Singing the Book Promotion Blues

With a new book coming out in June, I have had the pleasure—and the pain—of deciding what I need to do to get the word out. My decisions are similar to the ones anyone launching a book makes. Being realistic, there is only so much time and money, and never enough. There is also a limited payoff to the some of the choices, so where do you get the biggest bang for your buck. I figured I would share the marketing plan for my upcoming release, RED SKY, in the hopes that it might help some of you.

Timing is everything

There are a lot of things you can do to promote your book, and some of them must be done months in advance. Early in the year, my publisher sent me a marketing plan with the dates of actions to be taken and the name of the person responsible for taking those actions--one advantage of having a traditional publisher, and still the tasks are the same. I added to it things like signings, travel, promotional items. The time frame goes something like this:

6 months ahead of pub date

                               RED SKY Advance Reader's Copy    

Pitch the book for print reviews, guest articles and to local media. This includes sending galleys and later finished books to reviewers. My publisher's PR department took responsibility for this, and it resulted in some nice reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, as well as guest blog assignments and local media interviews.

Give away galleys and books to help create buzz. There is a community of booksellers, librarians, media professionals and book lovers interested in reading e-versions of pre-published books. My publisher puts my book up on NetGallery, and later does Giveaways to boost reviews on sites like Amazon, B&N and Goodreads.  I've added to it by doing Giveaways of the book once I receive my author copies--but those are limited. Sometimes you have to buy more, and that can get expensive.

Set up signings at the local bookstores. Some stores have longer lead times than others, and if you want a time close to your launch it doesn't pay to wait. Once you know your pub date, have your publicist call (r you call) the bookstores where you want to appear. My advice is to choose wisely. Venues differ. Upside, at Tattered Cover you'll be asked to speak and then sign books. Downside, if you don't have a traditional publisher willing to pay the fee, it will cost you $150 to set a date and you may have to consign your books. At a Barnes & Noble, you'll find yourself at a table in the front of the store hawking your book to their customers. Mark Stevens is the king of hawking, and he enjoys this type of venue. I don't, so I avoid this type of signing like the plague.

Promotional Poster for Hearthfire Books

OF NOTE: A publicist once told me not to set up too many signings in one locale. The theory being, you can only ask your friends, family and fans to show up so many times. With Red Sky, which launches in June, I've only set up two signings—one at the Tattered Cover-Colfax store; the other at Hearthfire Books, in my hometown of Evergreen.

Two months ahead of publication

Order promotional materials and swag. Most authors do bookmarks or postcards. Some give out chocolate. Some do tchotchke items. For example, Suzanne Proulx, who wrote a series of books featuring a hospital risk manager, ordered pens that looked like hypodermic needles to promote her novel, Bad Blood. Robin Owens printed the cover of her book on the back of a pocket calendar. Brilliant! I carried that card around for a year, flashing it numerous times in front of numerous people. The key is to be creative. Put something into the hands of bookstore owners, librarians and fans that will make them want to order and buy your book. Make sure you have a good design, and research your printer. There are a number of companies that offer discounted printing, but quality differs—and quality matters.

OF NOTE: One of the best promotional values around is Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blue Mailer. If you’re a PAL or iPAL member, for a modest fee you can place a blurb about your book in three consecutive bi-monthly mailers sent out to regional booksellers and librarians. For an additional charge you can include an insert. NOTE: there are specs for mailings and inserts, so be sure you meet expectations.

One month before publication

New Ebook cover for down-priced version

Take advantage of other opportunities

Library talks are fun, and a great way to get your book in front of readers. So are local book club talks. I've been lucky and my books have sold to the national book clubs, including Harlequin Book Club for my upcoming RED SKY. The entry on my publisher's marketing plans reads, "Cross promotion between all clubs. Coming soon email, new arrivals email and comparable titles email." I have no idea what that means, but I'm thrilled the publisher is handling things.

Agree to speak or teach, or sometimes you can simply show up.  Just make sure it fits with your goals. Last weekend Mario Acevedo, Nathan Lowell and I attended "Books and Brews" in Greeley. What can beat twelve authors, and a room full of readers playing trivia, and specialty beer? In June, I'll present a workshop at the Parker Writers Group monthly meeting, and in September I'll teach a workshop at the Colorado Gold Conference along with WOTY Nominee Shannon Baker.

Donate to auctions. I am constantly being asked to donate signed books to auctions. I usually do, but I always try for added value. I want not only the winning bidder to remember the book, but the lookie-loos, too. For example, my fellow Rogue Women Writers and I donate baskets to mystery and thriller convention auctions. We each contribute a signed book, and then we add interesting things from the Spy Museum in Washington D.C. in keeping with our international espionage themes. Things like: Campbell soup can concealers, "rear view" mirror sunglasses," truth detector" devices, top secret bags, mugs and hats.

Segueing to conventions, every genre has one. In the mystery field, it's Bouchercon. The regional equivalent is Left Coast Crime (LCC). For cozies it's Malice Domestic. For thrillers it's ThrillerFest. And, trust me, they can cost you an arm and a leg. Mike Befeler and I once calculated that it cost a minimum of $1,000 to attend an out-of-state conference. Double that for ThrillerFest. We were taking into account airfare, hotel costs, meals, promotional items, and registration fees--yes, unless you're a star, you're expected to pay your own way--so there may be some additional hidden costs. The message is not to not go, but to figure out which cons are important for you to attend. For instance, at ThrillerFest I can meet with my editor and agent, as well as rub elbows with the big hitters in my genre—many of whom I can later ask for book blurbs. Colorado Gold is near to my heart, and I would go just to see all my friends.

OF NOTE: Always accept a panel assignment, and try not to be that difficult writer who can only speak at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday alongside Lee Child. Word gets around.

There are other cons, too. The Independent Booksellers across the country hold conventions, and a number of states sponsor book festivals. Many of the writers groups will have a presence at these events, and it's worth it to volunteer to man the booth for an hour and meet the booksellers. This year, I'm going to Chicago for the American Library Association convention in June. I'm paying my airfare, but my publisher has agreed to donate 100 books for me to sign and giveaway.

Be sure and budget!

Rogue Women Writers promo poster at ThrillerFest

Only you know what you can afford to spend. My advice, make a plan and stick with it! Don't be me. I'll admit, there have been times when I've transferred attending a con into the "personal fun" category rather than assess the expense to my book promotion budget. Don't tell!

Seriously, if you're not careful you'll spend every dollar you make writing books, twice.

This year my goal is to expand my readership, so I'm going to ThrillerFest and Bouchercon for some face time with my editor and agent, and to connect with East Coast and Canadian readers. I'm sending out mailings, creating a display poster for the ThrillerFest hall, making donations, guest blogging, speaking at several events. Just to give you a sense of the cost, my total in expenditures to promote RED SKY so far are—wait for it—a whopping $5,660. Not as bad as you might think. I budgeted $5,000.

OF NOTE: For what it's worth, Diane Mott Davidson second-mortgaged her house to fund a tour of the west coast with four prominent cozy writers. She also gave away scads of cookies, sometimes with the help of friends. Ask Chris Jorgensen about how she and I sat in the back seat of Carol Caverly's car and stuffed chocolate chip cookies into small giveaway bags enroute to the Omaha Bouchercon. In addition to writing good books, Diane's marketing efforts eventually landed her a gig on "Good Morning America" and a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Now, I'm not advocating you refinance your home, or that you sell your first born. But give some thought to how much you can afford to put into promotion, and make a plan. Allocate wisely and it just might pay off!

Speaking of Podcasts…

Mark Stevens, RMFW's podcast guru, published a post yesterday that mentioned his broken podcast microphone, and that reminded me we haven't mentioned those podcasts here on the blog for quite a while.

You do listen to the podcasts, right?

I mean, you are aware that RMFW has a series of excellent podcasts for your education and amusement, right? Seventy-eight of them so far!

Ahem!

Number #78 is a must-listen for any member who wants to submit to the new short story anthology:  Angie Hodapp & Warren Hammond - New RMFW Anthology False Faces

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is getting ready to publish a new short story anthology in 2018: False Faces: Tales of Fakes, Frauds, and Facades.

This time on the podcast co-editors Angie Hodapp and Warren Hammond walk us through the process they have developed for selecting and editing stories between now and the anticipated publication in September of 2018.

Angie Hodapp holds a BA in English and secondary education and an MA in English and communication development, and she is a graduate of the Denver Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. She has worked in publishing and professional writing and editing, in one form or another, for sixteen years. She currently works at Nelson Literary Agency as the Director of Literary Development.

Warren Hammond is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. The third book in the series, KOP Killer, won the Colorado Book Award. Warren's latest novel, Tides of Maritinia, is a spy novel set in a science-fictional world.

First up on this episode is another episode of Writer’s Rehab from Natasha Watts. Natasha goes after what she calls an issue of attitude. If your writing role model is Harper Lee or if you are treating your first novel like a passion project, these few minutes of commentary are for you.

Head on over to the podcast page to scroll through the whole list and read the descriptions.

Everything Is Broken

I hate it when things aren’t working right.

Last week was a doozy.

First, it was the microphone I use to record podcasts. (Yes, RMFW, the microphone you purchased to help start the podcasts– all $50 worth. It worked for two years & 77 podcasts and then pfffft.)

It looked the same as always. Nothing rattled. But, busted. Gone.

I spent 3.5 hours online with a tech service trying to see what was wrong with my computer.

Turns out, it was the microphone.

Then, our refrigerator started making an annoying rattle.

$850 later, we had a new compressor.  (I can’t show it to you; it’s tucked inside the refrigerator now, doing its job).

These guys came to my house twice in one week!

The next day, one of the flaps in the dryer’s tumbler thing came loose. Whump-whump-whump.

The credit card took another $208 hit.

No joke.

(Bob Dylan was ringing in my ear …. Broken lines, broken strings, Broken threads, broken springs…)

What else breaks?

Sometimes, it’s our words.

A word. A sentence. A paragraph.

George Saunders (Lincoln in The Bardo; many, many killer short stories) has a terrific piece in The Guardian about writing. It's called 'What writers really do when they write.'

He talks about evaluating the words he has written “without hope and without despair.”

George Saunders says he imagines a meter mounted on his forehead as he reads his own stuff, with “P” on one side for positive and “N” on the other for negative.

“Accept the result without whining,” he suggests.

Then edit, he writes, “so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

There’s a lot of good stuff in this piece.

It’s long but entirely worth absorbing.

I won’t come right out and say a sentence is “broken” or a paragraph is “broken."

I mean, you’ve got something work with--that's a huge accomplishment.

Those words on the page. You can’t edit thin air.

But there might be a way to make those words work better.

To make them, well, work.

There’s P, there’s N.

Fix them!

No whining.

Final thought from George Saunders: “Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems.”

Random Thoughts

1. In the latest review on Amazon for The Asphalt Warrior, the first book in the eight-book series by the late Gary Reilly, a reader wrote:

"Writers, good ones, create their readers. And this book does that.”

Do good writers “create their own readers?”

I love that idea. Are you going after your readers? Or someone else's?

2. On a similar note, I’m currently reading Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott. It’s a finalist for an Edgar Award in the Best Paperback Original category. So, it’s a mystery. And mysteries are supposed to have a body (a victim) near the beginning. There are bodies in Shot in Detroit. In fact, lots of bodies. But the first half of this book is all character development. It’s a slow burn and a gritty build-up. The main character is dour and down—and interesting. She's different. She sees the world in her own unique way. And halfway into the book, we get the shift into that sort of “who done it?” format. It’s great to see the rules being broken—and broken so well. But I don’t think Shot in Detroit is for everybody. What book is?

3. Did "Moonlight" deserve Best Picture? I thought so. (Haven't seen "La La Land," though.) Could the story be any more…simple? More straightforward?

Does every story need layers and layers of complicated plot to pull us in?

Didn't you feel like you knew these characters, particularly after that long scene in the diner at the end?

4. I’ve had some great guests on the podcasts recently, but I highly recommend the one with Marc Graham. He makes some excellent points for up and coming writers about connecting with mentors. He talks about making a concerted effort to emulate success and how he “reverse engineered” the accomplishments of others. Marc also talks about the advantages of being “relentlessly helpful” along the way. These were some powerful insights from a guy whose first novel, Of Ashes and Dust, is being published two weeks from today. Listen here. Or check your favorite podcast provider.

5. Can reading make you happy? Have ever heard of The Novel Cure? Can you match a book to what ails you?  Can reading make you happy? Alter your mood?

There is an excellent article in The New Yorker about this topic.

The article cites the example of George Eliot, "who is rumored to have overcome her grief at losing her life partner through a program of guided reading with a young man who went on to become her husband." (Now, that is healing!) Eliot is quoted as saying: “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Agreed.

Motivation

Motivation.

You hear it all the time. Your characters need to be motivated to pick up that sword and slay the dragon, venture to a distant galaxy, or figure out why there’s a dead body at the bottom of the well.

What motivates your character to do what they need to do in your story?

But, wait.

Strip away the story for a second. Let’s get back to your character before your story starts.

Long before...

Before she needed to grasp the sword, before he climbed into the rocket, before she lowered herself in the well to study the corpse.

Who is this person—at the core? How motivated was he or she--in general? As a person?

Was she ambitious to begin with? Or filled with ennui? Where did she draw motivation to, say, go to college or get a job? No, really, what drives her to get out of bed in the morning and go pursue her dream? Any dream?

And is it her own dream? Or a course charted by a parental unit? Family pressure? Family influence?

I’m thinking about all of this because I recently met a guy who was successful and highly visible for a long period of time.

And then, wham.

I mean, he got creamed. He was below down and he was below out. He had made some mistakes. He over-extended himself. He went completely belly up. He owed millions of dollars. It was a bleak scene. It took several years, but he’s picked himself back up. And now he's making another run at big-time business success.

He can trace his character and grit back to his parents and how he was raised. It’s such a key part of his life, how he absorbed what they taught him about how to approach that big wide world.

Why does anybody want to do anything?

That’s a common refrain of Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. “Murph,” the Asphalt Warrior (star of eight novels to date). Murph, the creation of the late Gary Reilly, lives a very alternative lifestyle. He questions capitalism, even the need for much of an income. How many people do you know who share that worldview?

With his idiosyncratic ways, Murph reminds me of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, one of the most memorable novels I read in college, and Herman Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener. Oblomov is incapable of doing anything significant. In the first 50 pages, he only moves from his bed to his chair. Told you. Great story.

And Bartleby declines most of the work assignments he’s given, even when the consequences mount.

Murph, Oblomov and Bartleby have their reasons. They are three-dimensional human beings.

Their lives are fascinating on their own because their sheer essence cuts against the grain of what’s acceptable.

Ignatius Reilly, also, the central character in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

Ignatius Reilly: “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” Yes, to varying degrees, these four are anti-social.

The vast majority of fictional characters are not.

Your dragon-slayer.

Your astronaut.

Your detective.

Before the inciting incident that interrupts your character's routine life, who was this person? What got them up in the morning?

I don’t think it hurts, at a very fundamental level, to understand the answer to that question.

So your character stands out from the crowd.

Final thought from George Carlin: “Actually, if you ask me, this country could do with a little less motivation. The people who are causing all the trouble seem highly motivated to me. Serial killers, stock swindlers, drug dealers, Christian Republicans. I’m not sure motivation is always a good thing. You show me a lazy prick who’s lying in bed all day, watching TV … and I’ll show you a guy who’s not causing any trouble.”

Details, Details

Go find a copy of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Find “Point of View” within.

(Actually, okay, read the whole book or maybe one short story a week for as long as it takes. The title story is a masterpiece of humor and narration.)

But “Point of View” is a short story about writing, empathy, perspective, and the use of detail.

It’s like Lucia Berlin saying, "hey, here’s how it’s done."

“Point of View” has many layers to it and is a bit of genius, I would suggest, because of how effortlessly Lucia Berlin makes her point. It’s a short story in which nothing happens. The point of view is a writer. I don’t think we believe the narrator is Lucia Berlin herself. Might be, might not. The writer is writing about a woman named Henrietta and nothing much happens to Henrietta, either.

Joyce Carol Oates (New York Journal of Books, March 2016) has called “Point of View” Berlin’s “most complexly imagined short story.”

But “Point of View” is also a short story that is a note to writers about the power of detail. In fact, the main character comes right out and says that her story about Henrietta would be quite boring on the page but with the use of “intricate detail” she will “make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her.”

From “Point of View:”

“Most writers use props and scenery from their own lives. For example, my Henrietta eats her meager little dinner every night on a blue place mat, using exquisite heavy Italian stainless cutlery. An odd detail, inconsistent, it may seem, with this woman who cuts out coupons for Brawny towels, but it engages the reader’s curiosity. At least, I hope it will.”

The first-person “writer” of the story goes on to give examples of the details she uses from “her” life (the narrator) to bring her character, Henrietta, to life.

There’s a tug to these details. We care because the writer cares about Henrietta, has given her three dimensions through details and then slips into her point of view with attitude about her surroundings, too (even when she’s doing almost nothing).

“She lies in bed, sipping Sleepytime tea. She wishes she had her old electric blanket with the switch Lo-Med-Hot. The new blanket was advertised as the Intelligent Electric Blanket. The blanket knows it isn’t cold so it doesn’t get hot. She wishes it would get hot, comforting. It’s too smart for its own good! She laughs out loud. The sound is startling in the little room.”

You can almost feel Lucia Berlin breathing life into the story.

Through detail.

No brilliant new point here. There’s nothing you don’t already know, that the little objects and colors and stuff of your story add up, that your characters are reacting to the objects and colors and stuff of their lives all the time, that bringing the world of your characters to life will, in turn, deliver your character to your readers.

Reading Lucia Berlin will give you a jolt of inspiration. Your own life has ample material from which to draw, as “Point of View” suggests. All of Berlin’s story are quasi-autobiographical. Some, apparently, not so quasi. The detail is right there around us every day. We just have to see it. And write it down.

A full review of A Manual for Cleaning Women is here.

++

Details? On a side note (and very much related), the late Gary Reilly’s The Detachment was #2 on a list by Westword's Alan Prendergast for holiday gift suggestions among local writers. The novel is 154,000 words long. It is, if you read it, 154,000 words of documentary-level detail turned into a brilliant narrative piece of fiction.

Here’s what Prendergast wrote. Note the last two words.

2. The Detachment, Gary Reilly
Veterans who enjoy fact-based military fiction should take to Gary Reilly’s The Detachment (Running Meter Press), the second installment of his Vietnam-era novels featuring Private Palmer. Published posthumously last winter, the book is reminiscent of James Jones’s work—a look at the tedium and gut-checking that plagues an MP who, while not part of the frontline troops, still feels keenly the absurdity and madness of an unwinnable war. We’ve written about Reilly’s semi-comic “Asphalt Warrior” series of novels about a Denver cabbie, but the Vietnam work is of a different order: sober, poignant and harrowingly detailed.

All Hail Conan! (And Buy The Book)

I’m here today with a handy tip for the season of the gift.

Order a copy of Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.

A mere $10.

(Actually, $9.95.)

And then give it to a writer friend for Christmas or your holiday of choice. Birthdays would work, too.

Boom, done.

Does the mere mention of the word ‘grammar’ force you to make a face like you’re eating cold undercooked lima beans? Or pickled beets?

Think again.

This book about grammar is (dare I say it?) refreshing.

Inspiring.

And very (very) funny.

cover-conanWritten by former RMFW president Susan Mackay Smith, Conan the Grammarian is a handy, engaging book that will linger around your desk or writing nook for many years.

The book is a distillation of Conan’s columns in the monthly RMFW newsletter. But everything has been re-written and beautifully organized. And, in terms of production values, Susan Mackay Smith shows all independent publishers out there that a self-produced book can look as sharp and feel as professional as anything coming out of New York City.

Conan claims grammatical errors are “unforgiveable” and, of course, this book goes out and proves that very fact. I didn’t spot one typo. On top of all that, the interior layout makes digesting this volume a snap. (Bibliography, glossary, and index, too.)

Yes, there’s a lot here about grammar. But focus on the second half of the title – practical guidelines and grammar and craft for fiction writers. Every lesson in grammar and usage is written with an eye on the fiction writers’ needs. Smith is writing this for you, the fiction writer.

The “Pets and Peeves” section might be worth the $10 alone (especially if you are about to submit to an agent or send a manuscript to an editor).

Same with “Toward More Colorful Writing.” This section will give you a boost and also give you a few issues to ponder as you edit. It’s a snappy checklist for self-improvement. This is “Perfect Abs in Twenty Minutes A Day” and, this time, it works.

I devoured Conan the Grammarian with a smile on my face and a pen handy to ink-up the pages with underlines at key passages and stars in the margins.

Do any of these sound useful? “Narrative & Description; Showing vs. Telling.” “Voice.” “Action.” “Clichés of Characterization.” “The Hated Revision.” Twenty-seven sub-chapters in all, you can do the math. The reading is brisk and the points are efficiently made. (Having judged Colorado Gold and other writing contests for years, Susan Mackay Smith knows when the brain starts to hurt or the eyes glaze over.) When I was finished, I felt as if I had a new, higher bar to reach. I felt like a better writer.

Conan wants the ideas and the story in your head to reach the reader in clear, efficient and powerful fashion. You may think you know what you are trying to say, but is the story in your head making the journey to your reader's imagination in the most effective way possible? The most clear?

Conan may not be cuddly, but he will set you straight.

Just $10!

Actually, $9.95.

(Get two; one for you and one for a writer pal.)

Order on Amazon here.

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:

2016-09-01-tc-boyle

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.

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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.