Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!

Things I Hate to Admit to Myself

There's nothing that turns me off of a keynote speech at any gathering of writers - be it conferences, workshops, retreats, whatever - more than when the speaker starts out by telling you how impossible it is for you to become a successful writer. When they say that less than 1% of all books submitted get published, and fewer still make any profit, and yet fewer still become best sellers and launch an author's career. Or when they point out such cold hard facts as: it takes sales of 500-1000 books in the first few days of release to even get on most book-lists' radar. I could go on, but I'm guessing you hate these statistics as much as I do.

I finally sat down the other day and asked myself a very hard question: Why? Why do I hate such statistics? They are facts, after all, facts based on very real hard data, and as such they are inescapable. Resenting a fact is like hating a peach pit - you can go on hating it all you want, but every peach you eat is still going to have a pit, no matter how much you hate it. You can have someone remove the pit for you before you eat it, but this is only hiding the pit from you, not changing the fact that every peach has a pit. (Those of you who read last month's post may well wonder what's with this author's obsession with fruit. Well, mind your own business.)

We can hide from facts all we want, but that doesn't make them any less implacably true.

But I still hate these publishing statistics. And after some self-examination I know why, and why you do, too. Such statistics are like the bully who joins a pickup game of stick ball only to hit the ball over the fence and across the highway where no one can retrieve it. They are the arrogant young punk who gets on the light rail train with death metal music booming out of a portable speaker. They are the one spoiled shrimp in an otherwise delightful shrimp cocktail that makes you sick all night. They are...well you get the idea. They are spoil sports, the thorn in your side, the burning vomit that comes out of your nose as well as throat.

We hate these statistics because they ruin our fun. The fun is writing, and having others read our stories. We have been conditioned to think that we are failures if we don't have thousands and thousands of readers, and more often than not it interferes with our ability to continue writing. But is that really true? While we may dream of that, how many of us, realistically, expect to make an independent living on our writing these days? Even writers you consider quite successful continued to work other more conventional jobs during the height of their success. And many others who didn't could hardly have been called wealthy or even well off. Many more died in obscurity.

My point is, why let these statistics and reality spoil the fun? Most of us who started writing didn't do it to become wealthy (and I submit, as has been said many times on this blog, that if you did you're in the wrong business.) Most of us got into writing because we had stories to tell, we love telling stories, and we can't stop. There is nothing wrong with tracking your sales and aspiring to stardom, but for God's sake don't let lagging figures and disappointing ciphers on a page beat up on your muse. It isn't her fault readers are a fickle lot, and there's no telling what may grab their fancy at any given time. Compartmentalize your business aspirations - thousands upon thousands of sales - from the fun you have when you write. I promise you, even if you die tearing tickets at a theater, or pushing rocks with your backhoe, or building submarine sandwiches for hungry briefcase warriors, or even if you're one of those warriors yourself, you'll never regret the stories you told when you could, even if only a small circle of close friends and colleagues were your audience.

IT’S A WRAP … by Kay Bergstrom aka Cassie Miles

Kay BergstromIt’s easy to start a book. Here’s a clue (4 little words): Once Upon A Time...

The hard part comes when you finally type (2 little words): The End.

In my fantasies, I end the book accompanied by a majestic choir rising from a cloud and singing hallelujah while critics, fraught with anticipation, rush to invent an accolade more laudatory than five stars and fans with real dollars form lines to purchase my own perky prose.

Hah!

Fantasy aside, “The End” results in three possible outcomes: it’s good, it’s not-so-good or it’s done. For example, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a good book, while Girl on the Train is not-so-much, and I read all the way to the end of Gone Girl.

Criteria for a Good Book:

There’s no shame in saying that some books are better than others. (I’ve published over 80, some fabulous and some suck.) Like a good parent, I hate to admit I have favorites and prefer one over the other. So, I’ve come up with guidelines.

How can you tell if you’ve written a good book? Reviews and second reads aren’t always helpful. If there were truly as many 5 star reviews as are given on Amazon, we would undoubtedly be living in the golden age of literature. Are we? Are we really? The following are craft-oriented ways to judge.

  1. Genre Fulfillment: Each genre, including literary, has certain reader expectations for the ending. In mystery/suspense, the villain is captured. In romance, it’s HEA (happily ever after). In science fiction, the alien scum is thwarted and good prevails. In literary, life goes on, with or without the main character; too pat an ending will ruin a literary book. The more genre-specific, the better. Example: In teen dystopia, the teen comes into his/her powers and saves the day (follows the classic Hero’s Journey plot).
  2. No Loose Ends: All those cheerful digressions that made writing the novel so much fun need to be paid off. Otherwise, the reader gets to “The End” and, instead of reveling in the joys of a book well-writ, is worrying about the dwarf mentioned in Chapter Three. Consider keeping a character list and planting a plot tree with all the twigs and branches, conflicts and motivations.
  3. Character Arc: Your main character MUST change during the course of the book. The whole point of fiction, the reason fiction is different from real life, is that the struggling protagonist ALWAYS changes. As referenced with loose ends, conflicts and motivations must be resolved. A good way to make sure you’ve done your job and changed the protagonist is to place them in the same situation in the opening and at the close. Example: My current book, Mountain Bodyguard, starts with the self-centered heroine in a dark room with no electricity and ends with the electric being purposely cut so she can escape after saving a life and catching the bad guys.

Bottom line with a good book: If well-written, the ending is incredibly satisfying.

If Not-so-Good:

2016_Bergstrom_BodyguardSuppose you get to the end and decide your novel isn’t “as good as it can be.”

Sitting on your right shoulder is the cheerful writing muse who will tell you, in dulcet tones, that this is a grand development. You can rewrite. You have a chance to go back, review the plot and characters and fix it.

On the left shoulder is The Critic, a total curmudgeon who will tell you that it’ll never be good enough. You could rewrite until doom’s day (which probably isn’t far off), and it’ll never be good enough.

The truth is somewhere in-between.

  1. You can become a constant re-writer, polishing and polishing until you’ve worn the poor book down to a nub.
  2. You can turn your back on those imperfect pages and put the book out on line. Or start shipping it to editors and agents who will surely love it because your every keystroke is sheer genius.
  3. Re-write for a set period of time, until you reach a point when you feel the book is good enough. Call it done and start marketing.
  4. Re-write until you come to the sad realization that the patient is terminal. Have a nice cremation and/or burial, say good-bye and move on to the next project.

It’s a Wrap:

I’m not talking about a poncho or shawl. Not talking about one of those truly heinous fur pieces with the fox’s head still attached. Not even talking about an infinity scarf that truly goes on for infinity.

There comes a time when the writing process is over, and the book is a wrap. Good, bad or indifferent, completion is its own reward, although a chocolate and champagne celebration is nice. Remember, when there’s an ending, another beginning is possible.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kay Bergstrom aka Cassie Miles has published over 80 books of romance and suspense, has also sold screenplay treatments, radio plays and articles. She’s been on the USA TODAY Best-seller List and her last book was on the PW Best-seller List. She’s been RMFW Writer of the Year twice, and served as President, Veep and Treasurer. Her current Harlequin Intrigue is Mountain Bodyguard.

The Value of a Compliment

So. Here we are, six months into the “New Year.” How are your writing resolutions going?  Are you getting 2,000, or 10,000, or whatever daily word counts you aspired to complete? Me either.

Have you finished that first novel and started in on your second? I’m right with you on missing that one too.

In fact, like 92% of the people who make resolutions, I have failed to meet my 2016 reading and writing goals.

And the start of my year hasn’t been all that much to celebrate either.  I entered two writing contests only to fail making it past the first round of judging.  I had one of those decade birthdays, and sometimes I feel every minute of how ancient my bones have become. Just lock me up in the museum and throw away the key. And while I started and love a new job, guess what that does to my writing time. Anybody have cheese to go with my wine-ing? Hearts bleeding peanut butter yet?

To me, there are always clouds for the silver linings in a writer’s life. We work alone, and are sometimes lonely. We’re introverted in an extrovert world. We’re creative in a nuts and bolts kind of society. If I focus hard enough, there are always things that give me the excuses for feeling bad, procrastinating too much, and generally leave me asking why I want to be a writer. Hint: if you’re in it for the big bucks, there are a whole lot of other ways to get that goal accomplished.

Then, for me, this past month happened and I have to push those gloomy clouds back. The silver linings refuse to stay closeted.

Someone told me that they liked my work.  Liked. My. Work. Really?

In fact, this generous person said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your book! I couldn’t put it down and finished it in two days.”  This from a total stranger to me. Well shut my mouth and give me a keyboard. I think I can try this writing thing again.

And then a friend said to me, “My mom adores your books and wants to know when the next one is coming out.” For the first time in months, the question, “how’s the writing?” hasn’t left me feeling guilty and defeated. My friend’s face shone with being able to share this great review, and we’re talking about writing a short story just for mom for Christmas.

And this past Tuesday, Lindsay Woods of KRFC Radio in Fort Collins, replayed an interview she did with me a year ago on her Tuesday Talk Show.  What an ego boost! One full hour with no commercials (KRFC is a nonprofit organization), talking about a favorite subject—books and writing.  Lindsay read out loud some of the reviews both writer friends and professional reviewers gave my latest book.  I had forgotten them long ago.

I have a clipping file of reviews, and when I take the time to look through them, I always feel energized for writing projects.  I also like Aaron Ritchey’s advice from yesterday’s column, “write every day, as much as you can.” I like how there isn’t a specific number of words. Just write.

I also like Mary Gillgannon’s notion that writing takes energy.  She’s right.  Exercise is important. So is filling the spiritual well as she talks about.

So here’s my tip of the day – keep your compliments.  Whether or not you’re published, or a contest winner, you receive writing compliments from time to time.  Save that critique group note that says you’ve mastered the use of ellipses.  Hold onto the thank you note that says it’s no wonder you’re a writer; your last letter home was terrific. Cherish the rejection that’s accompanied with a personal note from an agent or editor.

I have a bright blue binder where I keep print out of reviews – on friends’ blogs, from the press, notes from loved ones.  Now I know where I need to look to build the kind of positive energy that makes writing what it was always meant to be – a joy.

Hey! I just realized the New Year is only 6 months old – I can get some writing done.  Hope you do too.

Wishing you a positively creative day.

Halfway and Unfinished

I was talking with a writer the other day. Those writers. You know the type. Shifty-eyed. Distracted. Stinking of gin and desperation. A nervous laugh and a hair-trigger sense of despair. Yes. A writer.

She was working on her first novel, and times were bad.

Why were times bad?

Because she was about halfway through the book. Now, being halfway is a good thing, right? It’s better than being on page zero.

That damn page zero. It taunts me.

But the problem is, she has been learning craft along the way, and every time she learns something she applies it to the book, which means she is constantly re-writing the first half of the book.

Which means if she keeps this up, she will never, ever finish because she is trapped in the miasma of her novel, stuck in edits and applying everything she is learning.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am iffy on the idea we can edit ourselves into a perfect book. There’s a popular idea that if we only edit a book enough, we can craft a perfect sculptured thing of Davidian beauty that will sell millions.

Maybe.

I’ve seen books written by half-witted alcoholic troll-like creatures reach the heights of Amazon. And I’ve seen lovingly crafted books of true beauty languish in the dungeons of obscurity.

Editing is necessary to a certain extent. But do you know what I think is more important than editing? Vision.

When I sit down to write a novel, I have a vision of the story in my head, and generally the vision is the climax of the book, when the hero is pushed to the limits, and things are bleak, and the villain is invincible! And still, somehow, the hero wins.

If I don’t have the epicness of the climax in my mind, I don’t write the book. And yeah, the climax might change, but generally it doesn’t. I know the book I want to write.

I have vision.

Can editing help me reach that vision? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve spent months editing a book to realize my first draft was better. I’ve been given dodgy advice to “improve” my book when really it was striking at the heart of my vision.

My advice to all writers is to write, every day, as much as you can. If it’s only three sentences, that counts. Write, every day, and follow the vision. Yes, you’ll be hit by craft stuff and editing stuff, but the vision should remain.

So vision is more important than editing. What is more important than vision?

Finishing.

I had an Icelandic friend who give some really good advice when I first started writing. He told me to finish the book, then go back and edit. Stop going to classes, stop reading up on craft, stop listening to the experts, and finish the book.

Then, during edits, you can apply what you have learned. But only for so long. There are no perfect books. Good enough is generally good enough.

Then again, there are no rules.

I heard a story about a guy who attended the same writer conference, year after year, for decades. He worked on the same book for decades. Everyone laughed at him for decades. Until his book hit, and when it hit, it took off.

There are no rules.

Except for one.

If you don’t finish the book, no one will ever be able to read it.

Things That Keep You From Writing: The Fear Factor

 

FEAR"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." ~Frank Herbert, Dune

Today's motivational writing post is brought to you by the emotion fear.

Fear is a tricky emotion. It doesn't always manifest with a pounding pulse, shaking hands, and chills up and down your spine. Sometimes, when it comes to writing, it can masquerade as boring, ordinary, avoidance.

You sit down to write. You open up your manuscript. You stare at it. It stares at you. You feel a sudden need for another cup of coffee. Or maybe a snack. Brownies would be good. You don't have any brownies in the house, but there's a box of mix in the pantry. Or, better yet, you have a made-from-scratch recipe which will allow you to feel creative and virtuous for eschewing chemicals and the make-it-quick mentality of our modern society.

While the brownies are baking you have a good thirty minutes of writing time, but it occurs to you that the dishes need to be done and the floor should be swept. The cat rubs around your ankles. When was the last time she saw the vet? You can't remember. Maybe she needs shots. Rabies would be a terrible thing. That horrible scene from Old Yeller is permanently etched in your memory and the thought of a rabid cat shredding you with her claws is terrifying. You don't own a gun, unlike the Old Yeller kid. Maybe you should think about that. What would it take to own a gun?

By the time the oven alarm goes off to let you know your brownies are ready, you've researched vet appointments and guns.

Now you have brownies, though, and it's time to go back to writing.

That manuscript is still staring at you. There's a small uneasiness in your belly. A sudden desire to go outside. Or vacuum. Forget vacuuming, the carpets haven't been cleaned in forever. This really is the day to go rent a carpet cleaner and get that done.

Of course you really want to write and you're very sad that life keeps getting in the way, but that's just how things are...

Next time you sit down to write and feel this huge resistance thing going on, consider staying right there in your chair and checking out your emotional state. What is your body telling you? Can you feel the tension of resistance in your shoulders and your thighs? Is there a weight in your belly? Or butterflies?

Take out a sheet of lined paper or a notebook, if you have one. Get a pen. Now write, at the top of the page, these words:

I am afraid that...

Now free write for five minutes, keeping that pen moving and not stopping to think about what is going on the page.

In my world, it's going to be something like this:

I am afraid that I can't write this book, that it's going to suck, that I'll lose all of my contracts and my former readers will hate me. Maybe I have Alzheimers or something and have forgotten how to line up words on the page. I'm afraid that everything I've ever written is horrible. I'm afraid this book is too big for me. I'm afraid I won't get done in time, that this deadline is too tight, that I've bitten off more than I can chew...

Whatever your version of the fear may be, this emotion is a strong deterrent to writing.

Anything.

Ever.

And the only real solution I know is to push past the fear. To write through it. I find that this is easier if I write every day. It's like that old "get right back in the saddle after you fall off the horse" cliche. The longer you wait, the longer you let the fear keep you from the page, the harder it will be to overcome it.

Here are a few methods that have helped me get past my fear.

  1. Write something. Anything. If the manuscript proves too formidable, write something else. A blog post, say. Or some free writing in a journal. Anything that gets the words flowing and begins to dissolve that big, cold, lump of fear labeled I Can't Write.
  2. Actively give yourself permission to write crap. Yep. Sometimes I sit down at my computer and consciously tell myself, maybe even out loud, "Go ahead. Write something that sucks."
  3. Make friends with the fear. Talk to it. Bribe it with treats. Name it, even. Because it's probably not ever going to actually go away. Ten books down the line it will still be sitting on your shoulder, much like Poe's raven. So you might as well get used to it.

And that's about it. I've made a little permission slip for you, to help you get started. Print it off, put your name on it, sign and date it, and keep it where you write.

Permission Slip
Permission Slip

Rocky Mountain Writer #47

Heather Webb
Heather Webb

Heather Webb - Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening  

 

Writer Heather Webb stops by the podcast to give a sneak peek of the four-hour master class she'll be giving at Colorado Gold, RMFW's big three-day conference in September.

Her class is called Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening and it will give participants a chance to learn what makes an opening grabby, or trite, and how to win an agent's eye.

Heather also catches us up on all her projects, including a short story collection she spearheaded that was recently reviewed in the New York Times.

Heather Webb’s novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin's Lover are published by Penguin Random House and have sold in six countries. Both books have received starred national reviews and Rodin's Lover was a Goodread’s Pick of the Month in 2015. Heather’s works have been featured in national print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Elle, France Magazine, Dish Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and more

 

 

 

Heather Webb
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Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

The Fruit of Your Labor

fruitGo buy a piece of fruit you haven't had in a while: a peach, a plum, a pear, a mango, even a carambola (starfruit, though they're not as good here on the mainland as they are in the islands.) Find a place to sit alone and close your eyes. Try to imagine you're a primitive human. Game is scarce, you've been living on insects and grubs, or bland roots. You're always on the verge of starvation, though never quite starved - a terrible state if you've ever lived through it.

You see this thing hanging from a tree. You've never considered eating it before because, well, it's on a tree. What part of a tree ever tasted good? Wood, bark, leaves... Still, finally hungry enough, you climb up, pull this thing down, you bite into it (bite into the fruit you bought now.) Try to experience what that starving primitive experienced as glorious sweetness and a flavor you've never imagined could ever exist floods your mouth and your soul soars.

Write that.

Many times I read work from writers who, in their jaded experience, seem to have forgotten that not all of their readers have read the same old tropes and traditions a thousand times. They sometimes neglect details that could enrich their story. How many times has a gun been fired in a thriller or mystery? So many times it is just accepted that readers know what it means to fire a gun, or have one fired at you. So why describe the way your nerves jolt at the sudden blast, the sound waves stinging your skin like electricity, the smell of expended gunpowder, the intense silence following the explosion, the heat you feel from the bullet as it leaves the barrel...or as it tears into your flesh?

Never forget some of your readers may be reading your genre for the first time, and you are their sponsor. Even if not, being reminded of details that often get glossed over or skipped because they are rote or common, can electrify some long-steeped and jaded readers, too. As you write such things, take a moment and close your eyes, try to experience the thing as your character would experience it (whatever it is, whether firing a gun, stealing a candy bar from a store, having sex). Is it their first time or they are old pros? How would that affect the experience.

Never let such things become rote or old hat in your stories. Always remember while you may have written/read similar scenes a million times, your character has not, and your reader is identifying with them. Always keep it fresh, as if this is the first time anyone ever wrote a scene like this. Never let the jade show under your skin.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS

Here is how I found out that there is something wrong with me.

Boy wearing dunce cap.I was 7 or 8 when, during a parent-teacher conference, I was asked to leave the room. I went into the coat room and found I could still hear everything that was said. My teacher told my parents about an assignment in which students were asked how to divide 2 apples evenly among 3 people. The correct answer, it seems, was to cut each apple into thirds and give each person 2 pieces. Most of the class got it right, but three people gave wrong answers. One kid said to tell one of the three people to leave, then give the two remaining people each an apple. Another kid said to just go buy a third apple.

And then there was me, a quiet kid who kept mostly to myself. My teacher was worried - I had said to give each person a sharp knife and let them take as much as they wanted. When asked how my answer gave each person a fair share of the apple I said, in effect, that the three people would either be generous and take only a little, leaving more for the others, or they would all fight it out amongst them, killing at least one of them, and then split the apples.

My teacher then proceeded to ask my parents if I'd ever been caught mistreating pets or weaker children. I laugh now, but at the time I was hurt and outraged. It was a different teacher who recognized my unharnessed imagination and set me on the path of channeling it into storytelling, but I still spent many years after that thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn't see the world the same way as everyone else.

As writers, we don't see the world like everyone else. If we did, there would be nothing interesting about the stories we tell, and therefore little reason to tell them. It is our own, individual skew on reality that makes our stories unique and fun and ultimately readable. If anyone tries to tell you what's wrong with you, own it proudly. Because what's wrong with you and me as people is very right with us as writers.