Thrillers: Part 4 of 4: Plotting And Pacing

The key to any fiction is tension. Romantic tension, professional tension, survival, etc. In a thriller, the tension is primarily adversarial in nature. Here, whether our protagonist is striving for some sort of reconciliation, kumbaya moment with the antagonist or is willing to stop them at all cost, the thriller is driven forward by the intensity of the conflict between our hero and our villain. The more intense the conflict the better.

Some thrillers open with an inciting moment that amps the conflict up to eleven right from the start, but maintaining that level of intensity through an entire novel can be challenging. You must be sure that your story has enough constant tension to carry it through to the end. This can also sometimes be a little much for readers, who may need to set your book aside if only to catch their own breath for a moment. There is then the slow burn: a build-up of tension from what may seem an innocuous incident at the beginning, mounting through a series of cause and effect events of ever greater intensity that eventually lead to the all-out war of good or bad outcome.

One method of maintaining tension throughout your book is the ticking clock. Whether it is a loved one dying of a rare disease the cure of which must be found or gulp; an actual ticking bomb (or multiple bombs) that must be found before it explodes; or simply a deadline by which the antagonist must complete their preparations in order to meet some window of opportunity for their plan to succeed. The last one places the ticking clock not only on our hero but the villain as well.

In contrast to, say, the mystery, the romance, or the historical, thrillers generally have few quiet, introspective moments. Character development must be done on the fly, in the midst of conflict and tension, the quiet moments brief and still filled with the tension of an oncoming missile which may not be here yet, but whose whistle we can hear bearing down on us from the air.

The greatest challenge, I think, in writing the thriller is finding the right pace of building tension, and maintaining tension throughout the book. This is what the thriller writer must focus on primarily.

Do you have some examples in thrillers you've enjoyed or, most importantly, learned from? Let me know in the comments below.

Thrillers, Part 3 of 4: Villains

The villain in a thriller is generally not your run-of-the-mill murderer. He is someone with a goal in mind, and he is driving toward that goal, regardless of the damage he causes along the way. While he may enjoy that destruction, whether human (serial killer, assassin, strong-man dictator) or property (arsonist, bomber, unscrupulous land baron) he could just as easily be someone who reluctantly sees the damage he leaves in his wake as an inevitable cost to the good he thinks he's doing (religious fanatic, environmental extremist, patriot assassin). While she may be evil, to me it is much more fascinating to read about the villain who thinks she is the hero of the story, who is a true believer in a cause she has either lost perspective on or has just gone too far in support of.

Either way, his plans are greater than a single act, usually building to some larger, ultimate goal that our protagonist must prevent. In the book Silence of The Lambs, [SPOILER STARTS] Buffalo Bill is building himself a lady-suit [SPOILER ENDS]. In the film Taken, [SPOILER STARTS] Marko is seeking to keep a steady supply of fresh flesh for his human trafficking operation [SPOILER ENDS]. In my own book, Presence of Malice, [SPOILER STARTS] Gerald Gannery is determined to gaslight his partner for the embezzlement of which he, himself, is guilty in order to free himself up to take a lucrative development deal for cable TV [SPOILER ENDS].

The villain's evil usually comes not just from his own selfishness, but from his willingness, even eagerness, to accede the pain and suffering of others in order to meet his aims. Even if she agonizes over each and every life taken, she takes it anyway because to her, the end will justify whatever means she sees necessary to apply.

In a thriller there is the concept of the ticking clock, which I will explain in more detail in the next and final part to this post, but I wanted to mention here (and will most likely repeat next month) that the ticking clock doesn't necessarily have to be a literal clock. In many cases it is the deadline for the fruition of the villain's plans, whether arbitrarily set by him or by his own need for urgency due to other schedules being enforced upon him (the president's plane departs, a shipment to be hijacked is en route, the laundry truck departs the prison, etc.).

As I mentioned before, my favorite villain is the one who thinks she is ultimately doing good, or better yet the one who is besieged by guilt over her own actions but compelled to do them anyway. But there is also something to be said for the gleefully evil - the serial killer, the psycho musician convinced he is a soldier for Satan, the unhinged skinhead with a hidden lair full of torture victims, etc. Whatever your taste, always remember that to keep the tension, either the villain must not be redeemed, or if she is, it must already be too late to stop the events she has put in motion (or seemingly so, until our hero takes action).

I wanted to spend time on henchmen and other companions of the villain who must be defeated on the way to the villain himself, but that will have to wait for another, longer discussion on villains.

Meanwhile, what are your favorite villains? What bad guys do you love to hate? Let me know in the comments, below.

Thrillers, Part 2 of 4: Heroes

HeroHeroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.

A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.

Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.

I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.

What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.

Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.

The AHA Moments

Every writer has one—or two—or three.

When I first started writing fiction, I was writing blind. I was a trained journalist and understood non-fiction, but writing a novel… Suffice it to say, it presented a number of new challenges. At the time, we were living in Frisco (Colorado), and there were no writers groups, no published authors, and no creative writing classes offered at the mountain college. Then in rode Maggie Osborne.

Maggie, a founding member of RMFW and an award-winning romance writer, moved to Summit County around 1986. Her first summer, she gave an author talk at the Frisco Library. I went up at the end to chat, and ended up cajoling her into putting on a workshop. By the time the librarian barred the door, Maggie had agreed to teach 5 two-hour sessions, once a week at her house, for $20, provided I could find at least two other writers to join in. A bargain, to say the least.

It didn’t take long to find two other interested parties, and we were brimming with excitement that first session. Maggie focused on character—point-of-view, motivation, physical attributes, flaws, strengths, desires… At the end of the session, she asked each of us to go home and write a few paragraphs from the POV of our heroine and bring back the pages the following week.

I was the only one who showed up. During the course of the week, the others had decided it was too much work, claimed Maggie was demanding too much. But I wasn’t complaining—we’d paid upfront, which meant, I had four one-on-one sessions coming with a master.

My first AHA moment came during that second class.

Here’s a sample of that early work.

“Why should I?” Lauren stepped back as Alex moved a step forward. “Look, my ex-husband introduced us. Once. I hardly know the man.” She returned Alex’s defiant glare.
Alex felt the muscles twitch in his neck. He had been furious when his contact suggested Lauren was involved in her partner’s business indiscretions. If they discovered that she knew Woodley, it would only fuel his colleague’s doubts.
“Did you mention Harmon’s accident in the conversation?”
“Yes, I didn’t realize it was a secret.” She studied him with dark eyes. “Now, it’s your turn to explain something to me.”

The important lesson that night was about POV. As Maggie pointed out, in addition to wonderful choreography, the above four paragraphs included four POV switches. Not to mention that Lauren can magically see her own “dark eyes.” It was like a lightbulb went off.

Is it any wonder that this book never got published?!

My second AHA moment came during critique.

I was at Lee Karr’s, another founding member of RMFW and award-winning romance writer. Here’s a small slice of what I offered up:

“Hello, how are you?”
“Great, great. Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful. They say it’s supposed to reach 90 degrees.”
“A scorcher, which reminds me, you were getting hot when you started asking questions about…”

The important lesson that afternoon was about Dialogue. When it was Lee’s turn, she pointed out that the dialogue served no purpose whatsoever. Her advice, make sure your dialogue does one if not two of the following things:

1. Advance the plot.
2. Characterize the characters.
3. Create suspense and intensify the conflict.
4. Reveal motivation.
5. Control the pace.

Another lightbulb moment.

My latest AHA moment came during this year’s RMFW conference. I signed up for a master class with Stuart Horwitz, Book Architecture. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. His method encourages a pantzer-plotter-pantzer/plotter type of model. In the first draft, you just write. Whatever you want, in whatever order you want. Pantzer technique. In the second draft, you apply a method for structuring the novel, cutting up the scenes and reordering them as necessary, discovering what you put in that you don’t need and what you didn’t put in that you need. Plotter technique. In the third draft, you rewrite, in any order you want. You punch up the scenes already written, write the scenes that you left out and add transitions between chapters. Of course, this is a very encapsulated version of a four hour workshop, but the point is—I think Horwitz’s method may be just what I need.

Here’s to all the AHA moments.

Including the ones yet to come. That’s why I still go to critique, still attend conferences like the Colorado Gold. It’s important to me to stretch my abilities as a writer, to always write a better book. It’s my hope that the AHA moments keep on coming.

Thrillers, Part 1 of 4

In my four-part blog series on the Thriller genre, I'm going to discuss the core nature of the thriller and what sets it apart from other forms of fiction. In three future segments, I plan to discuss the hero(es), the villain(s) and plotting and pacing. My intent is to offer some insights to fellow thriller-writers and perhaps learn something myself along the way.

The primary thing that sets the thriller apart from its cousin, the mystery, is that most often there is no whodunit. For the most part, the bad guy (or guys...assume hereafter I mean both singular and plural, masculine and feminine) is revealed fairly early on in the plot, if not the very first page.

This leads to a temptation for many aspiring thriller writers to open their book with a prologue, in which the villain incites the story through some nefarious act that sets his plans in motion. Please resist the urge. Most editors do not like prologues and neither do I. There are justifications for prologues, but they should be the exception, not the rule. Prologues are a whole other blog article.

While the primary question in a mystery is 'who?" the big question in a thriller is 'how?' How is the villain planning to accomplish his goal? This is critical for the hero to know how to stop the villain. In a mystery, on the road to finding out who committed the crime (usually murder), finding the 'why?' or motive goes a long way toward helping the protagonist sleuth to finding the culprit. In a thriller, similar but different is the 'what?" Finding out what the villain plans to do helps our hero know how to thwart him.

Which brings us to another difference. In a mystery, finding the perp is usually the end of the story, sometimes after a brief pursuit and/or capture scene. In a thriller, finding the answer to 'how' only kicks the thriller into high gear. Our daring protag still needs to execute a spectacular plan to dismantle the villain's plans. And of course when has a plan ever come off exactly as laid out? Therein lies more fun.

Your audience for a mystery is those who like the process of uncovering secrets and following obscure evidence trails to uncover even more. In many cases, the more shocking the secrets revealed the better they love it. I know that's part of what makes me love a good mystery. Your audience for a thriller are those who like action, adventure and daring do. The pitching of two enemies against each other until one comes out on top. Where a mystery is like the old card game Concentration - uncovering clues and remembering them, matching connections when they appear - a thriller is like chess - opponents making moves in attempts to misdirect and outwit each other and win the day.

Of course, like all attempts to define something complex, these definitions (mystery vs. thriller) are not all-encompassing or true in all cases. For example, I haven't mentioned how many mysteries and most thrillers include elements of romance, or how either can take place within the realm of historical fiction or SciFi, etc. As with all forms of fiction, there is overlap. I've only attempted here to lay out the broad strokes of what makes a thriller. Your results may vary.

12 Elements of Crime Fiction

Fresh, unique ideas sell books, right?

Not necessarily.

Even the freshest idea must follow specific ‘rules’ or elements of the genre.

Don’t believe me? Then why in almost every romance novel the main character has one or more dead parents and the poor orphan was often raised by a kindly/odd/distant aunt or uncle? Or better yet, why is it that in an urban fantasy, the female lead is always haunted by something, whether it’s a real ghost or the ghost of boyfriend past, or in some cases herself?

Crime fiction is perhaps the worst offender.

And that’s why I love it.

These elements and rules give crime fiction its grit and style.

Mind you, not every one of the elements I list below will be in every book. But I bet that if you pull a copy of any crime novel off your bookshelf, you’ll find at least one and likely many more inside.

  1. The hooker/thug with the heart of gold
  2. Substance use/abuse
  3. A dirty cop
  4. A bottle of booze hidden in a desk/cabinet/toilet tank
  5. A femme fatale
  6. The term “Doll face” or “Baby doll”, really just some reference to a doll
  7. A description of a woman’s legs, in vivid detail
  8. A lounge/bar/nightclub/strip club
  9. A guy named “Fast” something, usually Eddie
  10. A dead partner/lover and/or betrayal by a former partner/lover
  11. Pipe/cigarette smoking hero and/or villain
  12. A dead body in the first 10 pages

Got any more? What about the genre which you write, what are the 'rules' in it?

 

 

Comedy In Fiction

LaughterOne of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.

Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.

LaughterIn another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.

Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."

I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:

"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."

And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.

LaughterDouglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:

"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"What?"
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”

Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.

I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?

I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.

Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.

An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?

"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."

This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)

Now consider this physical scene:

"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."

Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.

One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.

What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.

Writing Decisions That Affect Readers and my Reader/Writer Hats…

First, this article is for Working Writers WHO WANT TO SUPPORT THEMSELVES BY WRITING.

My Reader Hat: I buy books that sound good, mostly romance (all sub-genres), fantasy (most genres), some mysteries and YA. Less often I download a sample. And I rarely read something NEW when I'm far behind deadline, as I was from November through May. So I've been opening up the purchased-last-year books to find something, particularly a series to read. Not having much luck. As follows:

A book starting with teenage date rape (probably not the heroine but I gave it NO chance). Just. No.

Writer Hat, Note: I HATE opening with a Victim’s Point of View Just To Show Us The Bad Guy Deserves A Hideous Death, which is what I think the writer was going for (but I don’t know because I stopped and moved on to the next book).

A mystery written by a man with a female first person point of view that he gets wrong. Writer Hat, Note: No, women don’t think that…or that…or that. Can you run it by a female that age and that career, please?

A romance written by an urban fantasy writer with a plot conflict that is so cliche, I can't handle it. Writer Hat, Note: Excellent characters, interesting twist, BUT this conflict over Save The Ranch/Sell The Ranch to Developers has been done a zillion times, and I don’t think you’ve read widely enough in romance. KNOW YOUR GENRE.

A couple of first person present point of view books that just aren't good enough with plot and characters to make me forget about first person present. Sorry, you have to work harder for me. Writer Hat, Note: I’m not the only person who finds First Person Present Point Of View a challenge, especially when you write/dialog about a past event and you go into Past Point Of View, then have to yank us back to Present. That also makes it challenging for you, the writer (sort of like Initial Caps of Words, yes I can poke fun at myself and these pronouncements).

A 18th century historical set in England with: “Failure was not an option.” That ripped me straight from the lush setting to the white counters and male scientists of NASA and Apollo 13 and I probably won’t go back. Writer Hat Note, KNOW YOUR HISTORICAL SLANG/ANACHRONISTIC PHRASES.
********************
Reader Hat: An okay book with sort of interesting characters up to the half where I realized the guy I didn't like was the love interest.

Reader Hat: The next book in a mystery series where the heroine gets pregnant. Not for me.

Reader/Writer Hat: Now, the last two are just a matter of personal preference. Nothing that really irritated me into stopping reading. The author did his/her job.

Personal Preference: I know this issue. I've had people say, "I don't like reading about intelligent/talking animals." And I reply "You will never like my work." I accept that.

And no story will please all of the people all of the time.

And I may be a little harsh right now, but the book's gotta hook me, have good characters and plot. I can deal with a slower historical/high fantasy plot, or one that zooms along at light speed. I can deal with ramped up, graphic violence. Off-scene romance, erotic romance, all okay by me. I can suspend a modicum of disbelief.

But, as WORKING writers, we must all be aware of our choices, and what will cause someone to put the book down, for a moment, or forever…and whether that reader will ever buy us again. And, for me, I will never buy the author of the date-rape book again. NOT a good place to start.

I AM a WORKING WRITER, I MUST SUPPORT MYSELF (and two cats) BY MY WRITING, so I DO think about the above when writing, or, more likely, revising.

That said, Reader Hat, I AM up to a very promising YA/paranormal school series. Which, like a marriage of convenience, can pretty much always hook me.

That's my musing on writing today.

Critiquing Can Be Hard Work, But…

When critiquing the work of colleagues, whether in a critique group or just between friends, the hardest thing is when it's a topic, genre or style you don't normally enjoy reading in your leisure time. It isn't often spoken about, but it's true. It can sometimes be an interminable slog to try to read and critique a colleague's work when it's not something you would have chosen on your own to read. It's not that they're a bad writer, in fact, they could be the best writer in the world, and it would still be like a trek through a vast, barren, hard-pack, salt-flat desert.

Actually, I take that back a little - I enjoy reading the writing of a really talented writer whatever the topic. But let's face it, most of the critiquing we do is for fellow travelers on the journey to becoming great writers, who, like us or like we once were, may not quite be there yet.

So how do we get through the torture of reading for critique something that, to our tastes, is either bitter or bland? I have five suggestions below. These are the same tactics many of us used when studying in school, reading chapters of a dry technical manual or textbook. Maybe they won't make it easier, but they should help us stay motivated to get through it.

  • Sooner begun, sooner done. It's as simple as that - the sooner we just knuckle under and get through it the sooner we will be finished and on to something we do enjoy. Don't watch the clock, stop glancing at your watch and just do it.
  • Set goals for yourself. If you're doing a full-manuscript critique, set goals of, say, one chapter, then take a break and do something you enjoy. BUT be sure to set a time limit on that break, and stick to your schedule. A half hour of TV, then back to the next chapter. Eat lunch, then back for the next chapter, etc.
  • Imagine someone who enjoys the topic or genre. What might they be thinking as they read this piece? How might they feel, what might strike them as exciting or interesting about the work?
  • Play archaeologist. This a text you found in a deep dark tomb somewhere, and inside it you just know is a single nugget of truth that could cure athlete's foot (or whatever) and if you read it you might be the one to find it.
  • Pretend you are an Audiobooks performer. Read the text out loud like a narrator, adding tone, accent, and timber to each voice, making the dramatic moments breathless and the moments of discovery triumphant.

Can you think of other ways to make the slog more palatable? I'd love to read your ideas in the comments below.

I Did It My Way (But Why Would Anyone Want To?)

After more than thirty years of writing genre fiction, I will finally be able to answer “yes” to that irksome, miserable question that all would-be novelists get at cocktail parties, “Are you published?” On November 2, 2016, I signed a contract with Five Star (Cengage/Gale) for publication of my historical romance, Love’s Last Stand. Yes, yes, yes, the publication monkey is off my back forever. I am finally a so-called “real” writer. But getting published took so long I thought I’d also answered that other nagging question would-be novelists sometimes get. “If you knew you’d never get published, would you keep on writing?” Lately, my answer has been, “Well, yes, I’ve pretty much done that already.”

I first started writing fiction in 1981, in the most clichéd manner possible. I heard somewhere that Harlequin would give you $1500 for three chapters and an outline. How hard could it be to write romance? Yes, dunderhead, harder than your thick skull. I didn’t get my advance or a contract, so I went to law school. But the writing bug had bitten, and I simply couldn’t abandon that story I’d started. After graduating and working for the Department of Justice for three years, I managed to finish the book, and without ever taking a writing class, reading a book on writing, or attending a critique group. How good could that book be?

Lo and Behold! My classic story of romance took second place (or was it 3rd) in the RMFW contest, way back when we still awarded places. I was a genius! Fortune and fame were close enough to touch. Ask me about my smug smile, please. Alas, it was not to be. The story, which I still love, violated every rule of fiction writing imaginable, especially those of romance writing, and I invented a few new rules to violate along the way. I shudder at the memory. That manuscript will remain forever buried, not in a drawer, but even further out of reach, in the murky depths of Word Perfect 4.0, where no one will ever find it, except perhaps, Robin Owens.

Undeterred, I continued to write. And, more importantly, I found RMFW and my critique group, not to mention my future wife (thanks, RMFW!). I was still not getting published, but it could have been my fear and loathing of rejection, as much as the quality of my writing. I simply didn’t query much. At least not as much as I should have. Not as much as you should, if you’re not already published. I much preferred the writing and, if I wasn’t going to publish, the one thing I could do is win or final in a contest.

And contests I did with a passion. Between 2002 and 2016, I was a contest finalist twenty-seven times. On top of that, I won the RMFW Colorado Gold Contest twice, and got first place in the Crested Butte Writers Friends of the Library Contest (twice), the Southern Louisiana Romance Writers Dixie Kane Contest, the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors contest, the Central Ohio Fiction Writers contest, and the San Antonio Romance Authors Emma Merritt Contest. I was Champion of the Contest World! But I still wasn’t published.

Eventually, I simply read ten pages for Five Star editor Tiffany Schofield at the RMFW conference, and the rest is history. What to make of it? You tell me, please. Was it as simple as not sending out enough query letters? Was everything I wrote “over the top,” as one agent told me? Was it just plain dumb luck? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time all these years? Truly, I don’t know.

Mine may be a cautionary tale, and I can’t recommend my strategy for getting published. What I can recommend is finding a good critique group, continuing to write come hell or high water, and, of course, never, ever giving up. Sorry, there’s nothing new or innovative in my advice.

I may never get published again, but at least now I know it’s possible, even for me. As long as it took, I’m not ready to rest on my laurels. My smug smile has been replaced by one a bit more knowing and patient.

After all, I’m just getting started.

 

When he’s not writing fiction, Steven Moores is an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to law, he has degrees in journalism and fishery & wildlife biology, and his interests in writing are as varied as his education. He has written contest-winning stories in romance, mystery, young adult, and middle grade genres, and he is currently under contract with Five Star Publishing (Gale/Cengage) for publication of his historical romance, Love’s Last Stand.