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.

In Reflection

As I near the end of my term as president of RMFW, I’ve become reflective. As such, I am struck by several things I’ve discovered over the past two years, about RMFW and about myself.

Most obvious is that serving as president is a huge responsibility, far bigger than I imagined it would be (though I certainly never thought it would be small). I’ve been both awed and honored to fulfill this role. I’ve learned why most of those who serve in this position get little writing done during their terms. RMFW is a huge organization, with twenty board members, each heading a committee, and presidents need to remain aware of what is happening with all of them. In addition to the organization, the president needs to be alert to the needs of individual members, listening and reacting when necessary. It means more than I can express that the membership considered me worthy of filling that role.

In doing so, there has been a less obvious realization. I have become a better person…more in tune to my fellow writers, better able to see both the forest and the trees of RMFW, and more capable in many of my personal skills and abilities. What a wonderful opportunity for development these two years have been.

I’ve also learned how many people it takes to run RMFW. I am infinitely thankful to all of the incredible volunteers who make this organization run so smoothly. In 2014 (our numbers from 2015 have not yet been tabulated) 159 individuals comprised our volunteer rank and file, filling nearly 600 volunteer positions from board members to committee members to the smallest of duties. Many performed multiple tasks. Together, they make RMFW run so seamlessly that many don’t realize all that it takes to make this group so successful.

One of the most heartening aspects to my role was becoming more aware of all the little things our members do for each other in the way of support. I’ve seen writers reach out to each other with congratulatory comments, supportive messages, Facebook posts, tweets, event and signing attendance. I’ve witnessed hugs, pats on the back, and encouragement.

RMFW is truly an amazing group of people and it has been a privilege to lead and serve these past two years. Thank you, my friends, for your faith in me.

The Company of Other Writers

This time of year, the schedule is full of holiday parties. One I don't miss is the RMFW party (and, yes, it has taken place this year). I also try to make my critique group critique-and-party, and that was yesterday. January in critique will be having me taking in the beautiful-art self-care cards that I hand out everywhere (retreats, all my seminars), before we talk about our yearly goals.

For me, these are important gatherings of my tribe.

Now, I am a full time writer, and I am in the company of other writers every day online. But I still cherish the in-person get-togethers and the conversation.

First, because my online writing-sprint group is mostly fantasy writers and we talk about that genre: multi-book story arcs and world-building and suchlike. I like talking about romance, and mystery, and thrillers and how those genres have specific demands that readers expect their authors to fulfill. How they differ – the emphasis of the story, the pacing. I get a broader appreciation for how others in my craft handle their projects.

Second, I am a long-time volunteer with RMFW and I like to talk with old buddies and make new ones.

But I also remember when I was a writer who had little to do with others, who belonged to RMFW but didn't attend the parties. I'd go to some of the seminars and sit in the corner and take notes. I'd be at conference. But the less structured social occasions I'd usually skip.

Until the first RMFW holiday party I was coerced into attending mumbledy-mumble years ago. It was a revelation. The standard questions that people asked then still works. "What do you write?" and "Tell me about your current manuscript." I'd listen and smile at the intensity of my fellow writers and feel like I belonged.

I kept coming. I could talk about problems and get a second, or third, take. Research talk would swirl around like the smoke of inspiration, just waiting for me to use it – or tuck it away to perhaps use some other time. Or, since I do write fantasy, figure out I could twist it and put it in an other-worldly story.

No one thought I was weird if I wanted to talk about herbs or poisons or how long rigor mortis lasts (yes, I often have suspense in my stories, too). Or, of late, how to make a knife out of a person's femur.

Then there's the networking. Priceless. Who's your editor? What's s/he buying? Get self-publishing tips...I've moved over to Scrivener finally after sticking with Word Perfect, it's better on a Mac. Should I get a Mac?

Here in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, we share. You need only ask.

If there's a seminar topic coming up – go. You'll meet people interested in the same thing you are, as well as learn something. If there's a social occasion, go.

Make it a priority to spend time with other writers, in person. So you can see the passion they have about writing, how they gesture, give them an outlet of a person who listens and whose eyes don't glaze over when they talk about character arc. Someone who cares about writing.

Let yourself go and follow your own passion, talk about motivation or dialogue or the research you've been doing.

We'll all be better for the company.

So, as they say in my books: Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again. May next year be your best writing year EVER.

Robin

Yes, Virginia….

Okay, I'm doing something totally out of character for me. It's Wednesday and my post is due up tomorrow. Have I prepared one? No. Hence this impromptu entry which may or may not succeed. If it does, I thank the spirit of Christmas. If it doesn't, well, our intrepid editor, Patricia, will surely let me know.

What's on my mind? I imagine the same things that are on the mind of every RMFW member this time of year. First, the holidays. I think I've finished my shopping, but I always think that two weeks before Christmas and something (or someone) springs to mind and I'm off again. I've shopped online more than I ever have this year. AND I've had packages sent directly to the recipients instead of repacking and shipping them myself. Maybe not so personal, but a time and money saver for sure!

Which brings me to the second topic. Do you spend too much money at Christmas? I'm sure I do. But I wouldn't change it. I love finding the perfect gift for a friend or relative. I shop by item and not price tag. I'm also adding a special touch this year. Since I'm trying to downsize and no longer put up a big tree, I'm giving away ornaments that I've accumulated through the years. My daughter already has our heirloom ornaments, but these are "special moment" ornaments collected on vacations, etc. The recipients won't recognize the significance, I'm sure, but I'm happy to pass them on to good homes.

Next, writing. I have--count'em--four projects going at once. I didn't think I could do more than one book at a time. But let's face it, the publishing world has changed. Readers don't want to wait a year for a book anymore. While the traditional houses seem to think that's still the norm, we who are morphing into "hybrid" authors, know it's not. It's tough, for sure. But I firmly believe to succeed nowadays, AT LEAST two books or novellas or anthologies a year are  not only desirable but necessary. That means settling that butt in the chair for more hours than ever before.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa or the winter solstice, this is the time to reflect on the good things in your life. I love Thanksgiving because it's an excuse to overindulge, but this time of year, friends and family are even more in the forefront of my thoughts. I'm happy that my daughter is happy and settled in her life, that she's found a life partner. I'm happy to have critique and writing partners that I count as friends. I'm happy to have achieved a measure of success, however small, in what is my passion as well as my work. I'm happy to have a family who loves and supports me.

And I'm grateful to RMFW. I know many people say it, but I can testify it's true. I never would have gotten published had it not been for this organization. You who are aspiring writers, took an important first step when you joined. Pat yourself on the back for that, and take advantage of all the gifts RMFW has to offer you.

It's as close to a writing Santa Claus as you're ever going to find!

Happy Holidays!