To Contest or Not To Contest…that is the question

Do you enter contests for your writing?

Over the last couple decades, I’ve entered many contests, both for full-length novels and short stories. I belong to RWA (Romance Writers of America), which includes multiple chapter contests in their monthly magazine, both for unpublished and published authors. I think most genres have something similar, or you can easily find them on-line. RMFW has an annual contest for unpublished authors. Writer’s Digest and other publications and on-line sites have contests for short stories. There are a couple different reasons for entering contests, and your decision may hinge on where you are in your writing career.

If you’re unpublished, contests can:

  • Help you identify problems with your writing that you’ve become “word blind” to.
  • Educate you on craft (one judge highlighted each point of view in a different color, which really helped me to understand why I kept getting comments on staying in POV).
  • Get your work in front of published author judges and, if you final, agents and editors who are actively looking for books in the genre they’re judging.
  • Give you a low cost way to get more input on your writing.
  • Generally you’ll get 3 preliminary judges so you get 3 different points of view on your writing; usually they’ll post comments on the judging form, as well as on the manuscript.
  • Some contests will send you graphics you can use on your website/social media if you final/win.
  • Finaling or winning is great to include on your query letters or during your pitch appointments; it might be the final push to get someone to request pages or a full read.
  • Most contests post their winners in multiple places, getting your name, and your book title, out into the world – priceless publicity.



Contests are great for Published Authors as well because:

  • Winning a contest looks great on query letters and in pitches, as well as on your website and author platform.
  • Finalists and winners get free publicity in genre newsletters, writing group social media, etc.

Contest negatives:

  • Some judges may not read, or even like, the genre they’re judging – resulting in unhelpful comments.
  • Judges have varying degrees of expertise, and may give you poor or incorrect feedback.
  • There is some cost involved (usually $10-$30, with from 1 to 50 pages judged).

No matter if you’re unpublished or multi-published (Nora Roberts STILL enters RWA contests), you can get something out of contests. But as always, it’s YOUR story. Don’t make changes just to please a judge. However, to get the most from judge notes:

  • If you get more than one judge commenting on the same issue, pay attention, especially if those comments are similar to ones your critique group have mentioned.
  • Read the comments, but if you don’t agree with them, give it a day or two. Don’t be hasty to toss the judging sheets out, or make a lot of changes.
  • If more than one judge is saying the same thing, and/or echoing critique comments, copy the pages into a new document and see what happens if you make the changes/start in a new place, etc. Sometimes what seemed like an impossible job, or a horrible idea, ends up making a much better manuscript. Don’t discount the comments just because you don’t like them at first blush.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking everything the judges say must be correct. One of my first contests had a judge telling me all my chapters had to be 12-13 pages long. Because I didn’t yet belong to a writer’s group like RMFW, and didn’t have anywhere else to go for information, I turned that manuscript inside out trying to make all the chapters come out at that length. I later found out the judge had one self-published family memoir as their sum total of writing experience. That doesn’t mean the judge couldn’t contribute good suggestions to help me improve my work, but they weren’t familiar with my genre, and probably didn’t read enough fiction to know chapter length is one of the most variable parts of books these days.

Whether or not you want to enter contests, consider volunteering to judge. You’ll get educated on the judging process, and you’re likely to make great contacts, as well as networking with other writers/judges interested in your genre. Judging can help you find your herd/tribe and possibly friendships that will last forever.

So, happy contesting, and Write On!

Naming Your Characters

I'm sure every writer has stories about this. For some, naming characters aren't important, for others, it's vital. I'm in the latter category.

I write fantasy and fantasy romance and have wended my way (so far) through four series, two are finished, two are continuing.

In the "Heart" series (the "Heart" books because they all have "Heart" in the title – and, yes, I'll talk about the joys of that some other time), I have a rigid naming system. Those books are fantasy romance set on a planet colonized by psychic Earth people who formed a Celtic society. Most of them are based on plant names, either common names or scientific. The favorite Familiar animal companion, Zanth, is short for Zanthoxyl, for instance. I will throw in the occasional Gaelic and Welsh names for things other than people (and have real fun with geographical place names), but I stick close to my rules, and some of my readers would be horrified if I diverged from that.

In my other current series, the Ghost Seer series, I am writing about contemporary Denver and ghosts of the Old West. My heroine is Clare – spelled Clare instead of Claire deliberately. She's a rational accountant and does see clearly. But she inherits a fortune and a psychic gift for seeing ghosts and helping them pass on. So she sees clearly in that way, too. As for my hero, Zach, well, I wanted a name sounding close to "Jack" for the set up of the first meeting of the hero and heroine. And I like the name, it was time to have a Zach hero. As for his surname – Slade – it's the same as the gunslinger ghost in my first book, deliberately.

So I spend time, perhaps too much time, thinking about my character names, and there are considerations you, as a writer, should take into account.

For instance, I once had a hero named Race, then realized that a previous hero would have a large secondary role, Raz. Race and Raz. No.

Because no matter how interesting it is for you to have, say, identical twins with close names (Rica and Rona), you do NOT want to confuse your reader. The minute you have the reader thinking, wait, is that the medical doctor or the physical therapist? you've pulled your reader from the story. And when you pull the reader away from your story, it's easier for them to close the book.

About Race, as I recall, Race was the second or third name I'd tried for this guy. He's an adventurer and I wanted something that sounded "slick" and easy to the ear, and felt the ace sound did this (the standard advice for a romance hero is a short name with a hard consonant – like Zach). Race became Jace, and I was finally happy with the name, it fit the character.

I'm sure we've all run across the character who insists on a name, and that can be tough if it doesn't match reader expectations (like Wendell for a romance hero). The only advice I can give you on this is to put the story away (if you can) for a while until you detach from the character. That might work.

As for me, I wanted a heroine named Brandy, and was nixed by my editor on that one (this was the Summoning series), and after long thought she became Marian. But I think she'd have been a little more daring if she'd had the name Brandy.

So names do matter. To you, your readers, and, yes, they can hint at attributes of your characters.

May all your writing dreams come true,


Never Give Up

Whatever you're writing, wherever you are in the writing process or in your career, I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. Finish the book
  2. Don't ever give up.

Nobody said this writing life was going to be easy. I don't need to tell you about the obstacles – you already know what they are. Only you know how strong your personal demons are and how much energy it takes to overcome them every time you sit down to write. Only you know how hard it is to summon up enough faith to send out one more query. Only you know how deep and dark your doubts are when you're wide awake in the middle of the night.

Don't let any of this stop you. If you have the passion, if writing is the one thing that makes you feel fully alive and present in this world, then you must keep on.

Write on the days when the words flow as easily as water. Write on the days when it feels like every word has to be dredged up from your toenails. Write on the days when you feel like the painted ship upon a painted sea, when words are sludge and hope is gone and you know for certain that nobody in their right mind will ever read this tripe you're smearing on the page.

Some of you are doing Nanowrimo this month. Maybe you're blazing trails and have left that 50k word count goal in the dust. Maybe what you're writing is sheer brilliance and you are riding a writing high. But if you happen to be three weeks into Nanowrimo and your word count is falling behind, don't give up. Keep writing. If you can't quite make the word count, focus on making a word count.  If the end of November comes along and you've only got twenty-thousand words, or ten, that's more than you had at the beginning of the month. Keep going. Don't let some airy-fairy idea of failure make you stop.

If you're above ground, if you're still writing, you haven't failed.

And when you finally finish your draft and you read it and you're sure it totally sucks, see if you can make it better. Then move on and write another book. And then another and another. Focus on making every new book better than the last.

I'm not saying you shouldn't revise the sucky draft. You probably should. Most first drafts are wormwood and despair. They need a lot of work to turn them into masterpieces. By the time I'm done revising and rewriting, I generally have as many words in what I call my "Darlings" file as there are in the finished novel.

But there is a danger in getting fixated and stuck on one novel. I see writers working on the same book forever and ever, like they're Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill, day after day after day. The energy leaks out of the book, or it becomes a convoluted mess. The writer lives in a state of desperation and despair. This is not good for either book or writer.

Sometimes you have to step away for a bit. Find a new idea. Write another book. And then another one. Every book will teach you something new about your craft and lead you closer to mastery. And then, maybe, one day, you'll go back to that sucky Nanowrimo draft and realize you now have the skills you need to fix it.

Look what I ran across the other day:



Notice the date. Yep. Dead Before Dying was written five years ago, and is just now on its way to publication. Since the time that draft was completed I've written four other books and three novellas. Dead Before Dying had to wait its turn until I'd figured out what it needed. That first draft was a mess. The POV was all wrong. It didn't fit any genre category known to humanity. And Maureen, my feisty lead character, wasn't even in it.

I didn't know any of that. All I knew was that something was wrong with it. I never abandoned it - I always knew I would come back to finish it. But I had to go build some writing chops on other projects.

My point with all of this is exactly what I said at the beginning. Whatever you're writing now? Finish it. And then write something else.

Don't stop.

Don't give up.

Writers write. You are a writer. So go do the thing you're here in this world to do, and don't let anything or anybody stop you.


Never Ignore Serendipity

I just took a vacation. It was great, but what I took away from it (besides a sunburn and a hangover), was that I need to make sure I never let myself ignore serendipitous moments in time.

While our husbands went fishing, my friend and I decided we’d take a nice little snorkeling trip. Just a couple hours. The snorkel “beach” was actually a pile of granite boulders, with very sharp edges, and massive surf. As in “knock you over and roll you around” surf. Combat snorkeling, if you will. As you can guess, this was not what we signed up for. We didn’t have change for anything to drink, and the water taxi was an hour late coming back for us. This should have been the excursion from hell.

But lest you think I digress, in an instant we got to experience one of those serendipitous moments. The other passengers on our water taxi back to civilization were a group of 20-30-something cruise ship employees from South Africa, England, and a couple other places I forget. The twenty minutes back to town, plus the two or so hours in the bar we spent with them, were truly serendipitous.pelican beach and cruise ship

We were fifty-something women whose husbands had gone fishing. Those “kids”, by all rights, could have made fun of us, should have ignored us. But instead, they decided to hang out with us simply because we talked to them, and told them where they might find drinks and good food. When a Mariachi band came by, one of the crew asked to use a guitar, and began to play – Santana no less. Holy Cow – that Mariachi band was even more surprised than we were. It seems we were in the company of some of Disney’s Cruise Line’s star entertainers. Then another crewman picked up the guitar, played, and sang lead while the others sang along, including the Mariachi that still had instruments. These “kids” were interesting, fun, VERY talented, and talked about everything that came into any of our heads.

If we hadn’t been on that Ponga boat, at that time, on that day, there is no way this diverse group of people would have ever come together, and stayed together for more than a moment. But what we ended up with was something that made that day, and our vacation, so much more memorable than if we’d just followed our itinerary.

Where I’m going with this is: you should never let those moments pass you by. Let those strange little quirks take you wherever they will. As writers, we need these moments to take us away from the tunnel vision of our WIP. To make us experience those things that might not be within our comfort zone, or the genre we write in, or the circle of people we’re comfortable with. And just maybe, to give us an idea for the next story, a great story, a bestselling story.

Serendipity. Grab it when you can, hold on with all you got, and Write On!

The “Next Day” Critique Group Apology Letter Template – Blank For Your Convenience

So it’s happened. You brought pages to your critique group, it didn’t go well, and you exploded, making an ass of yourself.

You know what RMFW’s own Mario Acevedo says? He says the only appropriate response to a critique is “thank you.” And in our group, he says thank you a lot. Because Mario insists there is only one rule for writers and that is to be gracious.

Well, I try to be gracious and say thank you, but sometimes I crack—out spills my insecurity, hatred, and self-loathing. Darn, I hate it when that happens.

I always print out the pages I submitted and jot notes on them. If I’m writing comments, I’m less mouth, and that’s always a good thing.

But even now, after nearly a decade of being critiqued, I still have issues sometimes, and I find myself drafting the post-critique group apology email. I figured all of RMFW might benefit if I gave them a template to use. So here is it is. I added some parenthetical suggestions.

Dear __________________ (Critique Group, Critique Partner, Writing Buddy, or You Bunch of Illiterate Jackals),

I’m writing to apology for last night’s ___________ (outburst, chainsaw massacre, uncontrollable sobbing, sarcastic gales of laughter, shameless name-calling).

As you know, my life has been very stressful lately with _______________________ (wife/husband problems, divorce, death of a close relative, my son/daughter, day job, frenemy drama, buttloads of rejection, crushing self-doubt). Still, that doesn’t excuse my behavior.

I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into your critiques, and I know sometimes I can be _________ (sensitive, combative, feloniously violent) about my current work in progress. I just ________ (love it, hate it, want to burn it, want to win a Pulitzer) so much.

Writing _________________ (fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, high literary) novels is a challenge, and I recognize that I have issues with ____________________ (POV, verb tense, long passages of exposition that expose the inner workings of the character’s mind through tons of back story and internal dialogue, cheap hooks, histrionic characters, facile plot points, unabashed genius), but I’m trying to improve.

Next time, I will try to be less ______________ (criminally insane, judgmental, defensive, offensive, vomit-y, loud, weepy)  and more ___________________ (socially-acceptable crazy, understanding, offensive, defensive, iron-stomached, passive aggressive, even tempered).

Thanks again for all your time and for including me the group.

Yours ______________ (truly, in Christ, sarcastically, literally, bookishly, in hellish pain),


_________________ (name, pen-name, Aaron Michael Ritchey, socially security number)


So there you have it. The next time you need to apologize to your critique group, you now have the perfect template for your apology letter.

On a more serious note, if your critique is bashing you week after week, and if it’s slowly killing you, it might be time to either find another critique group or look for edits by other avenues. We have a lot of options—beta readers, freelance editors, mothers, lion tamers, et cetera.

For me, the perfect critique is one that makes me excited to revise, which is why I love my current critique group. Someone says something, and suddenly the spark of the story explodes in my mind, and I can’t wait to incorporate the changes.

If someone says something I completely disagree with, or if someone triggers me, I don’t argue, I don’t scream expletives (most of the time), I try and simply nod and thank them.

Because in the end, if you have people reading your stuff and offering suggestions, you need to thank them. They could be doing a bunch of other stuff with their time, and yet, they are using their precious minutes to try and improve your work.

So be gracious, say thank you, and keep at it.

Good luck!


Ten Tips for Staying Healthy

Writing is never easy, but when you're sick? That sneezing, sniffling, aches, pain, and fever thing is death to eloquent words and brilliantly devised plots. Your brain gets stuck on thoughts of, will I ever breathe again? and I want my mommy. You take a pill or swallow some nasty tasting liquid out of a bottle that promises to make you function like a rock star, but all you get is a medicine head and, if you're lucky, a nose that drips instead of flowing like a garden hose.

I don't know about you, but the only things I excel at when I've caught a bug are whining and moaning. Well, and maybe sneezing. I'm a fabulous sneezer.

It could be said that the experience of illness will allow you to write this state more realistically if any of your characters are taken sick, but I'm willing to guess you've already been there, done that, and don't really need to do it again.

The good news is that there are things you can do to bump up your immune system during the colder, darker days of winter, so that you are less likely to play host to the tiny, evil, opportunistic organisms swarming around you.

  • Don't rely on the flu shot. I'm an RN in a clinic, and I often encounter patients who are shocked, appalled, and even angry that the flu shot did not prevent them from getting sick. Here's the thing: the flu shot will only provide protection from the flu, and only from certain strains of the flu. It's not going to help you out at all with colds and other viruses and bacteria. It's important to know that the flu shot only provides immunity to whatever strains the experts predict will be most prevalent during a particular year. Last year, the formulation was way off target and pretty much useless. I'm not saying don't get one, I'm only saying don't rely on it as your only means of protection.


  • Wash your hands. I can hear you saying, "Yeah, yeah, we know." Well, I'm telling you again. Wash 'em. Frequently. Colds and flu viruses can be spread through tiny droplets that hang in the air, but you are much more likely to catch the disease by touching an object covered in viruses and then transferring them to a mucus membrane (eyes, lining of nose, mouth). Objects that are reservoirs for the bugs that can make you sick—doorknobs, for example, and little kids—are known as fomites. (I figured, as writers, you would like to know this word.) Somebody with a cold blows their nose, then opens the door. An hour later you come by and put your hand, all unsuspecting, on the doorknob. Then your eye itches. And bingo – you've provided a colony of little viral immigrants with a new home. You could do the Howard Hughes thing and never go outside your door without gloves and a mask. You could scrub the skin off your hands and spend all of your free time sterilizing every possible fomite you encounter. But then you wouldn't have time to write. Besides, a healthy immune system does an amazing job of fighting off intruders, and there are things you can do to help out.


  • Cut back on your sugar intake. Sugar is an immune damper and leaves you more susceptible to invasion by the microscopic barbarians. I know this is a tough one for writers – most of us love to snack while writing, to keep the words flowing. We use treats as incentives and to honor goals completed. We comfort ourselves with ice cream and chocolate when we're faced with bad writing days, rejection, and low sales numbers. Candy. Cookies. Pie. I'm drooling over here. I'm not suggesting to cut these things out all together – they are delicious and life is short. But make a choice to cut back and choose a healthier snack when you can.


  • Get some Vitamin D in your day. If you're pale skinned and live in the western hemisphere, chances are good that you're Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D plays an integral role in a healthy immune system, so you might want to consider getting a good supplement. D3 is better than D2. Of course, if you can get plenty of sunshine that works, too. But winter days, for most of us, are short and dark.


  • Manage your stress. Chronic stress has all sorts of negative effects on the body, and I'm not going to begin to address all of them here. Suffice it to say that the primary stress hormone, cortisol, can negatively impact your immune system when there is too much of it floating around. The life of a writer is full of stressors. All of us are balancing writing with a busy schedule, hitting deadlines, and dealing with rejection, and this takes its toll.  Anything that relaxes you and calms the stress response (except for alcohol, unfortunately), is good for your immune system. Take a leisurely walk, preferably somewhere in nature. Get a massage. Read a book – for pleasure. Critique reads are often stressful in one way or another. Soak in the bathtub. Engage in music or art. Try Yoga and meditation, as these are both fabulous stress reducers. Think you don't have time? Think again. A recent study indicated that just 3-5 minutes a day of meditative breathing dramatically lowered the stress hormones in the body.


  • Get a reasonable amount of sleep. I know, I know. You've got word count goals. Deadlines. Nanowrimo. But if you get sick, you're going to lose a ton of productive writing time. Writing is usually a marathon, not a sprint. Conserve your energy. If you suffer from insomnia, make sure to consider stress management, since that is one of the major culprits in a sleepless night.


  • Consider immune boosting supplements. The jury is still out on whether taking Vitamin C, Garlic, Zinc, Vitamin B, Echinacea, and other supplements is helpful to the immune system or not. It's possible we'd just be better off eating a well-balanced diet rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. I'll admit, research evidence or not, that the minute I start feeling a tickle in my throat I grab a bottle of Sambucol Black Elderberry and slug it straight out of the bottle. I'll also argue vehemently that it works.


  • Exercise regularly. We all know that a healthy body is more likely to have a healthy immune system. Exercise also happens to be a fabulous stress buster and one of the best defenses against depression. It's easy to not have time for this - trust me, I know. My schedule is crazy and I totally understand that a lot of us do not have time to go to the gym everyday. But I'm suggesting that you walk when you can. Park in a spot on the far side of the parking lot instead of searching for a space close to the door. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Do what you can.


  • Laugh. If nothing funny is presenting itself, go look for things. Watch funny clips on YouTube. Seek out the Twitter and Facebook people who post things that make you laugh. Watch funny TV. The old saying "laughter is the best medicine" came to be for a reason. Laughing has all kinds of crazy health benefits, actually, and one of them is a boost to your immune system.


  • Tend to your relationships. Recent research shows that the health of our relationships has an enormous impact on our immune systems. Like a lot of research, I read this and said, "Well, duh." There is no greater stress than a relationship that is all in tangles. Sometimes the solution is as simple as walking away from a toxic friendship. Often, it's not so easy. Important relationships often demand - and deserve - hard work to sort things out. To which I say, do the work. Your body will thank you for taking action.

The Artist’s Way, Still Relevant After All These Years

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is the best path I have found for learning to create more freely. Essentially, how to unblock your creativity and keep it clear. There are highly effective tools that will help you recover your creativity from a variety of blocks including limiting beliefs, fear, self-sabotage, jealousy, guilt, addictions and other inhibiting forces. Replacing such negative blocks with artistic confidence and productivity.

I've followed The Artist's Way about 3-4 times over my writing career, both before and after I sold. I've also done about the same number of workshops on the material.

The Artist's Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
The first time I worked through The Artist's Way, a "Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self," as the book called itself, about one week in a month over a period of approximately three years. This is a twelve week course. So, I didn't think I'd been that diligent. Then I hauled out my book.

It's lower right corners are ratty, some pages have suspicious brown (tea/chocolate) and red (papercut blood/spaghetti) stains. The thing is highlighted in pink, orange, yellow, green and purple (I don't know where my blue was). There are Robin-made tabs for such pages as: Basic Principals, Rules Of The Road, Creative Affirmation, An Artist's Prayer, and my personal favorite, Dealing With Criticism. Scribbled notes and the occasional terrible drawing (requested by chapter "tasks"), sprawl all over the pages with asterisks and arrows and brackets.

I looked at the book, and just the state it was in showed that I had worked through the course and it had made a difference. Most importantly, at the beginning of the course, I was writing books I enjoyed and thought I could market. In the end, I had found my true voice and was writing books of my heart.

Elements of The Artist's Way: Morning Pages
I hated the idea of morning pages, writing three full 8 ½ x 11 pages every day, freewriting, scribbling words, any words, across the paper and keeping the pen moving. IN THE MORNING. Three pages, because Cameron believes that whatever is really on your mind won't dribble out until after 1 ½ and it takes another 1 ½ to deal with it. True for me, in the beginning, later I got so I spilled my guts from line one. Nobody reads your morning pages, not even you, until week 9.

I don't do any scheduled task (except feed cats, which is simple self-defense) in the morning. So, they became evening pages or lunch pages for me the first time around. When I became a full time writer, they became true Morning Pages. And they worked. They cleaned out my brain of all my petty (or huge) concerns of the day so I could write. They cut down on my whining to friends. They observed the seasons. True, sometimes in my pages I filled up three lines with: "Love, love, love...." But that's not so bad either, is it?

Since I dreaded doing the pages so much, as I went along, I marked the other reasons Cameron gave for consistent daily pages (paraphrases and direct quotes):

  1. Morning pages help us stop taking our negative Censor (Inner Critic) as the voice of reason and learn to hear it for the blocking device that it is.
  2.  Morning pages get us to the other side of our fear, negativity, moods.
  3.  Other writing seems to suddenly be far more free and expansive and easier.
  4. Processes extreme emotions and leads to clarity (sometimes painful).
  5. We identify ourselves. We learn what we want and ultimately become willing to make the changes needed to get it.
  6. Points the way to reality: this is how you're feeling; what do you make of that?
  7. Loosens our hold on fixed opinions and short-sighted views. We see that our moods, views, and insights are transitory. We acquire a sense of movement, a current of change in our lives.
  8. We treat ourselves more gently. Feeling less desperate, we are less harsh with ourselves and with others.
  9. Morning pages end dry spells, doing the pages means we have not collapsed to the floor of our despair and refused to move on. We have doubted, yes, but we have moved on.
  10. Morning pages are meditation, a practice that brings us to our creativity and our Creator.

Artist's Date: The artist's date can be summed up in one word: Play. Or two: Pamper Yourself. Your artist is a creative child, so spend an hour once a week to fulfill it: roll down a hill, take a train ride, dance, swing, color in a book or arrange stickers, doodle. And do it BY YOURSELF.

I must admit, this was the portion of the course that I followed the least. When I started the Artist's Way I lived by myself and was used to pleasing myself. The date became more important when I had a roommate, but I rarely formalized it. On the other hand, now that I think about it, I currently have this daily journal...and developed a passion for stickers...and I've bought 4 sets of those new metallic ink pens (the ink is archive quality, but one set was a gift for my 5 year old niece)....

Tasks: Chapter exercises. These are what hooked me. One in the first chapter blew my mind open. I wrote one of the creative affirmations: "I am allowed to nurture my artist," 10 times. Sure enough, my Censor popped up while doing this: "You have so many other things to do. Your house isn't clean, your bills aren't paid. You aren't a responsible person." I listened and analyzed. Where did this come from? And found out that Censor sounded like my parents (particularly my father) and the basic idea that the critic was getting across to me, and which I truly believed, was: "You can't do what you want to do; you must do what we want you to do." With a corollary: "What you want to do is foolish and stupid and a waste of time and will never amount to anything. What others want you to do is always more important." Wow! Hooked. Try it for yourself.

Warning: Week 4, Reading Deprivation: No READING, no TV, movies, radio. This is horrible, but it works, too. It was several years ago (the week Jon Benet Ramsey was killed, and I never caught up), and was one of the most intensely creative times of my life. I was also more observant of the people and little dramas around me. The pressure to tell myself stories forced me to write and write and write. I still remember how incredible it felt -- like a dam breaking open and all this writing pouring out of me in a rush. Very heady.

Still, I only lasted 5 days, and congratulated myself that I made it that long. I got desperate. on the evening bus, I found myself looking over the shoulder of my seatmate who was reading an article called "The Guide to Effective Deworming." (This is a true story.) She must have been a vet student or something, and heroine material (I was supposed to be observant on the bus, Chapter 4 said so). Youngish -- mid-twenties -- red-brown hair, but not as dark as chestnut; creamy complexion with a sprinkling of freckles; small, straight nose. Very nice. Much more interesting than the pictures of horses with strange tubelike objects in their mouths. Ok, so I maybe glanced at the article. I didn't read it. I just looked at the pictures. After all, anyone would be interested in -- ah -- forget it. Anyway, my seatmate finished reading that particularly fascinating article and flipped onto the next. Did I mention that these were photocopied sheets, not a real magazine, and the print and photos were slightly fuzzy?

The next article. From "In the Barn." "Mounting Blocks." Temptation. Really. I was writing historical romance. I've even written about mounting blocks. I need to research them. Words jumped out at me: "old tree stump, overturned bucket," "new portable mounting blocks for easy transportation". There were pictures, too, but not as interesting as horses. My heroine wasn't riveted by the article. She scanned it and went to the next. "Metabolic Disease, Test Treatments." No pictures. I sighed with relief. I was saved.

I wanted to talk about keeping compliments, making an image of your Censor, doing a collage, or listing secret passions, but this article is now overlong. But it was fascinating to read some of the quotes in The Artist's Way, and look at the highlighted wisdom and my own words. Maybe it's time to start up again....

How Many Drafts Does It Take To Get To the Gooey Chocolate Center of a Bestselling Novel?

So recently, in the writing community, we’ve been a-buzz over a blog post that warned no writer should ever write four books in one year. I won’t paraphrase, but issues came up over quality and care and other such fears for people who write fast.

I thought I could write a big long blog post defending the slow writer, or villainizing the fast writer, or saying nasty things about political candidate, but naaaahhhhhhh.  Other people who are smarter than me have already done all that.

I wanna talk about drafts. How many drafts does it take to complete a finished novel? And then there’s how many drafts do I WANT it to take to get a finished novel.

I might be a bad person to talk about this. I mean, I was pantser for a long time. My first novel took four years to write. I can’t tell you how many drafts I had. It was re-write city and I was the mayor. I then turned around worked on a book for seven years. Again, playing dice the story. Paper cuts, man, nearly bled to death because of paper cuts.

Then I discovered story structure by reading Robert McKee’s STORY. And I started outlining. And while that helped, it’s still taken me years to write books.  Several. Years.

I’d be lucky to get one book every four years let alone four books every one year. But I’ve been talking to people. I’ve been looking to see what other writers do.

It seems Stephen King writes a book, puts it aside for six weeks or six months, picks it up, goes through and reads it for big stuff (in one sitting if he can), does that second draft, and it’s off to his editor. He incorporates the edits into a third draft, it goes through line edits, and bam, four drafts and he is out the door. But that’s Stephen King. He’s been at this for a bit.

Other writers I talk do something similar though. They do this:

  • Rough draft
  • First draft
  • Beta reader’s draft
  • Editor’s draft
  • Copy edits draft
  • Line edits draft

And out the door. So that’s still six, which is a whole lot less than what I’ve done in the past. Now, most of the novels I’ve written were practice, working on my chops, getting my sea legs under me. But others, well, I didn’t want to give them up out of fear.

What if I sent a bad draft out and no one loved me anymore? I’d die alone.

So I’d go over the words again and again and again. Out of fear.

Notice in the bullet points above, there’s no entry for “Edit Out of Sheer Terror Draft”. Nope. That’s not up there because the brave warrior writers I know get their books done and out into the world. Bam. Fearlessly!

I think people can write successful books and publish multiple a year. I believe that. I also believe that books need several drafts to be tightened up and beaten into shape. In the end, it’s how much time do you want to spend on this?

And the other thing?

There are no rules. Crappy, unedited books do really well sometimes, while golden books of platinum-level editing go unnoticed. No rules, baby. Do what you want.

I’ve been lucky. Well, I’ve been lucky and I’ve been smart. I paid a copy editor to go over my last draft even though I’ve had publishers edit my stuff. RMFW’s very own Chris Devlin is a great copy editor, and she’s saved my books.

But in the end, no matter how much editing you do, you’re not going to please everyone. People will find stuff. A million people could read your book, and the one million and oneth person would find a typo, or find a plot inconsistency, or notice your character probably wouldn’t have eaten the English muffin on page fifty-fix.

I’ll leave you with an example. I was talking to a Star Wars fan, and he pointed out that it was quite the coincidence that you had a Skywalker on Tatooine after the Anakin became Darth Vader. Wouldn’t someone had called up Mr. Vader and said, “Hey, kind of a funny story, but there’s this kid named Luke living on Tatooine and his last name is Skywalker. Is he a relative of yours?”

Yeah, editors missed that one. But it’s pretty safe to say Star Wars did pretty well however imperfect it is.

I’m thinking six drafts, multiple readers including a professional editor, will do for me. I don’t know about you. Find your own path, Padawan learner, find your own path.


Life Work Balance

closeup view of golden scales on whiteYeah, I know, it’s backwards. Everyone always says Work/Life balance, right? Well, after Colorado Gold this month, I can see how we’ve had it wrong all this time.

I mean, really, which is more important: Life or Work? (Hint: this is not a hard question to answer) Yes, most of us need to work to make money to pay the bills, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads. But we can do lots of things that accomplish that. Some might not be all that fun, but it’s not called funning, it’s called working.

What does this have to do with Colorado Gold? We’ve heard from a lot of people, including the incredible writer of the year Susan Spann, about how great Colorado Gold was. And it’s all true. But what I really took away from it, besides the (OMG/Yea/Holy Cow) requests for pages/full reads, was that writing fits into the “life” part of the equation above, not the work part. I am not one of the stupendously lucky people like Jeffrey Deaver who get to combine the life and work parts and write for a living. But I can still write. And I make a little money doing it. Enough that I can almost say it pays for itself (OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but who the heck cares!).

Being surrounded by other writers, agents, editors, drinks, food, drinks (hey, it helped counteract the smoke in the air from the California fires), was like what I imagine a Prius feels like when it gets plugged in. My life, love, and pursuit of happiness batteries were recharged. All the way home (and it took 5 hours!) I was thinking of new and improved scenes, a kick-ass ending, and having a bunch of other writing-related epiphanies (and let me tell you, those epiphanies make it damn hard to keep from getting a speeding ticket!).

Those of you can’t see a good reason to fork over the money, or take time off from your job (see above equation!), or are afraid to admit that writing is more than a hobby for you, are missing out on something that can make your whole life a better place to live in. I know a bunch of you out there are saying, yeah, yeah, it’s just a bunch of people sitting in rooms listening to a bunch of other people talk blah-blah. But until you are there, soaking up inspiration, motivation, craft and just having the opportunity to talk to other writers who have been there/done that JUST LIKE YOU, you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s not “What happens at Gold stays at Gold.” It’s “What happens at Gold sticks with you for the next twelve months.” Really.

So start saving your milk money, hang on to a couple days of vacation, and make plans to attend in 2016. While you’re at it, check out the submission guidelines for the RMFW Anthology. Maybe you have “THE” short story inside you that gets you published along with some other really great writers. Go for it…and Write On!

Adventures in Cover Art for Traditionally, Hybrid, and Self-Published Authors by Theresa Alan

You finally finished your one-hundred-thousand word masterpiece after tireless effort, and, if your writing process is like mine, much metaphorical head bashing against your laptop. You think the hard part is done. You are wrong.

Whether you’re traditionally published, self-published, or choose a hybrid publisher (you’ll get a small or no advance, an editor, a publicist, and higher percentage of royalties than traditional offers but maybe not the reviewers and other perks), one of the first steps in marketing your book—the cover—presents myriad challenges.

One of the benefits of being traditionally published is that you’ll get help with marketing. Depending on the size of your publisher, their assistance could be significant. There is a lot to be said about having a traditional publisher’s marketing contacts and dollars go toward helping your sales, but the trade-off is that, generally, you don’t have much say in the cover, cover copy, or the title, especially at the larger publishing houses.

My first seven novels were all traditionally published. My second novel, which is about six improv comedians, was translated into, among other languages, Portuguese, and the cover featured a swarthy construction worker wearing a tool belt in front of a half-finished house. All of the comedians in my book have day jobs, however, none of their day jobs has anything to do with construction. In fact, at no point in the book is any construction work or handsome construction worker involved. Obviously whoever picked out the stock photography either didn’t get the blurb, didn’t read the blurb, or couldn’t have possibly cared less about truth in advertising.

Of course a cover is important to sales, but you want to sell a book with a cover that doesn’t mislead readers. If they are in the mood for a light read and they buy a book with a cover that looks frothy and then get a dark, moody novel, they are more likely to review your book harshly even if it’s brilliantly written. As writers and readers, those reviews can make or break sales.

The cover to my third novel, The Girls’ Global Guide to Guys, is cute and does get the tone right. The book is about two girlfriends backpacking through Europe. The cover my publisher created has a woman wearing high heels and a flouncy skirt, and she’s carrying a tote bag. Have you ever back-packed great distances or known someone who has? If so, than you know no heels were worn and no adorable tote bags were toted because it’s rugged and challenging and hence called “backpacking,” not “tote-bagging with one mint and a single change of thong.” At least readers know from the cover that Girls’ Guide will be a fun book, and it’s not a how-to guide for backpacking through Europe.

A plus-side of being self-published is that you can be sure that your cover reflects both the tone and the plot of your book. However, getting a cover as a self-published author isn’t necessarily all rainbows. Having original artwork created for you can be a big investment, or combing through stock photography can be time-consuming and frustrating. As writers, we want to spend our available hours, you know, writing, not whiling away in a Photoshop time-suck. I looked in to self-publishing, and the process made me appreciate the challenges my publisher went through to try to communicate that I write humor, although some of my books are deal with more serious issues than others. (Although there is no excuse to have a construction worker represent a book about six people trying to make it as improv comedians/actors/performers. Seriously.)

With hybrid presses, I’ve heard from author friends that it’s the luck of the draw. You have an editor and publicist who are more your teammates than your directors, so they’re often more open to input. But most indie or hybrid presses tend to have a “look” to their whole imprint, so study the covers on their website and decide if it’s a match for your work, and ask a lot of questions before signing the dotted line.

If you do find success with a traditional publishing house, kudos! Know in advance however, that, at least at the larger houses, you won’t get much say in your cover or blurb on the back and, while your publishing house might ask for input on what you might like for the title, odds are, they ultimately don’t care much what you think. There are many stories I’ve heard of authors doing well self-publishing (sometimes while also writing for traditional publishing houses) and many cover artists charge reasonable prices, so this is a definite consideration.

Whether you land a big publisher, go with an indie publisher, or do it entirely on your own terms, CONGRATS! You are doing it. Just go into this next stage of publishing and marketing knowing the right questions to ask, what to expect, and what is going to feel right for you. Of course, then, if you do get the cover of your dreams and still get negative reviews, you’ll know it’s either because that reader just didn’t connect with your writing . . . or that you suck. (Or maybe you just need to do more polishing on your work and hit some more critique groups to get feedback for how to improve.)

In any case, happy writing!


Theresa Alan became a bestselling author with her first novel, Who You Know (2003), and her novella Santa Unwrapped was in the New York Times bestseller Jingle All the Way (2004). She is the author of six additional Kensington novels, including Spur of the Moment, The Girls’ Global Guide to Guys, Girls Who Gossip, Getting Married, Spa Vacation, and The Dangers of Mistletoe. Her work has also appeared in the anthologies I Shaved My Legs for This?! and Sex and the Single Witch. Theresa was named the Colorado Romance Writer of the Year in 2004.

A graduate of the University of Iowa and the University of Colorado at Boulder, Theresa lives in Denver, Colorado.

You may connect with her on Twitter @Theresa_Author or on Facebook