Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mysteries and Morals

by guest blogger Kaye George

I had a conversation with a bookstore manager on Thursday about, well, books. But mostly about stocking mine. Her store is mainly a religious book store, with rosaries, wall plaques, jewelry, and lots of spiritual books, which I hadn't initially realized. (Viva Bookstore in San Antonio--if you're anywhere near there, it's a fascinating place with a tea shop and art gallery)

She's interested in marketing a new anthology I have a story in, FISH TALES: THE GUPPY ANTHOLOGY, because the authors are mostly women (all but 2 of the 22), and because our group, the Guppies, is a women's group. Guppies, if you don't know, is an online Sisters in Crime chapter that is for unpublished writers supporting each other.

Her shop, Viva, tries to be of service to the community by fostering empowerment groups, mostly for women. Two such groups at her shop are a book club for readers, and a writing group!

She's pleased that our bunch of women has achieved success in the field of writing, especially when I pointed out that 8 (or 9? I forget) of the writers in that anthology have never had any fiction published before. The good news for the antho writers is that she wants to carry the book and even to sponsor a reading and signing in the fall.

BUT, she asked me to think about what tie ins the book has to spirituality. That's a tough one.

The stories vary widely. Some are gritty and noir. Some are cozy. Some in between, just good mystery stories. One quotes the hymn, Amazing Grace, and two of the writers are pastors in their own religions. But that doesn't tie all the stories to her theme.

Here's what I'm thinking: Morality. Mysteries are moral. We create a world where justice is done. Bad behavior is found out and punished and good behavior is rewarded. At the end of a mystery story, the reader should be satisfied that evil was overcome and the world (in the story) will now be a better, safer place.

Since evil doesn't always get punished, or even caught, on the real planet, this better world is a nice place to visit. Oh sure, you can find mysteries where the bad guy gets away with it, but in general, justice prevails. Maybe providing a glimpse of the way things ought to be is almost spiritual. Maybe.

Kaye George, an Agatha nominated short story writer, is the author of CHOKE: An Imogene Duckworthy Mystery (Mainly Murder Press), as well as A PATCHWORK OF STORIES, a collection of her previously published stories, and THE BAVARIAN KRISP CAPER, available at Untreed Reads. FISH TALES: The Guppy Anthology contains her story, "The Truck Contest". She reviews for "Suspense Magazine", and writes for several newsletters and blogs. She, her husband, and a rescued feral cat named Agamemnon live together in Texas, near Austin.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Interviewing a NYT Best-Selling Author with 3 Pen Names

By Pat Remick

Lorraine Bartlett is a very busy woman.

She writes three mystery series, including the Booktown Mystery Series that generated a prestigious Agatha Award nomination and put her on the New York Times bestsellers list.

When she's not working on the various series, posting her "Dazed and Confused" blog or appearing at the Cozy Chicks blog, she's busy promoting the books she pens under three names:

Her own, which appears on the cover of "A Crafty Killing," the first in her new Victoria Square series centering on a quaint shopping area that is  home to Artisans Alley, a collection of booths for artisans and craft sellers and figures in a murder (of course!);

As Lorna Barrett, writing the New York Times bestselling "Booktown Mystery Series" revolving around Tricia Miles, owner of Stoneham, NH's mystery bookstore Haven't Got a Clue, and whose fifth book in the series "Sentenced to Death" will be released June 7; and as

LL Bartlett, creater of the grittier Jeff Resnick suspense and slightly paranormal series featuring a former insurance investigator solving crimes in Buffalo, NY.

Recently she found some time time to answer a few questions for Workingstiffs readers:
What's the best thing about having so many pen names?

The worst?
Your readers can't find you. If they don't check your web site or social networking, or look you up on Worldcat, there's no way for them to find out you write more than one series, or in a different genre or subgenre. I'm not just a one-trick pony--I write more than one thing, and despite more than two years of trying to get the word out, Lorna Barrett's Booktown Mystery readers have not found Lorraine Bartlett's Victoria Square series or L.L. Bartlett's Jeff Resnick books.

If you had it to do over again, would have multiple pen names?
No. But when the publisher asks you to take a pen name, you have no choice. My (then) agent strongly suggested I hide my gender behind initials because she felt men wouldn't read a book written by a woman. She was correct.

What most surprises you about this writing life -- and being a New York Times bestselling author?
That life really didn't change at all. I still have to do the laundry and there are so many other NYTimes bestselling authors that you're just a face in the crowd. But it does look nice on my book covers.

What is the best writing advice you've received?
Stop reading "writing how-to" books and going to writing classes. Sit down in front of your keyboard and write, Write, WRITE. And then rewrite, Rewrite, REWRITE.

What is the best writing advice you would give someone else? (or What is it you wish someone had told you about being a writer?)
See above.

What question do you wish I'd asked you?
To talk about my various series and how they are different--or alike. I'll go ahead and answer that one, if I may.

The common denominator in my work is that all my stories are character driven, and I hope have heart. The characters may come to loggerheads, but in the end they're there for each other. In my Jeff Resnick series, it's the brothers (Jeff and Richard--who come from different backgrounds) who are there for each other. In the Booktown Mysteries, it's sisters Tricia and Angelica Miles. In the Victoria Square Mysteries Katie depends on her friends--and they depend on her.

The Booktown and Victoria Square mysteries are cozy, but the Jeff Resnick Mysteries are psychological suspense with a paranormal thread. (No vampires, no zombies, no werewolves. Jeff was viciously mugged and since that day is a tad psychic. While his insight might give him clues, his experience as an insurance investigator helps him solve crimes.)

I hope readers will seek out my websites (www.LornaBarrett.com/ http://www.lorrainebartlett.com/ / http://www.llbartlett.com/) and my blog, Dazed and Confused: http://www.lornabarrett.blogspot.com/

Thanks Lorraine/Lorna/LL for stopping by today!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Recreating the Crime?

by C.L. Phillips

Nova on PBS recently examined the many mysteries of Stonehenge.  You know, the big rock thing in England.  I was fascinated by a minor part of the story.

A 70 mm round ball.  Actually a set of different balls, each ornate and beautiful with only one common attribute - diameter.  Were they Christmas tree ornaments?  Large marbles?  Dinosaur toys?

At the risk of ruining the story, let me say *spoiler alert*.  Watch the show if you don't want to know the ending right now.

The round balls were early ball bearings, created between 3000 and 2500 B.C.  These little round balls were the secret to moving the huge stones one hundred and fifty miles from the rock quarry in Pembrokeshire, Wales to their final resting place at Stonehenge, England.  Don't ask me why they have beautiful patterns hand-carved into the stone.  Or why it took archeologists until 2010 to discover their true use.  Make that alleged true use.

Since we don't have any eyewitness accounts from that time, archeologists are speculating.

Why am I so engrossed by these stone balls?  Because they represent the ultimate mystery clue.  Hiding in plane sight, examined by every researcher for probably two hundred years, they provide a plausible theory as to how the stones at Stonehenge came to be.  As a mystery novelist, I dream of creating compelling clues like this.

My question to you - what is your ball bearing?  What have you hidden in plain sight, only to have your readers discover in the denouement, and shriek, "of course!"

Go ahead, spill some secrets.  You know you want to.  

And for those of you in the United States, as you reflect on Memorial Day, send a kind word or thought to our service men and women, our emergency first responders, and the families across the Midwest and South struggling to recover from the recent storms.  Our thoughts are with you.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writers helping writers at Pitch University

One of the things I love about the writing community is writers helping writers.  Diane Holmes is one of those rare people, following her passion, dedicated to helping writers connect with agents, editors and readers.  This year she founded Pitch University, and was kind enough to consent to an interview.  So, here goes - questions, and answers from Diane.
What is Pitch University?
Pitch University is the only website on the Internet where authors and novelists learn how to verbally pitch their book, to literary agentseditors, and ultimately readers.  This includes online PitchFests! And it's absolutely free.

But more than that, we take a broader view of pitching and look at all the surrounding sales issues before, during, and especially after publication, whether your traditionally or Indie pubbed.  Our guests include literary publicists, freelance editors, marketing experts, authors, and dozens of related fields.

Why do writers need Pitch University?

Boy, do we writers need Pitch U.  We need a place to learn from experts who  pitch for a living, and we need a place to practice and get feedback from pitching our own books.  

It's not enough to look at examples of good pitches and think the examples will help us with our own pitches.  And it's not enough to have another writer share a format or craft-of-writing technique that "creates" a pitch.  Just because you've filled in the blanks doesn't mean you've done your book any grand service.

Frankly, most of us suck at pitching our books.  There are two main skills in pitching.  The first is figuring out what the pitch focus should be, so that it's accurate and compelling.  The second is stepping forward and talking with another human being and sharing that pitch.  We pretty much suck at both.  Everyone reading this knows that I'm talking about.  :)

We just can't seem to verbally answer the simple question, "What's your book about?" in a way that shares our excitement, quickly communicates the key details, and motivates agents, editors, or readers to say, "Yes!  I want it!"

And yet, we absolutely know this is important to the success of our careers.  We even force ourselves to sign-up for pitch sessions at conferences, even though we're pretty much terrified.

So, is it possible to go from terrified and sucky to comfortable, at-ease, and dynamic.  That's the tribe of writers we're creating at Pitch U.

How do you suggest a writer/author use Pitch University to get the most from their efforts?

Pitch University is a fairly massive site, even though we've only been around since January 1st, 2011.  But we've worked hard to create a usable format so you can get to all our content and not be too overwhelmed.

If you're new to the site, take a moment to check out each of the following features, and you'll have a good feel for everything we offer.

Pitch U BLOG - This is the workhorse of the site. All new content is posted here in blog format, which means you scroll down to see past content.  Also, you'll see the big red box where you can sign-up for our newsletter, The Monthly Pitch. There's more fresh content, schedule updates, and even early entrants into our PitchFests. (Look to the right-hand column to sign up to have each post sent directly to your email.) 

Main Overview - This "mission control" page will give you an overview of current content by category.    Of special note is the official Pitch U Calendar.

Pitch U Learn! - There are 4 pop-down sub-menus to our LEARN tab, including Pitching Education.  Once you click on one of the 4 sub-menus, you'll see widget box with the content further divided.  For example, the Pitching Education page has a tab called "Start Here," which was created just for newbies who don't know which articles/posts to read first. 

Pitch U Forums - This is a brand new feature, and we're so please with it.  Come post your pitch and query letter here, and get peer help.   We have to moderators (Taylor and Heather), who will also give some feedback.

We have only two rules in offering and receiving help:  (1) Be encouraging.   Education and improvement is easier if making mistakes is just part of the fun.  Seriously.  Lighten up.  Remember you're writing because you love it.  

(2)  There are way too many (frankly) odd rules about what how you're "allowed" to  create a pitch or query letter.  Our only rule is that you want your pitch and query to be effective.   It just makes no sense to teach that a pitch should be, say, 17 words long.  A pitch should be awesome.  That's the rule.  A pitch should make the listener want to say, "Yes!"    Yes = Effective.

Pitch U Case Studies - This is my personal passion!  

Have you ever seen someone take a kinda-sorta limping-along pitch and fix it?  What about a query letter or a 1-page synopsis?   Yeah, I hadn't either.  Somewhere along the path of founding Pitch U, I became adept at not only creating pitches/queries/synopses that worked... but also fixing those that didn't.  

I've posted 2 full case studies,  with 4 more in the works.  And, yes, they're completely, totally FREE.

What's coming up the rest of 2011 - any special activities you want to highlight?

We've got a whole lotta fun ahead.  We're busy gathering a panel of 6 agents and editors for our June PitchFest, where we'll focus on Romance and YA.  And then we also have a September PitchFest, which will focus on Non-Fic, Thrillers, YA, and a more!

We're always bringing in experts, publishing case studies, and finding ways to help writers practice pitching, learn about marketing, and participate more fully in their careers.

After being repeatedly asked if I offer consulting, I'm creating a consulting page with information about working directly with me to create pitches and queries that work.  

I truly believe in offering the great content, forums, PitchFests, and case studies at no cost to writers.  But if you find that you're still hitting a brick wall (and I've been there), I know that sometimes, you just need one-on-one help.   So big stuff coming up!

For fun, tell us your about your favorite latte - the coffee or the coffee shop, or what makes it perfect.

A  good writing friend (Laurie F.) came into possession of an espresso maker, and she asked, "Would you like it?"  One, "hell, yes" later, and I was in business.  And then, a Twitter Peep (Heather W.) appreciated my help with her pitch so much that she shipped me chocolate that oddly enough was probably the only gourmet chocolate I can eat.  

So, I've been working 80-hour weeks on Pitch U, fully fueled by friendship latte and thank-you chocolates, and that has to be my favorite type. ;)
Thank you Diane, for all that you do for the writing community - for your welcoming and giving spirit, and the expertise you so willingly share.  Be sure to check out www.pitch-university.com and report back.  We at Working Stiffs want to drool over your success.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review : The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

by C.L. Phillips

We've had the conversation about my Kindle addiction, right?  Well, in my latest fit of "I've got to have this book, NOW", my fingers did the walking and purchased The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson after watching his interview on Jon Stewart's Daily Show.  Damn that Jon Stewart.

The book is beyond compelling.  Why?  Ronson uses vignettes to tell the story.  He drew me in with a mystery of all things.  A mystery in a non fiction book.  It made me smile.  And throught the mystery he illustrated one of the main points in his book.

I'm not going to tell you what the mystery is, because I don't want to ruin the surprise for you.  Suffice to say I read the entire book in one sitting.  And it's non-fiction!  I never do that.

His book is compelling for another reason.  It gave me so much more to think about in terms of my villans and the other people my hero will be working against.  His story about Tony, the man who chose to feign mental illness rather than go to jail took me on a complete character arc.  I found myself rooting for Tony until the last moment when the hammer dropped.

The main point of the book is that with a simple test, you too can identify a psychopath.  And if you've worked in the corporate world, odds are you've seen more than one up close.  Jon's example is Al Dunlap from Sunbeam Corporation.  Mine shall remain unnamed, but let's just say he was easy to identify with the test.

Are there other non-fiction books you've used in this way?  Tell me more.  My fingers are itching to give Jeff Bezos more of my money.

p.s.  Jon Ronson captured my heart and soul last night, and interrupted my normal sleep so I'm up at 5:12 a.m. in the dark in Central Texas wondering how many psychopaths live within walking distance.  It's worse than zombies.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Two Author Household

by Guest Blogger Sarah Glenn

Last year, my wife, Gwen Mayo, had her first novel published. This month, my first novel hit the stores. After years as wannabe writers, we have finally hit The Big Time... together.

There are some huge plusses to being a two-author household. The biggest advantage, I think, is an understanding of one another's plight. Neither of us thinks that the other is crazy for complaining about people who aren't real or falling into a blue funk (or language) over writer's block. I keep hearing about creative types getting divorced, though, so this blessing may be unique to us as a couple.

We are the first beta readers for one another's work. Once again, your mileage may vary. It helps if you have different strengths. Gwen writes wonderfully detailed, gritty mysteries. She's strong on plot, and she asks questions that help me get my own plots on track. My gifts run more along the lines of dialogue, commas, and correcting homophones. I'm also good for emergency reformatting at deadline.

This year, we're pooling our talents in promotion. Gwen's better with money and print media, while I'm better with online stuff. I set up our websites and started promoting us on Twitter and Yahoo lists. I ventured into Second Life, where we're meeting other writers and learning how to promote books in a virtual world. Gwen creates bookmarks and posters for our novels, flyers and invitations for our events, and buys advertising. When it comes time for book signings, we share the burden: one of us handles the money while the other one presses the flesh.

That's the good part. Then, there are the disadvantages. When we're both on deadline, we can't always beta read each other’s guest blogs. Deadlines also make both of us testy, never good for marital amity.

The biggest downside we've found so far, though, is touring in two different genres. Gwen's novel is historical mystery, mine is vampire comedy (yes, a true Working Stiff). I do write mysteries, but the vampire tale is the book I got published. Gotta roll with it.

Some conventions overlap. In June, we're both reading at the 7th Golden Crown Literary Society Conference, which is a lesbian fiction convention. We've got that one covered. We're also both speaking at the FandomFest Weekend in July.

Not so good: Bouchercon. No room for vampires there, but I'm tagging along anyway. It's not like the accommodations will be less expensive if I'm not there. Ironically, the one mystery promotion I'm doing is for Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology, but Gwen's not in that collection.

Touring is also a huge money drain. We’re making our credit card company very happy right now. My advice: pay up front for as much as possible. Pay the credit card down every month. DON'T develop plumbing problems or car trouble.

One last problem involved in a double tour: our families. Traveling is chewing up our vacation hours big-time. We're making a special detour in June to see the Glenn Diaspora in Florida, but won't have any extra time available on the Fish Tales trip to visit the rest of my family in their home state (NC). I expect to be on the outs with most of my kin by Christmas.

It's a great ride, though. Even if we end up flat broke with no sales, there will never be another year like this one. Fortunately, we still have day jobs, so we are a two income household.

About Sarah Glenn: I have a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Kentucky. I’ve held a number of entirely unrelated jobs since that time: I worked as an art intern at the billboard company, as an NCIC operator for my local police department, and as a teaching assistant for medical terminology. I like to write mystery and horror stories, especially when they include a sidecar of funny. I am an active member of Sisters in Crime and Guppies.

All This and Family, Too is the story of a lesbian vampire who moves into a gated community and discovers the true meaning of horror. Will she survive the experience with the mixed blessing of a loving but dysfunctional family?

My novel is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kindle, and Nook.
Gwen's book can be found here.

Monday, May 23, 2011


  by Gina Sestak

No, this is not another post about the Pennwriters Conference.  Great as it was, that subject has been done to death.  I do want to mention one thing, though.  Last Saturday's keynote speaker, Jonathan Maberry, kept sneaking away to write tens of thousands of words to meet a midday Monday deadline.  How many of us could have managed to participate in the conference with that looming over our heads?  It seemed more like the kind of thing a writer would do in a movie than in real life.

That got me thinking about how writers are depicted on film.  Awhile back, I mentioned one of my favorite writing movies, Stranger than Fiction (2006).

Writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson)  spends her time working out her plot and putting it into words, much to the dismay of her protagonist Harold Crick (Will Farrell).

Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) also came across as authentically as a novelist in Romancing the Stone (1984).

The scene in which she is scrounging her apartment for a tissue is priceless.  I don't know about you, but that certainly looks a lot like my writing life.  For those who haven't seen the film, the heroine finds herself thrust into a real-life adventure like the ones she writes about - complete with a romantic hero (Michael Douglas) - when she has to go to South America to rescue her kidnapped sister.

Romance novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep), on the other hand, lives in a mansion on a hill.  She-Devil (1989) pits her against Ruth Patchett (Roseanne Barr), an average housewife, in a battle for Ruth's husband Bob (Ed Begley, Jr.) and romance meets reality when his kids come to stay.

Not all writers on screen are female, of course.  Norman (Craig Sheffer)'s autobiographical A River Runs Through It (1992) tells the story of two young men growing up in Montana.

Perhaps my all-time favorite writer on screen is Mary Call (Julie Gholson), whose beautifully written narration powers Where The Lilies Bloom (1974), the story of a girl's struggle to conceal the death of her father.

Unfortunately, youtube doesn't have a trailer for it.

How about you?  Who's your favorite writer on screen?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Scared Stiff of Promoting

by Patricia Gulley

NO SHAME, that's the keyword. 

A recent blog by an author who hates the whole promotion thing, made me start thinking again. I know, dangerous, but what else are we humans good for? I've been around marketing all my working life, so having to do it seems second nature. Doesn't mean I can make it work. All the advice given is correct and effective; it will work a little bit or a lot, but don't count on any of it being a major success without a bit of luck. Sad, I know, because that means you have to work at it, work at it, spend more money on it, work at it, stop all together and try to write more, go back to working on it, spend more money, work….. Sorry, but that seems to be the way it works. Even if you have a top publisher that does a lot of promotion for you, the author still has to put herself out there and do a lot of things she doesn’t want to do, is afraid to do and embarrassed to do. “Mom said I shouldn’t act that way!!!” 

Marketing is the one place you cannot be a good girl, do the right thing and be rewarded. So, try to remove that bit of proper behavior from you mind. The modern author has to put aside centuries of belief that the author only has to write the book and all promotion is done by the publisher. Shameless hussy-ing is the best bet now with a grain of good manners retained. What is scary and hated is standing out there bragging about one’s self and telling people what to do (read: part with their money) and not feeling ashamed of themselves. Let’s face it, no matter how nice and polite, sweet toned and unassuming we try to be. It is getting in people’s faces, badgering and accosting them, and there’s that nasty feeling that we are letting mom down. Few of us have been raised to do anything like this, yet we must find a way to do it.

Deep breathing, arm extensions and chanting before an event might help if you are hidden behind a curtain prior to your introduction, but even if you are sitting out in open view of everyone you came to talk to, rehearsing what you intend to say is a very good way to calm nerves. You really can do it like chanting. Actors have a speed reading thing they do with each other before a performance that helps them with their memorization and (they claim) their nerves. If it is a reading, start with who you are, what you wrote and a brief reason for writing it. (A second book in a series is good enough.) Maybe if you are feeling good at that point, a bit about your protagonist. Some of these talks are timed, so establishing and keeping on file 1, 2 and 5 minute speeches is a good thing. Pre-published authors are told to prepare their blurbs, log-lines and elevator speeches and know them by heart; well this is what you change to afterwards. However, most readings are 15 minutes, so practicing reading the part of your book that you intend to read from is very important. You can’t wing it. Read in front of a mirror, speaking out loud and time it. Watch your body language and listen to yourself. I prefer to explain how the book starts, read from the first good action section, maybe explain some of what is going on next and leap to another action section and most definitely conclude with a chapter or pages that ends with one of your best cliff hangers. A bow, a sincere thank-you and you are done.

Believe me, only practicing at home but not before you go on will leave you with the jitters. Practice and stay focused on that practicing before your turn comes keeps your mind off the fear. It works the same way with panels. The moderator talks to you about the topic before hand (hopefully by email), there is a practice session the day of (or there should be) and it allows you to come face to face with each other and find out a bit about each other. You will be surprised how much knowing something about each other helps. 

Let’s face it, a billion words has been written on the subject of what to do; the problem is how to over come those terrors that anyone without a natural pension for facing people and talking their head off might suffer. Try not to think of promoting as cold-call selling (standing in a mall grabbing passer-bys’ arms and trying to interest them in your book) very few people can do it and you have to have the personality of a telemarketer to succeed at it any time during your career. Find places where the buyer comes to you: conventions, book fairs, library or store readings. Single bookstore signings for newbies is hard on the author and the store unless the author has a multitude of friends and family in town who can be seriously threatened with bodily harm if they don’t show up. I like group signings however the fear of no one getting in your line is a problem. So what to do if the author next to you has lines out the door and no one even looks at you? Shameless Hussing!! Offer to take pictures of these fans with the popular author (fans always want to do that) and laugh and talk, say nice things about the other author, joke a little. Okay, maybe they won’t grab one of your books and buy it, but they will look over, note your name and pick up a bookmark, postcard or favor, IF YOU REMEMBERED TO PUT THEM OUT, and that’s the start of recognition. Ya gotta start somewhere. 

Go forth authors, and promote, promote, promote.

The end.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More Pennwriters Memories

by Annette Dashofy

My dear friend Paula Matter sent me an SOS yesterday, asking me to fill her blogging slot for today. With it being last minute, I decided to simply dig into more of my photos from the Pennwriters Conference. Today's selection has a theme: Socializing. Schmoozing. Hanging with friends. Whatever you call it, there was a lot of it going on.
 In the Hospitality Suite Friday, Nancy Martin sits and chats with Catherine McLean and Ramona Long.

At Friday's keynote dinner, Pittsburgh area Pennwriters Stephanie Claypool, Cheryl Williams, and Carol Moessinger catch up.
 And Lee Ann Dawson, Candace Banks, Working Stiffs' Martha Reed get better acquainted.
The networking continued at Saturday's lunch.
Heidi Ruby Miller and Jason Jack Miller were two of the authors participating at the book signing.
CJ Lyons and Becky Levine took part in it as well.
Pennwriters President Carol Silvis and Sandi Hahn share drinks and a laugh at Saturday night's cocktail party.
 Fellow Working Stiff Joyce Tremel (on the right) chats with a new friend .

Two Davids: D.L. Wilson and Dave Freas.
Fred Connor, Don Jodon and Mercedes Goldcamp hang out at in the Hospitality Suite before Sunday's closing ceremonies.
Two Peggys and a Dave with a ton of tickets for the basket raffle.

So while the conference was a place to learn about craft and career, it was also a place to hang out with other writers, compare notes, and cheer successes. At Pennwriters, we're all family.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pennwriters Conference Report

by Annette Dashofy

I've decided that past conference coordinators make the best...or at least happiest...conference attendees. We know how much work goes into putting one of these things on, so we appreciate every moment.

We're also thrilled beyond belief that we don't have to do it this time!

All the credit for the huge success of the 2011 Pennwriters Conference goes to Julie Long and Meredith Cohen. They did a fantastic job planning and running this event. BRAVO

And I thoroughly enjoyed every last minute of it. From the wonderful workshops (although a clone would have been nice, since I could only attend one at a time and there were sooo many choices!) to the delicious food (back to the treadmill for me) to the funny and inspirational keynotes, it was a weekend to remember. Plus, how fun to get to see all my Pennwriters friends!

Friday morning I attended the Perfect Pitch workshop with agent Rachel Vater Coyne. The room was packed. Fellow Working Stiff Joyce Tremel and I huddled in the back of the room and took notes. After sharing her suggestions on what makes a good pitch, Rachel opened the floor to anyone wanting to "practice." Her comments on what worked and what didn't were invaluable.

Next, Joyce and I assisted former Working Stiff Tamara Girardi in a hands-on "Twitter for Twits" workshop. (By the way, feel free to follow me on Twitter. I'm @Annette_Dashofy.)

Next came lunch. This was the first year I qualified for the Published Penns Retreat. What an honor to be included in the company of so many talented and successful writers and to listen in on a fascinating discussion of the publishing industry and the changes going on in it. Basically, the business is in such a state of transition, it probably changed three times during the course of the luncheon!

In the afternoon, I attended my friend Becky Levine's workshop on Growing a Critique Group. I picked up quite a few tidbits and ideas to share with my own critique groups.

Friday night is always a big one at the Pennwriters Conference and this one was no exception. The lovely and talented Jacquelyn Mitchard was our keynote speaker and shared a bit of her life story with us. What an inspiration.

Saturday, for me, was agents agents agents. First I attended "The Author-Agent Relationship with former Working Stiff and dear friend Nancy Martin.

That's fellow Pennwriter Stephanie Claypool introducing Nancy, by the way.

Next came "The Do's and Don'ts of Finding an Agent with agent Victoria Skurnick. After lunch, I attended the Agent Panel with all our visiting agents.

Lastly, there was the stand-up comic duo of C.J. Lyons and agent Barbara Poelle in "Welcome to the Jungle."

In the midst of all that, came one of the true highlights of the weekend. The Saturday lunch. First, Ayleen Stellhorn (2008 and 2010 Pennwriters Conference Coordinator) won the meritorious service award.

Then Jonathan Maberry presented an entertaining and uplifting luncheon keynote speech that drove the entire audience to their feet in applause.

After the workshops, there was a book signing event. Ramona Long and I didn't "officially" take part, but we held court at one of the tables and gleefully signed copies of Fish Tales for anyone who asked.

We might have mugged a few people walking by, too, if we happened to spot someone with the anthology tucked under their arm.

Later, I attended the cocktail party. By then everyone (including me) was on the verge of slipping into conference coma. But it was nice to schmooze a bit.

That's me with Jonathan.

Afterwards, our Sisters in Crime gang sneaked off to dinner and took Ramona Long and C.J. Lyons with us. It was a chance for a little bit of quieter conversation.

Sunday, I have to confess, I was done. And I wasn't alone. There were a lot of glassy eyes and slack jaws evident. I didn't even attempt to attend any more  workshops. I was brain dead. Fried. Jonathan Maberry's zombies had nothing on me. So I just hung out in the Hospitality Suite and networked AKA schmoozed until closing cermonies and the basket raffle.

Some people, like my friend Peggy Hauser, buy a LOT of tickets.

I didn't win the writer's retreat that I REALLY wanted. But I did win a more practical prize: a folding cart on wheels that was stuffed with books and office supplies.

If you missed this conference, make plans now to attend the 25th anniversary Pennwriters Conference next year in Lancaster. I know I'll be there!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

PennWriters Conference Overview

By Martha Reed

I loved attending the Pennwriters Conference last weekend. It was a wonderful experience, immersing myself in three days of Writers Talking About Writing All of the Time.

During the conference, I overheard two questions: 1) What in the world is going on with the publishing business? and 2) How do I get started?

Easy enough. The answer to Question #1 seems to be "Nuclear Ground Zero" or "Day One". I guess this means we get to start rebuilding the entire publishing business model, bully for us. I only hope authors keep their hands on the reins and their eyes on their contracts this time.

In honor of Jonathan Maberry's very positive and inspiration keynote speech, here's my answer for Question #2:

How Do I Get Started?

Never give up. Listen with a clear mind to every remark and distill that information for the benefit of your work. Writing isn't about ego, money, or awards, it's about story. If you stay true to the story, you will be given more stories to tell.

Be thankful when someone offers you criticism; at least they're interested enough to give a damn. Learn from everything and everyone. Don't close your mind to experience, you never know what you might need to use next, even the unpleasant bits.

Don't be afraid to ask for help or say 'I have no idea' but follow it up and track down the correct answer.

Talk to strangers. Practice courage, I promise it will get easier. Don't be afraid to ask 'Why?' You might be surprised by the answer. Challenge yourself before you challenge others.

Ignore people who say you can't do it even if this person is yourself.

Read Renee Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet; Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and Stephen King's On Writing until the pages fall out and then buy yourself fresh copies.

Take a lot of notes. Work on some part of your writer's life every day. A page a day is a manuscript by the end of one year. Be honest with yourself and let that honesty show through your writing. If you can't work on your manuscript after your day job, get up an hour earlier and work on it before your day job.

Turn off the TV or better yet, junk your set. It's a complete waste of time and what's going on inside your head will be infinitely more interesting than anything you might see on the screen.

Find out what you want to say and then say it. If you get stuck on a plot point, seek out a professional and ask them about it; most pros will be delighted to share their experience and if they aren't, move on and ask the next one. Never take 'no' for an answer. A 'no' actually means 'yes' because a 'no' will block you from moving in the wrong direction and bump you toward the direction you were originally meant to follow anyway.

When you meet someone impossibly difficult, give thanks. It's a blessing and an opportunity. Someone or something made them that way and if you can figure out what that was you'll have a story.

Start NOW. Jump in recklessly with both feet and shout: Geronimo! It really doesn't matter where you start because it will all change in the editing anyway. Getting started is half the work, editing is the other half. Prepare yourself for that. Don't get rushed, let the story tell itself. You can always earn the money you need doing something else. The story will necessarily involve your life experience and you may not have had the experience the story needs yet; fear not, walk on, it will come and in the end you will be delighted. Don't be afraid to chance a mistake. Thomas Edison invented a thousand light bulbs that failed but the one that worked changed the world.

Even if you never earn a dime for all your efforts you are still better off than you would have been if you never tried. Figure out a way to tell your story and then tell it, and tell it again. Amaze your friends. Shame your mother. She'll get over it and secretly she'll be pleased when you're listed in the Library of Congress.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How fast do you fall in love with a book?

by C.L. Phillips

What do you get when you fall in love?  Burt Bacharach asked that question in one of his songs.  I confess I can hear Dionne Warwick singing as these words hit the screen.

How fast do you fall in love with a book?

I fall in love before I turn the first page.  I throw myself into the story, lose track of everything and everyone around me and escape into what I am reading.  And if the first page doesn't draw me in like that, I throw the book away, or delete the sample from my Kindle.  But when that first page works, when love strikes and I'm compelled to read the rest of the novel that fast, I'm rarely disappointed.

Now I want to deliver that same experience to my readers, and it's tougher than I thought.  The big question is "where do you begin the story?"  Every character has a life before the story opens.  How much of it do you need to know?

Last week I sat in a room with five other writers and we read the openings to about twenty books.  Some were best sellers, others simply personal favorites, and others our works in progress.  After five hours, I can tell you with great conviction that I may not know how to write a strong opening, but I can now identify one.  Like learning the field marks of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, I know what makes me turn the page.

What did I learn?   The magic lies in the choice of each word.  Specific.  Sharp.  Memorable.  In strong openings each word serves triple duty, more than exposing the action, or introducing the emotion, each word sculpts the fine nuances that tie theme, premise, and promise together with tension.

A tall order for mere mortals.  But not for Burt Bacharach.  I've decided strong opening chapters are like a song.  Crisp and unforgettable, with an cadence that carries you into the story problems.  Rhythm, rhyme, melody and time.

Like Katniss from Hunger Games, or Jack Reacher from Lee Child's novels, I'm drawn to characters that drag me into the story problem quickly, with clear emotions, minimal distractions.  Characters with a strong moral compass.  It's not about likability for me, it's about situational strength.  I love characters that fit their environment.  No pussy footing around.  I want a mystery in the first sentence, a problem within the first paragraph, and a fast beating heart before I turn the first page.  Field marks.

What are your field marks to a great opening?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Interview With Steve Ulfelder

by Joyce

Working Stiffs welcomes author Steve Ulfelder today. His debut novel PURGATORY CHASM was released this week to rave reviews. Working Stiffs' review can be found here.

1. Tell us a little bit about your book. Is Purgatory Chasm the first book you've written? Or do you have some of those this-will-never-see-the-light-of-day manuscripts stuffed in a drawer somewhere?

Purgatory Chasm kicks off when an AA buddy of protagonist and narrator Conway Sax asks for help wrestling his classic car away from a shady repair shop that’s had it forever. For his trouble, Conway gets his head caved in. Then the AA buddy is found hanging from a pipe. Even though he never especially liked the AA buddy, Conway makes it his mission to figure out the death and dole out justice in his own way.

I’ve got several other books under my belt, including that never-see-the-light-of-day novel – in my case, a bad Elmore Leonard impersonation that I wrote 20 years ago. Purgatory Chasm is the third book featuring Conway. The first two may see the light of day sometime, who knows?

2. Conway Sax is a pretty cool guy. He has a racing background. You have a racing background. Coincidence? How did he come about?

Series crime fiction has always been my thing, and many of my favorites – John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee especially – fall into the amateur-sleuth category. One thing you need for an amateur sleuth series is a believable machine to provide cases. A full decade ago, it came to me that an Alcoholics Anonymous group could be such a machine. Conway is a recovering drunk with a fanatical devotion to his AA group. Once I figured out that part, much of Conway’s character and background fell into place. He had to be tough, with a beat-up backstory, and he had to have an insanely strong sense of loyalty. As to the racing stuff – hey, write what you know, right?

3. Was it hard to make the switch from journalism to writing fiction?

For me it was easy, because I’ve always been a better writer than reporter. Great reporters love to dig, love to talk with people. Me, I’d rather sit in my dark office making stuff up. Sad but true. Journalism did teach me several valuable lessons, though. First, I know that nobody’s prose is golden nuggets of unchangeable brilliance: anything can and should be edited. Also, for six years I supported my family as a freelancer. So I know how to sit in the chair and be productive even when I don’t feel like it. Put me firmly in the writer’s-block-is-a-crock-of-shit camp.

4. Will there be a sequel? When? What is it about?

Oh yes there will be! Minotaur bought a second Conway book for 2012 release, and I recently sent it over to my brilliant editor, Anne Bensson. This one centers on an election in Massachusetts. An old flame of Conway’s, whom he helped disappear years ago after she had an affair with a powerful businessman, returns to the state – because the businessman is now running for Lieutenant Governor. All the pols begin blackmailing and backstabbing one another, and when people turn up dead, Conway gets stuck sorting out the mess …

5. Are you doing a physical book tour? Blog tour? 

No physical book tour, but I am trying to fold events into my racing schedule. Things haven’t firmed up yet, but anybody who lives near Lime Rock, CT; Loudon, NH; Watkins Glen, NY; or southern New Jersey, near Millville, should be on the lookout for me!

I’ve been popping up on some fantastic blogs, including yours (obviously!). Here are a couple others: Do Some Damage (http://dosomedamage.blogspot.com/), The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog (http://bestdamncreativewritingblog.com/2011/05/03/interview-with-steve-ulfelder-author-of-purgatory-chasm/).

Thanks for being our guest today, Steve. For more information, check Steve's website, http://www.ulfelder.com. Or better yet, click this link to buy a copy of his book.


by C.L. Phillips

Genesis - or "in the beginning".  How does it start?  That creative spark, a new beginning of a new project?  What comes first?  The protagonist, that character that speaks to you from the dark recesses of your subconscious mind, the one that says, "Let me out.  I have a voice and will not be silent any longer."

Or is it plot?  The story, perhaps ripped from the headlines that sparks the "what if?"

Or is it a burning issue, something that is so deep in you, in your understanding of our world that you simply must explore the issue in your writing?

I've started a new project, born from a not-so-silent-voice, screaming to be free.  This new character, Amelia Fortune, is in dire straits.  Twice widowed, unjustly convicted of killing her most recent husband, she finds herself at the age of twenty four, forced to trade what she values most, her integrity for safety.  But she makes a bad deal and places herself in mortal jeopardy.  And then she discovers the world is not fair and there are no rules.

But enough about my project.  What about your new beginnings.  What sparks your creative genesis?  Care to take a moment and introduce us to someone or a situation that you know you will bring to life?

If I had to describe Amelia's situation in six words, it would go like this.

Twice widowed.  Wrongly convicted. Trapped by integrity.

Oops, that's more than six words.  Try it.  Share what you are working on and let's light a fire under some new projects.

p.s.  I'm in the land of no internet, trapped on a barrier island with no car.    The wifi signal gods have blessed me with a signal, six hours ahead of my usual Wednesday post time.  Hence the early post.  I'll try to answer comments, but am not sure how frequently the signal gods will bless my sand dune.  Know that I am with you in spirit if not in keystrokes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Protect Your Candle

With Lisa Scottoline at the MWA Symposium
 By Pat Remick

One of the most inspiring speeches I've ever heard about writing was given last month by Mystery Writers of America President and New York Times best-selling author Lisa Scottoline, who talked about how difficult it is to keep -- and nurture -- a dream when you are over the age of 12.

She was speaking about being a writer, of course. And as part of her presentation on "How to Write a Novel" at last month's MWA Edgars Symposium, she said that dream is our candle and we must do everything possible to protect it. We can't let people blow it out, take it away from us or diminish it.

Scottoline's story of living on credit cards to be a writer and stay-at-home mom is well-known. She believed in her dream, worked hard to achieve it and now is the author of 18 novels and two non-fiction books. She says we all can be published writers, too, if we "protect the candle."

That means even if we have day jobs and other responsibilities, we must make writing a priority and find time wherever and whenever we can to devote to our dream. To help illustrate her point, she said she declines luncheon and other fun invitations that might interrupt her work because writing is her job -- and it comes first.

And, as she notes, if you write 1,000 words a day, you'll have a novel in a couple of months. Even if you write a page a day, you'll have a novel in a year.  In her 42-page "Lisa Scottoline's Handy-Dandy Author Kit" distributed at the Symposium she included this inspirational advice from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland":

"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end; then stop."

But in the process, do you "protect the candle"?  Do you say "no" to people and activities that can interfere or distract you from your writing?  This includes your family. Do they understand how important it is for you to invest in your craft and your dream?  Protecting the candle means doing so against everything and everyone.

I wish I could say I am successful at this, but Lisa Scottoline has shown me I need to work much harder.  I can say with certainty that when she finished her hour-long presentation, I wasn't the only one in the room who wanted to run home and get back to writing.

Along with inspiring us all and providing the name and contact information for her agent, she also discussed premise, voice, point of view, setting, time, starting your story, telling your story, ending and getting published.

I urge every one of you -- whether published or unpublished -- to spend $10 for the DVD of her speech or $9 for the CD by going to this link. You won't regret it.

And please don't forget to protect your candle. You won't regret that either.

Monday, May 09, 2011


by Gina Sestak

I mentioned a few months back that I might be trying something new this summer.  I promised to let you know if it came through.  So far, so good.  It's starting to look like it will come to pass.

What the @#$!&*@ is she talking about? you may be wondering.  Well, I'll tell you.  Remember when I started posting here I used to write about the dozens of jobs I've held?  Wall painter, movie extra, lawyer, waitress, writer, salesclerk, etc., etc. - sometimes it seems as if I've done almost everything.  One notable exception to the list of trades was teacher.  It's not that I've never taught.  It's just that my teaching experience is limited to a few adult education courses many years ago on boring-sounding topics like "How to Incorporate Yourself."

Not that I haven't seen a lot of teaching from the far side of the lecturn.  Kindergarten, grade school, college, law school, dozens of adult education classes, and my current foray into film school.  I know what teaching looks like.  And I know what kind of courses I like to take.

I finally decided to bite the bullet and pitched a course myself, to the University of Pittsburgh's Osher Life Learning Institute.  OLLI is a special program for students who are fifty years of age or older.  For a reasonable flat fee ($225 per year, less for shorter memberships) you can take as many OLLI courses as you want, plus audit up to two undergraduate classes per semester.  It's an amazing bargain for those of us who like to learn, but don't take my word for it.  Take a look at the catalogue.  Over the past few years, I've taken classes on dozens of subjects that piqued my interest - mostly related to writing, film and music - and gone on day trips to places like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the Lucy and Desi Museum.

This summer, if all goes according to plan, I'll be teaching a three-day course on one of my favorite topics, Bollywood movies.

If you've been following my posts, you know Indian cinema has become an obsession of sorts.  [BTW, the Silk Screen Film Festival is going on right now in Pittsburgh, featuring dozens of Asian and Asian-American films, including a few from India.]  My course will focus on the work of a particular actor, Shah Rukh Khan.  
I've seen more than 60 of his films, and his acting shines in every one.  Romance, drama, action, comedy.  This guy can do it all.  OLLI wouldn't let me show dozens of movies, though.  I'll be showing three and, because the films are long (averaging 3-4 hours), the classes will be split - half a movie in the morning, the rest of the movie in the afternoon.  Luckily, the three I plan to show come with built in intermissions.

I took a Bollywood film course through OLLI last year and the instructor - who was much more knowledgeable on the subject than I will ever be - was reduced to showing part of a film one week and the rest a week later.  I didn't want to do that.  You lose too much by breaking a film up that way.

Anyway, I thought I'd give you a taste of the films I'll be offering.  It was really hard to choose.  I had to by-pass some of my favorites to come up with a selection.  I decided to choose based upon a variety of time periods in which the films are set.   Dilwale Duhenia Le Jayenge is relatively contemporary;  Devdas is set about a hundred years ago; and Asoka takes place in the 3rd Century BCE.  Every one of this films is worth seeing - and they're not just about romance.  There are serious themes in there.

Dilwale Dulhenia Le Jeyenge (released in 1995) begins with London-raised Raj and Simran meeting on a tour of Europe.  They fall in love, but Simran's father has arranged her marriage to a man in India.  Raj follows and tries to break up the match.

Based upon an early 20th Century novel, Devdas (2002) tells the story of a London-educated young man who bows to family pressure to give up the woman he loves, only to sink into alcoholism and despair.

Asoka (2001) is based on the true story of a man who built an empire with his sword then, overwhelmed by the horror of the destruction he had caused, forswore violence and became instrumental in the early spread of Buddhism.

All good movies.

So, wish me luck, OK?  It will be an adventure.