It’s About Who You Know: The Truth About Successful Publishing

Word Cloud "Social Innovation"I won’t claim to know what makes a successful writer. I do know what it takes to be a working one. Let me start this post by dropping a little knowledge: A working writer is a writer who works. I know, right? Who knew? A working write writes. They often write a lot.

I’m a working writer.

I don’t write every day.

I don’t outline.

I don’t do many booksignings or other promotions.

I get sick of writing.

I get even more sick of publishing.

I am a bad working writer.

I still write.

This past weekend me and about 400 of my new closest friends spent three days revealing in A) workshops and B) the fact we aren’t alone. No, dear writer, you are not a freak of nature…okay, you might be, but the rest of us surely aren’t.

There were so many fantastic workshops. I learned lots of things. I pitched to an editor. I met my agent in person for the first time since 2007 when I signed with her. I hung out with people I don’t spend enough time with. Met so many more who I now adore.

And in the midst of the madness, it came to me. THIS IS WHAT PUBLISHING IS ABOUT. Being part of a tribe. Being a part of something bigger than my writing cave, bigger than my isolation. If I sold a million books tomorrow, I’d know, while the money and fame are nice, it’s about the people I consider my tribe.assassins_kiss

Don't believe me? Fine, buy 10 copies of my latest book, and then tell 10 friends.  ----->

You never know when that person you meet today, turns out to be the very reason you become rich and famous. Thank you to all those I met this conference. To those I hold dear until next year, when you forget to buy me a whiskey.

Hope you had a lovely conference too. Tell me what you enjoyed most--Who you met? What you learned?

Colorado Calling

I believe Colorado crime fiction is having a moment.

The writers?

That’s not what I mean.

I’m talking about the dramatic setting.

I mean, right now.

In August, it was the release of Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying.

This month, it’s Kevin Wolf’s The Homeplace. (Today as a matter of fact; Sept. 6 is the official publication date.)

In October, it’s Barbara Nickless’ Blood on the Tracks.

What else is unusual?

All three are debuts.

And I mean, these three books make for a fascinating triple header.

And they take major advantage of the Colorado landscape. Storey’s is all Western Slope—Grand Junction to Steamboat to Leadville and back to G.J.

Nickless is all Front Range—Denver, Fort Collins and a splash of the eastern plains (get ready for your close-up, Wiggins).

And then Wolf is all farm country, way out east in a fictional town in a fictional county but just as “real” as they come. Dry and windy, too.

I’ll go west to east to give you a flavor.

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Nothing Short of DyingNothing Short of Dying is big. It’s rough. It’s tough. It’s a full-throttle thriller led by a guy named Clyde Barr, who has his own moral code. He’s a loner. He’s a fighter. Yes, we hear the echoes of Jack Reacher (I’m dying to know if Storey is tired of hearing the comparisons between Barr and Reacher) but Barr’s motivations, to me, are built on a stronger foundation.

The plot is less cartoony, too, than Lee Child’s stuff (as addictive as those cartoons might be). Clyde Barr is a man who keeps his promises and he’s made one to his sister, Jen. When she needs help, Barr goes looking for her. He teams up with a woman he meets along the way and calls on old friends including one guy named Zeke, a pal from his days in a Mexican prison.

Barr is not all bad boy. He’s got his weapons, sure, but he’s also got paperbacks by Friedrich Nietzsche and H. Rider Haggard. He can be sensitive when the time is right, but you do not want to piss him off.

The backdrop for all this action is pure Colorado. “Sandy escarpments rose up on the left and forested mesas hugged the right until we dropped off a hill and headed into the Rifle valley. The river was wider here, with waves shimmering in the sun. What were once hay fields in the flat floodplains were now natural gas pads, pipe yards, compressor stations, and gas plants. One of the latter spewed a flame sixty feet in to the air. Closer to town, the cattle pastured I’d known as a kid were buried forever under asphalt and pavement, with house and apartment complexes built on top.”

Hey, Colorado ain’t all beautiful.

(I already reviewed Storey’s book on my book review blog, here. This includes an interview with Storey.)

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Blood on the TracksBlood on the Tracks is just as tough and wild as Nothing Short of Dying.

I am really taken with this ambitious story, which starts out as a thriller, morphs into a mystery, and turns back again into a movie-ready action-packed finish.

Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell is one complex and interesting character. She sees dead people, for one thing. But don’t think paranormal. Uh, hardly. These are “skills” she doesn’t necessarily want. She’s haunted for many reasons, including the fact that she worked in corpse retrieval during the war in Iraq. She was also involved in a situation covering up atrocities. The past is chasing her down. (A common theme in all three of these books.)

The plot here involves the murder of young woman who was known for her kindness to hobos and drifters. She is murdered in vicious fashion. The killer scrawls bloody hobo symbols nearby so Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde (yes, again, Clyde) are pulled into the investigation. Clyde is a great character, too. He’s got his own darkness. Something is broken inside him, too. Clyde is absolutely one of the best-developed dog characters I’ve ever met in a book. But he doesn't overshadow Sydney Rose.

After a big scene where they stop and search a freight train, they think they’ve got their man—or do they? The guy in custody seems like the obvious culprit but based on the number of pages left to read we know there are some problems coming and they start rushing at Sydney in waves. The hunt leads to big-picture conspiracies and into the deadly lair of white supremacists and ultimately into a terrifying confrontation with a predator during a snowstorm in, yes, Wiggins. In the end, there is blood on the tracks and many other places, too.

Cue the movie for this one. And don’t just take my word for it, check the great advance blurbs from Vikki Pettersson, Jeffery Deaver, and Hank Philippi Ryan, among others.

Blood on the Tracks is already reaching readers ahead of its launch next month; check the reviews already rolling in from a Kindle promotion for early readers.

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The HomeplaceAt the end of Blood on the Tracks, when Sydney Rose comes into Wiggins, Nickless writes:

“Barns and ranch houses gave over to businesses as I drove into town. A single traffic light swayed forlornly above the empty street. I drove past a dry goods store, a saddle shop and a single-marquee theater, all with Closed Please Come Again signs in the windows. Near the end of the block, red neon blinked through the snow. A grinning cowboy became visible, holding aloft a flashing beer stein.”

That small-town flavor connects right over to The Homeplace.

Of the three books here, this is the quietest, the most serene. But it does not lack for suspense.

The Homeplace won the Tony Hillerman Prize in the fall of 2015 (the prize goes to an unpublished writer of a mystery that captures the southwest flavor of Hillerman’s work).

What’s hard to believe is that The Homeplace is the work of someone from the unpublished ranks.  But those of us who have been around Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers know that’s true—and also know that Kevin has long turned out beautiful stories with clear-eyed prose.

The Homeplace features Chase Ford, who is coming home to Comanche County, where there’s “forty miles of dirt for every mile of blacktop.” He’s a former basketball star and he’s also the first of four generations of Ford men to put Comanche County in the rearview mirror. At least, that is, until now. Ford is as deeply troubled as Clyde Barr and Sydney Rose Parnell. And all three of these folks share a strong streak of stoicism, too.

In addition to Ford, there’s a full small-town ensemble cast. Wolf jumps easily from perspective to perspective. There’s Birdie Hawkins, a game warden for the Department of Wildlife. There’s Mercy Saylor, who works in the café in Brandon, and deputy sheriff Paco Martinez. There’s also Ray-Ray Jackson, who lives on the edges of society.

The sky is big and the wind blows, but life in the small town has a trapped, closed-in feeling. Complexities abound. And Wolf’s writing is uniformly calm and unsentimental, as when Chase and Mercy reconnect in the café for the first time since he disappeared over the horizon to play big-league basketball. “Quiet slipped into the room and took the empty chair at their table. Pans and pots clanged in the kitchen. Dishes loaded with eggs and bacon slid over the front counter, and the cash register drawer opened and shut. They both stared out the window, content in that minute to say nothing.”

The Homeplace is billed a mystery—dead body in the first few pages and all of that. There is a “who done it?” But with its weight and depth, The Homeplace could easily be read as straight novel, characters and setting first.

“As the first spikes of orange painted the gray morning, Chase spotted a deer at the edge of the field. No chance it would scent him. Through the binoculars, Chase could tell it was a big deer. The broken tine on the buck’s wide antlers and its graying muzzle meant it was an old bachelor, most likely run off from the herd by the younger bucks to live out what years it had left on its own.”

Yes, this is Colorado, too—way out on the windblown plains where the inimitable Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction) set his novels.

I wish Haruf was still alive to read The Homeplace. He would recognize the setting.

This is also Gregory Hill country—East of Denver and the Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles.

Congrats to Storey, Nickless and Wolf for putting some terrific new characters in motion against one of the best backdrops going—good old Colorado.

 

On Reviews

An author friend recently thanked me for posting an Amazon review for her latest book. “How do you always know when I’ve reviewed your books?” I asked. “Because I read my reviews,” she answered. “All of them?” “Yes.”

I’m the opposite. I seldom read my reviews. I might occasionally check my star rating and the number of reviews I’ve received. Or even glance at the first few when my book comes out. But after that, I avoid them.

I’ve put some thought into why my friend and I have such different approaches to reviews. Maybe it’s because my friend is a very non-controversial writer. She writes inspirational romances, and her books are what are called “gentle reads”. They’re never going to offend anyone, or provoke strong reactions. I can be a very polarizing writer. For example, when I entered my latest historical romance in the RITA, I got scores back of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Readers' responses to my books tend to be all over the place.

Since the beginning of my career, my books have gotten mixed reviews, and I’ve come to accept there are aspects of my world view and creative vision that are a bit different from that of most romance writers. I also have a very distinctive voice, which draws some readers in, while turning others off. I can’t change either of those things. And so I seldom read reviews, because a lot of the time it’s my voice or my story vision that the reviewers are reacting to, and their opinion, good or bad, isn’t going to be helpful.

In contrast, my friend reads her reviews to discover what readers like and don’t like in her books. The idea is to figure out how to write a better, more compelling book next time. It’s great when a reviewer gives you something specific that you can process and use in the future. But a lot of the time, that’s not what happens. Many readers don’t analyze what they didn’t like. They simply express their emotional reaction to the book.

Professional reviews are another matter. I read a lot of them in my job ordering fiction for a library. Professional reviewers tend to discuss both the good and bad aspects of a book. When they are critical, they tend to criticize specific things. They will mention slow pacing or tired tropes, clichéd characters or awkward prose, things like that. They also tend to balance negative things with a disclaimer, like “Despite the over-the-top action and lack of character depth, urban fantasy readers will be pleased”. Or, “Her (the writer’s) fans will find what they’re looking for.”

In those cases, the reviewer is recognizing that even though they didn’t like the book, there is still going to be demand for it. For someone like me, who is purchasing books for a library, that’s very helpful. I can’t simply buy the books that get the best reviews. I have to buy the books that the patrons at the library where I work want to read. And trust me, those aren’t always the ones that get the best professional reviews.

Despite my resistance to reading reviews of my books, I have to admit reviews have influenced my writing. I’m currently rewriting a book that was published almost fifteen years ago. As I rewrite, I’m conscious of the fact a fair number of the reviews of the original version found my heroine unsympathetic and cold. This time around I’m trying to make her more appealing. I’ve not only tried to get inside her head more and better reveal her psychological state, I’ve actually changed the plot so her actions aren’t so frustrating to the reader. I’m trying to make her less flawed and more “heroic”.

Bear in mind, it’s taken me fifteen years to get to the point where I can do something positive with those negative reviews. And that’s the thing you have to be careful about. Bad reviews can be devastating. They can demoralize you to the point that you feel like giving up writing. Or, they can push you to make changes that don’t play to your strengths as a writer. You have to remember that for every reader who dislikes a certain aspect of a book, there may be another one who loves that very thing. There are books I find plodding and dull, while other readers see them as beautifully crafted and complex. There are books that bore me because the characters seem shallow and uninteresting. But other readers don’t care because they’re focused on the action and suspense.

Over and over we’re told that a review is only one person’s opinion. And that truly is something to keep in mind. If that opinion helps you write a better book next time, then maybe it’s a good review, even if it is critical of your work. But if it does nothing except ruin your day, then it really is a bad review.

How about you? Do you regularly read your reviews? Do they influence your writing?

Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

Author Newsletters or Aliens Ate My Lunch … by Stephanie Reisner

2016_Stephanie Reisner
I subscribe to quite a few author newsletters. Not just because I’m an author, but as a reader I like to keep up with my favorites, too.

As a reader, I want a newsletter to do one of three things:

  1. Inform me of what’s coming or what has just been released. The truth is I only want an author’s newsletter when something new is releasing, pre-releasing, or something big is happening. This may only be once every month to once every quarter.
  2. Let me know about sales or freebies. Sure, this could go along with #1, but sometimes sales are happening on older books and I’ll want to share that information with my friends if I already enjoyed the book.
  3. Let me know about important events or dates. This would include book signings, appearances, or online events that I might be interested in.

Anything beyond this, meh. I mean, if I wanted to know every time my favorite author posted a new blog, I’d subscribe to their blog separately. Some writers are boring bloggers (myself included at times). So keep your blog subscription separate from your newsletter subscription. Check out FeedBurner or Networked Blogs to help you install subscribe buttons for your blog. I subscribe to newsletters to actually get NEWS (about books).

2016_Reisner_AliensHere are some tips to make your newsletter better:

  • Don’t spam readers weekly if you’re not releasing new books weekly. If you do that, we readers will eventually start treating your newsletters as SPAM.
  • Don’t start a newsletter and forget it. Try to send out something regularly (once every month or every quarter), even if it is just a SALE or FREEBIE announcement. You want readers to remember you’re there without annoying them. This will also (hopefully) motivate you to release on a more regular schedule, especially if you’re indie. If you can’t release quarterly, consider writing short stories or novellas between books to keep readers interested.
  • Put new releases first. Sales and freebies second and important dates or events third. Because that’s how I, as a reader like to see it. I imagine I’m not alone in this.
  • Include links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble where I can actually buy your latest book or get the latest deal! Don’t send me to your blog, which will then send me to your book. You might lose me at your blog. I want a direct connection to buy. If you want to include your blog/web link in the newsletter, just throw it in at the bottom.
  • I prefer short descriptions as opposed to an entire chapter excerpt within the body of a newsletter. Just link the excerpt and if it looks intriguing, I’ll go to your blog or website to read the excerpt.
  • Don’t include full articles in your newsletter. Give me a heading, at most a paragraph description, and then a link to where I can read more. Click-bait me, baby!
  • Concentrate on no more than three books per newsletter. I might feel overwhelmed. The point being I want to be able to open the email, get the highlights while I’m having my morning coffee, and click what interests me. If your links are lost behind paragraphs of rambling commentary, I might get bored and move on to the next thing in my inbox.
  • Use eye catching taglines and descriptions. Not: “My new book is coming out!” Why not: “Aliens are stealing your lunch on September 1! Pre-Order **Aliens Ate My Lunch** today and save .99 cents! Well damn it – I’m ordering Aliens Ate My Lunch right now if I see that header. And if I’m not ordering, I’m definitely reading the brief description. If that brief description is just as intriguing, I’ll likely buy.
  • Include book covers. I like to see pretty book covers.
  • Don’t bombard me with the same book month after month. I get it, you only have one book currently available, but there are ways to rectify this. Did I mention short stories and/or novellas between book releases? In the case of one book bombardment, give me updates on your next book first (maybe a cover reveal?), then list appearances, and THEN remind me about your existing book with the cover, title, brief description, and buy links.
  • Of course if you are an awesome blogger, go ahead and click-bait me to your blog at the very end. I may not click it all the time, but if you’re entertaining enough, I might.

As a reader, what do YOU like to see in an author newsletter?

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2016_Reisner_Ascending2016_Reisner_SavingColorado native Stephanie Connolly-Reisner grew up with a love for reading and writing. She started penning her first stories in grade-school and never stopped. Now much older, she’s a prolific writer who lives along the front range of the beautiful Rocky Mountains with her husband and a couple of very pampered house cats. You can find her and her four author personas at www.the-quadrant.com. She can also be found at Facebook. Stephanie writes under four pseudonyms: S.J. Reisner, Audrey Brice, Anne O'Connell, and S. Connolly.

Pitch Like a BOSS by Angie Hodapp

Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter

Pitching your book to an agent or editor is daunting. How are you supposed to cram the essence of your entire novel into a pithy couple of sentences? (Hint: You’re not.) Here’s a formula for a concise pitch that will set you on the right track. Ladies and Gentlemen, James Scott Bell‘s “three-sentence pitch”:

First Sentence: Your lead character’s name, vocation, and initial situation. Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high-level merger negotiations between computer companies.

Second Sentence: “When” + the main plot problem. When Will celebrates a recent merger by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.

Third Sentence: “Now” + the stakes. Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC, and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology that can be used for mass destruction.

Boom. Three sentences. The first introduces the protagonist in his ordinary world. The second presents the inciting incident. The third is what your character stands to lose if the antagonistic forces prevail. Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch. When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her. Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

Give it a try, but keep each sentence brief. Having taught this formula at pitch workshops, I know how tempted writers are to pack those three sentences full of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building. Resist that urge!

Now, can you boil your three-sentence pitch down further to create an even more concise pitch? Conversely, can you expand it to craft an evocative query letter? Whichever way you go, start here: with three sentences.

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Above, we looked at a quick three-sentence formula that will help you start to craft your pitch. Did you try it? Yes? Awesome!

Did you thwart the temptation to squeeze in a bunch of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building? No? Alas. Go back to those three sentences and whittle, hone, refine, and polish. Until you do, your pitch probably isn’t ready.

Go ahead. Do it now. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Excellent. Then let’s get you ready for your pitch appointment:

Ditch the idea that your pitch is supposed to be a complete summary of your novel. It’s not. Your pitch is a conversation starter. Pitch appointments at writing conferences tend to run about ten minutes. Deliver your pitch, then let the agent you’re pitching to ask you questions about your novel. About you. About your writing in general. Relax and have a chat.

Focus on character and plot. Ten-minute pitch appointments fly by, and many are wasted by the author who spends…way…too…much…time…explaining (1) his protagonist’s backstory, (2) his world-building elements, or (3) all the cool historical facts he discovered when researching his novel. Seriously. I once listened to a pitch during which the author never actually told me a single thing about her plot. Even when I asked questions about the story itself, her replies remained focused on backstory and setting. The agent wants to know if the story you put down between page 1 and page 350 is something they can sell. That’s what’s on the table, so focus on that.

Be prepared to respond to feedback and questions. Things I’ve said (gently, I hope!) to writers during pitch appointments include: (1) You’re pitching this as YA, but it’s coming across as a middle grade. What makes it YA? (2) How will your novel stand out among current bestsellers in your genre, or how will it appeal to readers of those bestsellers? (3) What are the last three books you’ve read in your genre? (4) What is your novel’s inciting incident, and how far into the manuscript does it occur? (5) In the story you just described, it concerns me that your protagonist isn’t actually the one who solves the plot problem. (6) The conflict you describe is very internal to your character. What is the story’s external conflict, and how does it get resolved and/or relate to the internal conflict? (7) Has your manuscript been critiqued by a critique group or beta readers?

Bring a copy of your query letter. If the agent stops you in the first minute of your pitch appointment with something like “I don’t represent that genre” (or anything else that feels like a shutdown/letdown), then politely ask if she wouldn’t mind giving you her quick impression of your query letter. After all, it’s your ten minutes. You paid for the appointment. And her input on your query letter just might help you land a different agent—one that’s right for you, your genre, and your project.

Understand that a disappointing pitch has zero bearing on your future as a writer. There will be other conferences, other pitch appointments, other opportunities. Keep pitching. Keep sending out query letters. The more doors you knock on, the more likely one (or more) will open.

And above all, keep writing.

 

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.

3 Reading Tips for Writers

How many books do you read in a year?  Who’s your favorite author, and why? When was the last time you truly got lost in a good read?

Only about 18% of the adults in the United States read more than one book a year for pleasure. As authors we have to sit up and say, “Yikes!” However, as humans, we also need to acknowledge that our “market” is pounded constantly for time.  People are busy with work and personal obligations, social commitments, and even a dizzying array of entertainments. The quiet book on a shelf doesn’t exactly shout out for reading time.

But for us lucky ones, those who love the book, we know several good reasons to read.  And topping the list for us is simply that to write better we need to constantly aspire to read better.

Book photo: How to Read a Book - by Adler and Van Doren
Reading better to write better -- who knew?

Last week, I picked up a copy of “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book, originally published in 1940, is still found in local book stores, selling well.  And no wonder. Adler and Van Doren conduct a thoughtful exploration of reading from multiple perspectives and different levels. This isn’t the only good book on reading, but, as once critic said, it “has become a rare phenomenon, a living classic.” If you get a chance, try to add “How to Read a Book” to your reading list.

After poking around "How to Read a Book," I started researching other books, blog posts, and articles on reading.  Here are three tips I hope will help you both to become a better reader and a better writer:

One - READ MORE

Well duh. Like eat more veggies and lose more weight, we writers know it’s important to read as much as possible. The question becomes not whether to do so, but how.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep an on-going book list – so you never run out of materials. Some people even set up a separate email account to send reading ideas to themselves, and follow-up emails with reviews and notes.
  • Keep reading handy – Have a book, anthology, magazine, or other reading material strategically lodged in those places you naturally gravitate to perch – your car, your favorite chair, the bathroom, etc.
  • Plan reading times – sometimes finding time is a matter of thinking ahead. Do you rush back to work from lunch and find you’ve only been gone 15 minutes? Maybe you can use that extra time for a good reading break. The twenty minutes before falling asleep at night, or turning on your light when the alarm goes off so you can wake comfortably with a good book are also good. If you look for time, you’ll find it.
  • Make reading a habit – Once you make reading fun, you’ll be inspired to return to it over and over. Keep track for a week of times you otherwise “waste” when you could be reading, and then change that habit for a reading one.

Two – MAKE YOUR BOOKS YOUR OWN

Adler and Van Doren encourage readers to jot down notes and questions in margins, underline unfamiliar words, mark in the margins great turns of phrase or quotations, and outline the book you’re reading in the couple of blank pages at the front or back of those books you buy.  I have a hard time with “outlining fiction,” but if you glance through any Cliff notes, you can see ideas for how this might be done.

One RMFW author was talking at her book signing, and mentioned that when her editor/agent suggested she write a mystery she went out, bought more than a dozen mysteries, and outlined them.  She didn’t run to the “how to write a mystery” section of the bookstore. She read the genre she was interested in writing. She made those books her own.

Three – READ AT NEW LEVELS

“How to Read a Book” talks about how most of us read at an elementary level.  This isn’t to be insulting, but accurate. If you’re like me, perhaps you too read at this level. Word. By. Word. Page one to “the end.” And if you’re as slow a reader as I, then becoming frustrated with reading more is understandable.  But here are some other levels of reading to consider:

  • Inspectional Reading – This is essentially skimming through an entire book, no matter the length, in a small set amount of time. Check the title, categorize the book, read the blurbs that so many of us struggle to write, and dive in here and there to get a complete feel for the book, before wasting time on something you don’t enjoy.
  • Analytical Reading – This is probably done the second or third time you quickly read a book. Start arguing with the author, ask questions (in the margins) and classify the book in several ways.  This is active reading to help you remember more, and enjoy the experience at a deeper level.
  • Syntopical Reading -- This is an expression developed by the authors to say that sometimes you need to read multiple books and sources on a single question, and that when you do this, your expertise is more highly developed.  As a mystery writer, for example, I wouldn’t want to read only Agatha Christie, but I need to delve into several authors in order to create my own concept of what a good mystery is all about.

In the past couple of weeks I have to admit that I’ve been indulging in Netflix reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.” In one episode, an aspiring writer asks Jessica Fletcher how he can become a better writer.  Without hesitation she answers, “Read, read, read!”

I hope you’ll share your own reading tips in the comments below.  Meanwhile, “Hound of the Baskervilles” is calling.

The Myth of Craft

Craft. Meh

I don’t buy the myth that if only I learn all there is to know about craft, that I will immediately write a bestseller and everyone will love my books. I don’t buy it at all. Because I’ve read bad books and I’ve read good books and in the end, sometimes the craft was awesome, and sometimes there wasn’t any to be found. People who make money offering writing classes want you to believe in the myth of craft. Playing the odds, you will probably make more money teaching people craft than crafting books yourself. And there’s less fear involved. Says the grandmaster wizard writing teacher, “I will teach you how to write, but I won’t write books myself. That’s too hard and scary.”

I sometimes think what I just wrote in the ranty-paragraph above.

Not sure I truly believe it or not. I do know that more important than craft (or talent, which I’ll talk about next month) is the will to write the book. The game is for people who do it, not people who study it.

Better to write a bad book than not write the book at all.

Do you know what I think of when I hear people talk about the myth of craft? I think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating uses the textbook to chart the perfect poem. If we maximize plot and minimize exposition, if we chart the character arc along the y-axis, then we will have the perfect book and you will make millions!

However, let me make myself perfectly clear. I had to learn how to tell a story and I had to learn about character arc. My writing can get overblown and I LOVE saying the same thing over and over again, but in a slightly different way. I can easily gloss over details and play havoc with POV. My choreography can be iffy.

In the ten years of conferences, critique groups, and craft books, I’ve learned a ton and sometimes that really helps me. Sometimes I don’t think it matters at all. Let me repeat that. I don’t think my ten years does me much good.

Do you know why?

Because art is subjective, and I might create a perfect work of art, and people might hate it. I have two artist friends, one draws pictures that are filled with craft, the lines, the composition, all of that. They are perfect. My other artist friends draws messy sketches in a surreal kind of way, and they are far from perfect, but they have an energy, a duenda, that shines through.

So in the end, the game is writing books. Sometimes those books will hit it big, and sometimes they won’t, and I don’t know why. People who claim they do are trying to sell you something. Because selling you the dream of a successful book will probably make them more money than writing a successful book.

I will say this…before I learned plot structure, I wrote books readers couldn’t read. It was sad. My books were bad, though I loved them so. Now, I know how to hook a reader and tell a story and readers can read my books. It’s happiness, right?

No. I have friends who liked my early work better. Yes, they liked my uncrafted books when they were more about my barbaric yawp than a finely-crafted story structure.

In the end, write books. Write books you love. Write books worthy of your time. Is learning the craft of writing a bad thing? It can be. If learning craft is blocking you from the act of writing, then it is evil. Don’t use it as excuse.

As human beings, we learn in different ways. I’m a learn-along-the-way type of guy, so I wrote a book, learned a bunch, wrote the next book, learned a bunch, and so on. Other people study, study, study, and then write books. It’s all good.

I met a Colorado writer who never went to a conference, never read a how-to book, never went to a critique group. And he is far more successful than me.

There are no rules, people.

Except one.

People can’t read books you don’t write. So write books.

Hit Me Baby, One More Time: The Art of Rejection

You think the last rejection you got was bad? Well, yeah, it probably was.

Rejection sucks no matter how you think about it. Some people put a positive spin on it, declaring each rejection is one step closer to a yes. And they’re right.

Other might look at rejection as spirit crushing. And yeah, they’re right too.

Let’s face it, no one likes being told their work doesn’t measure up or in publisher/agent speak, it’s not a good fit, whatever that means. It hurts. At the very least it gives one pause, evaluating their career choice. Which I honestly have to say is not the brightest, wealthiest, worthwhile path one could take.

I bet no one has ever told a doctor, that kidney you're putting in me...well, it doesn't quite fit. We're going to pass on the transplant. But good luck on your future endeavors.

Throughout the writer’s career rejection is a constant. Even the bestsellers get rejected. As an added bonus, once a book hits the shelves, readers start to review it. 1-star ratings appear.

How does a writer face so much rejection and not throw up their arms, screaming, “I quit!”?

Surprisingly a number of writers do quit. Finding the price far too much. Others, like me and you, continue with our delusions. Mind you, our delusions might not be all that deluded after all. Every rejection is one step closer to a yes. Every review, as painful as it might be, means a reader found reason enough to comment.

Recently I managed to get reviewed and rejected within an hour of each other. I considered quitting, giving up on my bestseller dream. Then I remembered why I do this. It isn’t for the fame, for the money, for the yes. It’s for the words on the page. The stories in my head. I write because it gives me pleasure. It makes me happy.

That’s the true art of rejection. Facing it. Accepting. And finally moving on.

How do you deal with rejection? Or poor reviews? What steps do you take to get over it?

You’re awesome! Go to the Gold with “Crowdfidence!”

Carol Berg speaks at RMFW
RMFW's conference offers workshops, speakers ... and supportive friends.

Conference is just around the corner. What will you wear?

Beyond fashion, the most important accessory is …. crowdfidence!

That means not falling into the trap of feeling inferior when you join the hundreds of writers at the Colorado gold during speeches, workshops and events.
Confidence can be eroded when we compare. Look at that author! He just snared his first book contract, and with a major New York publisher, to boot.  And her—she just released her fourth mystery, and it’s a USA Today bestseller.  They sit in groups by the bar, laughing, surrounded by mobs of friends.  And there you are, on the outside, looking in.
There are many others like you. We have all been there, and at all points in between, during our writer journeys.
It’s easy to fall in the trap. We watch the presenters, smooth and animated as they share their wealth of knowledge about craft and efficiency and marketing, and throughout all our comparisons, we come up woefully short.
This year, be kind to yourself.  When you arrive for conference, stand up straight, raise your hands to the sun, and say, “This is the first day of the rest of my life as a writer.” Then remind yourself of your achievements.
You thought of a story idea, complete with a character or cast of characters.
You wrote your first ten pages of fiction.
You braved sharing pages at your first critique session.
You finished plotting your book.
You started a synopsis.
You reached half-way through your book.
You finished your first book!
You wrote a pretty good blurb about your book.
You braved writing a query letter and sending it to an agent or editor.
You actually signed up for an editor or agent meeting.
There are so many milestones in writing. Think of the victories you’ve enjoyed along the way, accomplishments that bring you closer to holding a printed book in your hands – or seeing it, almost magically, available as an ebook online.
If you’re a first-timer, RMFW has a ribbon for that. Be sure to add it to your name badge! Long-time members will see it and welcome you. If not a first timer, remember those words, “Hi. May I join you?” RMFW members are welcoming and supportive.
And be sure to put on your PMA, your Positive Mental Attitude.  Avoid dwelling on your shortcomings, comparing yourself with others. Honor your own set of talents and strengths.
And wear this awareness along with your best shirt or skirt: It’s not a shortcoming to be a learner. You will see multi-published, New York Times bestselling authors attending workshops. Why? Because with writing, you never stop learning!  With every book comes a whole new course in some aspect of craft and life insights.
With every small step – speaking in a workshop, moderating a workshop, appearing on a panel and eventually presenting your own workshop – you will grow, as a writer and as a person.  Just as Kerry Schafer wrote in her blog a couple of days ago, there is simply not a better environment to thrive in than RMFW.
Enjoy!  I’ll see you at the Colorado Gold!