Tag Archives: guest blogger

Guest Post by Chris Pitchford: Dream jobs. Sometimes it’s not enough to have just one

By Chris Pitchford

Benny had two of my all-time favorite jobs. He was a writer and he commanded a space station. Actually, he was a character played by Avery Brooks in one of my favorite television shows. In one memorable episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Benny’s original writing was attacked by hostile indifference. The publisher pulped an entire run, destroying the magazine’s complete monthly edition, rather than let a story featuring a prominent person of color see the light of day. Benny’s remaining options were few. When it was suggested that he publish his story himself, he said, “More people would read it if I wrote it in chalk on the sidewalk!”

That idea has stayed with me ever since, and I’ve misquoted it regularly. So why am I self-publishing my new novel, The Agility of Clouds? (“The what of what?” my mother might have said—our memories will surely differ on this account. “Clouds can’t be agile…” She is one of my toughest critics. Naturally, I dedicated the work to her. I suspect this pleases her yet simultaneously drives her nuts). The Agility of Clouds is part Jane Austen, part James Bond; but more than that, it is a story of a woman who questions what it means to be a woman and what it means to be flawed but moral. As I am none of those things, I had plenty of questions to work with.

But when it comes to the question regarding whether to self-publish, the answer is much different today than it was in the nineties when DS9 originally aired. And that decade had more in common with the Golden Age of Science Fiction when the story was set than today. (As a self-published author, I can truthfully attest that more people have read my novel, Sonata: A Fantasy in One Movement, than read what my kids and I wrote on my sidewalk). While the market for short genre fiction is still strong, it’s not nearly the same today as it was seventy years ago. Being published in periodicals was how some of my favorite authors of the last century, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury among others, cut their teeth as professional writers. Unfortunately, being a novelist means that my work isn’t well suited to periodicals. I love reading Analog, Locus, Strange Horizons and others. But the self-contained book is the definitive text for me, so what could I do?

Traditional publishing then and now is going strong. According to John DeNardo (SF Signal) http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/author/john/, over 300 titles are scheduled to be published on genre-related topics in the month of August alone. It is apparently a very crowded field. So crowded, tossing one’s novel over a virtual transom in hopes of it landing upon a suitable editor’s desk is surely the height of fantasy. Also, successfully pitching one’s work to hungry but savvy agents is also a dream come true for only a few. Did I mention how crowded the field is? And the demands of publishing all those titles mean that control passes largely from the creator to the producer. Like Benny, an author can do all that a creative type can but the final say is ultimately in someone else’s hands.

The alternative, being self-published, is almost a misnomer, as many, many people can still be very much involved. Getting early feedback from readers was critical—but also inspiring—for the work on The Agility of Clouds. Littleton Writers and RMFW were almost as tough and as supportive as ‘me own mudder.’ Once the novel was written, getting a real, honest-to-goodness, hard-as-tacks editor was next on the list. And Karen Conlin of grammargeddon.com was just the independent wordsmith with a background in fantasy (having worked at TSR, once the home of Dungeons and Dragons) that this project needed. Also, a brilliant illustrator was one of the early readers who inspired me, and so my main character, Seramis Helleborine, took visual form under the pen of Marjorie Schott, http://www.facebook.com/WaterstriderDesign.

I’m not getting any younger (thankfully, as I never want to see the inside of a Junior High classroom as a detainee ever again), so it turns out to be a good thing that self-publishing is much quicker than traditional publishing. But a publisher can’t rush some things. And a publisher also has to make decisions using vastly different criteria. As a writer, I wanted to see the cover of the book sport a fully realized airship, an eighteenth-century caravel soaring through the skies. But as a publisher, I looked at what covers of books that sold looked like and saw that main characters were featured more often than the gee-whiz cool things. Gone are the days of the DAW edition of The Gods of Mars by ERB featuring two almost indistinct warriors battling upon a flying ship on the cover. Fortunately, working with an illustrator and a cover artist meant that I could do both. The cover presentation would be designed to sell books (and somehow be legible at postage-stamp sizes on Amazon), and the content would cater to the dreams and hopes I’ve had since I was a child for action/fantasy with a strong female lead character.

Speaking of Amazon (and selling books in the same sentence—coincidence? I think not), their options for self-publishing allow for a great deal of freedom and control. From CreateSpace to Kindle Direct Publishing, the publishing options start at free so the price is right for someone just starting out. Benny would have rather enjoyed the empowerment, I think. Of course, while it remains doubtful that I will have the opportunity to share with Benny the two dream jobs of writer and space station commander, at least one of those jobs is possible with the addition of adding one more to my curriculum vitae: that of self-publisher.

http://chrispitchford.com

Guest Post by Rebecca Taylor: “Am I Good Enough?”

By Rebecca Taylor

I think there may be a singular question that, at some time or another, burns in the soul of every writer.

“Am I good enough?”

As we barrel towards the 2014 RMFW conference this weekend, I know it’s a question that many writers are hoping to have answered for them. Whether they are waiting to hear about the contest results, hoping to stun an agent during a critique workshop, or praying for a partial request after a pitch appointment— the central premise for many aspiring writers is the same.

Am I a good enough writer to make it? Will I receive some evidence, a contest win, a request for more pages, a good critique, that will provide me with a fricking floatation device that would suggest I continue to dog paddle out here, alone, in the middle of this dark and stormy writer’s life instead of jumping aboard the next Disney Cruise ship filled with normal, happy, smiling people that get enough sleep?

And if I’m not good enough, will you just say so? Out loud and clear as a bell so that my head and heart can stop bleeding from wanting this thing that I don’t have a chance in hell of ever achieving?

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that this question doesn’t actually get answered to the satisfaction of many writers. Furthermore, it’s not even the correct question.

When we want someone to tell us, just tell us the truth, regarding our writing ability, we are only really looking at one piece of the “making it” puzzle—the talent piece. We want to know if people, the experts, think we have any talent for writing.

Talent is important, but it’s only going to get you in the door, and sometimes, if you don’t have these other two pieces, you’re not even getting that far.

What you need to find out is if you have three things:

  1. Talent—specifically, a great narrative voice
  2. A great Concept
  3. The skill to Structure a novel

In my opinion, number two and three are totally learnable skills (if you’re willing to actively seek out and study ways to get better.) Admittedly, number one is more difficult. I happen to think that anyone can improve his or her narrative voice, but that we tend to have a range of innate ability, or talent, to work with.

This is just my opinion.

Having said that, I know and you know that there have been PLENTY of books published by traditional houses that excel in concept and structure, but fall pretty flat in the narrative voice, or innate writing talent, department. So really, if we have nailed a great concept and we’ve become a Jedi Master of novel structure, there’s still hope for those of us with only a mediocre amount of talent—right?

So what’s my point? My point is, while you may be hoping for an agent or editor to fall all over themselves as soon as they hear about your fantastic book (or your concept) just remember it’s almost never as simple as, “Am I good enough?” (or am I talented?) The real question is more like, “Do I have a sufficient amount of writing talent that I have applied to a great concept in my skillfully structured novel?”

I mean, don’t ACTUALLY ask an agent this because they will definitely lean waaaay back, give you the “you’re a crazy writer” look, and then signal to the moderators to escort you as far away from them as humanly possible …just realize that these are the things that agents are looking for after they smile and say, “Send me the first thirty pages.”

Rebecca Taylor 2000X3000Rebecca Taylor is the young adult author of ASCENDANT, winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Award. The second book in the Ascendant series, MIDHEAVEN, will release in 2014 and her standalone novel, THE EXQUISITE AND IMMACULATE GRACE OF CARMEN ESPINOZA, is now available.

You can find more information about her work at www.rebeccataylorbooks.com.

 

 

 

 

Series or Standalone or The Problems of Estimating When You Don’t Outline

By Carol Berg

Carol Berg PhotoIn my published writing career, I’ve started six projects. Three of them, I intended to be standalone novels. Only one of those three stayed that way. One project I sold as a three book series and it turned out to be four. Clearly I’m not great at estimating.

My problem is that I am an organic story developer. I hate the word pantser, because to me that implies the writer doesn’t know where he or she is going. I always know where I need to start, and I always know where I’m going. My problem is, I don’t always know how many events or scenes or words it’s going to take me to get there. Nope, I don’t outline individual books or a series as a whole. I generate events and scenes as I write, because, for me, story ideas blossom as I get to know my characters and see what kind of challenges and personal interactions will drive them toward the climactic events that I want to happen.

Berg_ThreeCoversOne example: My novel Transformation was intended and sold as a standalone. I brought it to a very satisfactory ending. A true completion of the story is very important to me. Only, just about the time I sent the book off to my editor, I realized something critical about my demonic villains. The story I had told was only a piece of a much larger story arc that dealt with the identity of those demons and how that related to the identity of my hero’s people, their religion, and their single-minded pursuit of a war that took place in the physical landscape of human souls. That realization delighted me, but it also generated two additional novels that became the Books of the Rai-kirah. The single fantasy story became epic.

Three of my five “not-standalone” projects are this same kind of series. In these three series, the individual novels are separated by as little as a single day, or as many as four years. Each volume is a complete story in itself, but also a piece of a larger, continuing (epic!) story arc involving the same core of characters. Sometimes the books will have the same point of view character (like the Rai-kirah books) sometimes different ones (like the novels of the Collegia Magica).

I envisioned my Bridge of D’Arnath series as three books – and proposed and sold them on a three-page synopsis. The story centered around a disgraced noblewoman, a sorcerer/warrior who happened to have a displaced soul in his body, and the search for a kidnapped child – a child who had been brought up to believe he was evil. The third book ended when the boy was sixteen. But once I got there, the ending wasn’t right. Having sons myself, I knew that no kid, especially one who had undergone the traumatic childhood of this one, was “finished” at age sixteen. That’s where book four came from – Daughter of Ancients (NAL/Roc 2005) my first Colorado Book Award finalist. Oops!

Another project I mis-estimated was the novel Flesh and Spirit. I sold it as a standalone. But I also sold it on the basis of a single paragraph . When I was about halfway through writing it, I realized that there was no way this story would fit inside one book. I had to go back to my publisher and say, “You know this book I’m writing? It’s really two.” That is not a happy thing to say to a publisher. Fortunately, they liked it well enough to buy the second book! This became the Lighthouse Duet, a slightly different kind of epic series because it is really one big story split into two volumes. The resolution at the end of the first volume is really more of a turning point. Hey, I’m in good company. Lord of the Rings is really one big story split into three volumes, right?

Berg_DustandLightMy new series, the Sanctuary Duet is a parallel series to the Lighthouse books. I had the idea for Dust and Light (released just this month from NAL/ROC Books!) and wrote it up. Uh-oh, a paragraph! But I also wrote the first six chapters before I sent off the proposal. And this time, I told them it was going to be two books, even though I wasn’t sure the story was big enough. . . Indeed, when I reached the resolution mark of Dust and Light, there was an overarching mystery that had not yet been solved, and so I clobbered poor Lucian de Remini on the head and sailed into Book 2, Ash and Silver (NAL/Roc, August 2015). But I haven’t finished Ash and Silver yet, and there sure are lots of threads to resolve. Stay tuned…

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Carol Berg never expected to become an award-winning author. She chose to major in math at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado so she wouldn’t have to write papers, and ended up in a software engineering career. Now her fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. A starred review from Publishers Weekly uses words like captivating, impressive, and perceptive about her newest novel, Dust and Light. Learn more at http://www.carolberg.com

How Exhaustion Helps Writing

By Trai Cartwright

How does exhaustion help writing?

It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t.

Writing through mental and physical exhaustion has always been a struggle of mine, and it seems in the past year or two, I’ve heard much the same from many of my writer friends. Whether it’s acute over-programming or serious health ailments, managing their lives drains away their precious creative time and energy.

It’s gotten to the degree that they don’t get any writing done.

Does being a writer attract a heightened level of affliction? Is that how we know we’re writers—not because we’re sicker than everyone else but because we feel the terrible intensity of our failings all the more for their negative impact on our art?

Are we as a tribe, too tired to do our jobs? Did the writers who came before us suffer these same maladies to the same extent, and if so, how did they manage to get their work done?

How do we, as an afflicted body of scribes, manage to get it done regardless? Or do we?

I read “Z” not too long ago, a book from Zelda Fitzgerald’s point of view (genius, by the way), and not only was her own mental health eroding, but she had to rely on a husband who’s proximity to drink determined his own daily output.

Scott wrote dozens of short stories because it was all he could manage around his alcoholism.

Stephen King, on the other hand, used his prolific drug habit as a production tool for his writing. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can tell when King’s addiction began impacting his writing negatively—there are a couple dozen books that, well, suck. But his habit never impeded his output.

The tales of mental illness among writers and artists in general is prodigious. Their careers seem to go in two directions: one, they waited for bouts of sanity to work; or two, their affliction seemed to drive them to produce.

Myself, I was a chronic insomniac. The longer a person goes without the required sleep (seven hours uninterrupted), the worse their brain, organ, and nervous system function. A fugue state takes over and soon cognizant thinking becomes impossible, much less creative thinking. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a torture technique.

We all have our afflictions, don’t we?

But does the human condition make writing impossible? And what a terrible joke that would be, with so many of us with something to say.

And now that our lives are so overly complex with 24/7 jobs, family schedules that require herculean efforts to maintain, and increasing health issues across all ages, is there any way our artistic pursuits won’t suffer?

How do we compensate?

Or do we give in?

A friend of mine, Amy Kathleen Ryan, had triplets a few years ago. She still wrote two books around their tyrannical infant demands. You might have read them.

Another friend of mine has been diagnosed with MS, making it impossible to type some days. Many days. He still finished his most recent mystery novel.

Another woman I know has worked full time, pursued two advanced degrees, and raised her kid for the past five years, and is inches from finishing an epic fantasy we all know will publish the second she finishes.

Another has taken over the care of both her invalid parents while raising her own family. She’s learned to write in doctor’s offices.

A man who attends most of my library creative writing classes tells me he’s on the road three out of four weeks a month, but he’s taught himself to write on airplanes and in hotels.

A woman in my MFA program walks with two canes and is in constant, chronic pain from a back injury. She still got her degree and recently published her first short story.

There are lots of examples of life becoming what really ought to be written off as unmanageable, crushing our creative selves, making writing laughably impossible. But even these people find ways to write.

They all tell me the same thing: writing is their life’s blood. They’ve learned to stop making attachments to the outcomes and just be glad for the days they get some words on the page.

Is that enough?

As more and more novels are written under the pressures of our modern, debilitating lives, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Exhaustion may not help our writing, but it doesn’t have to stop it entirely.

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

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Library by Guest Author Travis Heermann

Research and Cultural Connections in Fictional Worlds

by Travis Heermann

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation about surgical masks. A member of my family recently was forced to wear a surgical mask for a time to reduce risk of infection due to a compromised immune system. When I was living in Japan a few years ago, I often saw people wearing such masks in public, and during this conversation someone assumed the motivation behind masks in public was fear of infection.

“That’s not why they wear the masks,” I said. “They wear the masks because they’re sick themselves and don’t want to infect other people. They’re protecting the community.” This cultural practice was explained to me while I lived there, probably because I once made a similar assumption.

This is a striking example of behaviors that are similar on the surface, but for which the underlying values are drastically different. In the West, and in the U.S. in particular, the Individual has been elevated to greatest importance, with Community relegated to secondary status to a degree that puzzles natives of the Far East. In the Far East, that dynamic is profoundly reversed, such that Family and Community come first to a degree that mystifies Westerners.

When writing fiction not set in one’s own neighborhood, writers need to realize that we swim through our native culture like fish through water, largely unaware of its effects on our values, on our underlying assumptions about life, on our daily behaviors, on our perceptions of Others, the Outsiders who are intrinsically Scary and Not To Be Trusted. An individual from another culture, whether from a tribe in New Guinea or from Planet 10 Across the Eighth Dimension, may exhibit similar behaviors to someone from middle-class America, but the underlying value system and cultural reasons for those behaviors may be poles apart.

So for writers, the key to getting it right is research. The key to good research is to access the most direct sources you can. By direct sources, I mean museum exhibits of real medieval weapons, letters and documents from the time period, scholarly work, textbooks, etc. I do recommend you don’t use derivative works; for instance, using medieval fantasy novels, or even historical fiction, to learn about medieval culture is a bad idea.

If you find a good resource, search out the research sources that author used. Better still—and I realize this is not always feasible—travel to the locale yourself. If you’re wearing your Writer Eyes and Ears as you should be, you will pick up untold little details in the area, its people, its customs. In a country as big as the U.S., with so many different ethnic groups, even an area across the state—or across town!—can exhibit striking differences culture, dialect and attitudes. Barring the possibility of travel, Google Earth can be an astonishing resource for getting a look at the area, in conjunction with a library card and the will to use it.

The good thing about research it can be recycled over and over. If you’re writing science fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, anything that requires creation of a non-mundane world, all kinds of research, academic and experiential, is melted into the bottomless, cast-iron cauldron of your subconscious and can be used to season alien worlds with enough verisimilitude that your readers will devour it with relish.

One of the cool things about being a writer is that we have a wide range of disparate knowledge, some of it as thorough and detailed as any academic’s. Fun on the page, fun at parties.

 

Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII.

http://travisheermann.com/

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Raising the Bar

By Shannon Baker
Photos by Mark Stevens

I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be named Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. See how many times Writer is used in that title? That means it’s an award for a writer voted on by writers. And for this one moment in time—well a whole freaking year!—I get to be The Writer of the Year. That probably sounds self-promoting and egotistical, but I’m throwing manners out the window and, in fact, might actually shout it out that same window. I get to be the Writer of the Year!

Shannon Baker WOTY2It was such a thrill to be nominated with Christine Jorgenson and Terry Wright. Christine has penned two series and this year was nominated for the Colorado Book Awards. She also received the Writer of the Year honor in 1995. She’s not only an accomplished writer but is the nicest woman on the planet. Terry has his own publishing company and is a legend creating book trailers. Even his name is all about writing.

We writers can be a funny lot, or as the man I live with says, crazy. At least, I can. Among other issues, I have what I call Raising the Bar Syndrome. It goes something like this: I get a glimpse of something I want to achieve, I set a goal. I work really hard toward that goal. If I finally get there, I spend about 1.5 seconds of happiness and then see that I’m nowhere near successful because if I were a real writer, I’d be (points finger into the distance) there.

I came to my first Colorado Gold conference somewhere around 1994, toting my second completed manuscript, sure it was brilliant. It wasn’t. A very New York editor pointed out to me just how far from brilliant it was. I was smart enough to believe him. I needed to learn a ton just to know the basics of why it failed, let alone how to go about fixing it. At that conference, I sat at the banquet and watched as the contest winners were announced. Wow, I thought. If I could only win the contest, I’d know I was a real writer.

I set about the painful task of learning to write. I hate to say that for me, as it is for many, it’s a slow process and one that will never end. I can improve, and improve, and still, there is room for improvement. But after a couple of years, I did win the contest. Twice. That’s a thrill and a milestone and should be celebrated. It means a writer has reached a certain level and should be congratulated.

But self-congrats were soon replaced with a new goal. Look at those writers getting their Pen Awards, RMFW’s acknowledgement of a first sale. If I got one of those I’d be a real writer. I kept at my craft. I worked hard. I sent out hundreds of query letters. I tweaked and revised and rewrote. After a very long time, I finally joined the ranks of the traditionally published and took home my Pen Award.

But that contract wasn’t all I’d hoped and I wasn’t satisfied. I told my husband, “If I can get a contract for three books with a decent press, I’ll be happy. I can say I’m a real writer and will never have to write another book.” And guess what? After a few more years, that’s exactly what happened. Two books of that contract are on the shelves with the third due next spring.

But I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of publishing. I know some big deals in that world and I can tell you, I’m small potatoes. I’ve just finished the first book in a new series and maybe if I sell it and it takes off I’ll really be a writer. Raising the Bar Syndrome is in full flower.

Shannon Baker WOTY1But here’s a twist. This summer, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers honored me with Writer of the Year. That’s as high as the bar goes. For twenty years I’ve seen that title awarded to the creamiest crème de la crème. This is a rare time in my writerly journey when I will pause and let myself revel. For once I’ll make no excuses or justifications or downplay it. I’m going to be a big, fat, obnoxious self-centered peacock. Further, I’ll frame the certificate and display it proudly and go to it whenever I feel like a failure or a poseur. It is my proof that I AM a writer. My writer tribe told me so.

Thank you, RMFW. Thank you very much.

Please join 2013 Writer of the Year Linda Joffe Hull and this year’s nominees, Christine Jorgenson, Terry Wright, and me at the Tattered Cover on Colfax August 14th at 7:00 PM as we rev up for the Colorado Gold Conference. One free conference will be given away, as well as lunch with lunch with J. Ellen Smith, publisher of Champagne Book Group, lunch with Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher at Elora’s Cave and lunch with NYT Bestselling author William Kent Krueger.

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Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Broken Trust, book two of the series, takes place in Boulder, CO and was released in March. She serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is nominated for 2104 Writer of the Year. She is a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

Writer’s Block? Surely you jest!

By Terri Benson

Terri Benson1Who’s Shirley? But seriously, folks (OK, not really seriously, but kinda), have you ever suffered from Writer’s Block? I hear about it all the time, but I think I’m immune. Even if I wrote 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, I don’t think I could empty out the ideas and words writhing around in my head. And on top of that, every day I add more ideas and words. One of these days my head might explode (I can see it now – Exploding Head at Library: Story at eleven!).

If you find yourself stuck, and I think this applies to just about every fiction genre, go to the mall. Listen to the kids talk to each other—you’ll get YA ideas, sci-fi (you can’t get more alien than teenagers!), dialect, swear words, current clothing, technology, and lots more. Or how about wandering down Main Street and observing the architecture – don’t you wonder what went/goes on behind those covered windows on the upper floors over the stores? Who might be looking out at you right now, and why?

Unless, or even if, it creeps you out, wander through the cemetery – you’ll find tons of names to file away, see interesting art, and read some great epitaphs. Like that Masonic symbol over there. Was he one of the secret society who held the key to great riches or knowledge, or did his poor wife have to take the only headstone she could afford, one that had been “returned” by another wife who decided instead of a formal burial, she’d just flush her old hubby and call it good?

Once in a while the newspaper will run an article about some obscure crime, location, or person that you can use as inspiration in your story. The Nobel Laureate who recently died could be your character’s college roommate who invented time travel in the alternate universe your story is set in, or the little old lady found dead after begging on the streets for years who was worth millions – maybe she was a famous cat burglar, or the character’s long lost mother, sister, or even your character in later years.

Benson_monkey flowerTake a hike – literally. Check out the flora (that’s flowers and green stuff to most of us) – look close – you can see creepy faces in those things sometimes. I saw a story today on a vegetarian spider (REALLY!). I don’t think I could convince anyone spiders come with stripes of red, blue, yellow and checkerboard – unless they saw a photo of that spider. In an alternate world the spider could be the good guy for a change, up against human-eating, fluffy, sweet looking, killer gerbils.

Benson_spiderPay attention to the temperature and how it makes you feel. Remember the feeling of sweat rolling down your back and wetting your waistband – it could be blood. Goo squishing up between your toes on the riverbank? Maybe not mud.

TV, bane of our existence, can offer up a host of inspirations as well. With the History, Science, Discovery, Military and other specialty channels, you can get all kinds of ideas to research – just don’t let the research suck you down the Rabbit Hole (hey, I resemble that blog!).

Even the stupid shows might help. How about Bar Rescue? You see weird people screaming, crying, and insulting each other. Let’s see: a story about the owner of a bar being renovated who kills the reality host and tries to pin it on the sex offender posted on the city website that lives in the scary old mansion-turned-flophouse down the road, who is actually the father of the highest ranking senator in the state, and the murder weapon was a 3D printed candy cane sharpened to a point with an electric pencil sharpener located in the office of the local Clerk & Recorder under investigation for fraud and involved in an affair with the bar owner’s wife (and If I see this in print, I’d better be in the credits. Seriously. No, really!)

Writer’s Block? Not me, and not you, if you just get out there and let yourself be inspired.

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Benson_Unsinkable finalA life-long writer, Terri Benson is published in historic romance, has written award winning short stories and over a hundred newspaper, magazine and e-zine articles – many award winning.

She has been a member of RWA for decades, and RMFW for the last several years. She promotes Western Slope events for the RMFW Publicity Committee, pelts RMFW with articles for the newsletter, and randomly blogs.

An Unsinkable Love (with a gorgeous new cover), is available from Amazon.

When It’s Time to Part With Your Agent … by Chuck Greaves

Chuck_GreavesSigning with a literary agent is an early career milestone for many authors. Finding the right agent is, I submit, essential to an author’s long-term success and happiness. Having chosen both badly and well in my brief writing career, I thought I’d share both experiences, as a kind of authorial teaching moment.

When I finished the first draft of Hush Money – my debut legal mystery – in 2008, I proceeded to amass an impressive stack of agent rejections over the course of very few months, until finally hitting the jackpot – or so I’d thought – in the form of a request from a veteran New York agent (we’ll call her Natasha) to read the entire manuscript. My telephone rang several weeks later, and Natasha and I were in business together, our partnership memorialized in a two-page written agreement. Hush Money, she told me, while still in need of some minor fine-tuning, had tremendous market potential.

Several weeks passed while Natasha’s summer intern took a blue pencil to my magnum opus. When the line-edited manuscript was finally ready, I took a notion to fly to New York and collect it from Natasha in person, only to find that her address was a shared suite in a seedy section of Broadway that would have given Max Bialystock pause. Needing privacy, the four of us – Natasha, her husband, the intern, and I – squeezed into an office so small it required the intern to perch, knees to chin, on the radiator.

I flew home with the line-edited manuscript and a growing sense of unease. When I returned the tightened and polished manuscript to Natasha a month or so later, having reluctantly changed its ending and generally accommodated ninety percent of her editorial suggestions, she said she was pleased with the result, and promptly set out to test the fickle waters of commerce.

Greaves_Last_Heir[1]After several more months and a handful of editorial rejections, I flew to New York again, this time meeting Natasha and her husband for cocktails at the Algonquin (where I got stuck with the check.) At her insistence, I agreed to undertake another round of edits. Length (then 120,000 words) was, she said, our biggest problem, and so I tightened the manuscript even further, to a muscular 112,000 words, and sent it off for her final blessing. Meanwhile, I’d finished the first draft of Hard Twisted, my second novel, and sent her that as well.

She abhorred Hard Twisted, stating that the thirteen-year-old protagonist was “impossible to root for.” As for the new and improved Hush Money, she refused to even read it, calling it “unsaleable” unless and until I could pare it to fewer than 100,000 words. At that point I thanked Natasha for her efforts, and terminated our contract.

Newly rudderless, I submitted both manuscripts to the 2010 SouthWest Writers International Writing Contest in Albuquerque. From a field of over 680 entrants, Hush Money won Best Mystery, Hard Twisted won Best Historical Novel, and Hush Money won the grand-prize Storyteller Award, with Hard Twisted coming in second.

I soon had offers from several New York agents, and a second bite at the Big Apple. Should I again sign with a grizzled industry veteran, or should I go with the hungry young newcomer who professed undying love for both novels? I called an author-friend for counsel. He said, “Sign with whoever will still return your phone calls if the books haven’t sold in a year.” It proved to be some of the best career advice I’ve ever received.

Within a few weeks, Antonella Iannarino of the David Black Agency had sold Hush Money – still at 112,000 words, but with its original ending restored – to St. Martin’s Minotaur in a multi-book deal, after which she sold Hard Twisted to Bloomsbury. Hush Money – the novel Natasha had called “unsaleable” – would go on to receive starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, would be a Critics’ Pick from Kirkus, and would be a finalist for several national honors including the Shamus, Rocky, Reviewer’s Choice, and Audie Awards. Hard Twisted, the book with the “impossible to root for” protagonist, would be hailed as “a taut and intriguing thriller” (London Sunday Times) and “a gritty, gripping read, and one that begs to be put on film.” (Los Angeles Times)

So what did I learn from these very different experiences?

First, that reading is a highly subjective endeavor, and one should never be discouraged by the opinions of even a few so-called experts.

Second, that you should think long and hard before committing to an agent whose commitment to your work is other than unequivocal.

Third, that while parting with your agent might seem like a giant step backward, it is sometimes the only way to move your career forward.

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Chuck Greaves has worked as a bartender, a construction worker, and a librarian. He spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before becoming a novelist (and sometimes vigneron) in southwestern Colorado, where he lives with his wife, four horses, and two German shepherds. THE LAST HEIR (Minotaur), his fourth novel, and the third installment in his award-winning Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries, will be in bookstores on June 24, 2014. For more information on the series, or on his literary fiction written as C. Joseph Greaves, you can visit his website, or get the latest updates here on Facebook.

BOOK GIVEAWAY NOTICE:  Readers who leave a comment on Chuck’s post before noon U.S. Mountain Time on Sunday, June 22nd, will earn an entry into a drawing for a signed copy of The Last Heir. The winner will be announced here on Sunday afternoon.

Interview with Jessica Renheim, Associate Editor of Dutton/Penguin Group

Interview originally published at Chiseled in Rock blog by Dave Jackson on June 4, 2014.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is pleased to welcome Jessica Renheim to the Colorado Gold Conference September 5th through the 7th.

jessicarenheimJess joined Dutton in 2007 and has been there ever since. She edits both fiction and nonfiction at Dutton, including speculative and paranormal fiction, mystery/crime, thrillers, narrative nonfiction, and memoir. Among the bestselling and critically acclaimed writers she has worked with are the #1 New York Times bestselling authors Richelle Mead and Kelley Armstrong, as well as New York Times bestselling and award-winning writers Mark Adams, Dan Savage, Stephen White, Meg Gardiner, Brian D’Amato, Jennifer Lee Carrell, Raymond Khoury, and David Rich.

We are particularly pleased to interview Jessica because she apparently makes rare appearances on blogs!

CIR: How important is it for an author to be flexible with edits? By the way, I’m so flexible my leg is curled around my head as I write this.

JR: Flexibility with edits is always very welcome, but ultimately it’s the author’s book so he/she is going have the final say on most things. The editor’s primary job is to provide guidance where we think it’s needed. Is a certain character feeling too one-dimensional or predictable? Is it too easy to guess the mystery at the heart of the novel? Or is there some inconsistency between the start of the story and the climactic showdown at the end? These are the kind of editorial questions and concerns that may need to be addressed to make the book better, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with talented writers who can step back from their work and assess what’s clicking and what needs to be reconsidered.

CIR: In just the past few years the major publishing houses have become very active with electronic publishing. Can and or will this open the door for more experimental stories to be published in New York from unknown authors since costs can be saved on printing?

JR: I think so. There are quite a few digital original or digital only imprints publishing new authors across different genres these days. One recent example is Tor.com announcing the launch of a new imprint devoted to publishing original novellas, shorter novels and serializations. This seems like a natural area of growth for science fiction and fantasy, and a great way for aspiring writers to get stories published that wouldn’t have been the right fit for more traditional formats due to length or other considerations.

CIR: Have you had the chance to meet any celebrities and if so, who was the coolest?

JR: Dutton publishes the occasional celebrity book, but I have yet to work on one. There have been few brief encounters. Nick Offerman has come by our office to work with his editor. John Hodgman gathered a sizeable group of his (well-known) friend to shoot a scene for his book trailer at the office once. If you watch the trailer here http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/4cc168ca62/that-is-all it’s the scene in the conference room. I also worked on It Gets Better and American Savage with Dan Savage, who is so lovely and down to earth that I sometimes forget he’s a celebrity.

CIR: Did you always know that you wanted to be in the publishing business, an editor?

JR: I think by senior year of college I realized that I wanted to pursue a job in book publishing. I was lucky enough to attend the Columbia Publishing Course, which not only led directly to my job at Dutton, but also helped me to decide that becoming an editor would be the best fit for me. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to work with an author through the entire process, from acquisition to well after his/her book hits stores and online retailers.

CIR: Because we strive to be unique, I must ask a bizarre question. How do you think Charles Dickens would have felt about E publishing?

JR: Well, Dickens was a prolific writer whose novels were mostly published in monthly or weekly installments, a format that allowed him to evaluate his audience’s reaction and use that feedback to shape his stories. Serializing his novels also made them cheaper and more accessible, so my guess is that Dickens would have loved the greater flexibility and access digital publishing affords to readers.

CIR: I have to ask this one because many friends and I have experienced it a couple of times. If an editor had very encouraging things to say about a manuscript, but rejected it stating that it would be better as a…we’ll say a YA, or any number of other succinct suggestions…and the author revamps it as such, do you think the writer is out of bounds to try a resubmission?

JR: It’s a good question. I think if an editor feels strongly enough about a manuscript to provide very encouraging and specific feedback before ultimately rejecting it, then it’s fair game to resubmit the manuscript if it’s been substantially reworded. There’s always an exception to the rule, of course, but in general editors are looking to fall in love with a project and champion it. As long as you’re not submitting a newly revised YA novel to Dutton—where we only do adult books—chances are the editor will take another look!

Thanks Jessica!

We look forward to seeing you at the Gold!

Interview conducted by Gusto Dave

The Top 5 Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Ever Got … by Trai Cartwright

1.   If you’re holding something back for later, drop it in now.

Last Thursday, a friend and I both had one of those explosive days you live for as a writer: the day when your story just electrifies you, delights you, reveals itself to you. She told me she had just written the scene that told her it was just another 25 pages until the supernatural elements of her book could be introduced. I’d just written a scene that was wholly unexpected: a dude who wasn’t supposed to reveal his true nature for many (many) pages to come suddenly whipped off his mask.

This reveal not only changed my whole book but radically improved it in an instant.

This trick comes from a writing teacher I reviled except for this gem. Don’t hold on to the secrets. Don’t write an entire book knowing that in the last 30 pages, all will be revealed. It drains your writing of life-giving creative energy. By “giving away the store”, I was seemingly left with nowhere to go. In fact, I was forced to imagine greater. My story expanded in the most delicious ways because I didn’t hold back.

So my advice to my friend who’s waiting 25 pages to unleash her tasty goodness: just do it now.

2.   Write something beautiful, something grotesque, and something odd on every page.

This one came from a poet who’d just published her first novel, and it’s what her editor said transfixed her. The poet had always used these tricks in her poetry, and had unconsciously carried it over to her fiction. The effect: pages and pages of surprises in the sentences, creating a unique texture that illuminated her world in unexpected ways.

3.   Don’t let the reader catch you writing.

This is from Elmore Leonard and a habit I had to break in my early years. If you’re overly-enamored with your own scintillating, bombastic, lyrical writing style, chances are your readers know it all too well. My voice often over-took my story, and instead of carrying my readers away on a fantastic journey, I was demanding they stand in awe of my cleverness. The point is this: you’re a storyteller first. The voice has to be in service to the story, not your ego.

4.   Don’t confuse, don’t bore.

This from my MFA director Tod Goldberg. Written in big letters on the board, first day of class. If your readers are busy trying to sort out why someone said such-and-such, how they got from the parking lot to Rockefeller Center, who it is they are talking to, when their mother became reanimated because you could swear she died in the first ten pages, they are being carried way on a fantastic journey. They are confused. Confusion equals disengagement as we readers try to conjure the answers that are not on the page.

And boredom, well that’s easy too. If you’re bored writing your story, your readers will have already put your book down. The fix? See #1.

5.   Stop with the semi-colon. And the em-dashes. And the parenthesis.

This is from my god-like genre teacher, Stephen Graham Jones. We all do this. We all suddenly fall in love with some punctuation device that to our minds displays brilliance, adds essential information, and in the case of parenthesis, delivers a dollop of writerly humor.

Readers get exhausted by these devices. Semi-colons create complex sentences that can feel like a challenge to some. Most of those sentences can live independently of one another, so drop in a period instead.

Em-dashes—which, to our mind, can create urgency, provide delightful intrusion, or give crucial tangential information—work maybe every five or six pages, but more than that, it’s a red flag to readers. We start tracking your over-use of the device rather than read your story. It’s like using a word like “stupendous” on every page—we will notice. And it will annoy us.

And as for parenthesis (those semi-smiles of bardic narrator grandstanding), they often break the fourth wall just so you can impart your own sense of humor rather than the character’s. Or worse, it’s a piece of exposition that the writer couldn’t figure out how to include any other way and shoe-horn it in awkwardly. The answer is simply to not employ them. We probably didn’t need that info to follow the scene anyway. And we certainly didn’t need the distraction of your joke.

So that’s it: my top 5 best pieces of writing advice.

What are yours?

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