"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Author Interview: Janie Quinn Storck

First, Linda, thanks so much for requesting this interview and giving me this opportunity. I was born in a small town in Alabama but grew up in Miami, Florida. My husband and I moved to Idaho where we lived for a number of years and then returned to Florida. We now live in the mountains of western North Carolina. I started writing stories as a child and always considered books my best friends. I have had several short stories published in literary magazines, one of which won an award.

Tell us a little about your psychic thriller, From the Shadows.

Anne Merrill, a reluctant psychic, leaves her home in Bermuda to become an agent for OSS during WWII. She soon finds herself in a psychic battle with her powerful, German-born, psychic father, Albert, as well as with an ancient, secret society, the Chhayas (Shadows) Society, that is attempting to help the Nazis defeat the Allies. During all this, she and fellow OSS agent, half-white/half-Navajo, Paul Bancroft, who is haunted by the shadow of a terrible hereditary disease, fall in love. Anne first plays cat-and-mouse games with a female Nazi spy in Istanbul. She is then sent to Berlin when OSS penetrates the Third Reich. The story is told mostly from Anne's viewpoint but also from Paul and Albert's viewpoint as the story action vaults from Bermuda to London to New York to Spain to Turkey and, lastly, to Berlin.

As a writer, I could fully appreciate the research that must have gone into From the Shadows. Can you tell us what gave you the initial idea to write this book, and a little about the research process and its complexity.

A number of years ago, I read a book entitled Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain about the psychic research going on in Russia. I never forgot that book. I have always had an interest in psychic phenomenon having experienced minor brushes with it myself. Also, I have talked to people who have had major psychic experiences. I read a number of books on the daring and brave deeds of women pilots and spies during WWII. And in recent years, I have become interested in what is called Earth Mysteries, which takes in a number of subjects such as ley lines or power grids beneath the earth's surface, geomancy, sacred sites, etc. Then I happened to read some books about secret societies and their connections to the occult, and, in some cases, their connections to Hitler and WWII. As usually happens when I research, one idea or topic leads me into another and, in total, I researched some forty books to write this one book. Out of the threads of all this research, my characters and the plot idea came together.

Did psychic espionage actually play a role in WWII, and was Hitler engaged in this and other aspects of the occult?

From a couple of nonfiction books I read, Hitler was described as being an explorer of the occult mysteries. And, supposedly, Himmler, as well as others around Hitler, was deeply involved in belief in the occult. It was said that the rise of the Third Reich was meticulously contrived and orchestrated. The ceremonies surrounding some of Hitler's banal speeches were said to have been occult-inspired and superbly stage-managed to control the people. And in England, there were psychics who met together to raise their powers to keep the Germans out of England. Also, supposedly, British Intelligence, and probably OSS, put a few psychics and astrologers on the payroll. And there was the wife of a high military official who, purportedly, could 'see' enemy ships and submarines at sea. And, at least in one instance, her information helped the Allies to sink some German submarines. Also, during WWII, a Jew, executed by the Nazis, was reported to have used paranormal powers to help the Polish resistance. In WWI, there were dowsers who were able to locate mines, traps and drinking water with success. And there were a few reports of psychic abilities being used in battles.

Do you have favorite authors who might have influenced your desire to write?

As I wrote earlier, books were my friends from a very early age. My parents, especially my mother, were readers. I used to read books off my mother's bookshelf. She had a couple of books by John Steinbeck that I read and was impressed with. A little later, I became a great fan of Taylor Caldwell who did splendid characterizations.

In your opinion, and your experience, what aspect of the writing/marketing process presents the biggest challenge for writers in today's changing publishing atmosphere?

The Internet has greatly changed the publishing parameters, of course. In many ways, it has thrown the literary industry into chaos. A lot of talented writers and good books have been, for various reasons, basically shut out of the regular publishing industry. But while the Internet offers writers a wonderful opportunity, getting your books noticed in that environment is quite daunting. For me personally, the marketing aspect is difficult, as I am by nature a shy, reserved person. And nowadays, between talk of platforms and writers being encouraged to be more aggressive in pushing their books and themselves, I find it difficult to fit in. Yet, I realize that marketing my work is important. I remember reading a book about Dean Koontz and how his publishers kept after him to do book tours, etc., and he kept trying to avoid it. This, by the way, was at a time when he was already very well known, and his books were at the top of the best seller lists. Reading about his attitude helped me feel not so odd.

Do you have any thoughts on the large number of authors, both new and established, who are turning to self-publishing? What would be the pros and cons in your opinion?

When agents became the primary gatekeepers to most of the major publishing houses, I think, as I wrote earlier, it closed the door to a lot of very talented people with good, viable books. Also, when the big media companies took over most of the literary industry, aside from some university and small presses, it became more of a bean counter environment. I have read countless times how agents will admit to being ready to say no to a manuscript far faster than yes. And the big publishing houses seem to expect most books to be blockbusters, which, to my way of thinking, is ridiculous. Being an old movie fan, I remember hearing a famous actor talk about the studio-system and how they just put out a lot of movies, not expecting most of them to be blockbusters. She thought the idea that present-day Hollywood had that every movie should be a blockbuster was totally unrealistic. Well, the same goes for books. For established writers, they may feel they want more control over their work and keeping it out there. The POD world can give them that. I order mysteries from a little company in Colorado, and numerous times they have talked about this or that wonderful author's books going out-of-print. A lot of these mystery writers have now turned to POD to get their books back on the market. Again, though, the biggest problem is marketing one's work and trying to get some notice among all the books being published.

What's next for you? Do you have a new book in the making?

I have a couple of adult novels, which I am reworking right now. And I have two middle-grade children's books that I am going through again. Also, I am doing research on another idea for an adult novel involving the subjects of earth mysteries, archaeology and early civilizations. As well as being a catholic reader, I am also a catholic writer. I don't fit easily into categories, which has always been a bit of a problem for me regarding the publishing world.

You can purchase Janie's book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Making Promises

We’ve all known the person who says they’ll call but never do, or who says they’ll meet you at the restaurant at 1:00 on Tuesday but never show. And when you call them to see what happened, they don’t even remember having made the date. We quickly realize this person is unreliable and, consequently, we no longer want to do things with him or her and we cease believing anything they say. They made promises they didn’t keep and they lost our faith and trust.

What exactly do I mean by promises in writing? These come in the form of dilemmas, obstacles, conflicts, and twists and turns in the plot. In each scene you make a promise that something is going to happen in the next scene and then the one after that. You suggest something is going to go wrong to mess up your character’s plans for the future he envisions for himself. You hint at impending disaster. You create suspense in everything your characters do and say and in how they interact. As you fulfill one promise, make another one, until each promise flows into the next and until each one is fulfilled in the book’s final resolution.

Readers anticipate the best–and the worst–and they darn well don’t want to be let down. If you keep promising something, but nothing happens, you’re going to be in big trouble. You’re going to lose credibility.

This makes me think of the famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost. Although it had nothing to do with writing, the words still might hold wisdom for us if we apply them to our situation and read between the lines.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

It is fun but challenging to navigate the “lovely, dark and deep” world of novel writing. We do have promises to keep to our readers, and we should not rest until we meet our ultimate goal of successfully fulfilling each and every one of them. If we don’t deliver on those promises, we won’t have readers for long, and we will become like that unreliable friend who forgets her promises as soon as they leave her mouth. We should always strive to be the writer our readers can trust for a good read.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

You Don't Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

This blog first appeared on the Blue Sage Writers of Idaho blogspot, October 3, 2011.

Most agents and writers have come to prefer email submissions to snail mail. It is decidedly easier for all parties and saves the writer a lot of money in postage. As a matter of fact, the loss of all those query letters, partials, and bulky manuscripts, along with return postage, could very well be what is causing the U. S. Postal Service’s financial demise.

Agents really like email queries because they can easily hit the “delete” button if they aren’t interested. And, you, the writer can easily choose 100 agents and send your query out to all of them simultaneously. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

It’s acceptable to send out multiple query letters. After all, if you sent out one at time, you might not live long enough to get through your list unless you’re twenty when you start querying. Granted, email does make it so you only have to wait weeks, rather than months, for a response, but it’s still not a good idea to get overzealous. I personally prefer to choose around five agents at a time and wait to see what sort of response I get. If it’s positive and they want to see more, I can assume my query letter piqued their interest. If I don’t get a response, or get all negative responses, then I realize I might need to rework the query letter. The same philosophy goes for a partial, and so on to the request of a full manuscript.

The bottom line is you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so don’t exhaust all the agents on your list in one fell swoop. You want to leave your options open to rework your query, your partial, or your manuscript if each phase of submission isn’t garnering the interest to take it to the next level.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Author Interview: Kae Cheatham

Kae Cheatham has published more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. Her juveniles' biography, of American Indian activist Dennis Banks, was a SPUR Award Finalist. Kae has written for newspapers and national magazines, including American Cowboy and Pro Rodeo World. For several years she was an assistant editor at Athlon Sports Communications. She has also edited for Thomas Nelson and Falcon Press. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals.

When did you begin writing? At what point did you decide you wanted to write professionally?

Linda, first of, I want to thank you for offering this interview to me. Authors such as you do a great service to the rest of us by providing these opportunities.

As to your question, when did I begin writing? It seems I’ve been writing for most of my life. In a scrapbook, I found a story I had scribbled out when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. My mother had saved it. I have a lot of imagination, and fabricating tales and “what ifs,” both in fiction and poetry, has been a big part of my life.

For the professional part—it wasn’t a decision as much as a happening. I made half-hearted attempts in high school and college to have my poetry and a few short stories published, with small successes; but writing was my aside. I used it as an outlet—an escape from my regular life that became so very typical and boring: Wife, Mom, Wife, Mom. At that time, I was part of a once-a-month writers group and read to them a children’s story I’d penned. One member was well published, and she encouraged me to send the story to her editor. I did. The result (after many rewrites—this was back in the era when editors would work with an author and not expect a finished product on first read) was SPOTTED FLOWER AND THE PONOKOMITA. I’m happy to say that 32 years later the title is still in print, garnering sales and positive comments.

You have been published traditionally as well as independently. Can you tell us a little about your books?

When my first book was published, there weren’t many options for independent publishing—at least I didn’t know about them. Submitting proposals and manuscripts was standard operating procedure for most authors.

My traditionally published titles are: SPOTTED FLOWER AND THE PONOKOMITA and LIFE ON A COOL PLASTIC ICE FLOE (Westminster Press [a Presbyterian press]). I was, at this point, thinking, “I can publish books!” and had started on a historical fiction piece. My writers group suggested I get an agent (much easier back then than it is today). I queried with my WIP and within a few months was agented. BRING HOME THE GHOST, and THE BEST WAY OUT (my third YA title) came out from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELIZABETH FORTUNE was first published by a small indy press (that went out of business in an inglorious manner when the book had been out for only 8 months). I sold DAUGHTER OF THE STONE (speculative fiction) and BLOOD AND BOND (contemporary western) to online publishers, but they didn’t do well.

Westminster Press stopped selling secular material, and when the remaindered copies I’d bought of the Spotted Flower book were running low, I decided to go indie. I started a little company, bought a block of ISBN numbers, and reprinted the Spotted Flower title (and the reprint is in its second printing). I republished DAUGHTER OF THE STONE and THE ADVENTURES OF ELIZABETH FORTUNE and published CHILD OF THE MIST (the second SF) and KANSAS DREAMER: FURY IN SUMNER COUNTY (historical fiction).

Now I’ve jumped into the e-book industry and offer most of my titles as e-books through Nook and Kindle. This also includes a collection of poems and short stories, LOST NEWS, and an historical novella ON PROMISED LAND.[More complete info at Kaios Books.]

Out of all your books, is there one that gave you the biggest challenge, and why? Is there one that you could say “wrote itself?”

The title that gave the biggest challenge was KANSAS DREAMER: FURY IN SUMNER COUNTY. In my first writing, the character was too young, the story sort of frivolous. I wanted this to be an adult title and not have it categorized as YA. I liked my premise and the situation (my protagonist is clairvoyant and helps to solve a rustling and murder mystery). I wrote and re-wrote that story several times during 5-6 years. I am satisfied with the results, and Books-In-Motion accepted it into their audio book line in 2004.

The title that “wrote itself” was the historical fiction, BRING HOME THE GHOST. A voice just popped up and said, “I’m Jason; you have to tell my story.” Even with research (1830s in the southeast and the western frontier), I completed the first draft in 3 months—a draft that was good enough to entice my first agent.

How do you feel about the new rage in e-books? Do you have any advice for authors who would like to independently publish their books in either that format or paper?

E-books are surrounded right now by a lot of hype—both from producers and the indie authors who are putting up mega-numbers of titles each month. But I know many, many people who are “faithful” to paperbound books. I don’t think traditional books will disappear. I do think the e-book represents an astounding change for the book marketplace; and I see print-on-demand books as a big part of future publishing, from traditional publishing houses as well as indies.

My advice to authors who are considering the various publishing options:

• Be certain what you write is the best it can be. Edit, rewrite, and seek help from others, be they beta readers or professional editors.

• Don’t “give away” your hard work just to be published. Research all the possible means of getting your work to the public. Once you decide on a few, do comparisons and read all the contracts well; ask advice from others, know what the printers (such as Create Space and iUniverse) or publishers are offering. Don’t get gulled into big promises from these companies; they usually benefit the company more than the author.

• Be prepared to do a lot of marketing. Your marketing should begin 8-9 months (for print) 3-4 months (for electronic) before your product is released, with an active website or blog, and a page on one or more social networking sites. Find honest reviewers both on line and off.

• Don’t expect overnight results. Posting a link to your new title isn’t going to garner sales within one or two days. Although e-books give the immediate reward of seeing your work out there for others to find, the book sales and reviews might take weeks or months to become satisfying. One key is not to become disillusioned. The biggest key is to keep writing.

Much has been said about social networking as the new way to promote one’s books. How do you feel about it, and do you have any particular suggestions for writers? (What works, what doesn’t?)

Social networking is quite important in book promotion, especially for an indie author. It is a way to advertise on a grand scale, and if effective planning and techniques are used, this advertising can produce good results. The options are many, and, unless an author has a PR person or a family member to keep track of it all, it’s important to choose the sites where you’re comfortable and can manage it without suffering a significant cut in your production. For authors, I stress the importance of a regularly updated blog and/or website. Book site (such as GoodReads and Library Thing) and Facebook author pages as beneficial. Book forums, especially those geared toward e-books, can be helpful if you keep your posts interesting and not just hype for your book.

Besides writing, you also own your own company, Get It Together Productions. Can you tell us more about it?

Get It Together Productions is the umbrella company that houses my KAIOS Books publishing and the other freelance work I do. I started out developing flyers and websites for authors and rural industry (farriers, horse trainers...). It has morphed into a book production company, where I edit, do layout (print and electronic), and design book covers.
GIT Productions Blogspot and GIT Productions Facebook.

Are you currently working on a new writing project?

I plan to finish the rewrite and reprint BRING HOME THE GHOST (originally published in 1983) during 2011-2012 cold weather. It will have a new title and some expanded material. I guess that isn’t really a “new” project, however, since it’s a reprint. On the NEW category, I have the third book in the SF series flopping around in my head. Hopefully, I can get that more structured and written.

More Links:


Monday, August 22, 2011

What? I Have to Speak!

I’ve always been a shy person so writing became a natural way for me to express myself. I think it stems from my parents’ philosophy that children should be seen and not heard, and that a child wasn’t supposed to interrupt the adults unless there was fire or blood. (Being the youngest of four children, I was even more unlikely to get a voice.) Anyway, my parents were so successful in instilling this mindset in me that when I finally became an adult and realized I could now voice my opinion, I didn’t know how. I was of the notion that nothing I had to say could possibly be important enough for others to listen to. I mean, if there was no fire or blood, it had to be true, right? But when I sat down to write, I could talk through my characters and they could say exactly what I wanted them to say, and other characters would respond exactly as I wanted them to respond. Such gratification.

I think a lot of writers are shy for whatever reason, and they’d like to just be left alone in their little attic alcoves or their basement cubbyholes and write. But then one day all that writing pays off and they find themselves with a published book in hand. They go forth to promote it, and, to their dismay, the phone starts ringing. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has one question: “Will you come speak to our group?”

That’s when the old heart sinks and you stutter and stammer and finally say yes because it’s so damn hard to say no. You arrive at the meeting and you wish to hell you’d stayed in your attic writing brilliant prose. You struggle your way through a “speech” with shaking hands and dry mouth, and when it’s over you rush back home and say, “I am NEVER going to do that again.”

And then the phone rings. “Will you come speak at our conference?”


You seriously consider delisting your phone number.

Of course, there are rewards to public speaking. You sell books and meet a lot of great, like-minded people, and often come away with new friendships. And you might find you actually enjoy it. (I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but wonders never cease). Also, if you make yourself go out and speak every time you’re asked, then eventually you might relax and get the hang of it. (I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but wonders never cease).

Then there are those writers who should have been actors or stand-up comedians. I SO admire them. They love the spotlight. Their audiences love them, and they sell tons of books. They walk into a room and command attention. I love listening to them, and wish I could be like them. They are not just writers. They are entertainers. But I have also listened to speakers who thought they were terrific but who were so self-centered and arrogant, or boring, that I walked away deciding not to buy their books. So sometimes NOT speaking might be the wiser choice.

What I’m getting at here is that you have to know your own personality when it comes to speaking, and you have to try to find the balance that works for you. For me, I can handle small, informal groups of writers and readers, and I love sitting around chatting about books and writing. I don’t mind being on panels because it’s not really a “speech” and I don’t have to wax poetic, dance, or sing. I can answer questions and give opinions until the cows come home. But I hate getting up behind a podium with a room full of people who expect me to be as witty and clever and brilliant as my books! I’d rather go to the dentist and have my teeth drilled without novocaine. Seriously.

Still there’s hope even for us painfully shy people. You might be able to work yourself up to the bigger gigs and find out you really enjoy all the attention and accolades. If you are determined to be a good speaker, take classes in speaking (and acting!) and see if you can overcome your fright. Tell yourself that when you get up in front of people, they are there to learn something from you--they’re not there to watch you shaking in your boots. They truly want you to succeed. If you can convince yourself of this one simple thing, you can oftentimes pull it off and walk away saying, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I might do it again.”

Bottom line: it behooves writers to hone their speaking skills because writing nowadays is all about self-promotion. Publishers love writers who are great speakers because they can go forth and hand-sell tons of their books at conferences and similar venues. So whether you love to be in the spotlight, or whether you hate it, writing isn’t the solitary career you might have thought it was. Some day that phone will ring, and you will be asked to speak.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Use Stereotyping to Your Advantage

We have been told absolutely, under no circumstances, should we ever use stereotypes in our writing. But in life we stereotype people all the time. From the first moment we see or meet someone, we are stereotyping them. We “size” them up by the clothes they wear, the way they talk, the type of job they have, where they live, the car they drive, even the type of dog they pack around in their Gucci bag. And, ironic as it might seem, people really do fall into stereotypes – all of us. Certain “types” look and act and behave in ways that have become so predictable that a stereotype has developed.

But there are times when stereotyping is exactly what the book doctor ordered.

How can that be, you say? That would be breaking the rules.

Enter: a minor character who is there as part of the scene and who is there to interact with the main character to advance the story or give insights into some aspect of our main character. But this “walk on” character will not take a role beyond that scene. If we stereotype this minor character, he will look and act exactly the way we expect. He will say exactly what we expect him to say. We won’t need to be told much about him because the stereotype will draw the picture for us.

Here are some examples of stereotypes: the chatty hairdresser, the waitress with the perky pink uniform chewing on a wad of bubble gum, the old man in the alley with his bottle of wine, the harried mother in the grocery store with her screaming kids, the biker with his leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head, the absent-minded professor with the Einstein hair and bow tie, the gruff rancher walking into the feed store with manure on his boots, the sullen teenage girl ignoring her mother, the jock in the tight T-shirt flirting with the cheerleaders.

We immediately see this people and categorize them into a group that we are comfortable with and understand. There will be no surprises from them. And when the scene is over and they’ve served their purpose, we’ll stash them away to be easily forgotten, which is exactly what we should do.

But stereotyping can be a powerful tool for your main characters too. For example, let’s take the biker with the leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head. Let’s show him parking his Harley in the Walgreen’s parking lot, striding uneasily inside and making his way self-consciously back to the pharmacy. Let’s see him asking the pharmacist for a prescription pain medicine called in by his mother’s doctor. Let’s listen to the pharmacist explain to him the dosage and then caution him that he needs to administer it to his mother himself because she might not be “thinking straight.” He hands the medicine to the biker with sympathy on his face and says, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s cancer. Tell her I said hello.”

Instantly, the biker has stepped out of stereotype. He’s surprised us, piqued our interest, and has become a main player we want to know more about. He’s not the tough guy we might have thought he was. He has a dying mother and he’s out of his element in dealing with it. We immediately want to know everything about him from his childhood to the present.

So, bottom line, if you want to keep a “walk on” character invisible and forgettable, stick to the stereotype. But if you want to hold onto your reader for the long haul, go ahead and stereotype your main characters, then throw a curve ball (or two or three) and make it work to your advantage.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Brainstorming: Good for the Writing; Good for the Soul

Face it. Sometimes when it comes to plotting our books, our brains get stuck in a gigantic rut. We get set on an idea or a direction and no matter what we do we can’t get beyond it to open the door to something new and better. I don’t know a writer who hasn’t faced this. (If you haven’t, there’s something wrong with you!).

It’s been said a gazillion times that two heads are better than one. Get a bunch of heads together and it’s even better. This is the one time in writing when “talking heads” is acceptable. Sometimes all it takes is for a fellow writer, or engaged friend/reader, to ask some simple questions about your plot and, voila, the muddy road immediately dries out and you can pull right out of that rut and get back on the road.

I have three daughters who also write, so it is very fun and productive for us to brainstorm our ideas. I just came back from a week-long visit with one of my daughters and after several BS sessions (i.e., brainstorming sessions) we were able to help her with a book ending she hadn’t been completely satisfied with, and I was able to see more clearly a book I’d wanted to write for years but couldn’t because of that danged rut that kept bogging me down.

A good brainstorming partner should have the same qualifications as a good critique partner, but the main thing for both is someone who not only loves books but who understands writing, who understands you, and who will energize you so much that when you go home, you don’t want to do anything but head straight to your computer and start writing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Author Interview: Rod Miller

Today we're going to visit with author, Rod Miller. With three books just released, it has been an eventful spring and will be a busy summer for him. Born and raised in Utah, Miller has worked as an advertising copywriter for more than three decades for ad agencies in Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. He comes from a cowboy family, and is a veteran of the rodeo arena, riding bareback broncs for the Utah State University Intercollegiate Rodeo team, and in pro rodeos around the West. He is a member of Western Writers of America and several other organizations dedicated to preserving the history, culture, and literature of the American West.

Tell us about your recent release, Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems, and why you were inspired to write it.

After some 20 years making my living as an advertising copywriter, I took a notion, for unknown reasons, to try writing poetry. Never before had I considered writing anything other than what I wrote for work, nor had I any notion that I could write anything else. But I had long been a fan of cowboy poetry and had read and heard a good deal of it, and one day I wondered if I could write a cowboy poem. That was about 15 years ago, and I have been at it ever since—a simple case of curiosity, I suppose, started it all.

Soon after I started writing poems I started submitting them to the cowboy and Western magazines that published poetry at the time and submitting to whatever anthologies I could find out about, and experienced a good deal of success seeing my work in print. With that encouragement, I wanted to have a book of poems and searched high and low for a publisher willing to consider a cowboy poetry collection. That proved difficult, nearly impossible.

Finally, after a decade or so of looking, I learned about Port Yonder Press. It’s a relatively new publisher, growing deliberately, and they’re trying a number of things including poetry and various kinds of fiction, and some of what they’re publishing has a Western and cowboy flavor. Incidentally, later this year they’re publishing an anthology of short Western fiction, cowboy Christmas stories, and I have a story in that. But, anyway, to get back to the point, I submitted a proposal for a poetry collection, they accepted it, and Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems is the result.

They put together, I think, a well-edited, well-designed collection and I am extremely happy with how it turned out. Retail distribution will be a challenge, as it is with most poetry books, but we hope to push demand with reviews and publicity. It’s distributed by Ingram so is readily available through any bookstore, and, of course, on Amazon. Direct sales at Cowboy Poetry events and at workshops and other speaking engagements is also in the mix, and I have several appearances lined up through the summer and fall.

Tell us a little about your other books.

My other recent release is an altogether different kind of poetry book. It’s a limited-edition chapbook of only 150 copies, with a cover screen-printed by hand and a hand-sewn linen-thread binding. It’s called Newe Dreams, “Newe” being a word in the Shoshoni language that means “The People” and by which they sometimes refer to themselves.

Each poem represents a dream of one of The People foreshadowing an event that will affect Shoshoni culture, ranging from the earliest encounters with whites to the destruction of a Shoshoni village in northern Utah in the 1950s. Since much of what is seen in the dreams is unfamiliar, the descriptions can be cloudy, even confusing. Some, related to the Bear River Massacre, are horrifying. It is recently released by Laughing Mouse Press, a small art publisher in Colorado, and available through their web site, LaughingMouse.net.

In mid-May, a regional press headquartered in Utah, Cedar Fort, will release a historical novel titled The Assassination of Governor Boggs. It’s a cold-case investigation detective story and a frontier Western with a touch of mystery.

Lilburn Boggs, former governor of Missouri, was shot in the head while reading the newspaper on dark and stormy night in 1842 in Independence, Missouri. He was given up for dead and his assassination was widely reported in newspapers—but, he survived and lived another 18 years. Scant evidence pointed to Porter Rockwell, a Mormon ruffian, who was hanging around the area under an assumed name. Boggs, while governor, had ordered the Mormons expelled from Missouri under threat of extermination during the 1837-1838 “Mormon War,” so there was a great deal of animosity toward him among people in the church. But there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Rockwell, let alone try and convict him, and the crime remained unsolved. Boggs did not pursue Rockwell’s arrest for long, out of fear the gunman would return and finish the job. But with the Governor’s death, his family wanted answers so hired a Pinkerton agent to investigate. The detective’s inquiries take him from one end of the Old West to the other, eventually leading to an encounter with the notorious Rockwell, one of the most feared gunfighters of the day.

Earlier books include Massacre at Bear River—First, Worst, Forgotten (Caxton Press, 2008), a history of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the deadliest massacre of Indians by U.S. troops in the entire history of the West. I also wrote a brief biography of one of America’s great explorers and adventurers entitled John Muir: Magnificent Tramp (Forge Books, 2005, paperback 2009) and a Western novel, Gallows for a Gunman (Kensington/Pinnacle, 2005).

You write in several genres. Which book gave you the biggest challenge? Why?

Book-length fiction is most difficult for me, I think, for a couple of reasons.
Poetry, while challenging, is condensed and easy to get your mind around in terms of plot, structure, point of view, and all that other stuff, allowing you to concentrate on the beauty and intensity of the language. Which, of course, is what matters in poetry. Nor do I find short fiction overwhelming. And, like poetry, short fiction allows a writer to play with the words more and lift “how” you say it to a level of importance approaching or even surpassing “what” you say. That part of writing is most enjoyable to me.

Nonfiction is more in line with my education in journalism, so not as challenging, overall. Much of what ends up on the page is pre-determined by the facts, the people, the events you’re recounting. Still, you want to present the information well, wrapped in an interesting structure and with good use of language. And that’s both challenging and enjoyable.

But when it comes to writing a novel, it gets pretty complicated for me, dealing with a story, sub plots, back stories, a big cast of characters, and so on and so on and so on. And making up stories is not my strong suit—I’m not one of those writers who can spill out tales endlessly; I have to dig pretty deep to come up with characters and situations and stories. Still and all, it’s great fun.

Finally, I have written advertising for all these years and that introduces a whole new set of challenges. In advertising, you must, of necessity, boil everything down to a single essential idea, then when conveying that idea you must limit your words to the barest minimum and make every one count both in terms of relaying information and moving the reader along. So, because of that, it’s always a challenge to me to stretch things out. Everything I write, from poems to books, tends to be shorter than average.

What works best for you to promote your books? And what have you tried that didn’t work?

After more than three decades in the advertising and promotion business, I long ago gave up trying to understand with any certainty what works and what doesn’t and why. There are just too many variables involved, and they are ever changing. What worked well yesterday may well have flopped the day before, and may or may not work come tomorrow.

My 2005 Western novel, Gallows for a Gunman, was featured in a holiday season article in USA Today, “How to Stay Sane on the Plane,” about current paperback books worth reading. Surely that helped some, but who knows how much? I’ve had reviews, interviews, feature stories, and other publicity in magazines and newspapers large and small, and, again, you have to believe it helps but it’s impossible to track it. And, of course, publishers tend to make their royalty statements as obtuse as possible, so you can’t even tell if you sold any books, let alone when, where, or why.

Direct sales are easier to track but no easier to understand. Personal appearances, from readings to signings to workshops to conferences to book groups to lectures are also all over the place in terms of moving books. Some, where I anticipated good sales, produced little to nothing. Other events surprised me with the number of books sold. But don’t ask me why or how, as I have no idea.

All the online opportunities for promotion available nowadays—web sites, social media, blogs, all that stuff—gives a writer more ways to access prospects and readers. But, the numbers tend to be small in most cases. I can’t even imagine how many online mentions it would take to reach the number of people who saw my book in USA Today, or read about me in Western Horseman magazine, both of which reach hundreds of thousands of readers. But, online interaction can be personal, which mass media never can be. And, reaching even one potential reader can be valuable, and every contact can lead to many more. My fear with social media is that authors can easily become so absorbed in it that they spend all their time maintaining web sites and writing blogs and “Facebooking” and “Tweeting” they forget to write books and stories and poems. In the long term, that can only be harmful—and it offers little or no possibility for payback. Our energy and attention has to be focused more on actually writing, and not so much on writing about writing.

So, to finally get to the point, my approach is to grab every reasonable opportunity to get in front of readers (and writers) that comes along and assume it will all help, at some level, with emphasis on opportunities that reach the most people.

What is the hardest part of the writing life?

Getting published. I’m not one of those writers who “has to write.” I don’t do it out of necessity or compulsion. I write for fun and enjoyment. But, at the same time, I write to be read. If what I write is seen only by me (and maybe my family and friends), I don’t consider the time invested any more productive or rewarding than, say, chasing a golf ball around a well-groomed cow pasture.

But, finding a commercial publisher for anything these days is difficult. Not to mention frustrating, disheartening, maddening, demoralizing, depressing, exasperating….

Do you have advice to people who like to write in more than one genre? Or just advice in general?

While genre jumping can be fun, it’s certainly no way to build a career. When you switch subjects and styles as I have, you’re essentially starting over with every book, seeking out a new audience—not to mention a new publisher.

But when a subject interests me enough to want to write about it, I just sort of assume there are people out there who will be interested enough to want to read about it. I guess we all think that, otherwise we wouldn’t bother writing at all.

So, that’s the advice I’d offer—write what interests you, write what you’ll enjoy writing about. The only thing I would add is to write it well.

What’s in the chute next?

Besides trying to convince people to buy these three new books I find myself with, I have completed a short work of fiction—not quite a novel, but more than a novella—that I have to figure out what to do with. It’s a trail drive story, but really it’s a series of tall tales told by one of the cowboys evenings around the campfire. Not at all typical of what gets published nowadays, it hearkens back to stories like Pecos Bill and the Breckenridge Elkins tales, except my character is not superhuman in any way, just an ordinary cowboy who finds himself involved in extraordinary events.

I also have a more traditional Western novel in the works, probably about one-third finished, that I set aside some time ago to work on other things, and I want to get back to that. And I have completed most of the research and started writing a nonfiction book about various important but relatively obscure events in the history of the Old West. So that, too, wants to be finished. Of course there are always poems to write, and I want to get a few more short stories in the pile. A few anthologies that have come along of late have depleted my supply and I always want to have a few stories ready.

For more information on Rod's books, visit his website at www.writerRodMiller.com

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wyoming: A Great Place to Brainstorm

We recently made a trip across Wyoming to visit family. I must say, crossing this state is always interesting. If you've ever taken the trip you might think I've lost my mind. You might think there is nothing out there in all that expanse but sagebrush and rocks. But look again. There are miles and miles of very tall snow fence, herds of antelope and cattle (usually black Angus), and the occasional semi-truck tipped over by the wind. (The tag "Windy Wyoming" wasn't pulled out of a cowboy hat.) Oh, and this time of year, there's always the excitement of getting caught in a spring snowstorm.

But, wait, there's more to this state than meets the eye. For us writers, it's a darn good place to hatch book ideas and solve plotting problems. Even while dodging semi-trucks (which are always driving over the speed limit), a writer can start feeling the creative juices flowing. And, with my husband trapped in the car with no place to go, I can bounce ideas off his head. I can tell him my story line and the problem I'm having and he will always come up with something that helps get the kinks out, even if I don't end up using his idea. I've solved more than one instance of writer's block while on I-80.

So, all in all, I don't mind driving across Wyoming (if it isn't snowing). It's a darn good place to clear your mind and do some heavy-duty brainstorming for your next book.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Critique Group that Works

My writer's group is a diverse group of men and women who, thankfully, get along famously. I think what makes our group work is that there are no big egos or petty jealousies. Success for one means hope for all. It also helps that we are not all writing in the same genre and, therefore, we're very much on our own career paths, which can't be compared to someone else's.

It makes for some interesting critique sessions. While most of us read a wide variety of books, it gets tricky to offer suggestions on a genre that we might not read and know nothing about. It has forced us all to stretch as readers, writers, and editors. For me, it's made me pick up books in genres I wouldn't normally read so I can offer more insight to my fellow writers. I believe we've all discovered that the same rules of good fiction apply regardless of the genre. All successful plots have the same basic elements: strong characters with plausible conflicts and motivations, personal stakes that are high enough to drive the hero or heroine to action and to sustain the work to its conclusion, characters who grow and change, and resolutions satisfactory to each particular genre.

By reading and critiquing such a wide array of writing types and styles, and knowing our job as a group is to help each other improve, also helps us improve our own work. It makes us appreciate the uniqueness of each genre and realize that each genre requires skill–and a lot of hard work–to achieve success.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ride Your Own Horse

When I was growing up, we always had a bunch of horses around the farm, and most of them were too wild for us kids to ride. My dad was always afraid we'd get hurt so he wouldn't put us on anything that wasn't broke really well or ridden down for a few days before we climbed up on its back. Many times if he was breaking a colt, he would "snub" the colt to an older horse. By this, I mean he would put a lead rope on the colt's hackamore (he preferred hackamores to bridles). The person on the older horse would help control the colt with the lead rope. The person on the colt had the reins, but the snubbing rope was an added insurance in case the colt started bucking or decided to run away.

One of my dad's favorite horses was named Dan. He was a spirited Appaloosa. Dad wouldn't let just anybody ride that horse because he was afraid if the rider "didn't know what he was doing" he'd "ruin the horse." I'll never forget the day when he decided he was going to let me ride Dan. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous–more about ruining his horse than getting bucked off. Dad decided we were going to ride to the top of Blue Mountain at our ranch, a steep climb through pine trees and over rocks. Even though he'd ridden Dan pretty good ahead of time, we started out with Dad snubbing Dan to the horse he was riding. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, Dan was tired (or at least I hoped) and dad wrapped the snubbing rope around my saddle horn. I was on my own on the ride back down. It was quite a thrill to ride that horse. I made it back to the ranch in one piece and didn't ruin Old Dan.

I know you're wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I'll tell you. We all like to have some help now and then with our writing. We like someone to hold that snubbing rope and keep us from getting bucked off; i.e., rejected. We want to hear what others say about our work. We want their advice, their critiques that will kindly and gently point out bad plotting, punctuation mistakes, weak conflicts, poor characterizations and so on and so on. But sooner or later, we have to gather the reins, put our foot in the stirrup, and settle our butts down deep in the saddle. We might be a little afraid to put our heels to that horse, but there comes a time when we have to trust ourselves, our knowledge, our instincts, and all we've learned along the way. Sooner or later we have to let go of that snubbing rope and ride our own horse. What's the worst that can happen? If you get thrown off, just dust off the dirt and swing into that saddle again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Make Your Dialogue Speak

In our daily lives we often engage in nonsensical dialogue and pleasantries, but if we do this in our writing, we'll never see our Great American Novel in print.

Authentic dialogue starts with interesting characters who have their own voice based on their personal history. Beyond that, it needs to flow naturally and not sound stilted, dull, or too proper. Reading it aloud or "acting it out" will help you determine if it sounds natural.

Just as narrative can go on for too long, so can dialogue. Whatever the issue, don't drag it out for pages. The reader will want your story to keep moving forward. If characters get caught in an argument, or perhaps they are bickering over a decision that needs to be made, don't keep rehashing the same point. Bring the topic to a conclusion in good time. Say what needs to be said and move on.

Also, don't be point-blank, unless that is one of your character's known traits. Most men wouldn't walk up to an attractive woman and tell her she's hot. He'd show his interest in more subtle ways. People in real life often dance around what's really on their minds and, for the most part, your characters will too.

Avoid "info dumps" via dialogue (or narrative). Shifting the content of the dialogue from one thing to the next in the same scene, especially if the content isn't tied together, could be more than the reader wants to digest in that particular setting. If the reader becomes confused or can't absorb all the information, he could be confused later because he missed something.

Dialogue needs to move the story forward by imparting information pertinent to the plot and the characters. Each piece of dialogue should be there for a reason and each scene should have a point. Like your narrative, it should "show" rather than "tell." It should impart an "action/reaction" mode from your characters.

Pick a piece of dialogue from a favorite book and analyze each line, asking yourself what information it imparts. Here is dialogue from my own book, The Last Rodeo. Dev Summers, a rodeo bull rider, has just completed his last ride on a savage bull named Satan 101 and walked away, but with injuries. Here's the conversation between him and his dad.

"What do you mean, you're done?" Jake Summers spoke with that familiar sharp edge to his voice. "You'll have plenty of time to get healed before the next event. I can tell you one thing, that shit you pulled today on Satan damned near got you killed, and you'd better not do it again."

"I rode him."

"If you want to call that a ride."

Dev lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. His dad's response was so typical. "I stuck to him until the buzzer sounded, and I got the top score for the night. Isn't that what you wanted, damn it?"

"And look where it got you–crippled up again. You'd have done better to let go. A man has to know when to let go."

"My point precisely."

"So that's what the suicide wrap was all about? To rub my nose in some imaginary shit you've been packin' around."

This scene's purpose is to show the ongoing discord between Dev and his father. It reveals the father's disapproval of the bull ride. His dad thinks he should have known when to let go instead of sticking to the bull with a suicide wrap that ultimately got him injured. But at the same time he disapproves of his son not going to the next event because of the injury. It shows something of the two personalities–of the father who can't give praise, sympathy, or understanding, and the son who is tired of trying to please his father and thus rebels by intentionally knocking himself out of the running.

Just as dialogue arouses your characters' emotions, it should reveal growth, discovery, and truth about themselves and others. In real life we often walk away from a conversation and kick ourselves for not saying something smart or clever, or for not sticking up for ourselves and saying what was really on our minds. As writers, we have all the time in the world to help our characters say those perfect words and say them in exactly the right way.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Author Interview: Craig Lancaster

Sometimes a book comes along that you just have to let others know about. The Summer Son, by Montana author, Craig Lancaster, is one of those wonderful novels you definitely should add to your reading material. Trust me, you won't be disappointed. In this interview with Craig, you learn a little about The Summer Son, as well as his first book, 600 Hours of Edward.

Tell us a little about your new book, The Summer Son.

It's a father-son story, one rooted in two eras: late fall of 2007, as Mitch Quillen and his dad, Jim, try to make their way back to each other after a 28-year estrangement, and the summer of 1979, when their relationship blew apart. It was a tricky writing job, moving back and forth and keeping the various story threads in play. But I think it worked.

What inspired you to write The Summer Son?

After I finished my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, I started thinking a lot about the dynamics of father-son relationships and why so many of them seem to slide sideways. In general, our relationships with our mothers are hardwired; they're gestational. A father's relationship to his children, traditionally, stands apart from that. There's incredible pressure, overt or otherwise, for sons to measure up to their dads, or to live down a bad reputation that's passed on to them. And when fathers and sons don't have much in common, as seems to be the case with Mitch and Jim, the potential for deep divisions multiplies.

What was the biggest challenge you faced with this book?

Shaping it into the story I wanted to tell. My first draft, which I completed in about three months, was incredibly raw, as much essay as it was novel. I did two major rewrites and then spent months sanding down and shaping the narrative. Once the book starts bouncing between the two decades, I wanted the storylines to follow a parallel emotional path. That was an interesting thing to work out on the page.

What, or whom, influenced you to become a writer?

I grew up around books and reading, thank God, so in many ways I gravitated to it naturally. My stepfather, who was essential in my upbringing, was a sportswriter, and I started out wanting to emulate him. I ended up becoming a newspaper editor rather than a reporter, and I worked on my own writing--essays and such--on the side. At 39, I published my first novel, and so now I find myself deeply into the craft of writing fiction. It seems to suit me.

What has been your biggest learning experience as a writer?

Letting go of some elements of my training as a journalist. In that arena, you write in a particular way, communicating the big-picture stuff early in an article and then drilling down to the fine details. If you wrote a novel in that manner, it would be about 10 pages. But all in all, my journalistic training has served me well, especially in terms of writing in a spare fashion and being precise in my word choice. A good story is a good story, whether it's true or fiction (and some of the best fiction, of course, has the ring of truth).

Can you tell us about your first book, 600 Hours of Edward, and anything new on your plate?

600 Hours of Edward changed the arc of my life. That's not hyperbole. I wrote it as a lark, using National Novel Writing Month 2008 to see if I could finally squeeze out the novel I'd always wanted to write. I wrote the first draft, nearly 80,000 words, in 24 days, initially self-published it, then passed it on to a Montana publisher, Riverbend. Since then, it's done things I wouldn't have dreamed for it. It was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and the 2010 High Plains Book Award winner for best first book, and it's gathered a small but enthusiastic group of fans. It continues to be the little book that could.

These days, after writing two novels in 20 months, I've mostly been finding my way into short stories. One I wrote recently, called "Cruelty to Animals," will be published in the spring issue of Montana Quarterly. And don't worry: No animals are harmed in the story, as long as you don't count the two horribly mismatched lovers at the center of it.

Website: http://www.craiglancaster.net
Blog: http://craiglancaster.wordpress.com
Amazon link for "The Summer Son": http://www.amazon.com/Summer-Son-Craig-Lancaster/dp/1935597248/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1281855659&sr=1-1
Amazon link for "600 Hours of Edward": http://www.amazon.com/600-Hours-Edward-Craig-Lancaster/dp/1606390139/ref=pd_sim_b_1