Writer’s Idol

Ellen Smith, Cassiel Knight, and Peter Senftleben. Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.
J. Ellen Smith, Cassiel Knight, and Peter Senftleben.
Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.

My husband loves horror movies. I’m not sure why, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with the anticipation and the adrenaline, that delicious feeling of knowing something is about to happen, but having no idea exactly when it will come or how.

I don’t like horror movies, but I do understand the allure of that state of heightened awareness and tingly uncertainty. Maybe that’s why I submitted my pages to Writer’s Idol at the Colorado Gold conference.

Here’s how it works. You sit down in a conference room, nervously clutching two sweaty, printed pages from your manuscript. As three editors take their seats at the head table, the moderator (Angie Hodapp, in this case) works the room, accepting pages from the brave and foolhardy. She takes her stack back to the podium, where she shuffles them as she introduces the panel. She says she’ll read each excerpt aloud, and the editors will raise their hands when they reach a point where they would stop reading. She won’t stop until she hits the end of the two pages or all three hands are raised.

Your heart races. You think you might be sick.

The moderator clears her throat and begins reading:

The basement of Quigg Street brewery was haunted by a two-bit con artist named Nat Riley—at least, so claimed the Denver Ghost Walk pamphlet I’d stuffed in my bag at the start of the tour.


Gulp. That would be the first line of my manuscript, folks. I was first. First! At least it was over quickly. Although…not that quickly.

Our panel consisted of:

  • J. Ellen Smith, publisher at Champagne Book Group
  • Cassiel Knight, senior editor at Champagne Book Group
  • Peter Senftleben, associate editor at Kensington Books

I watched them like a hawk while my excerpt was being read. Who needs horror movies when you can sit in a room and watch an editor’s face as they listen to your manuscript being read aloud? I’m not gonna lie. It was terrifying. Also? Editors have really great poker faces.

In the end, they all made it through my two pages, and the feedback wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. Okay, so they did use the word “overwritten,” but I took comfort that it was preceded by “maybe a little.” And yes, they did say that my protagonist wasn’t apparent enough in the excerpt, but they tempered by adding that they liked the voice. But even when the comments stung, they were incredibly useful. I left the panel knowing exactly how to improve my opening scene and, better, excited about doing so.

Here’s the thing about Writer’s Idol: it wasn’t just about hearing the comments on my pages. I stayed all the way through to the bitter end, listening to every excerpt and internalizing all the feedback. Maybe I didn’t make a certain mistake in this novel, or on those particular pages, but that’s no guarantee I wouldn’t make it in the next one or I didn’t already make it in chapter three or chapter eighteen.

In the end, the advice came down to one basic thing: write the story. The story is the good bits. It’s not the sitting-around part, or the describing-the-characters part, or the gawking-at-the-scenery part. If you want to keep a reader’s attention, skip the boring throat-clearing small talk. Write the story.


Wake Up Call

“Billy Goat Gruff by Danie Ware, CC BY 2.0

There are four days left until the start of the RMFW Colorado Gold conference. Four. Days. In between frantically polishing my manuscript, worrying about my hair (PRIORITIES), and watching the mailbox for my shipment of business cards, I’ll be spending the time I have left trying to perfect my pitch for those precious ten minutes when I get to sit down with a literary agent and talk about my novel.

This is hard. I’ve spent so long intentionally not divulging much about my book that it’s difficult to get into the habit of talking about it. When asked what I’m writing, I usually just say, “It’s an urban fantasy novel” or, if I’m in a talkative mood, “It’s an urban fantasy novel about the daughter of Sleeping Beauty.” It seemed like delving too deeply into the details might jinx the writing of it.

Starting four days from now, that time is over. When someone asks me what my book is about, I need an answer. A real answer. So here it is. This is my novel, Wake Up Call.

Penelope Wakefield thinks she knows everything there is to know about the Folk, the fairy-tale creatures who live unseen amongst us. Aside from helping out an old school pal with the occasional relocation job, she’s content to ignore them in favor of her bike, her iPhone, and her job at a Denver record shop.

Avoidance works pretty well until Pen’s father, one of the last human mages, dies, and Pen travels to the mysterious mountain town of her birth for the funeral. Before the casseroles are even finished, Pen’s mother, a legendary sleeping beauty, disappears into the forest. When Pen teams up with a surly klabauterman, two of the three Gruff brothers, and her father’s hunky apprentice to find her, it quickly becomes apparent that more than just one life is at stake. Family secrets start to fly, and Pen learns that her life is more entangled with the stuff of fairy tales than she could have imagined. Revelations about Pen’s parents and about Pen, herself, threaten three hundred years of peace amongst the Folk.

It’s up to Penelope to get her mother back, return the Folk world to equilibrium, and (this is the hardest part) learn to survive in a town with no cell service.

So, there you have it. And I have four more days. Someone hold me.

The Patients Are Upset About My Revision

The Patients Are Upset About My Revision
“Strange Paris #1” by Peter Rivera, CC BY 2.0

I think the revision work is getting to me.

When I’m stressed, I dream about packing. It’s ironic. I love packing in real life. I love the neatness of it, the precision of paring life down to only the necessary essentials. I have a stack of Eagle Creek packing cubes that I meticulously fill with rolled clothes. I have separate bags for makeup and shoes. I have a little folder for tickets and reserve rations. There’s a place for everything, and it makes me feel blissfully organized and in control.

In my dreams about packing, I can never finish the job. There’s always one more thing. I put the last item in the suitcase and realize there’s another drawer to empty. There’s something lying in the corner. There’s a closet full of clothes I forgot about. To add to the pressure, I’m usually late for my plane or someone is in the background pressing me to move faster. My dreams about packing aren’t quite nightmares, but they don’t make for a restful night’s sleep either.

Last night, I dreamt I was packing in the bathroom of a mental institution. A creepy, Batman-esque, horror movie mental institution, full of OCD carnival freaks augmented with prosthetic devices like tiny dolls hands and metal pincers. They didn’t like me touching things with my bare skin. The tiny plastic hands kept reaching out to close stall doors in front of me. They pulled items away before I could pack them. They stole my suitcase so I couldn’t continue to touch it. No matter what I tried to pack, the tiny hands were there first and they didn’t want me touching it.

Yeah, the revision work is definitely getting to me.

To All The Books I’ve (Not) Revised Before

IMG_8709I have written ten novels.

I have concocted ten plots, divided each of them into chapters, pounded away at ten manuscript files until they had at least 50,000 words each, and wrote the words “the end” as I came to the conclusion of ten story lines.

I have not finished ten novels. I haven’t even finished one.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I suppose it makes me sound like the type of person who starts projects and then abandons them willy-nilly. I’m not that type at all. I’m more the type of person who reads through to the bitter end of a novel she hates, just to say she did it. I’m the type who takes a dance class to get out of the house and, three years later, finds herself onstage in a $300 costume, with no clear idea how Step A led to Point Q. I’m the type who decides to put a few things up on Etsy and ends with a registered business and a sales tax license. This isn’t a result of relentless drive and an unsurpassed work ethic. I just forget to quit.

Unless something reminds me. The end of NaNoWriMo? That’s a convenient time to quit. Goal met. Achievement unlocked. Time to set the book aside and do something else. So that’s what I did. Nine times. I don’t regret it.

This novel, though? Number ten? I didn’t write it during NaNoWriMo. There was no bell at the end of the work day, nothing to tell me to stop, so I didn’t. I started revising. I don’t regret that, either

I was surprised to find I really like revision. I like how well I know my characters by the time I make my way back around to the beginning of their story. I like how clear the decisions are, how everything that was murky and difficult the first time through becomes clear and understandable on the second pass. I like how pretty the words look after I comb back through them, like a freshly raked zen garden.

And the ideas! While I was writing my first draft, I worried another book would never come to me, Now that I’ve turned off the drafting tap and switched to revising, the new ideas can barely be contained. As immersive as revising can be, it frees up the plotting part of my brain to explore other ideas. It’s exhilarating.

I’m sorry, nine books I didn’t bother revising. We weren’t ready to take the next step.

To number ten? Turns out, revising is awesome. Don’t tell the others.

The Too-Short Game Plan

IMG_8812I did it. Yesterday, I typed “THE END” on the last page of my manuscript. I’d like to say it was a momentous occasion, but the truth is, whatever feelings of relief and accomplishment I might have anticipated were sorely absent. At 67,500 words, the manuscript is about 20,000 words too short.

I expected this to happen. A quick peek at my publication history will tell you, I write short. I always have. As far back as high school, I struggled to reach minimum word counts on my assignments. More than once, I had professors note this…and then add that they wouldn’t penalize me because I’d still covered all the necessary points. I may write short, but it’s not out of laziness or corner-cutting. I’m concise. I know this is who I am as a writer.

Seeing as I’m still an unpublished novelist, I also know that “who I am as a writer” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans out there in the publishing world. I need to add words. Luckily for me (and for you, if you’re a writer who faces this problem), adding words is totally do-able.

Here’s my plan of action:

1. Go scene by scene. I just completed a class on scene-building, taught by Trai Cartwright at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Over the course of two weeks, she laid out the building blocks of effective, interesting scenes, including plot, conflict, character, suspense, information, atmosphere, and theme. I know that, while the foundation of my novel is in place, each individual scene might not be pulling its full weight, so step one in fleshing out the manuscript is making each existing scene as good as it can be.

2. Do some unpacking. Chuck Palahniuk wrote a great article on how to write beyond some of the shortcuts writers sometimes take. His advice:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.

I’ve had these words in my head the whole time I’ve been working on this novel, which is why I’m absolutely certain there were times I ignored them. Faced with a second draft where I need to add words, now is a great time to go back and unpack those “thoughts” and “felts” into something more substantial.

3. Flesh out subplots. When I first started my novel, I used Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s wonderful Book in a Month to structure my plot. That book recommends drafting without subplots. I found that the subplots simply presented themselves as the writing went on, but expanding the word count is my chance to weave them more thoroughly into the story. Janice Hardy’s article on “bulking up” at Fiction University offers a perfect set of questions to analyze and expand subplots, along with a lot of other useful advice.

I think these three steps will get me pretty close to where I need to be on my word count. If not, well, there’s always a prologue. Maybe a nice, long one with lots of juicy backstory?

(I’m kidding about the prologue. Please don’t hurt me.)


IMG_8742I guess you could call it a rite of passage for a fledgling writer. There’s an author you admire. Maybe someone who’s been in the business a long time. Someone with deep roots in your genre. Someone who is universally both liked and respected. You get an opportunity to get your work in front of them, and you take it.

Not many things are scarier than hitting that “send” button.

I’ve always had a touch of impostor syndrome. I cringe when I notice others blithely committing grammatical sins, but I also wonder about my own blind spots. I may not type “loose” when I mean “lose,” but I did just stare unbelievingly at my spellchecker when it insisted that “imposter” was incorrect. Really? I never knew. What else don’t I know?

I don’t think of this constant questioning as lack of confidence, although maybe that’s part of it. I think of it more as retaining the ability to learn. I never want to be so sure of myself that I refuse to accept the knowledge others have to offer. Which is why I sent my first chapter off to someone who knows more than I do. Way more.

I have to tell you, it was terrifying… until the email came back. I held my breath as I opened the message. I might have been holding my breath since I sent the submission off.

If send is one of the scariest words in the world, this is one of the kindest: when.

Among other things, that’s what this well-known author said to me. “Send me a signed copy when it’s published,” she wrote. Not if. When.

For all I know, she says that to every writer who crosses her editing desk. I hope she does. I was already motivated to finish and polish my manuscript. I was already adhering to a regular writing schedule and making plans to pursue publication. I was already on the right path, but that when, coming when it came, boosted my determination to new levels. Now, I have to get to the end. I have to make this novel worthy. I have no other choice. When.

There’s still a long road ahead of me, but that’s okay. I know I’ll be able to travel it. It’s paved with when.

A Manuscript’s Beginnings


This past January, I opened a new Scrivener file and titled it “Penelope Wakefield, Book One.”

Blame it on the headiness of a new year, with its rosily glowing possibilities. Not only was I starting a new novel (my tenth novel), but it would be the first in a series and in a genre I’d never written in before. If at first you don’t succeed, think bigger and try again.

It’s six months later now and, no, this is not going the way you think it’s going to go. “Penelope Wakefield, Book One” hasn’t been consigned to the trash heap of abandoned resolutions. Right now, it looks like this:


Writing a book is a big project requiring, among other things, weeks of frozen dinners, copious amounts of coffee, hundreds of tweets, and dozens of Google searches for things like “ancient Viking jewelry” or “how avalanche beacons work.” It involves compulsive word-counting and wearing out the “s” key on your laptop (or maybe that’s just me.) And then there’s the meta-ness of it. Writing a book means spending a lot of time thinking about writing, which is basically nothing more than sitting in a chair and tapping at a keyboard. It’s so easy and yet, so much harder than you expect it to be.

Even writers who don’t particularly like talking about their work-in-progress (and I’m usually one of them) seem to like talking about the act of writing. Some days, it’s so difficult and so lonely, adding that first word to the manuscript, that it helps to make it into a production. So… you post a photo of your computer screen to Instagram. You use the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter. You blog about how you started your book six months ago and, god damn it, you’re still writing.

Guess what? I’m still writing.