Tag Archives: Mark Stevens

Here Comes the Judge

By Mark Stevens

Who am I to judge? No, really?

I’ve judged the Colorado Gold contest for many years. I take on five or six entries each time around. That’s not many pieces to rate. Some judges handle dozens—and more.

Five or six entries take time—twenty pages of each novel and a three or four-page synopsis to go with it. First, I read each entry straight through and then I embed comments on the second pass.

Then, the real work: filling out the score sheet.

Is the “emotional content” a five or six?

Is the “scene craft” a four or a five?

The totals add up. The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight. (And, yes, years ago I entered the contest a few times. I was crushed when my scores didn’t add up.)

This year, alas, I struggled to connect. With anything. I shipped back a whole lot of misery for contestants to absorb. (I am very glad each entry receives scoring from at least two judges; I am not alone.)

So I’m here with a few humble suggestions.

  •  Keep it simple.
  •  Give me one character with a strong point of view.
  •  Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
  •  Don’t give me blah.
  •  Or ordinary.
  •  Give me edge; risk.
  •  Convince me that the story starts on this day.
  •  Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
  •  Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
  •  Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
  •  Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
  •  But, mostly, keep it simple.
  •  Really simple.
  •  No, really.

www.writermarkstevens.com
https://www.facebook.com/AllisonCoil
@writerstevens
https://www.facebook.com/theasphaltwarrior

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

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.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: A Review

Review by Mark Stevens

the-war-of-art_for Mark Stevens postResistance is invisible, internal, implacable, impersonal, infallible and insidious.

Resistance, as Steven Pressfield points out in The War of Art, never sleeps.

“Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five,” writes Pressfield. “In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

If you don’t know it, The War of Art is a must-read. (Of course, reading it might be an act of resistance in itself. You should be writing, don’t you know.)

The War of Art breaks down the interaction with your art. It encourages you to picture yourself as a soldier in the fight against, what else? Resistance.

Pressfield first defines the enemy (resistance), then encourages you to fight by “turning pro” and finally, in the third section, he shows you how to find inspiration in the “higher realm.”

The battle, Pressfield asserts, involves dedication and daily action. Some of his arguments have too many biblical metaphors for my tastes but the essence of his argument is hard to refute: get busy, show up, do the work, stick to it, make it routine, make it a habit, don’t give in.

You will understand the creative process a bit better—and even understand why you feel compelled to tell stories and to produce art.

• “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”

• “When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set in motion by which, inevitably, and infallibly heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”

• “What I call Professionalism someone else might call the Artist’s Code or the Warrior’s Way. It’s an attitude of egolessness and service.”

Pressfield’s most convincing point, at least to me, is that if we have something to say, we are obligated to say it.

We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the world. He calls creating art a private insurrection.

“As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.”

The War of Art delivers a blow against resistance and will get you fired up. It’s a battle out there. Strike a blow, if you can, every day.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Death Becomes You: What Will Your Legacy Be?

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

I’m going blind.

The eye doctor told me this a few weeks ago. I have diabetic retinopathy which is basically uncontrolled bleeding behind my eyes from half a lifetime of having type 1 diabetes. Retinopathy leads to blindness. It might take a year, it might be five, ten, or twenty years.

There is no cure.

I will go blind.

(I’m not looking for sympathy, many others have it far worse. I’d like nothing more than to for you to read on because I feel like there’s a bigger point to be made).

Sadly, my first thought was, my career is over before it really started (I lie and say I’m an optimist when asked, but I come from a long line of Pollyanna-like pessimists).

And if my fate ends with not being able to write anymore (which it won’t since I plan to teach my seeing-eye dog how to type, so forgive me for any future novels begging for bones), what sort of legacy will my works leave?

What do my books say about me?

Better yet, what do your books say about you?

Scary thought, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of every book I’ve put into the world. I’ll freely admit some are better than others. Some suffered from my learning my craft. Some suffered from thinking I knew too much. Hell, in one book, and I won’t say which, I believed that using ‘said’, thanks to a bad critique group, was akin to publishing suicide. I only used it 939 times in 76 thousand word novel (Don’t try this at home; it will result in severe trauma). The book is published and available in ebook and trade paperback. I dare you to figure out which one it is.

But I’m talking less about craft and grammatical insanity than content. I wonder what sort of legacy my words leave in the world because there is immortality in your work. Even if you never publish a single word, it is forever alive.

As much as a part of me wishes to leave behind a legacy like Maya Angelou, who recently departed did, I know better. I am a genre writer, sometimes a good one, and sometimes bad. I love writing romance. I love writing mysteries. I loved writing F***ed Up Fairytales.

But I’m no Angelou.

I’m me.

And I will own my legacy.

And if we’re lucky, after we’re gone, we will have someone like Mark Stevens to convey our uniqueness with the rest of the world like Mark is doing with writer Gary Reilly. Also like RMFW does at every Colorado Gold conference when they honor Rick Hanson’s life’s work with contest where first place is usually a haiku’s using the word sphincter.

I think I’ll end this post here.

But I’d love to hear what sort of legacy you see for yourself, and what you wish your legacy could be? And if you could use the word sphincter, that would be great.

What’s Your Reason for Writing?

By Mark Stevens

No doubt soon you’ll be walking around your house knee-deep in royalty checks.

At some point, you’ll probably stop reading the reviews.

Even the good ones.

Yawn. Another rave.

Until then, why are you on this ride? Are you driven? Just because? Is it art to you?

Or commerce?

I watched two documentaries recently.

One was “Finding Vivian Maier” about a unique street photographer whose work has exploded after her death. Vivian Maier was completely overlooked during her lifetime. She never promoted her work. Her possessions and an enormous stash of her photographs (the negatives) were bought—cheaply—at an auction of stuff in Chicago. The stash included uncashed social security checks. She wasn’t in it for the money. Clearly. Now, the world is studying her work. And marveling.

I highly recommend the film (which itself is very well put together).

The other documentary was about famous back-up singers. Is that an oxymoron? Probably. That’s the point. They are back-up singers. If you like music, “20 Feet from Stardom” is must-see. The portraits are fascinating—Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. And others. They probably sang on hundreds of songs you know by heart. They sing the key licks, the little juicy bits you hum along with.

Also recommended.

Talent? By the truckload.

Artists? In every way, shape and form.

Some try to step up to the limelight, become the lead. Others hang back on purpose. They are fine with the shadows, but every bit as integral to the lead singer (and the act) but fine with the supporting role. They are, in fact, highly sought-after artists in their supporting roles.

Is there a heartbreak? Yes. Dashed hopes? Yes. But the overall message is they are in it for the moment—the expression. Every one of them had (has) pride in their accomplishments.

Moral of the story?

With Vivian Maier, she followed nobody’s script and nobody’s expectations for what constituted a “good” photograph. She took pictures of small moments, odd people, strange situations and left her view of the world for the rest of us to enjoy.

With the back-up singers, they were told what words to sing, what notes to hit. They brought their skills to the studio or the live stage and accepted (in varying degrees) their roles.

What’s your reason for writing? Are you okay with doing it—just because?

Are you doing your own thing? Listening to your own voice? Or are you a back-up, following someone else’s vision and script?

(I think there is good in both approaches.)

Me? I hope I do a little of both.

Reilly_The Enlisted Men's ClubFinal note: A bit of blatant self-promotion for my pal Gary Reilly, whom I’ve written about before. Gary wrote 25 novels with no encouragement from “the industry.” He died in 2011 and left those 25 novels behind, just because. His sixth posthumous book launches at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The Enlisted Men’s Club is the first of his Vietnam-era novels following the publication of five comic novels about a Denver taxi driver (including two Colorado Book Award nominees). The tone of the war-era novel, of course, is very different. But the mark of the artist is the same. An artist at work. Just because.

 

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Getting the Details Right

By Mark Stevens

If I had to pick a favorite prose stylist, it might be John Updike.

(I don’t have to pick, do I?)

Some think his stuff is over-written. I happen to think he was a poet whether he was writing fiction or criticism. Or poetry.

In fact, Updike published eight volumes of poetry in addition to everything else—novels, short stories, and reams of art and literary criticism. Updike died at age 76 and, one of many fascinating tidbits I gleaned from reading Adam Begley’s new biography of the man (Updike), he even wrote his last poem about four weeks before he died.

Prolific? To say the least. David Foster Wallace once asked: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” (I’ve seen that quote without attribution, too. Was it Wallace?)

Updike wrote three hours a day come hell or high water. He was widely hailed for his style and for his ability to elevate ordinary days and ordinary feelings, layered with human depth. He was jaded, wicked, heartfelt, crude, raunchy. And elegant, too.

But he couldn’t rely purely on his imagination. One thing Begley makes clear in his lengthy and highly enjoyable portrait is that John Updike believed in research. Nearly thirty years after he started writing for The New Yorker magazine, after worldwide success and a Pulitzer Prize (the first of two), John Updike still believed in getting the details right.

Stevens_rabbitrichPreparing to to write the third book in his “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), Updike decided to give his hero Harry Angstrom a new job, running a Toyota dealership in Pennsylvania. For the most part, Updike drew stories from the people and situations that were close at hand—either right down the street or at least familiar social circles. (His critics hate this about him.) As such, he knew nothing about car dealerships.

Updike, writes Begley, “rolled up his sleeves and went to work.” He hired help to untangle the “arcane protocols” of automobile finances and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, and paperwork involved in importing cars and more. He visited dealerships in the Boston area. “He aimed for, and achieved, a degree of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to the legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: ‘No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.’ ”

Credibility.

As George Saunders talks about (see this March 4 post by Mark), it’s about making the moments on the page “undeniable.” Even with his flashy style and a vocabulary that seemed like it knew no bounds, Updike started with getting the details right.

Rabbit is Rich, by the way, won another Pulitzer.

Final thought: I wish I had the kind of time a full-time writer would have to do this kind of research, but I recently spent a full day driving around Rio Blanco County with Deputy Sheriff John Scott. We drove for hours talking about life and crime around Meeker and upriver toward the Flat Tops Wilderness. I left with a fresh load of powerful details and many ways to (try and) give my new story another chance to be undeniable.
Stevens_Deputy John Scott (800x600)
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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Those Little Bells

By Mark Stevens

(This blog is a note to self. Thanks for letting me share.)

I recently read a New Yorker profile of the writer Lydia Davis and I felt as if I’d entered a very calm, clear space.

It’s a long piece, by Dana Goodyear, but it’s behind a paywall at the New Yorker web site so I thought I’d highlight one major point here. I highly recommend that you track down a copy (March 17, 2014).

Lydia Davis is a very-short-story writer. The New Yorker piece calls her “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” There much to be gleaned from reading the entire profile.

Davis is 66 years old now and still writes regularly. She’s inspired by unlikely vignettes she encounters throughout the day. Unlikely and unusual. You get the impression her writing mind never shuts down.

Since this blog can’t cover everything, here’s one bit that stuck with me: Lydia Davis thinks about every word.

Yeah, sure, whatever. Writers think about every word—don’t we?

Not on the Davis scale.

Lydia Davis is after precision in the words like…

(Actually, I’m afraid to write a metaphor right about now.)

For Davis, there are no throwaways.

“A little bell goes off in my head first,” she says. “I know something’s wrong here.”

Demonstrating her point for Goodyear, Davis read an image from a published novel:

“A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.”

Spot the issue?

“I thought about that,” says Davis. “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”

Davis concludes: “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison.”

I thought to myself: yikes.

Yes, high standards. Not surprising for a woman who was once married to master stylist Paul Auster and, to mention many other accomplishments in her long writing career, translated Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way from French to English. (Some critics lashed Davis for her preference for “obscure cognates” over than going with “flashier English renderings.”)

It’s the old lesson: every word counts. Every word has meaning. Every word carries weight.

Do everything you can to avoid ringing those little bells.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

George Saunders on Writing

By Mark Stevens

George SaundersOne of the most highly-decorated writers of the last few years stopped by The Tattered Cover a couple weeks ago.

The man was George Saunders, who wrote the short-story collection Tenth of December.

Saunders has been showered in praise and critical acclaim. Shower? More like Niagara Falls. The list of awards and prizes is long. Seek elsewhere if you don’t know. It’s impressive.

I wasn’t there, but I listened to the podcast posted on “Authors on Tour.”

I listened three times.

Stwvens_Saunders_Tenth of DecemberThe stories in Tenth of December are stunning pieces. I reviewed it when it first came out. Put it this way: the guy is highly original. The stories have bite.

So what about his presentation? Pompous? Snooty? Professor know-it-all?

Hardly. He referenced Honey Boo-Boo as easily as William Faulkner.

I highly recommend listening to his rapid-fire, enthusiastic style of talking about his writing—and his way-cool reading from a portion of one of his short stories, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” (a hilarious bit of whacky sci-fi).

Here’s a recap of a few of Saunders’ key points about writing.

(A brief comment first: holy smokes, this guy works hard, thinks hard. Tenacious.)

1. Listen to Yourself. “Follow your natural instincts—it’s all you’ve got,” he said. After some early efforts at writing fiction (“Joyce meets Hemingway meets Quaaludes”) and poetry (“scatological Dr. Seuss kinds of things”), one day his “so-called voice sort of appeared” and it was “kind of disappointing.” Nonetheless, it was his natural self. Saunders confessed to a former “medical affliction” called the “Hemingway boner.” “It was like this mountain, Hemingway mountain, I love you, I’m going up you.” After also failing on “Kerouac mountain,” Saunders finally realized there was a “little dung hill” and it had his name on it. The dung hill was his natural voice and he stuck with it.

2. Meaning Doesn’t Matter. “Maybe never,” says Saunders. “What you’re trying to do is get the thing to be energetic and the way you do that is baffling yourself someway.” Saunders added: “My end goal is to put you (the reader) through an invigorating and maybe confusing experience.”

3. Don’t Think in Categories. “You should do whatever you can do.” “Don’t lower the ceiling on yourself.”

4. Reader Intimacy Is Key. “By any means necessary, I’m trying to get the reader to lean in and have an intimate moment with me.” “Engage them first and move on.”

5. Rewrite and Rethink With No Attachment. “I take the story I printed out the day before and inch up to it and say, ‘Let me just read it with no attachment.’ If you are not too hung up on what you thought yesterday, you can see” (what needs work).

6. Dialogue As Plot is DOA. “Bad dialogue is when A asks a question and B answers it, because people don’t do that.” “Dialogue that fulfills plot function is dead on the page.” Dialogue should be two people “firing missiles past each other.” Well-written dialogue is “like poetry—it’s not functional but it looks good on the page and has a zinginess.”

7. Throw Trouble at Your Characters. Quoting Chekhov: “Every happy man should have someone with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws.”

8. Make it Undeniable. When is a story done? “Everyone will tell you something different…it’s whatever works for you.” For his own needs, Saunders said it’s when every moment in the story “feels undeniable; it feels like what happened.” He worked on one story two months of every year for four or five years. “I have to be solid with it myself. I go to pretty obsessive lengths to make sure I like it.”

9. Writers Don’t Get to Stabilize. In most jobs, he said, we want to have mastery, not only in our jobs but in our life. And we want to coast. In art, you want to find the method but the method is always changing. For writers, “you’re on a cruise ship, your job is to juggle, the ship is sinking, it’s coated with ice and we’re in roller skates and we’re drunk. We don’t get to stabilize.”

10. Good Stories Don’t Choose Right or Wrong. Fresh-cut grass is good; falling off a bridge is bad. A writer doesn’t have to deny one or the other. “Part of the fun of a story is you can think one direction, life is miserable, and then put in the other valance and suddenly those two things are resonating and the reader looks to you and says, ‘well, which do you believe?’ And you say, ‘Excuse me, I have to go on to the next paragraph.’ To credit both is really fun.”

11. Milk Your Insecurity. “I feel like if I even let up for one sentence, you’ll go away….My stories are kind of manic because I don’t want to lose you.”

12. First Draft Doesn’t Matter. At one point in his life, Saunders thought “if your first draft is no good, it’s ‘Shit, I’ve got to go to law school.” Now it’s “you have an infinite right to go in there and tweak it forever…just keep coming back to it again and again; that’s the key to a healthy and long writing life.”

High standards? You bet.

But isn’t it magic when you’re reading and you are so deep down in the story that you forget your reading? That you question nothing? That you lose yourself?

It’s that “undeniable” bar I love. A mighty goal. It’s magic, yeah, but if the master doesn’t mind sharing a few secrets, I’m all ears.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Scriptnotes…Do You Think in Movies?

By Mark Stevens

Do you think in movies?

Can you see your work in progress scene by scene, playing out on the screen?

I do.

I’d be surprised if you don’t.

I’d be surprised if you don’t cast your story. Yes, I happen to think Hilary Swank would make a great Allison Coil. Or Amy Adams.

Go ahead, shoot me for dreaming.

As long as the actress knows her way around a horse, I’d be fine.

I’m interested in story-making, no matter the medium. Novels are my thing. I could never write a play or screenplay. Or epic poem, for that matter.

And this brings me to Scriptnotes, the best podcast you might be missing.

Why?

Because John August and Craig Mazin understand what makes a story work. Each week, for free, they talk about specific issues. Sometimes they spend time on mildly interesting inside-Hollywood industry stuff, but the meat of Scriptnotes is the nitty-gritty of screenplay writing itself. I give you the recent extended conversation over “Frozen” (not just another animated feature!) or the brilliant deconstruction (Episode 73) of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But every week has something good.

August and Mazin have serious screenplay credentials. For August, it’s “Go,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Frankenweenie,” to name a few. He also writes musicals and develops apps. He’s a cool geek and tends to take things a bit more seriously than Mazin. But if I’m not mistaken, Scriptnotes was August’s idea and the pairing with Mazin was a great choice.

Mazin—“Identity Thief,” “The Hangover Part II” and many others—brings the attitude, maybe a touch of venom every now and then, and a strong point of view. Dig it. From what I can tell, he takes nothing seriously. He might be the loud one at the dinner party, but you’ll probably die laughing. Okay with me.

Here’s what I like: these two care deeply about what makes stories work and that passion comes through.

My favorite segments involve the “Three Page Challenge.”

Bold podcast listeners and would-be screenwriters submit the first three pages of their screenplay-in-progress and August and Mazin have at it (the three pages are posted online so you can read along, too).

When the pages work (which happens), August and Mazin dole out praise and encouragement and we learn what works—and why. When the pages don’t work (the majority of the time), it’s like attending a forensic exam of a corpse with Temperance Brennan as your guide.

Remember that great workshop (“The Agent Reads the Slush Pile”) at the last Colorado Gold conference where two agents, Kristin Nelson and Sally Harding, dissected the openings of novels in progress? Insightful—and brutal. “The Three Page Challenge” is along those same lines. Character, pacing, action, plot, setting—what is tripping up your story?

I’m always picking up something from August and Mazin. I listen while walking the dog or working out and I can’t begin to tell you how many times an idea has surfaced while listening to them chat about movies and screenplays.

The last 20 episodes are available for free but for a whole whopping $1.99 you can get access to the entire back catalog.

I highly recommend Scriptnotes. A different point of view, perhaps. But it’s all about storytelling and, you know, it’s all good.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan. Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Never Give Up!

By Mark Stevens

Regrets? I’ve had a few.

One bothers me more than most.

I knew it at the time, when I first read Gary Reilly’s stuff.

Gary ReillyWe’d meet in coffee shops, frequently the Europa Café on South Pennsylvania Street in Denver. Hip joint. Cool vibe.

Gary would pluck a stack of things from his satchel—offbeat fiction he’d found in the used bookstores along Broadway. He’d pull out cheap paperbacks, maybe a manuscript of mine that he had edited for the fifth or sixth time. He’d tell me the story of some B-movie he’d stayed up to watch. The guy loved movies.

And, over the years, he’d hand me one of the novels he had written.

About 25 of them.

This was years ago, when he was healthy and hearty and could talk for hours. Two rounds of large iced lattes, no problem.

I’d take the novels home—one at a time.

I was astounded at the sheer range of voices the guy produced—the comic adventures of his erstwhile cab driver Murph (the star of 11 novels), two dark psychological thrillers, some sci-fi, some fantasy, some straight-up, multi-generational all-American fiction and two of the best Vietnam-era novels I’ve ever read.

During our years of coffees, I went from “unpublished” status to “published.” Yes, a small indie publisher but I got an advance; it was a regular deal. Nobody could have been happier for me than Gary Reilly.

Here’s where the regret comes in.

I just re-read the first of the Vietnam-era books again: The Enlisted Men’s Club.

Poetry on every poetry. We’re in the Presidio, in San Francisco, and Private Palmer is waiting orders to ship out to Vietnam. All he wants to do is drink beer and avoid “shit details.” Nearly 100,000 words of raw honesty. Gary drew on his own experiences (he served as an MP in Qui Nhon) and The Enlisted Men’s Club takes you smack back to the mood and the feeling of that messy political era.

Here are the opening two paragraphs (following a brief prologue):

The ground is damp where Private Palmer is standing, sandy, with some sort of small-leafed green vine which wraps itself around everything planted in the earth—the white wooden legs of the NCOIC tower, a picket line of telephone poles, even the rows of smooth white rocks as large as footballs which border the sides of the dirt drive leading into the rifle range.

The sky is overcast and the wind is blowing hard, making Palmer’s fingertips ache each time he pinches a brass-jacketed round of ammunition and tries to stuff it into a spring-loaded magazine. His gloves are in the pockets of his field-jacket because this isn’t the kind of work you can do wearing gloves, you have to do it bare handed. Colorado raised, he’s used to the stale dry mile-high bite of lifeless Rocky winters, not these damp, heat-sapping, muggy mists blown inland from the coastal waters at dawn. San Francisco Bay is hidden by barren brown hills which border the rifle range, but he can still smell the odor of beached fish in the air.

I read The Enlisted Men’s Club and knew Simon & Schuster would need only tweak four or five typos to turn it into a book today. Flawless, perfectly paced and beautifully structured. The ending is a piece of work—a fine insight into humanity that gives a ray of hope to what is otherwise a fairly bleak tale.

And, now that Gary is gone (he died nearly three years ago), I was near tears as I read The Enlisted Men’s Club.

I’m angry that I didn’t stand him up, march him out of the coffee shop, drive him to a place where I could really give him a piece of my mind—that he needed to do more to get his damn books published.

I was frustrated at the time that Gary wouldn’t send out more queries.

But I didn’t really do anything about it.

I was frustrated at the time that Gary wouldn’t come to RMFW events, to network and find a path to publication.

But I didn’t really do anything about it.

When I’d ask him if he wanted a list of agents to contact, he said would think about it. He’d give me a little shrug of the shoulders. Self-promotion and marketing weren’t part of his DNA.

But I didn’t insist.

I should have made an issue out of it.

Gary would go back home—and write. We’d meet again in six weeks or so and he would have polished up another manuscript.

The guy was born to write and tell stories. He wrote (obviously) for the sheer joy of it. He was fascinated about the process. He loved words like nobody I have ever met.

Twenty-five novels and most (in my mind) could go straight to print.

Five Murph (The Asphalt Warrior) novels have been published so far and the response has been terrific. One Colorado Book Award finalist, two number one Denver Post best-sellers, and reviews coming in from all over the country—and around the world. Murph has followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Because Gary was a vet, the Vietnam Veterans of America website just reviewed all five of Gary’s books—and raved.

The VVA is waiting on his Vietnam novels, of course. If all goes well, The Enlisted Men’s Club will be out late this spring or early summer. Readers will not be disappointed. I guarantee it.

When readers start to see Gary Reilly’s range and his storytelling ability, I have a feeling my case of regret will only get worse.

What’s the lesson for the rest of us? Sure, write up a storm. Sit in that coffee shop. But get out there and network—knock on every door, query everyone in sight, never give up.

Truly.

Never.

Give.

Up.

Gary Reilly books

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan. Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014. Mark is also a partner in Running Meter Press, the company publishing Gary’s works. All proceeds from the company are going to Gary’s longtime girlfriend.