June 25, 2015

Carolyn J. Rose Interviews Elizabeth Lyon

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:05 am

Crafting Titles

I will move mountains and earth–or at least share a post in the last few days before I leave on book tour–to have Elizabeth Lyon on my blog. Elizabeth’s book, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit, was instrumental in my learning how to write a query, a synopsis, and land an agent lo those many years ago. I recommend it at every workshop I give. Elizabeth has a way of drilling down to the core of what a writer needs to do and elucidating things, and she does the same in her latest release, which will help writers come up with a title for their books. Why are titles important? Well, they may compel an agent to take a second look at a query, an editor at a submission, or a reader a book on a shelf. But Elizabeth can tell you better than I! Here she is interviewed by indie mystery writer and friend, Carolyn Rose.

Elizabeth Lyon

Mystery writer Carolyn J. Rose took a writing course from Elizabeth 25 years ago and they’ve been friends ever since. Carolyn recently interviewed Elizabeth about her second booklet, Crafting Titles.

What made you decide to write Crafting Titles?

My editing clients, friends, and even published novelists I know often choose ineffective titles and they don’t know how to find good ones.

Besides just putting in the research and seat time, what was the biggest challenge in writing the booklet?

I had to take into account all types of stories across all genres, and explain why a writer should choose a character name, a place, a snippet from the story, an image, or another combination for his or her title. Including all literature, present, past, and future was overwhelming.

Why is finding “the right title” so important?

A great title grabs reader attention. A weak title invites dismissal without a second look. Every novel can have many good titles, but the best ones capture the essence of a novel and give a tip-off to the genre. A title is a beacon drawing its ideal reader.

Can you give us some examples of authors who considered a title that would not have been as powerful as the one they went with and explain why the final choice was the best?

Mistress Mary is a strong character, but The Secret Garden is a place of transformation, discovery, and magic, a place where new life begins. “Secrets” entice readers to find out what they are. The Dead Undead is confusing; Dracula is singular force, the prime mover of the story, and a unique name that makes the tongue curl.

What are some classic titles that stand out for you as really doing the job? And what are some you feel fell short of the mark?

This is a trick question, right? We’ve practiced the titles of classics so many times, no other title sounds right. War and Peace is blah, a placeholder lacking imagination. Yet Tolstoy’s working title, The Year 1805, is worse. Perhaps for the same reason, I don’t like Cormac McCarthy’s title The Road. But then, it is as bland as the novel is bleak. You’d think that I’d like Gone with the Wind. I understand the symbolism, but if Mitchell wrote her novel in 2015, I think the better title would be Scarlett.

Writing Subtext

Classic titles that do the job? Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper for the theme of social class conflict and the pleasant alliteration. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for a poetic line from Macbeth that totally describes the evil that invades a little town. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers reaches inside me and makes my heart ache. Heller’s Catch-22 because it transcended the novel to enter our language as a problem with no good solution, a damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

How might genre or the audience you’re aiming at affect your choice of a title?

Most titles have keywords that are Morse code to the reader, and often signal an emotion common to the genre. For instance, Sweet Kisses is going to be a romance, possibly Y/A, with no sex. Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry is a thriller. The Autumn of Sweet Kisses is likely mainstream or historical women’s fiction. Changing the title channel, The Last Mortician is not a book I would read at bedtime, nor is Bad Blood Brother.

If you had to choose between two titles, how would you do it?

Assuming I’ve gone through the process of elimination in Crafting Titles and narrowed my list of contenders down to two, I’d choose the one that packs the most emotion and creates the most curiosity.

What aspect of novel craft will you tackle for your next booklet?

Before I make a decision, I’d like to hear from writers regarding the aspects of craft they’d like to learn more about and why. Imagery? Plotting? Point of View? Characterization? Something else?

I hope Jenny and those who read her blog will share their views and guide me toward a topic.

Elizabeth Lyon has been a book editor since 1988. She is the author of several best-selling books, including Manuscript Makeover. Last year she launched a booklet series beginning with Writing Subtext.

Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series and the Catskill Mountains Mysteries . She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor. Her interests are reading, gardening, swimming, and NOT cooking.

February 3, 2015

Guest Post: Sandra Hutchison

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 2:00 pm

The Ribs And Thigh Bones Of Desire

Sandy Hutchison knows an awful lot about indie publishing; in fact, if you have aims in that direction yourself, you couldn’t do any better than to get to know how Sandy is pursuing her own career, and why she chose this approach. (Here is Sandy’s 2013 Made It Moment). But below, she writes about something a little different. Why she wanted to be a writer in the first place, no matter how she ultimately published. Why we all write, really. And why we all read.

Sandra Hutchison

The dark secret in the heart of every writer

Jenny and Diane Cameron and I gave a talk to a full audience at the Troy (NY) Public Library a little while ago, about the three ways to publish (traditional, hybrid, and indie). A lot of what we discussed were the nuts and bolts of moving beyond that need and desire to write (which all of us had experienced from early childhood) to actually reaching an audience.

As Diane wrote so movingly on this blog, it can take a real breakthrough just to give yourself permission to try.

As Jenny’s biography shows, it can take incredible persistence (and grace) to reach your goal.

My story? I’m still in early days with two novels out via my own Sheer Hubris Press, but the first has done well enough to demonstrate that there are many different ways to reach an audience.

And oh, how important that audience is!

Jenny wants to thrill hers to the marrow.

Diane wants to help hers live fuller, happier lives.

And me? I like to make my audience think (in my other life, I’m a teacher). I like to make people laugh (who doesn’t love the sound of laughter?). But I’m also going to cop to that evil, selfish desire that I suspect lives in the black heart of every writer on the planet.


When you’re reading my book, I want you to miss your subway stop. I want you to miss meals. I want you to put off cooking dinner for so long you have to order pizza for the family instead. I want to keep you up so late you’re useless at work the next day. I want you to read for so long you have to put a heating pad on your poor stiff neck. Hell, I want you to cry.

Those are my made-it moments. (And yes, those are all things readers have told me.)

I feel no pity, either, because I know you want it. I’m a reader too, after all, and that’s what I want. I want to be TAKEN HOSTAGE by a book.

My fellow readers and writers, here’s wishing you many future hours of glorious captivity!

Born and raised in the Tampa Bay area, Sandra Hutchison survived a transplant to snowy Greenfield, Massachusetts in high school and eventually stopped sulking about it, although she may still be working it out in her fiction. Her debut novel, The Awful Mess: A Love Story, was one of five general fiction semifinalists for the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Her second, The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, was just released late in 2014. She is also the author of a FREE (in the US) romantic comedy single called The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter.

December 24, 2014

A Special Holiday Made It Moment: Carolyn J. Rose

Filed under: Made It Moments,The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:28 am

The Devil's Tombstone

Hello, dear readers and friends. Thank you for being here today, and on so many other days throughout the year. This blog and all of you kept me going through some very bleak years of struggle and rejection. Together we found joy in the Moments, and it’s a gift I hope might propel along anyone who might be weary or struggling right now.

This holiday season, I offer to you one of Suspense Your Disbelief’s favorites authors and guests, Carolyn Rose. (Here are some of Carolyn’s past selected Moments and Guest Posts.) In addition to writing mysteries across a wide spectrum–from dark to humorous–and even achieving the mighty task of collaborating on books with…wait for it; I didn’t get to the mighty party yet…her own husband, Carolyn knows from writing ups and downs and career changes and transformations. Today she gathers some of them up, and offers us a chance to reflect on all that we’ve accomplished, even when we’re not sure we’ve accomplished anything at all.

That’s the spirit of the Made It Moments. It’s the spirit you’ve all shared with me. Thank you. And happy holidays!

PS: There will be physical gifts, too! Leave a comment reflecting on your own moment of made-it-ness, and Carolyn and I will offer up digital and print copies of her books with only a little less largesse than Santa (or Chanukah Harry)!

Carolyn J. Rose

A Round of Made It Moments for the House!

Back in 2010, Jenny Milchman graciously gave me space on this blog to write about Hemlock Lake and its long road to publication. (Short summary: years of queries, rejections, close calls, near misses, a traditional-publishing sale, rejection of a second book, reversion of rights, and self-publishing.)

Since then, I’ve followed her blog and the stories shared by hundreds of writers who broke through, broke out, broke away, broke new ground, or went for broke.

Congratulations to all of them.

And congratulations to every writer out there. Chances are you had at least one moment of made-it-ness this year—whether you realized it or not.

Did you keep a promise to yourself and finish the book you always wanted to write?
Did you give it all you had?
Did you refuse to set aside your dream and go on even when you were discouraged?
Did you help or encourage another writer?
Did you get your work out so readers could discover it?
Did you get a positive review from a stranger?
Did you get a negative review, get over it, and go on?
Did you participate in a community of writers?
Did you savor each success no matter how tiny?
Did you learn something from each setback?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then in my mind you had a made it moment.

Now, I’m not saying “Lower the bar for made it moments.” Not at all. I’m saying take a look at that bar. Ask yourself who set that bar, when, and why. Don’t beat yourself up because you haven’t been able to jump as high as someone else. Consider how high you have jumped.

And consider this—the mental images for “made it” that we conjure up at age 20 may be far different from what we envision at 40 or 60 or 80. As we age, accomplish, and adjust, we may neglect to revisit and revise those images. The world has changed dramatically in the past few decades and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. There have been many shifts in the publishing landscape as well, and many more books now available through different channels.

And consider whether there may be more to “making it” than grabbing that big brass ring, winning a national award, getting another zero on a contract, or reaching a stratospheric sales goal. Having a spotlight beamed on achievement is awesome, but without an inner light, it might be pretty darn dark when you leave the stage.

Competition is healthy and energizing. Crossing the finish line ahead of the pack is a terrific achievement. But without the ability to appreciate the race you ran and be satisfied with the effort you put forth, victory may seem hollow.

Now, some will contend that staying hungry is the way to go. They’ll argue that being satisfied and content is the same as being willing to settle for the status quo and maybe even lapsing into a state of languid laziness. They’ll say that won’t get you to the next made it moment.

But for me, contentment is a secure place that offers shelter, food, drink, a launch pad, and a safety net all at the same time. Contentment is the payoff for a made it moment. Contentment is what allows me to savor the journey so far and gather my energy for the next leap. It’s the flame that powered the books I wrote after Hemlock Lake, including the sequels, Through a Yellow Wood and The Devil’s Tombstone (coming in the final days of 2014) It’s the well I’ll draw from for the project I’m beginning now, the fourth in my Subbing isn’t for Sissies cozy series.

How about you?

Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone – due out at the end of 2014). Other works include projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton.

She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking.

November 30, 2014

Guest Post: Kathleen Kaska

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:00 pm

Murder At The Driskill

Kathleen Kaska is no stranger to the blog; she wrote a Made It Moment in 2012. But with the release of her fourth Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Driskill, Kathleen decided to do a blog tour about famous, infamous, and legendary locales in Texas’ state capital of Austin–a city whose promo campaign is “Keep Austin Weird.”As a big fan of non-virtual touring, I can tell you that Austin is one of my favorite stops–Go, Book People! Go BookWoman! Go Bobbi Chukran and the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime!–and a place I don’t find weird at all. But let’s see what Kathleen has to say…

By the way, at the end of the tour, Kathleen will give away a signed copy of her book. To be eligible, just leave a comment below.

Kathleen Kaska

I relocated to Austin at the right time. In the mid-seventies, the Capital City was beginning to thrive. I remember an article published in a national newspaper that proclaimed Austin the most inexpensive place in the county to live. Soon after, the city of near 300,000 began to grow to the tune of a thousand people a month. Almost forty years later, that growth continues. But back then, Austin was a laidback town and Sixth Street, which bisects downtown, running east/west, was considered a bit seedy. A few bold entrepreneurs recognized the area’s potential and opened bars, restaurants, and pool halls. Among a few were Maggie Mae’s restaurant and bar, Paradise Café, Esther’s Follies, and The Old Pecan Street Café, an eatery not much wider than a hallway, which had a courtyard in back and served exquisite desserts. Italian Cream Cake was one of their specialties. Soon locales began to brave the downtown area and it seemed as if a new place opened every week.At the time, I was waiting tables and working my way through college. After work, my friends and I often found ourselves on Sixth Street to check out a new venue. Even through Sixth Street was becoming trendy and safe, I remember venturing into a popular dive called JJJ’s, or the Triple J. In Murder at the Driskill, I modeled the Blue Mist after it. The story opens with my protagonist, Sydney Lockhart, dressed as a guy, on stake out to discover which bartender had been dipping his hand into owner, Jelly Bluesteen’s till. Here’s a short excerpt:

It was my third night at the bar. My sleuthing required that I dress in male disguise and smoke and drink while trying to keep a low profile, which was easy since most folks came to the Blue Mist to do just that, except for the dressing in disguise part. But, hey, I might be wrong. After all, it was 1953, and weird things happened in downtown Austin, Texas.

I suspected this particular bartender the first night. He had a pattern to his pilfering. Once the joint became busy, he’d move to the far end of the bar where the overhead lights failed to reach. When someone paid for the drink, the guy pretended to stuff the money into the register, but instead he executed a quick flicking motion with his fingers, and the bills slid up his cuff.

Tonight had been busier than normal and I watched as a small fortune filled the bartender’s sleeve. At closing time, Jelly came out from the back room and caught my eye. I nodded toward the guilty party. The bartender noticed our sly communication and he suddenly became twitchy. Jelly hurriedly ushered the last drunk out the door, flipped off the neon open sign, and reached for his billy club. In one swift motion, the bartender snatched a wad of cash from the register and my coat off the rack and made a beeline for the door. Since Jelly was too fat to run, I took up the chase, alone.

Kathleen Kaska writes the award-winning Sydney Lockhart mysteries. Her first two books, Murder at the Arlington and Murder at the Luther, were selected as bonus-books for the Pulpwood Queens Book Group, the largest book group in the country. Kaska also writes the Classic Triviography Mystery Series. Her Alfred Hitchcock and the Sherlock Holmes trivia books were finalists for the 2013 EPIC award in nonfiction. Her nonfiction book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story (University Press of Florida) was published in 2012.

February 26, 2014

Carpe Diem: Windy Lynn Harris

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:55 pm

For some reason, this song is in my head as I share Windy Lynn Harris’ brave and insightful post. (It might be because Windy looks a little like Kacey Musgraves, but that isn’t the only reason, I promise.) Below are some thoughts about writing and risk. When’s the last time you took a risk? Yesterday? Years ago? Five seconds before? If you fear taking risks, ask yourself why. Because in the wise words of Windy, the other side of risk is not success or failure. It’s accomplishment.

Windy Lynn Harris

Take a Risk (or lots of them!)

Writing conferences and craft classes are important for a writer’s growth, but there’s something about heading off the map with a few other writers that can boost your creativity and encourage you to bloom like no other experience can. I have three dear writing friends who feel the same way. Twice a year we head to a remote area of northern Arizona for a writing-related getaway. Last weekend we did it again.

These writing friends and I have completely different writing interests and goals, but we all love the written word. At the getaway cabin, we wear yoga gear and pajamas. We cook meals together, do writing exercises, drink wine, meditate, study short stories, practice yoga, write poems, hike, read, watch movies, trade writing magazines, share book recommendations, and push each other to take new steps on our writing journey. We get talking about this writing life and what we want from it. This time around, we talked about taking risks.

Risk. Ugh. The thought of risking myself makes my pulse pound.

Risks are scary and uncertain, and are my least favorite part of being a writer. But risks are important. Important enough to discuss at a cabin in the woods with three trusted writing friends. One of us suggested we make a list of all the risks we took in 2013, as a way of looking at our creative life and what we’ve been willing to do to honor it. I blinked a few times and bit my lip.

She said it could be anything, even something small. Something you did without knowing where it would lead.

The first few things on my list were boring and non-writerly (I cooked with kale!), but after a while I wrote these down too:

  1. I finished a new draft of my book
  2. Took a class about scene development
  3. Sat with a literary agent and told her about my book
  4. Set clear boundaries around my writing time
  5. Queried other agents about my book
  6. Wrote something sexy
  7. Embraced social media
  8. Studied poems
  9. Added meditation to my writing routine
  10. Pitched myself as a guest speaker for writers events
  11. Started a new book
  12. Wrote short fiction
  13. Met new writing friends

Finishing that book was the most time-consuming risk I took. Telling a literary agent about it was the scariest. Starting a new book project was the most interesting and making new friends was the most fun. While we shared our risks out loud, I noticed that the items we’d listed didn’t really sound like risks, now that we’d already done them. They sounded more like accomplishments.

Which, it turns out, was the point of the exercise.

We decided that risks don’t have to be big things either. They are those times when we type out a clunky first draft hoping it will become something readable, and the hours spent revising a chapter that might not make the final cut. Risk is when we chose to stay in the chair and keep going even when we think it isn’t working. Risk is when we write and write and write without any guarantee of success for our efforts.

Luckily, risk does pay off for writers. When we take ourselves seriously enough to try something new or stretch ourselves beyond our writing-comfort, amazing things happen. We become better writers. Braver writers. Writers who eventually land bylines and and book contracts.

Risk might just be the most important part of this writing life, and something that we should embrace on a regular basis (a thought that has my pulse pounding again). But I’m not feeling nervous this week. Instead, I’m excited. Time at the cabin with supportive friends has renewed my excitement for this writing life, and I’m ready to tackle a whole new list of risks this year. I hope the same for each and every one of you.

Windy Lynn Harris writes short stories, essays, and suspense-filled novels. As a former weekly entertainment columnist for Nights and Weekends, Windy earned her first awards for short humor pieces. Her work has been seen in dozens of magazines across the US and Canada, including Raising Arizona Kids, Cahoots, and 34th Parallel.

She has shared her writing experience as a guest speaker with many Arizona writing groups, including the Phoenix Writers’ Club, The Professional Writers of Prescott, the Scottsdale Society of Women Writers, and the Arizona Authors Association.

February 14, 2014

Guest Post: Jane Risdon

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:17 am

In A Word: Murder

There turns out to be a pairing of literary losses and angels here on the blog right now. Jane Risdon is both. She’s part of an anthology whose proceeds benefit a lost light from the crime writing world. But Jane has also suffered herself during her life, and if you read her blog (or her moment from last year) you’ll see that if you point to a world catastrophe, well, there’s a good chance Jane was nearby for it. And writing while she was at it. That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but only a bit, and in a way, it’s what’s going on on the blog right now, I think. A celebration of the writing spirit, of the sense that if you love and labor over words, that will help you survive a lot. For proof, just meet Jane.

Jane Risdon

In 2012 I was fortunate enough to meet (online) an inspirational and talented mystery author who is also a prolific blogger and a professor at a California university, who has shown a great interest in my work and is a wonderful source of support for me as a crime/mystery writer.

She has always read my stories and pieces of flash fiction and commented favourably upon them and so when she accepted two of my short stories for her anthology, In A Word: Murder, I was over the moon.

Margot Kinberg decided to put together an anthology in memory of her good friend and prolific blogger, crime writer, and editor, Maxine Clarke, who died last year.  The anthology is in aid of The Princess Alice Hospice where Maxine passed away and all funds raised go to them.

But in 2012, my own hard time hit. On Boxing Day, I fell down the stairs. I broke my shoulder and collar bone and so any movement using my left shoulder has been agony and typing was especially painful. But, I had those two pieces for the anthology to write, and was determined to get them completed so they could be included.

I was due to have an operation on my injuries in January 2014 but when I was actually about to have my anaesthetic, the surgeon decided my shoulder still needed time to stabilise – he described my injuries as being similar to those suffered by a twenty something biker coming off his machine at high speed, or the injuries he had encountered on soldiers returning from a war-zone.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered obstacles that almost prevented me from achieving my goals. I finished recording an album in 1992 in Los Angeles during the riots there and later in 1994 – again recording an album – was there during the Northridge Earthquake.

Most of my plans for 2013 and so far 2014 have been on hold or have been progressing very slowly due to my injuries.  It has been a very disappointing time for me but the one bright light in the whole year has been my contributions to this anthology.  It has kept me writing and determined to carry on whatever happens.

Jane Risdon is a writer of Fiction working on a Crime Novel called ‘Ms Birdsong Investigates’, about a 40 something ex MI5 agent who has retired (under a cloud) to a rural village where she hopes to lose herself and anyone who might be seeking her. She is thrilled to be contributing to an Anthology of Crime Stories set in the world of Publishing alongside award winning authors from all over the world.

February 13, 2014

Guest Post: Mark Stevens

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:38 am

The Asphalt Warrior

There have been literary angels in my life, as many of you know. One of them made my writing dream come true. This is a post by a writer who’s serving as someone else’s literary angel. Someone who isn’t with us anymore. It’s a post about talent, it’s a post about words. It’s also a post about regret—Mark’s. Yes, even though Mark served as this angel, bringing books to life that never otherwise would’ve been read, he has some pretty intense regrets. Most of all, though, this is a post about never giving up. Words we all need a literary angel to remind us of from time to time.

By the way, if you come to admire this writer as much as I do, you can also read his 2012 Made It Moment. And of course, you can buy the books Mark is making into a legacy. No regrets, I want to tell him. Just pure poetry.

Mark Stevens

Regrets? I’ve had a few.

One bothers me more than most.

I knew it at the time, when I first read Gary Reilly’s stuff.

We’d meet in coffee shops, frequently the Europa Café on South Pennsylvania Street in Denver. Hip joint. Cool vibe.

Gary would pluck a stack of things from his satchel—offbeat fiction he’d found in the used bookstores along Broadway. He’d pull out cheap paperbacks, maybe a manuscript of mine that he had edited for the fifth or sixth time. He’d tell me the story of some B-movie he’d stayed up to watch. The guy loved movies.

And, over the years, he’d hand me one of the novels he had written.

About 25 of them.

This was years ago, when he was healthy and hearty and could talk for hours. Two rounds of large iced lattes, no problem.

I’d take the novels home—one at a time.

I was astounded at the sheer range of voices the guy produced—the comic adventures of his erstwhile cab driver Murph (the star of 11 novels), two dark psychological thrillers, some sci-fi, some fantasy, some straight-up, multi-generational all-American fiction and two of the best Vietnam-era novels I’ve ever read.

During our years of coffees, I went from “unpublished” status to “published.” Yes, a small indie publisher but I got an advance; it was a regular deal. Nobody could have been happier for me than Gary Reilly.

Here’s where the regret comes in.

I just re-read the first of the Vietnam-era books again: The Enlisted Men’s Club.

Gary ReillyPoetry on every poetry. We’re in the Presidio, in San Francisco, and Private Palmer is waiting orders to ship out to Vietnam. All he wants to do is drink beer and avoid “shit details.” Nearly 100,000 words of raw honesty. Gary drew on his own experiences (he served as an MP in Qui Nhon) and The Enlisted Men’s Club takes you smack back to the mood and the feeling of that messy political era.

Here are the opening two paragraphs (following a brief prologue):

The ground is damp where Private Palmer is standing, sandy, with some sort of small-leafed green vine which wraps itself around everything planted in the earth—the white wooden legs of the NCOIC tower, a picket line of telephone poles, even the rows of smooth white rocks as large as footballs which border the sides of the dirt drive leading into the rifle range.

The sky is overcast and the wind is blowing hard, making Palmer’s fingertips ache each time he pinches a brass-jacketed round of ammunition and tries to stuff it into a spring-loaded magazine. His gloves are in the pockets of his field-jacket because this isn’t the kind of work you can do wearing gloves, you have to do it bare handed. Colorado raised, he’s used to the stale dry mile-high bite of lifeless Rocky winters, not these damp, heat-sapping, muggy mists blown inland from the coastal waters at dawn. San Francisco Bay is hidden by barren brown hills which border the rifle range, but he can still smell the odor of beached fish in the air.

I read The Enlisted Men’s Club and knew Simon & Schuster would need only tweak four or five typos to turn it into a book today. Flawless, perfectly paced and beautifully structured. The ending is a piece of work—a fine insight into humanity that gives a ray of hope to what is otherwise a fairly bleak tale.

And, now that Gary is gone (he died nearly three years ago), I was near tears as I read The Enlisted Men’s Club.

I’m angry that I didn’t stand him up, march him out of the coffee shop, drive him to a place where I could really give him a piece of my mind—that he needed to do more to get his damn books published.

I was frustrated at the time that Gary wouldn’t send out more queries.

But I didn’t really do anything about it.

I was frustrated at the time that Gary wouldn’t come to RMFW events, to network and find a path to publication.

But I didn’t really do anything about it.

When I’d ask him if he wanted a list of agents to contact, he said would think about it. He’d give me a little shrug of the shoulders. Self-promotion and marketing weren’t part of his DNA.

But I didn’t insist.

I should have made an issue out of it.

Gary would go back home—and write. We’d meet again in six weeks or so and he would have polished up another manuscript.

The guy was born to write and tell stories. He wrote (obviously) for the sheer joy of it. He was fascinated about the process. He loved words like nobody I have ever met.

Twenty-five novels and most (in my mind) could go straight to print.

Five Murph (The Asphalt Warrior) novels have been published so far and the response has been terrific. One Colorado Book Award finalist, two number one Denver Post best-sellers, and reviews coming in from all over the country—and around the world. Murph has followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Because Gary was a vet, the Vietnam Veterans of America website just reviewed all five of Gary’s books—and raved.

The VVA is waiting on his Vietnam novels, of course. If all goes well, The Enlisted Men’s Club will be out late this spring or early summer. Readers will not be disappointed. I guarantee it.

When readers start to see Gary Reilly’s range and his storytelling ability, I have a feeling my case of regret will only get worse.

What’s the lesson for the rest of us? Sure, write up a storm. Sit in that coffee shop. But get out there and network—knock on every door, query everyone in sight, never give up.





This article was originally published by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is reprinted with permission.

Mark 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. Mark is also a partner in Running Meter Press, the company publishing Gary’s works. All proceeds from the company are going to Gary’s longtime girlfriend.

February 6, 2014

Guest Post: Charles Salzberg

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 5:35 pm

Devil in the Hole

Let’s face it, this writing life can be hard. Really hard. We writers get faced with rejection from the moment we start. Sometimes before we even start, someone tries to cut us off at the knees. That’s why we need to be connected to those who have gone before–Dennis Lehane calls this “sending the elevator down”. And why we need writing mentors and supports in our lives. I’d like to welcome Charles Salzberg back to the blog. Charles has been a mentor to me as a writer, and has shared his first moment and second moment right here. Today he’s got something a little different, a story about a writer who nearly got struck down before he’d even begun. And some perspective on why the writer never should’ve listened.

Next time someone tries to cut you off at the knees? Tell ‘em Charles told you to stand tall.

Charles Salzberg

The other day I got to the class I teach a little early and one of my long-time students, a wonderful writer who has just about completed his fascinating memoir chronicling twenty years of addiction while living (and scoring) primarily in Brooklyn and the East Village, was sitting there. I asked him if there was any progress on his book—he’d just started sending it out to agents after already having some interest from editors. And rightly so. His voice is unique, even if his story isn’t. But through his tales of the trials and tribulations of being hooked on just about everything from cocaine to heroin, you not only get to see what and who an addict really is, but how one can live at least the semblance of a “normal” life.

“I got my first rejection. They said that for a book like this, you’d have to be famous. That no one’s publishing memoirs of unknown people anymore.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Lots of memoirs are written by unknowns and besides, there are famous people who run through your book.”

I gave him a pep talk and then class started. But I couldn’t get what he said out of my mind because I hear it all the time. “You can’t do this.” “No one is buying that anymore.”

My advice to writers is simple: Ignore those kinds of comments. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do or shouldn’t do or better not do. It’s something I (and other writers) have heard throughout our careers and if we listened to it, we wouldn’t write. To me, it’s just a lazy shorthand way of dismissing work before actually reading it and judging it on its own merits, because as far as I’m concerned good writing can overcome any rules.

When I wrote my first novel, Swann’s Last Song, I broke the cardinal rule of detective/mystery writing. My protagonist, Henry Swann, follows a long trail of clues and yet, at the end, does not solve the crime. “You can’t have a detective novel where the detective doesn’t solve the crime,” I was told over and over again. Finally, after 25 years, I changed the ending and sold the book. But it doesn’t end there. When the book came out in paperback I included my original ending, and not to my surprise everyone who read both endings preferred my original.

The same thing happened to me with my latest novel, Devil in the Hole, which is told from the perspective of at least two dozen people. That means that practically every chapter is told in the first person voice of a different character. When I sent it out to agents and a few editors, I got pretty much the same reaction, “great story, great writing, but we can’t publish a book with so many characters telling the story. The reader will get confused.”

I knew they were wrong and when I sent the ms. to my present publisher, Five-Star, they loved it. It was published in August and in the almost two dozen reviews I’ve received since then, not one person has complained about being confused by the multiple narrators. Not only that, readers seem to love the way the book is structured. So much for the wisdom of professionals.

The bottom-line is, you have to trust your instincts. If you’re a good enough writer you can make anything old new and make anything unworkable work. Once you realize that, you’ll pretty much have your own “made it moment.”

Charles Salzberg is a New York-based novelist, journalist and acclaimed writing instructor.

His new novel, Devil in the Hole, a work of literary crime fiction based on the notorious John List murders, is on the shelves now. He is also the author of the Henry Swann detective series: Swann’s Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel; Swann Dives In; and the upcoming Swann’s Lake of Despair.

September 16, 2013

Guest Post: Carolyn Rose

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:51 am

No Substitute For Money

Carolyn Rose is a frequent contributor to this blog as her last guest post reveals. This one may be my favorite yet. In it, Carolyn likens substitute teaching to being thrown to the lions–and lays out a plan for writers to come out stronger for it, and their books, too.

Now what kind of writer do you have to be to pull all that off? A good one. Read on…and learn about the giveaway!

Carolyn J. Rose

What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher And Used as a Writer

When my long career in TV news ended in 2001, I turned to substitute teaching to make ends meet—or at least come close to meeting. Fortunately my husband had a job, so I didn’t have to take every assignment the automated sub-locator system called to tell me about.

Barbara Reed, the protagonist of No Substitute for Murder and No Substitute for Money, doesn’t have that luxury. Barb is single and struggling. She has to take every job—no matter how difficult or demanding.

If you have ever subbed, you know all about difficult and demanding. If you haven’t had the “pleasure” of filling in for an absent teacher, cast your mind back to the days when you were in high school. If you’re anything like I was, your goal was to disrupt the class and drive a sub to the brink of a breakdown—all without getting into major trouble.

Guess what?

That hasn’t changed.

I sometimes compare myself to those inflatable punching toys with the weight in the bottom—the ones that right themselves after they’re knocked over. I try to roll with what comes and still be standing at the end of the day.

A few deceptively simple concepts help me do that. They also help me write, connect with readers, and “suffer the slings and arrows” of publishing and promoting.

  • It’s good to have a plan
  • Don’t get too comfortable
  • Project confidence
  • Think before you speak
  • They won’t all like you

It’s good to have a plan. On my first day as a sub, I got a late call to fill in for a middle school teacher struck down by stomach flu. I arrived on the run to find an administrator covering the first class. “I can’t find any lesson plans,” he warned me in a tense whisper. As it turned out, they didn’t exist; the teacher hadn’t made any. I found out later that she never did.

Writers call that pantsing. Writing by the seat of your pants. I used to do a lot of it, but that looonnnnnggg day of subbing cured me of full-out pantsing. I don’t outline to excess or plot every little movement, but before I start a book, I figure out how it will end and most of what will happen in the middle. Then I get all that down on index cards. Knowing I’ll change the first paragraphs many times, I don’t worry about that until I finish the first draft.

Don’t get too comfortable. One night my husband wondered why my feet hurt after a day at school. “Don’t you just sit behind the desk?” he asked.

I laughed for about ten minutes. “If you went into a cage with a bunch of lions,” I asked, “would you sit down?”

I might spend 5 minutes of a 55-minute period in a chair. The rest of the time I’m moving around the classroom. That lets me connect with more kids, offer help, and spot small problems before they become big ones.

As a writer, getting too comfortable with my characters and plots can be dangerous. I might miss something, leave something out, fail to knit up all the loose ends of logic, or not even notice that those ends are dangling.

Project confidence. Let’s go back to that lion image. One survival scheme is to make the lions perceive you as larger, stronger, and braver than you are. In the classroom I stand as tall as my 62 inches allow. And, while I don’t use my outdoor voice, I do use one a notch or two below it so back-of-the-roomer sitters can hear.

I use the same techniques when I speak to writers’ groups and classes. If I don’t come across as confident about my books or the workshop I’m putting on, my audience won’t have confidence in me. If they can’t hear me, they’ll make sure organizers don’t invite me back.

Think before you speak. There are a lot of words that will get a laugh in a high school classroom—some you might utter unintentionally because it’s almost impossible to keep up with teen culture. Meanwhile, actual attempts at humor may fall flat or be taken the wrong way.

I remember that when I’m writing dialogue. The possibility that what a character says may be misunderstood or intentionally misinterpreted can put a whole different spin on a conversation—and on the plot.

They won’t all like you. No matter how many kids I connect with along the way, there will always be a few who wish I’d get out of their space and out of their school. It could be that one of us is having an off day. It could be a personality conflict. It could be the generation gap. The result is that anything I say or do is wrong. And they have ways—not always subtle—of letting me know.

The same is true of readers and reviewers. The ones who don’t like my books use those dreaded one-star reviews to make their case. I don’t let those reviews get to me, but I don’t write them off. I consider what those reviewers had to say and why they said it, and I consider what I might learn to improve the next book.

Someday soon I’ll turn in my sub keys for the last time. But I’ll keep the rules as long as I have the will to write.

If you’ve got rules to share—about writing, working, living, or even lunching—please stop by and leave a comment.

Jenny and I will draw three names from those who comment and I’ll give each one an e-copy of one of my books.

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Now getting her quota of stress as a substitute teacher, she lives in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking. She is the author of a number of novels, including No Substitute for Murder, A Place of Forgetting, An Uncertain Refuge, and Hemlock Lake.

She has also authored five books with Mike Nettleton, her long-suffering husband. He recently released a solo effort, Shotgun Start.

January 22, 2013

On Launches & Legacies

Filed under: Backstory,The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:36 am

It’s been four years since I started blogging, and this site has been quieter over the past week than I think it was since the day I launched it.

Launch. There’s that word.

I began blogging at my husband’s behest in 2009. I was far from the first, but blogs weren’t quite as ubiquitous then as they are now, and my husband, a tech guy, wanted me to jump into the pool while there was still water left in it.

I was wary, though. After all, who was I to write a blog? After a whole decade of writing novels and querying agents and trying to get published, I still hadn’t broken in. I wasn’t a writer…I was a failed writer.

I solved my problem in two ways. If I invited other authors to contribute posts, then I wouldn’t have to put myself out there. And if I sought in those posts some source of wisdom, perhaps I could glean nuggets that would help me along my own journey.

Mysterious BookshopThus was born the Made It Moments forum. Over 275 authors have to date answered the question, “How did I know I’d made it?”

The funny thing is that every single one of these posts is utterly unique, and every single one says the exact same thing.

“I haven’t.”

Over the past week, a lot of wonderful friends and writers and readers I’ve come to know–in no small part due to blogging; thanks, husband, you were right–have written to say things like, “Congrats on your Made It Moment!”

You see, after that decade-long struggle, and then another four years thrown in, my debut novel was published just last Tuesday. After fifteen almost-offers, and more no’s than I can bear to count, my eighth novel finally found its way to the brilliant editor who could help me become the writer I always wanted to be.

But like all the authors who have been kind enough to appear on my blog, I don’t feel I’ve made it. I haven’t even gotten close enough to write a post about how I haven’t really made it.

The Bookstore PlusWhat have I done? I’ve launched. Like birds leaving the nest and six year olds starting school and marathoners getting to the starting line, I now have something that I can bring to you, that I can try to do myself.

What about you? Have you launched anything lately, or do you hope to? Please tell me about it. Please join me in my hopeful march to the Made It Moment.

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