Real Life Research

I’ve always written historical fiction, mainly romance, which required a great deal of in-depth research, digging around in old documents, looking at ancient maps, reading tattered journals, even finding out what they ate that last night on the Titanic. Google was my very best friend. But after the latest “thanks but no thanks e-mail” I’ve decided to start working on a more contemporary series, and suddenly a whole new world of research opened up.

Now, I can actually find living, breathing humans who’ve been there, done that. I’ve used in-person interviews before, quite a lot, actually, for articles published in magazines and newspapers. Now it’s time to put those interview skills to work for book research.Interviewing

I started out like I always do, with a list of questions that I knew I needed answered to be able to fill in holes in my story. But the fun part was that several of the answers actually started a chain of domino reactions that took my story in different and exciting directions.

If I’d been sticking to internet or books for my research, I would have missed out on that. It’s a little out of my comfort zone, because it means going to places I wouldn’t choose to normally, like the police station. Putting myself into uncomfortable situations, like having a martial arts specialist show me what to do if I’m on my back, an assailant sitting on me, being strangled (NOT fun). But it also meant finding out some cool tricks of the trade for restoring classic cars.

Phaeton with title copy

My point is that in-person research is hugely valuable. Not only do you get information you need, but you see expressions and hear inflections in their voices that give you insight into their emotions. All of that can help your story be more realistic.

I also received more information than I needed, but since I’m working on a series, I’m pretty sure the “extra” will be useful somewhere down the line. I have a couple more people I need to meet with, and some of them are going to be difficult to find, but I’m persistent, and I can write around the missing pieces for a while. I could end up having to re-write some parts once I get that data, but I usually do with my historicals, as well, when I find a tidbit that I just can’t leave out.

I think I’m going to enjoy being in the real world again. But then, there is that paranormal, historical part of the series that will give me my history fix….

How about you? Do you use in-person interviews to add realism?

Why Do You Write?

Voices-In-My-HeadIs it because you can’t stand all the voices in your head shouting to be heard, fighting with each other for dominance, pushing and shoving to get out (oh, is that just me?). Do you write because you want to be a best-selling author with a bajillion dollars and an agent and editor who send you chocolates and good wine weekly? Or is it just because you like to write, think you’re pretty damn good at it, and know there are readers out there that want your stories?

Personally, I DO want to make money writing. So far my book sales have, at best, kept me in Happy Meals. My newspaper and magazine articles have provided a bit more revenue, but not much. It costs money to be a writer – you know, those pesky expenses like membership fees, contests, ink, paper, conference and workshop registration, etc., and I sometimes struggle just to break even.

So, what’s a writer to do? I know I have decades of writing ahead of me - like I said, there are a lot of voices in my head just waiting to get out. I can wait to make my writing fortune, but I DO intend to make it. What I’m not going to do is write AT the money. I won’t chase what’s hot right now, because readers are inherently fickle. They can turn on a dime. I’ll write stories about characters and events I like, because that’s the only way I can make myself sit down and put tens of thousands of words on paper. I’m not saying I don’t occasionally write an article for a publication that’s about something I’m not terribly interested in, but that’s a couple thousand words, and I consider it honing my craft to be able to distill two hours of interviews or a day’s worth of research into those few thousand words.pencil-stump

I’m not selling out, I’m doing what has to be done in order to do what I really want to do. Personally, I can’t afford to pay for my writing habit out of my household budget. Our family’s income just doesn’t allow it. Yet.

How much writing income is enough for you? Do you just want to see your name on a book cover – no matter if it’s E-book or print or if you don’t make a dime on it? Do you need it to be on the shelf at your local bookstore? Do you want to hit the bestseller list? Have a framed copy of a ginormous royalty check on the wall? For me, it’s each of the above, and all in good time.

I wish all this for you – or whatever it is that floats your writing boat. And I hope that you remember the other writers around you when it happens and that you revel in any success they have. Offer them your help, advice, hope, and a shoulder to cry on, just as other RMFW’s have done and will do for us. Maybe volunteer for the organization? And, most of all, Write On!

And how was your day….?

helplessI had a different blog in mind. Really. But something happened tonight that reinforces what my life as a writer is like. I thought it might resonate with some of you.

I was at the annual RMFW and board meeting this last Saturday (I don’t think I saw you there?). The 250 mile trip home was near blizzard, and my car ended up covered with road salts. I decided to stop at the carwash on my way home from work tonight. You know the kind— you pay, drive inside, and let it do its thing for five minutes.

Only today, the carwash had something else in mind. I ended up locked inside the car wash. Yes, that was me, sitting there with my bumper six inches from the rollup door, the dryer shaking my car like a tornado, but only drying the front three feet. Thinking it's just a matter of time before the door opens. Then sitting and waiting after the blower stopped. And waiting some more.

The whole fifteen minutes reminds me of my writing life. Where I write a great (hopefully) manuscript, clean and polish it, and when it’s nice and shiny, submit it to an agent or editor. And wait. And wait some more. Worry and second guess myself. And worry some more. Acting like it’s the only thing I can do.

But all I had to do was get out of my car, open the side door, find someone who knew what to do, and let them help me. Just as I am not some helpless old lady, I am not a helpless writer. All I need to do is gather my fellow writers around me for advice and comfort. And start writing something new while I wait. Have my critique crew give me input. Anything but just sitting and waiting for the agent to love me. For someone to rescue me.

I don’t need rescued. I can write my characters out of any situation, and I can handle these painful “wait” periods with a little help from my friends. The moral of this (long) story is…you don’t have to do this alone. You’re part of a tribe, or a seahorse herd (Susan Spann, you will forever be quoted after that epic Gold speech!). We’re all in this together. We understand each other. We’ve been there, done that, and survived. So don’t hibernate, fretting over ”will they like it or will it be a rejection”? No matter which way it goes, you’ll learn from it, and all your RMFW writer friends (even the ones you don't yet know) will cheer your successes or commiserate with your “Thanks But…” letters. Because we’ll be the ones who need it next time.

Don’t wait to be rescued. Open the door and ask for help from your fellow authors. And Write On.

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Write!

holiday imageSince it’s the holiday season, I thought I would explore that mystical, magical, time-honored literary event known as THE HOLIDAY NEWSLETTER.

You know, that multi-page bit of fluff that shows up this time of year, sent by some high-school cheerleader who only spoke to you once during your senior year. Thirty years later you don’t even recognize the name (but that might be because she’s on her third husband).

That newsletter is followed by others from distant relatives (third cousins twice removed…or aunts who had your cousins removed?) and possibly misdirected mail since you still don’t recognize any of the names or events listed.

Now come on.  Do these people really think you’re going to believe their first born has just been accepted to Harvard’s kindergarten prep school, or husband #3 is a Italian count and they just finished remodeling the family castle, or they’re vacationing this year with Prince William and his family, or the home-based business they started for $69 last month sold to Microsoft for a gazillion dollars?  I mean, they’re safe to say anything since you haven’t seen them in years (if ever!).  It should be a law that newsletters have to be notarized to prove factualness (hmm, I wonder if that’s a real word?). IF I were to write a holiday newsletter, I’d at least be realistic. Maybe something like this:

The Family Newlaughter

     Well, it’s another year gone by. I swear this one was only 265 days, but the calendar disagrees.  I didn’t want all of you to think my life was so boring that nothing of note ever happens and now that our gag order expired, I’m free to write about it. If you hadn’t heard about that little faux pas, just forget I mentioned it. It wasn’t any big deal. We’re not even really sure how that video ended up on YouTube.  People are just so touchy about things like that these days.  But hey, stuff happens, right?

Rick and I are still married (38 whole years – could be true love…or we’re just naturally lazy). The Garage Mahal is nearly done (I think it might officially be an antique before it’s fully functional), although Rick has recently realized you can’t get a 400 pound saw up a winding staircase without factoring in the cost of a hernia operation – so modifications are pending. He’s going green, converting some of his power tools into running off beer and that’s why I keep finding all those cans and bottles in the shop. Who knew!? We did a small remodel on the house, replacing the roof which didn’t leak until AFTER we fixed it.

Our oldest, Jimmy, and his wife, Hannah, have been married a dozen years and we have two great grandkids we really enjoy, with the added bonus of being able to send them home when they get tired and grumpy, or Grandpa feeds them too much sugar. I think Hannah has finally resigned herself to being one of “the family”, but I have noticed she still wears big sunglasses whenever we’re all out in public. I keep telling her it’s not us up there on the Post Office wall – it’s just an uncanny resemblance (I don’t think she believes me).

Our youngest, Ryan, is still in college, and we’re thinking about an intervention so he’ll get his degree and be able to move on before he’s older than the professors. He joined the National Guard after an impressive spiel about how they’d “help him be can be all he can be” and what not, but I think they had him at “explosives.” What guy wouldn’t want to blow things up and get paid to do it? He and Stephanie have been married for two years and are content to raise animals rather than children, although sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference (feel free to interpret that any way you want).

It’s been a while since we’ve taken a vacation because the post office hasn’t come up with a big enough “If It Fits, It Ships” box for both of us. But just in case, if a big COD package shows up on your doorstep, be sure to accept it and open it pretty quickly.  You might want to do that outside though, because things could be a little messy, if ya get my drift.

We’ve been putting a lot of thought into our retirement plans, too, but there are a lot of things to consider, you know? There are literally dozens of those scratch tickets to choose from these days!  Besides, we can’t get find a location to enjoy our “golden years” until we figure out what kind of décor goes with large cardboard refrigerator boxes – maybe shabby chic?

Well, that pretty much brings you up-to-date on the family. Hope you’re all healthy and happy (rich would be good, too, especially if you’ve named any of us in your will), but, hey, two out of three is pretty darn good!

The Benson FamilyChristmas image

And so to all of you, my friends, a Merry Christmas,

Happy New Year, Kwanza, or whatever, and Write On!

To Contest or Not To Contest…that is the question

Do you enter contests for your writing?

Over the last couple decades, I’ve entered many contests, both for full-length novels and short stories. I belong to RWA (Romance Writers of America), which includes multiple chapter contests in their monthly magazine, both for unpublished and published authors. I think most genres have something similar, or you can easily find them on-line. RMFW has an annual contest for unpublished authors. Writer’s Digest and other publications and on-line sites have contests for short stories. There are a couple different reasons for entering contests, and your decision may hinge on where you are in your writing career.

If you’re unpublished, contests can:

  • Help you identify problems with your writing that you’ve become “word blind” to.
  • Educate you on craft (one judge highlighted each point of view in a different color, which really helped me to understand why I kept getting comments on staying in POV).
  • Get your work in front of published author judges and, if you final, agents and editors who are actively looking for books in the genre they’re judging.
  • Give you a low cost way to get more input on your writing.
  • Generally you’ll get 3 preliminary judges so you get 3 different points of view on your writing; usually they’ll post comments on the judging form, as well as on the manuscript.
  • Some contests will send you graphics you can use on your website/social media if you final/win.
  • Finaling or winning is great to include on your query letters or during your pitch appointments; it might be the final push to get someone to request pages or a full read.
  • Most contests post their winners in multiple places, getting your name, and your book title, out into the world – priceless publicity.

2015PagesFromTheHeart_FINALIST2

 

Contests are great for Published Authors as well because:

  • Winning a contest looks great on query letters and in pitches, as well as on your website and author platform.
  • Finalists and winners get free publicity in genre newsletters, writing group social media, etc.

Contest negatives:

  • Some judges may not read, or even like, the genre they’re judging – resulting in unhelpful comments.
  • Judges have varying degrees of expertise, and may give you poor or incorrect feedback.
  • There is some cost involved (usually $10-$30, with from 1 to 50 pages judged).

No matter if you’re unpublished or multi-published (Nora Roberts STILL enters RWA contests), you can get something out of contests. But as always, it’s YOUR story. Don’t make changes just to please a judge. However, to get the most from judge notes:

  • If you get more than one judge commenting on the same issue, pay attention, especially if those comments are similar to ones your critique group have mentioned.
  • Read the comments, but if you don’t agree with them, give it a day or two. Don’t be hasty to toss the judging sheets out, or make a lot of changes.
  • If more than one judge is saying the same thing, and/or echoing critique comments, copy the pages into a new document and see what happens if you make the changes/start in a new place, etc. Sometimes what seemed like an impossible job, or a horrible idea, ends up making a much better manuscript. Don’t discount the comments just because you don’t like them at first blush.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking everything the judges say must be correct. One of my first contests had a judge telling me all my chapters had to be 12-13 pages long. Because I didn’t yet belong to a writer’s group like RMFW, and didn’t have anywhere else to go for information, I turned that manuscript inside out trying to make all the chapters come out at that length. I later found out the judge had one self-published family memoir as their sum total of writing experience. That doesn’t mean the judge couldn’t contribute good suggestions to help me improve my work, but they weren’t familiar with my genre, and probably didn’t read enough fiction to know chapter length is one of the most variable parts of books these days.

Whether or not you want to enter contests, consider volunteering to judge. You’ll get educated on the judging process, and you’re likely to make great contacts, as well as networking with other writers/judges interested in your genre. Judging can help you find your herd/tribe and possibly friendships that will last forever.

So, happy contesting, and Write On!

Never Ignore Serendipity

I just took a vacation. It was great, but what I took away from it (besides a sunburn and a hangover), was that I need to make sure I never let myself ignore serendipitous moments in time.

While our husbands went fishing, my friend and I decided we’d take a nice little snorkeling trip. Just a couple hours. The snorkel “beach” was actually a pile of granite boulders, with very sharp edges, and massive surf. As in “knock you over and roll you around” surf. Combat snorkeling, if you will. As you can guess, this was not what we signed up for. We didn’t have change for anything to drink, and the water taxi was an hour late coming back for us. This should have been the excursion from hell.

But lest you think I digress, in an instant we got to experience one of those serendipitous moments. The other passengers on our water taxi back to civilization were a group of 20-30-something cruise ship employees from South Africa, England, and a couple other places I forget. The twenty minutes back to town, plus the two or so hours in the bar we spent with them, were truly serendipitous.pelican beach and cruise ship

We were fifty-something women whose husbands had gone fishing. Those “kids”, by all rights, could have made fun of us, should have ignored us. But instead, they decided to hang out with us simply because we talked to them, and told them where they might find drinks and good food. When a Mariachi band came by, one of the crew asked to use a guitar, and began to play – Santana no less. Holy Cow – that Mariachi band was even more surprised than we were. It seems we were in the company of some of Disney’s Cruise Line’s star entertainers. Then another crewman picked up the guitar, played, and sang lead while the others sang along, including the Mariachi that still had instruments. These “kids” were interesting, fun, VERY talented, and talked about everything that came into any of our heads.

If we hadn’t been on that Ponga boat, at that time, on that day, there is no way this diverse group of people would have ever come together, and stayed together for more than a moment. But what we ended up with was something that made that day, and our vacation, so much more memorable than if we’d just followed our itinerary.

Where I’m going with this is: you should never let those moments pass you by. Let those strange little quirks take you wherever they will. As writers, we need these moments to take us away from the tunnel vision of our WIP. To make us experience those things that might not be within our comfort zone, or the genre we write in, or the circle of people we’re comfortable with. And just maybe, to give us an idea for the next story, a great story, a bestselling story.

Serendipity. Grab it when you can, hold on with all you got, and Write On!

Life Work Balance

closeup view of golden scales on whiteYeah, I know, it’s backwards. Everyone always says Work/Life balance, right? Well, after Colorado Gold this month, I can see how we’ve had it wrong all this time.

I mean, really, which is more important: Life or Work? (Hint: this is not a hard question to answer) Yes, most of us need to work to make money to pay the bills, put food on the table, and keep a roof over our heads. But we can do lots of things that accomplish that. Some might not be all that fun, but it’s not called funning, it’s called working.

What does this have to do with Colorado Gold? We’ve heard from a lot of people, including the incredible writer of the year Susan Spann, about how great Colorado Gold was. And it’s all true. But what I really took away from it, besides the (OMG/Yea/Holy Cow) requests for pages/full reads, was that writing fits into the “life” part of the equation above, not the work part. I am not one of the stupendously lucky people like Jeffrey Deaver who get to combine the life and work parts and write for a living. But I can still write. And I make a little money doing it. Enough that I can almost say it pays for itself (OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but who the heck cares!).

Being surrounded by other writers, agents, editors, drinks, food, drinks (hey, it helped counteract the smoke in the air from the California fires), was like what I imagine a Prius feels like when it gets plugged in. My life, love, and pursuit of happiness batteries were recharged. All the way home (and it took 5 hours!) I was thinking of new and improved scenes, a kick-ass ending, and having a bunch of other writing-related epiphanies (and let me tell you, those epiphanies make it damn hard to keep from getting a speeding ticket!).

Those of you can’t see a good reason to fork over the money, or take time off from your job (see above equation!), or are afraid to admit that writing is more than a hobby for you, are missing out on something that can make your whole life a better place to live in. I know a bunch of you out there are saying, yeah, yeah, it’s just a bunch of people sitting in rooms listening to a bunch of other people talk blah-blah. But until you are there, soaking up inspiration, motivation, craft and just having the opportunity to talk to other writers who have been there/done that JUST LIKE YOU, you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s not “What happens at Gold stays at Gold.” It’s “What happens at Gold sticks with you for the next twelve months.” Really.

So start saving your milk money, hang on to a couple days of vacation, and make plans to attend in 2016. While you’re at it, check out the submission guidelines for the RMFW Anthology. Maybe you have “THE” short story inside you that gets you published along with some other really great writers. Go for it…and Write On!

It’s Perfect. Almost.

I sent 25 pages of my just-finished manuscript to a contest last week, but not before I’d gone over it carefully. My critique group had reviewed it. My beta reader had gone through it. I went over it a couple more times before I sent it - damn, it looked good. Yeah!

Then it was time to get the first 10 pages of the same manuscript ready for the critique roundtable I’d signed up for at Gold. Another several rounds of edits. A few punctuation changes. Better, more descriptive words here and there. I liked it! So it got packaged up and shipped off to the coordinator.

Then, because I’m on a roll, I decided to enter another contest. It’s 25 pages again, so there were more edits to the extra 15 pages. Then another hard re-read of the whole thing. Suddenly, out of the blue, I realized that pages 2 and 3 were important, but not important enough to be there. Arrgghhhh! I cut those pages out, and put them at the end with my story notes so I can go back and work those pieces of information back in where they REALLY needed to be. Then I read the story again without the pages and, yep, it’s better.

perfectionSo where am I going with this blog? I thought the submission was ready. Then I really thought it was ready. Now I really hope it was ready because I couldn’t see anything else that bothered me. But perfect? No. I don’t think such a thing exists, in books or elsewhere. Even if the mechanics are perfect with no typos or grammatical errors, I'd be willing to bet there was more than one word or scene choice the author wishes had been different before it went to print. Something. You can bet I’ll be going through the entire manuscript several more times, as well as having beta/critique reads, before I make the mistake of submitting the whole thing to an agent or editor.

No story should be submitted until the writer feels it is as close to perfect as it possibly can be. That means critique groups, beta readers, contests, workshops, conferences, and edits, edits, and more edits. When all those others seem to agree with you that it’s a great story and no one, including you, has any idea on how it can be improved (as in, not just rearranged to death), then you need to find the right person or place to send it to. Because it’s easy to get into a rut by convincing yourself that it needs more—more or different words, more time, more pages, more something that you’re sure you’ll know what it is tomorrow. And so that book, which could be the next best seller, never sees the light of day.

So polish the heck out of it, make sure others who know what they’re looking at—and for—think it’s ready, then submit the sucker. And….Write On!

Fantasy Writer?

Terri 2015 head shotBy Terri Benson

I don’t write fantasy, but apparently I live it. More and more often, I find myself day-dreaming about standing on a podium, being awarded a Romance Writer of the Year Award, making the keynote presentation to a sea of faces, eager to hear my words of wisdom. I envision jetting off to an all-expense-paid trip to New York to hob-knob with my adoring editor and agent, while they wine and dine me to keep me happy. Then there are the world-wide book tours, with fans who act like I’m George, John, Paul and Ringo all rolled into one, and scream my name, fighting to receive a smile or a coveted autograph.

Then reality bites and I realize I haven’t finished that book. You know, the one that gets me all those things, and more. The one that will catapult me into the spotlight and cause Nora Roberts to call me when she has writer’s block and needs inspiration.

Because, you see, if you don’t write it, it doesn’t exist. And even if you write it, if you don’t shove it out of the plane at 30,000 feet and see if it can fly, no one will ever know of your genius.

I cringe every time I see a statement like “just sit down and write” because, of course, I’m far busier in my life than all those “other” writers. The select few who seem to have lottery winnings or a rich Aunt Fanny to support them while they are comfortably ensconced in a leather chair, tapping away joyfully at their computer. I want to think that I’m too busy/tired/hungry/lazy to write late at night or early in the morning or on my lunch hour. But if I’m ever going to have the chance at even a peek at my fantasy, I have to write.

So, the next time you see a ream of paper falling from the sky, it’s my great work. Treat it with respect, and don’t even consider using it for the parakeet cage or to start the fire for your hot dogs.

See you on the podium, and in the meantime: Write on!

Click here for my website

Titanic final

 

Guest Post – Terri Benson: What’s a Writer to Do?

By Terri Benson

Today’s writers have so many things to think about besides the act of writing. Oh, for the days when you typed up or printed out your book manuscript, boxed it up, sent it to your publisher, then started your next book, certain that the publisher had enough invested in you that they would do their best to get lots of copies sold. I’m pretty sure those days existed at one point – they’re in the movies, anyway, so it must have happened.

These days, the majority of first time writers who traditionally or Indie publish will get a small advance or none at all, and go first to e-book. If you sell enough, they might go ahead with paperback. Publishers have very little invested in new authors. There’s the art for your book cover, but we all know there are thousands of graphic designers out there who can do a nice cover for not a huge amount of money. The quality of printed books isn’t the same as it used to be, especially in paperback. They cram more words on the page to reduce the cost of printing, and you get books that you can’t open the spine far enough to read without breaking the book’s back. And you know there isn’t nearly as much copy editing as there used to be. I rarely find a book—even by the big names—that doesn’t have blatant typos.

Writers are also pretty much required to have a platform with Facebook, Twitter, a good website, maybe a blog, and lots of followers – and they need constant attention to keep them fresh and interesting. We need to attend conferences and workshops to improve our craft and keep up with the ever-changing technology, and network like crazy.

So if you’re doing all that, how are you supposed to find time to write, edit, go to critique meetings, and read? Because you all know good writers read a lot.

If you thought that by the time you got to this point in my blog, I would have answered this question for you, you’re wrong. I don’t think anyone has all, or even a lot of, the answers for this. The state of publishing is evolving on almost a daily basis. There are more and more options for self-publishing, with the result of more books being published. But we all know many of those books shouldn’t have been published, at least not in the condition they appear. But there they are, and our books are mixed in with them, buried within thousands of other books in our genre.

I’d love to hear from those of you who think you might have some answers to the question: What’s a writer to do? For me, I’ll just keep plugging away, putting words on paper, sending queries, self-publishing when I think I’m ready, but still hoping for a call from a traditional publisher (for the simple egotistical reason that I want to say I was traditionally published, even though many writers make more with self-publishing). I’ll work tirelessly to improve my craft, dissect my book covers to see what could make them stand out in the crowd, and keep my on-line persona as visible as I have the time to, and feel comfortable with. And Write On!

 

Terri Benson 2015As a life-long writer, Terri Benson has one published novel, award winning short stories, and over a hundred articles – many award winning - in local and regional magazines and on-line e-zines. She is a multi-year member of RMFW and Western Slope events are hosted by her employer, she also belongs to RWA. Benson currently promotes Western Slope events for the RMFW Publicity Committee, pelts RMFW with articles for the newsletter, and randomly blogs.

Her historical romance, An Unsinkable Love, a truly Titanic love story with plenty of suspense, is available from Amazon in both e-book and paperback.