You Are in the Right Place

(Friends - I'm taking the cheap & easy way out this month by using the blog space to publish my Writer of the Year speech / comments at Colorado Gold on Sept. 9. I included a few illustrations to break up the long text. Thank you all so much for your support. As should be obvious below, it means so much!)

Recently I was doing a bit of digging into the background of my late pal Gary Reilly.

If you don’t know the Gary Reilly story, it’s pretty simple.

When Gary died in 2011, he left behind 25 novels in a variety of genres.

These books were finished, repeatedly edited, rewritten and edited again.

Again, 25.

During his lifetime, however, Gary was only published once.

That happened in 1977 when Gary sent a short story off to The Iowa Review.

The prestigious Iowa Review. If you don’t know it, The Iowa Review has published everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Ann Patchett to Kurt Vonnegut.

iowa-boxes-arrowsIn the issue that included Gary’s story, “The Biography Man,” Gary was alongside such greats as Ian McEwan, later the author of Atonement and many other great novels, and a writer named Ron Hansen, later the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

"The Biography Man,” in fact, was the lead entry in that edition of The Iowa Review.

The editor of The Iowa Review at the time was the incredible Robert Coover, who has a story in this week’s edition of The New Yorker called “Invasion of the Martians.”

The one-and-only and highly prolific T. Coraghessan Boyle was a contributing editor. I just think it’s so cool that Coover and Boyle had their hands on this story.

When I tweeted out a bunch of this information last week, by the way, T.C. Boyle replied promptly with a clarification about his role:


The next year, “The Biography Man” was picked up and included in the fourth volume of the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Again, he was published alongside some amazing writers—including John Updike and Jane Smiley. Thousands of stories are considered for the 60 or so that are included. (That story is now available, by the way, as an e-book here.)

pushcart-panelsWhen I tell this story to anyone who will listen, the immediate question is simple—why?

What happened?

How can you write 25 novels and not get published?

And what would keep you motivated to write 25 novels only to watch them stack up in your computer or on the shelf?


I met Gary in 2004. We hit it right off. And we started trading manuscripts. I had a few for him to read.

His manuscripts kept coming and coming to me—one by one. He’d never give me more than one to read.

I read—and read.

I couldn’t believe how good they were—funny, interesting, deep, scary, everything. He wrote humor, sci-fi, fantasy, noir and war-theme fiction based on his time as a military policeman in Vietnam.

Gary occasionally queried agents. I mean, occasionally. I’d have to sort of pump him up to get out there and do it. He didn’t talk about it much, but I know he had some big disappointments in his past. Some very close calls, including one offer to come write comedy in Hollywood.

It fell through.

europa-2One time—and I remember this so vividly—I brought Gary to an RMFW workshop at the Arvada library. Gary sat there but I could see how uncomfortable he was—this just wasn’t his scene, to sit in a room and listen to a workshop or interact with the presentation in any way.

I could never get Gary to come to another workshop or to come to one of these fabulous conferences. Quite simply, he wasn’t a “joiner.”

He lacked the “networking” gene, that elusive knack that some people are born with and others have to learn.

Gary liked his conversations one-on-one or small groups.

But he didn’t lack much else. He was a born storyteller. He loved movies of all types and quality.  He had an affection for weird, late-night flicks, B-grade stuff. And he prowled the paperback book shops along Broadway looking for old pulp novels or anything edgy or interesting. In fact, he loved the beat poets and beat writers.


Guess what? I also lacked that “networking” gene.

It’s true.

I wasn’t as reclusive as Gary in general—not at all. But when it came to writing fiction, I had a fairly abbreviated and isolated process.

I wrote my first mystery in the 1980’s. It took six years to write. I showed that book to a few friends before it went out the door and I quickly got an agent—in fact, a big-name New York agency that is still around today. I was so encouraged by this turn of events I quit a job and tended bar for a year to write another book.

Work on #2 was much quicker, but the money ran out and I went back to work as a reporter. I finished the second book in the early 1990’s and, in case it’s not obvious, nothing had happened with book #1.

I showed book #2 to a few friends, made a few changes, and went looking for an agent.

One day at work, the phone rang. It was an agent from New York, very eager to represent book #2. It turned out that the agency also represented John Grisham.

I said sign me up!

Despite the enthusiasm and despite the fact that my feet did not touch solid ground for about a week, nothing happened. Book #2 didn’t sell.

Around this time I met a real-life female hunting guide in the Flat Tops Wilderness of Western Colorado. I instantly believed I had a great character and great setting.

So I set about writing book #3, what was then going to be another stand-alone mystery. It took about three or four years to write.

I showed it a group of friends before it went out the door.

I eventually landed a good New York agency, one that is still around today. This is now the late 1990’s. After a few changes, we were on submission. No sale.

But we got enough feedback that the agent asked if I wanted to make some changes. I said sure. Nine months later, I had another draft ready and I sent it to my agent. I remember this was December because the agent said he would take it with him on Christmas vacation and we’d go out on submission again in January.

By mid-January, I’d heard nothing. By the third week, I started to call and leave messages. By the fourth week, I wrote a letter to the owner of the agency; what is going on?

In early February, I received a form letter rejection back, “I’m sorry your submission is not right for our agency at this time.”

Perhaps you’ve seen one or two of those kinds of rejections?

In the early 2000’s, I started writing another stand-alone thriller and I finished that a few years later. This time, a few agent nibbles but nothing really developed.

During all this time, I was vaguely aware of RMFW. I was vaguely aware of writing groups.

But what did I need? I had come so close. Yes, there were days and weeks and months where I thought, well, good try. You made the effort. You wrote some good stories, but that’s just the way it goes.

I had heard of writing groups but what could they show me that I didn’t already know? Many writers come close and fall short.

My relationship with RMFW was slow to develop.

I started doing the refreshments at the monthly workshops. Then I started running the monthly workshops—for years, in fact. I enjoyed the things I learned by attending all those sessions. And some of the day-long spring events were truly fuel for the fire.

I found myself making the transition from fully independent writer to someone who cared about all my cohorts were faring. I started to pick up tips and I started to look at my writing differently, with a better eye. And ear.

In 2007, a small, independent publisher outside of Boulder offered to publish Antler Dust, book number three in my four-book stack of unpublished manuscripts.

The publisher was small but he wanted to do it right—and gave me a standard contract with a very nice advance. He printed up 2,000 hardbacks, $24.95 a pop. Gulp.

After 23 years of working at the fiction thing, I got published.

And my networks grew—bookstores, libraries, conferences, all over the state. I had a blast getting out there and meeting readers.

And, guess what? My RMFW pals were extremely supportive, too—they came to readings, wrote reviews, cheered me on.

The reaction was so good to my main character Allison Coil that I decided to write a follow-up. When that was done, the first publisher had gone under but a medium-size house in Aspen gave me an advance and a contract and they got behind my second novel, Buried by the Roan. They also published a paperback version of #1.

Buried by the Roan was published about five months after my friend Gary Reilly had passed away and it’s dedicated, in fact, to him. He read many versions of that book and helped me immensely with it. Buried by the Roan was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in 2012 and, if I’m not mistaken, I lost to the inimitable Carol Berg.

By the time the third book was ready, the Aspen publisher had gone out of business.

It was the RMFW connections, specifically former Writer of the Year Linda Hull, who helped with the introduction to Midnight Ink.

She conveniently left a copy of the third Allison Coil novel on her kitchen counter when the editor of Midnight Ink was staying at her house. What are friends for?

Trapline won the Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the fourth, Lake of Fire, also published by Midnight Ink, was a finalist for the same award this year.

To me, looking back, everything changed when I got involved in RMFW. When I started taking a regular role.

Being around others who were successful made me ask writing friends, what are you doing differently? How do you approach writing? How do you approach agents? What other conferences do you attend? And, finally, the big one.

Who do you know?

That’s a network.

People in a network are connected around a central purpose or mission or interest. In our case, we share a common, simple goal—telling stories and finding readers.


Which brings me back to Gary.

He was missing, I believe, this one thing. This network. This chance to interact with editors and agents and fellow writers at a conference like this one where, I believe, his books would have ultimately found a home.

And, yes, networking is something you can learn. I did. I went from my little world to a much bigger universe of friends and supporters.

Gary poured his frustrations about the publishing business into his greatest creation, Murph.

8-coversMurph is the star of 10 of his novels. Murph is Brendan Murphy, a self-effacing Denver taxi driver and unpublished novelist. Murph dreams of becoming rich and famous through writing.

Murph is also a big fan of Gilligan’s Island.

Says Murph,

The windows were rolled up and the hot sun was streaming through the windshield. It was as warm as I imagined Gilligan’s island must be. The real island, not the TV island. By “real” I mean an island in the South Pacific where a writer could lie on a hammock all day long and think about the plot of his next novel. If he was rich enough, he could hire a Mary Ann look-alike to mix rum drinks and wait on him hand-and-foot. But there wouldn’t be any hanky-panky. Nossir. He would be a man of such impeccable integrity that the mere thought of dallying with Mary Ann would grievously offend his moral sensibilities. He would be the exact opposite of me.

Other than becoming wildly rich and famous through writing books, Murph has two goals in life—one is to earn as little money as possible and the other is to never get involved in the lives of his passengers. He’s pretty good at the first goal and terrible at the second.

When it comes to writing and the publishing business, however, Murph has choice insights.

Says Murph,

A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing – such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon – when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.

Says Murph,

A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.

Says Murph,

I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called “formula fiction.” I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?

Says Murph,

I came up with an idea for a novel about a gang of punk Martians who come to earth in a flying saucer for no other reason than to commit mayhem. Martians usually come to earth to study the habits of mankind and report back to Mars for reasons that are never made very clear, or else they give mankind scientific devices that will turn the earth into a paradise. But I had never read a book about serial-killer aliens. It seemed like I might have found a niche market, assuming there were science fiction fans hungry for police procedurals.


As many of you know, my friend Mike Keefe and I have published nine of Gary’s novels since he died. The tenth comes out in October.

the-detachment-cover-and-coffeeThree of Gary’s posthumously published books have been finalists for the Colorado Book Award. National Public Radio twice has raved about Gary’s work. Booklist has praised the originality of Gary’s work. And of The Detachment, Gary’s second novel about his experiences in Vietnam, a 154,000-word masterpiece, the great Stewart O’Nan called it a classic and Ron Carlson, who teaches elite creative writing classes in California, called it Catch 23 or Catch 24.

I feel honored to be part of the process of bringing his stories to the light of day.

And part of the process of finding readers.

That’s what it’s all about—telling stories, finding readers.

But of course I wish he was here to see the reaction, read the reviews.

So what is the lesson? Well, I hope it makes you, in some way, more determined. More focused on advocating for yourself. Not giving up.

Thinking about Gary and looking back, everything changed when I got involved in RMFW. When I started taking a regular role.

Being around others who were successful made me ask writing friends: What are you doing differently? How do you approach writing? How do you approach agents? What other conferences do you attend? And, finally, the big one: Who do you know? That’s a network.

People in a network are connected around a central purpose or mission or interest. In our case, we share a common, simple goal — telling stories and finding readers.


Looking back on my own experiences, here’s a few things I believe:

  • I believe that by your presence here today, you are in the right place.
  • I believe the answers to all your writing and publishing needs are right in this room, right now.
  • I believe those answers are here, that is, if you know what you are looking for and know how to ask for what you need.
  • I believe that you will find ways to improve if you work at the issues, whatever they are, and write more. And write more.
  • And keep working.
  • I believe if you are already published, then you are looking for ways to get better.
  • I believe there is no shortage of learning. Who can forget the sight of Jeffery Deaver in an RMFW workshop last year, sitting in the back of the room and taking notes? Right?
  • I believe if you are interested in writing fiction, it’s something you can learn.
  • I also believe if you want to get published, that the tools today allow you to get there — and to reach readers with the same level of impact as if you were published by the big five.
  • I believe that’s up to you

I’m extremely proud of my membership in both PAL and iPAL — my first two titles would have gone out of print had I not started my own company and kept them in print.

In a way, that’s one of the neatest things about being a writer. We can be independent about much of what we do — what is more solitary than being a writer? But ultimately, we need a network, too.

The opposite of independent is dependent, right? So I suppose if Lisa Manifold is the Independent Writer of the Year, I’m the Dependent Writer of the Year.

And at some point we are dependent on editors, critiquers, publishers — and readers. No matter the size or scale of our publisher, we are all dependent on each other to tell stories and reach readers.

I’ll close with a quick quote from the philosopher Alan Watts. While definitely not known for his fiction, I think the comment applies.

Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

This honor means so much to me because it comes from all of you.

RMFW made all the difference in my writing career. Thank you again so much.


Colorado Calling

I believe Colorado crime fiction is having a moment.

The writers?

That’s not what I mean.

I’m talking about the dramatic setting.

I mean, right now.

In August, it was the release of Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying.

This month, it’s Kevin Wolf’s The Homeplace. (Today as a matter of fact; Sept. 6 is the official publication date.)

In October, it’s Barbara Nickless’ Blood on the Tracks.

What else is unusual?

All three are debuts.

And I mean, these three books make for a fascinating triple header.

And they take major advantage of the Colorado landscape. Storey’s is all Western Slope—Grand Junction to Steamboat to Leadville and back to G.J.

Nickless is all Front Range—Denver, Fort Collins and a splash of the eastern plains (get ready for your close-up, Wiggins).

And then Wolf is all farm country, way out east in a fictional town in a fictional county but just as “real” as they come. Dry and windy, too.

I’ll go west to east to give you a flavor.


Nothing Short of DyingNothing Short of Dying is big. It’s rough. It’s tough. It’s a full-throttle thriller led by a guy named Clyde Barr, who has his own moral code. He’s a loner. He’s a fighter. Yes, we hear the echoes of Jack Reacher (I’m dying to know if Storey is tired of hearing the comparisons between Barr and Reacher) but Barr’s motivations, to me, are built on a stronger foundation.

The plot is less cartoony, too, than Lee Child’s stuff (as addictive as those cartoons might be). Clyde Barr is a man who keeps his promises and he’s made one to his sister, Jen. When she needs help, Barr goes looking for her. He teams up with a woman he meets along the way and calls on old friends including one guy named Zeke, a pal from his days in a Mexican prison.

Barr is not all bad boy. He’s got his weapons, sure, but he’s also got paperbacks by Friedrich Nietzsche and H. Rider Haggard. He can be sensitive when the time is right, but you do not want to piss him off.

The backdrop for all this action is pure Colorado. “Sandy escarpments rose up on the left and forested mesas hugged the right until we dropped off a hill and headed into the Rifle valley. The river was wider here, with waves shimmering in the sun. What were once hay fields in the flat floodplains were now natural gas pads, pipe yards, compressor stations, and gas plants. One of the latter spewed a flame sixty feet in to the air. Closer to town, the cattle pastured I’d known as a kid were buried forever under asphalt and pavement, with house and apartment complexes built on top.”

Hey, Colorado ain’t all beautiful.

(I already reviewed Storey’s book on my book review blog, here. This includes an interview with Storey.)


Blood on the TracksBlood on the Tracks is just as tough and wild as Nothing Short of Dying.

I am really taken with this ambitious story, which starts out as a thriller, morphs into a mystery, and turns back again into a movie-ready action-packed finish.

Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell is one complex and interesting character. She sees dead people, for one thing. But don’t think paranormal. Uh, hardly. These are “skills” she doesn’t necessarily want. She’s haunted for many reasons, including the fact that she worked in corpse retrieval during the war in Iraq. She was also involved in a situation covering up atrocities. The past is chasing her down. (A common theme in all three of these books.)

The plot here involves the murder of young woman who was known for her kindness to hobos and drifters. She is murdered in vicious fashion. The killer scrawls bloody hobo symbols nearby so Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde (yes, again, Clyde) are pulled into the investigation. Clyde is a great character, too. He’s got his own darkness. Something is broken inside him, too. Clyde is absolutely one of the best-developed dog characters I’ve ever met in a book. But he doesn't overshadow Sydney Rose.

After a big scene where they stop and search a freight train, they think they’ve got their man—or do they? The guy in custody seems like the obvious culprit but based on the number of pages left to read we know there are some problems coming and they start rushing at Sydney in waves. The hunt leads to big-picture conspiracies and into the deadly lair of white supremacists and ultimately into a terrifying confrontation with a predator during a snowstorm in, yes, Wiggins. In the end, there is blood on the tracks and many other places, too.

Cue the movie for this one. And don’t just take my word for it, check the great advance blurbs from Vikki Pettersson, Jeffery Deaver, and Hank Philippi Ryan, among others.

Blood on the Tracks is already reaching readers ahead of its launch next month; check the reviews already rolling in from a Kindle promotion for early readers.


The HomeplaceAt the end of Blood on the Tracks, when Sydney Rose comes into Wiggins, Nickless writes:

“Barns and ranch houses gave over to businesses as I drove into town. A single traffic light swayed forlornly above the empty street. I drove past a dry goods store, a saddle shop and a single-marquee theater, all with Closed Please Come Again signs in the windows. Near the end of the block, red neon blinked through the snow. A grinning cowboy became visible, holding aloft a flashing beer stein.”

That small-town flavor connects right over to The Homeplace.

Of the three books here, this is the quietest, the most serene. But it does not lack for suspense.

The Homeplace won the Tony Hillerman Prize in the fall of 2015 (the prize goes to an unpublished writer of a mystery that captures the southwest flavor of Hillerman’s work).

What’s hard to believe is that The Homeplace is the work of someone from the unpublished ranks.  But those of us who have been around Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers know that’s true—and also know that Kevin has long turned out beautiful stories with clear-eyed prose.

The Homeplace features Chase Ford, who is coming home to Comanche County, where there’s “forty miles of dirt for every mile of blacktop.” He’s a former basketball star and he’s also the first of four generations of Ford men to put Comanche County in the rearview mirror. At least, that is, until now. Ford is as deeply troubled as Clyde Barr and Sydney Rose Parnell. And all three of these folks share a strong streak of stoicism, too.

In addition to Ford, there’s a full small-town ensemble cast. Wolf jumps easily from perspective to perspective. There’s Birdie Hawkins, a game warden for the Department of Wildlife. There’s Mercy Saylor, who works in the café in Brandon, and deputy sheriff Paco Martinez. There’s also Ray-Ray Jackson, who lives on the edges of society.

The sky is big and the wind blows, but life in the small town has a trapped, closed-in feeling. Complexities abound. And Wolf’s writing is uniformly calm and unsentimental, as when Chase and Mercy reconnect in the café for the first time since he disappeared over the horizon to play big-league basketball. “Quiet slipped into the room and took the empty chair at their table. Pans and pots clanged in the kitchen. Dishes loaded with eggs and bacon slid over the front counter, and the cash register drawer opened and shut. They both stared out the window, content in that minute to say nothing.”

The Homeplace is billed a mystery—dead body in the first few pages and all of that. There is a “who done it?” But with its weight and depth, The Homeplace could easily be read as straight novel, characters and setting first.

“As the first spikes of orange painted the gray morning, Chase spotted a deer at the edge of the field. No chance it would scent him. Through the binoculars, Chase could tell it was a big deer. The broken tine on the buck’s wide antlers and its graying muzzle meant it was an old bachelor, most likely run off from the herd by the younger bucks to live out what years it had left on its own.”

Yes, this is Colorado, too—way out on the windblown plains where the inimitable Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction) set his novels.

I wish Haruf was still alive to read The Homeplace. He would recognize the setting.

This is also Gregory Hill country—East of Denver and the Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles.

Congrats to Storey, Nickless and Wolf for putting some terrific new characters in motion against one of the best backdrops going—good old Colorado.


Your Character’s Umvelt

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverWhat is your character’s umwelt?

Yes, umwelt.

Pronounced OOM-velt.

I came across this concept while reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

(If you have a dog, like dogs, are curious about dogs and dog behavior, it’s a fascinating book.)

Anyway, the idea of the umwelt came from an early 20th Century German biologist named Jakob von Uexküll.

To quote Horowitz: “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”

As illustration, consider the lowly deer tick.

Von Uexküll tried to imagine life from the tick’s point of view.

A tick will climb to a high perch, like a tall blade of grass.

The tick is waiting for one particular smell.

Sight is no good; the tick is blind.

Sounds are irrelevant.

The tick is waiting for a whiff of butyric acid, “a fatty acid emitted by warm-blooded creatures.”

(We humans smell butyric acid as sweat.)

When the tick smells what it needs to smell, it drops from its perch.

Its hope during freefall, at that moment in time, is to land on an animal, get its teeth into some skin, and drink blood.

If all goes well, the tick will feed once, drop off, lay eggs.

And die.

That’s the tick’s self-world.

Its umvelt.

Its purpose, wants, needs, desires.

The tick, after all, much like your protagonist and your villain (both), are heroes of their own lives.

Doing a bit more research on the umvelt, I found this article from a website called The Edge and a terrific additional way of thinking about it, that the umvelt is the animal’s “entire objective reality.”

It works for people, too.

Your characters.

“Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?” the article asked. “In the movie ‘The Truman Show,’ the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, ‘Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?’ The producer replies, ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented.’ We accept our umwelt and stop there.”

For instance, we humans accept those things we can and cannot smell with our noses. Any ordinary dog would laugh at our feeble powers with smell.

But we accept them.

What is your character’s umvelt?

What reality have they accepted? What bigger reality are they oblivious to? What senses or abilities are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How were they put together—for what purpose? What will they consider success? Or failure?

Get to know your character's umvelt might help sharpen your character in a distinctive, new way.


ALSO: I was blown away by all the kind emails, messages, tweets, Facebook posts and texts after being named Writer of the Year.

Thank you all so much!

RMFW, quite simply, rocks.

Hope to see you all at Colorado Gold so I can thank you in person.

Congratulations to Mark Stevens WOTY and Lisa Manifold IWOTY

Selected from a list of accomplished finalists, Mark Stevens is the new Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year and Lisa Manifold is the first ever RMFW Independent Writer of the Year.

Writer of the Year Finalists
Carol Berg
Christine Goff
Mark Stevens

Independent Writer of the Year Finalists
Sue Duff
Nathan Lowell
Lisa Manifold

Join the full panel of finalists and winners at the WOTY & IWOTY Discussion Panel Hosted by Susan Spann
Thursday, August 18, 2016 7-9 pm
Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue Denver, CO 80206

“Are You Taking This Seriously Enough?” Seriously?

Paul McCartneyPaul McCartney just turned 74 but he’s still not sure how to write a song.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Did you hear Macca on NPR’s All Songs Considered?

Yes, one of the best songwriters of the last six decades or so says he still isn’t sure how it all works.

If I was to sit down and write a song, now, I'd use my usual method: I'd either sit down with a guitar or at the piano and just look for melodies, chord shapes, musical phrases, some words, a thought just to get started with.

And then I just sit with it to work it out, like I'm writing an essay or doing a crossword puzzle. That's the system I've always used, that John [Lennon] and I started with. I've really never found a better system and that system is just playing the guitar and looking for something that suggests a melody and perhaps some words if you're lucky.

Then I just fiddle around with that and try and follow the trail, try and follow where it appears to be leading me … I'm of the school of the instinctive.

I once worked with Allen Ginsberg and Allen always used to say, 'First thought, best thought.' And then he would edit everything. But I think the theory is good. 'First thought, best thought.' It doesn't always work, but as a general idea I will try and do that and sometimes I come out with a puzzling set of words that I have no idea what I mean, and yet I've got to kind of make sense of it and follow the trail.

You can hear the whole interview here. (It's a cool podcast, too.)

If you listen, check out McCartney's youthful enthusiasm for the process. He’s still scratching his head about how it all works.

Do you ever noodle around?

Do you ever just not worry about the big picture, the big idea, the big concept?

And try to write a few words?

Just because?

(Words are cool. There is an endless supply and they don’t mind if you make a mess at first.)

Anyway, if you listen to the interview, check out McCartney’s enthusiasm, his eagerness. He talks about a few experimental efforts and stretching himself out. Think you know McCartney? Check out this effort with Freelance Hellraiser (Roy Kerr) on "Twin Freaks."

That’s a long way from “Eight Days A Week.”

Or “Paperback Writer.”

I was 10 years old when The Beatles blew up. My older brother and I bought every album when they came out. We listened over and over.

And over.

And now here’s Sir Paul decades later, after two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (one with The Beatles, one as a solo artist).

He’s still writing music--and enjoying it.

I do like it. I do enjoy it. I mean, when I get a day off and I've suddenly got loads of time on my hands, I might do the kind of thing where I'm at home — I live on a farm — so I might get out for a horse ride or something. But when I've done those things that I want to do and there is still a couple of hours in the afternoon, I'll often just gravitate to a piano or a guitar and I feel myself just kind of writing a song. It's like a hobby, and it's a hobby that turned into a living. But I like to think of it that way and I sometimes kind of pull myself up and say, 'Are you taking this seriously enough? Maybe you should try a little bit more.

Yeah, sure, can you imagine if this McCartney’s output if tried a little bit more?

If he took it seriously?

Listening to McCartney chat about the process makes me want to get out some words and push them around a bit, see what happens.

paperback writerIt's a thousand pages, give or take a few
I'll be writing more in a week or two
I can make it longer if you like the style
I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer...
- Lennon & McCartney

Backstory Feeds Frontstory

Whack me upside the head – go ahead.

I was putting together a presentation recently for a workshop about writing mysteries and I wanted to make the point that the variety of ideas for mysteries—setting, characters, plots and themes—is endless.

I thought it might be insightful and instructive (maybe even interesting) to look at recent Edgar Award Winners.

So I made up a nifty PowerPoint slide for three books and included, verbatim, the description of each story.

JuneBlog2016LouBerneyThe first was Lou Berney’s The Long and Far Away Gone, winner of the Edgar Award for best paperback original.

(What a great title.)

Summary: In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved. Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives. A private investigator in Vegas, Wyatt’s latest inquiry takes him back to a past he’s tried to escape—and drags him deeper into the harrowing mystery of the movie house robbery that left six of his friends dead.


JuneBlog2016LoriRoyThe second was for Lori Roy’s Let Me Dies in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. (Best novel!)

Summary: On a dark Kentucky night in 1952 exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but, armed with a silver-handled flashlight, Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place. At the stroke of midnight, she gazes into the water in search of her future. Not finding what she had hoped for, she turns from the well and when the body she sees there in the moonlight is discovered come morning, Annie will have much to explain and a past to account for.


JuneBlog2016LoriRaderDayThe third was Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things, winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. (Love this title, too.)

Juliet Townsend is used to losing. Back in high school, she lost every track team race to her best friend, Madeleine Bell. Ten years later, she’s still running behind, stuck in a dead-end job cleaning rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, a one-star motel that attracts only the cheap or the desperate. But what life won’t provide, Juliet takes. Then one night, Maddy checks in. Well-dressed, flashing a huge diamond ring, and as beautiful as ever, Maddy has it all. By the next morning, though, Juliet is no longer jealous of Maddy—she’s the chief suspect in her murder. To protect herself, Juliet investigates the circumstances of her friend’s death. But what she learns about Maddy’s life might cost Juliet everything she didn’t realize she had.

I haven’t read any of these books—but I want to read them all!


In putting together the presentation, it was easy to spot the fuel for each fire.

Berney: Twenty-five years later…

Roy: Two decades before…

Rader-Day: Back in high school…

I know it’s obvious.

It’s a simple point.

But characters are nothing if not for their backstory.

Brighton - Michael HarveyCharacters don’t walk onto the page without having been bruised or beaten or worse. They have had a life.

If your character’s past is dull, gray, bland, flat, flavorless, vanilla, and drama-free, you may not have a character. Or much of a story.  Sure, it’s what happened to your character but it’s also how your character responded to those key moments. That’s where character—and your story—is forged.

Now I see backstory everywhere I look. “Happy Valley”—the best Netflix thing I’ve seen in a long, long time. The writers backed up a dump truck full of backstory and piled it on West Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. (The "happy" in Happy Valley isn't so happy.) And I just read a taut novel called Brighton, by Michael Harvey, and backstory drives “front” story like a seamless Mobius strip of tension and action.

As I said, an obvious point.

But if you’re struggling with a plot or the “now,” you might take a look at the past.

Linger & Mingle

Last Thursday Night at the Edgar Awards in New York City.
Last Thursday Night at the Edgar Awards in New York City.

How did I get here?

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.

True? Yes?

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?

The banquet hall.
The banquet hall.

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.”

Boom. There it was.

Yeah, writers are generally good people.

We are, generally, interested in people.

Don’t we have to be?

Random Thoughts

A Little Bit Every Day
DSC01502I 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
April2015StairwayThis 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
April2016WeirdI’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
Harrison & ReillyEverything 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
The Detachment Cover - FINALSpeaking 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 Detachment to 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
Pick Up at Union Station - Final JPGSpeaking 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 Hollywood in 2013 and Doctor Lovebeads in 2014.








My pal Gary Reilly.
My pal Gary Reilly.

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

April2015FrictionIs 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!




Antler Dust: The Longest Ride

I wrote Antler Dust in 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.

Layout 1I 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.

4 Covers With Shadows SmallI 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.

My point?

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).

Yes, I’m still promoting Antler Dust.

After eight years.

You never know.

You just never know.

(P.S: Tell your friends.)