Toasting Marshmallows with Robert Ludlum’s Ghost

When I was a brand-new writer, the publishing world was overwhelming and intimidating. What was a query? How do you pitch? What’s a three-act structure? Why does no one use prologues anymore? And what’s the difference between awhile and a while?

I learned, as most authors do, the hard way. I self-published a book before it was ready because I didn’t know better. I wrote a book with a 20,000-word prologue. I used adverbs. I made one of my protagonists a writer. I thought people would just buy a book without any marketing effort on my part.

Over time, and through the loving tutelage of such fine organizations as the PNWA and ITW, I learned. I matured as a writer (maybe as a person?), and started learning the ropes.

Those ropes, as it turns out, are even more intimidating the more you learn them. It’s not until you’ve busted your butt trying to rustle up sales that you realize how remarkable it really is to earn that “New York Times bestselling author” distinction after your name. It’s not until you’ve done a book signing for an empty room that you understand how amazing it is when authors like Neil Gaiman pack entire theaters with eager audiences who want to hear him speak.

Over time, I’ve met some incredible authors. Generous, kind, helpful souls like Jon Land, Robert Dugoni, and Ted Kosmatka, who all blurbed my last book, Bai Tide. Or Anne Rice, who was kind enough to pose for a picture with me and answer my question at a Q&A she did in New York in 2013. Or Jeff Ayers, who’s a book reviewer, board member for the PNWA, and author in his own right.

And then there was the time RL Stine told me I grew up okay despite devouring all of his books in my youth.

I have too many writing heroes to name, and they’re all on my list for different reasons. Some of them are there because their books taught me something valuable about what writing could be. Some of them are there because they’re admirable people who help and serve and contribute. And still other are there because they’re all of those things and more.

Gayle Lynds is one of the all of the above heroines. She’s a legend in the thriller writing community, and one of the foremost espionage authors of all time. She’s also, lucky for me, a kind person who makes time to help nobodies like me.

When she agreed to read my book to possibly consider providing a blurb for it, I sent it off to her with my heart in my throat. I was so nervous, I held onto the package for so long that the mail clerk asked me if I was okay.

I told her I was and surrendered it to her, but how could I be okay? What if it wasn’t ready? What if Gayle hated it? What if she burned it and then toasted marshmallows over it while complaining to Robert Ludlum’s ghost about how schlocky these new authors are?

A month later, not only did Gayle email me back with an incredible blurb, she had the grace to thank me for sending it to her! Can you believe such a thing? I couldn’t. I read her email five times just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

So take it from me, kids. Dreams come true if you work for them and get really, really lucky. Here it is, folks. This is what Gayle had to say about Take the Bai Road, which is coming out in July 2017.

How to Ace a Writer’s Conference

I’ve been a professional writer for three years now (I know, you’re thinking, “Three whole years? Please excuse me while I reign in my overwhelming awe.”). In those three years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending three major writer’s conferences along with countless other writing networking events. While not an expert, I’ve learned enough to volunteer a few suggestions for those of you who are planning to attend conferences of your own in the future.

So here they are: 9 Tips For Acing a Writer’s Conference:

  • Bring a full pack of minty gum with you, and chew a stick every time you eat or drink something. I cannot tell you how many times someone at a conference has leaned in close to tell me something and repelled me with coffee breath. Don’t let this be you! Be remembered for minty freshness, not halitosis!
  • Order business cards and bring them with you. Include the following information on your business cards: Name, genre, email, website, and any and all social media outlets you use. I go home from conferences with stacks of business cards and try to make new online friends with my recent acquaintances only to find I only have an email address to go on. Join Twitter, make writer friends there. Trust me, we’re everywhere on Twitter, and we’re pretty darn friendly!
  • Enjoy the company of fellow writers, but remember that this is still a quasi-professional affair. Even though we writers are a decidedly mixed bag of sartorial selections when it comes to writer’s conferences (I saw a guy in sweatpants at the conference in New York, sitting next to a guy in a nice suit), do put in an effort. At the very least, it’ll make you feel fancier which can only contribute to your seeming like an accomplished writer destined for great things.
  • Bring a notepad and a pen you don’t mind writing tons of notes with. You’ll kick yourself for not bringing writing materials with me because you better believe you’re going to hear something you simply must write down.
  • When you get home, send emails to all your newfound friends and encourage them to keep in touch. Writing is a lot more fun with friends, and what’s the point of going to a conference if you’re not going to keep the magic going once you get home?
  • Don’t approach everyone as a potential provider of something you want. Be polite, engage with other people as human beings, and enjoy!
  • Work on your pitch before you leave your house. If you think you’ll have time to write your pitch once you get there, you’ll find yourself feverishly scrawling notes between sessions, stressing out because your pitch isn’t done yet and you wish it was.
  • Once you have your pitch done, practice it on everyone. Get feedback, tweak it, and keep practicing it until you know it so well that you can say it without having to think about it too much. A little preparation goes a long way toward peace of mind at a writer’s conference.
  • If you go out for drinks after conference events, take aspirin before you go to bed. The number of hungover writers I chatted up at the ThrillerFest conference was higher than you’d think. If you’re going to party, do it smart. You still have to function in the morning.

That’s all the ones I can think of. Fellow writers and conference survivors, anything to add?

Good: 3 Bad: 1

I have good news and bad news and good news. I’ve decided to present them in convenient bullet-point form, because 1) I am lazy and 2) It’s convenient. Just because I’m lazy doesn’t mean I can’t be considerate.

  • Good news: My days of having a bad knee may be coming to an end! I saw an incredible physical therapist on Friday who figured out that the reason my knee keeps shredding meniscus and hurting all the time is because there’s something wrong with my….FEET! Turns out my problem is simple biomechanics (my feet prolapse, which tweaks my lower leg, which tweaks my knee, which shreds my meniscus). It’s a simple fix: Custom orthotics and physical therapy. Bam. I may just have my life back. I can’t even begin to tell you what a heady, hopeful feeling that is.
  • Bad news: Bai Tide did not make the cut for the PNWA Literary Contest. Yes, I’m disappointed, however…
  • Good news: …I’ve made peace with rejection! My first rejection broke my heart, but in the years since I’ve been doing this whole writer gig I’ve learned that rejection is just a part of life. Like changing dirty diapers when you have a baby or performance reviews when you have a day job. I was definitely sad to not make the cut, but rather than discourage me, I was able to shrug it off by reasoning that my book just wasn’t to the judges’ taste. And that’s okay. Not every will like my stuff, and that’s okay.
  • Bonus good news: I heard back from the Seattle shipyard that they’re going to let me come take a tour! I set a large portion of one of my books in a shipyard and on a cargo ship, and it’ll be completely invaluable to be able to get real-life experience. It’ll make those scenes come to life and also make me look like I know what I’m talking about. Bonus!

It was a challenging week, but not without good news. Any week you can outnumber the bad points with the good is a good week, by my reckoning.

Rejection:The Price of Admission?

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Snoopy gets it.

I entered a contest earlier this year run by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA). Well, technically, I entered two contests. I entered Blood Money into the Nancy Pearl Book Award contest for new books published in 2013, and I entered Bai Tide into the Literary Contest.

I did so with my heart in my hands, knowing it’s a tough contest. I’m sure the Nancy Pearl one is tough, too, but it’s brand new so I have no idea what the competition looks like for that one yet. The literary contest, however, is certified tough.

I entered it in 2011, back when Blood Money was called Petra and featured a 20-page prologue. I’d thought it was pretty good at the time, mostly because I didn’t know as much about the craft of thriller writing as I do now, and was crushed when I didn’t win. After I picked myself up off the floor, I took a good look at the critiques the judges provided and used them to fix and rewrite my book. A few months later, Champagne Books picked it up and published it for me.

It took me three years to write something I thought might be contest-worthy again. I spent hours editing and revising the first 27 pages of Bai Tide, incorporating changes suggested to me by beta readers and analyzing my entry as critically as possible. When it was as polished as I was capable of making it, I printed it out and entered it into the contest.

Ever since then, I’ve been telling myself not to think about it because the finalists aren’t announced until early June. It mostly worked, but May inevitably came to an end and I’ve been waiting on tenter hooks ever since Sunday for word back.

According to the good folks on Twitter, quite a few people in a variety of genres have already heard back that they’re finalists. This leads me to believe that, even though I haven’t gotten my critiques back yet, I probably didn’t make it. I mean, it’s unlikely, right? They’re not going to alert all the other finalists first and then just wait a few days to alert the last stragglers.

I knew when I entered the contest that this was a long shot. This is one of the biggest literary contests in the country, it’d be arrogant to assume I’d make the cut my second time out of the gate.

Still, the rejection hurts. Well, the supposed rejection. It’s not over until it’s over, but let’s face it, it’s probably over.

It’s okay, though, and do you want to know why? It’s okay because rejection is a rite of passage when you want to be a professional author. If you want a successful writing career and all the cool stuff that comes with it, you’ve got to earn it, and that means getting rejected. And learning what you can as often as you can. Improving, stretching, and experimenting, that’s the ticket, and you can’t do that if you never have to work for it.

So this is me. Working for it. Despite the doubts and insecurities, I’m going to keep going and putting in the work because you know what? That’s what a professional does. Fake it ’til you make it, baby.

The Dreaded Synopsis

You know that manuscript I’ve been blathering about, featuring Bai Hsu, the intrepid CIA spy from Blood Money? I’m entering it into the PNWA literary contest soon. Real soon.

I’ve had friends and family critiquing and revising my submission for me for weeks, and thought I was basically just about ready to submit my entry when I realized what I was forgetting.

The

Synopsis.

Dun dun DUNNNN!!!

Those of you who are fiction writers who’ve survived writing a synopsis will know why I punctuated this like that.

Oh my GOSH, was there ever a more crucial, pain in the butt piece of writing than the synopsis? For those not in the know, a synopsis is a summary of your whole book, plot start to finish, preferably kept to one page.

Seems simple, right?

WRONG.

How-to-Write-a-Novel-SynopsisNot only do you need to hit all the major plot points in the story, you also need to convey some of who the characters are and what makes them special. Oh, and don’t forget to avoid cliches, keep it in the present tense, and make sure you lend the flavor of the book to the synopsis so the story doesn’t come across as boring.

Oh, and in case that wasn’t intimidating enough, most of the time your synopsis will determine whether the agent/publisher/whoever even bothers to read your story, so it has to really pack a punch. If it doesn’t? Your manuscript will never see the light of day.

So, you know, no pressure. The fate of your whole book rests squarely on your synopsis’s shoulders, which is kind of funny when you realize that writing the synopsis may just be harder than writing the whole frigging book in the first place.

Now, if you’re a real pro, you’ll procrastinate on writing the synopsis and just write a splenetic blog post about writing synopses instead.

Because that’ll help.