The Writing Life

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Lessons Learned from an Ill-Timed Writing Workshop

Lessons from a Recent Writing Workshop

Earlier this month I took part in a "first pages" workshop on Inked Voices, a website that facilitates virtual writing groups. This workshop offered feedback from a literary agent for the bargain price of $75.

Unable to pass up such a deal, and desperate to make progress on a novel that has languished for two-plus years, I signed up.

In full disclosure, I was completely unprepared. The workshop evaluated those carefully crafted opening scenes that will either draw in a reader or consign your literary brainchild to the slush pile. My first pages consisted of a brain dump spewed out to test the direction of my latest outline, the fourth or fifth for this project. Submitting that garbage would have wasted everyone's time and my money, so I spent five days (when I should have been reading and critiquing) rewriting my crappy draft. This process left me with just over one week to read and review the work of my fellow participants.

At the end of the two weeks, I had spent twenty hours or so rewriting my pages and critiquing peer submissions. My takeaways from the experience include the following:

Deadlines are my friends. Having a specific submission date kept me moving forward. Even though I posted my pages late, I still made more progress than I would have on my own.

Studying craft is mandatory. Because I've struggled with this draft, I've read several books on structure in recent weeks. Doing so helped me to identify the flaws in my draft during the rewrite, and it allowed me to pinpoint what didn't work in peer submissions.

Apply what you learn. Learning the craft in theory only goes so far. We still have to figure out how to implement these techniques in our own writing. Going in, I had an excellent idea of which aspects of my submission worked and which ones were likely to belly-flop.

Critiquing work builds editorial muscles. We often struggle to recognize the flaws in our own work, but those same errors leap from the page when we didn't commit them. Practicing this type of objective review helps us apply the same critical eye to our own stories.

Different readers offer different value. Even though no one else read my genre (urban fantasy), their feedback as readers provided great insight into which sections needed more explanation. Part of the writing process involves learning how to determine which feedback enhances your vision of the story and which does not.

In the end, the exercise confirmed that I'm not only learning craft, but also discovering how to apply it to my writing and to my reading. Such tangible takeaways can be invaluable when undertaking a project that literally spans years, where the ultimate payoff may go no further than a self-awarded foil star for participation.

A member of the MWA-NY board, Mistina Bates made her short fiction debut in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books, 2010) and is currently working on an urban fantasy/paranormal suspense novel. She slings words for a living as founder and president of Market it Write, a content marketing agency based in northern New Jersey.

Do You Really Need to go to Another Writers’ Conference?

"But you've written and published five books," my husband said. "Do you really need to go to another writers' conference?" It was a fair question. I've been writing for years. I have a shelf full of how-to books covering every possible subject from poisons to punctuation. There are endless online sources and courses. Did I really need to hear "Show, don't tell" and "Write what you know" for the bazillionth time? And on top of that, did I need to fly to Los Angeles to hear it?

Um — yes. Not to compare myself to the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), Roger Federer, but even he needs a little coaching every once in a while. A different voice. Maybe even saying the same thing but in a slightly different way. Or maybe reaching ears that weren't ready to hear it before the bazillionth time.

Last fall, I attended my first writers conference — as a listener, not a speaker — in years. And it was a revelation. The best conference I'd ever attended. I came away energized and with a whole new way of looking at my work-in-progress, which, truth be told, had not been progressing.

Were the speakers especially brilliant? Did they give attendees the secret handshake? The key to James Patterson-level bestsellerdom? In fairness, many of them were brilliant — James Scott Bell, David Corbett, Paula Munier. But, I already owned some of their books. The message wasn't new, but the delivery was. And maybe I was. And that's the difference between simply reading about what you should do and hearing it from the pros. Being able to ask questions. Get personal feedback.

On Saturday, June 3, our chapter is sponsoring a one-day Fiction Writers' Conference at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn. Connecticut may seem like Canada to some of our members — but hey, aren't people going to Canada for Bouchercon this year? As a Nutmegger, I can tell you it's way closer. A short train ride from Grand Central. And way less expensive. Thanks to our president, Laura Curtis, and the rest of the MWANY board, this all-day event which features 10 sessions with publishers and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Black Orchid winners and nominees like Reed Farrel Coleman, Jane Cleland, Charles Salzberg, Lyndsay Faye, Chris Knopf, Dru Ann Love, Tim O'Mara, Jill Fletcher, James Benn, Linda Landrigan, Steve Liskow, Laura K. Curtis, Jason Pinter, and Maggie Topkis is being made available to MWA members for only $65. And that includes a continental breakfast, boxed lunch and wine bar wrap-up. Try getting that in the city 😉

I'll be there, notepad in hand. Listening and not speaking. Except to ask questions and learn from some of the best in the biz.

Check out the full schedule here.

—Rosemary Harris

Rosemary Harris is a former president of MWANY and of Sisters in Crime New England. She is the author of the Dirty Business mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday.

Death and Taxes

Even now, with four books published and a fifth, hopefully, on the way, I worry that the IRS will look at my earnings and will decide that writing is really just a hobby. At which point, I will show them my publishing contracts, and after we’ve all had a really good laugh, I’ll explain that just because writing is a business doesn’t mean it’s a good business and then we’ll look at my royalty statements and we’ll all laugh just a little bit more.

It’s all good clean fun until someone finds the dead IRS agent (fictionally dead, my attorney advises me to tell you. Only and always, fictionally dead).

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that it’s tax season. But if you’ve been waiting for the last minute to file, hoping to find those misplaced receipts documenting your legitimate business expenses, you are officially out of time.

When my first book was released, I realized I should have an author website. It wasn’t fancy (it still isn’t) but it gave readers a place to find me on the internet. It didn’t cost a lot of money and it was a legitimate business expense. At the time, my name was owned by a tax attorney, so I settled for jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com. At some point, the other Jeff Markowitz failed to renew his domain name. I swooped in and bought the domain (jeffmarkowitz.com). I kept jeffmarkowitzmysteries as well. After a couple of years, I decided to let go of the earlier domain name. Experts tell us to purchase all the variations on our name, but I knew I wasn’t famous enough for that to apply to me. I assumed that jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com would disappear into the ether.

But I was wrong. I learned recently that someone else now owns jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com. I’m pretty sure it’s a Japanese private eye. I’m relying on google translate here, but this is what I found on the home page, under the heading, Points when asking detectives to investigate cheating -

What is needed for cheating survey is "evidence of cheating" where you can apply anywhere you go. Although circumstantial evidence that can be gathered around us is also effective, evidence of flirty taking images of cheating sites themselves in images or images does not allow their opponents to escape. Also, by acquiring clear evidence of cheating, it will make it easier for you to claim consolation fees for partner as well as partner.

Obtain clear evidence that both partners and cheating partners can firmly identify. This is the result of a cheating survey asked for detectives. 

That seems clear enough to me. But in an age of frivolous lawsuits, every business needs a disclaimer.

Please be aware that "If you are a detective, you are dealing with a cat naked baby survey." 

(You’re probably wondering what you’ll find if you google “cat naked baby survey.” Before you try, let me remind you that your search history may soon be up for sale. This is just the sort of Google search that might haunt you later.)

Considering the role that money plays in crime, you might think there would be a plethora of great accountancy mysteries.  After all, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting combination than the deadly mixture of sex, drugs, and tax codes. If you’re looking for a good tax accountant murder mystery, let me refer you to the 1941 hardboiled classic: Death and Taxes by David Dodge.

We’ve all heard the advice to write what you know. Dodge knew taxes. In Death and Taxes, James “Whit” Whitney is a CPA whose partner, George MacLeod has been murdered. Whitney realizes he has a responsibility to his dead partner. (In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade famously says, “When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.”)

Dodge wrote four mysteries featuring “tax man turned detective” James “Whit” Whitney. (He also wrote To Catch a Thief, but that’s another subject, for another day).

But there are surprisingly few mysteries which take advantage of the inherent sexiness of accountancy. So I’ve been thinking about writing one. In Death and White Diamonds, I introduced a forensic accountant who plays a small role in the story. I think she could carry her own series.

Miss Khan set up shop down the hall and began the tedious process of sorting through the financial records retrieved from Global Co. It had been her experience that police could be careless when they were logging in financial evidence. After all, most cops couldn’t tell the difference between a revenue statement and a trial balance. Before she began a forensic analysis, she made it a rule to go back through every piece of evidence, to make sure that everything is accounted for properly. She would never again allow a simple police error to embarrass her later at trial. And she would never again complicate that error by sleeping with the officer during the course of the investigation. She had been asked that question once, during cross-examination, and she would never put herself in that position again.

Detectives Johnson and McGowan seemed to Miss Khan to be capable of simple police error. Her face suddenly red hot, Miss Khan realized that she was capable of falling into bed with Detective McGowan.

Perhaps, Miss Khan told herself, the case will be settled out of court.

—Jeff Markowitz

Jeff Markowitz is a member of the MWA-NY board. You can usually find him at his computer at 5:30 in the morning, plotting someone's murder.

Self-Publishing 101: 10 Self-Publishing Tips

People who get through childbirth, jury duty, or self-publishing often want to tell you about it. Me, too. After self-publishing two mystery novels, one novelette, and one short story, with a third novel coming out in July, I’ll be — according to my Google search — No. 13,600,001, to write on the topic. I could go on and on. But, mercifully, today, I’ll just offer 10 self-publishing tips.

1. Write Your Best Book! Don't get distracted by the other stuff. The SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING is producing a compelling tale for readers — not a sloppy vanity press-caliber vehicle for yourself. Be daring. Be original. Make what self-pub advocates are calling an indie or artisanal book.

2. Think Niche. If you have a choice, it's easier to sell a self-published book to an audience passionate about something like gardening, knitting, cats, vampires, or a particular place. My mysteries are set in the Chautauqua Institution, a quirky/churchy/historic summer arts community in far Western New York State. Its fans are open to all-things-Chautauqua, including my books.

3. Pick a Strategy. You can write a book and write a check, paying a publisher-for-hire (between $1,500 and tens of thousands of dollars) to do most of the work. You can DIY (do-it-yourself). Or you can take a hybrid approach as I do. I pay for: a book cover design; two levels of editing (big-picture, developmental editing and copy-editing); and print-book formatting (formatting means converting my Word.doc text to a format that’s both attractive (with nice fonts, chapter breaks, and headings) and useable by my publisher, CreateSpace, a division of Amazon). I do the e-book formatting by following this tutorial online.

4. Study Up. No matter which way you go, read many how-to items online, including this good article on costs and this good overview book that covers a lot of the basics that I'm not getting into here, including marketing.

5. Priorities. No. 1, great book. No. 2 great book cover. No. 3 (in my view) is a great Amazon footprint. Polish and re-polish what's called your “product details,” grabbing readers with a fun plot summary, reviews, photos, hype.

6. Stay in the Driver's Seat. If you hire a publisher, check references and past work. Ask friends and me for leads. If you hire a cover designer, spell out, generally, what you want: by checking out the bestsellers in your genre. Require a thumbnail version be readable and attractive — because that’s how most people will see your cover online. If you hire an editor, set deadlines and goals.

7. Do-It-Yourselfers: Find great resources online including free tutorials on covers, formatting, etc. Consider bartering your services for others or getting free editing from beta readers, a writing group or friends.

8. Hybrid Folks: Find cover designers through 99designs.com and designers and formatters through Smashwords. Use who you know. My editor is a very brainy friend of my son's. My cover designer is an ex-boyfriend of my nephew's. My website designer is my daughter's roommate. I market to and through: my alumni, gym, work, and neighborhood newsletters; friends’ and readers' book clubs; social-media links; blogs of like-minded people; local newspapers and bookstores.

9. Budget for Inevitable Mistakes, what a trucking company might call breakage and spillage. I overpaid for last-minute promotional bookmarks to take to an event and overpaid for a rushed Kirkus Review, while my (too messy) manuscript was being simultaneously copy-edited.

10. Have Fun! I hope you enjoy the process of self-publishing — and unprecedented opportunity it offers writers to reach readers on our own.

—Deb Pines

Deb Pines, an award-winning headline writer and copy editor for the New York Post, is the author of two self-published novels, In the Shadow of Death (2013) and Deliver Us from Evil (2015), top-sellers in the Chautauqua Institution where they are set. She’s also a mother of two, the former chair of MWA-NY’s Mentor Committee, a former reporter, and author of a self-published short story and a novelette. “If you enjoy an old-fashioned whodunit, it’s perfect,” the Jamestown (N.Y.) Post-Journal, wrote of her debut novel Shadow.

 

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