Cause for Whine or Food for Thought? … by Chris Mandeville

Chris MandevilleI’ve been perfecting my recipe for Coq au Vin for years. I use the happiest, most humanely raised poultry, a decent French Burgundy, organic farm-fresh veggies, and my own secret blend of herbs. The other night I prepared this special dish for my critique group—we always eat dinner before discussing our writing—and because my critique partner Aaron is a vegan, I also prepared an eggplant Wellington just for him.

As I proudly placed the food on the table, alongside a nice Cabernet, I asked the group, “So, what do you think?”

The guests tasted and slurped and savored and pondered, then they let me know what they thought of the dishes I’d worked so hard on.

Wine, not whine.

Photo “Wine” by Evan Wood, courtesy of Creative Commons.

“It’s pretty good, but I think there’s a little too much salt,” Morgen commented.

“Yeah,” Todd said. “Too much salt, not enough garlic. And the carrots are too crunchy.”

“I don’t love the wine in the dish,” Giles said. “It doesn’t seem to go with the wine we’re drinking. I would have made a different choice on one or the other.”

“I like the wine,” Aaron said. “But my vegan Wellington doesn’t relate at all to the Coq au Vin. It would have been nicer if there were at least some parallel to the dish the rest of you are eating. Besides, I personally don’t enjoy eggplant.”

“Of all the nerve!” you may be thinking. “These guests are so rude. Chris’ feelings must be hurt after putting so much time, effort and love into creating that meal. And that Aaron—what an ingrate! He shouldn’t complain, especially after she went to all the trouble to make a vegan dish just for him.”

Hold your horses and your happy chickens.

This is a happy chicken. He has not been turned into dinner because the prior story was all made up.

Photo “Don’t be a chicken” by Helgi Halldorsson/Freddi courtesy of Creative Commons.

This is just an imaginary dinner party, so don’t be too hard on my friends. The real Aaron would never say those things about a real meal I cooked for him, but he might say something like that about a story I ask him to critique. I can almost hear him:

“I like the voice [wine]. But the subplot [vegan Wellington] doesn’t relate thematically to the main plot [Coq au Vin], and I personally don’t like ‘fish out of water’ stories [eggplant].”

“Ah,” you may be saying. “I see the parallel now.”

Yes, this dinner party conversation is an analogy for CRITIQUE.

Now that you know that, let’s go back to the dinner party and change things up a little. Rather than simply asking “What do you think?” when I put the food on the table, let’s say instead I explained things this way: “I’m working on some recipes I’m going to cook for the producers of the Food Network, and they’re going to decide—based on this one meal—whether or not to give me my own cooking show. I need this meal to be perfect, so please evaluate these dishes as critically as possible.”

Would the same comments from my dinner guests feel any different to you after that?

“Sure!” I imagine you saying. “Absolutely.”

Knowing the context of the situation—that a career milestone hinged on the outcome of this event, and that I really wanted critical feedback—makes all the difference, right? The criticism at the dinner table doesn’t seem so harsh once you know that it was my goal to make the dinner the best it could be and that I was inviting criticism so I could improve.

Although we writers communicate for a living, we’re not always clear with ourselves and with others about the nature of the feedback we’re seeking when we offer up our work with a question like “What do you think?”

In my fictional dinner party scenario, without knowing the backstory about the Food Network’s interest in me (which is also sadly totally fictional), there’s no way of knowing if I’m asking for critical feedback or simply looking for a pat on the back.

Sometimes all we want is for someone to say, “You look nice,” not “Well, your butt does look a little fat in those pants.”

Sometimes we want constructive criticism, and sometimes we just want a little praise. Both are fine when it comes to cooking, to writing, and to everything else for that matter. The important thing is to be cognizant of which we’re seeking when we ask for feedback, and state our requests with a bit more specificity than the simple “What do you think?” By being clear and explicit with ourselves—and with others—about what kind of feedback we’re seeking, it can save us from a whole lot of heartache.

When it comes to writing, if you show your work to your best friend or a family member and you aren’t looking for critique, be sure to say that. But when you submit your work to a critique group, be prepared for criticism. That’s because whether you verbalize the request for criticism or not, the job of a critique group is to LOOK FOR THINGS TO CRITICIZE so that you can learn from it and improve. It would be a waste of time to belong to a critique group that said nothing but “This is awesome,” wouldn’t it?

The moral of this story is, when you submit your work to your critique partners and ask “What do you think?” be aware that what you’re really saying is: “Find problems. Poke holes in it. This needs to be perfect so please evaluate as critically as possible.” For the sake of your morale, try to prepare yourself emotionally for responses like “there’s not enough salt” or “the Wellington doesn’t relate to the theme of the meal.”

This is good. This is what we want. We like the color red.

Photo “I tend to scribble a lot” by Nic McPhee, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Remember: we want critiquers to be critical.

Even when you’re expecting criticism, it can still sting to have your precious words criticized. I find that it helps to remember that we want critiquers to be critical. Recently I had to remind myself of this as I prepared to send my debut novel, Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure to my publisher. My critique partners dealt out some heavy criticism, but I set aside my feelings, remembering I’d asked for tough feedback. Even though it was still a little painful on an emotional level to hear that my story wasn’t perfect, on an intellectual level I viewed their critiques as food for thought. I accepted the criticism and advice that resonated with me and revised my story accordingly (a process I repeated when I received feedback from my editor). In the end, my story was greatly improved as a result of all the criticism it received, and I believe it now has the exact right amount of salt, if I do say so myself.

This is not to say that critics (and dinner guests) shouldn’t be complimentary and kind and constructive with their criticism. Of course they should be.

This is to say that we—the cooks and writers—should be aware of what kind of feedback we’re looking for and prepared as much as possible to receive that feedback. If we’re clear with others about what we want, and we’re clear with ourselves about what to expect, there will be a lot fewer hurt feelings, and a lot less vegan Wellington hurled at our friends and critique partners.

So at the next meeting of your critique group, I encourage you to set ego and emotion aside and prepare yourself to receive criticism with an open mind. In fact, welcome the criticism! Because that’s what we’re seeking by being part of a critique group, right? Consider the criticism food for thought. Let it digest, then use it to make your stories better. And bring on the wine, not the whine!

Photo “cheers” by dutchbaby, courtesy of Creative Commons.

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

Mandeville_SeedsMandeville_52waysChris Mandeville writes science fiction/fantasy and nonfiction for writers. She served as Pikes Peak Writers’ president for 5 years, and has taught writing workshops for 10 years. She’s teaching a Master Class “Everything You Need to Know to Write a Novel” at Colorado Gold 2015. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. For information about Chris’ books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, visit www.chrismandeville.com.

Coming soon: watch for an interview with Chris on the RMFW podcast!

What Will You Lose if Your Computer Crashes Five Minutes from Now?

By Patricia Stoltey

This afternoon my geeky husband had a breakthrough (after a visit to the even geekier guys at our favorite BB store). Just in the last two hours he has retrieved all of my missing files from the bad hard drive and put them on both his computer and my external hard drive. Now I'm ready to start putting the folders in their new home. I am humbled, and I have learned my lesson.

Let's hope you have a good backup and recovery process in place.

My desktop hard drive quit about a week ago, It was sudden. No warning shots across the bow.  No flailing around for a day or so before collapse. Everything was fine the day before when I turned it off. When I tried to boot up the next morning, it was dead.

We didn't miss a trick. My husband is a geek retiree who knows lots about PCs and hard drives and all that stuff. He spent a whole day trying to bring that baby back to life long enough to do one more safety backup to my external hard drive.

When he wasn't watching, I tried some other non-geeky stuff.

Nothing worked.

DeadSo...the good news:

1. I backed up to my external hard drive a few months ago, and I save important documents to flash drives. Most of my writing docs should have been safe except the really old ones. I have printed copies of the old stuff.

2. Most of the downloads from my cameras were done before I backed up to the external hard drive, so most of my family photos are safe.

3. My new desk top computer arrived Saturday and I spent the weekend installing software and getting all ready to carry on...

But....the bad news:

1. I haven't been able to find anything on that external hard drive except the photos and a few things from the desktop. So far not one single solitary Word or pdf document. Thankfully, I have the truly important documents in two other places: flash drives and as email attachments in folders in my internet email account.

So heed my warning....

Backup options -- you probably know all about all of these, but that won't help if you're not backing up on a regular basis.

1.  Flash drives (thumb drives). Buy these at any office supply store and almost everywhere else. The little gadgets plug into a USB port and hold a lot of data. They're small and easily lost. I use the ones that have a little loop at the end so I can put them on a string or key chain. They also don't have much room for file names or identifiers on the outside so you might want to add tags to each one with that key chain loop.

2.  An external hard drive for regular backups of all files. They're available from retailers that sell computers. If you don't set up automatic backups, you do have to remember to plug the drive into the USB port and manually save. And then I strongly suggest you immediately take that drive, connect it up again, and see if the files you wanted to save are really there....and to find them.

3.  Online cloud backups offered by your computer's manufacturer or independent companies. These will charge a fee but most of them are pretty reasonable. Dell has it. Carbonite and Mozy are companies that come to mind.  Google "cloud backup service" and see what you find.

4.  Your own personal cloud which is a piece of equipment (like a bigger external hard drive). You can schedule regular wireless automatic backups.

So come clean. If your computer crashed five minutes from now, what would you lose?

Cobblestones

By Liesa Malik

Recently, my family and I had a chance to go to Rome. Rome! Can you believe it?

We were excited beyond belief, and made plans for months in advance. We even took a few Italian lessons and yes, bought the Pimsleur tapes with all good intentions of some fluency (personal note—a couple of months of practice doesn’t prepare you at all, but you give the natives a good chuckle before they kindly help you out, in English).

At last the great time came. We stepped off the plane and into a world of history, and history, and history. Two thousand years of lives and deaths were displayed everywhere we went. We walked and walked, through weather that was hot, and places that had ruin after ruin.

Centro Storico Cobblestones
History you can walk on.

By the end of our first day, we’d walked close to five miles and most of us were ready with all sorts of complaints about our feet, the lack of places to sit, and anything else we could think of (except, of course, the gelato).

And those cobblestones! Okay, so they looked very nice, these black four-inch squares that pave almost all of downtown old Rome, called Centro Storico. But my goodness, they hurt American feet strapped into lightweight sandals.

By day two and a wander past the Spanish steps, the Piazza Navona, and even the great Pantheon, we had cobblestones indelibly etched into our consciousness and toes.

Day three and the cobblestones became something of a curiosity point. “Wonder what they’re made of?” “Do you think they’ve been here as long as the ruins in that Largo Arenula Argentina—that place where Ceasar was killed?”

It was right about then that my daughter met up with like-minded acro-yoga fans (long story). One of the people who gave her a lift to the meeting (a total stranger but for the Internet), told Nicola that the stones are indeed throughout Rome, and are called San Pietrini or Little Saint Peters.

The cobbles were originally made from the volcanic rock (black basalt) that surrounds Rome, and chiseled into their classic square shape. I have read on the Internet (so it must be true) that the cobbles are now sometimes imported from the Far East.

The stones were apparently originally used to pave St. Peter’s square by order of Pope Sixtus V in the 1500s so while not as old as the Roman Empires, there’s still quite a bit of history to these modest landmarks of a great city.

Multiple San Pietrini
Whew, St. Peter's been busy!

One story I heard was that each cobblestone, or San Pietrini, represents a soul that St. Peter has saved. This doesn’t sound like so much until you look across the vast spaces of the piazzas and realize just how many stones are there.

The most compelling glimpse of these stones took me completely by surprise. I like to photograph the quirky but beautiful small things I see on trips. You won’t view a lot of family-in-front-of-monument snaps from me. But you will see doorknobs, windows, bugs, and other small items.

So, one morning on my first walk of the day, when the streets were quiet and the merchants were still busy setting up their tents in Campo De’ Fiori, I wandered down a street I hadn’t walked before.

Cobbles from Rome's Jewish section
I cried at this part of history.

After about ten minutes of walking and taking my quirky snaps, I looked down to see two cobblestones that weren’t black at all, but were made of brass. Of course I snapped a photo, and then did my best to interpret what I saw. Angelo Tagliocozzo was the name carved into the first stone and Angelo Limontani’s life story was on the second.

Angelo Tagliocozzo was born in 1916 and died in 1944.

Angelo Limontani was born in 1920. He was “arrestado” May 8th 1944 and “deportato” to Auschwitz where, at age 24, he was “assinato.” I had accidentally wandered into the Jewish section of old Rome. I’m sure St. Peter saved those young souls, but for me, the cobbles I walked on for the rest of my trip meant something much more than an unsteady walk for me.

Can you write the story of a cobblestone? Whose name would you carve? What part of history would they have played? Is your life one that will find its way to the streets of Rome?

Wishing you a creative week.

The Ultimate Victory – Writing The Too Perfect Book

By Aaron Ritchey

So I was sick of it all. Sick of the rejection. Sick of editors. Sick of my stupid Amazon ranking. Sick of the current project, which was completely unmarketable. Like any publisher is going to want a young adult sci-fi/western, steampunk, biopunk, family drama, dystopian epic. Epic I tell you!

Sick of it all! Sick to death.

In December of 2012, when Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II came out, I watched all five Twilight movies, and I was really moved by the experience. You laugh, but I was. I left and bought Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” and listened to it over and over. The song is on the soundtrack. Google it, if you don’t believe me.

I wanted to write something simple, something completely genre, completely marketable, a perfect example of a young adult romance. I studied the genre. I read broadly. I outlined the story. I kept the characters relatable, and I worked on streamlining the language. I hired an editor, took it through my critique group, used beta readers, did a final polish.

In the fall of 2014, I started querying my young adult romance. The rejections were slow in coming. Several agents read the whole thing. I was closer than ever! My hard work had paid off!

Last week I achieved the ultimate victory! I got a rejection from a big-time literary agent who complimented my story structure and called my writing commercial. However, she basically said my book was too genre; it wouldn’t stand out.

Which is exactly what I wanted.

I am not sugar-coating this rejection. I really do feel a sense of accomplishment. When I was querying my epic, I had a lot of agents and editors scratching their hands. One laughed when I pitched it as a post-apocalyptic cattle drive, and she asked me if I was serious. Yeah, I was. The Hunger Games with cows. My epic finally found a home with WordFire Press and will be out in the fall.

So the book I adored, my cross-genre sci-fi/western, has a publisher. So far, the YA romance I wrote for the market hasn’t. What does this tell me?

There are no rules. There is no manual on writing the perfect book. It’s all very subjective, and in the end, I need to write books I’m proud of.

My YA romance will one day see the light of day: either through a traditional publisher or self-published.

But do you know what?

If it goes through my Indie press, I’ll take my little YA romance, which is too genre, and I will Aaron Michael Ritchey the hell out of it.

‘Cause those are the books I’m proud of. My books.

Secrets of Author Success as Told By Someone Successful (Which is Not Me or is that I?)

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

As writers we hear tons of advice from editors, agents, other writers and fans (plus anyone who ever hears we are writers, randomly, even in the loo).

All of this advice is wonderful. And horrible. Good and bad. It's all about how we see it, and how we react to it.

The Guardian newspaper out of London once collected 10 bits of advice from some famous authors. While I love reading this list just to see what advice Neil Gaiman has for me, it's the Irish novelist, Roddy Doyle, who struck the biggest cord. Here's a few bits of his wisdom:

1 Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Best advice I can think of. If my favorite writer can't handle the pressure, what is the future for a hack like me?

4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

I like this idea as it keeps me on track. I can always change it at a later date. It's not like the publisher is going to keep my title anyway.

5 Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don't go near the online bookies – unless it's research.

When I started out writing, I used to play online poker. I called it research. God, do I love my research.

6 Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said".

Again, when I first started out, I thought I sounded smarter by using my thesaurus at will. Now I use it as a coffee coaster. I find it works much better.

Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It's research.

God, I HATE research. I'm a writer. Why do I have to wash my clothes? Or the floor? No one's looking there.

And finally, my favorite:

10 Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – "He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego." But then get back to work.

J.A. Kazimer lives in a small mountain community on Mars. When she's not fostering peace accords between people and Martians, she writes best selling, award winning books about how awesome she is...

Any advice you would add? Any advice you've ever taken that you'd like to share?

Clever ways to boost your luck!

by Janet Lane

Is there a way to improve your odds for publishing success? It’s likely you’ve learned about other writers’ successes and wondered, “When will it be my turn?” or “How did he finally get so lucky?”

There are ways to improve your luck, and reading about others’ success stories gives clues about ways we can improve our own odds for success.

The remarkable life of TV anchorman Tom Brokaw was recently the topic of a news feature, as well as a cover-page story in Parade magazine. Brokaw’s beginnings were modest. Born to working class parents and raised as an Army brat, he went on to travel to all seven continents, write six best-selling books, win every major award in broadcast journalism and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Success didn’t destroy him--he has been married for 52 years to Meredith, with whom he raised three daughters and enjoys five grandchildren.

In his latest release, A Lucky Life Interrupted, he writes about the not-so-lucky events, one of which was a battle with multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells in his bone marrow. The experience gave Brokaw a dose of humility, and he shared his thoughts on good fortune. “I believe you make your own luck. It’s always a mistake not to go, so I jump on the airplane, try new things… A big part of making your own luck is just charging out of the gate every morning. And if you want to be lucky you’ve got to go out and take advantage of it.”

So it’s as simple as Nike’s slogan, then -- “Just do it!”

In the Parade article, Brokaw reviews his good luck -- good parents, a lucky break when he landed a job at a Yankton, SD radio station that launched his broadcasting career, and a serendipitous assignment from NBC to cover the White House during Watergate, an assignment that gave him the opportunity to play a large part in the greatest political story in American history.

Is it as simple as that, then, “Just do it?” Those of us who have invested a year or more in a novel--the writing and the polishing and the peddling of it--know that it takes more than just doing it. Timing and luck often play a part.

Consider Diana Gabaldon’s story. She posted incomplete chapters of her work in progress in an on-line chat room and caught the attention of an agent who secured a lucrative contract for Outlander, which became a New York Times best-selling series and made-for-TV movie. Then there’s J. K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series. Rowling graduated from writing on paper napkins to becoming richer than the Queen of England.

The Parade article included five tips to get luckier:

1. PAY ATTENTION. We need to pay attention when opportunity knocks. We need to open the door, and take action. Put down your cell phone. Walk away from your computer. As Brokaw says, “Charge out of the gate every morning.” That means get out of the house, step out of your comfort zone--join the publishing world in an active, rather than passive way.

2. OPEN YOUR CALENDAR. Avoid over-scheduling yourself, and save some “down time” for walking, meditating, enabling you to make connections and allow patterns and ideas to reveal themselves. Talk to people and listen, and you’ll begin to recognize opportunities.

3. INCREASE YOUR ODDS. It’s like the old expression, “If you throw enough mud on the side of the barn, some will stick.” You must be in the game to win. If you try 30 new things, you might be able to count 15 good things that happen to you.

4. TAKE CHANCES. Serendipity is more likely to strike when you step out of your comfort zone. Expose yourself to new people, new places, and new information. (Which is why attending writing events such as the RMFW conference is so valuable.)

5. LET IT GO. Clinical Psychiatry Professor Richard A. Friedman notes that the “unlucky” tend to dwell on their bad experiences, replaying negative events and giving them too much weight in their lives. Losing out on a good parking space becomes as bad as losing your wedding ring. Try to downplay the unlucky events, and create ways to easily recall your lucky or successful events.

And why not carry a good-luck charm, something that reminds you of a good-luck moment in your life? Brokaw mentions the late Sam Gibbons, a Florida congressman who carried a cricket, which he used as communication with fellow soldiers during parachute assault during World War I. “It’s a reminder that I’m lucky I wasn’t jumping into enemy territory in the dark of night,” Gibbons said.

Keep writing, keep dreaming. Pay attention, be ready, and take chances.

Good luck! I’m cheering you on!

Support

By Robin D. Owens

"My brain has decided that writing isn't a temporary job anymore," said Laila, a writer I've been sprinting alongside in the mornings lately.

"I'm rearranging my office this morning during our writing sprints. When I started working my day job from home and writing too, I assumed it was temporary. I thought I was going to join an MBA program. But after finishing this manuscript, I've realized that writing isn't a temporary job anymore."

"That's important." I typed back. I spend most of my days with an online group doing sprints. They are motivational and supportive (the people . . . though I suppose the sprints – wars – are supportive, too, and certainly motivational).

Everyone is invited. The ones who stay find this process works for them (it doesn't for everyone). We are published traditionally, published by small press, self-published, published through Kickstarter, and unpublished. Laila is unpublished.

Laila joined the war room (a specialized chat room) in March (yes, I asked her since I'm writing this with her in the war room) "one week into the draft of the manuscript."

The last couple of months have been intense in the war room, with three of us solidly working. I was late with Heart Legacy and turned it in May 8, then jumped on Ghost Talker, due at the end of this month. (Ha, ha, ha).

Jay had a book due to her small press on June 15. Both Laila and Jay finished their manuscripts on the same day last week.

We all celebrated with cheers and virtual champagne. Because we aren't in the same room, you know, or even in the same area.

We are worldwide. Sweden, England, Ireland, East Coast Canada, Central Time, Mountain Time and West Coast Time zones are all represented.

But we are a community, an extremely supportive and motivated bunch. And that's incredibly important to me. By now, I would say that daily support is necessary to me.

I've done the home-from-day-job-start-writing business. I did that for many years, writing alone in the dark every night, writing on weekends and holidays. At that time (and now) I had RMFW critique buddies, the monthly meetings and various get-togethers for support.

For me, the support of writing friends is vital.

I think it is vital for all writers. You aren't alone. There are others out there like you. People who hear characters speak to them or see a scene roll before their inner eyes. Or writers who struggle with character decisions, turning points and plot. Clunky words and learning technique. And if you hang around us, we will motivate you to write.

A caveat: Make sure you find the group that fits you. Ditch the ones that drag you down and suck out your energy and emotions (because, yes, some do).

But if RMFW fits you (and it boggles my mind that it wouldn't), stick with us, your friends in RMFW, your critique group buddies. Your Writing Groups. We will help you. We'll be there. You can count on us.

May you write wonderful words today.
Robin

(p.s. send me an email if you think you need the wordwars group -- robindowens (at) gmail (dot) com. I'll get back to you with the chat room url and password. Like I said we're open to everyone, but a lot of people come and go deciding whether or not we work for them. We tend to do days in the U.S. Sometimes evenings and nights. We do have a spec fic slant.)

What’s Going On At Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers?

The Colorado Gold Conference

JefferyDeaver200x230Have you signed up yet? With keynote speakers like Jeffery Deaver and Desiree Holt, how can you go wrong? Add in agents and editors--Danielle Burby, Trish Daly, Denise Dietz, Tiffany Schofield, Chelsey Emmelhainz, Sarah Joy Freese, Erin George, Carrie Howland, Emily S. Keyes, Melissa Jeglinkski, Ben LeRoy, and Latoya C. Smith--and you know Westminster, Colorado is the right place to be September 11-13, 2015.

If you haven't registered yet, you better do it now. Last year the conference registration was filled in record time. You don't want to miss out. For all the information on master classes, conference sessions, meals, hotel, and how to register, click here to go to the website's conference pages.

The Podcasts

Mark Stevens is currently hosting a series of interviews and programs with the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Podcasts. Podcast #5 featured Heather Webb with "Finding Your Voice." #4 -- Holt Finalist Tina Ann Forkner Talks Romance & James Norris Previews RMFW Workshop on Boosting Character Conflict.

The complete list of podcasts and links are available in the website Podcast section right here.

The Blog

Are you following the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog Monday through Friday? With a team of regular contributors and several guest bloggers each month, all from the RMFW membership list, the blog is a great way to meet other members and enjoy the information they're willing to share with the tribe and all aspiring writers interested in what we do here at RMFW.

Did you follow Jeanne C. Stein's lessons in genre writing? Get a chuckle (or a groan) from reading the humor of Julie Kazimer or Aaron Ritchey? Explore ways to get reviews with Janet Lane? All these and more are available on the blog pages of the RMFW website.

By the way, you can sign up to receive email notices of each new blog post so you don't miss anything. Just scroll down the blog page until you find the Email Address (in red) box in the right sidebar.

The Social Media Connection

Go to the Home Page or the Blog Page and you'll find the little Social Media icons in the right sidebar with links to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and more.

Are you a member?

If you visit the website, listen to the Podcasts, attend the conference, enjoy our monthly free classes, or read the blog, but haven't become a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers yet, why not today?  Here's the link for membership information.

A Writer is One Who Writes … by Linda Berry

Linda Berry 11-06When asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I usually say it was about fourth grade. That's when, as a big fan of the feature called “Life in These United States” in The Reader's Digest, I realized it made a big difference how a story was told. I began to appreciate humor, brevity, and careful word choice. Looking back, I realize that long before I had professional ambitions, I would often volunteer to take the notes of the meeting or write the blurb for the newsletter. In sixth grade I won $25 in a national contest for saying (in 25 words or less) why I liked a certain toothpaste. It was fiction. I had to borrow the required box top from a neighbor, since we didn't use that brand.

Years later, I have some solid publication credits that range from poetry and plays to a newspaper activity column and six cozy mystery novels. Of course (of course!) my career as a writer has not been one huge success after another. In the olden days, when manuscript submissions still involved postage, SASEs, and, all too often, paper rejection slips, I sometimes gifted special writer friends with wastepaper baskets covered with decoupaged rejection slips.

My dedication to the job--as well as the rewards--still waxes and wanes. Good times, bad times, blah times, discouraging times, productive times--they're all in there, so I've developed several writing-related activities designed to keep me moving and productive, and remind myself that I am a writer. The very best of motivators would be a contract and/or a deadline. I'm talking about those other times. If you've ever suffered from the blahs, maybe one of these ideas will help you.

WRITE SOMETHING
Draft a query letter describing your idea to an editor or publisher. Draft an application for a writing job, even an imaginary one. Write a thank you note or a letter to your mother. Write a letter to the editor. Almost certainly, you'll find yourself editing and improving what you've written, as well as clarifying your thoughts. Flannery O'Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” How can that be a waste of time?

POSITIVE THINKING
Find some motivational slogans to post near your work station. “The only unforgivable sin is giving up.” “Even Babe Ruth struck out most of the time.” A little of this goes a long way with me, but it's far better than thoughts like “What made you think you could do it?” and “Who cares, anyway?”

RESEARCH
Find out about markets, contests, conferences, organizations, classes and workshops for writers. Check on details for a story.

NETWORK
Put that research to use. Enter a contest (which might come with a deadline, a focus, and feedback). Get into an existing critique group, or form one. Join a group (like RMFW) of people who face the same challenges and have the same goals. These people are the ones who can help you over the bad spots and re-direct you when you go astray. Sometimes they'll have useful marketing information.

FANTASIZE
Why not? Sometimes I fantasized about what I would wear at my first book signing. Write jacket copy or a review for that as yet unpublished, or unwritten novel. (This might help you find your focus. What IS that book about?)

TEACH
Teaching is a great way to sharpen your own skills and understanding. Lately, I've been tutoring a Korean woman who wants to improve her writing in English, and I recently presented something I called “Working With Words” for a high school career day. I tried to give these hopeful high schoolers an honest assessment of their chances of making a living as writers. At the end, I gave each one a certificate (which I had downloaded and customized) that read: “A writer is one who writes. Abigail Authoress (not her real name) is a writer.”

TAKE A CLASS
Attend a conference like RMFW's Colorado Gold, where you can learn craft and marketing and meet people at all stages in their careers. I'll be there, presenting a session called “Show AND Tell,” discussing how to apply the advice, “show, don't tell,” and another session addressing ways to expand or compress your manuscript to make it the length you need. I'll also be facilitating a discussion called “Birds of a Feather,” for writers of mysteries. If you come, say hello. And if you need one of those certificates I mentioned, either download and customize it yourself, or let me know and I'll have one ready for you. A writer IS one who writes.

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Linda Berry's mystery novels are set in the small Georgia town where she was born. For more information about Linda and her books, please visit her website.

What Makes a Keeper Book?

By Pamela Nowak

There’s a big difference between an enjoyable read and a keeper book. For me, the keepers are those books that take me beyond light entertainment and involve me emotionally in the story. They are the books that make me feel as if I am in the story and make me gasp or worry or cry. They are the ones I remember long after reading them.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that for me, the books that do this have a few key elements in common: a firm grasp of scene structure, a plotline driven by GMC, conflicted/complicated characters, and tight POV.

Hah! So what do I mean by that?

Scene structure is critical. Early on in my writing, I heard Jack Bickham at a Colorado Gold Conference and immediately bought his book: Scene & Structure. His process made sense and (as a plotter) I immediately grasped the way it paired character and plot. It gave purpose to each and every scene and allowed me to keep from straying off on tangents when writing. As a reader, I find that structured scenes keep me more involved in the story, without feeling like the character is simply wandering through time with things happening to him/her.

Bickham’s basic tenet is that each scene should have a goal, conflict, and a disaster. The POV character has an immediate short-term goal. Early in the book, that goal is based on his/her long-term goal or the story question. With each disaster, a new short-term goal is formed which influences the character’s next actions. These goals are important because they allow the character to guide the plot rather than having things just “happen” to the character. This makes the character more sympathetic and guides the plot. Conflict is the result of something or someone that disrupts the goal and isn’t just made up (such as an argument for the sake of argument) and therefore will have a consequence for the character that will lead him/her to react, feel, and form a new goal which in turn moves the story forward. In short, scenes constructed in this way provide continuity and allow the characters to drive the story rather than the author.

Disasters can come in many forms from a blocked goal to partially met goal to a “yes, but…” goal (met but doesn’t turn out as anticipated). After each disaster, the character reacts, either on or off stage in what Bickham calls a sequel. He/she has an emotional reaction, processes/thinks about what happened, makes a decision, and forms a new goal. Of course, like scenes, there are variations in sequel format. The “scene and sequel” construction keeps the story always moving forward and character-driven.

GMC is closely related. Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict emphasizes plot construction that relies on a character with a goal who is motivated by something and runs into conflict (something that blocks them from meeting the goal). The key difference here is the motivation element. A character has a back story that has shaped him or her into who they are. Goals are (or should be) related to their backstories—which really is part of character development. If you’ve ever read a book and said, “now why did she do that?” you’ve encountered a story that lacked motivation elements. As I writer, understanding motivation allowed me to more fully define my characters—villains and heroes alike.

And that leads me to complex characters.

My favorite books are those that have heroes or heroines and villains and even secondary characters with pasts that have shaped them into who they are when the book begins. Their backstories have created both inner and outer goals. I think of it this way: the outer goal is what the character wants but the inner goal is what he/she truly needs. The outer goal is usually related to the story question and launches the story. The inner goal is related to the deep part of a character and his/her arc; it’s tied to his/her flaws and often, the character doesn’t even realize it motivates his/her actions. Give me a complicated character in need of growth and you’ve got me hooked.

Pair up that character development with a tight POV and the result is an emotional link that keeps the reader constantly involved in the story; the reader feels like he IS the character. A tight POV means that descriptions are relayed in a way uniquely that of the POV character. An artist would experience the world in a broad palette of color and technique; a musician would interpret life via music. A man who has been in prison would temper things through a different lens than a free-spirit who spent time in a commune. A writer who uses words and phrases and metaphors that relate the world to the character employs tight POV and lets the reader feel what the character feels. This goes a step further when actions and movements and internal thoughts and reactions are all related in the same way.

It’s rare to find books that employ all of these elements but when I do, I read them again and again. They go on my keeper shelf and I buy such authors without regard to the exact plot simply because I know their books will be good.

If I have one goal as an author, it is to employ all of these elements and to have readers say they were so involved with the characters that the book became alive. In short,... to be put on the keeper shelf.