That was my question last Thursday night as I sat at the banquet at The Edgar Awards in New York City.
Technically, I got to the banquet because I’m president of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA).
That slot puts you on the national board for Mystery Writers of America and that means you get to attend a quite swanky event and watch mystery writers pick up the top award in my favorite genre.
But the RMMWA gig only came about because I also previously had the chance to do lots of things with RMFW.
But how did that come about?
Years ago, I’d started going to the monthly workshops on a regular basis. I started asking more questions. I started hanging out. I lingered. And, well, mingled. I started getting to know a few people. And then someone asked if I would like to serve as monthly workshop coordinator. Maybe? Would I?
I won’t belabor every step but suddenly I found myself in the flow of the organization. After a few board meetings, I started to see how the organization functions. Who wouldn’t be impressed by watching so many give so much?
(Don’t worry—this isn’t a ‘please volunteer’ pitch.)
(Of course, it would be fine if you did. RMFW is always in need of new voices. It would give you a chance to linger and mingle.)
By chipping in a little time and effort, showing a bit of care for how RMFW did its thing as an organization, I found it felt good to chip in and help. And then the next thing you know, I’m helping out with the mystery writers group and there you go.
So hold that thought for a second and now see if you agree with me on this (or not).
Writers are friendly people.
As the Edgar Awards banquet was winding down, I hung around. Yes, lingered.
A guy who is, in my world, a pretty darn big name in the mystery writing field came up to say hello. He has won a “best novel of the year” Edgar. His new book (comes out in a few weeks) has already been optioned for film. He’s heading out soon on a national tour.
I’d met him once before at mystery conference, but I mean that “meeting” was 3.5 seconds and done.
Last week the chat was five minutes. Um, maybe ten. He said he knew my name. What? Seriously?
I handed him my business card, which has the cover for Lake of Fire on it and he was surprised. It turns out that was going to be the title for one of his books, a few books ago.
(So glad I beat him to it.)
Well, after chatting for a few minutes he said something along these lines: “If there is anything I can ever do to help you, please let me know.”
So pitching in to help run a few workshops about 10 years ago led me to this conversation with this very well-known writer who is offering me help.
I was telling a non-writer friend about this exchange the morning after the banquet.
She said: “Well, it makes sense, you know, it seems to me that writers have to like people. I mean, if they are going to write about people they have to like them first, be interested in what makes them tick.”
A Little Bit Every Day I started writing the fifth book in the Allison Coil Mystery Series on Jan. 1, 2014. (Yeah, New Year’s Day. Just Because.) I finished the draft on Monday, March 28. I wrote 500 words a day. That’s 453 days, which would have been 165,433 words if I made forward progress every day. But I needed to back up a few times, re-work a few things. I took a break to write a short story. And another. I finished Draft 1 with 112,000 words, still too many. Lots of cutting to come. What’s my point? 500 words a day isn’t much. It adds up. Do the math.
There’s A Feeling I Get This excellent column by Bob Lefsetz is all about rock and roll. But I thought about writing the whole time. Led Zeppelin went their own way with “Stairway to Heaven.” Their previous album was a dud.
Here’s Lefsetz: “What Led Zeppelin said back in ’71 is that you’re best doing it your way, by yourself, with your peeps, than hiring outside hands to meddle with your vision … That we react to and love most that which is personal and human.”
Lessons Learned I’ve had some excellent podcast guests lately, but check out the one with Eleanor Brown. She had a huge hit with The Weird Sisters. Huge! She was on the road doing promotion for 18 months! And then she wrote three more books that all went pffffft before finding the groove for the one that comes later this year, The Light in Paris.
Much like Led Zeppelin, she listened to her heart. (I guess Tom Petty sang that, too.) Humility, folks. It’s a tough business. Listen.
Her workshop is Saturday, April 30 at Columbine Library in Littleton.
Legends of the Fall Everything they’re saying about Jim Harrison, who died recently, is true.
Read his stuff if you don’t know his work—gritty, singular, raw, honest. I looked up an old review I wrote of his three-novella collection, The Woman Lit By Fireflies.
Anyway, at the bottom of the review I came across a funny exchange with my late pal Gary Reilly and I shook my head (yet again) at Gary’s dry humor. I miss that guy. (Click on the picture to read the exchange.)
The Detachment Speaking of Gary, Running Meter Press is launching The Detachment at The Tattered Cover on Friday, April 15 (Colfax Store) at 7 p.m.
I managed to get advance blurbs from some amazing writers—Stewart O’Nan, Ron Carlson, John Mort, Fred Haefele.
Carlson compared The Detachmentto Catch 22 and that’s a guy who teaches fiction in an elite program out in California. O’Nan (pals with Stephen King and one prolific writer himself) called it a ‘classic.’
Speaking of length, The Detachment is 534 pages. It’s a powerful, heavy book based on Gary’s experiences in Vietnam as a military policeman.
Honors for Gary Speaking of Gary, Pick Up At Union Station (his seventh novel in The Asphalt Warrior series) was named a finalist in literary fiction for the 2016 Colorado Book Award.
That’s three finalist nominations out of that seven-book series.
The other two were Ticket to Hollywoodin 2013 and Doctor Lovebeads in 2014.
The Detachment is the ninth title we’ve published of Gary’s—after seven books in The Asphalt Warrior series and The Enlisted Men’s Club, the first book in his series about Vietnam following Private Palmer.
And Running Meter Press still has about 15 books to go.
Gary wrote more than 500 words a day.
Tethered by Letters
Is Metro Denver and the Colorado Front Range chock full of writer groups?
There’s bound to be one out there to suit your needs.
Here’s a new one I came across last year. Tethered by Letters.
Yes, based here but with connections all over the world, really. One reason I mention them is because they do a great job—web site, online interactions, classes and a literary magazine called F(r)iction.
The other reason to mention them is because they offer pretty good money for flash fiction, short stories, poetry and more. Check ‘em out!
I wrote Antler Dustin the mid 1990’s. I’d tell you the exact date or year, but I have no clue.
Friends gave me feedback and fellow writers, too.
In pretty quick fashion, I got a good agent in New York City.
(This was my third manuscript and third agent in New York; I was unpublished but gaining experience.)
The agent gave me feedback. Editors at “big” houses gave me feedback.
I re-wrote it for the agent. I re-wrote it, for nearly a year, for the editors.
But, no sale.
I put it aside.
I wrote another mystery about a television reporter and finished it.
In 2007 a small, independent publisher in Niwot (not that there would be any “big” independent publishers in Niwot) read both Antler Dust and the mystery about the television reporter. The publisher liked Allison Coil and Antler Dust came out—2,000 hardbacks! Good advance, the whole bit.
I did 42 bookstore stops in two years, had a blast getting my first book out there. Antler Dust hit the Denver Post best-seller list in 2007 and again in 2009.
But that publisher went under.
When Buried by the Roan (the second book in the series) was ready, I got picked up by George Stranahan’s People’s Press in Aspen. They offered to print a trade paperback of #2 and a trade paperback of Antler Dust. Good advances, the whole bit. Buried by the Roan came out in 2011.
But, guess what? More editing for Antler Dust. Two (count ‘em!) professional editors made more suggestions and edits. Whole chunks taken out; other parts touched up.
Then, People’s Press closed shop.
I was thrilled to get picked up by Midnight Ink in 2013 and the third book, Trapline, came out in 2014 and the fourth book, Lake of Fire, came out last September.
I started my own company, Third Line Press, so those two books would remain in print.
(It was a good move. Mystery readers love starting at the beginning of a series.)
But, when the Antler Dust files were uploaded to Ingram (Lightning Source) for the new version, yes, I made a few more tweaks. Nothing too noticeable.
Books have a life of their own.
My other point?
You never know.
I can’t begin to count the number of editors and agents who have weighed in with ideas on that first Allison Coil mystery. (Maybe that’s a good thing. Antler Dust carries a five-star rating on Amazon with 52 reviews posted. That’s not a ton of reviews over the course of eight years, but still, I’ll take it).
Anyway, Third Line Press (yours truly) recently applied for a promotion via Book Bub.
So this coming Friday, Jan. 8 through Tuesday, Jan. 12, the e-book of Antler Dust is free (only on Kindle; not other e-book platforms).
This is a simple note of thanks – it’s the season – for the podcast support to date.
Guests, thanks for participating.
Listeners, thanks for your patience. (I know the audio has not been NPR-perfect.)
To one guest in particular (I’m looking at you, Ken Kirchner) thanks for re-recording the entire episode when the recorder decided to, well, not record.
Yes, that’s patience.
The podcast has included book cover designers, Colorado Gold keynote speakers, up and coming writers, experienced novelists, sci-fi writers, erotica writers, romance writers, mystery writers, historical fiction writers, reps at literary agencies, indie writers, publishers and the 2015 Colorado Writer of the Year, Susan Spann. (She's snuck on there several times!)
How do you take advantage of the podcast opportunity? Simple – drop me a line and schedule an interview. The only real criteria is that the conversation must in some way connect to RMFW.
Got a book coming up? Drop me a line.
Got a workshop or other related event? Drop me a line.
Do you have a question about your work in progress or would you like to “ask an expert?” Drop me a line and we might record a conversation with an expert for the benefit of all.
If you’re not a “podcast person,” well, I understand.
(That’s a lie; I don’t.)
You really should give podcasts a whirl—I have found them to be stimulating, informative, and a great way to surround yourself with people who think about writing (or reading) during those times when you aren’t writing or reading.
Now, I’m a believer in honest, legitimate reviews. I think ‘AstroTurf’ reviews are obvious—and, of course, meaningless.
But if you’ve listened to the RMFW podcast, please consider heading over to iTunes (the podcast provider that counts the most) and leave a rating and/or a review.
That little step would be a big help in improving our “numbers” in that all-important visibility game on the iTunes algorithm. Again, legit comments only, please.
1. Go to iTunes store on your computer.
2. Go to podcasts
3. Enter Rocky Mountain Writer
4. Click on our icon (square image) until it looks like the accompanying image.
5. Click on ‘ratings and reviews.’
6. Do your thing!
All feedback, in fact, is welcome. Really.
If anyone else out there with RMFW would like to record interviews and participate in podcast production, well….
This question popped up on a discussion group recently and it’s one I’ve pondering of late.
Here was the abbreviated question, posted by Shalanna Collins:
“I'm wondering how you feel about the ‘invitation to the game’ that constitutes the mystery opening trope. What I mean is . . . when you pick up a mystery, do you expect the normal trope of (1) the sleuth's normal life, some intriguing thing happening, and then (2) the call to action signaled by her/his finding a body or witnessing a death that is suspicious? … I don't read only for the mystery plot and only for action. I've been dinged for including deeper stuff in my books. What say you?”
What I say is this:
I am starting to like books that set their own rules.
I think, within the first few pages of a novel, we can tell if the writer has one eye on a paint-by-numbers formula.
I think we’re all eager for a strong book that wrecks the formula—and has a good time doing so.
I give you William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. There’s nothing formulaic about it. Murder mystery? Coming of age novel? Literature? Forty years after a series of powerful deaths in a small town in Minnesota, a grown man named Frank Drum remembers the series of events, all intertwined with memories of his religious father and agnostic mother. The book just flows, suspense mounts, and there’s no sign of paint or numbers.
I give you Untouchable by Scott O’Connor, published a few years ago and widely praised. I was shocked—shocked—to discover it had been reviewed as crime fiction in the New York Times. The book is about a man named David Darby who cleans up messes after, well, death takes its toll. It’s also about the man’s mute-by-choice son Whitley, who fears that he’s responsible for his mother’s death. These are two of the strongest character portraits I’ve read in a long time—even though O’Connor uses a ton of adverbs (not my favorite) and relies on the passive tense. I didn’t give a lick. I was completely sucked in by the story and a thin “plot” (and I use that term loosely). Near the end is one of the saddest chapters I’ve read in a long time and it introduces us to a new point of view on page 362.
I didn’t care.
I give you David Corbett’s Mercy of the Night, another character-centric novel that might look a bit like a crime or mystery on the surface but is one of the most deeply felt and human books you’ll ever read. (I reviewed it in depth here). There’s a prostitute, a counselor and a former litigator, Phelan Tiernay. Again, vivid and human portraits against the backdrop of crime. Formulas nowhere in sight.
So I think the recipes are a rough guide.
I think some stories need more air underneath them—more contemplation.
Not every book is skipping-stone compilation of plot points.
More and more I find myself more drawn to character studies. It’s the people I remember, not always the clue-finding and the guns-drawn face-offs.
Some weeks, you want the comfort and ease of that formula.
At other times, you find yourself more open to more variety in voice, tone, style and pace of the plot and action.
To me, the invitation to the game starts with cracking open a new book and being welcomed to a new story, a new point of view.
I want to see the plot points disappear.
I want to get to know new people so well I can imagine what they’re thinking and understand how they act.
A report from South Dakota: Cool Writers, A Controversy and a Rock Star
Deadwood, South Dakota is 385 miles north of Denver. You shoot straight through Cheyenne, parallel the eastern border of Wyoming and watch trains tugging their long snakes of coal. The road climbs east through the Black Hills. In late September, gold aspen trees dot the high country.
Deadwood is clogged with casinos. The conference hotel for the South Dakota Festival of Books is reached only by walking past the slot machines and blackjack tables and finding an elevator in the back corner. All of downtown, in fact, is loaded with hotels and gambling tables. There isn’t one grocery store in town, although there are plenty of places to eat. And drink. The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register. Other than the slots, it has an old-west vibe.
During a jam-packed weekend, however, the festival transforms the town. Some 70 writers offer presentations in such places as the town library, the elementary school gymnasium, Deadwood City Hall and upstairs in the creaky-floor grand ballroom of the Martin & Mason Hotel (built in 1893). The festival also coordinates a series of programs in nearby schools and universities, all part of a busy few days in celebration of books and writing and reading. The words “books” and “festival” belong together, don’t you think?
William Kent Krueger was the star this year (Sept. 24—27). He was the keynote for RMFW Gold in 2014 and, of course, just as affable and easy-going in Deadwood as he was when he came to Denver. His book Ordinary Grace was the pick for the “One Book South Dakota” program. Kent was everywhere and was easily spotted every morning in a hotel alcove, writing away. On Saturday night, he was interviewed in front of a huge audience by South Dakota’s own Sandra Brannan. He stayed with writing his kinds of mysteries, followed his own path, and the work paid off. Ordinary Grace blew up.
I met Harold Johnson. He’s from La Ronge, Saskatchewan. That’s 1,200 miles straight north of Denver. He traps and hunts and lives off the land. He also has a Master of Law degree from Harvard (with no high school diploma). He served in the Canadian Navy and worked in mining and logging. He gave an interesting presentation on the power of story that challenged the notion of what’s real and what’s not. Fascinating. His latest book is Corvus, which “examines the illusions of security we build through technology and presents a scathing satire of a world caught up in climate change denial and the glorification of war.” Thoughtful guy, extremely likable. He smoked a pipe. His father was Swedish. His mother was Cree.
At the book signing area, I sat next to Garth Stein. Garth wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain after watching a Mongolian documentary about dogs and reading a poem by Billy Collins, “The Revenant.” The Art of Racing in the Rain was on the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks. That’s about three years. He sold precisely 1.2 bajillion books. Garth said he had no problem writing the follow-up book, based on a new idea. He’s a writer. Writers write. One really kind guy. He said when he started The Art it was different, but good. He had a hunch it would do well. So did his wife.
I met Ann Weisgarber, from Sugar Land, Texas. She’s friendly, easy-going, warm. She couldn’t interest any publisher in this country to put out her first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Then a publisher in England picked it up and she was short listed for England's 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. (Many other awards, too.) New York is now paying attention. So is Hollywood. Viola Davis optioned the book (JuVee Productions, her company). Ann Weisgarber—a picture of class. Take a minute. Go to her page. Check those wonderful reviews.
My panelmates at City Hall were Sandra Brannan (South Dakota’s own favorite crime writer) and Tom Bouman, whose Dry Bones in the Valley won the Edgar Prize for best first novel. It doesn’t get any bigger in mystery writing land for new writers. Tom read a passage he prepared—and transported us all to the early morning woods on a hunt in Pennsylvania. He concluded by pointing out there is no perfect story, no perfect book. And that’s why we love it—we get to keep writing. And trying. Kent Krueger sat in the audience for our panel and asked thoughtful questions. Ann Weisgarber, too. Sheesh.
On the first night of the festival, the organizers held a reception for authors at the nearby Opera House in Lead. (That’s “Lead” like “need” not “Lead” like the tip of your pencil). Fielding questions while sitting on stage, writers and poets talked about what inspired us to write. One long-haul truck driver (Rod Hoffer) said he wrote young adult stories for his grandkids. He said he wrote during the times when his trailer was being filled—or emptied. Writing was a passion. He smiled a lot.
Then Charles Shields pulled the pin on a stink bomb. He’s a biographer. He wrote a biography of Harper Lee some years back.
Here’s what he said—that he starts every project only after a clear evaluation of whether it will make money.
You could feel the room tense up.
William Kent Krueger rose in defense of those who write, you know, without money in mind.
Here’s the tail end of what Kent said:
“And I think that in the end it’s not going to matter whether you become rich and famous because you will have spent your life following your passion. But what I also believe is this—if you do that, eventually, you will discover the writer you were always meant to be and you will write the stories you were meant to write and the doors will open for you.”
Eloquent? Very. Listen:
Yeah, the applause was pretty strong. And music to my ears.
I’m sure Charles Shields is a nice guy too but I’ve never met a fiction writer who thought in those terms.
The minor controversy didn’t impact the terrific weekend. There were more writers to meet—Minnesota’s upbeat Faith Sullivan, Colorado’s own Pam Houston, South Dakota writing mentor Linda Hasselstrom, and California’s quite smart Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal, Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story; one of my favorite writers in the country).
And then Robert Plant showed up. I didn’t see him. He was there to see Kent Nerburn (13 books on spirituality and Native American themes). Robert Plant, yes, came to Kent’s panel.
(The Led Zeppelin cover band “In the Led” are due to play the same conference hotel on Oct. 16; wonder if Robert Plant spotted the poster in that hotel elevator! What would he think??)
I drove home not thinking about money. I drove home thinking about writers and all their many varied passions.
The South Dakota Festival of Books is one ultra-friendly conference that pulls in lots of talented writers.
Is there anything Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers doesn't do for its members (and all writers for that matter)? Not too much. One of the newest offerings is a series of podcasts that features a variety of professionals to entertain and enlighten all those who tune in. Hosted by Mark Stevens, the podcasts are another great way to meet RMFW members and Colorado Gold guests.
The link to the most recent podcast was posted just this week. Featuring two of the three finalists for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers of the Year, Susan Spann and Cindi Myers, the panel took place at the downtown Denver Tattered Cover in August. Tune in to hear these two authors discuss their writing lives and offer advice based on their own experiences. The third finalist, Joan Johnston, was unable to attend.
The podcast posted at the end of August featured long-time RMFW member and volunteer, Mario Acevedo. His focus was on the Sept. 5 workshop held in Grand Junction: "Everything You Need to Know About the Next RMFW Anthology."
Mario, who has agreed to step in as editor for the anthology, talks about the submission schedule and selection process and reveals the selected theme. In addition, Mario talks about writing short stories and about his ongoing series featuring vampire Felix Gomez. If you think you'll want to submit a story for consideration in the anthology, you might want to check out Mario's podcast.
The previous interview was with one of the Colorado Gold keynote speakers, erotic romance writer Desiree Holt. In this podcast, Desiree chatted about her six series of books, her daily writing schedule and a preview of the three classes she will be teaching at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference this weekend.
The podcast before that featured Aaron Michael Ritchey, a highly productive writer and frequent workshop presenter. He'll participate in three writing workshops at Colorado Gold Conference. He talks about his daily dedication to writing and the series he's producing for WordFire Press called The Juniper Wars. As he puts it, the series is "cowgirls with machine guns on a post-apocalyptic cattle drive." Aaron is the author of three books--The Never Prayer, Long Live the Suicide King and Elizabeth's Midnight. He is also the author of numerous collaborations and short stories, including a story in the upcoming Nightmares Unhinged, an anthology from Hex Publishers.
Do you hope the next book you write is everyone’s guilty pleasure?
Or do you want readers to stop and admire your prose stylings like a rare orchid?
Do you want your readers to enjoy the experience as if they were going to an amusement park?
Or a museum?
Do you want to give Lee Child a run for his money?
Or Karl Ove Knausgaard?
Or can you do both?
I’m fascinated by the line between “genre” and “literary.”
It’s an old fight. The Maginot Line has shifted over time, but not the arguments. There have always been literary snobs who look down their snouts at drivel from the “genre” hacks (who make millions).
And there have always been “genre” hacks who spurn dense tomes of navel-gazing as ponderous pieces of self-indulgence.
Can’t we all get along?
Is it possible to “upgrade” your techniques so you can reach audiences who yearn for some literary flair? Is it worth it? Necessary? A good idea?
Who says you need to upgrade and by the way, who decided it was an “upgrade”?
Should you just write your damn story and not care or worry about symbols, metaphors, alliteration or other literary devices?
Jack Kerouac said: “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.
”Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
Vladimir Nabokov said: “It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”
Tom Clancy said: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
Donald Barthelme said: “The combinatory agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”
P.D. James said: “The modern detective story has moved away from the earlier crudities and simplicities. Crime writers are as concerned as are other novelists with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action.”
My pal Barry Wightman (Pepperland, a 1970’s rock n’ roll novel written with a savvy artfulness) will join me in wading into the chasm of this dispute during a workshop at Colorado Gold.
The workshop is called “From Pulp to Meta” (3:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11).
We put ourselves in this situation—“forced” to think about stories and characters and plots and craft.
The burden of it all; the agony!
The tortured artist at work--just look. Over there in the corner, writhing in pain. He's squirming in the corner in sheer horror, drowning in his own drool, recoiling at the thought of having to pound out one more precious sentence.
Did you listen to the recent RMFW podcast with Aaron Michael Ritchey? If you need a lift, check it out. You’ll hear a guy who a) produces at an impressive rate (he’s currently working on a six-book series, under contract) and b) embraces the work.
On the podcast, Ritchey recalls a key moment when he was complaining to fellow writer (and RMFW Colorado Gold Writing Contest chair) Chris Devlin about writing. And Devlin apparently told Ritchey how much she enjoyed it all, getting lost in her worlds and her characters.
That changed everything.
Ritchey decided then and there he didn’t want Devlin’s pity. “I forced myself to love writing,” he recalled.
Ritchey’s enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not saying you can wrap yourself in a cloak of enthusiasm and the books will come flying out, but starting with an upbeat thought or two about the writing day certainly couldn’t hurt.
A few days ago, I listened to Meg Wolitzer deliver a stand-up, no-notes story on “The Moth." (Yes, another podcast.) Wolitzer's storytelling style was so natural, unforced, easy-going (and funny) that I’ve got to dive into her novels. (Like my pile of books isn't tall enough.)
And this particular story, “Summer Camp,” concluded with a message similar to Ritchey’s: “The world is always trying to tell you what you’re not,” concludes Wolitzer. “And it’s up to you to say what you are,”
Funny, isn't it? How some times you run into the same message twice within the same couple of days.