female hunting guide in the Flat Tops Wilderness of Western Colorado. I instantly believed I had a great character and great setting.

So I set about writing book #3, what was then going to be another stand-alone mystery. It took about three or four years to write.

I showed it a group of friends before it went out the door.

I eventually landed a good New York agency, one that is still around today. This is now the late 1990’s. After a few changes, we were on submission. No sale.

But we got enough feedback that the agent asked if I wanted to make some changes. I said sure. Nine months later, I had another draft ready and I sent it to my agent. I remember this was December because the agent said he would take it with him on Christmas vacation and we’d go out on submission again in January.

By mid-January, I’d heard nothing. By the third week, I started to call and leave messages. By the fourth week, I wrote a letter to the owner of the agency; what is going on?

In early February, I received a form letter rejection back, “I’m sorry your submission is not right for our agency at this time.”

Perhaps you’ve seen one or two of those kinds of rejections?

In the early 2000’s, I started writing another stand-alone thriller and I finished that a few years later. This time, a few agent nibbles but nothing really developed.

During all this time, I was vaguely aware of RMFW. I was vaguely aware of writing groups.

But what did I need? I had come so close. Yes, there were days and weeks and months where I thought, well, good try. You made the effort. You wrote some good stories, but that’s just the way it goes.

I had heard of writing groups but what could they show me that I didn’t already know? Many writers come close and fall short.

My relationship with RMFW was slow to develop.

I started doing the refreshments at the monthly workshops. Then I started running the monthly workshops—for years, in fact. I enjoyed the things I learned by attending all those sessions. And some of the day-long spring events were truly fuel for the fire.

I found myself making the transition from fully independent writer to someone who cared about all my cohorts were faring. I started to pick up tips and I started to look at my writing differently, with a better eye. And ear.

In 2007, a small, independent publisher outside of Boulder offered to publish Antler Dust, book number three in my four-book stack of unpublished manuscripts.

The publisher was small but he wanted to do it right—and gave me a standard contract with a very nice advance. He printed up 2,000 hardbacks, $24.95 a pop. Gulp.

After 23 years of working at the fiction thing, I got published.

And my networks grew—bookstores, libraries, conferences, all over the state. I had a blast getting out there and meeting readers.

And, guess what? My RMFW pals were extremely supportive, too—they came to readings, wrote reviews, cheered me on.

The reaction was so good to my main character Allison Coil that I decided to write a follow-up. When that was done, the first publisher had gone under but a medium-size house in Aspen gave me an advance and a contract and they got behind my second novel, Buried by the Roan. They also published a paperback version of #1.

Buried by the Roan was published about five months after my friend Gary Reilly had passed away and it’s dedicated, in fact, to him. He read many versions of that book and helped me immensely with it. Buried by the Roan was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in 2012 and, if I’m not mistaken, I lost to the inimitable Carol Berg.

By the time the third book was ready, the Aspen publisher had gone out of business.

It was the RMFW connections, specifically former Writer of the Year Linda Hull, who helped with the introduction to Midnight Ink.

She conveniently left a copy of the third Allison Coil novel on her kitchen counter when the editor of Midnight Ink was staying at her house. What are friends for?

Trapline won the Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the fourth, Lake of Fire, also published by Midnight Ink, was a finalist for the same award this year.

To me, looking back, everything changed when I got involved in RMFW. When I started taking a regular role.

Being around others who were successful made me ask writing friends, what are you doing differently? How do you approach writing? How do you approach agents? What other conferences do you attend? And, finally, the big one.

Who do you know?

That’s a network.

People in a network are connected around a central purpose or mission or interest. In our case, we share a common, simple goal—telling stories and finding readers.


Which brings me back to Gary.

He was missing, I believe, this one thing. This network. This chance to interact with editors and agents and fellow writers at a conference like this one where, I believe, his books would have ultimately found a home.

And, yes, networking is something you can learn. I did. I went from my little world to a much bigger universe of friends and supporters.

Gary poured his frustrations about the publishing business into his greatest creation, Murph.

8-coversMurph is the star of 10 of his novels. Murph is Brendan Murphy, a self-effacing Denver taxi driver and unpublished novelist. Murph dreams of becoming rich and famous through writing.

Murph is also a big fan of Gilligan’s Island.

Says Murph,

The windows were rolled up and the hot sun was streaming through the windshield. It was as warm as I imagined Gilligan’s island must be. The real island, not the TV island. By “real” I mean an island in the South Pacific where a writer could lie on a hammock all day long and think about the plot of his next novel. If he was rich enough, he could hire a Mary Ann look-alike to mix rum drinks and wait on him hand-and-foot. But there wouldn’t be any hanky-panky. Nossir. He would be a man of such impeccable integrity that the mere thought of dallying with Mary Ann would grievously offend his moral sensibilities. He would be the exact opposite of me.

Other than becoming wildly rich and famous through writing books, Murph has two goals in life—one is to earn as little money as possible and the other is to never get involved in the lives of his passengers. He’s pretty good at the first goal and terrible at the second.

When it comes to writing and the publishing business, however, Murph has choice insights.

Says Murph,

A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing – such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon – when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.

Says Murph,

A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.

Says Murph,

I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called “formula fiction.” I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?

Says Murph,

I came up with an idea for a novel about a gang of punk Martians who come to earth in a flying saucer for no other reason than to commit mayhem. Martians usually come to earth to study the habits of mankind and report back to Mars for reasons that are never made very clear, or else they give mankind scientific devices that will turn the earth into a paradise. But I had never read a book about serial-killer aliens. It seemed like I might have found a niche market, assuming there were science fiction fans hungry for police procedurals.


As many of you know, my friend Mike Keefe and I have published nine of Gary’s novels since he died. The tenth comes out in October.

the-detachment-cover-and-coffeeThree of Gary’s posthumously published books have been finalists for the Colorado Book Award. National Public Radio twice has raved about Gary’s work. Booklist has praised the originality of Gary’s work. And of The Detachment, Gary’s second novel about his experiences in Vietnam, a 154,000-word masterpiece, the great Stewart O’Nan called it a classic and Ron Carlson, who teaches elite creative writing classes in California, called it Catch 23 or Catch 24.

I feel honored to be part of the process of bringing his stories to the light of day.

And part of the process of finding readers.

That’s what it’s all about—telling stories, finding readers.

But of course I wish he was here to see the reaction, read the reviews.

So what is the lesson? Well, I hope it makes you, in some way, more determined. More focused on advocating for yourself. Not giving up.

Thinking about Gary and looking back, everything changed when I got involved in RMFW. When I started taking a regular role.

Being around others who were successful made me ask writing friends: What are you doing differently? How do you approach writing? How do you approach agents? What other conferences do you attend? And, finally, the big one: Who do you know? That’s a network.

People in a network are connected around a central purpose or mission or interest. In our case, we share a common, simple goal — telling stories and finding readers.


Looking back on my own experiences, here’s a few things I believe:

  • I believe that by your presence here today, you are in the right place.
  • I believe the answers to all your writing and publishing needs are right in this room, right now.
  • I believe those answers are here, that is, if you know what you are looking for and know how to ask for what you need.
  • I believe that you will find ways to improve if you work at the issues, whatever they are, and write more. And write more.
  • And keep working.
  • I believe if you are already published, then you are looking for ways to get better.
  • I believe there is no shortage of learning. Who can forget the sight of Jeffery Deaver in an RMFW workshop last year, sitting in the back of the room and taking notes? Right?
  • I believe if you are interested in writing fiction, it’s something you can learn.
  • I also believe if you want to get published, that the tools today allow you to get there — and to reach readers with the same level of impact as if you were published by the big five.
  • I believe that’s up to you

I’m extremely proud of my membership in both PAL and iPAL — my first two titles would have gone out of print had I not started my own company and kept them in print.

In a way, that’s one of the neatest things about being a writer. We can be independent about much of what we do — what is more solitary than being a writer? But ultimately, we need a network, too.

The opposite of independent is dependent, right? So I suppose if Lisa Manifold is the Independent Writer of the Year, I’m the Dependent Writer of the Year.

And at some point we are dependent on editors, critiquers, publishers — and readers. No matter the size or scale of our publisher, we are all dependent on each other to tell stories and reach readers.

I’ll close with a quick quote from the philosopher Alan Watts. While definitely not known for his fiction, I think the comment applies.

Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

This honor means so much to me because it comes from all of you.

RMFW made all the difference in my writing career. Thank you again so much.



Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter

Here are three examples of a formula I’ve seen many times in our query inbox. See if you can figure out why the formula doesn’t work…and why we’re probably going to pass on reading the sample pages:

Example #1: Middle Grade

“Protagonist and his friends go on many exciting adventures. Along the way, they encounter a band of pirates, a herd of mystical unicorns, a swarm of angry fairies, and one club-swinging giant who just wants to find his way back to his home in the Mountains of Malfesioria.”

Example #2: Coming of Age

“It’s the last summer before college, and in the wake of his father’s death, Protagonist needs to figure out who he really is. He takes off on a cross-country road trip in Dad’s old Jeep. Along the way, he meets a wise homeless man who teaches him about gratitude, a scrappy orphan who teaches him about forgiveness, and a blonde cocktail waitress who teaches him about love.”

Example #3: Crime Fiction

“In her quest to capture a serial killer, Detective Protagonist must interview one quirky character after another: a past-her-prime exotic dancer who bakes the world’s best chocolate-chip cookies, a grouchy old chess champion with an eidetic memory, and a cynical comedian whose dark sense of humor has managed to offend nearly everyone in Setting City.”

Each of these story-summaries is based on the same formula—a formula I call “The Wandering Protagonist.”

Keep in mind that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a novel in which the main character goes on a journey. And, of course, anyone on a journey is bound to meet interesting folks (human or otherwise) along the way. However, journeys and interesting side characters are neither story nor plot. As such, these three summaries have all missed some very crucial marks. What they’re missing, in the immortal words of Debra Dixon, are Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I’d also add stakes. (Donald Maass puts his lesson on stakes at the very beginning of his book The Breakout Novelist.)

Let’s look at each example a little more closely.

In Example #1, our middle-grade protagonist has no goal—at least not one that’s mentioned in the query letter. (Hint: The protagonist’s goal should be present in the query letter!) What does he want? What is he looking for? Why? (That’s motivation.) What happens if he finds it, or doesn’t? (That’s stakes.) How can you (the author) make me (the reader) care about Protagonist’s impending success or failure? While this example does hint at conflict (pirates, angry fairies, a club-swinging giant), none of that conflict is directly hooked into the protagonist’s goal. Do the angry fairies want the same thing Protagonist wants, and will they do anything to prevent him from getting it first? Are the pirates the swashbuckling sort, or are they another antagonistic force standing in Protagonist’s way? Do our heroes end up helping the giant get back home? While the author might answer all that in the manuscript itself, this summary, unfortunately, is too vague and does little to pique my interest.

In Example #2, we have a goal, but it’s not a very strong one: Protagonist wants to find out who he really is. We’re missing motivation: Why does he need to find out who he really is (whatever that means), and what happens if he fails (stakes)? We are given hints of conflict: He’s mourning the death of his father, and apparently he needs to learn about gratitude, forgiveness, and love. But in this example both goal and conflict are internal to the protagonist. Remember that there are two kinds of dramatic conflict—internal and external—and that a good story develops both. Give this protagonist an external goal (to visit his grandmother in Sedona, or to scatter is father’s ashes at Niagara Falls, or to return something his father stole to its rightful owner) and some external conflict (the Jeep keeps breaking down, or the scrappy orphan steals his wallet, or his sister is chasing him across the country to stop him from, say, returning the object their father stole, etc.).

In Example #3, we have a goal that’s both clear and genre appropriate: To capture a serial killer. The motivation is implied: To stop the killer from killing again. The stakes are also implied: If Detective Protagonist fails, someone else will die. (Hint: For higher, better stakes, make the killer’s next target someone close to Detective Protagonist. Make the stakes personal.) So far so good. However, the author then wanders off into Wandering Protagonist territory, and there’s zero conflict in the rest of the summary. Perhaps this author, like the author of example #1, hopes to hook agents with his cast of quirky characters. But any author who thinks his secondary characters are more interesting than his plot probably needs to take a long, hard look at his manuscript!

To see if your query letter’s pitch paragraph is solid, print it out and grab a highlighter. Highlight your protagonist’s goal, motivationstakes, and conflict. If they’re all present and accounted for, you’re on the right track!


AngieHodappAngie Hodapp has worked in language-arts education, publishing, professional writing, and editing for the better part of the last two decades. After completing her master’s thesis, a work of creative nonfiction, and leaving academia, she gave herself permission to write what she really wanted to write: speculative fiction and romance. Angie is currently the contracts and royalties manager at Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She and her husband live in a renovated 1930s carriage house near the heart of the city and love collecting stamps in their passports.

On Being a Waffle

Yeah, that’s me. The human waffle. No, I’m not running for office, but I am trying to be Elastic Writer Girl and make my story fit all the different opinions I managed to attract at Colorado Gold.

waffleSee, I have this great story. Everyone I’ve talked to loves it. So of course I submit it for a Critique Roundtable, Pitch Coaching, Hook Your Book, professional editor discussion, and Pitch Sessions. Because, everyone loves it, right?

Hmmm. Not so much. My first indication that Houston has a problem is when I get in the Friday round table and the agent says they really don’t like the paranormal aspect of my mystery and suggest I “skirt around” that concept. Maybe just a hint of “unusual.” OK, that’s just one opinion, you know?

Then I have a pitch coaching and it’s a real struggle for my coach to come up with a concept that can be shoehorned into a short and snappy pitch. It gets done, while sort of downplaying the paranormal aspect. Hmmmm.

At Hook Your Book I get one “I don’t really think this concept will work” and another, “Great concept, but you might need to play the paranormal down if you really want to sell this.” Double Hmmmm.

The professional editor thinks I need to consider going Fantasy with Mystery, but it’s really not a fantasy and I can’t make it so.

And then another agent at a pitch says she likes the concept but tried to sell something along the same lines and couldn’t get a bite. “Could you just have your character have a bad feeling instead of ‘knowing’ something?” She was very gracious and offered to read chapters and a synopsis either way, but warned me it might be a tough sell.

So there I am, taking my first several chapters and writing multiple versions to see how I can alter the story, and still be true to THE STORY. I’ve talked my dilemma over with a couple BFaW (Best Friend and Writer-types) and they laid it on the line: WRITE THE STORY I want to write and not what someone tells me it should be to be marketable.

Yeah. I know. But… Ouch.

So I said to myself, “Self, just get on with it and quit waffling.” Really. I did. Just like that. And so I did. Quit waffling. I decided that while I COULD write the story with intuition and “skirt” the paranormal I didn’t like it as much. It was too vanilla. So, damn it, I’m writing the story I started with. I hope to hell I’m a good enough writer that when they actually read it the editors/agents will be so in love with the characters and the concept that it won’t even occur to them that it might be a tough sell and they will be my champion with the powers-that-be who try to tell them the story doesn’t fit in the box.

So, as a Human Waffle turned to a fat, syrup-sucking pancake, I’m writing the damn story. Just as you should make your story YOUR story.

So, let’s get with it and Write ON!

Concerning Conferences: A noob’s thoughts on time, worth, and industry

It's our honor to introduce new victim blogger, Josh Dorne, who you might've met at the Colorado Gold.

Take it away, Josh....

Let's pretend, for one second, that I know what I'm talking about. For our current intents and purposes, it doesn't matter. I mean, come on! This is the Internet. But as of this writing I've only just attended my second ever writing conference: Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer's, Colorado Gold 2016. So let's just say I've got some learning to do. That being said here's my perspective on writing conferences from the view point of a relative newcomer. At thirty-eight years old, I'm a bit late to the party. But regardless if you're younger, older, or simply just prefer words to things like real-life social interaction, a writer/author should always be moving forward in his or her writing career. Yes. It's a career. Maybe even a life choice...possibly an ill-advised one. But if you're reading this it's probably too late for you, so let's get started.

Is a writing conference worth your time?

Short answer...yes. Or no. Possibly, maybe. In the grand scheme, a weekend (as most conferences tend to last) is not a significant period of time. And if you're new or struggling (like me) in this highly competative industry where thousands of books are self published each day, and the traditionally published duke it out Thunderdome style, this is something you should consider including in your publishing/writing journey. Why? The answer's simple: Networking. A content loaded word that strikes fear into the hearts of men, women,  and whatever gender I might be by the time this posting is done. But something to remember: Everyone you meet at a conference is in a similar boat to you. Not only are conversations extremely easy to start, i.e. "What do you write?" "Are you published?" But the contacts and the people you meet are, in themselves, worth the price of admission. In my first conference alone I met two great people (and many more besides) whom I hope will be in my life and share my publishing/writing journey for many years to come.

Is a writing conference worth the money?

This question is more difficult, as is putting a price on things that are subjective depending on your position in life. Nothing can be promised inside of a conference. An agent connection or book deal cannot be guaranteed, nor should you expect one. The main things you can expect to get out of a conference are three-fold: connections (with other writers, agents, and editors), learning (such as how to write a bestseller, or the 3 Act plot structure), and experience (pitching, querying, and writering). I don't know about you, but before my first conference, not only did I have no idea how to query, but the thought of it sent my hizzie into a complete and total tizzie...because I'm hip, and with it.

So, is a conference worth it or not?

The answer to this is ultimately going to be up to you. Different people will take different things from the same experience. But if like me you're new to writing, new to publishing, or just need a new perspective from which to chase this elusive career choice, then for me the answer is yes. If you're expecting a miracle, or to be discovered and become the next JK Rowling, then it's possible that your expectation might need a slight (or drastic) adjustment. But if you want the opportunity to learn from people directly involved in the industry, speak to successful authors who've gone through what is currently keeping you up nights, and meet some cool people in the exact same boat you're in and possibly make some friends who you'll have for years to come? Then take the plunge and register for a conference near you today! You might only regret it a little bit. And that's nothing if not the dream.

Get out of jail–er, writer’s block–card


To escape writer's block, douse the raging fears and critical inner voice, and find a route to fresh thinking. For me, that route has been to write to my friend, Pam, and explain what's blocking my writing.

How my BFF helps me escape writer's block

Dear Pam,

Here I am again, writing to you because of writer’s block.

Have I ever told you what magic it is, tapping your powers to unblock my thoughts and words?

When I have overwhelming doubts about my writing, the blank page stares at me. The curser blinks, taunting me, and I can’t move forward.

What works for me every time is to start writing to you, just as if we were on the phone, only on paper. I know I can joke with you, confess my fears and stumble along, and something happens. It’s like the doubts and fears vanish. My pen and paper melt away and I am in tune with my novel.

It’s been a long, successful escape for me, spanning decades.

It started in high school during study hall. I’d be procrastinating, avoiding work on an essay or report, unable to decide on a theme or position despite the looming deadline. In lieu of disaster, I stumbled upon this method of turning to you, and you have never failed me.

Let me count the ways you have helped me.

 #1. Reassurance.

Dear Pam, I have discovered fiction, and am so excited I’m paralyzed. I’m writing my first novel. It’s a time travel. I know the setting is England, but I can’t decide on which time period I’d like to visit. What makes me think I can write a novel? Okay, let me show you some time periods I've considered, and why...

 #2. Making decisions.

Dear Pam, On the advice of a literary agent who loves my writing but doesn’t represent my genre, I’m leaving the time travel genre to write a straight historical romance. I’m agonizing over dialogue. If I try to be accurate to the fifteenth century, only a few people will understand it. If I write with contractions will I be a laughingstock?

#3. Finding focus.

Dear Pam, I’m writing a contemporary women’s fiction novel loosely based on my mother’s trauma with Alzheimer’s. I’m scared, so scared I can’t plot the darned thing. What I’m sure of is …

 #4. Trusting my vision.

Dear Pam, my first book released! I’m writing about Gypsies, and rather than arm-candy, they are my protagonists. I want to make it a character-related series, but this second novel just sits there, frozen after the first chapter. I worry that the hero is too bigoted to be likable. Do you think it would be helpful if I...

 #5. Moving forward.

Dear Pam, I’m in the saggy middle and sinking fast. I’ve written myself into a corner, and I’m trying to find the way out. I can trash all I’ve written and start over. There has to be another option, though. Let me see. What if I…

You get the idea. I tell her my problem. Like a Dear Abby column, I lay it all out, crying on her shoulder, and in the process I discover my own answer. I have never sent any of these letters, but they always give me new ideas. It’s a simple strategy that works.

I’ve heard of other ways to break writer’s block that may also work for you. One friend of mine relies on showers to get the thoughts flowing. Works almost every time, she says.

Another has a special tea she brews and places on her desk with three lit candles.

Another walks in the park. Yet another meditates.

Many of my friends believe in the power of BIC (butt in chair), not budging until the words flow and if desperation sets in, writing stream of consciousness or drivel until ideas are nudged into motion.

Thank you for always being there, Pam.

And how about you? How do you escape writer’s block?

Denver, the Literary Capital of the West?

I’ve lived in four major cities beyond Denver during my life – Detroit, Tampa, Dallas and even London, England for a year.  Guess you could say I’ve been around the block a time or two. And in my experience, one of the things I’ve found to be unique and special about Denver is the vibrancy of the writing community here.  Over the past couple of years, therefore, I’ve toyed with the idea of how we might establish Denver as the Literary Capital of the West.

Whoa! Literary Capital? Can we truly think about this? 

As creative writers, I know we can. Let’s play that brainstorming game, “What if?” and see what happens . . .

What if Denver were the literary capital of the West?

If that happened, wouldn’t we then see an influx in great and world renowned authors living and visiting our area?  Jack Kerouac traveled here and wrote a significant portion of his “On the Road” based on life in Denver. Alan Ginsberg, also a leader in the Beat Generation of the ‘50s, established a school of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. We need more established authors to represent today’s writing superstars. People like Doris Kerns Goodwin might do an updated history of our wild west. Or Stephen King might come by to add to his “The Shining” with maybe a story or two about the haunting of Cheesman Park or the Denver Children’s Home. Or maybe with big name writers around, the level of our own local talent would continue to zoom ahead of the rest of the country. We have great authors at RMFW. Denver needs to support them and get the word out on them so they can sell more books, and make a living in this adventure.

And, what if our booksellers wanted to get involved?

I’m heading to the Mountains & Plains booksellers conference next week with some RMFW published authors where we’ll meet up to 250 booksellers interested in the books by us western-based authors.  Okay, so Portland, Oregon has Powell’s Books, but the Tattered cover is adding steam to their engine with some new owners we’re all excited about. We have a solid community of great independent booksellers and plenty of Barnes and Nobles to excite the reading public. What if we set our relationship with this group and created new markets for our books to be sold at?

If we were better formed as a publishing force, could we also contemplate encouraging big publishers to come west, or maybe create big publishers from the small and start-up organizations that already exist here? Could we evolve the face of publishing by working together on goals and needs to grow and fulfill demand for our work?

What would happen if we had more writing groups?

RMFW is huge. Over 700 members work in our critique groups, come to our annual conference or visit through our monthly programs. But RMFW is only one writing group in Colorado.  I have heard that there are more than 40 groups where writers constantly keep current and grow their writing skills and aspirations.  Think Pikes Peak, Lighthouse Writers, Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers, Sisters in Crime and many more.  Perhaps the question isn’t what if we had more writing groups, but what if all the writing groups came together at one huge event?

What if we had a Denver Lit Book Festival every few years?

We might have books, authors, publishers, agents, professional story tellers, play writes, librarians, and more.  Wow! Can you imagine that?  We could have poetry slams, book readings, music and food—always good food. The blue bear at the convention center might become a great reading example if we hung a book inside the windows for him to read.

So What If we had more and better examples of readers?

8th-grade-reading-scores-coloradoMaybe we’d re-inspire the governor’s book club, give more support to Dom Testa’s “The Big Brain Club” or start our own programs for literacy in Colorado.  Did you know that only 38% of eighth graders tested in Colorado are reading at a proficient level?  We can do better. Maybe we writers and authors could team up with some of our terrific literacy programs and help make reading popular.  It’s good for the kids, it expands our marketplace, and it helps people live better lives.

Can you envision all of this?

What thoughts can you come up with when you ask, “What if Denver were the literary capital of the West?”

Open Letter to Robert J. Sawyer

Dear Robert J. Sawyer,

I wanted to talk to you at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Gold Conference this year, but I never made it over to you. So much excitement, intrigue, and chatting with my tribe. Since I couldn’t speak to you in person, I figured I’d write an open letter, saying now much I loved, loved, loved your talk on Saturday night.

Yeah, it wasn’t all fuzzy puppies and inspiration, but what you said blew me away. My mouth hung open the entire time, and I kept glancing over to see if the publishing industry was sending in shock troops to pull you down from the podium. You were a firebrand, and dang, I kept thinking, “He can’t be saying this stuff. Someone is going to stop him.”

But no one did because you were speaking the truth. Authors are either abused or ignored much of the time. We get paid pennies for our words, even at the professional rate, and we don’t get raises. Pennies a word, like it was the 1920s while agents went from 10% to 15% and publishers are having record years.

I am signing up with the Author’s Guild and I promise to do my part for the resistance.

Yet, the problems authors face are legion. Part of the problem lies with us scribblers ouselves. Maybe all of the problem lies with us.

In this day and age, anyone can write a book and publish a book. I find that amazing, exciting, and wonderful. I think there has never been a better time to be an artist because distribution has been solved. The internet has opened the world up and as artists, we have a platform we can use. Yes, it’s never been noisier and books have never faced the competition we face now.

For example…

Dude, I can watch Sword Art Online on my phone. I can play amazing video games with mind-melting graphics day and night. And TV has never been better. Jessica Jones, man, Jessica Jones.

When I was a new writer, I heard Andrea Brown, the literary agent, speak and she said I’ll hear that books are dead, the publishing industry is in trouble, and it’s the end of days every year for the rest of my life. I will hear that the book business is a goner until I die. So being an author has never, ever been easy. Never.

If all writers wrote books as a business, I think the entire industry would be different. We would be paid better and things would be more fair. However, not all writers write to make money. That, I think, is the crux of the problem.

Some write for status, and I talked about that in a blog post for RMFW last year. I love that post. Here is the link.

Some write books because they love them, and yeah, they publish them, but it’s not really to make money. Andrew Weir wrote The Martian on his blog because he loved hard science fiction. He never really wanted to publish it, but his fans insisted. And he hit it HUGE!

E.L. James wrote because she wanted a sexier Twilight. And she hit it HUGE! And she admits she is not a writer. She just got stupidly lucky.

So what are we to do?

People will always want to read books. Books are magical, and you can’t get the same experience with movies, TV, or video games. Reading is a unique experience.

You are totally right in saying we need to unionize and demand to be treated fair. Whether we can all be loud enough to change the industry, well, I just don’t know.

For me, I am going to write and I am going to publish and I hope to transition to full-time writer at some point, but I have a day job. Like I said, I’m with you. We shall storm the gates of hell.

I’m a hybrid author, I have some Indie stuff, I have some small press stuff, and I’m looking to break into the big game to use their marketing arm, though I’m doubtful about that action working out.

It’s funny, any power I have as a writer comes from readers. Look at what Taylor Swift did with iTunes because she had the clout of her fan base. She forced their hand. I think really successful writers can do the same.

I have a series with Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press, and working with the WFP team has been great (the contracts are extremely author friendly). We are a coalition of independent authors who support each other, and what we do at sci-fi/fantasy conventions has proved very effective in selling books. I feel very lucky.

In the end, we authors do have power. Yeah, Amazon doesn’t have our best interest at heart, but having your own website and selling directly to the customer has never been easier. If I can get enough of a fan base, my options become greater.

So for me, it goes back to writing what I love, playing the game, and continuing the march forward. Staying open and aware to all of the possibilities.

But dang, what a wonderful keynote you made. Moving, shocking, and in the end, I did find it inspiring.

We are a beleaguered group of feisty heroes, marching against an army we have no chance of defeating. We are children of a grand legacy of artists, who have always been out numbered.

And yet, we will soldier on.

Because that is what we do.


Aaron Michael Ritchey


The Evolution of a Writer

At Bouchercon 2016

2016 has been the year of the question: What kind of writer do you want to be?

It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for years. When I was young, I loved writing stories. Then in Middle School, I wrote a column for the school paper, The Ram Page, and decided I wanted to be a journalist. I studied Journalism in college, and started writing columns and articles for a regional paper. Then six years post college, two years post marriage, I found myself writing stories again. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I had a lot to learn.

With very limited options, I signed up for an Institute of Children’s Novel Writing class, sent off my money, received my course instructions, read the first chapter of the workbook, wrote a chapter, sent it to my instructor, repeat. She (or he—I never knew) read my work, critiqued the pages, sent it back with suggestions and instructions, repeat. By the end of the class I had a YA novella that was totally unpublishable.

Then I met Maggie Osborne. She was speaking at the local library, was well-published and willing to teach. Under her tutelage, I wrote a Harlequin Intrigue that was totally unpublishable. A few years later, my husband and I were moving back to the Front Range and she introduced me to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. That was in 1988. Since then I have been part of the RMFW family, made a number of lifelong friends, found my voice and a support system that has sustained me through the good and the bad of publishing.

In the summer of 1998, I was offered a three book contract for my Birdwatcher’s Mysteries. Then, with the first book in the series scheduled for release, the second book turned in and three more books on contract to write, life threw me a few curve balls. One required I spend two months in Israel in the Fall of 1999 while one of my daughters received medical treatment for an auto-immune disorder; the other required a prolonged battle against breast cancer (ultimately successful) that delayed the fulfillment of my contracts in a timely fashion.

It turned out serendipitous. In Israel, I came up with the idea for DARK WATERS (published in Sept 2015), while the battle against cancer meant I was late turning in manuscripts in the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, impacting the momentum of sales. While my editor was supportive and understanding, the publisher viewed it smart business to cut their losses and chose not to renew my contract. I was devastated. BUT being out of contract meant I could focus on writing DARK WATERS.

It was a joy to have the time I used to have to write books. I could write at my own pace, ruminate over story, research to my heart’s content and polish my prose to perfection. Fast forward, I now have two publishers—one for the thrillers and one for the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series. DARK WATERS is out, Book #6 in the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series is out, and I’m midway through my editor’s revisions on RED SKY, scheduled for June 2017. AND yet I’m once more facing decisions.

Writing two books last year was hard. So, do I write Book #7 in the Birdwatcher's Mystery series or work on another thriller? Do I sign new contracts or take the Tony Hillerman approach, write a complete book nomatter how long it takes, polishing until I'm satisfied, and then try and sell it? Or do I sign a new contract with my traditional publisher, opt to go Indy, or quit and take up traveling full time?

Simple choices? Not!

While writing is art, it’s also a business. We may love to write, to play with words, and create stories that captivate readers, but once we’re under contract, there are expectations. It becomes a job! So, do I want to work on deadline, do I want to make money, do I want to practice the art of writing, can I do all of the above? Do I want to keep writing to a theme, or branch out and write a different book, a different genre altogether?

As a new monthly blogger, I plan to tackle some of these questions, share some of my own insights, struggles and perspective. If any of you have a topic you’d like me to address, please send me an email.

Bouchercon in New Orleans 2016
Bouchercon in New Orleans 2016

Meanwhile, for me, September has been the month of conferences. First there was Colorado Gold (a great con), and now there’s Bouchercon. These are two very different conventions. Colorado Gold is a teaching conference where you can take writing classes, meet agents who may want to represent you, read for editors who may like your book. Bouchercon is a mystery fan conference designed to showcase mystery writers and introduce them to readers, where already established writers can meet with their agents and editors and attend publisher parties. This year at Bouchercon I was up for an Anthony Award for Best Crime Fiction Audiobook, a big award in the mystery community. I didn’t win. Hard! But “it’s an honor to be nominated.” In truth, I had several people tell me that “the win is in being nominated.” Maybe, but I thought winning meant walking away with the Anthony. One dear friend put it best, “It sucks not to win. I’ve been a loser seven times and it never gets easier.” She bought me a drink and made me laugh. But, while it may suck to lose, I'm counting my blessings. It’s much better to have lost to Louise Penny than Paula Hawkins.

The real “win” for me was the opportunity to sit on a panel with Lee Child. The Rogue Women Writers (a group of eight women writing international espionage and geopolitical thrillers, who blog at www.roguewomenwriters.com) were assigned a Friday afternoon slot with Lee moderating. For those who don’t read the genre, Lee Child is the #1 international thriller writer of the Jack Reacher novels. Now, I’m smart enough to know that nearly everyone in that room was there to see Lee, but still…what a thrill it was speaking to a standing-room only crowd. Thanks to all my RMFW friends who attended. A lot of you know how intimidating it is to sit in front of an audience and talk about yourself. Not only were you there to support me, but you Tweeted, Facebooked, shared photos, posted comments and took the time to tell me you thought the panel went well. FYI, I thought you all did well, too!! In my book, RMFW and the whole Rocky Mountain writers’ community rocks!

Take the First Step

14311444_1050223608424117_3014868071978910328_oTwo weekends ago, I was honored to be a presenter and panelist at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. If you are new to writing, or unfamiliar with the conference arm of this organization, I would highly encourage you learn more, consider attending, or even offer up your time as a volunteer. It is a fantastic opportunity to meet other writers, learn craft, and pitch your books to a variety of agents and editors.

I first learned of RMFW in 2005. I had just relocated back to Colorado with my husband, our two babies, Beth and Matthew, and a few dozen pages of a novel I had started writing while pregnant with Beth. Back then, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I remember the Internet search in Excite (the old Google for those that either don’t know or remember):

Colorado Writing Clubs.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers was one of the first results to pop up.

I didn’t know what this organization was, but I scoured every word on that old site and discovered they hosted writer critique groups and that there was one in my area, the North side of Denver. They met at the now closed Borders Bookstore on 104th avenue.

I was terrified, but I reached out anyway. Certain that I would be told no, I wasn’t welcome, good enough, or experienced enough to join their ranks. But that didn’t happen. For a small yearly fee, I joined RMFW and was accepted into my first ever critique group. I had been an avid reader my whole life, absorbing and learning story without ever knowing it. But it was that day, the day I took that first step toward RMFW that my formal education in writing and publishing began.

csdp0hcuiaaianbWriting can be a solitary and lonely business. Most writers I know, myself included, prefer those hours alone in our heads with story. But because we are not entirely nonhuman, we also need to connect with others of our kind. Since that day in 2005, I have slowly built up a truly fantastic network of fellow writers who I am proud to also call friends. Most of those connections started and continue to flourish because of RMFW.

I was a presenter and panelist at this years conference, but I clearly remember eleven years ago being an outsider looking in. Take that step, connect with other writers. I can practically guarantee you won’t be sorry you did.