Tag Archives: writing

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddFor us, successful collaborative writing is like good sex.

First comes foreplay: we begin to brainstorm, teasing out seductive story lines to see if there’s something that we both want to spend time developing. And we’ve been doing this long enough that we already have a pretty good idea of what turns on our partner. As the passion for our story builds, we become excited as character and plot flesh out. We then get into the rhythm of storytelling, thrusting ideas from our sweaty little brains deep into the body of our tale. The heat finally culminates in an orgasmic release when we write the words “The End.”

But before you rush out to find a co-writer, remember that not everyone is going to be a willing (or a satisfactory) partner. The chemistry has to work. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find someone who’s good in bed, but rather someone who possesses similar mental, emotional, and professional writing compatibilities. One of the greatest advantages to co-writing is that two minds are always better than one when it comes to solving problems and bouncing ideas off one another. One person can temper the other. A plot point may not sound as workable when it’s verbalized to a co-author.

Of course, everyone engages in some level of co-writing to get that story into print. Even adamant solitary writers. Agents, editors, and publishers are all going to give their two cents’ worth, and you’re going to want to listen to at least some of it. Once your work reaches the hands of readers, and you develop an audience, you’ll want to consider what works for them so they continue to support your habit. That doesn’t mean that you sacrifice the integrity of your writing, but you’ll want to tailor your books to sell. A good friend of ours had a collection of short stories accepted by a university press, but after they insisted on drastic changes, he withdrew the collection. In this case, the two failed to strike a satisfactory partnership. When he finally found the right press for his words, did they suggest changes? Sure, but they were ones he thought improved the overall work.

In yet another situation, a publisher paired a different friend of ours, a well-published science fiction author, with an aeronautics specialist. The specialist focused meticulously on the science while our friend just wanted to tell a good tale. Inflated egos weighed heavily on the whole project, and we listened to our friend complain for a year as the book trudged toward publication.

As in all forms of co-writing, ego has to go out the window. No drama queens or kings allowed. If you’re going to partner up with another author for that next book, you both must feel free to offer ideas the other can shoot down or spin in a different direction. Ideally, neither party takes offense. Both authors must possess similar work ethics, demonstrate a willingness to meet deadlines, and stay on task. Think of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the writing duo who created The Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and multiple other page-turning thrillers. And they live half a continent apart.

How do they do it? You’ll have to ask them. But we suspect they use an electronic version of “transom writing.” Transoms are those windows over doors that open for ventilation. You’ve seen them; they’re in virtually every schoolhouse across the nation. In transom writing, each author writes a passage and then passes it on to the co-writer, who then takes responsibility for writing the next section. They exchange drafts back and forth like circulating air through a transom. It’s a kind of turn writing. Preston and Child co-author some books and individually author others. And they do it all well. Still, in their collaborative projects, we can spot now and then a subtle change of voices among chapters – a shift in favorite vocabulary and rhythms of syntax. That’s what tells us they’re turn writing.

We don’t do that.

We’re a lot more intimate in our approach.

Our readers tell us they can’t detect any shift in voice in our writing. That’s because there isn’t any:

FADE IN:
Kym and Mark sit on the bed, crouched over a laptop. Mark types as they talk.

KYM
(dictating)
Pleasance stood atop the Pyramid of Kukulcán, hoping to –

MARK
(interrupting)
– escape the sticky mid-summer –

KYM
(interrupting)
– swelter.

MARK
Yeah, I like that. And then how ‘bout, Trying to ignore the sweat that pooled at her bosom.

KYM
No, change that to between her breasts.

Mark deletes and retypes.

KYM (CONT’D)
And we need to describe the jungle before we get to the sweaty breasts.

Mark moves the cursor to the end of the first sentence.

MARK
(typing)
The Yucatán jungle stretched in all directions, islands of –

KYM
– stone ruins occasionally interrupting the monotonous green –

MARK
– of dwarfed cedar and chakah trees.

They give each other a high five.
FADE OUT

Okay, that may not have been exactly the way we wrote that particular passage from our novel, All Plucked Up, but it’s how we co-author – one of us starts a sentence and the other finishes it. Plus, Mark is dyslexic and Kym catches misspellings as we go along. (We’re doing it right now as we type this article.) In our case, Mark is the typist because Kym can’t use the touch pad on the laptop. It’s all pretty efficient except when one of our six house cats jumps on the keyboard. There’s nothing transom-like in the way we compose at the sentence level. And this technique allows us to test out loud as we go along just how naturally the words flow on the page.

We’d be the first to admit that this is probably not the fastest way to write for most people. But it works for us because we like to write together, and we decide up front on a project that we both feel passionate about. The biggest challenge, of course, is to find or block out regular periods of time when we’re both available. Kym is an early-morning person (she’s up before the sun) while Mark isn’t even coherent until 11 a.m. Our best compromise falls mid day, and we plan accordingly.

Todd_finalgreedIt also helps that we both have equally twisted senses of humor. In our first novel for the same Silverville Saga Series, Little Greed Men, we have a scene where the sheriffs of two counties meet to decide jurisdiction over unidentified human remains found more or less straddling the line:

“It’s not Silver County’s problem,” Carl said at last.

“Wait a minute!” the other sheriff objected. “You guys found as many bones on your side as we did.”

“C’mon, Andy, you’ve got the skull,” Carl said. “That officially gives you more bone mass than we have.”

“Yeah, but you guys have the teeth.”

“We don’t know for sure those dentures are that fellow’s teeth. Maybe somebody was out here hiking and dropped them.” Carl looked pretty satisfied with his deduction.

“Oh man, that ain’t right. We had to bury one earlier this spring. You haven’t had one in a couple of years.”

They argued back and forth for several minutes . . .

To us, this scene was a howl to write, and we were having too much fun to worry much about whether or not readers would agree. We enjoy this type of book, and we hoped the same kind of readers would discover our novel. More important to us was writing true to what we thought was funny.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did with the Silverville Saga Series. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. The scene above – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, nearly all of the situations in our book happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

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

Another scene in the book has a real sense of authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business:

Buford gawked at the open shelves neatly stacked with rows of embalming fluid bottles, instruments, and linens. He’d never been in the room long enough before to get a close look at the mysterious equipment kept there. Picking up a cardboard box, he plucked out a small pink disc that was shaped like half a hollow marble.

“What are these?”

Howard dropped his towel into a hamper. “They’re eye cups. We stick them under the eyelids after someone dies.” Then he added, “So the eyes won’t sink.”

Buford took two of the little cups and raised them to his own eyes, squinting to hold them in place like two plastic monocles. “Like this?”

He heard the door open behind him and turned, blindly, in that direction.

“Buford, what are you doing in here?”

Opening his eyes, Buford felt the cups slide down his cheeks toward the floor. Denton stood with his hands on his hips, and he didn’t look pleased.

Of course, Mark never played with eye caps. (At least he never got caught.)

The advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the “Writing Bed” individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses. Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other’s complementary strengths.

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

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

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

Those Little Bells

By Mark Stevens

(This blog is a note to self. Thanks for letting me share.)

I recently read a New Yorker profile of the writer Lydia Davis and I felt as if I’d entered a very calm, clear space.

It’s a long piece, by Dana Goodyear, but it’s behind a paywall at the New Yorker web site so I thought I’d highlight one major point here. I highly recommend that you track down a copy (March 17, 2014).

Lydia Davis is a very-short-story writer. The New Yorker piece calls her “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” There much to be gleaned from reading the entire profile.

Davis is 66 years old now and still writes regularly. She’s inspired by unlikely vignettes she encounters throughout the day. Unlikely and unusual. You get the impression her writing mind never shuts down.

Since this blog can’t cover everything, here’s one bit that stuck with me: Lydia Davis thinks about every word.

Yeah, sure, whatever. Writers think about every word—don’t we?

Not on the Davis scale.

Lydia Davis is after precision in the words like…

(Actually, I’m afraid to write a metaphor right about now.)

For Davis, there are no throwaways.

“A little bell goes off in my head first,” she says. “I know something’s wrong here.”

Demonstrating her point for Goodyear, Davis read an image from a published novel:

“A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.”

Spot the issue?

“I thought about that,” says Davis. “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”

Davis concludes: “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison.”

I thought to myself: yikes.

Yes, high standards. Not surprising for a woman who was once married to master stylist Paul Auster and, to mention many other accomplishments in her long writing career, translated Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way from French to English. (Some critics lashed Davis for her preference for “obscure cognates” over than going with “flashier English renderings.”)

It’s the old lesson: every word counts. Every word has meaning. Every word carries weight.

Do everything you can to avoid ringing those little bells.

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

Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

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

Find Your Weirdness

By Julie Luek

Julie Luek1I’m almost fifty. There it is in black and white, a milestone in my life. My kids, 23 and 18, are flying the coop this year, out into the world to pursue their passions. My daughter, bless her heart, has inherited my creative passions and will pursue her love of music. She’s not choosing an easy road, nor one that will automatically lead to a steady job and income. I won’t discourage her though. I remember being her age, wanting to pursue English as a major, and my engineer father strongly suggesting (with his financial support) I pursue something more “sensible”. It turns out there’s nothing practical in studying a subject you have no love for.

Life ended up all right though. I got the MA that helped me land a satisfying job in higher education. I found it challenging and fulfilling for over 20 years until the day, three years ago, when I didn’t. At some point you realize you can’t fight your passion and no longer want to. Time is short. Three years ago I did the unpractical and walked away from a good career to pursue this writing gig.

I’m glad to say I haven’t looked back. It hasn’t been easy, and although I’ve had small successes, it’s not like the world of publishing has opened its arms to me in a warm and grateful embrace. Publishing is a fickle lover. Like most of you, I have to work hard and snuggle up to a lot of rejection to get my writing out there.

Luek_pathposteraAlong the way, I’ve also had to define who I am as a writer and what I want to write. It’s been a journey of self-discovery. I began by trying to write short stories. Baby steps, like little stories to prompts on Writer’s Digest. I entered a few contests and, eventually, even wrote a full-length, fiction manuscript. (It was pretty awful, by the way.) I also read a lot… a lot… of books, on story development, plot development, saving cats, the writing life, and how to put fire in my fiction. The more I read, the more I wrote (some really bad stuff), the more I realized I didn’t want to write fiction. But writers write novels. We all know that.

It took me three years to get it through in my thick head and probably thicker ego, that my first love is reading nonfiction and it follows, my true passion is writing nonfiction. It’s satisfying for me to see my articles in magazines, my essays on international writing sites like She Writes, and even an essay in Chicken Soup for The Soul. It’s like coming home.

The other day I read this quote by Annie Dillard:

Read for pleasure. If you like Tolstoy, read Tolstoy; if you like Dostoevsky, read Dostoevsky. Push it a little, but don’t read something totally alien to your nature and then say, “I’ll never be able to write like that.” Of course you won’t. Read books you’d like to write. If you want to write literature, read literature. Write books you’d like to read. Follow your own weirdness.

This is why I made the decision to try other supportive organizations for nonfiction, outside of RMFW. (Although thank goodness the friends I made here haven’t abandoned me!) It’s why I play around with writing styles and topics on my blog Julie Luek, and it’s why I keep sending pithy little ditties off to the Chicken Soup folks. I’ve even finally worked up the courage to test the waters on a book idea again; this time, of course, a nonfiction manuscript.

Like Ms. Dillard says, I have to follow my own weirdness. What’s yours?

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

Julie Luek is a writer, living in the mountains of Colorado, published in numerous regional and national magazines, Chicken Soup For The Soul, and a regular contributor to the sites She Writes and Joyful Home and Life. She authors two blogs, Julie Luek and A Thought Grows. As an observer and participator in her own life, she continually rediscovers her purpose, learns to let go and not take herself too seriously. Julie believes if we generously share our stories and hearts we can all learn, laugh, and grow together.

Stay with the FLOW

By D A Gordon

Ann GordonDuring the last twelve months I have edited, critiqued and judged a bunch of stories. This is partly due to the fact that I belong to five writing groups and I’m a contest judge. Because I’m a semi-retired English teacher and technical writer, I tend to scan for grammatical errors when I first look at a page.

But this year I’ve started looking for something else as I critique fiction: Flow.

What Flow Does for Us

When our sentences and paragraphs flow, readers find it enjoyable to keep reading; they’ll turn page after page because the mental and emotional flow makes comprehension effortless – the words easily flow through mind, the characters come alive, and we don’t want to put the book down. When the story flows, we continue to read with little concept of passing time.

Gordon_Christmas-Meadows-Utah_smallIt doesn’t take non-stop action to keep the audience reading. What helps satisfy the reader is when the action, dialog, and narration flow uninterrupted, like a valley stream with no dams or boulders.

Misplaced Backstory

The other day I reviewed five chapters of an unpublished novel for a friend. She had a good plot and an interesting protagonist. But she had a bad habit of adding a sentence or two of backstory the minute any character came on the scene instead of waiting for a better time. This completely stopped the flow and left me thinking, Now, what?

For instance, some good guys were running toward the fort to get away from the monsters. During this pursuit the stakes were high and everyone was breathing hard, scared witless and running fast to reach safety before being torn limb from limb. When a soldier in the fort saw them coming, he opened the gate to let them in and should have just as quickly closed the gate afterwards while everyone caught their breath and said, Thanks George, you saved our lives.

But sadly, no. As soon as the attentive soldier opened the gate, the author stopped us in mid action to explain who the solder was, including his place at the fort and his relationship with the people running for their lives.

Because I was caught up in the action sequence, this interruption stopped me cold. At that moment I didn’t care about the soldier’s relationship to the frightened people or to the fort; I just wanted the action to keep going until it reached a logical conclusion. Then later, maybe over dinner, I could learn who the guy was and why he mattered.

Reading Can Be Hard Work

Good fiction has a rhythm that readers can feel, and they’ll want to keep reading in order to keep that feeling. But when the reader starts having trouble following the sequence of events and has to back track several lines or paragraphs to pick up the trail again, this is a sign the flow has stopped.

This can be bad news for the author because the reader may decide it’s time to get a soda and not return.

Breaking the flow isn’t the same as surprising your reader with a piano falling from the sky. Surprise is good. But incongruent activities or discordant dialog frustrate the reader because it breaks up the flow.

Flow stoppers make the story more difficult to stay with, and instead of being easy and enjoyable, reading becomes hard work.

Checking the Flow

A great way to check the flow of your writing is to have someone else read it, someone who is also a writer or at least a prolific reader. That’s where writing groups with critique sessions are mighty handy.

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

Ann Gordon a writer and editor who lives in Moab, Utah. She’s a chapter president with the League of Utah Writers. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Writing and Juggling

By Kristi Helvig

Kristi HelvigIn light of the upcoming launch for my sci-fi debut, BURN OUT, someone asked me in an interview about how I managed to balance my work as a psychologist, my writing obligations, and parenting two young children. I laughed because ‘balanced’ is the last word I’d use to describe myself right now. Coinciding with my book launch is the due date for edits on Book 2. In the midst of said edits and book launch is my youngest child’s birthday. To give you an idea of how crazed I’ve been, when I asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said, “For you to stay off your computer the whole day.” (Cue massive maternal guilt).

Under these two deadlines, I’ve turned from the super-involved parent who takes their kids to parks and musuems to the one who mutters “yeah, sure” when they call out from the other room asking if they can take a knife, scissors, and crazy-glue upstairs for ‘a project.’ After several days spent editing on the couch in sweatpants last week, my husband almost burst into song when I announced I was going to shower. Okay, he actually did burst into song, and that song was “Hallelujah.” I wish I was kidding.

As writers, we’re always juggling. Whether it’s time spent promoting vs. writing, day job vs. writing, laundry vs. writing, etc., it’s hard to hit that sweet spot where we feel balanced. Though I have no magic answers for this, the following things have helped me along the way.

Helvig_BURN OUT Cover1)  Prioritize the tasks at hand. My motto: deadlines and family first, everything else where it fits. I still make time to walk the dog, volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, and do yoga because those things matter to me—plus yoga helps to offset the vast quantities of chocolate I eat while editing. Sadly, laundry hasn’t seemed to fit anywhere lately. I was going to include a picture of the current state of our laundry basket, or rather the mountain of clothes that ate our basket, but it’s just too embarrassing. Even with writing related tasks, I’m a firm believer in old-school ‘to-do’ lists and arrange things by dates of importance. There is something satisfying about crossing things off of lists.

2)  Enlist help. My family has fair warning when I’m entering the Deadline Zone—just like the Twilight Zone but without the cool background music. My awesomely supportive hubby will take the kids out for outings so I can have quiet writing time, and make dinners, etc. Then we’ll switch when he’s under a time crunch. My oldest is slowly taking on some household chores, though even he doesn’t see the appeal of laundry. Even when it’s not a matter of deadlines, there is always some sort of chaos in the schedule, so it’s important to have a plan in place to manage it. Juggling is easiest when there are more hands to handle the balls.

3) Schedule non-juggling time. Even if it’s just an afternoon at the movies with a friend or a weekend away in the mountains with family, it’s so important to take time away from the insanity. It makes all the times when you are juggling more bearable.

In the end, I think it’s impossible to be perfectly balanced all of the time. If you know otherwise, please tell me your secret! I’ve come to accept that there will be times, like now, where I’m barely hanging on, and that’s okay. Things seem to go in cycles and there’s comfort in the knowledge that in a few weeks time, I’m going to be a showering and laundry machine. Unless someone wants to come do my laundry—I’m totally open to that.

What are your tips for maintaining balance in your life? Anyone else’s laundry basket qualify as a Colorado Fourteener?

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

Kristi Helvig is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. She muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics at her website. Kristi resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs. Follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook. Her publisher, Egmont USA, is giving away 5 finished copies of BURN OUT on Goodreads through April 17th.

The Importance of a Good Beta Reader

by Katriena Knights

If you’ve seriously pursued writing for any amount of time, you know you can’t be trusted to judge your own work. Scenes that seem wonderfully constructed in our heads are completely incomprehensible to other people. Glorious flights of poetic prose are actually pools of verbal quicksand from which no reader will ever safely return. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

This is why we need Beta readers.

A good Beta reader will help you find those holes in your manuscript where your brain fills in the details but a reader gets confused or completely lost. She’ll find continuity errors, wobbles in character development, and help you figure out where you’ve indulged yourself too much and could really stand to cut things down a bit.

A really good Beta reader will call you on the phone and say, “Hey, mostly I liked the story, but there’s this one thing I HATE with the BURNING PASSION of a THOUSAND MILLION SUNS. Change it.”

True story.

Yes, we’re still speaking.

My Beta reader iBloodontheIce-ART-Smallers also my best friend. She doesn’t just read my manuscripts, she also feeds me story ideas. For example, my upcoming novel from Samhain, Blood on the Ice, is entirely and completely her fault. And yes, she betaed it for me. A couple of times.

Early in the writing process, she read through some chapters and said, “Wait. Your game schedule is a complete mess.” And then she sent me a link and said, “Use this.”

The link was the entire Chicago Blackhawks schedule from the 1955-1956 season, when the NHL only had six teams. “Just plug your six vampire teams into this schedule. That way it’ll make more sense.”

I think I banged my head against a wall for fifteen minutes. It worked, though. Using the actual schedule—even though I did tweak it a little—added a background continuity that made the Vampire Hockey League more realistic. And if there’s anything that needs added realism, it’s a hockey league populated entirely by vampires.

When my final draft was ready, she told me we could get together over Instant Message on Memorial Day and go through the manuscript. I figured we’d chat for a little while, I’d make a few notes, and then I’d be off to finish my submission-ready draft.

Eight hours later (you read that right—EIGHT. HOURS. LATER.), I had about 25 pages of notes copied and pasted out of IM into a document. I was also really freaking hungry. Over the next few days, I reordered several scenes, added some exposition, and took out an entire character. (You know how they say to kill your babies? This was an ACTUAL BABY. Her whole subplot got removed. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll fit into the next book.)

That right there is what every writer needs in a good Beta reader.

I’m always grateful that my BFF happens to have a ridiculously good story sense and isn’t afraid to tell me when stuff just plain sucks. It’s the kind of objective eye every writer needs. I can’t tell you how to find your own—all I know is you can’t have mine.

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

Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with 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 Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

Don’t Listen to Mr. Scrooge

By Lucinda Stein

Lucinda SteinHistory. Research. “Bah, humbug!” some might say. But as an author, I’ve found writing historical fiction brings surprising benefits.

A writer needs a good understanding of the time period, including clothing and hairstyles, transportation, customs, lifestyles, political and social trends, architecture, etc. Whew! Research takes time and effort. But like writing a book, take it one day at a time, bit by bit. The good news? Ideas for characters and scenes will constantly spring to life.

I’m currently working on a rough draft for a novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma. There’s a wealth of information available on this time period. But I need information specific to a particular state. Writers can access state historical society websites rich in old photos, documents, and researched articles. Many states also maintain online digital historical newspapers.

My protagonist is a Comanche woman, so I need to explore the unique aspect of a Native American living during this time. While searching online for the tribal website, I serendipitously came across haunting photographs of abandoned three-story buildings. Turned out it was a boarding school dating back to 1883 with students in attendance for over a century. Bingo! I “enrolled” my protagonist in the school. Added bonus—the website referred readers to a nonfiction book published by the University of Nebraska.

This leads me to the subject of resources. As a retired librarian, I like to use primary sources of information for authenticity and a definite sense of the time period. I purchased the aforementioned book and discovered it included interviews with former students. What a wealth of ideas for the chapters in which my protagonist attends the school. I also located a biography about a Native American man from Oklahoma. I wanted the book for two reasons—it was the same time period that takes place in my novel, and it included the man’s experiences growing up on an Oklahoma farm, something I had decided would be my book’s initial setting.

Stein_Tattered CoversI also found a historical novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression. Why use fiction to write fiction? This resource was valuable since the novel was written by a reputable author who knows the state well. The author is a university professor from Oklahoma whose family dates back to this time period. I took special note of the natural landscape described in the book and paid close attention to references on life during the Depression. Of course, this book is only one of many resources used to gather information.

In the beginning, I create several lists for information I’ll need in my story. As I continue to research, I add new details to my digital file. For example, I have a list for Prohibition. One list includes native plants of Oklahoma. Another list contains specifics about the Depression such as shanty towns, hopping trains, and the plight of the homeless.

I also create a timeline for my story. It’s important to know what was going on in the country and even the world during that time. Noteworthy items are included in my timeline. In the process of writing my rough draft, I frequently refer to my timeline for additional ideas for new scenes and plot points.

In writing fiction, the writer enjoys exploration of his/her protagonist and the challenge of navigating through a plot. On top of that, the creator of historical fiction weaves history into the dramatic life of a believable character. As in reading any well-written novel, the reader learns new things along the way, so it is as a writer of historical fiction. I come away with a new perspective on history—just as I hope my readers will.

Sometimes I feel my research practically writes the novel for me. In reality, it’s more like continual brainstorming. For example, I discovered popular bands of the era and—voilà—a scene with a speakeasy hidden at the rear of a building came to life. Another illustration of research inspiring story ideas: During the Depression, movies proved a popular diversion from difficult times. One movie of this era was Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. I created a scene in which I compare crude surgical practices for tuberculosis patients to Dr. Frankenstein’s bizarre experiments. Amazing where research will lead you. Even Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde) makes a brief debut in my novel. Who said historical fiction can’t be fun?

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

Lucinda Stein lives on the Western Slope of Colorado with her husband and her shelter-rescue dog, Opie. Her novel, Three Threads Woven, was a 2010 WILLA Finalist and her short story, Sulfur Springs, won the 2011 LAURA Short Fiction Award judged by Pam Houston. Her short stories have appeared in Fine Lines, The South Dakota Review, and Women Writing the West online. Her recent novel, Tattered Covers, is a mix of contemporary and historical fiction.

Enter to win a free copy of Tattered Covers. Place “free copy” in the subject field of your email and send to: lucinda (at) lucindastein (dot) com.

The Sub-Genre Rabbit Hole

By Pamela Nowak

I feel as if I fell down a rabbit hole. But instead of Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee, I encountered a score of similarly-dressed fiction sub-genres. They were nearly identical. Here and there, one had a sash or hat or tie or button that was a different color. Looking closely, I could see each was subtly different from its cohorts but my head ached from trying to sort out the minute variations. They advanced on me, grinning like evil Cheshire Cats, insisting I recognize their individuality. I lay there, confused, as they morphed into a gang of lurching zombie look-alikes from another genre altogether.

During the past month, RMFW Colorado Gold contest committee volunteers have been busy clarifying and redefining sub-genre categories. We were challenged by the need to keep up with the industry while avoiding excessive complication—a task that was nearly impossible. Editors want submitting writers to know where their manuscript belongs and writers who are self-publishing must know how to market. A good contest provides a tool to practice that categorization. Because it had been awhile since the contest sub-genres were last reviewed, we started looking at current sub-genres (our sources included marketing sights, professional genre organizations, blogs by industry professionals, and author input, among others). As we near the end of the process, I am picking my jaw up from the floor and shaking my head.

I never knew there were so many!

When I lived in rural areas and shopped in a small bookstore, there were two adult fiction sections: romance and everything else.  In bigger cities, I discovered mystery and sci fi/fantasy had their own sections. Then, thrillers were given shelf space as well. Horror, women’s fiction, literary, historical, action were all shelved with mainstream, alphabetically by author. Within the genre sections, there was no breakdown by sub-genre.  That’s as complicated as shopping got.

Years ago, querying my first manuscript, I could easily classify my novel as a romance. Most editors and agents also wanted to know a sub-genre. That was easy, too: contemporary category, contemporary single title, or historical. That was it.  Over the years, things changed. Paranormal, inspirational, and erotic sub-genres appeared. Contemporary suddenly had multiple variations. Historical was separated by time period or locale and category historical was created. Other genres such as fantasy and suspense were blended with romance.  Authors needed to be able to define their work in order to submit to the appropriate lines.

Still, nothing prepared me for the explosion of new variations that seems to have occurred since we began the shift from print books to digital. Sub-genres have changed immensely.

What used to be sci-fi/fantasy or horror is now blended and called speculative fiction. When this shift occurred a few years ago, it seemed understandable, given the increasing number of paranormal novels. At first, the sub-genres were simply sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and paranormal—pretty cut and dried. Today, we discovered the following sub-genres listed by varying sources: alternate history, dystopian, post-apocalypse, epic fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale, horror, new age/spiritual, science fiction, steampunk, urban fantasy, near future technical/science fiction, urban-supernatural fantasy, new age-steampunk, tie-in, futuristic, anthropological sci-fi, contemporary fantasy, magical realism, epic historical fantasy, ghost story, historical fantasy, mainstream time travel, weird west, cyberpunk, paranormal, supernatural, superhero, and high fantasy.

Action/Thriller—the old action/adventure—was a bit less extensive. Here we found action adventure, bio-tech/biological, legal, political, psychological, spy/international, archeological, art, military, serial killer, techno, historical suspense, private eye, crime, disaster/survival, martial arts, and noir.

Romance sub-genres are complicated by the combinations that occur and the use of multiple terms for the same thing. Among them were traditional, category, long, short, single title, suspense, paranormal, regency, time travel, futuristic, fantasy, historical, futuristic/time travel, kink/bdsm (usually but not always classified under mainstream erotica), lesbian, male/male, paranormal/supernatural, sensual/erotic, small town, sweet/traditional, western, contemporary, inspirational, highland, medieval, and YA.

Mainstream, too, has expanded.  Included are chick lit, comedic, coming of age, contemporary, historical action based, historical character based, magical realism, multicultural, western, women’s fiction, fairy tale, literary, and erotica.

Mystery, once just a handful of subgenres, now has suspense, cozy, private eye, police procedural, amateur detective, historical, suspense, new adult, character, crime, paranormal, medical/forensics, and whodunit/traditional.

Young Adult can be extremely complicated. A relatively new genre itself, it can have all the sub-genres found within fiction.  Most common seemed to be action adventure, contemporary, epic fantasy, urban-supernatural fantasy, mystery, sci-fi/futuristic, coming of age, sci-fi, historical, comedy thriller, dystopian, fantasy romance, romance, low fantasy, magical realism, middle grade, steampunk, new adult (sometimes listed under mainstream), new age/spiritual, paranormal/supernatural, and urban fantasy.

As authors, we are presented with the challenge of trying to define our works in this current world. At times, it might be great to select a very specific definition for our stories. Yet, there are those novels that fit into multiple sub-genres and others that still must cleave to broader definitions for lack (lack???) of an appropriate specific sub-genre. There are cross-genre books that require an author to make difficult choices.

For the reader, finding favorite authors is still fairly easy, especially in brick and mortar stores where there are limited genre sections. We need only remember that one store classifies our favorite author as thriller and another shelves him with mysteries. In online stores, we simply plug in the author’s name and search.

The nightmare of the rabbit hole, though, occurs when readers are browsing for new authors. Among all these complicatedly different-yet-not sub-genres, how do they plug in the right words to find us? How do we (or our publishers) select the appropriate sub-genre that will unite us with those searching readers? And what will keep us from becoming Mad Hatters, one and all?

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

downloadPamela Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as president. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent two dogs and a cat.

Pam loves hearing from readers and invites them to visit her on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense–Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft–I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot–I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (www.bulwer-lytton.com)

Pen a gossipy letter–This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter–dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line–Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part–Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself–If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery–If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging–You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it–Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending–I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?

 ——————————————–

Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Murder Your Darlings

By Jan Weeks

Jan WeeksSir Arthur Quiller-Couch said that over a hundred years ago and writers have followed his advice (or not) ever since. I, for one, being of kind heart and semi-sound mind, hesitated to do something so cruel. Occasionally I’d shoot a few of my darling words in the butt with a BB gun and watch them scamper to safety but my heart ached for them. I wanted to call them back and nurture and cuddle and soothe them into believing they really were worthwhile. I wanted to build their self-esteem, just like I did for my fifth grade students.

The first wholesale massacre was planned one day while driving down a Colorado back road, thinking of nothing in particular. I’d been working on Season of Evil, Season of Dreams, my first suspense novel, for years. The protagonist was Lorna Hollingsworth, a retired school teacher who discovers a child’s skull in a meadow in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Ben Logan, police chief of the small town and Lorna’s former student, uses the teacher as a foil for his thoughts and surmises as he investigates.

The story began with Lorna taking her dog for a walk early on a September morning. A bloody sun rose through lavender mist. Sentinel pines lined the trail. Sweat sheened her skin as she labored up the steep path. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Years and miles after writing that scene, I realized it had nothing to do with the story. Once home, I booted up the ’puter, highlighted the 3500-word first chapter, and pressed delete. Oh, the tears! Oh, the sorrow! Oh, the pain as my darlings disappeared into oblivion, never to return, unless I wanted to hire a techie to save them. I hardened my heart and started the story where it truly began, with the discovery of the skulls. (Yes, more than one.)

More years passed. Rejections flew like autumn leaves in a gale, adding frustration to insult. Why the heck couldn’t editors see what a great story I’d written? Surely they couldn’t all be rejects from the Arthur Murray School of Great Writing…or something like that. Each rejection caused me to stalk the manuscript, BB gun upgraded to a .22 rifle, in hand. Now my darlings seemed to know when they were in for the high jump and some scurried away with barely a nudge from the barrel.

Then the second mass murder sneaked into my mind as I washed dishes. I had the wrong protagonist. It wasn’t Lorna’s story, it was Ben’s. I sank into a chair, poured another cup of tea, and wept, not for my darlings, but for me. I had been writing this damned book for twenty years! Enough, already! I didn’t want to condemn the whole thing to oblivion. I didn’t want to start over!

The fit of self-pitying hysteria passed, as all fits must, and I buckled down. As I rewrote I realized that the book was becoming better. Now, readers could live in Ben’s mind and investigate along with him. They didn’t have to wade through pages of talking heads as Ben explained everything that he’d discovered to Lorna. Switching POVs between Ben, Lorna, and the antagonist further moved the story along. Some of the babies I’d plunged into purgatory crept back into the manuscript, a few at a time, this time in their proper places. The bloody sunrise and sentinel pines never did find their way back, thank God.

After 25 years and 59 revisions, Season of Evil found a publishing home and arrived in hardback in the spring, a time of renewal and life.

Now I believe in wreaking murder and mayhem on my dears. I also believe in reincarnation, as long as those little darlings know their places.

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

Jan Weeks is an editor and award-winning writer with three published adult novels (Silverton Summer; The Secret of Spring Hollow; Season of Evil, Season of Dreams) and a middle-grade novel (The Centerville Code) available as an e-book, as is The Secret of Spring Hollow. Her articles, short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in local, regional, national and international markets, such as Outdoor Life, Guideposts, Natural Health, California Lawyer, Grit, and Midwest Fly Fishing.

She belongs to The Authors’ Guild and the Western Colorado Writers’ Forum, and has facilitated the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop. She teaches workshops in creative writing, writing for magazines, and basic grammar for writers.

Visit Jan’s website for rates, links to books, and more information.

Jan is also giving away a print copy of her novel, Season of Evil, Season of Dreams, to one U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on today’s post. The mystery involves a small-town cop who must stop a serial killer before more children vanish. Comments through Tuesday, March 11th will be included in a random drawing.