Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 27, 2021


Fort Laramie new guard house
The first building doesn't look ominous, does it? Despite its ordinary appearance, it was not a place you would have wanted to visit if you were a soldier at Fort Laramie. You see, it's the guard house where prisoners were confined. 

They might have found incarceration preferable to some of the other disciplinary measures, including carrying huge logs on their backs, but I'm not sure about that. what I know is that I wouldn't want to spend much time inside the guard house.

In case you were wondering, the second building, which is still in ruins, was the administration building.

And this concludes our winter visit to Fort Laramie. What's coming next month? I haven't decided yet.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Words for Writers - Finding the Perfect Agent

One of the questions I’m often asked by aspiring writers is “how do I find the perfect agent?”

As someone with the dubious distinction of having had (and fired) six agents, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

First of all, there’s a difference between finding an agent and finding the perfect agent. You’ve probably heard that a bad agent is worse than none at all. It’s true. A bad agent can keep you from selling a manuscript, simply by not sending it out or by sending it to the wrong house. 

Secondly, the perfect agent for someone else may not be the right one for you. One of my neighbors thinks her hybrid is the perfect car. Another wouldn’t drive anything other than his full-size truck. Although those are the ideal vehicles for them, neither one suits my driving style. It’s the same with agents. So, here’s my five-step program for finding the perfect agent for you.

Step One – Identify your needs. Before you start your search for an agent, it’s important to decide what you want your agent to do for you. Are you looking for one who’ll edit your work before sending it out? Terrific, but not all agents have the background or the time to do that. Do you want extensive career planning advice? Again, some agents provide that; others do not. There’s no right or wrong here. What matters is what you need or want an agent to do for you. Remember, the agent works for you.

Step Two – Do your homework. Although I know some authors who send out blanket queries to agents, that can be a waste of time and, if you’re sending those queries by snail mail, money. Why query agents who hate mysteries if that’s what you’re writing? 

I recommend a targeted approach, where you learn as much as you can about an agent before querying him or her. How do you do that? Start with the Internet. My opinion, which I’ll admit not everyone shares, is that if an agent doesn’t have a web site, I’m not interested. A well-designed agency web site gives me the answers to key questions at the click of a mouse.

What are those key questions? 

1. Has the agent sold books similar to the one you’re writing? Remember that agents are like editors. They have preferences, and if they’re not enthusiastic about your work, they will not be effective advocates.

2. Have those sales been recent? An agent who hasn’t sold within the last year may be experiencing personal problems or have other concerns that create obstacles to sales. 

3. Have the sales been to your “dream list” of publishers? An agent who’s sold to small or obscure publishers may not fit your career plan.

4. Does the agent represent authors you admire? While that’s no guarantee that this is the right agent for you, it’s one more point to consider.

If the answers to any of the first three questions are ‘no,’ this is not the agent for you.

Step Three – Network. Once you’ve narrowed down the list of possible agents, it’s time to check references. If you happen to know any of the agent’s current clients, ask them about their experiences with the agent. The questions I find most helpful are “What do you like most about your agent?” and “If there were one thing you could change about your agent, what would it be?” Those open-ended questions have elicited some interesting – and revealing – answers and have kept me from making yet another mistake in choosing the wrong agent.

If you don’t know any of the agent’s clients, ask other writing friends if they’ve heard anything. Most of us belong to writers’ organizations. Check with them. When I sent out a request for experiences with a particular agent, I learned that he had a reputation for being extremely slow in paying his clients’ share of advances and royalties. I guess he hadn’t heard “Thou shalt not steal.”  

Step Four – Query your short-list of agents. Now that you’ve culled the long list of agents into a short list of potentially perfect ones, it’s time to send out queries. Odds are some will be ignored, while others will elicit a polite rejection. No matter how discouraging a rejection is, remember that if an agent doesn’t love your work, he or she is not the perfect one for you. Be glad you found that out before you wasted any more time. 

So, what do you do when an agent says, “I love your work, and I want to represent you”? Although your first reaction will probably be a shout of glee, don’t be too quick to sign a contract. There’s one last step you need to take.

Step Five – Do a Style Check. No, I’m not talking about hair or clothing. The agent-author relationship is just that – a relationship – and it’s important to ensure that it will be a productive one. Before you sign a contract with any agency, you need to have a conversation. Even if you’ve been communicating via email, this is time for a talk. Ideally, you’ll be able to meet your agent face-to-face, but if that’s not possible, pick up the phone. Your goal is to determine whether or not you and your potential agent have compatible working styles.

Some questions you may want to ask the agent are:

1. How do you prefer to communicate? If your agent thinks email is the greatest invention of the twentieth century but you prefer the phone, you may not be happy working together.

2. How do you notify clients about the status of their proposals? If the agent normally tells clients only when she’s made a sale but you prefer to know when each publisher has received the proposal and what response was received, even if it’s a rejection, unless the agent is willing to accommodate your needs, she’s not the perfect agent for you.

3. What contract clauses have you negotiated for other clients? Most agents are highly skilled in negotiating those clauses related to royalties and advances, but some are uncomfortable with others, including reversion of rights and non-compete. One of my former agents told me that asking to have some clauses changed was an insult to the editor. Wrong answer! She and I parted ways very quickly. 

The key is knowing your comfort level and making sure that it matches your agent’s. If it does, he or she just might be the perfect agent for you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 20, 2021


Fort Laramie Cavalry Barracks and Hospital
If you've read Summer of Promise, you might recognize the building in the foreground. It's the cavalry barracks, one of the restored buildings at Fort Laramie, and was featured on the book's cover. 

The ruins in the background are of the hospital. I don't know how the soldiers felt, but I would have been relieved that the hospital was located away from the main buildings, particularly given the state of nineteenth century medical knowledge. 

Heroic medicine, as it was called, included bleeding, purging, and other techniques that only weakened the patient. Thank goodness we've progressed beyond that.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Words for Writers - Writing Books in a Series

 First there were sequels. Then came trilogies. Now quartets and even quintets are popping up. It seems that everywhere you look, authors are creating series of books, and more and more publishers are asking for them. If you’re thinking about joining the bandwagon, read on. There are a few things to consider before you get started.

Type of Series

Did you know there’s more than one kind of series? While others may disagree with the terminology, I divide them into two categories: continuing characters and connected characters. 

What’s the difference? In a continuing character series, the protagonists remain the same, while secondary characters and sometimes settings change. Think of Nancy Drew, Miss Marple and, more recently, Harry Potter. In each case, you know who the main character is, and part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is knowing that when you finish it, there will be another adventure coming, featuring your favorite people. 

Plot-driven books like mysteries, thrillers and suspense make ideal continuing character series.

Connected character series are different. In them, when the first book ends, those protagonists’ stories are complete, but seeds have been sown for at least one secondary character to star in a subsequent book. It’s common, but not mandatory, for the protagonists of one book to make cameo appearances in the next one. 

Although settings may vary from one book to the next, it is also possible that the setting itself becomes a character. That’s what happened with my Texas Dreams series. The stories form a connected character series, with the hero of Scattered Petals being introduced in Paper Roses, and Tomorrow’s Garden’s hero making his debut in Scattered Petals. In addition to those connections, the town of Ladreville and a cast of secondary characters form a common thread. 

Character-driven books like romances and general fiction are good candidates for connected character series.

Number of Books

Once you’ve decided which type of series is right for you, the next question is to decide how many books will comprise that series. In the case of continuing characters, the answer is frequently “I don’t know.” That’s because those series are often open-ended. 

Connected character series, however, are typically finite. Since trilogies seem to be particularly popular now, my recommendation is to think in terms of three books. And, if you’re writing a continuing character series, I’d suggest including at least three books in your initial proposal so that there’s no question that it’s a series. 

The Challenges

Although there are many challenges associated with writing a series, for me, three stand out.

1. Maintain consistency from book to book. Readers are intelligent. They’ll remember that Susie had green eyes in Book One, and if those suddenly change to brown in Book Two, unless you mention that she’s wearing colored contacts, your reader will be disappointed in you. I keep a chart with all characters’ ages, hair and eye colors and other dominant characteristics. Unfortunately, I did not include characters’ horses’ names on that chart and, halfway through Tomorrow’s Garden, found myself paging through Scattered Petals to see what I had called Lawrence’s horse. Note to self: include horses on chart.

If you’re using the same location from book to book, I highly recommend having a map that shows where houses, rivers and other landmarks are located. Once again, readers will notice if you change the street names between books. Even if you’re using a real town, it’s important to know where the characters live so that you’re consistent. 

2. Create each book as a stand-alone. I know, I know. We’re talking about books in a series, so why am I suggesting that each one be a stand-alone? For me, there’s nothing more frustrating than picking up the second book in a series and feeling as if I’m a stranger at a party where everyone else knows each other. They’re all talking about people and events that are unfamiliar to me. 

If you write each book with the idea that it can stand alone, you’ll make readers happy. The key is to ensure that each reference to a prior book has a brief explanation, bringing the reader “up to speed.” The challenge, of course, is to not give away key plot points from previous books. Is it easy? Of course not. That’s why it’s a challenge.

3. Make each book as compelling as the previous one. For me, this is the most difficult challenge of all. I’ve read so many trilogies, including some written by New York Times bestselling authors, where the first and third books were excellent, but the middle one fell short that I started asking why. Was this an extreme case of the sagging middles that we’re all told to avoid?  Was it like sophomore slump? I suspect part of the problem is that, as authors, we’re excited about the first book, but when we get to the second, we’re anxious to finish the series, and the second book suffers. Don’t let that happen. 

I wish I could give you concrete advice on how to avoid the middle book doldrums. All I can say is to be aware that this is a potential problem and one that afflicts even bestselling authors. If you have critique partners, ask them whether this book is as good as the previous one, and if the answer isn’t the one you wanted, ask yourself what you can do to improve it. Your readers expect excellence. Don’t disappoint them.

For me, although there are undeniable challenges involved, writing books in a series is great fun. I love the challenge of creating a town and peopling it with interesting characters, then returning to it a second and third time. I love introducing characters in one book, then following them into a second book. I love every aspect of it except one: saying good-bye.

Writing books in a series can be a fulfilling experience. If you’re at all intrigued by the idea, I encourage you to try it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 13, 2021


Fort Laramie - Laramie River
Cottonwoods, scrub brush, and a river -- what a peaceful setting. 

The river in question is the Laramie, one of two rivers whose confluence (how's that for a big word meaning "meeting"?) marks the site of Fort Laramie. The other river, in case you wondered, is the North Platte.

And, yes, this picture was taken at Fort Laramie.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Words for Writers - When Happily-Ever-After Isn't Enough

 “Nothing happens.” It’s been many years since I received that particular rejection, but I still recall my confusion. How could the editor say that nothing happened?  I was writing short contemporary romances for the secular market at the time, and I thought I’d done everything right. The book was set in an exotic location and was laced with fascinating (at least to me) details of life in a place most of us only dream about seeing. My hero and heroine met, they fell in love, and after resolving a few misunderstandings, they lived happily ever after. What could be wrong? And why did the editor say that nothing happened?

When I recovered from the sting of rejection, I realized that the editor was right, although I still thought she was wrong in saying that nothing happened. What she should have said was that nothing interesting happened. I had written a story of a close-to-perfect romance, and while readers might want to live that story, they don’t want to read about it. Perfection is boring, or as Tolstoi said in his famous opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What was missing from my book was conflict.

I hate conflict. After one of those stress job interviews that used to be popular, the recruiter looked at me as if I were an unknown species. “You’d rather walk around a wall than through it,” he said. Duh! Who would willingly bang her head against a wall?  There’s only one winner there, and it’s not the head. But that aversion to pain and conflict wasn’t helping my writing. If my characters weren’t willing to fight, if I wasn’t willing to put them through pain, then I was going to continue receiving rejection after rejection and hearing editors say, “Nothing happens.”

 I wanted to make another sale, but I hated the idea of torturing my characters, and that’s how conflict felt to me. It seemed like an insurmountable impasse. And then I realized what I had to do. It might seem like a matter of semantics, but the technique worked for me. 

I told myself that I wasn’t torturing my characters; I was healing them. And since I believe in the healing power of love – both God’s love for us and that between a man and a woman – it became easy (okay, a teeny, tiny bit easier) to create characters who were in pain. Sometimes the pain was emotional. Sometimes it was physical. Though I wept and cringed as I wrote some of the scenes, I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. No matter how dark the story was, I knew that eventually I would give my characters – and my readers – what they deserved: healing, followed by a happily-ever-after.

And now, as I give thanks for the people who’ve touched my life, I include the editor who told me, “Nothing happens.”  

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Wednesday in Wyoming - January 6, 2021


Fort Laramie - Old Bedlam
It's not just Wednesday in Wyoming. It's also winter in Wyoming, which is why I'm highlighting winter at Fort Laramie, one of my favorite spots in the state, this month.

In case you don't recognize it, the building is Old Bedlam, the oldest still-standing historic building in the state. It served in several capacities while the fort was commissioned but is most famous -- or, should I say infamous? -- for being the bachelor officers' quarters. That's when it earned its nickname.

What do you suppose those officers were doing to give it that name?

Monday, January 4, 2021

Words for Writers - Mastering Those Dreaded Deadlines


Do you hate deadlines as much as I do? I think part of the problem is the word. According to my dictionary, a deadline is “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” What an image! No wonder I don’t like deadlines. In fact, I prefer not to use the word at all. Instead, I refer to them as due dates. Using a term that frequently describes the projected birthdate of a child seems much more appropriate. After all, what’s due on the date formerly called a deadline is another form of creation, a manuscript.

Whether you call them deadlines or due dates, they’re important parts of a writer’s life. Consistently meeting due dates is the hallmark of a professional writer. Whether the due date is for the entry of a manuscript into a contest or its delivery to an editor as part of a contract, it’s important – I’d even say vital – that the date be met. I won’t claim that it’s easy, but I offer four techniques that can improve the probability of meeting your due dates.

 1. Set a realistic date. If it’s already the end of March and you want to enter a completed manuscript in a contest on April 15 but you haven’t started writing, odds are that that particular date isn’t realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead, plan to enter the contest next year. Similarly, if an editor calls to say she loves your proposal and wonders how soon you can have the completed manuscript to her, take a deep breath before you answer. Even better, tell her you need to work out the schedule and you’ll call her back. Then figure out how long it will take, realizing that it’s impractical to think you’ll work eight hours every day. When you’ve created what seems like an achievable schedule, add in a couple weeks for contingencies. Trust me, you’ll need them.

 2. Create a picture of your goal. Mental images are great, but I’m talking about a physical picture, one that’ll help motivate you. If your goal is to enter a contest, create a picture of a blue ribbon or a statue with your title on it. If your goal is to send a completed manuscript to your editor, create a picture of a book cover with your name and title on it. Once the picture is complete, make a number of copies. One goes on the refrigerator, another one on the phone, still another on the TV remote. The purpose is to remind you that your goal is your highest priority and that snacking, calling a friend or watching a must-see TV show are keeping you from meeting that goal.

 3. Divide and conquer. By that I mean, divide your project into small, manageable tasks, ideally ones that require no longer than a day or two to complete. By doing that, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you’re on schedule. Like the picture, it’s important to have more than a mental plan. You need a written schedule, showing when each chapter (or scene, if you break it down to that level) must be finished. The critical point here is to know whether or not you’re on schedule, and if you’re not, to take corrective action immediately. That leads to the last point.

 4. Just say ‘no.’  If you’re going to meet your due date, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll need to make some sacrifices. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing needs to be your highest priority. That means that email, Facebook and all the other things that take time away from writing need to be put in second place. And, if your schedule has slipped, that afternoon at the mall may need to be postponed until you’ve met your due date.

There’s no doubt about it. Meeting due dates is hard work. It requires determination and discipline. But you can do it. I know you can, because you’re a writer, and that’s what writers do.