Women Writing the West

WWW LogoI just returned from my annual Women Writing the West Conference, this year held on the UCLA campus. This was an out-of-the-ordinary venue with an emphasis on screenwriting, cultural presentations such as “Homelands: How Women Made the West,” from the Autry National Center Traveling Exhibit, and “Untapped Treasures: Tips From California’s Leading Archivists,” tours of Hollywood and the Getty Museum.

We also had opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents, publishers, and marketing coaches, attend workshops on marketing, boosting creativity and panels on what agents and publishers are looking for.

We honored the winners of our literary contest, the WILLA Awards, and listened to readings from their wonderful works.

All of these wonderful events aside, what I take away from these gatherings is the richness of friendship and the warm, supportive generosity of the women (and men too) in this organization. I’ve forged lasting relationships with fellow writers through the years and look forward each fall to making new friends.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Scott (B.J. Scott) who has written The Angel Trilogy, books about women of the Gold Rush, with enough action and adventure to satisfy men readers as well. WWW is “international” with our members from Canada, Hope Morritt and her daughter, Lynn. I was delighted to meet Marcia Meredith Hensley from Wyoming, WILLA Award-winning author of Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West. And so many more–I could go on and on. Thank you all!

Women Writing the West is open to women and men who live and write in the west (members don’t necessarily have to write in the Western genre) or to authors who live anywhere in the U.S. and write about the West. The WILLA Award (named for Willa Cather) are open to any published book set in the West with a strong female protagonist. We are authors of contemporary as well as historical fiction, romance, mystery, and poetry. We also sponsor the LAURA Award for short fiction, named for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It is a rich and diverse group, and I’m proud to be a member.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 9:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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Author Interview: Norma Tadlock Johnson

NormaMy guest today is multi-published Northwest author Norma Tadlock Johnson. She has had 12 books published over 27 years, in romance, middle-grade novels and a non-fiction about the mountain troops of World War II, Soldiers of the Mountain. Her latest is Donna Rose and the Roots of Evil, released in January of this year, a sequel to Donna Rose and the Slug War. Hazards of the Game, also a Cedar Harbor Mystery, is slated for August, 2010. Book Club editions have been purchased by the Worldwide Mystery Book Club of the two Donna Rose books.

Welcome, Norma. What motivated you to become a writer?

I always figured I’d write “someday.” That day finally came when my husband and I traveled from Canada to Mexico while he had a sabbatical leave from San Francisco State University. I’d think of my next scene while we were in the car and that night in the campground, I’d write it. My multi-published (around 70 books) and award winning daughter (she won the RITA for the best series romance last year), Janice Kay Johnson,  was also starting to write at the same time while they were living in our small cabin on Camano Island and she was commuting to her job as librarian in Bangor. Neither of us sold those first books.

What was your first published book?

Summertime Love by “Kay Kirby,” published in the Adventures in Love Series by Signat (NAL) I’ll never forget the day my husband came down the driveway carrying a Mail-o-gram. He said, “I don’t know, but this looks like it could be something important.” I was unable to reach the editor immediately — my line was busy, then he was out to lunch. What we hadn’t known, was that editors like to sign up an “author,” not one book. I was amazed when, after he said he thought we were “fresh,” when he offered a two-book contract with an option on a third.

In the beginning, you and your daughter collaborated on a number of books. Did you brainstorm together, both write parts, or how did that work?

Yes, we brainstormed during the summer and then my husband and I went back to the San Francisco Bay Area. We alternated chapters and mailed them back and forth. This was, of course, before e-mail. Bob would sneak into the copy center at the University and make copies after I’d changed them. Eventually, our work was enough alike that we couldn’t be sure which of us had written certain sections.

Are mysteries harder than other genres to write? What kind of mind-set does one have to have-devious or more of a puzzle solver?

No –I prefer them. I’ve always been a mystery reader, staring with Nancy Drew as so many of my writer friends did. Even my middle-grade novels were mysteries, with elements of fantasy. I have no idea on your second question.

Is the Cedar Harbor mystery series your first in this genre?

Yes.

How did you come up with the name Donna Rose and the idea Roots.coverof a “senior sleuth” for these books?

My characters always name themselves. Writing about a senior was a natural since I am in that category. Also, my plots take turns of their own. When I first came up with the slugs, I figured Cyrus was going to be the villain, but he had other ideas. Also, Alvin just showed up. I also had no idea why. He, however, obviously had a plan.

Is first-person easier or harder to write than third-person?

I must think it’s easier since that’s what I usually use. The romances, however, had to fit the line.

Do you do a lot of research for your novels?

Very little. I did take advantage of my daughter’s better knowledge of plants. I also bought a book about slugs. You might be interested in how slugs came to be important in my books. We had enormous number of them on Camano Island. But neither of us liked to kill things. My husband had been a Naturalist in the National Park Service. The little black-Slug Warspotted ones clearly suffered when sprayed with ammonia. So — we took to tossing them in the wooded vacant lot across the street.

Your publisher is Five Star/Gale. How much marketing and publicity do they do for you, and how much do you have to do yourself?

Since they aim at libraries (the books are relatively expensive, with durable library covers), they send catalogs all over the country. Otherwise, publicity is up to me. However, this is true these days of almost all publishers unless one is a big name with a big advance. I understand that the amount they spend on publicity is directly related to the amount they’ve paid the author.

What advice do you have for writers who want to be published?

Be stubborn, have faith in yourself, and multiple submit, submit, submit, even though publishers say they don’t want you to. And join a critique group.

Norma, thank you for sharing your story and experience with us. Norma’s books are available through local bookstores. And be sure to check out her website.

An Interview With Mama

Today, I’m running a post I did during my blog book tour last spring. We’ve caught up with Ada Brady, Nettie’s mother and have convinced her to take a little break from her many household chores, sit down with a cup of tea and answer a few questions.

In the book Cowgirl Dreams, Nettie has defied her mother bySteer rider sneaking out to ride in a rodeo, wearing pants, no less. Mama grounds her to her room, without supper, to do the darning she’d forgotten. Here’s an excerpt:

Nettie groaned. Why couldn’t Mama understand that she’d rather be outside, working with the horses and cattle? With that look on her mother’s face, she’d be lucky to get outside again by this time next summer.

Maybe if she did a really bad job of darning, she wouldn’t have to do any more. She wove the needle over and under, under and over, deliberately missing some threads.

After about an hour, Mama stepped into the room. “How are you doing?”

“Okay.” Nettie kept her head down.

Her mother picked up a darned sock and inspected it closely. “No.”Darning sock

Nettie looked up, keeping the smile from coming. This was it. Now Mama would let her quit rather than being embarrassed to give the socks to Mrs. Conners.

Mama picked up the scissors and cut the woven patch right out of the sock. Nettie gasped. Then her mother picked up another, looked at it, and cut the darn out, too. “This is sloppy work. You’ll do it all over.” She flung the socks back into the basket.

***

HMT: Mrs. Brady, don’t you think you were a little hard on your daughter? After all, she had a successful ride on that steer?

Mama: Absolutely not. Nettie is a headstrong girl. She has to learn that she cannot just run wild, dress like a man in public, and ride off whenever she feels like it.

HMT: But ripping out her work and making her do it all over?

Mama: I know she hates this job. But it’s important to learn to take care of a family. This skill not only keeps her and her brothers in socks without holes, it earns us pin money, so we can buy something special when we go to town. She’ll need to know this when she has a family of her own.

HMT: I understand. But Nettie has a dream, to be a rodeo star. Isn’t it a good thing for a young woman to have a goal in life?

Mama (sighing): Yes. It is. I had a dream once—to become a musician. But you know what, it was not practical. Sure, I can play now for enjoyment, but it doesn’t put food on the table and clothes on my children’s backs.

HMT: And you do have a large family.

Mama (proudly): Yes, eight children living.

HMT: I gather Nettie doesn’t aspire to marriage and children.

sewing basketMama: I just don’t understand that girl. Her two older sisters took naturally to needlepoint and cooking and housekeeping. They couldn’t wait to set up their own households. But Nettie… (a shake of the head) All she wants to do is ride her horse. And now steers!

HMT: Why is Nettie wanting to ride in rodeos such a bad thing? She could probably win some money and help the family out that way.

Mama: That may be true, and we could use the extra income. But, it’s such a dangerous pastime. Why anyone—especially a girl—would subject her body to such a beating on top of a bucking animal, I’ll never understand.

HMT: I’ve heard there’s an adrenaline thrill in doing something like that.

Mama: It’s just not practical. And women who travel around the country with men, well, they have a (eyebrows raised) “certain reputation,” don’t you know?

HMT: I didn’t know that. What about Marie Gibson? She’s married and has a couple of children. She’s not that kind of woman.

Mama: Oh, Mrs. Gibson. Yes, she is a fine woman, and she has done her best to convince me that she can keep Nettie under her wing while taking her on the rodeo circuit. (sighs) My goodness, maybe I shouldn’t fight Nettie on this so much. She certainly is determined. And I’ve seen her ride. She really is quite good.

HMT: I’ll say she is. I admire what she does. I’ve never been brave enough to ride a bucking steer or bronc.

Mama: Yes, I suppose it does take courage. But, you know, I would be remiss in my role as a mother not to want to protect her and to teach her how to cook and mend and care for a house and children. (She stands, takes our cups to the dishpan, and turns back to me.) I’m very glad you’re writing about our dear Nettie, but please, try not to encourage her so much in her headstrong ways. (She sets a heavy flatiron on the cook stove.) Now, I really must get back to my chores. I have a huge pile of ironing to do.

Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 1:35 am  Comments (4)  
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Feelings

“Feelings…Nothing more than…feelings…”

The words of that old song haunt me as I struggle to polish my manuscript for the sequel to Cowgirl Dreams. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through study, reading, and feedback from critique groups is that emotions are critical in creating three-dimensional characters.

Have you heard the description, “The characters are flat?” That’s because the author is telling the reader what the character is doing and feeling, but the reader is not identifying with that character.

Reading a novel is like donning the skin of the main character, jumping into his head, and living the adventures vicariously right along with him. As a reader, I want to see, smell, hear, touch and taste exactly what the character is smelling, hearing, touching an tasting. For just a short time, I want to “be” that character.

Easier said than done.

Anger emoticonSuppose Gertrude is mad at her boyfriend. “I hate you!” she cried angrily. Doesn’t this let us know her feelings?

Not necessarily. I don’t feel anything. I’m being told that Gertrude is angry. How do you fix it? Well, the words express the sentiment pretty clearly. But how about adding an action:

“I hate you.” Gertrude threw her grandmother’s bone china cup against the wall, where it shattered into a million pieces.

OK, that’s pretty graphic. I’m showing that she must be pretty angry to break that heirloom. Plus, the million pieces shattering is perhaps a metaphor for their relationship.

There are quite a few ways you can convey emotion in a scene like this. For example, the weather. Rain might be cascading down the window pane or beating against the glass. The wind could be shrieking or buffeting the trailer they’re in, etc. The temperature: It could be freezing in the room, or sweltering. Each brief scene description can add emotion when viewed through the character’s circumstances and feelings.

Perhaps Gertrude could be speaking in just above a whisper, but the words she says and the temperature can show the vehemence she’s experiencing. Sometimes a whisper can be more chilling and make a bigger impact that a shout. (And you don’t even need to “tell” by using an exclamation point.)

This week, I’ve struggled with a Christmas scene in the 1930s, where my main character and her eight-year-old son are boarding in a hotel room, while her husband stays in the country in an uninsulated shack to take care of their horses. Here’s what I wrote originally:

With Jake there, the cold emptiness inside her filled within minutes. They ate, popped corn, trimmed the “tree,” and then Neil played “Silent Night” on his violin. In the glow of candlelight, the little room was transformed into the cozy, warm togetherness of a home.

My intrepid critiquers said, “Yes, but what is she feeling?”

Hadn’t I conveyed that with the cold emptiness filling up, the room transformed in the cozy, warm togetherness of a home? Apparently not. I was “telling” the reader what the feelings were.

Here’s what I’ve done with it. Maybe it’s still not enough, but you can see (and I hope, feel,) the difference:

After passing his plate for seconds, Jake raised his glass of wine. “This ham dinner tastes as wonderful as any high-falutin’ dish served to a king.”

Nettie clinked her glass with his, meeting his gaze with a smile. WarmthLovestruck emot and love flooded the cold, empty void that had lived inside her since she saw him last.

Dinner finished, they took turns shaking the popcorn kettle over the hotplate burner. The hot smoky smell of the oil and popping corn filled Nettie’s senses with memories of noisy, laughing Christmases spent with her large family. While Jake propped the sagebrush in a bucket, she grabbed a needle and thread. Eating as much popcorn as they strung, she and Neil trimmed the “tree.”

Jake pointed at the festooned sage. “You missed a spot. If you hadn’t eaten so much—” He ducked, laughing as Nettie threw a pillow at him.

“It’s beautiful, and you know it,” she teased.

Nettie lit tiny candles on the sagebrush, and they opened their few packages—tobacco and rolling papers for Jake, a music book for Neil, and a halter Jake had braided for Nettie.

Then, Neil coaxed the sweet notes of “Silent Night” from his violin, and Nettie snuggled contentedly beside Jake. The melody filled her heart with the wonder and miracle of that night so long ago, and the soft glow of the candlelight transformed the little hotel room into the cozy, warm togetherness of a home.Happy emoticon

Published in: on July 10, 2009 at 4:00 am  Comments (5)  
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Blog Talk Radio: On the Road to a Bestseller

Last week I was a featured guest on Christine Rose’s Blog Talk Radio program “On the Road to a Bestseller,” where we talked christine-roseabout the pros and cons of being agented or unagented. I presented the view from having no agent and being published. David Odle on having an agent on the way to being published, and Jane Kennedy Sutton, who had an agent who turned out not to be the right fit. You can listen to the program here.

Christine also discusses “queryfail,” a discussion thread among several agents on Twitter recently, with examples of what makes them reject many queries. Here’s a sampling from Publishers Lunch:

As a taste, we pulled a selection of our favorite lines and stitched them together into something that’s almost a query letter on its own:

Dear________

“Please be advised of my request that you consider reviewing a page- turning novel that I have recently completed.”
“I’M TYPING MY QUERY IN ALL CAPS SO YOU WILL BE SURE TO NOTICE IT.”
“Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be pulled up a waterfall or to be flushed down a toilet?”
“This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.”
“…this, the first book in a seven-book series…”
“I’ve been working on this novel for twenty five years.”
“This book is The Notebook meets The Lord of the Rings.”
“It’s a unique combination of memoir and novel.”
“My book is the first in an imagined autobiography of my tragedy.”
“This is groundbreaking work that will change the way we view everything!”
“My book is differentiated from Twilight because the vampires have wings, and are half-breed angels.”
“I’ve been rejected by three other publishers who said my work was interesting.”
“I’ve queried more than 50 agents and have gotten nowhere and now I’m querying you.”
“I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?”
“I hope you don’t mind that I found your personal email address…” ‘
“I know you don’t represent children’s literature, but I hope you’ll make an exception in my case.”

For the moment the focus was on author’s query letters rather than agent’s submission though one editor dared to shift the focus
briefly: “The most common #queryfail I get from agents? Alas, I hate to say this, but “a debut collection of lyrical linked stories.”

Published in: on March 14, 2009 at 11:58 pm  Comments (8)  
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Scrabble Anyone?

silverlettersFellow blogger Chester Campbell tagged me with a jumbled pile of letters and the following challenge:

List at least five things you do to support and spread a love of the written word, then tag five people. (If you list something that touches youngsters, you get a bonus letter!)

1. I teach a beginning fiction writing class.

2. I teach a memoirs writing class.

3. I am active in two critique groups.

4. I helped a third critique group get started.

5. I’ve been a board member of the Skagit Valley Writers League for the past 10 years.

I don’t know if I qualify for the extra letter, but I do try to encourage young people who are interested in writing. So if I get to choose a letter, it would be E for Effort.

Tag, you’re it!

Marvin Wilson

Helen Ginger

Jane Kennedy Sutton

Morgan Mandel

Shari Lyle-Soffe

Jean Henry Mead

Published in: on February 7, 2009 at 4:56 am  Comments (5)  
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Quotes for Writers to Live by

inkwell“Oh it is only a novel! . . . In short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”Jane Austen (1775–1817)

Oh, indeed. It’s amazing how many people have no idea how much work writing a book is. In fact, I wonder how many of us would attempt it if we really knew!

“Learn as much by writing as by reading.”Lord Acton (1834–1902)

I believe that a writer needs to READ–a lot. Read everything. Learn from the badly written as well as the beautifully-spun prose. And then practice writing. Practice may not make perfect, but it does help!

“However great a man’s natural talent may be, the act of writing cannot be learned all at once.”Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

I agree. See my above comment. Learn your craft, and hone it. I have another quote I love, from Ernest Hemingway: “There are no great writers, only great re-writers.”

Amen.

Published in: on January 7, 2009 at 7:11 am  Comments (12)  
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The Cowgirls Are Here!

dreams-1-5-x-2The cowgirls have arrived! My first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is a dream come true for me. It’s been a long ride, with many spills, but I learned to get back on that bronc and try it again.

I kept hearing it over and over. Perseverance is key. Don’t give up. Keep submitting, keep learning, keep improving your craft. And it is true.

When I began submitting my novel manuscripts (I have three more now in various stages of writing and revision), I decided I would TRY to collect 100 rejections. I’d heard that many now-famous authors had received that many or more before being published. (For example, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach received 140 rejections.) That way, I could soften the sting of a rejection by telling myself, “It’s just one ‘no’ closeer to a ‘yes.'” Rejection is difficult, no matter how you look at it, but that “collection” did help. I did collect 35 “no thanks” and two “yes, we’d love to but can’t right now, so feel free to submit it elsewhere.” Finally, I found Lee Emory at Treble Heart Books, and now I am a published author.

delightIt feels good.

Published in: on December 5, 2008 at 5:37 pm  Comments (6)  
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What Agents, Editors Want

“Do your research.” That is the primary advice from Mike Farris, Farris Literary Agency, who spoke on “Pitching” at the recent WWW conference in San Antonio. In other words, don’t send sci-fi to an agent or publisher who specializes in mysteries or romance.

“Complete your novel before you pitch it.” (This advice is for fiction, not for non-fiction, where a proposal is often requested before the work is completed.) A complete, polished novel ensures a timely response. If you pitch a book that is only partially written and the agent asks to see the whole manuscript, then you’re in an embarrassing situation of admitting it’s not finished. And if it takes another year to finish, the agent or editor most likely will not even remember it and may not be interested any more.

Brief is best. Boil your pitch down to one paragraph of three to four sentences. Practice your “elevator pitch” or “logline” for when you meet an agent or editor at a conference. This is one sentence on what your book is about, the essence of the story. For example, Farris says the logline of To Kill a Mockingbird is “A Southern lawyer defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.” It’s that simple. You can then follow it up with a three or four-sentence synopsis, if asked.

“Be Professional.” It’s a business meeting, Farris says, so sit or stand up straight and make eye contact. Don’t read your notes. Show confidence, but not arrogance. “Think of it as your work getting dressed up and going to a job interview.”

“Keep the three-act concept in mind.” To put it simply, Farris explains, start with the set-up, the story problem (your character is up a tree). Follow with complications (throw rocks at your character in the tree), and finish with the resolution (get character out of the tree).

Mention how many words your book is. Most agents and publishers now are looking for books under 100,000 words, usually around 80,000.

Women Writing the West

I just returned, on a grand high, from the annual WWW conference, held this year in San Antonio, Texas. Writing conferences are an excellent way to connect with fellow scribes–to network, to share, to learn, and to commiserate about the writing/publishing life.

I have made so many good friends through this group, not to mention meeting agents, editors, film-makers, and I made my connection to my publisher through WWW. Workshops give new information or reinforce ideas lurking in the back of one’s head. Speakers provide inspiration–“You can do it too!” And WWW is one of the most supportive, enthusiastic and caring groups I’ve been privileged to be a part of.

Books. Ah, books. There is so much truth to the saying, “So many books, so little time.” We always have a bookstore with members’ books for sale, and every year I have to rein myself in. I want to buy one of each. Next year mine, Cowgirl Dreams, will be there!

Women Writing the West was birthed in the early 1990s by Jerrie Hurd and Sybil Downing at an organizational meeting of the Women of the West Museum. It has since grown to more than 300 members and conducts a renowned writing contest, the WILLA Literary Awards, named for Willa Cather.

It is open to women and men writing about the west or in the west, and includes well-known western and historical authors, such as  Sandra Dallas, Molly Gloss, Louise Erdrich. and Jane Kirkpatrick.

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