Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Donald Maass: Listening to Your Gut and Other Postscripts to the 2012 Conference by Laura E. Reeve

Donald Maass is the founder of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, an agency for professional novelists. His pioneering work and writing about the development of fiction careers has made DMLA a leading agency for fiction writers. Together, the DMLA agents represent more than 150 novelists and sell more than 100 novels every year to leading publishers in the U.S. and overseas. Donald is the author of The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, and The Fire in Fiction. He is a past president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. (AAR).

Your theme this conference has been about fiction in the 21st century and how, in order to stand out in today's abundance of entertainment, we must write 'page-turners.' In that vein, can you summarize the main issues you see with submissions?

Two problems are universal and they're not genre-specific. I see these problems from beginning writers as well as published authors. First, there's no reason to particularly care about the protagonist when we meet them. Second, there's a lack of line-by-line micro-tension.

When you start reading a manuscript with these problems, you can say the opening is slow or there's too much backstory or it's starting in the wrong place. You can tell the writer to tighten it up or cut material, which can be useful advice. But there are plenty of books that start slow, start with backstory, start with "arriving in town," and they work. Why? What's the difference? Well, it's because there's tension.

You use the term 'micro-tension' to describe line-by-line tension within a manuscript. What is micro-tension and how can it be built?

Micro-tension is the unease that you create in the mind of the reader. You build a mild state of anxiety and the only way the reader can relieve this feeling is to read the next line on the page. So think of a manuscript as a chain of tension followed by tension...

"Tension" sounds drastic, but it can be simmering under the surface, it can be questions raised or false confidence, it can be so many different things. The Fire in Fiction contains an entire discussion (Chapter 8) on building tension and how it works--how a writer can make a riveting passage when absolutely nothing is happening.

The foundation to creating tension is the point-of-view character, whether writing in 1st-person or 3rd-person narrative. The reader experiences a scene through the point-of-view character's senses, mind, and heart. To build tension, the writer works with the conflicting and contrasting emotions within this character. Whether writing action, exposition, interior monologue, or dialogue, you create discord, unbalance, or uncertainty within that character. In dialogue, you build friction or struggle--something between characters. When you do all of this consistently, line by line, you get a page-turner. You get a book that people can't stop reading.

You gave us a great exercise for increasing the micro-tension in our manuscripts during "Writing 21st Century Fiction."

Once you understand the principles of micro-tension, toss up your manuscript page by page and let it fall about. Get those pages mixed up. After your manuscript is in random order, go through and find a way to add micro-tension on each page, at least once.

What I forgot to mention during the workshop was the reason you can't read your pages in order. You'll get into the flow of your story, you'll start enjoying the rich conflict and tension that's in your mind but, unfortunately, not on the page. It's important to look at each page outside of its context and concentrate upon it in isolation.

Once you understand micro-tension and start to practice it, it'll get easier. You'll find that you're putting it into your first drafts. You'll feel dissatisfied when there's not enough tension in your writing.

I saw dismayed faces, particularly when you gave us extensive exercises for our manuscripts. This leads to the next subject: time, which isn't on any novelist's side. Today's blatant message is that the successful writer is a fast writer. Self-publishing proponents say the more titles you put out there, the better, and traditional publishers want faster deliveries from their authors. But is there a tradeoff between speed and quality?

There are boot camps that teach writers how to get out of their own way. And, if you do get out of your own way, you can write at amazing speeds and it can be liberating. NaNoWriMo (National Novel-writing Month) can prove you can get a lot of words out--not necessarily good words in the best order--but that's good to know. Particularly when you're starting out; you need to learn that your writing doesn't have to be slow, painful, or laborious. That said, first drafts are rarely the best draft.

Most writers find their own rhythm and speed. Commercial writers are under pressure to produce at a book-a-year pace. But it's hard to produce a high impact, multi-layered, thematically rich, beautifully-written novel every year like clockwork, considering you've got other things to do like proof your last book, attend signings, and have a life of some kind.

So I do believe there are tradeoffs between speed and quality. I think, on balance, most writers don't take enough time with their fiction, particularly early on in their careers. I would recommend that most writers, even those who are further along and published, spend more time in revision. 

Another theme in your workshops is don't submit your manuscript too early. Are there ways to avoid this pitfall?

If you're a first-time novelist, you are going to submit your manuscript too early. That is a guarantee. You'll learn the hard way, like everyone else, that your manuscript is not ready yet. I think I've given up trying to talk people out of that...

At this point, Donald looks pensive. He picks up the thread again:

What's seems more dangerous and damaging... If the period of time grows too long, if the frustration grows too great, the option becomes self-publishing. We used to call it "vanity publishing." Now it's called self-publishing, but it's the same thing. It means seeing the work in book form, which is validating in a way. "I made a book" is a nice feeling to have. But did I make a good book? Did I make this book the best it could be? Almost always, the answer is no.

But how do you know when your manuscript is really ready?

Most writers have a gut instinct they're not listening to. Professional authors who have been at it for a while learn to trust their gut. Even when they can't articulate what's at issue with their manuscript, they know when something's wrong and they're willing to tear out whole sections.

George R. R. Martin did that when writing one of his novels for the A Song of Ice and Fire series. He was five years between books, his fans were screaming, his editor was tearing her hair out, he was 180 pages into his manuscript and realized he'd made a wrong turn. And, even though this was a bestselling series and he was under tremendous pressure to produce a manuscript, he threw it all out and started over. That was a gutsy and hard thing to do.

He threw out the whole thing?

Yes, he started over. So it's said and I believe it. That's a professional attitude. That's listening to your gut and knowing when you have to do better.

Donald emphasizes his next sentence:

If you aim to be published, you're going to submit too soon. If you aim to be great, you're going to start listening to your gut.

I couldn't have asked for a better conclusion. I think I speak for all the Pikes Peak Writers in thanking Donald for his 2012 presentations--they were both illuminating and instructive. We hope to see him at many more PPW Conferences.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a manuscript to edit.

About the Writer:  Laura E. Reeve is the author of the Major Ariane Kedros Novels from Roc. In the interest of full disclosure: Laura's agent, Jennifer Jackson, is Vice President of DMLA. Even so, Laura was still intimidated by the prospect of her first interview, ever, being with Donald Maass. Luckily for her, Donald's personable and easy to interview. Laura's web site can be found at

Monday, May 28, 2012

Raising a Book by Shannon Baker

I was a stay at home mom when my daughters were young. Not only was it a privilege and luxury, I considered it my career at that time and undertook the task with the same determination and care I would have given the job of CEO of Ford. But raising children is a vocation closer to entrepreneur of a start-up than a suited-executive of an established accounting firm. Every day was full of uncertainty and fraught with a Murphy’s Law of disasters from spilled juice on a white carpet to a fever and trip to the emergency room, to a shopping excursion gone too long ending in a tantrum in the grocery store. All to the tune of underlying angst that if I was too firm or too soft I’d ruin the child.

And yet, while I was in the middle of this precious duty, most days felt like treading water. Progress was slow, with frequent setbacks. There were so many nights I crawled into bed, exhausted, and tried to tally my accomplishments. In a “real” job, there are quotas, sales, profits, and product. In the mommy business, there were toys put away that would soon be scattered again. Meals prepared and eaten and forgotten and prepared and eaten and forgotten again. Every day seemed pretty much like the one before it and I could look forward to tomorrow being pretty much the same.

And yet, most days had a sprinkling of indescribable joy. Random moments of pure delight made up for the endless toddler questions and repeated nursery rhymes. A two-year-old’s hug and whispered, “I love you, mommy,” can erase years of dirty diapers and discipline. Truly, there is no memory sweeter than stories read at bedtime.

Today, two young women are making their mark on the world. They are bright and funny and courageous. I won’t take credit for the amazing women they are but I have the unique privilege of sharing their earliest existence in this world, helping them grow day by day. I am overwhelmed with the wonderful people they’ve become.

And so is the writing life. Every day I can look forward to doing pretty much what I did yesterday and what I’ll do tomorrow. I will suffer and worry that whatever I’m writing will be just the wrong thing. Bit by bit, my book will grow, whether I see real progress or not. And there are those moments of pure joy, when the perfect idea springs into my head, or I write something so funny I laugh out loud.

One day, amazingly, I’ll have another completed book. Maybe it will go into the world and achieve great success. And if it does, wow, I’ll be happy. The only control I have over that hopeful outcome is to do the best job I can do today, to keep putting the words down and letting the book develop. When I get bogged down in the tedium of the work, I’ll think of two giggling girls playing dress-up in a room strewn with toys I’d just put away and remind myself that the trail to success can seem long and hard sometimes but there is always the chance of delight around the next bend. In the end, it’s all worth it.

(Originally published on the Sisters of the Quill blog February 4, 2011)

About the Writer:  Shannon Baker has a right brain/left brain conflict. While the left brain focuses on her career as an accountant, her right brain concocts thrillers, including her 2010 release, Ashes of the Red Heifer. A lover of mountains, plains, oceans and rivers, she can often be found traipsing around the great outdoors. The first book in the Nora Abbott Mystery Series will release in the fall of 2012 from Midnight Ink publishers. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012


A word is not the same with one writer as with another.  One tears it from his guts.  The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.  – Charles Peguy

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sweet Success! Aaron Ritchey

Aaron Michael Ritchey's YA paranormal romance novel, The Never Prayer (ISBN  978-1937254414, 272 pages, trade paper/digital), was released by Crescent Moon Press on March 29, 2012.  The book is available online at Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble.  The author's website is at

The Fury of Heaven.  The Desires of Hell. 

Shattered by the death of her parents, Lena will risk everything to keep her disintegrating family together.  In love with both the demon and the angel, Lena must unravel the mysteries of heaven’s fury and hell’s desire before she loses everything.  Who is the demon?  Who is the angel?  Lena can’t tell the difference and every minute pushes her closer to the edge.

YA Paranormal author Aaron Ritchey has penned a dozen manuscripts in his 20 years as a writer.  When he isn’t slapping around his muse, Aaron cycles to look fabulous, works in medical technologies, and keeps his family in silks and furs.  His first novel, The Never Prayer, hit the streets on March 29, 2012.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Q & A with Susan Wiggs by Amanda Bylsma

During the Thursday night “Dinner with the Stars” at the 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I had the privilege of sitting with Susan Wiggs at her auction table. Susan is a wonderful speaker and gracious host. Throughout the meal, she was more than happy to answer questions.

Q:  Which novel was the hardest for you to write?
SW:  For her, writing all of her novels are like passing a kidney stone – a painful process but rewarding in the end.

Q:  Who has been your favorite character from any of your novels?
SW:  Isadora Peabody, a character in her novel The Charm School.

Q:  What is your favorite thing about the industry?
SW:  The interplay with writer’s groups and writers.

Q:  Where do you get your ideas?
SW:  Everywhere – magazines, online, stories, conversations. Something just sticks in her mind, and she researches it more to see if it could be worked into a good plot and story.

About Susan Wiggs:  Susan Wiggs is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 historical and contemporary romance novels.

About the Writer:  Amanda Bylsma has been a member of Pikes Peak Writers since 2007, which is also the first year she attended PPWC. Amanda is one of the rare few that has had the privilege to spend her whole life in Colorado roaming throughout the Rocky Mountains. When she isn't busy working at the local library, she is working on either her fantasy YA series or her paranormal YA series.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason. – Margaret Atwood

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sweet Success! Terry Odell

Terry Odell's romantic suspense novel, Where Danger Hides (ISBN 978-1-4328-2512-6, 371 pages, hardcover [will be out in digital soon]), is the winner of the Romantic Suspense category of the Holt Medallion Award.  The Five Star/Gale Cengage title is available from online bookstores and via the author's website.  The author's homepage is at

Behind the public fa├žade of a private investigation firm–Blackthorne, Incorporated–lies a band of elite covert operatives. Dalton (just Dalton—nobody dares call him Ambrose) is one of Blackthorne’s best. A charming Texan, he prides himself on blending in, and there’s no one he can’t scam. But his obsession with putting a Colombian drug lord out of the picture threatens to endanger his life and the lives of his team. When Dalton nearly blows a simple undercover assignment at a fundraising gala, it convinces his boss to tether him to a dog-and-pony-show case at a halfway house. Instead, Dalton finds death, drugs, and danger. 

Terry Odell was born in Los Angeles, moved to Florida, and now makes her home in Colorado. An avid reader, she always wanted to "fix" stories so the characters did what she wanted. Once she began writing, she found this wasn't always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write rapidly became a romance. Although her genre is labeled "romantic suspense," Terry prefers to think of her books as "Mysteries With Relationships." Her titles include her Blackthorne, Inc. series and her Pine Hills Police Series as well as other standalone titles.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My PPWC Top 10 by MK Meredith

I attended the 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Conference and thought I’d share my favorite top 10.  First of all, I have to say that I had an amazing weekend.  Not only did I attend, but I immersed myself in volunteer opportunities as well.  If you are ever able to volunteer, do it.  You won’t regret it.  Volunteering made me a part of this living, breathing event which increased the joy of my experience.

10.  Keynote Speakers:  There is something quite magical about listening to private anecdotes and personal experiences of those we aspire to emulate professionally.  This year, we were honored with Donald Maass, Robert Crais, Jeffrey Deaver, Susan Wiggs, and Kristin Nelson as our keynote speakers.  Each offered advice, stories of their beginnings, their today, and what they hope for tomorrow.  Some shared very intimate details that made our hearts ache, and others shared comical excerpts of their career, which allowed us to see that, at one time, they were just like us.  They were new writers with a dream to write for a living, to pull readers along in a story in which they would ride an emotional rollercoaster and want more.  I left with a little something extra after listening to each speech—motivation to write.

9.  Recognition:  I think it is lovely to recognize writers who have accomplished milestones in their careers.  Whether selling a book, winning or placing in a contest, having a successful pitch, or a successful read and critique; PPWC was there offering congratulations, applause, center stage acknowledgement and more.  Writers were given recognition for their hard work, sacrifice, determination and dedication.  Recognizing success is powerful for those receiving it and for those witnessing it.  More motivation to write.

8.  Networking:  I love meeting other writers and anyone having anything to do with writing.  PPWC offered so many networking opportunities from the workshops, to meals, to free time out at the bar and lounge.  Everyone there was in the writing frame of mind and eager to talk ‘shop’, which was a delight. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who ask me about writing and then proceed to fall into a stupor with eyes glazed over and drool pooled at the corners of their mouths.  But at PPWC the chance to share stories, hardships, and successes with fellow writers accomplished a very important thing—more motivation to write.

7.  Learning:  One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was from Cheryl St. John, a multi-published (40 plus novels) romance writer.  She said the most important thing for a writer to do is be a student.  A life long student.  Don’t ever stop learning, improving upon your craft, understanding the business of writing, marketing and publishing.  PPWC didn’t let me down.  I attended or moderating workshops from the craft of writing to having a novel career.  They offered workshops on marketing, publishing, genre specific workshops, synopsis, query writing, and much more.  Which, in the end, had very positive results—more motivation to write!

6.  Multiple Genres:  I write contemporary romance.  I also write paranormal fiction and I have a non-fiction project.  It didn’t matter.  Not one bit.  PPWC delivered on all accounts.  I had craft workshops that fit each genre, as well as, industry advice pertaining to each.  There was no censure, no raised eye-brows or long looks down up-turned noses.  I was a writer amongst writers and we all wanted to write.  It didn’t matter what.  In turn, I found more motivation to write.

5.  Opportunity:  The opportunities at PPWC were immense.  Learning opportunities, networking opportunities, growing your market and simply the opportunity to create a name for yourself, presented around every corner.  From the workshops, to the meals, to the after hour conversations, there were moments upon moments of opportunities to grow a little more.  You were only limited by one thing.  Yourself.  And in the end, this energy, this potential, gave me more motivation to write.

4.  Inspiration:  Something writers seek on a day-to-day basis, consciously or not, is inspiration.  It was impossible not to find it at PPWC.  I heard stories of success, heartbreak, failure and joy.  I met character upon character, everywhere I turned.  I found myself absorbing the sounds, sights and scents of the conference, tucking them away in my vault to pull from when knuckles deep in my manuscripts.  It is hard not to be inspired by a story that sounds similar to your own, and when the end of the story is a publishing contract, you are able to see yourself accomplishing the same thing.  Maybe, just maybe, I can actually do this.  And you know what that inspiration does for me?  You guessed it!  Inspiration provides me with more motivation to write.

3.  Agent/Editor Accessibility:  PPWC is one of the most accessible conferences when is comes to agents and editors.  There are some conferences you may attend where those that we wish to partner us in our career are kept behind well guarded and locked doors.  At PPWC, they walked with us, learned with us, and ate with us.  The agents and editors graciously opened themselves up to pitch after pitch and discussion after discussion about our projects, the business and the craft.  Of course this gave me more motivation to write.   

2.  Connections:  Now, some of you may think that this is similar to networking, but for me it is different.  I’m not talking about connections in the business that can set you up for increased opportunity, learning or career direction, but friendship, kindred spirits, a chance to meet like-minded people who get why you do what you do and how that makes you special.  You will make life-long friendships with those who will celebrate your successes and encourage you through your attempts.  And you can’t tell me that does not make you more motivated to write!

1.  Nice:  Seriously, I can’t express fully how incredibly nice everyone was at PPWC.  The staff, attendees, agent, editors and authors all created an atmosphere of unity. We all had a similar goal, and each of us wanted the other’s success as well as our own.   Everywhere you looked was a friendly face and an invitation.  I floated through this conference on a high filled with excitement, gratitude, anticipation, and left Sunday in a contented state of exhaustion.  It was wonderful to be part of something that was so nice and that gave me more motivation to write. 
Because in the end, isn’t that why we were all there?

About the Writer: MK Meredith is an aspiring author who resides in the beautiful landscapes of Colorado with her two beautiful children, her exceptional husband, and their two big fur-babies (a Doberman named Niku and Lab-mix named Bella).  She finds inspiration everywhere she looks and listens.  Her goals are to be a great role model for her children, to one day thank her husband for his never ending support by getting published, and to always try to be nice—it’s just the right thing to do.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Change is a good thing, right? So let me tell you about a few changes we're making to Writing from the Peak.

First, thanks to a suggestion from Stacy S. Jensen, we’re experimenting with an Email Subscription button to make it easier for you to see the articles we post. Just enter your email address, follow the instructions to confirm your subscription, and posts will be sent directly to your inbox.

However – you must still go to the blog and/or PPW web site to see information on upcoming events and regular activities. Those listings don’t get emailed.

Blogger assures that your email addy won’t be shared or sold, so if you have any problems with the email option, please let me know at once. And let me know, too, if you like having this option.

Second, there is now one link to the MP3 downloads page at the PPW web site. We’ll announce when a new download becomes available, but keep checking back periodically in case you miss the announcement.

Third, we’ve done a little rearranging of the items in the right-hand column to (hopefully) make navigation a little easier. Just take a look.

As always, we welcome your feedback. Let us know what’s working as well as what isn’t. This is your blog, too!

Robin Widmar
Managing Editor, Writing from the Peak