Category Archives: Blog

Writing for TV – Then and Now

By Trai Cartwright

I love Downton Abbey. I love House of Lies, House of Cards (both UK and USA), Orange is the New Black, Black Orphan, Girls, and I especially love The Walking Dead.

I’m a TV junkie, have seen since I was parked, along with the majority of my Generation X co-horts, in front of a TV rather than sent to after-school programs. My babysitter was Wonder Woman and reruns of One Day at a Time.

To this day, I don’t need bowls of macaroni and cheese or a glass of wine after a hard day – I need a marathon of The X-Files.

When I first moved to Hollywood in the 1990’s, I had a yen for TV writing, but it just felt insurmountable. I’d never even seen a teleplay, much less had any idea of how to write one. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on TV and I had dozens of Buffy episodes dancing in my head. I knew I needed to write TV spec scripts, because that’s how writers got started in TV.

But what exactly was a spec script? How did I write one? And what did I do with it when done??

I got lucky. My temp agency sent me to be the writer’s assistant for a legendary TV writer named Jay Tarses. He wrote for The Bob Newhart Show, and that infamous clown funeral episode on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? That’s him.

His first and best writing lesson to me was this: “See that bookshelf packed with TV scripts over there? Start reading.”

So I did. I spent the summer transcribing his notes into teleplays (he still wrote longhand, four hours every morning), answering his phone, making him coffee, and eavesdropping on all the meetings for his new show. And I read. And read and read and read.

Then I started writing. I loved it—just loved it. Something about the way Act Breaks formed the structure and how every episode followed a pattern that pleased rather than bored audiences.

I was hooked. I wrote a dozen spec scripts (turns out, this meant I wrote sample episodes for a range of shows on “speculation” – the speculation being that an agent would see talent and send me out to interview for the writer’s staff of a show. Not the show I loved, see, that’s not how it worked—any show that was willing to talk to a baby writer.)

That summer was blissful, and I thought my future was sealed: I’d be Jay’s assistant on the show I was transcribing scripts for, I’d get to learn TV on the set and in the writer’s room, and eventually, I’d get a chance to write an episode for that show, and boom! zang! I’d be a TV writer.

It didn’t work out that way.

The show was a sitcom about a police vice squad, and as it turns out, no one found sexual assault funny. We didn’t even make it past the pilot.

I shook hands with Jay at the end of the summer and he said, “You got talent, kid, keep at it.” I swooned.

I kept at it, but I never could get those writer’s room interviews. I wrote pilots no one would look at without it being packaged with a prominent show runner. Hacking into TV was damn near impossible back then—assisting a show runner like Jay really was my best shot, and I never got another shot like that again.

Meanwhile, the siren’s call of feature length film was louder than ever, and hacking into films was way easier than TV, so I walked away from my dreams of TV.

Still, every now and again, I’d get an idea for a TV pilot and couldn’t help myself—I’d dash it out with a mad gleam in my eye.

Now that I live and teach screenwriting in Colorado, I’ve had an audience-member’s seat for the radical, unprecedented changes in the TV business model over the last few years. TV is no longer a tiny pipeline you could only squeeze into if someone on the other end was yanking you through.

TV has been democratized, and the old rules (and rulers) are dead. Love live TV!

Now anyone can create a series, and there are dozens of “distribution outlets” awaiting—from Netflix to the internet, from cable to Amazon.com, for goodness sake. The pipeline is so vast that there is a desperation for content I haven’t seen since the indie film revolution of the 1990’s.

You don’t need showrunners, you don’t need season bibles, you don’t need an agent making magical phone calls. What you need is an amazing idea for a TV series.

That, and some teleplay writing skills.

So welcome, TV lovers and dreamers, to RMFW’s first ever Writing for TV class in Denver. 8 weeks to pilot. $225 for RMFW members. Begins May 13.

Teleplays have their own formatting and structural secrets, and the range of approaches are numerous. From sitcoms to network procedurals to mythology series to straight up dramas, we’ll discuss the most current techniques in putting your show to paper. This class will help you to identify and develop the storytelling elements at the core of every episode, every series, and every pilot. Don’t have a pilot in mind but want to start building a spec portfolio? No problem—come with an episode of your favorite show in mind.

See ya on the small screen!

Register here.

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

Trai Cartwright HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

Authors Behaving Badly

By Kris Neri

Kris NeriAs Charles Manson once said, “Are people strange, or am I just crazy?” Call me naïve, but as a published author myself, I assumed other authors must interact with booksellers as courteously as I do. I’ve always believed intelligence and sensitivity to be typical traits among those who write. For the most part I’ve found that to be true. But I’m also a bookseller— my husband and I own The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, Arizona. During my nine-year tenure as a bookseller, I’ve discovered that, for a substantial minority, common sense among authors is not as common as you might think.

So here are a few of the things I’ve observed that the authors among you, and those who hope to be, might want to avoid:

* Don’t threaten the bookseller. Even before we opened our doors, someone wrote to say, “I have many friends in that area, and I’m going to send them all to your store to buy my books. But if you don’t carry them, they’ll never shop there again.” Now I like threats as much the next person, but that one got my back up. I decided they would sell snow cones in hell before we’d carry those books. To date, nobody has asked for one.

* Don’t expect the bookseller to take a loss for you. This advice is directed to those published by presses that don’t offer traditional terms. Someone emailed us to say she was published by a small press and asked if we could host an appearance for her. I told her to send a copy of the book, and I mentioned if wasn’t available through traditional outlets, she would have to provide it on consignment at a 40% discount. For a store to take less means they must sell that book at a loss.

The “small press” turned out to be iUniverse, a subsidy press that only offers a 20% discount and doesn’t allow for book returns — two conditions that make it impossible for most stores to carry their books. Yet the book was well written. But when I offered to give her an appearance, she thought it was time for negotiations. “I just bought a $32,000 truck,” she wrote in an email, “I can’t give you 40%. I need to make money from this book.”

Okay, let me take a moment here to laugh my butt off at that idea. I wish I could say this was an isolated case, but it’s happened too many times. Every spot on a bookstore shelf is a space that could just as easily go to someone else. When it’s a book of marginal interest, that’s a gift. If they have any issue with anyone, it should be with publishers who aren’t professional enough to understand how other books are sold, and price and sell their books accordingly.

* If you don’t read, keep your mouth shut. I assumed that, like me, everyone who writes is also a reader. Man, was I wrong! Incredibly strong numbers of published authors display no interest in any book without their own names on the cover. Okay, that’s their business, and in my opinion, their loss. But why would anyone who hopes to sell copies of their books share that fact with the members of their audience. Yet they brag about it, displaying superior contempt for those who are so uncool as to still read. Then they’re surprised when those uncool people don’t choose to buy their book.

* Don’t tell them where they can buy books cheaper. Some authors who do read will note for their audience all the covers of books in our bestseller section that they have read. But they don’t stop there. Oh, no. They share how much less they paid for those books in Costco, the supermarket or used on Amazon. Then they’re surprised when someone asks how little their book is going for used online.

* Don’t treat a bookstore like a free swap meet. Some authors have discovered that they can make more money selling their own copies of their books direct to the store’s customers. We learned that the hard way, when an author seized a moment alone with a customer to sell her own copy of her book for cash, rather than the ones we had stocked. Do you think there’s a chance we would ever have that author back?

Well…you get the idea. Authors should display the same level of courtesy to booksellers that they show in every other area of their lives. And if they aren’t polite and considerate — they should learn how to do be.

Now, most of the authors who visit our store are great! They’re considerate, fun, and they see booksellers as their partners in the book-selling process. But the numbers of rude, thoughtless authors are higher than I would have imagined. Wouldn’t you think that, if they aren’t naturally courteous, they’d be more practical? Selling books is hard. Why sabotage the efforts of the people trying to help you? Some days I think it would just be easier to sell “Authors Behaving Badly” DVDs on late night TV.

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

Neri_Revenge cover artKris Neri writes the humorous Tracy Eaton mystery series, featuring the daughter of eccentric Hollywood stars, the latest of which is REVENGE ON ROUTE 66, a madcap romp along the Southwestern Mother Road.

She also writes a humorous paranormal series, featuring a questionable psychic who teams up with a modern goddess/FBI agent. Her latest magical novel, MAGICAL ALIENATION, was a 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award winner for fantasy. Kris teaches writing online for the prestigious Writers’ Program of the UCLA Extension School and other organizations, including the Sisters in Crime Guppies. And with her husband, owns The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, AZ.

Meet Kerri Buckley, Carina Press Editor

As part of our series to introduce everyone to our Colorado Gold Conference guests, I caught Carina Press editor Kerri Buckley for an informal chat.

Jeffe: Hi Kerri! Thanks for being here on the RMFW blog today!

Kerri: And thanks so much for having me. I’m getting so excited for the conference!

Jeffe: So are we!

Jeffe: I know that you’re an editor at Carina Press, but what IS your job exactly?

Kerri: Heh. You won’t be able to see it in the log of this conversation, but there was just a loooong pause on my end.

Jeffe: lol

Kerri: So I am an in-house editor at Carina Press—the first one, under Editorial Director Angela James. This means that I acquire and edit books for the Carina Press line. I work across genres and average 2-3 titles a month, publication-wise. That’s my primary role. Beyond that, because I am in-house, I also do things like sit on the acquisition board where we review and evaluate projects. I work with marketing, publicity, sub rights, PR, and production on a daily basis. I write a lot of back cover copy. All to build our authors, position them correctly, and keep growing the line!

Jeffe: And, though you’re newish to Carina, you’re not new to the industry, right?

Kerri: Correct. I’ve been in publishing for what seems like forever, lol. I started as an intern at The Feminist Press (@CUNY) when I was in college and then was accepted into Random House‘s Associates Program when I graduated—that’s like a post-grad year in publishing. (But they pay you!) From there, I became an editorial assistant at Bantam Dell and stayed at Random House, in one imprint or another, for the next 8 years. I joined Carina in May of 2013.

So, full disclosureI took what I call “a sabbatical” from publishing after those 8 years at Random House. I wrote copy, I traveled a lot, I dabbled in some other industries. But I knew it wasn’t right. I knew I needed to come back to books…eventually.

AND! While I was gone? The landscape changed pretty dramatically. It was clear to me that digital was the place to be. It was an area I hadn’t really worked in before, but when I started to look around and see what was working, who was growing—I saw I needed to be in digital.

So that’s where I started, as I was looking and formulating a re-entry plan.

Jeffe: I love that – “a re-entry plan,” like you were out in orbit, returning to Earth.

Kerri: That Carina was hiring at that time was the luckiest thing that ever happened, actually. And that I loved their/our editorial? Fated? Mebbe.

Carina was the first digital-first line to come from a major house. They were AHEAD of the game and so already working when others were still sort of getting set up. I’m adventurous but I’m not crazy. I wanted to go with the winner.

Jeffe: What a great story!

So, why do you come to conferences like Colorado Gold?

Kerri: Personally? I love the atmosphere of cons. It’s like spending a few days among your truest people.

Professionally? Attending cons like Colorado Gold is a HUGE part of Carina’s business plan. It’s an opportunity to find brilliant new writers, a chance to explain who we are and what we do to an audience that’s interested. The author experience is #1 to us, and that experience often starts with an initial meeting—at a conference.

Jeffe: You really DO want to meet and talk to authors?

Kerri: Oh, I do. I actually love pitch sessions. Can’t get enough of them, seriously. It’s exhilarating for me. Kind of like speed dating. I’m always expecting the next pitch to be THE ONE.

Jeffe: Like falling in love?

Kerri: Exactly.

And there are always at least a few crushes.

But also in an informal setting…a lot happens at conferences. Wine is ingested. Ideas are shared. Introductions are made. It’s energizing!

Jeffe: We always hear the stories about the manuscript slid under the bathroom stall door – is that real?

Kerri: That has never happened to me. I kind of wish it had.

Jeffe: I’ve often wondered if that’s an urban myth.

Kerri: On the other hand, there are some VERY, VERY successful books that have come out of conferences.

Jeffe: In fact, Kat Latham who just got nominated for a RITA for her Carina book pitched at a conference.

Kerri: Sure did. Isn’t that exciting?

Jeffe: Very exciting—so happy for her and Eleri Stone, our other Carina RITA finalist! Okay, so be honest – because this is confusing for writers – how should people talk to you, outside of pitch sessions?

Kerri: It must be confusing!

Jeffe: Nobody wants to do the wrong and horrible thing, you know?

Kerri: Yes, for me PERSONALLY it is absolutely okay to come and chat outside of pitch sessions. I just ask that we stick to the general rules of society.

If I’m in the middle of a conversation…maybe wait until I’m done?

If I’m clearly running somewhere frantically (this happens a lot—watch out!) maybe try and catch me later?

Other than that, fair game. I’m a talker.

Jeffe: That’s great to know!

Kerri: Oh, I will offer a tip, actually.

Jeffe: We love tips!

Kerri: And this applies to cons in general. Having an “elevator pitch” about your book is enormously useful. Not a script—I don’t want to talk to a robot—but just a 2-3 minute nutshell description of what you’re working on, why it’s awesome, why you love it.

Jeffe: Often the advice is to memorize your pitch.

Kerri: For a formal pitch session, okay, that works, but for the on-the-fly convos? I don’t want to hear your pitch. You should have signed up for a pitch if you wanted to play that way. I want to *talk*—but also to understand pretty easily what you’re working on.

Jeffe: Fortunately talking about books is our favorite thing!

Kerri: me too!

Jeffe: The conference is six months away—what can writers be doing between now and then to prepare?

Kerri: Keep working on your WIPs, so you’ve got the best possible version in your mind that weekend.

Jeffe: Do they HAVE to be totally done by then?

Kerri: They do not. I will say that when we’re considering work by a new author, most of the time we will want to review a full manuscript. So we might talk about it in Colorado, but I’ll ask for you to hold off sending until you’ve got a full.

Jeffe: Do you ever give feedback in pitch sessions, about how the story might be improved?

Kerri: Yes, all the time. And I try to be nice about it.

Jeffe: I’m sure you are – I can’t imagine you being mean.

Kerri: Oh, I’m a softie. But I can imagine being on the other side of that table. Who wants to hear the editor lady say they got something wrong? No one. So generally what I’ll do is ask you a bunch of questions—why’d heroine do this? What’s hero’s motivation? HOW DOES IT END? And then I’ll throw out a few ideas.

Jeffe: Do you ever talk about a book being in a dead genre?

Kerri: Genre is a tough conversation to have. Although I’ll never say one is “dead”—just maybe… “not on the upswing right now.”

Everything in publishing is cyclical. Look at Romantic Suspense! It was “not on the upswing” for a couple years—now back with a vengeance. In fact, we’re looking for a series to build at Carina .

Jeffe: Very exciting news for the RS authors out there!

I know you have your wish list, as all the Carina editors do, but is there anything you’re really hoping someone will pitch?

Kerri: Yes. I have a few updates to that wish list.

a) An Army Wives-style drama with *multiple* romantic arcs—Contemporary, please. I have been dying for this. b) Multicultural or PoC (Person of Color) New Adult.

c) I’m a total Eastern Europe nerd and I’ve been searching for THE Russian- or Polish-set novel for what seems like half my career. Could be mystery, could be contemporary, could be Romantic Suspense.

Jeffe: So, Carina is a Harlequin imprint—do the books have to be romance?

Kerri: No, they do not.

We publish mystery, crime, scifi, fantasy, action/adventure. We do not require genre fiction books such as mystery, science fiction, and fantasy to have romantic elements. We read, acquire and publish nonromance with no romantic elements, as well! If you have a mystery, science fiction or fantasy manuscript that has no romantic elements, we want to see it.

What we are not publishing, because there are other imprints at Harlequin who do, and because every imprint needs to have a focus: thrillers, horror, women’s fiction, faith-based or inspirational fiction, nonfiction.

Jeffe: Lots of opportunities for our fiction writers, it sounds like!

Kerri: Indeed.

Jeffe: Anything else you want people to know?

Kerri: I will add that mystery, in particular, is an area we are focusing on for growth in 2014-2015.

Jeffe: Any particular kind of mystery?

Kerri: Oh, everything from cozy/amateur sleuth to high-octane. Personally, I tend toward the offbeat. I like quirky PIs, cranky cops, wackadoo agents—character-driven mysteries, I suppose you could say.

Jeffe: Sounds great!

Kerri: I think so. It’s a fun hunt.

Thanks so much for taking the time to give folks a sneak-peek for the Colorado Gold Conference, Kerri! I’m sure everyone will be excited to meet and talk with you there.

Announcing the Judges for the Colorado Gold Writing Contest

There’s one more thing we don’t want you to miss about the Colorado Gold Writing Contest for unpublished novelists.

Announcing the 2014 Colorado Gold Final Judges!

Action/Thriller
Matt Martz, Editor, St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur

Mainstream
Peter Senftleben Associate Editor, Kensington Books

Mystery/Suspense
Terri Bischoff, Editor, Midnight Ink

Romance
Raelene Gorlinsky, Publisher, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.

Speculative Fiction
Jessica Renheim, Associate Editor, Dutton / Penguin Group

Young Adult/Middle Grade
Shannon Hassan, Agent, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

For more information on the contest and the link to submit your entry, go to the Contest Page (link is in the Toolbar at the top of website)

RMFW Spotlight on Chris Devlin, Colorado Gold Writers Contest Chair

This month we’re shining the light on Chris Devlin who is coordinating the RMFW Colorado Gold Writers Contest. If you want to know more about the contest which opened for submissions on April 1st, just scroll down to yesterday’s special post or visit the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers website contest page.

Welcome, Chris, and thanks for all you do to help unpublished writers get their work recognized.

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

profile_chris_devlin1. Tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I’m the Contest Chair of the Colorado Gold writers contest. I volunteered for the position a few years back because I’ve been a member of this august organization since the 80s and I felt like it was time to give back. From the beginning, I’ve been surrounded by hard-working and dedicated members who gave their all so RMFW could be the great group it is and I thought–why not me? Commitment, involvement, engagement…it sounds like I’ve sort of grown up, or something. Scary.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

I’m afraid I’m among the pre-published, so no promos here. I’m currently working on a young adult urban fantasy series about alchemy in a Catholic boarding school. The biggest challenge is shutting up and cutting the word length so it’s not the War and Peace of YA novels. Check back for progress reports.

3. We’ve all heard of bucket lists– you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish– what’s one of yours?

I’d love to fly on an airship someday. I have this thing about dirigibles. Of course, I’ll have to overcome my terror of flying and also transport back in time to before the Hindenburg disaster…

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what’s yours?

Procrastination. Lack of discipline. It takes me forever to finish anything and that’s just not cool.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

The moments late at night when I sink into the other worlds I’ve created and I get to experience the depth and texture of having a rich inner life. I’m rarely ever bored because there’s always my imagination to keep me occupied. That, and other writers. We’re all nuts, but what a fun ride.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Commit yourself to this life and stop being distracted by outside drama and/or trying to save the world.

7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Chris Devlin's deskThese days, because of a bad lower back, I do most of my writing in a recliner with a laptop ironing board across my lap for support. It’s tragically middle-aged. My formal desk mostly has my cats on it now, as they love to step on the keyboard and turn the screen on. Cats. What can you do?

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

The last fiction book I read was a bargain edition of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova that I bought at the Tattered Cover. It’s about Dracula and traveling by train throughout Europe. Good book and at 700+ pages long, it made me feel better about my tendency to overwrite.

Thanks for letting me spout off, Pat, and thanks for the RMFW blog!

The Colorado Gold Writing Contest Opened for Submission on April 1st

Tomorrow we shine the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Spotlight on Chris Devlin, Contest Chair. She has a big job, and we aim to help her out a little by spreading the word about this outstanding opportunity for unpublished writers.

Laptop_writingYou’ve been working hard on your manuscript–writing, revising, self-editing, then rewriting after your critique group reviews your efforts. Now you have your first finished novel. What should you do next?

For over thirty years, the Colorado Gold contest for unpublished writers has given aspiring novelists the chance to get their work in front of an acquiring agent or editor while also providing feedback and encouragement for the craft of writing.

Writers enter the first 20 pages of a manuscript plus a 3 to 4 page synopsis in one of six categories. Two judges from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers will evaluate and score each entry. The top five submissions scoring 130 points or more in each category will make the finals and will then be judged by one of the agents or editors attending the Colorado Gold Conference.

One winner will be named in each category. Winners receive $100 and a certificate. The remaining finalists receive $30 and a certificate. Winners will be announced at the Colorado Gold Writers Conference awards banquet September 6th, 2014, at the Westin Hotel in Westminster, Colorado.

The 2014 Contest Categories are:

Action/Thriller
Mainstream
Mystery/Suspense
Romance
Speculative Fiction
Young Adult

The contest final judges have been announced. You’ll find those names on the website as well (the link is at the end of this post).

Contest Dates:

Opens April 1, 2014 at midnight.
Closes June 1, 2014, 11:59 PM MST.

Entry Fee:

$30 per entry or $55 per entry to receive a critique from one of the first two judges.

By now, I’m sure you’re chomping at the bit to know how to enter. First you head over the RMFW Website and check out the Contest Page. That’s where you’ll find the links to the 2014 Official Rules and Entry Instructions.

Good luck!

A Muse By Any Other Name

By Mary Gillgannon

In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.

The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person’s creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands:  how the creative process works.

Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.

I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.

I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.

Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.

Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.

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.

Mario Acevedo Shares Some of His Favorite Authors

By Mario Acevedo

A recent questionnaire on Facebook asked to list fifteen authors that influenced you personally. I jotted down some names, then as I thought about it, kept revising the list. After I had posted the list I realized I had overlooked one of the authors. So I’ll start this edited list with him.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. The hoopla about Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation is what drew me to this novel, I was in high school at the time. I bought my copy from the rack at the local Quick Check (really, there was a time when you could buy literary novels at the convenience store). I devoured everything about the story including the Nadsat glossary. I was hooked by the narrative’s subversive, violent tone. This was not a “feel-good” read. When my best friend and I saw the movie, we followed the screenplay with the same reverence as Twilight fans tracking the exploits of Edward and Bella. We geeked out so much that we wore Clockwork Orange costumes (this was in the primordial days of fan-cons and nobody wore costumes except on Halloween). I even made a bloody eyeball cufflinks. However, Burgess was horrified by the mass-appeal of the book and the movie (the infamous gang-rape scene was based on what happened to his wife when American soldiers broke into their home), and he wrote an opera to lampoon his own creation. And I’ve seen this musical adaptation, performed in Austin, TX, with women playing the gangsters.

Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade. I ran across this book during my “What good does Christianity do?” period in my life in the aftermath of a family murder-suicide. Having grown up in a Southern Baptist fundamentalist environment, for most of my life I had been reading the Bible as the “Great Book of Wisdom,” but it never made much sense to me. Then I came across The Chalice and the Blade and Eisler’s arguments opened my eyes that the Bible was a book of fiction, mostly, and written to serve a political agenda.

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird. I found this book on the shelf of my uncle’s home when I was on leave from the army. The story is an orphan’s wandering through Eastern Europe during World War Two. As a history buff I could easily put the hapless boy’s ordeals in context, and that’s what made it so chilling. This is only of two books that I’ve read that were so horrific I had to put them aside to process the brutality. In contrast, the violence in A Clockwork Orange struck me as theatrical and lacking in empathy for the victims.

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I learned about this book from the most unlikeliest of sources, an after-school Warner Brothers cartoon. Bugs Bunny warded off a pack of dogs by showing them the book and they ran over the Brooklyn Bridge in search of said tree. Was there such a book? There was, and I checked it out of the public library. The novel was published in 1943 to much acclaim and success. It’s the coming-of-age-story of Francine who overcomes her family’s impoverished circumstances. The book was an enlightening detour from my usual fare of military history. Though I enjoyed the story it was the first time that my internal literary critic was activated. I thought the last chapters had rushed through the girl’s life and as a reader, I felt cheated.

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain. I’m not a Crichton fan but I have to give him his due with this book. My dad used to buy the bestsellers when they were released in mass-market paperback. My memories were of him crashing on the couch during the weekend and churning through the pages. Because of his example I didn’t spend any time with the “classics” but with John D. MacDonald, Leon Uris, Frederick Forsyth, James Clavell, Trevanian, and of course, Michael Crichton. When I read The Andromeda Strain I was twelve years old and in hindsight, not a very sophisticated reader. So it pains me when today people get so worried about what kids read and get exposed to. Even I was able to tell fact from fiction. My dad finished this book late on Saturday afternoon and so I started early Sunday morning. I was so mesmerized by the tale that I faked feeling sick so I could skip church to finish the story. When I put the book down, I was amazed that the narrative had put me in a trance, oblivious to the actual world. Such is the power of a good story.

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

AcevedoMario3x4Mario Acevedo writes the best-selling Felix Gomez detective-vampire series for HarperCollins. Mario’s debut novel, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, was chosen by Barnes & Noble as one of the best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Decade. His short fiction is included in the anthologies, You Don’t Have A Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens and Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery from Arte Publico Press, and in Exquisite Corpse and Modern Drunkard Magazine. He was a finalist in the Colorado Book Awards and the International Latino Book Awards. Mario lives and writes in Denver, CO.

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.