Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!

Things I Hate to Admit to Myself

There's nothing that turns me off of a keynote speech at any gathering of writers - be it conferences, workshops, retreats, whatever - more than when the speaker starts out by telling you how impossible it is for you to become a successful writer. When they say that less than 1% of all books submitted get published, and fewer still make any profit, and yet fewer still become best sellers and launch an author's career. Or when they point out such cold hard facts as: it takes sales of 500-1000 books in the first few days of release to even get on most book-lists' radar. I could go on, but I'm guessing you hate these statistics as much as I do.

I finally sat down the other day and asked myself a very hard question: Why? Why do I hate such statistics? They are facts, after all, facts based on very real hard data, and as such they are inescapable. Resenting a fact is like hating a peach pit - you can go on hating it all you want, but every peach you eat is still going to have a pit, no matter how much you hate it. You can have someone remove the pit for you before you eat it, but this is only hiding the pit from you, not changing the fact that every peach has a pit. (Those of you who read last month's post may well wonder what's with this author's obsession with fruit. Well, mind your own business.)

We can hide from facts all we want, but that doesn't make them any less implacably true.

But I still hate these publishing statistics. And after some self-examination I know why, and why you do, too. Such statistics are like the bully who joins a pickup game of stick ball only to hit the ball over the fence and across the highway where no one can retrieve it. They are the arrogant young punk who gets on the light rail train with death metal music booming out of a portable speaker. They are the one spoiled shrimp in an otherwise delightful shrimp cocktail that makes you sick all night. They are...well you get the idea. They are spoil sports, the thorn in your side, the burning vomit that comes out of your nose as well as throat.

We hate these statistics because they ruin our fun. The fun is writing, and having others read our stories. We have been conditioned to think that we are failures if we don't have thousands and thousands of readers, and more often than not it interferes with our ability to continue writing. But is that really true? While we may dream of that, how many of us, realistically, expect to make an independent living on our writing these days? Even writers you consider quite successful continued to work other more conventional jobs during the height of their success. And many others who didn't could hardly have been called wealthy or even well off. Many more died in obscurity.

My point is, why let these statistics and reality spoil the fun? Most of us who started writing didn't do it to become wealthy (and I submit, as has been said many times on this blog, that if you did you're in the wrong business.) Most of us got into writing because we had stories to tell, we love telling stories, and we can't stop. There is nothing wrong with tracking your sales and aspiring to stardom, but for God's sake don't let lagging figures and disappointing ciphers on a page beat up on your muse. It isn't her fault readers are a fickle lot, and there's no telling what may grab their fancy at any given time. Compartmentalize your business aspirations - thousands upon thousands of sales - from the fun you have when you write. I promise you, even if you die tearing tickets at a theater, or pushing rocks with your backhoe, or building submarine sandwiches for hungry briefcase warriors, or even if you're one of those warriors yourself, you'll never regret the stories you told when you could, even if only a small circle of close friends and colleagues were your audience.

The Fruit of Your Labor

fruitGo buy a piece of fruit you haven't had in a while: a peach, a plum, a pear, a mango, even a carambola (starfruit, though they're not as good here on the mainland as they are in the islands.) Find a place to sit alone and close your eyes. Try to imagine you're a primitive human. Game is scarce, you've been living on insects and grubs, or bland roots. You're always on the verge of starvation, though never quite starved - a terrible state if you've ever lived through it.

You see this thing hanging from a tree. You've never considered eating it before because, well, it's on a tree. What part of a tree ever tasted good? Wood, bark, leaves... Still, finally hungry enough, you climb up, pull this thing down, you bite into it (bite into the fruit you bought now.) Try to experience what that starving primitive experienced as glorious sweetness and a flavor you've never imagined could ever exist floods your mouth and your soul soars.

Write that.

Many times I read work from writers who, in their jaded experience, seem to have forgotten that not all of their readers have read the same old tropes and traditions a thousand times. They sometimes neglect details that could enrich their story. How many times has a gun been fired in a thriller or mystery? So many times it is just accepted that readers know what it means to fire a gun, or have one fired at you. So why describe the way your nerves jolt at the sudden blast, the sound waves stinging your skin like electricity, the smell of expended gunpowder, the intense silence following the explosion, the heat you feel from the bullet as it leaves the barrel...or as it tears into your flesh?

Never forget some of your readers may be reading your genre for the first time, and you are their sponsor. Even if not, being reminded of details that often get glossed over or skipped because they are rote or common, can electrify some long-steeped and jaded readers, too. As you write such things, take a moment and close your eyes, try to experience the thing as your character would experience it (whatever it is, whether firing a gun, stealing a candy bar from a store, having sex). Is it their first time or they are old pros? How would that affect the experience.

Never let such things become rote or old hat in your stories. Always remember while you may have written/read similar scenes a million times, your character has not, and your reader is identifying with them. Always keep it fresh, as if this is the first time anyone ever wrote a scene like this. Never let the jade show under your skin.

Meeting Agent Right by Linda Joffe Hull

Over the years, I, like most authors, have collected enough rejections to wallpaper my office (and the adjoining hallway). However, as I continued to hone my craft, sent out more queries, and tried not to go completely insane, I began to wonder if there was more that I could be doing to get published.

As the rejections continued to filter in, it occurred to me that if I could meet every agent I queried, I’d realize that we (and thus my writing) weren’t a match, saving me some of the ego beat down of all that rejection. After all, like an online dating profile that states, I’m looking for a short, perky, blond, 40-50, I may fit the qualifications and still not be Ms. Right. And we all know Agent Right could look nothing like his photo. Similarly, an agent can say he is looking for exactly what you’ve written, read it and tell you it isn’t at all what he was looking for.

Seeing as I was unlikely to meet any agents at my home office to determine such things, I decided to do what I could to make my luck.

Here’s what worked for me:

  1. RMFW

Go to the various events. Not only will it improve your writing, you’ll meet and connect with other writers. I’ll never forget the first time an author offered me the contact info for her agent after a friendly conversation.

  1. Get Involved:

I offered to write a monthly agent spotlight in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s monthly newsletter. As a result, I was able to contact agents and interview them about what they were really looking to acquire. Not only did the membership benefit, so did I. In fact, I landed my first agent as a result.

  1. Conferences:

Attend, but also volunteer. At Colorado Gold, we have a kick-off party specifically for volunteers and guests of honor. What better way to have casual, VIP access to the attending agents and editors before they are inundated by the masses? I started out by volunteering to coordinate the agent/editor critique groups. Not only did I get dibs on getting my WIP in front of an agent, I also had a job that led to contact with all of our guest agents and editors.

  1. Enter Contests:

Enter as many writing contests as you can. Finalists are typically judged by agents and editors. Many first deals have come as a result.

  1. Make Small talk:

After being inundated with pitches, that editor at the end of the conference bar might enjoy talking about almost anything but what you’re working on. Many of them write as well. A conversation where you don’t mention your book might even result in a connection that leaves him or her interested in who you are and, thus, what you write. I met my agent at a conference. My debut novel, THE BIG BANG, was published as the result of a conference lounge discussion with my now editor about his favorite writers. The Mrs. Frugalicious mystery series came about when another editor, whom I’d met over an RMFW conference weekend, suggested I try my hand at mystery. Even my first novel was recently published by Susan Brooks, a small press publisher and member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Five published books later, I can honestly say, putting myself out there and getting involved in my local writing world was not only the key to getting published, but a whole lot more valuable than an entire inbox full of rejections.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

cropped-linda-hullLinda Joffe Hull is the author of two standalone novels, The Big Bang (Tyrus Books) and Frog Kisses (Literary Wanderlust). She has also written three books in the Mrs. Frugalicious Mystery series featuring bargain hunter and sleuth, Maddie Michaels: Eternally 21 (2013, Midnight Ink), Black Thursday (2014, Midnight Ink), and Sweetheart Deal (2015, Midnight Ink). A long time member and former president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Linda was named the 2013 RMFW Writer of the Year.  She currently serves on the national board of Mystery Writers of America.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS

Here is how I found out that there is something wrong with me.

Boy wearing dunce cap.I was 7 or 8 when, during a parent-teacher conference, I was asked to leave the room. I went into the coat room and found I could still hear everything that was said. My teacher told my parents about an assignment in which students were asked how to divide 2 apples evenly among 3 people. The correct answer, it seems, was to cut each apple into thirds and give each person 2 pieces. Most of the class got it right, but three people gave wrong answers. One kid said to tell one of the three people to leave, then give the two remaining people each an apple. Another kid said to just go buy a third apple.

And then there was me, a quiet kid who kept mostly to myself. My teacher was worried - I had said to give each person a sharp knife and let them take as much as they wanted. When asked how my answer gave each person a fair share of the apple I said, in effect, that the three people would either be generous and take only a little, leaving more for the others, or they would all fight it out amongst them, killing at least one of them, and then split the apples.

My teacher then proceeded to ask my parents if I'd ever been caught mistreating pets or weaker children. I laugh now, but at the time I was hurt and outraged. It was a different teacher who recognized my unharnessed imagination and set me on the path of channeling it into storytelling, but I still spent many years after that thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn't see the world the same way as everyone else.

As writers, we don't see the world like everyone else. If we did, there would be nothing interesting about the stories we tell, and therefore little reason to tell them. It is our own, individual skew on reality that makes our stories unique and fun and ultimately readable. If anyone tries to tell you what's wrong with you, own it proudly. Because what's wrong with you and me as people is very right with us as writers.

Volunteers…the Lifeblood of RMFW

RMFW is an organization run entirely by volunteers. For a group with over 600 members and a budget of more than $175,000, this is no mean feat!  As our new Volunteer Coordinator, I want to spend some time highlighting this Herculean effort.

We began trying to track volunteer efforts in 2014, in part because we needed the information for our audit. But we also recognized there were a lot of volunteers doing things behind the scenes without anyone being aware of their efforts.  That year, we asked all of our board committees to submit lists of their volunteers along with their job role(s).  In 2015, we did the same, but also began to analyze the data in other ways.

RMFW has a twenty-three member board: president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, anthology, by-laws, conference, contest, critique, education events, history project, hospitality, I-PAL, membership, newsletter, PAL, podcast, programs (monthly), publicity, retreat, technology, volunteers, and western slope programs. As board members, each is responsible for helping to run the organization through oversight and policy-making. However, board members also have the responsibility of chairing a committee or heading up special tasks as an executive committee member.  Each committee utilizes volunteers for sub-roles.

Our smallest committee is by-laws, which has no volunteers beyond the board member.  The largest committee is conference, which had thirty-four different volunteer positons in 2015. Some of those positions were filled by one person while others (such as workshop moderator) involved dozens of people. 

In 2015, we recorded 113 different volunteer positions.   Many of those roles (contest judge, newsletter contributor, e.g.) involved multiple slots. By our best estimate, there were 471 separate volunteer slots filled last year. They were filled by 196 different people.

Volunteer tasks ranged from short-term in duration (picking up an editor from the airport, hosting a table at conference) to long-term (planning retreat, editing the anthology). Some involved small spurts of volunteer energy (writing a blog once per quarter) and some involved daily responsibilities (maintaining the website, coordinating contest or conference, serving as president). Some efforts were easy (tweeting) and some were more involved (selecting conference workshops).

On an average, RMFW volunteers took on 2.4 tasks each.  Most (102) of our volunteers filled one role each though 79 people completed two to five different responsibilities. Eleven members stepped forward to offer their time for six to ten different tasks.  Four members fulfilled more than ten roles during 2015. 

The work these dedicated volunteers accomplish, in addition to being writers, is nothing short of amazing!  Together, we achieve as much as a crew of paid employees do in the business sector. We undertake great things and make them happen, allowing RMFW to devote its funding almost entirely to educating writers,  improving  our craft, networking, and sharing knowledge.

If you’re interested in joining the RMFW volunteer corps, please visit the volunteer page on www.rmfw.org. We’ll then send you a volunteer application to get a sense of your interests, skills, and desired level of activity then match you up with the best roles for you. 

“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)

Be a good critique partner – Part 1 of 2

I credit the marvelous process of critique with helping me get published, and continue to be published. And just as my fabulous CPs help me, I help them. There’s a compelling reason to give our best efforts with every critique: the better critiquers we are, the better writers we become.

Book Too WonderfulToBeTrue Jan 2016
Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Many of us have suffered from or heard about nightmare critiques with back-handed comments and thinly veiled insults, and we want to make sure our critiques are both encouraging and helpful. One way to ensure this is to avoid excessive compliments and vague comments.

Here are some critique comments I’ve read over the years in critique groups, along with comments about how to make them more useful to your CPs.

Loved it!!  This will trigger a sense of relief from the submitting writer, but not much more.  Was it the opening that was strong, or the dialogue?  Or just the hunky hero? Include detail so the writer knows what, specifically, worked.

Couldn’t stop turning the pages!  One hopes that means the tension remained high throughout, with enough drama that the reader was anxious to know what happened next – instead of the possibility that you were just in a hurry to finish the critique and get on with your own writing.

This is perfect as is. I wouldn’t change a thing.  We all want to receive a critique like this! When backed up by specifics, this is a gem of a critique I’d copy, put in 60 point Times Roman, bold, and print out for the front of my computer.  Without accompanying comments, though, I’d still wonder if some parts might need work and the critiquer was just being generous.  But then, we writers have been known to be neurotic.

I don’t like your protagonist. This is crushing for a writer to receive. Though it may be true, it’s brutal.  Being writers, we can find gentler ways to say this.  One bit of wisdom I’ve learned over years of critique is: “Don’t send a critique if you’re short for time.”  Whenever I have, I realize I’m more likely to be abrupt, and when abrupt, a sense of uncaring and overly critical-sounding comments erupt that I later regret when I re-read it at a time I’m *not* so rushed.  As a critiquer, you’re walking in a field of priceless human emotions.  Even multi-published authors hardened by years of rejections and reviews can be hurt by abrupt comments.  Always take your time.  Better to be a little late with the critique than to cause unintended harm.

Characters aren’t convincing. Don’t shirk from giving or receiving this comment. This is a gem of an observation, so useful -- if accompanied by specifics. Is the character the ruthless head of an international corporation yet continually shown in scenes as indecisive or unaware of his industry’s jargon?  Or perhaps the character is a prostitute but acts naive in this particular excerpt.

I hope you love your critique partners as much as I love mine, and I wish you many positive comments in your future critiques. My next blog will offer more insights on your CPs’ comments.

Time to Call the Family!

The amazing thing about being a writer is that it automatically makes you part of a family. And who better to call when you're in trouble than family?

The Colorado Gold conference was four months ago. All that fresh energy that boosted us in those first couple months has begun to dissipate. Time has softened our resolutions. We’re lagging in our production and criticizing ourselves.

The flurry of emails with new friends and those we reconnected with has lessened. The daily contact we had has waned. The holidays shifted our attention and we lost touch with one another. Life seems lonely. We’re feeling more isolated and the introversion is creeping in.

Those who received nibbles on their manuscripts have slaved to edit and perfect and complete them. Some have done so and moved forward toward their goals. Others encountered road blocks. A few have had responses from editors and agents that weren’t what they desired.

It’s also the middle of January. We’ve had cold and snow and ice. Spring is still a couple months distant. “Blah” seems to sum up our distaste.

It’s times like this that we turn to those who care and bolster us most—our families.

Relatives, though, may not be the families that we writers most need. No matter how much they love and accept us, our siblings and children and significant others often do not share the experience of writing. They may love us, but that doesn’t mean they truly understand what we’re feeling in our particular unique “winter of discontent.”

These blah stretches are those during which we owe it to ourselves to reach out to our writing family. This is the perfect time to send an email or make a phone call to jump start relationships. These are the days when it’s important to meet for coffee/tea/lunch/drinks and seek one another’s energy. This is the time when we should get together and allow ourselves to whine a bit.

After all, who knows better what a writer is going through than another writer?

Lest we view reaching out as a weakness, we must remember we don’t have to leap into complaints. We just need to make the contact, ask a fellow writer how the winter is going. The conversation will flow, organically, as it always seems to do among writers. One of us is bound to launch the topic as well as to offer the support the other needs. That’s what family does.

And, in giving support to someone else, we are given the support we crave ourselves.

So, my friends…my family…it’s time to reach out, get together, and defeat the doldrums of the post-conference, pre-contest, mid-winter blues!

We owe it to ourselves and to one another.