Do YOU Know How to Find Your Agent Match?

Finding an agent isn't just about finding "someone" to represent your work. The author-agent relationship works best when author and his or her agent match well on a personal and professional level. 

Some people prefer to work via email; others like to talk by phone. Some authors want to know about every submission and every editor's comments, while others would rather hear only positive news. 

Although, to a certain extent, authors must "wait" for an agent to offer representation, we can increase the odds of getting that offer by making smart--and informed decisions--about which agents to query in the first place.  

Agents often advise authors to "do your homework before you query" but many authors struggle with understanding that assignment. 

Three weeks from now, at Colorado Gold, I'll be presenting a joint workshop with my fantastic agent, Sandra Bond, on exactly what it means to "do your homework" and how to pick--and work with--the agent that's right for you.

In the meantime (or for those who might not make the conference) here are some tips to start you in the right direction.

 

1. Query only agents who represent works in the genre where your manuscript belongs--and your subsection (if any) within that genre. 

Note: this requires knowing what genre you're writing. 

Every book needs to be shelved (or "shelve-able") in a bookstore. Figure out where your book would be shelved BEFORE you query. Even if you're writing a speculative-historical-mystery-YA/MG-romance...one (2 at most) of those are primary. Know your genre.

Narrow your query list from "all agents in the known universe" to "agents who want to represent MY genre." No matter how well you write, you won't convert a romance specialist into a mystery lover--or vice versa. Do not try. The easiest way to rejection is querying agents who don't represent the type of book you're offering.

2. Check the agent's bio, website, or wish list (if any), and see whether the agent likes the type of book you've written. 

Finding the right agent requires more than just a genre match. Huge diversity exists within genres. You need to find an agent who likes the type of book you've written (e.g., cozy mystery) rather than something on the other end of the genre spectrum. 

Many agents also use the "Manuscript Wish List" (#MSWL) hashtag on Twitter to let people know what they're looking for. Check this too. 

3. If you can't tell what the agent is actively looking for at the moment, look at the his or her client list and see if your work fits into the "group." 

An agent whose client list consists primarily of cozy mysteries and middle grade novels might not be the best candidate for your gritty, erotic police procedural. It's tempting to just send queries out to every agent in your genre, but don't. It wastes a lot of time and effort on both sides.

Determining whether your work fits into an agent's client or wish list requires honest self-reflection about yourself & your work. The question is not "do I want Agent A to love me?" but "do I genuinely believe Agent A will love this book I wrote?" These are not the same thing.

4. Google the agents you want to query; read their articles and interviews.

Before I pitched Sandra, I read an interview in which she mentioned liking character-driven mystery. That's what I write, so the interview helped me decide to pitch her (at the 2012 Colorado Gold Conference).

Researching agents individually does take more time than simply carpet bombing the Writers' Digest listings, but it also gives great insight into whether an agent would be a good fit for you as well as your work. The query process isn't just about sending a thousand missiles into the night and hoping one of them hits a target. "Aim" comes before "fire" (or "send") in queries as well as warfare. 

Want to know more? I hope you'll join Sandra and me for the "Finding the Perfect Agent" workshop at Colorado Gold!

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she  raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

ONE OF THESE THINGS JUST DOESN’T BELONG HERE…

My ruminations today are on the delicate balance between presenting our readers with something they want to read vs. challenging them to read something that is uncomfortable and even Clasicsunpleasant but that might stick with them a little longer. It starts with the photo I've included with this post. While browsing blogs and online news articles about books and literature I came across the ad you see at right, and it struck me as blasphemy that Fifty Shades of Grey should be listed among such classics as Catcher in The Rye, of all things. It is outrageous that a book that, by all accounts, is barely more than poorly written Internet porn should find itself on a shelf, albeit an imaginary online shelf, with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, being an expert on web design and development I know ads such as these are rarely put together by humans any more. These days there are algorithms smart enough to detect the topic of the article or blog being read and assemble ads automatically that are aimed to draw the attention of a reader with similar interests. It is more likely that this ad was put together by what is called an ad-bot (short for advertisement robot) based on the content of the article I was already reading than by a human being. He doesn't know any better, all he knows is the criteria around which his algorithm was written. Which made me wonder what that criteria might be, that would list a universally panned piece of populist tripe amongst such literary gems. Artificial intelligence is still decades away from being able to program value judgments into computers, so it had to be some mathematically quantifiable metrics on which the ad-bot made the choice to include those particular books in this particular ad.

This got me asking what these books had in common. Emotionally I wanted to reject the notion the Shades could have anything in common with the other three. But I looked at them objectively. Since the article I was reading made reference to Atlas Shrugged, it made sense that it was this book which seeded the initial algorithm, which them searched for other books in common with Shrugged. For one thing, all four books are listed on most retail book sites as General Fiction. I would've though Shades would be Romance, but I looked and before Erotica it is listed on most sites as General. Next, each of these books had a profound impact on our culture when released. Again, a bot cannot make a value distinction as to whether that impact was good or bad, only that there was indeed a measurable sea change as a result of the release of each of these novels. For better or worse, each book was destined to go down in history as a classic, if by no other definition than that it impacted society in some significant way.

This got me to thinking about the books I've read that I enjoyed, and those I did not. Oddly enough, I found that there was a much greater number than I wanted to admit that I found uncomfortable or unpleasant to read but that stuck with me, that I could not shake. These were not necessarily badly written books, in fact most were quite well written, but books that forced me to confront things I usually avoid, or made me see things in ways that made me uncomfortable, or even changed my outlook on life against my will. Books like, for example, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, a very dark look at attraction and rejection that includes the most detailed POV description of a suicide I ever read; or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in which a young man's love of Beethoven is stripped away from him as a casualty of an experimental behavioral modification procedure (read torture); or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs which I'm still not entirely sure I understood but that contained some of the most disturbing images I've ever read.

What surprises me is, arguably, these books that I profess to dislike have impacted my life to a greater degree than any book I read that I liked. I say arguably because there are some neck and neck.

And that brought me to an assessment of my own writing. Even as a small boy I aspired to write books that people don't just enjoy, but that they cherish and want to keep in their libraries to read again and again. I still go back and read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and Dune. And you can have my original hardcover copies of the Harry Potter series when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!

But I ask myself, is it better, for my own immortality, to have written a series of dearly beloved books, or to have instead left a legacy of disturbing, uncomfortable, haunt-you-in-your-sleep books that nevertheless impact people in a significant and long enduring way? I waffle on this occasionally. I still have no answer, except that in the end I write whatever I write the best way that I know how, leaving it all on the court, so to speak, and let others decide where my legacy falls. If you, dear reader, have an opinion on the matter, I'd love to read it in comments, below.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
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Rigors of Research … by Katriena Knights

Knights_SummoningSebastianOne of the great things about writing is that you can use it as an excuse to research almost anything. String theory, exoplanets, the Alaskan bush, ancient Sumerian literature, conspiracy theories—you name it, it’s story fodder. In fact, I’ve been known to tweak a story plot specifically to give me a reason to read up on something I’ve found that looks interesting.

Sometimes I might take it a little too far… But heck, that’s part of the fun, right?

In my new book, due out August 5th, I researched something that’s interested me for a long time—the Tunguska event that occurred in Siberia in 1908. I first heard about it on The X-Files (I’ve learned a lot of things from The X-Files); in fact there’s an episode called “Tunguska.” (It’s part one of a two-part mythology arc sequence—“Tunguska” and “Terma,” but I digress.) In that show, the mysterious explosion is blamed on aliens (because of course it is), but in my book I’ve come up with a different explanation.

Interest in Tunguska has come into popular culture again since the 2013 meteor flyby in Chelyabinsk, also in Siberia. That gets into the story, too, although not in terms of mystical origins.

This all sounded pretty cool when I came up with it. Then I started writing the story and realized how much research I had to do. My characters spend time in Chelyabinsk, then go to Vanavara, which the nearest small town to Tunguska. In the process, I ended up researching the layout of Moscow’s main international airport, including reading Russian maps that showed where to find the Burger King as well as menu items from a couple of airport restaurants (including one where you can get a baked potato with crab on it). So the time I’ve spent learning Russian—which came about partially due to another book, which has a Russian protagonist—paid off for that one. Otherwise it might have been tricky to figure out what was on those potatoes, because Google Translate, while an awesome innovation, isn’t always the most accurate.

I spent a lot of time on YouTube, too, watching video tours of Chelyabinsk and Vanavara, and then on Google Street View, taking a tour of a pedestrian mall in downtown Chelyabinsk. All the time, I was thinking not only that it was a hell of a lot of fun, but that it’s amazing the kind of access we have these days to details we previously could only get by spending time in the places we want to write about.

That’s not to say everything in Summoning Sebastian is a hundred percent accurate. I’m sure I made mistakes. But I did the best I could, and I enjoyed writing the book. And, best of all, I was able to travel to Siberia without having to deal with the bugs.

Summoning Sebastian is currently available for pre-order from Samhain Publishing at a reduced pre-order price.

Stop by my blog for news on upcoming books and other ramblings, and follow me on Twitter.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem when she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinios, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children. Visit her at her website or her blog.

Would’ve Been Kinder to Stab Me in the I: How Harper Lee Ruined My Life

J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

They say, Never Meet Your Writerly Heroes. I can see why. Writers are very much human, as in INCREDBILIBY flawed individuals. I mean, have you met me?

Then again, I’ve had the privilege of meeting three of my all time writerly crushes. In all three cases (Christopher Moore, Tim Dorsey & Robert Crais) they were perfectly lovely people. Not a one got drunk and tried to slip me the tongue (as opposed to a great storpicy a friend of mine has about a certain, now dead, author named Hunter and a wild night in Boulder, CO). Much to my chagrin I might add, but that’s a post for another time, and probably another blog – Fifty Shades of Crap You Don’t Want to Know about Me.

What I wanted to discuss today, is Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman. Yes, I am going to whine and there maybe a few spoilers (which I learned after reading the 1st chapter online so they aren’t exactly spoilers for the whole book so I don’t feel too bad about spilling some secrets).

To Kill a Mockingbird was and is my favorite book. It has been since I first read it at the not so tender age of 18. I won’t go into the whys, but to me, it’s nearly the perfect novel. What added to the mystic was the lore of Harper Lee--having written only one perfect novel, and then never having published another word. It was/is my idea of the best writing career.

For so many years she was incredibly protective of her privacy and her rights. And then Go Set a Watchmen was announced. I, like so many others, was thrilled with a squeal to Scout’s story. I imagined all the ways in which the tale would enfold, about how Scout and Jem grew up, about who they became in the wake of the events of that summer.

That excitement faded under the elderly abuse accusations and later the investigation into those charges. But I hung in, pre-ordering my copy. And days before the release, the publisher put chapter 1 online…

Are you freaking kidding me? Jem’s dead? His death gets a throw away one paragraph?

My innocence is lost.

To Kill a Mockingbird will never be the same for me again. Which is why I’m sharing that factoid with you, so your illusions are shattered too. Misery loving company and all.

Which brings me to the point of this post, as a writer, I need to make sure I never do that to my readers. I can kill off characters all I want, but I need to do it in a way that acknowledges the sacrifice of time and attention my readers have put into my books.

I am not blaming Harper Lee for killing Jem off, nor with how she did it, as I fully believe she didn’t intend this book to meet the reader’s gaze. Not really at least.

Which is my second point of this post, as a writer, you don’t fully have control over what happens after you sell as book or aren’t in control of your rights anymore. So be careful in whatever decisions you make, now and going forward, i.e., who you leave your writerly estate too.

Did you read Go Set a Watchman? If so, what did you think? If not, why not? And do you have any other examples of when a writer you love destroyed your faith in writerly humanity?

 

Now come talk smack to me on facebook, twitter or on my website.  Or better yet, leave me all of your writerly estate. I vow not to Go Set a Watchman your stuff.

The happiness advantage – To write better novels, lighten up!

By Janet Lane

--What’s behind the happiness craze?

It’s summertime, and the weather’s finally fine. Sunshine is in abundance, and so are articles about happiness.

In July 9th’s Colorado Style, The Washington Post’s Brigid Schulte wrote an artcle, “Boost happiness with a few simple daily habits.” The July 12 issue of Parade’s cover headline reads, “50 Shades of Happy,” and the August Golf Digest cover declares it’s their “Happiness Issue.”

In one of those golf articles, contributor Bob Carney discusses a golfer on his high school team who was the happiest golfer he ever knew. He would be happy no matter the weather or what he shot, and he was not only the best player on the high school team, he was also the luckiest. His 6-handicap, Carney says, wasn’t all magic. It turns out there’s scientific proof that this “happiness edge” exists.

Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, claims our brains, in positive mode, perform significantly better than they do in negative, neutral or stressed modes. Carney quoted five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thompson, who said, “You can think best when you’re happiest.”

So why are we all so hard on ourselves on the golf course, or at our computers, writing novels? One reason, Carney suggests, is that we “model” experience. We have preconceived notions about the “right” way to raise children, choose a mate, or in our case, write or promote our novels. These notions can be time-saving, but if we take them too seriously, we begin to believe that this is the way the world really works.

Are our theories about how to write a good novel simply a construct, also?

Annika Sorenstam’s coach, Lynn Marriott, says we have a negativity bias, that we store negative experiences in a deeper and more permanent way than we do our positive experiences. This suggests that we can undo the harmful, negative bias by replacing it with a positive bias.

If we have a propensity to imbed the negative, it will take a little more effort, but we can learn to apply this concept to make our writing more joyful, more satisfying.

Close your eyes and think back to the first time you wrote fiction—how excited you were, how magical it all seemed, creating a story from your heart, from that beautiful, magical place we call creativity. You couldn’t wait to write more, to discover what happened next, to watch your characters come to life on the pages.

Time, as we know, passes. Some stories get rejected, some get admired, some get published. We trudge on, dragging our feet through the industry “mud” of dashed hopes, disappointing letters in the mail, demanding editors, indifferent agents, careless reviews, puny sales numbers.

Over time, the joy fades, and our creative hearts need replenishing.

Take a deep breath. Hug your manuscripts and/or published books, and recall that early joy. Armed with positive thoughts, dwell on your successes and enjoyment. Remember to relish those memories, because it takes more effort to embed the positive.

When you’re preparing to edit (or, let’s be honest, “thinking” about preparing to edit, or tying yourself in the chair to force yourself to edit), engage encouraging thoughts.

Capture old, negative thoughts and turn them on their ear. Dash memories of plotting gone bad, and critique sessions that leave your manuscript bleeding from all the comments. You may have to hand back your bleeding manuscript to your critique partners and ask them to write two good things about your pages. Then you can take control and read and re-read those positive comments, giving them the same power as the critical comments . This will help you enter into your editing session with a hopeful, happy outlook, better able to tackle any problem areas.

When you’re gearing up to write new material, hug your creative mind and give it a jump start. Think of three or more outstanding memories of your writing, times when you could sing, you were so happy.

When you finished a scene that made you cry. Or laugh.
When you wrote a piece of dialogue that impressed you so much, you wanted to dance.
When someone looked you right in the eye, gave you a smile, and said they really enjoyed your writing.
When you wrote “The End” for the first time.
When you read a fantastic, positive review of your book, written by an obviously intelligent reader.

You’ll think of other gems. They’re in your memory bank, just temporarily dulled by the hard knocks that come with the industry.

Writing this blog made me happy. I hope it makes you happy, too. Join me next month as I continue my happy writing thoughts.

Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned From Mountain Biking

By Aaron Ritchey

I know what you are thinking.

When I first started blogging for RMFW I wrote that I learned all about writing from Johnny Cash. Well, that is true, but a blog entitled “I learned a little about writing from mountain biking because I didn’t learn everything from Johnny Cash” is kinda clunky.

The mountain bike rides I do can be divided into two equal parts—the sweaty, grinding, heart-puking climb up and the fast, glorious, soar of the ride down. Not a lot of flat, and I think in the writing life, there isn’t a lot of flat. It’s a struggle, but it’s the struggle that strengthens us.

As my friend Jason Evans says, all suffering is redemptive. So, that’s number one on the list, and you just know I was gonna do a list.

  • WRITING IS THE CLIMB – The climb is hard. The climb requires perseverance, and with mountain biking, constant pedaling. I’m a write-everyday-type of guy because if I stop, it’s too easy to stay stopped. If you don’t pedal while you are climbing, you will abruptly stop moving and fall.
  • FALLING IS PART OF THE GAME — When I was learning how to mountain bike, I would come home bruised and bloodied. Writing books and publishing books is just as bloody a business. There will be cuts, bruises, and injuries, sometimes to your very soul. It makes the successes all the more dramatic and heroic.
  • GOTTA UNCLICK — I would show my mountain bike guru my wounds, and he would say, “Gotta unclick, man. Gotta unclick.” You see, my shoes click into my pedals so I am one with my bike. If I ran into trouble bouncing up (or down) the rocks, or if I lost my balance, I had to quickly unclick a shoes from its housing, or I would land on my leg, thigh, side, arm, uvula. If I clicked out of my pedals before I fell, I’d set my foot down and avoid physical damage. In the writing game, when I fall, I have to learn to unclick. I have to learn to let go of bad reviews, a finicky editor, or terrible sales. I have to unclick, get my balance, and keep on biking up the hill.
  • GOTTA GET A GURU — Lindon Weibe was my mountain bike guru, and he taught me everything I needed to know. In writing, I’ve had many gurus—Linda Rohrbaugh, Andrea Brown, Laura Rennert, Jeanne C. Stein, Mario Acevedo, and many, many, many others. Find people to talk to. Listen to their advice and observe their lives.
  • LEARN TO LOVE THE CLIMB — So I bike Deer Creek Canyon, the east entrance of Mount Falcon, a little bit of Red Rocks, and the Apex trail near Heritage Square. All of these are a sharp elevation gain to the top, and then a swooping thrill ride down. I love downhill. It’s easy, exciting, no sweat. But to get to the downhill, I have to climb, so I taught myself to love the climb. It’s the joy of the struggle, it’s the self-discipline of figuring out a time to write, and then using that time to write. Even though the new season of Orange is the New Black is on. The good stuff is in the grit, baby.
  • DOWNHILL IS AN ILLUSION — When I’m climbing the east entrance of Mount Falcon, which I have dubbed MFE, Mount Falcon East, baby!, I am thinking, “Oh, the downhill is going to be so sweet.” And when I get to the top and turn around, yes, the downhill is fun, but it’s not as good as I thought it would be. I have a mantra, “There is no downhill. There is only the hill.” I think what happens to a lot of successful writers is that they get the fame and success and suddenly the writing game is like biking downhill. It all just comes, and it’s all so sweet. Humans were made to struggle and challenge their limits.
  • STOP AND LOOK AROUND— So we're climbing up the hill, sweating, or we're soaring down the hill, enjoying our successes. Either way, stop, look around, breathe. The writer’s life is a good life. Not an easy life, but a good life.

The biggest difference between writing and mountain biking is that writing doesn’t burn very many calories. Actually, writing is terrible for your physical health—carpal tunnel, back pain, weight gain from stress eating. Yeah, not good for you.

So remember, write a little, but put a little time in on your bike, mountain or otherwise. Gotta stay fit to write them books, partner.

Enjoy the climb. There is only the hill.

Saying Thanks

By Pamela Nowak

Recently, I’ve thought a lot about how much, and how many people, I take for granted.

How often do we all converse about losing people and how much they meant to us—most often in the past tense? People move, become less involved, or—worse—pass away. Too many times, we chat about how important that person was without having ever told them directly. This seems to occur in families, with childhood friends, in careers…well, pretty much everywhere.

We think conveying appreciation more with family members because there are built-in holidays that prompt us to tell mothers, fathers, siblings that we care about them. Yet, we have a tendency to mention it only on holidays and we forget entirely about our extended families. Have you ever told your favorite aunt how important she was in your life? How long has it been since you even spoke to your uncle? Your cousins?

And then there are those friends from high school who are remembered at class reunion time but easily forgotten in between. Recently, I discovered Facebook pages related to my former hometowns and was able to reconnect with people from my past…it’s been a fun experience. But…maybe it’s time to reach out to tell them how much their friendships meant all those years ago.

There are so many I’ll likely never have a chance to tell. I wouldn’t begin to know how to locate college professors, former bosses, co-workers who taught me skills I use today. One day, I’ll see obituaries and think about how important they were, and how I never told them.

And then there are those who are still part of my life, many of whom have guided me in my writing. Writers seldom develop their craft in a vacuum and seldom find the courage to undertake the submission process without the support of others.

So many fellow writers taught me craft, helped me grow, supported me as I floundered, hugged me in the face of rejection letters. RMFW is filled with people who impacted me as a writer and as a person. Yet, I may have never told them how much they mean to me. It’s as easy to neglect doing this when you see someone regularly as it is when you’ve not seen them for years.

It’s well past time to let them know the impact they’ve made.

My challenge, to myself and to my fellow writers, is to reach out to those who helped shape us. Whether it be a chatty note, a formal thank-you, or a “I never told you this, but…” next time you see them, take a moment to convey your appreciation. Tell them they’ve made a difference. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just heart-felt. The Colorado Gold Conference is a perfect time to do this but certainly not the only time. The opportunities are endless. All we need to do is take the initiative and convey our appreciation.

Think about those who are important to you. Then, reach out and let them know!

Nobody Writes Like You

By Mark Stevens

Can you write like your favorite writer?

I know I can’t.

You might have Ursula Le Guin or Patricia Highsmith or Ernest Hemingway in mind when you write something, but somehow it comes out on the page as, well, you.

Somewhere in all those choices of words, sentences, characters, images, plots, moods, dialogue, action sequences, big finishes, prologues and epilogues—no matter how much you might try to emulate another writer—you show up.

I was thinking about this recently when The New Yorker featured a podcast reading of “The Trouble With Mrs. Blynn, The Trouble With the World.” That’s a story by Patricia Highsmith (who happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers) and it was read by Yiyun Li.

The story is so simple—in a way. It’s about “Mrs. Palmer,” who is dying of leukemia in a seaside cottage in England. She is being tended to by a few people including a “Mrs. Blynn,” a nurse, who has a grating presence and inflicts various petty cruelties on her patient.

Not much happens. It’s true.

But yet—so much happens. Listen to the discussion between Yiyun Li and The New Yorker's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, and you realize how much subtext was going on around this cottage, where all the so-called “action” takes place. Instructive? To say the least.

It’s typical Highsmith. This was stuff she cared about, the needling insults and jagged edges between somewhat ordinary people. Her protagonists (Thomas Ripley, hello) are extremely flawed human beings. She crafted 20-plus novels and many dozens of short stories out of her fascination with warped humanity.

Plotting and Writing - HighsmithEarlier last week, I read a terrific story in The Guardian by Sam Jordison—“Creative Writing Lessons from Patricia Highsmith”—in which he looked at her guide, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. One of Jordison’s many keen insights is this: that the guide itself proves it’s “impossible to walk in Highsmith’s shoes.”

Yes, I dig Patricia Highsmith—but I couldn’t write like her even if the Valyrian greatsword Ice was making its way toward my tender little neck.

I ask: what’s up with that?

Put a hundred writers in a room, give them 40 specific plot points for a novel, the setting, eight major characters and ask them all to write in the style of a noir thriller.

What will you get?

You will get precisely 100 different novels in return.

The best writers, in my mind, have their own fingerprints on the page, a dab of their own soul—sometimes a whole lot more. But unless you are outright stealing a style or lifting ideas wholesale, you will leave your mark on the page. It's part of the process. It's why we write.

What’s my point?

As a writer, I like to remind myself—nobody can tell the story the way I’m going to tell the story.

Nobody can.

Nobody will.

It’s not even possible.

And to do a decent job telling it, I better have a good idea of what’s driving me to tell it.

Patricia Highsmith (from Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction): “There is no secret of success in writing except individuality, or call it personality. And since every person is different, it is only for the individual to express his difference from the next fellow. This is what I call the opening of the spirit. But it isn’t mystic. It is merely a kind of freedom—freedom organized. Plotting and Writing will not make anybody work harder. But it will, I hope, make people who want to write realize what is already within them.”

TAKING CRITICISM

By Kevin Paul Tracy

Some of the most respected classical writers throughout history did literary criticism as either a sideline or as a career before they sold their own novels. From Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde, then great writers would often decimate their peers in papers and writing journals, eviscerating them in public treatments. Today, when two or more people get into heated, venom-laden, often imaginative insult wars in emails loops or chat rooms, we refer to it as a "flame war," but this sort of thing is not new to the journalistic world. Often quite famous writers would go back and forth in periodicals, attacking and counter-attacking each other's works in the most colorful and often personal ways. The public loved it, so it sold a lot of papers, so the editors loved it. Back then, there was a certain poetry to the insults exchanged. Poe once wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he "...belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake." Because profanity was much more taboo than it is now, writers had to really challenge themselves to come up with original and imaginative ways to dress each other down that would both make their point and entertain the reader at the same time.

One could make a very convincing point about the lack of efficacy of such frontal assaults, popular as they were to the readers. It stands to reason than our best efforts in any endeavor are going to become intimately intertwined with our ego and self-esteem. This is our attempt to accomplish something intended for public consumption. We are expending effort and strain in its creation, and we want to do it correctly and in good form. We want others to not only read, but to enjoy it. No one sets out to fail, not on purpose. The man who does not care about whether others appreciate his attempts to create is a man better off dead - he is not truly contributing anything to the human condition, but stroking his own ego, little more than public masturbation. We are better off without him. Frankly I submit such men do not exist, or if they do, they are too rare to care about. So understandably we are going to feel attacked on a personal level whenever something we have created is attacked, and when that happens, any truth or lessons to learn from the criticism, however deeply buried under hyperbole and colorful language, is bound to be lost on us. We don't learn much from such criticism.

On the other hand, couching criticism in too much pillowy language to soften the blow often risks obscuring the points one wishes to make, or to blunt their importance so much that a very critical point may be ignored as less important. Saying, for example, "I love your writing. Just one small thing, for what it's worth, when you have a one-page character like the patrolman, who is very colorfully written by the way, discover the blood on the baseboard, no offense but you are not utilizing your protagonist, my favortie character in your book, in the most proactive manner," the point is so well couched in diplomatic rhetoric it could be lost. Ego and self-esteem of the writer aside, the best way to make a point is still the most direct, pointed, even blunt way: "You waste an opportunity to show your protagonist's sleuthing genius by having a minor cut-out character find crucial clues instead. And you do it repeatedly through the book." There can be no mistaking the point being made, and also the importance the critic places on that point.

Crying at The ComputerIn receiving a critique, I prefer the blunt approach to being coddled and swaddled and fed treacle. And still, other writers can get their hackles up and throw a glass of wine in your face for saying it.

There are those whose opinion, no matter how qualified, we as individuals do not respect, for whatever reason. I submit that the level of umbrage we take from a criticism increases exponentially in reverse proportion to the amount of respect we bear the critic: the less we esteem his opinion the greater offense we take at it. For this I'm afraid there is no remedy. As writers, we must merely bite the bullet and take it.

I further submit that to engage a critic on any level is folly. It doesn't matter that you can explain away his point, that you have a greater knowledge of writing craft than he, or that you are right and he is wrong. Engaging him can only make you look bad on a multitude of levels. One, you come off as insecure about your own writing. No matter how well reasoned or skillfully worded your retort, any retort at all smacks of defensiveness and lack of confidence, like you feel you have something to defend. Second, you can come off as petty, especially if anything you say can be interpreted as a personal attack on the critic. Reacting to a critique can sound like you are only reacting to the critique, and any personal opinions you express about the critic were only formed as a result of his critique, not based on any other independent knowledge or observation. Thirdly, you can appear quite arrogant in a retort, as if you consider yourself above any criticism at all, and not just this one critic or critique.

A lot of criticism, especially on the Internet, isn't worthy of response. It is in vogue these days on the Internet to launch attacks on someone who has put themselves forth in the public eye if only because it is so easy to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James recently underwent just such an ordeal, setting aside time to answer questions from fans on Twitter, only to be attacked by a collection of online thugs who found it funnier to lance and humiliate her publicly than to permit any serious dialog about her books. The only way to protect oneself from such a basting is to maintain some control over those permitted to participate - charge a nominal fee or issue invitations to the event without which one cannot participate. At any rate, the kinds of flaming criticisms to which she was submitted has been quite aptly described by many as appalling and uncalled for. These sorts of attacks aren't even worth a response, they are just ignorant and mean-spirited.

The only effective response to criticism is no response at all. Utter and complete radio science. It can be very difficult, but as I've already said, there is no way to indulge in the alternative with any sort of success at all. It is simply professional suicide to try.

There is a mind set to taking criticism gracefully, and while it isn't easily adopted, with practice it can make hearing harsh criticism much less sharp and damaging to our ego. First, always remind yourself that this person, whatever else they may be, is a reader, just like every other reader out there in the world that you wish to reach. In the end, his reaction is the reaction of a reader, which means out of the millions who potentially might read your book (and let's face it, none of us dream of a small audience) there are those out there who will have the same reactions, thoughts, and objections as him/her. You must decide whether you believe that number to be great or small, but in the end you are not going to be there, reading over their shoulders, ready to defend yourself against their reaction to your novel. So to the degree that they are honest, his criticisms are valid, not matter how they are worded, merely due to the fact that he is first and foremost a reader, your audience.

Second, if the critic is a colleague or fellow writer, be grateful that this particular reader, the critic, has himself writing chops, the skills himself to recognize flaws in prose and story craft, and the language to describe it in such a way that makes it very clear to you where you have gone wrong. Thirdly, especially if the criticism is badly worded, or deliberately worded to be insulting or to get a rise out of you, keep in mind that such personal attacks say much more about the person leveling them than they do the person at whom they are leveled. In such a case, leaving such caustic criticism unanswered tends to bring out in even greater relief and clarity the pettiness and arrogance with which the criticism was written/given.

And lastly, always remember that no matter the criticism, in the end you choose to accept it or not. If the project is still in development, you still get to decide whether to take the criticism and make the requisite changes to your work or to ignore it and leave it as it is. If already published, then you are limited as to what you can do anyway, and so it accomplishes nothing to take such things to heart. Even as you take the criticism of those whom you respect and admire, retain your faith in your own talent and skill. In the end it is your project, ultimately your offering to the world, and it must feel right to you, or you are not being true to yourself.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

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Surviving the Social Media Time Suck

By Kerry Schafer

When I first started dallying with Social Media it was all about fun and moral support. I didn't know you were "supposed to" have a blog, or a Twitter feed, and I wasn't on Facebook at all. I didn't have any finished manuscripts, let alone an agent or a publishing contract or any of those professional writing career things. My whole goal for my internet time was to find a writing community. In those early days, I wasn't even me – I was Uppington Smythe, and I loved the freedom that came from knowing real world people wouldn't ever know who I was.

Somewhere along the line one of my blogger friends dropped this casual little bomb onto my screen:

"Join us on Twitter dear, it only takes a few minutes."

Cool, I thought. And I did. It was a good move, joining Twitter, and one I don't regret. The connections I made and the things I learned led in turn to an agent and a contract and what is beginning to feel like a real career as a writer.

But it also sucked up a hell of a lot more than a few minutes a day. The more people I met online, the more I learned, the closer I got to publication, the more complicated my online world became. I realized that for the sake of "platform building" I needed to stop being Uppington and be Kerry Schafer, so that when I met people at conferences or submitted query letters to agents maybe they'd actually know who I was. I joined Facebook, because, you know, one Social Media account is not enough. And then, when my Between books were acquired, the need for an online presence exploded.

There was the mandatory Author Website, on which I must blog regularly. A Facebook Author Page, on which I must post regularly. Pinterest Account! LinkedIn. Instagram. Goodreads Author Page. Amazon Author Page. Oh, and let's not forget the Fascinating and Value Added Newsletter, so full of exciting goodies that all of my readers will haunt their computers waiting for it to drop into their inboxes!

Right. I have a newsletter. I also have great intentions of running monthly drawings, sending out free short stories, writing book reviews, and making other wonderful contributions to the lives of my subscribers. The truth is, I send that puppy out when I've got something exciting to say, like a new contract or a book release. I blog once in a blue moon, when I have news or am sufficiently driven by guilt. I enjoy Twitter and Facebook, so those are pretty easy maintenance except for the Facebook Author Page, which seems pointless since Facebook has decided not to show those pages to anybody anymore unless money changes hands. But still, it's there, and I feel responsible for it, sort of like it's a sad little flower in my garden that I keep forgetting to water.

And now, as if this isn't all enough, I have a new contract for my first novel of Women's Fiction, and since I'm new to the genre and the publisher doesn't want to confuse my fantasy readers, I now have the pseudonym of Kerry Anne King. I'm excited about all of this. But it means a new Twitter account, a new Facebook page, and there should probably be another dedicated author website. I haven't even considered the new Goodreads and Amazon pages.

Don't get me wrong. I'm over the moon excited to be moving forward with my writing career. But there's always a fly in the ointment, as the old saying goes. I want to WRITE ALL THE BOOKS. And how am I to do this and work at my day job if I'm also supposed to be cultivating all of the mandated Social Media Sites?

If you came to this post hoping I had the Magic Bullet Answer to this writer problem, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you. In truth, I'm hoping maybe some of you have ideas to share. All I've got to offer is a firm conviction that the writing must come first. If there is no writing there are no books, and if there are no books then there's no point in pursuing Social Media beyond the point of fun and entertainment.

I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions, so speak up and tell me how you're handling the platform building.