Tag Archives: the writing life

What’s Your Reason for Writing?

By Mark Stevens

No doubt soon you’ll be walking around your house knee-deep in royalty checks.

At some point, you’ll probably stop reading the reviews.

Even the good ones.

Yawn. Another rave.

Until then, why are you on this ride? Are you driven? Just because? Is it art to you?

Or commerce?

I watched two documentaries recently.

One was “Finding Vivian Maier” about a unique street photographer whose work has exploded after her death. Vivian Maier was completely overlooked during her lifetime. She never promoted her work. Her possessions and an enormous stash of her photographs (the negatives) were bought—cheaply—at an auction of stuff in Chicago. The stash included uncashed social security checks. She wasn’t in it for the money. Clearly. Now, the world is studying her work. And marveling.

I highly recommend the film (which itself is very well put together).

The other documentary was about famous back-up singers. Is that an oxymoron? Probably. That’s the point. They are back-up singers. If you like music, “20 Feet from Stardom” is must-see. The portraits are fascinating—Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. And others. They probably sang on hundreds of songs you know by heart. They sing the key licks, the little juicy bits you hum along with.

Also recommended.

Talent? By the truckload.

Artists? In every way, shape and form.

Some try to step up to the limelight, become the lead. Others hang back on purpose. They are fine with the shadows, but every bit as integral to the lead singer (and the act) but fine with the supporting role. They are, in fact, highly sought-after artists in their supporting roles.

Is there a heartbreak? Yes. Dashed hopes? Yes. But the overall message is they are in it for the moment—the expression. Every one of them had (has) pride in their accomplishments.

Moral of the story?

With Vivian Maier, she followed nobody’s script and nobody’s expectations for what constituted a “good” photograph. She took pictures of small moments, odd people, strange situations and left her view of the world for the rest of us to enjoy.

With the back-up singers, they were told what words to sing, what notes to hit. They brought their skills to the studio or the live stage and accepted (in varying degrees) their roles.

What’s your reason for writing? Are you okay with doing it—just because?

Are you doing your own thing? Listening to your own voice? Or are you a back-up, following someone else’s vision and script?

(I think there is good in both approaches.)

Me? I hope I do a little of both.

Reilly_The Enlisted Men's ClubFinal note: A bit of blatant self-promotion for my pal Gary Reilly, whom I’ve written about before. Gary wrote 25 novels with no encouragement from “the industry.” He died in 2011 and left those 25 novels behind, just because. His sixth posthumous book launches at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The Enlisted Men’s Club is the first of his Vietnam-era novels following the publication of five comic novels about a Denver taxi driver (including two Colorado Book Award nominees). The tone of the war-era novel, of course, is very different. But the mark of the artist is the same. An artist at work. Just because.

 

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

RMFW Spotlight on Susan Brooks, Colorado Gold Conference Chair

Susan BrooksSusan Brooks has been conference chair since 2011.  She is Editor-in-Chief of YA and Children’s Divisions of a traditional publisher and has an MA in Publishing from George Washington University.

Registration for the Colorado Gold Conference opened on May 1st. The conference is scheduled for September 5-7 at the Westin in Westminster, Colorado.

1. Susan, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I am the current conference chair, which means that I organize Colorado Gold. RMFW is such a wonderful organization and I love the mission of helping people learn. My biggest goal as conference chair is that each conference is better than the last one.

I initially got involved with RMFW in 2008. I had taken a long break from writing and after some life changes I wanted to write again. I knew I needed a critique group because I hadn’t written in such a long time. I searched online and found RMFW. I learned about the free monthly programs and I went to a few those. I met wonderful people at each event. One of them asked if I wanted to volunteer and do hospitality for the monthly workshops. I agreed, and once I started doing hospitality, it was a slippery slope. Pamela Nowak reeled me in to replace her as conference chair in 2011.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

My current WIP is a paranormal romance and I am working on my second draft. I have been published for other writings, but no novels as of yet. I blog at http://susanbrooks.wordpress.com/ and I occasionally tweet as @oosuzieq.

3. We’ve all heard of bucket lists — you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish– what’s one of yours?

I really love helping other people solve problems, especially with stories. I think it is hard for us as writers to see our own plot or character problems. We all need another set of eyes to see what we are blind to. That is why I like editing so much. I really want everyone to be successful and am sometimes surprised by really good stories that get rejected. So one of the bucket list projects is to start a traditional publishing company. I want to publish stories that I really like!

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what’s yours?

My Achilles heel is that I am a pantser by nature. I love the creative process of just sitting down to write something and exploring my characters, and finding out what happens with them on the page. It suits my recursive brain to write this way. When one of my characters says something I didn’t anticipate for example, I love being surprised by that. But, the problem with being a pantser, and an ADD pantser whose brain naturally runs in tangents, is that I have spent a great amount of time writing pages of my particular story that do not actually have anything to do with my intended plot. These tangents are fun, but they don’t get me to the end. And when you have ADD it is most important to be focused.

Over the years I have learned that I must create an outline so that I can get to the end. I don’t outline every detail and I am still happily surprised by some things that happen on the page, but I know what has to happen in the chapter I am working on so that I can get to the next chapter, and get to the end. This means I have become a plotter by necessity. I absolutely must have the structure. It’s funny because I have set up a rather intensive structure in other areas of my life, such as project management tasks for the conference. It just took me a while to figure out that I needed structure for my writing too.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

I love the element of discovery. I love when I am writing, based upon my outlines now, and something happens on the page that I did not intend. It’s magical and surprising and it excites me and sometimes frustrates me because I have to revise my outline to make it work. Sometimes I can’t make it work and I have to edit it out. But, discovering that creative spark is my favorite thing. The rest of the process is not my favorite. It is work and I have to settle down and focus in order to do it.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

I would definitely talk myself into outlining from the start. The thing about the outline is that you can change it if something magical happens on the page which you didn’t intend. Just tweak the outline so that everything gets resolved. With an outline you still know what you need to write in the next chapter which is imperative to move forward as a writer. Outline, little Suzie! Outline.

7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Well, I have two desks actually. And I write at both of them. I also write at the kitchen table, and at the coffee table in the living room. I write with a lap desk on the chaise lounge with the cat, and occasionally in a coffee shop or a bar. I don’t have one particular place, which is probably an ADD thing. I aspire to have a regular place, and a regular writing time, and a regular routine, but I don’t. Over the years I have just come to accept this about myself.

The most important thing is not the location, but my ability to focus. I actually found an audio recording that induces brain wave patterns for focus and that has been the most helpful. The recording is saved on my laptop so I just plug in the headphones and go to work in whatever places seems best at the time. The recording is that item that I must have. Otherwise, every little thing distracts me, from shiny objects to birds flying by. I also use the audio recording when editing, or working on conference tasks or doing other things that require more than 20 seconds in a row.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

This is a funny question for me to answer. As I mentioned earlier, I am a tiny bit ADD. And part of my reading process is that I read multiple books at a time. It tends to take me awhile to get through them all, but I always remember where I left off and I don’t get the storylines confused. I don’t know how that works, but it is how I read. I am reading several books to learn new things, like Google Analytics, but I won’t list those here because they are boring and not at all fun.

At this moment, I am re-reading Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon. She is one of my favorite authors and has a new book coming out in this summer. I wanted to re-read the series from the beginning because it has been so long since I read them. I am also reading Hotel Transylvania by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. This is a series that I haven’t read since…I can’t remember when, She does some interesting things with character development. The main character is Saint Germain, a heroic vampire.

I am also reading The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazney. Zelazny is wonderfully creative with plot, and again, this is something I read long ago and wanted to read again. I am reading Bruce Lipton’s Biology of Belief. Lipton is a rogue cellular biologist. Science interests me, though it definitely is not my forte. I am also reading a few different books on mythology, which are perpetually in the book stack just because I love the topic. None of these books mentioned were in my “angst pile” which is that stack of books that I want to read but haven’t yet. Reading all the books in the angst pile might need to be listed above as a bucket list item!

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Rebecca Taylor

By Rebecca TaylorThe Exquisite and Immaculate Grace of Carmen Espinoza

Yesterday, I uploaded my most recent book, The Exquisite and Immaculate Grace of Carmen Espinoza, to Kindle—Yes, I self published it. And as I, only hours later took it down to make changes (I suspect it won’t be the last time) I wondered:

Why don’t more writers make the leap into self-publishing?

I thought about it all day and here’s what I came up with:

  1. In truth, self-publishing still reeks a bit of failure (if you think it has completely lost all stigma, then you’re not looking hard enough outside the self publishing community. Like it or not, self publishing is still judged pretty harshly in some circles, especially the ones surrounded by the high gates of traditional publishing. There are only two things that truly mask this odor: Winning legitimate awards and big sales.
  2. If you do it right, it’s a ton of work. It can be super easy and not at all a ton of work if you just take your first draft, upload it to Kindle, and slap one of their cover generated images in front of it. Of course, if you do it that way you should also expect to get out what you put in—which is almost nothing.
  3. And finally, and this I think is the big reason why many don’t take the plunge, you stand completely alone beside your work, taking a huge risk that, even after all your labors the only sound to reach your ears is the eerie silence of your one hand clapping (the other one is, of course, occupied holding up your book to a world that doesn’t give a shish.)

Yes, number three, lack of self-confidence, I suspect it is the real reason why many writers don’t give it a go—of course this may be simply because it was the real reason why I didn’t.

Confession: I am always a little bit in awe of someone in possession of flagrant self confidence. I watch them, without even the slightest hesitation of self doubt, they will happily spread their feathers befor2000 x 1333e you and shimmy—it has been my experience that these people are usually connected to the theatre in someway.

When that self-possessed someone happens to be a writer—well I’m flat out flabbergasted to be in the presence of such a rare bird.

In March of this year, I sat on a publishing panel answering a variety of questions from writers. Towards the end of the session, one young woman approached the microphone and asked, “What one piece of advice do you have for aspiring writers?”

Now, there are many, many good answers to this question: Write, Don’t give up, Learn the craft, etc, etc. But what popped out of my mouth was, “Toughen up.”

Yes, find those bootstraps and pull them hard because the truth of the matter is, if you are still a walking wound of self-doubt, anxiety, and crippling insecurities when your first book, traditional publisher or no, comes out—that first three star review is going to knock you to your knees. And that one star, the one with the especially snarky, and yet cleverly crafted, dissertation-length review, may likely drive you from your dreams of writing anything ever again.

I think many writers, who might otherwise be interested in the allures of self publishing, still avoid it because they believe having a publisher (regardless of the publisher’s size and actual knowledge of the publishing business) is going to fill that void, that empty gaping hole where the writer should believe in themselves, and their work. That acceptance acts like a Band-Aid of, “Look, it’s not just me…someone else likes my book too.”

And maybe that Band-Aid will be enough.

But I will tell you, if this is how you are going to prop yourself up, by leaning against the facade of traditional legitimacy, all it will take for it to all disappear is for fickle winds of favor to start blowing the other way.

And then, where does that leave you?

Ever heard the tale of the traditionally published debut author that didn’t sell enough books to earn out his meager advance? It left him with no sales, no offer for that next book, and no confidence in his ability. Even with traditional publishing, nothing is guaranteed!

Self-confidence is an absolute MUST in this business.

Be bold! Stare the very real potential of deafening silence in the face and say, “I’m not afraid of you.” Once you face that fear, whatever yours may be, it can’t hold you in paralysis any more.

When it’s ready, when you’re ready, get your work out there anyway you can. If a traditional publisher wants to stand with you—great! Just don’t fool yourself into thinking they’re going to sit up with you in the middle of the night and rock you back to sleep.

Kind of like your kids, no one will ever care about your work as much as you do. (except your mother—for both examples.)

This is just my opinion, but I happen to think you have to stand at the center of your writing career and act as the captain of your own ship—no agent or editor is going to do that for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to talk you out of your Big Five dream—I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone. Truth be told, I actually hope it’s not the only avenue forever open to me because I’m probably the first writer in line to lick the feet of a Random Penguin should it happen to deign glance in my direction. I still want my books in Barnes and Noble just a bad as you do.

But, if it turns out that the publishing powers that be don’t want me there, I’m not afraid to stand alone, book in hand, and brace myself for silence. My biggest fear is not that I will make a fool of myself—it’s that I will stop trying.

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Rebecca Taylor 2000X3000Rebecca Taylor is the young adult author of ASCENDANT, a recently selected finalist for the 2014 Colorado Book Award. The second book in the Ascendant series, MIDHEAVEN, will release in 2014 and her standalone novel, THE EXQUISITE AND IMMACULATE GRACE OF CARMEN ESPINOZA, is now available.

You can find more information about her work at: Web: www.rebeccataylorbooks.com, Blog: www.rebeccataylorbooks.blogspot.com,  Twitter: https://twitter.com/RebeccaTaylorED,  Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/Rebeccataylor, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RebeccaTaylorBooks, Wattpad: http://www.wattpad.com/user/RebeccaTaylorED

 

How to Make a Damn Good Living as a Writer

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

 

With a title like that you’d think I’d have an answer, right?

Well I do.

Just not one writers like to hear. So let’s get the nasty part out of the way now.

Here goes: Only a very small percentage (under 8%) of working writers are making a living strictly on their writing alone, and those that are have a backlist a mile long. Whether you buy into Digital Book World’s latest report that 85% of writers make less than $1,000 a year or not, the possibility alone is a stunning one.

At least to those not involved in the publishing industry.

We know better.

We have author friends who make little more than a college student during their internship at McDonalds. We just received a check from our publisher which was less than the stamp it cost to mail, and worse, our agent took 15%. We live in a world where daily checks of our sales, in order to determine whether or not we can afford to spurge on the whole wheat bread or just buy the white, mushy crap again, are a regular occurrence.

Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit. But for most of us, if we didn’t hold a day job or better yet, an understanding spouse/partner/sugar daddy we wouldn’t be able to support our writely habit. A habit, yes. Because, let’s face it, we aren’t in this business to become rich.

Which is what I said a few weeks ago during a presentation I was giving on social media for writers. One of the attendees disagreed. He was, in fact, writing to make money. He’d done the research, found a niche, and wrote a book, a book he admits isn’t the best, in order to make a living as a self-published author. And he was making some dough at it. Not enough to retire for good, or even make rent (but close).

Now my publishing/artist ego (the one who suffered over 10 years of rejections and strife to become a published author) immediately reacted. How dare he! We write because we can’t do anything else. We write to live, to breathe, to be titled, WRITER. Those who write for money are hacks!

And then I took a step back, let go of my emotional baggage, and thought about what I now want from my writing career, which is the ability to make a living as a writer. At one point in my life, I wanted nothing more than to be published. To hold the title of author. Now, a total of 12 books in, I want to make a living wage doing what I love.

Maybe he was on to something.

Now I don’t necessarily agree that your book shouldn’t be the best book you can write. If it’s in the world, it should be the best you can give. That being said, I do think we, at least I am guilty of this, I don’t take advantage of the cold-bloodied business side of publishing. I can research who my audience is, and then gear my work toward that audience and advertising. That makes complete sense. There is nothing wrong with writing what you love, and turning it into a revenue stream.

After all, doctors don’t just cut you open and start digging around until they find what ails you. They test, and retest, looking for what needs to be added or removed, and then they get to work. And then you get a huge bill in the mail. See, the system works.

All that being said, you do have other options for making a living as a writer. In fact, I’m currently exploring one of those opportunities.

Online dating.

Or better yet, trolling the internet for anyone will to support my writely habit.

I’m a catch!

So far I’m weighing my choices. It’s a toss-up between a Nigeria Prince and a guy selling Viagra online. Both are very interested in getting to know me better.

As long as I send $50 for a processing fee.

I’ll have to check my sales…

My Affair … by Author Terri Benson

Terri Benson1I’m having an affair. It’s OK, my husband knows all about it. In fact, he’s kind of been involved in all my affairs and he likes it.

Oh, all right! My affairs are in my books. My hunky love interests are my heroes and, even if they don’t vaguely resemble me, I’m the gorgeous heroine. That’s one of the reasons I absolutely love to write. I get to experience everything I ever dreamed, and I’m not going to get put in jail or divorced for it. Although, I did have a co-worker who read my book say they’d never look at me the same way again…

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean (sorry, got carried away!) is that writing lets us be anything and anyone we want. We can create people we love to hate, or hate to love. We can change the world into any kind of place that suits our fancy (and our characters), and it can be centuries ago, or centuries in the future, or in an alternate future in an alternate universe. Whew.

Where else can you think up some diabolical way to kill someone off, and not worry that you’ll be carted off to the pokey? You don’t even have to use real methods, because writers can invent them. Need a poison or a weapon that doesn’t really exist, or a language to have a rousing argument in, or a pet that has one eye and one horn and flies and eats peo… (ooops, sorry, again) – you’re a writer, you can make one up that is believable!

You can write from the perspective of a child, or an animal, or a God (or Goddess) or an angst-ridden teen, or an omniscient person of the first order or whatever. But what we all must do is write something that’s worth reading. I believe that even if we don’t intend to publish what we write, we shouldn’t waste our words on something that doesn’t move us, or our readers. Of course, I’m talking fiction here, because it’s kind of hard to move your readers when you’re writing a technical manual on gear ratios (I’m sure someone out there will argue that point, but who’s writing this, anyway!?).

What I’m getting at is that we have the absolutely best job in the world—writing. We have no limits, no restrictions, no rules (except those darn editor-people ones). The only thing that would make it better is if we were guaranteed to get paid for each and every one of the words we put on paper, but hey, life’s a bitch, sometimes. At least we have fun not getting paid. Revel in your gift of words. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s “not a real job” because you can’t quit the other one and pursue writing full time (or if you can, God, I hate you!). Keep putting those letters and words and paragraphs on the page. We’re entertaining the world, after all.

Words! Gotta love ‘em.

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As a life-long writer, Terri Benson has one published novel (An Unsinkable Love), award winning short stories, and over a hundred articles – many award winning – in local and regional magazines and on-line e-zines. She has been a member of RMFW for the last several years, and her employer provides the location for the Western Slope events. She is currently promoting Western Slope events for the RMFW Publicity Committee, pelting RMFW with articles for the newsletter, and randomly blogging.

Her book, An Unsinkable Love, is temporarily down as the publisher has recently been bought and her rights reverted. But never fear, she shall overcome and those of you clamoring for a copy shall be satisfied! Visit Terri at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.

Westward Ho: Face-to-Face in a Virtual World … by Jenny Milchman

Jenny.MilchmanOn May 13th I am going to arrive in Denver after a 38,000 mile journey.

OK, maybe I should back up a bit.

Today a writer can feel like she needs to be everywhere at once. And I do mean everywhere—the internet gives us the power to be not just in everyone’s living room, but in their purses and back pockets on tablets and cell phones. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Pinterest…where’s a writer to go?

I’d like to shine a light on a place that’s getting a little less emphasis these days. Perhaps because it’s only one place, or at least one place at a time. I’m talking about real time, live, physical sites (not websites) where writers connect with readers face-to-face.

Last year my first novel came out after a thirteen year struggle to publication. Since the only thing harder than breaking in as a debut author is building a long-lasting career as a writer, both my husband and I knew that we would have to give this thing our all. So we did the only logical thing. We rented out our house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and withdrew our kids from first and third grades.

OK, maybe it wasn’t so logical. But once we’d done all of that, we then hit the road, car-schooling the kids, husband working from the front seat, while I visited nearly 500 bookstores, libraries, schools, and book clubs. All told, we covered seven months and 35,000 miles.

The question I get asked most often is whether it was worth it.

It’s a difficult question to answer because it comes down to what worth it means in terms of launching a writing career. Did we sell a lot of books at every stop? No, definitely not. But we knew from the outset that this was going to be less about selling books, and more about building relationships.

Milchman_RuinFallsBooksellers receive hundreds or thousands of Advance Reading Copies. They can’t possibly read them all. By going to the bookstore, I added to the work my publisher’s reps were doing of putting a book by an unknown author on the radar. 60-70% of the reading public browse in bookstores. That’s a lot of potential fans. And no matter how an event went, I would hear from booksellers weeks and even months later about a copy they had just hand sold to a person they knew would enjoy it.

The other question I hear is, “But what if I don’t have 7 months? Or 7 weeks for that matter?” My answer to that is: Don’t worry. The power of the face-to-face can be mined in 7 days. Or in a weekend. What I love about doing events is that it’s additive, and you can start with one.

Plan an event at your local bookstore, which won’t even require missing a day of work. Take a weekend road trip, making it a working vacation. Draw a radius around your hometown, and identify bookstores within it. If setting up the events seems difficult, consider working with an independent publicity firm. In this way I was able to get booked at some places that had established attendee lists, allowing me that rare author experience of walking into a crowded room.

Another factor to consider is the power of meeting your readers face-to-face. I found that as much as I enjoy communing with people virtually, there’s a powerful connection when that relationship is lifted to real time. I met people on the road whom I now consider friends. I can’t wait to meet them next time.

That’s right, I did say next time. Because with my second novel about to come out, we are set to hit the road all over again. Hope to see you in Denver!

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Jenny Milchman’s journey to publication took thirteen years, after which she hit the road for seven months with her family on what Shelf Awareness called “the world’s longest book tour”. Her debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick, and nominated for a Mary Higgins Clark award. Jenny is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, just came out and she and her family are back on the road. Please follow along at the tour page on her website.

You can learn more about Jenny and her novels at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Getting the Details Right

By Mark Stevens

If I had to pick a favorite prose stylist, it might be John Updike.

(I don’t have to pick, do I?)

Some think his stuff is over-written. I happen to think he was a poet whether he was writing fiction or criticism. Or poetry.

In fact, Updike published eight volumes of poetry in addition to everything else—novels, short stories, and reams of art and literary criticism. Updike died at age 76 and, one of many fascinating tidbits I gleaned from reading Adam Begley’s new biography of the man (Updike), he even wrote his last poem about four weeks before he died.

Prolific? To say the least. David Foster Wallace once asked: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” (I’ve seen that quote without attribution, too. Was it Wallace?)

Updike wrote three hours a day come hell or high water. He was widely hailed for his style and for his ability to elevate ordinary days and ordinary feelings, layered with human depth. He was jaded, wicked, heartfelt, crude, raunchy. And elegant, too.

But he couldn’t rely purely on his imagination. One thing Begley makes clear in his lengthy and highly enjoyable portrait is that John Updike believed in research. Nearly thirty years after he started writing for The New Yorker magazine, after worldwide success and a Pulitzer Prize (the first of two), John Updike still believed in getting the details right.

Stevens_rabbitrichPreparing to to write the third book in his “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), Updike decided to give his hero Harry Angstrom a new job, running a Toyota dealership in Pennsylvania. For the most part, Updike drew stories from the people and situations that were close at hand—either right down the street or at least familiar social circles. (His critics hate this about him.) As such, he knew nothing about car dealerships.

Updike, writes Begley, “rolled up his sleeves and went to work.” He hired help to untangle the “arcane protocols” of automobile finances and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, and paperwork involved in importing cars and more. He visited dealerships in the Boston area. “He aimed for, and achieved, a degree of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to the legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: ‘No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.’ ”

Credibility.

As George Saunders talks about (see this March 4 post by Mark), it’s about making the moments on the page “undeniable.” Even with his flashy style and a vocabulary that seemed like it knew no bounds, Updike started with getting the details right.

Rabbit is Rich, by the way, won another Pulitzer.

Final thought: I wish I had the kind of time a full-time writer would have to do this kind of research, but I recently spent a full day driving around Rio Blanco County with Deputy Sheriff John Scott. We drove for hours talking about life and crime around Meeker and upriver toward the Flat Tops Wilderness. I left with a fresh load of powerful details and many ways to (try and) give my new story another chance to be undeniable.
Stevens_Deputy John Scott (800x600)
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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Two)

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddThis is the second in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner. In this part, we’ll explore examples of how that plays out in practice.

Duo-writing isn’t for everyone, but one clear advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the “Writing Bed” individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did when we wrote our paranormal comedy-adventure series, the Silverville Saga. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. As you’ll recall at the end of the previous post, we cited an example of a scene where sheriff investigators and coroners from adjoining counties come together at the county line to decide who has to take possession of a decomposed corpse. That event – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, many of the situations in our first and second books from the series happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

For instance, in the first book, Little Greed Men, we inserted an anecdote where townsfolk flee from an apparently rabid dog with a frothing mouth. That dog, in reality, was Kym’s childhood pet. “Roscoe” had helped himself to a meringue pie cooling on someone’s front steps. The dog scared the wits out of the neighborhood until the cook discovered her empty pie plate.

The other scene from that same book we cited last time – the one in the embalming room – draws authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business. But writers contribute more than real-life experiences to a collaborative project. In our case, Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other’s complementary strengths.

Kym has a keen ear for dialog: she can hear the way different characters should talk, and the result is a distinct voice for each. Mark’s characters all tend to talk just like Mark. But Mark bravely jumps right into a scene while Kym endlessly stares at the screen waiting for the right words to come. Kym constantly plays devil’s advocate when it comes to defending the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If she can’t buy it, she won’t let it happen. Mark, on the other hand, happily plows through a scenario with little regard to where it comes from or where it’s going. That has its advantages, though. Mark, being a college professor and natural nerd, is  never at a loss for how to phrase things. But he tends to embellish, sometimes inserting too much literary texture (that’s the poet in him coming through). Kym champions a more nonintrusive voice, constantly reminding Mark of the kinds of books we both like to read.

Above all else, we prefer escapism – mysteries by John Sanford, Sarah Paretsky, Greg Iles, and Val McDermid; thrillers by Preston and Child, of course, but also those by John Case, Andrew Klavan, Dan Brown, Nelson DeMille, and Michael Crichton; warped fantasies (no dragons or elves) by Jonathan Carroll, Christopher Moore, Mario Acevedo, and Ramsey Campbell; sci-fi by Connie Willis, Charles Sheffield, Cordwainer Smith, John Barnes, Orson Scott Card, and Cory Doctorow. These lists could go on and on.

Okay, we do sometimes read something a little more high-brow. We like Laurie Wagner Buyer, Annie Proulx, Anita Diamant, Sara Gruen, Stacy Richter, Lorrie Moore. And yes, we even read the Pushcarts to keep our pulse on up-and-coming authors.

We read a lot because we think it helps our writing. And we’re shameless when it comes to stealing techniques that impress us. John Case gave The Genesis Code a twist in the final sentence of the book. We liked it so well that we added a final-sentence twist to Little Greed Men – or we thought we had, until the editors read it. Days before our novel went to press, we ate lunch with the publishers to pitch them the sequel. When the conversation came back to the first book, they asked if we planned to reveal the hidden identity of one of the major characters. We thought we had through implied exposition along the way as well as in our original final sentence. They didn’t get it. We rushed home and rewrote the last two paragraphs and final sentence, making that character’s identity unmistakable. It’s a decision we’ve never regretted, and almost all of our readers tell us they didn’t expect that ending. “Oh yeah,” one reader told us, “there were hints throughout the book. I just didn’t put it together until the end.”

Here’s a perfect example of what rigid writing can do to the quality of a story. We just knew the ambiguity at the end of Little Greed Men was enough to clue in our readers. We were wrong. We’ve been wrong about lots of things in our co-writing endeavors
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Several years ago, we wanted to tell an alternate history about Ankh-sen-amun, the wife of King Tut. We read lots of books, did tons of research, and then sat down to outline the story arc. We wrote extensive summaries for twenty-two carefully crafted chapters, and thought to ourselves, “Man, this book is going to write itself!” While this may work for some writers, the strategy completely killed our passion for the project. We remained steadfast and followed our outline to every detail. By six chapters, we’d gotten pretty bored. We hadn’t allowed the characters any voice in where the story was going. We all became miserable, and that manuscript still sits in a drawer at Chapter Six.

What’s become more workable for us is to create a broad-stroke outline that gives us the flexibility to still listen to our characters along the way. They may not always want to go where we had originally planned, and we’ve discovered we’d best listen to them.

We loved the movie, Romancing the Stone, about an author (played by Kathleen Turner) in search of a relationship that could match her novel series’ protagonist. Eventually she found her love (Played by Michael Douglass – gee, imagine that), but falling in love wasn’t easy.

We both tend to fall in love with our mouthiest, out most opinionated and pushy characters, but we don’t always relate to them in the same way. And certainly not like Kathleen Turner’s character did. And the process of encountering characters who take over our stories has really challenged Mark’s notion of how characters come about from the unconscious.

Our experience has produced characters who seem to have emerged at the same time for us both. Take Denton Fine in The Silverville Swindle. He was a nice enough guy from the start – so nice we got bored with him. Originally, we’d tagged Denton as our protagonist, but he turned out to be a little too white-bread for our taste. Same with our real-life friends. If they’re not quirky and eccentric, they don’t make our lunch-date list for long.

Pleasance Pantiwycke, from All Plucked Up, on the other hand, always makes our A-list for lunch. She’s a risk-taker and a slob, a black-marketeer and former female professional wrestler. Who wouldn’t enjoy her conversation? It only took a few pages for her to take over the sequel and become our protagonist.

Switch gears to Skippy from our first novel. She’s the only prominent female in the story, and one would think that Kym would empathize with her personality. Not so. Kym didn’t like spending time with her at all. Getting inside a woman’s head has always been more difficult for Kym, who finds it much easier to relate to men. Ironically, Mark got along with her just fine. This character serves as the main love interest for Billy, the story’s protagonist. We talked at length about how far their intimacy should go and decided, in the end, that it wouldn’t go far at all.

Here’s why: Several years ago, we’d bought a book on how to write erotica, hoping to make scads of money on the romance book wagon. We sat down and drafted out a torrid love scene, but it was simply too embarrassing to put into words. At least our words. “Love shaft” and “hot tunnel of passion” seemed like ridiculous and corny expressions that readers of the genre expected. We know it sells; we just couldn’t do it. When it came to shaping the relationship between Skippy and Billy, we offered a lukewarm story arc, and our editors cried foul. Either consummate that relationship or back it off, they said. We backed off and left it up to the imagination of the readers. For two authors that insist that co-writing is like good sex, we still can’t figure out why we can’t pen erotica.

Billy, don’t ask us why, turned into a protagonist that readers tend to like. We made him a cheat and a conman, and neither one of us really cared much for him. He was central, as the story unfolded, and we got stuck with him. He was also a cast member whose characteristics came from a sleazy guy we both knew years ago. We’re not naming names, but he always used to hit on Kym. Which brings us to where we find our characters. Most are composites of personality types of people everyone knows: Grady, the curmudgeon rancher; Buford, the self-interested town promoter; Howard, the endearing village simpleton – all Silverville Swindle cast members. Maybe it’s telling that we were most attached to Howard and easily crawled inside his head:

Howard liked to pedal. He didn’t have to think about anything else – just push the right foot down and then push the left foot down. Sometimes he went so slow that his bike would wobble, but then he’d stand up on his pedals and pump until he sped up fast enough that it felt like flying.

In some ways, it reminded him of massaging limbs. Whenever he helped Mr. Fine embalm bodies, Howard’s job was to squeeze the arms and legs so the blood could come out and the embalming fluid could go in. At least, that’s what Mr. Fine said it was for. First the right leg, and then the left leg. Just like pedaling.

Howard looks at the world in a very simple way that makes sense to the child in all of us, and it was soothing to write from his perspective, taking everything at face value.

Buford is modeled after a specific person, but again we’re not naming names. It’s been interesting to us to watch our community try to guess his real identity. No one ever has, and probably won’t. Buford and all of our characters emerge from some weird shared consciousness where we meet and get to know the folks who live within the city limits of Silverville and the environs.

But that’s not the strangest part of co-writing. Next time we’ll talk about those characters we didn’t know could exist when you’re a writing duo – those that somehow mysteriously leap from our collective minds and take over our stories…

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Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration

By Jeanne Stein

Recently I was asked to talk about what inspires me as a writer and a person. My first automatic response was everything. But then I realized I might be confusing inspiration with the process of creation—-taking an idea and developing it into a story.

Two different things.

The muse that sparks an idea can be anything. I get ideas from newspapers, television shows, eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations, other books. Ideas float on the air like dandelion snow. You only have to hold out your hand to grab one. Ideas are the beginning of the creative process.

Inspiration is something else. Inspiration is what makes me sit down at the computer everyday. It’s what helps me through the dark days when it seems I’m fighting a losing battle against the indifference of critics and sometimes even my agent and editor. It’s fighting the urge to give up when a brand new writer comes out of nowhere and wins that huge contract complete with movie and TV rights and a six-figure advance. And then reading the book and realizing, it is that good.

We all need inspiration. Something to recharge the soul and get us excited about life. It’s that voice inside that says keep going. It’s the message I hoped my character Anna Strong would impart. It’s the voice that says women are strong and clever and capable of great bravery—-with or without super powers.

I’ve come to believe a writer needs to be his or her own inspiration. We need to have faith in our abilities and the determination to persevere. We can take strength from those around us, but ultimately, we our responsible for ourselves.

We are all our own inspiration.

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Jeanne C. SteinJeanne Stein is the bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Her award winning series has been picked up in three foreign countries and her short stories published in collections here in the US and the UK. Her latest Anna book, Blood Bond, was released August 27, 2013. Jeanne’s newest endeavor is in collaboration with author Samantha Sommersby: The Fallen Siren Series. Published under the pseudonym S. J. Harper, the first book in that series, Cursed, was released Oct. 2013, book two, Reckoning, will be out this October.

S. J. Harper: http://fallensiren.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000177556968

The Second Book is Like Sex … by Aaron Michael Ritchey

Aaron_Michael_Ritchey.jpgWell, Long Live the Suicide King is now in the world. It’s in the collection of books that human beings have produced. I have an ISBN for it, which is the second ISBN I have. Two down and another hundred to go. Edgar Rice Burroughs said that if you wrote a hundred books, at least a couple might be good. So that is the plan.

Now, I’ve been asked if the second time is better, worse, easier, harder?

It’s infinitely easier. Like sex.

My first time with actual sex was a disaster. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say no one, not the warmest, fuzziest romance writer nor the sleaziest porn producer could capture the tragi-comedy of my first sexual experience. But I’d like to think I got better with the whole sex thing. I did it right at least twice: both the sex thing and the book thing.

I wrote the book, edited the book, and got the book out into the world. Which for me is a minor miracle. I used to write books and book and books and then shelve them because I was too afraid to query agents or editors. And I knew that what I had was blech, but my next idea? My next magnum opus would shatter the publishing world with its brilliance. With the fire of a new idea scorching me, I would start with the lovely blank page and churn out another novel no one would ever read. And so on and so on and so on. It was good practice, but in the end, for me, if I am not seeking out readers, writing becomes an exercise of self-pleasure. And that is what I did alone for years and years.

Ritchey_Suicide KingI don’t get to sit on books anymore. I’ve spent decades working on my writing, and for me to not share my books with the world because of self-centered fear is a crime. And sad. I’ve lived most of my life too terrified to move, but not anymore.

Yes, the second book was easier. I know so much more about pre-orders, about reviews, about starting early, about the kind of marketing material I need. And I didn’t dread my book launches because a book launch is a party I throw for all the people I love.

I’m excited about hand-selling my new book, however odd it might be. The Never Prayer had a nice hook. Angels, demons, love, sure. The new book is my happy, little suicide book. It’s funny, but yeah, it’s about suicide. Yikes. However, it’s also about hope, donuts, Christian girls, the ‘hood, and a very Laurence Fishburne villain.

Like 13 Reasons Why meets The Matrix! Without the sci-fi element.

Yes, I’m still nervous about having another book out there. And yeah, I have high hopes and impossible dreams swimming around in my head, but do you know what?

I’m enjoying the process.

For right this second, I don’t need riches and fame to be happy about my writing career. I’m enjoying where I am and what I am doing right now, which is a miracle. And at times? I even pine for my pre-published days!

But that is a waste, longing for the past.

I’m doing the deal right now. I’m writing books and I’m finding publishers for them. Not big publishers, but publishers, and I’m excited about the prospect of going rogue and independently publishing.

So to celebrate, I’ll be doing a little giveaway, not just my new book, Long Live the Suicide King, but also Black by Catherine Winters and The Prophetess: At Risk by Linda Rohrbough.

All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by the end of Saturday (May 3rd) that describes one good thing about the writing life you are experiencing right now. Or, if you’re not a writer, something good about reading books, owning books, buying books, shelving books, underlining books, or anything book!

I’ll mail you out the books and it will be epic! Free books!

Life is sweet!

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Aaron Michael Ritchey’s first novel, The Never Prayer, was published in March of 2012 to a fanfare of sparkling reviews including an almost win in the RMFW Gold contest. Since then he’s been paid to write steampunk, cyberpunk, and sci-fi western short stories, two of which will appear in a new fiction magazine, FICTIONVALE. His second novel, Long Live the Suicide King, is out and giving hope to the masses. As a former story addict and television connoisseur, he lives in Colorado with his wife and two ancient goddesses posing as his daughters.

For more about him, his books, and how to overcome artistic angst, visit his website. He’s on Facebook as Aaron Michael Ritchey and he tweets – @aaronmritchey.