Deadlines! Oh, the Horror!

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Nothing in my office happens without a deadline.

Deadlines mean that I get stuff done. On time.

If I don’t have a deadline to meet, I’d rather be digging in the garden, knitting, having lunch with a friend, or outside reading a book. If I don’t have a deadline, then I have time off.


Whenever anyone asks me to do something, my first question is: What’s my deadline? And if that is reasonable, I put it on my calendar. If it’s an extended project with many steps, I put intermediate deadlines on my calendar to make sure I meet the ultimate deadline.  The last thing I want is to be chained to my desk for three or four days at the end of a long project because I failed to schedule properly and allocate my time wisely.

My calendar is my lifeline to getting things done. Rarely do I miss a deadline. It happens, but it’s rare.

When I sign a contract for a book, I agree to submit the manuscript on a certain date. When the publisher gets that contract, they set all their intermediary deadlines for catalog copy, cover art, interior design, for copy editing, publicity… there are many,  many steps that a book goes through from the time I submit it to the time that it is published. All those intermediary professionals put my book on their calendar and schedule time for it.


If I miss the deadline (that I agreed to, by the way—if the deadline on the contract is too short or looks like it will pinch, I change it before signing the contract), then all those people miss all their deadlines, all the way down the line. And it isn’t as if the publisher doesn’t have other things to do that they can just accommodate an irresponsible writer. They have long memories for things like this.

So I make my deadlines. Even if it isn’t a book contract, other people depend on me to be on time, see to my commitments, take other peoples’ time and energy seriously.

Imagine, if you will, hiring a contractor to build your new deck. He’s to arrive on Monday morning at 8am, but instead, he waltzes in Friday around 3. You’ve prepared for him, you’ve inconvenienced yourself for him, and he hasn’t taken his business seriously enough to show up on time. Likely to use him again?

Meeting deadlines is a courtesy to everyone involved.

But not only is it a courtesy to other people, it is an act of kindness to myself. I get to have those days of digging in the garden, jumping up and going for a spontaneous bike ride, taking off for a day at the beach with the husband and the dog. My conscience is clear, my calendar allows it, and I am free to have fun.

My calendar is my lifeline to having a peaceful life.

And I have deadlines to thank for it.

And Now, The Truth: I Don’t Like Starting New Novels

By Lisa Alber

This picture doesn't represent my writing life.

This picture doesn’t represent my writing life.

I hereby declare that I don’t like starting new novels. What? you might be thinking. How can that be? Are you not a novelist creature? A person who loves the process, whose nature it is to gush via the written word?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here’s a corollary truth: Within any process there’s always that one task you can’t stand but have to do anyhow. For some novelists it might be copyediting, for others, research. For me, it’s getting into the danged first draft. I dislike it even more than the dreaded muddle in the middle.

You’d think I’d be in the infatuation period with my story right now. Everything about it ought to be bright and shiny and new and on its way to happily ever after, like, for sure.

I wish.

It’s more like I’m dangling over a precipice without a net. The other day, I realized that knowing my characters, their arcs, and the overall plot isn’t enough. There’s some indefinable something missing. I barely know what I mean by that either. It’s just a feeling that’s not in my body. A feeling of rightness even though I’ve had inklings and a-ha moments during the pre-writing development stage.

Right now my writing feels flat, uninspired. And I wonder, is that because for the first time in my life I’m writing under a strict publishing deadline?

It's more like this.

It’s more like this.

Publishing deadlines being what they are, this novel isn’t due until a year from now. Believe me, I’ll need the whole year. I can’t procrastinate. And, more importantly, I can’t wait for the “rightness” to sail me out off the precipice on its gossamer wings.

I’m getting words down on virtual paper every day and trying to maintain faith that at some point (please, let it be within 50 pages!), I’ll feel a surge as I realize what the heart and soul of the story really is. In other words, I’m faking it a little bit right now–at least that’s what it feels like.

So what do I mean by “heart and soul of the story” anyhow? I mean the hook. Not the hook for the reader. MY hook as the writer. No one ever talks about that, but for me it’s uber-important to feel an “in” with the story, as if it’s an organic being and I need to find my way into a relationship with it. This might come about when I finally see the shape of the story in my head. Or when I understand the story’s essential truth in five words or less. Or maybe it’s about the theme. Or maybe it’s about discovering the voice for the first-person protagonist. It’s different for different writers, different stories.

There is no answer here. I’m where I am in a process, and I’ve been here before (though not exactly like this). I’ve set a rule for myself, which is 1,000 words per day. Some days it’s like climbing up prickly branches (see picture). Other days, it’s just a job; get ‘er done. Other days, it’s sheer joy.

I can bitch with the best of them, but in the end, I’ll finish my novel by the deadline.

What part of the writing process (or any process in your life) do you not like? How do you work through it?

What’s the Difference Between a Story in One Genre and Another?

What’s the Difference between One Genre and Another?

By Eric M. Witchey

The editor.

Lame joke? Not really.

I’m in a unique position to discuss this issue because I have sold short stories into a number of different genres. I have, at the time of this writing, sold stories into the following genres: Literary, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Erotica, Outdoor Adventure, Crime, and Young Adult.

In spite of the excellent advice of my betters, who tell me I should pick a genre and work to establish an audience, I have always felt compelled to serve the story I am writing. Certainly, I could decide that I am “a fantasy author,” or some other type of author. I just can’t abandon the stories that need to be literary, horror, romance, or whatever.

Having sold into all of these different marketing designations, and they are just that, I have come to a few interesting conclusions. First, I use exactly the same techniques in all genres. I tell stories, and telling stories is pretty much the same unless I am working to create experimental fiction, in which case I am working in reaction to the techniques I would otherwise use.

Oh, yeah. I’ve sold experimental fiction, too. I forgot.

To me, a story is a story. I have exactly one writing rule. Here it is:

Rule #1: Affect the emotions of the reader.

I have no other rules. I have lots and lots of techniques. Some, I learned by studying. Some, I learned by reading. Some, I learned by listening to teachers. Some, I came by through accidental insights. In the end, they all go in the same toolbox, and I trot them out as needed in the service of Rule #1.

You see, I don’t often sit down at the keyboard and think, “Hm… I think I’ll write a literary story today.” What I do is sit down to write. While I’m working on a story, I am open to it taking on any form it needs to take on in order to serve Rule #1.

Sometimes, a story comes out as a literary story because that’s how it needs to be told. Sometimes, a story comes out as a fantasy because that’s how it needs to be told.

So, what does “that’s how it needs to be told” mean? Does it mean that the story somehow speaks to me?

No. Not exactly.

Rather, it means that while writing, I am always seeking the right tool to create leverage in the heart and mind of the reader. If I feel like I need to create a metaphorical construct of a thematic element, I might very well end up in a fantasy world where demons are incarnate rather than abstract psychological obstacles to character growth. If I feel like the story needs to have the trappings of our normal world in order to contrast or reinforce the internals states of characters, I might end up writing a literary story.

At no point do I think, “This has to be genre X.”

What I do instead is finish the story. Then, I try to figure out where to sell it. Sometimes, the answer is obvious. Sometimes, it is not so obvious. Here are a couple of notable examples.

I wrote a story called “El Bosque Circular.” It started life as a scene where a man and his son were ploughing a field. They used a burro and a single blade plow to prepare the field for beans. I think I had recently reread The Milagro Bean Field War. I don’t remember. The point is that I very quickly began to see the potential to develop a sort of fable in which both the love and the fear of each generation are passed on the next. The story ended up being a bit of magical realism and a weak homage to one of my favorite authors, Gorge Luis Borges. After rejection by a number of fantasy markets where I thought the story would find a home, the story won an award and was purchased by a literary market.

Another story I wrote had no explicit magic in it at all, and a retired City Desk editor from the New York Times made a point of contacting me after he read the story. He told me how wonderfully literary the story was, and he asked me why it had been published in a fantasy magazine. That story was “The Tao of Flynn.”

I have other examples of stories ending up in unexpected places. I once wrote a ghost story that ended up in romance magazine’s Valentine’s Day special. I once wrote an outdoor adventure story that ended up in a treasure hunting magazine. I once wrote a piece of magical realism that I thought was particularly literary, but it ended up in a mainstay fantasy magazine.

I once heard a literary editor on a panel go on at length about how the interior lives of characters are displayed through layered conflict, deft narrative, and corresponding symbolism and metaphor. They said that cultural issues of gender, race, religion, sexuality, and family dynamics are the appropriate thematic arenas for literary fiction. The really funny thing is that only two weeks later I heard another editor say almost word-for-word the same things at the World Fantasy Convention.

My personal experience is that once I understand the true nature of a tale, the mix of techniques shifts, but that is not as much a genre choice as it is a story choice—a Rule #1 choice.

I can say that when I read literary fiction, it is often, but not always, the case that the narrator and interior psychological states of characters get more real estate on the page. Of course, that also holds true for every romance ever written.

Ah, people tell me, but the choices of language are more sophisticated, more elegant, more poetic in literary fiction.


Except that no matter what the genre, the point of view character determines diction and vocabulary. Perhaps the reader is more forgiving of an intrusive narrative character in literary fiction.

Except, I don’t really believe that.

I have a friend who claims that the only difference between literary fiction and all the commercial genres is that literary fiction includes a component of self-congratulation for the reader. That is, she believes that in order to sell to literary markets, she needs to allow the reader to see just enough of the mechanisms of her story telling to allow them to believe in their own cleverness for seeing that mechanism. She claims genre readers won’t tolerate that. They want to be completely immersed in the experience of character.


Nah. I don’t believe that either.

I believe in Rule #1.

If the reader’s heart and mind are sucked in, the genre is determined by the magazine, anthology, publisher, small press, or e-magazine that pays for the story and puts it in the front of the reader.

So, when people ask me what the difference between one genre and another is, I come back to that lame joke. The editor. The person who buys the story puts that story out in a market space, and that market space decides the genre of the story.


Fasten Your Seatbelt, It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

By Stacy Allen

This week heralds the launch of my debut novel, Expedition Indigo. Those in the stands cheering me see my public persona: the happy, gregarious and friendly author who wants nothing more than to love everyone and everything. The reality is that anyone who has traveled the road to publishing understands how long, curvy, bumpy and dangerous it is. If you want to be a published novelist, put on your seatbelt and settle in for a very long journey. It has taken me over ten years to get this book published. Ten years.

Once we get to this published stage, it is generally frowned upon to speak of the negative aspects of authorship. We writers all laugh and joke about it, but in the dark recesses of bars and pubs, soothed by liquid courage, we commiserate with one another about the murky underbelly of publishing. We share our personal journeys with our writing brothers and sisters because we all speak the same language. And our personal journeys are not all that dissimilar.

Writers constantly hear “Write something you know. Write something that’s different. Write something that hasn’t been done.”

And so I did. I wrote an adventure novel about a female archaeology professor, and someone who is given a mission to go beyond the life she knows into a life she wants. Riley is absolutely confident when she is wearing the hat of a professor or an archaeologist. She wants more, she craves more. She is just afraid of more. She is afraid of failure. She is afraid of change. But she is courageous. Despite her fear, she forges ahead and hopes for the best.

Perfect, right? This hadn’t been done before, right? A thriller about SCUBA diving and treasure hunting? With a woman as the protagonist? I thought it was a sure fit and the publishing world would be scrambling to snatch up my series and pay me a zillion dollars at the same time.

Here’s what happened. They didn’t like Riley. They loved the story. They loved the action. They didn’t like Riley. They thought my dialogue crisp and realistic. They didn’t like Riley. They loved the international setting. They didn’t like Riley. They wanted more Abruzzi brothers and less Riley. Why? Because they didn’t like Riley!

Wow. When editors, agents, and even some early readers don’t like your main character, you’re dead in the water. Feedback came in. I made changes. I made tweaks. But I really wanted Riley to be female. And I wanted her to be vulnerable, but I didn’t want to her to be so vulnerable that she was the one that had to be rescued in the end. I wanted a heroine that could defy the odds. I changed Riley, over time, to someone less rigid and more likeable.

And still they didn’t get her. They didn’t understand why I couldn’t just change the plot and make her a man. Because, then, you see, the book would be an overnight bestseller. Just change Riley to a man and the Golden Gates of Superstardom would open.

I pitched to editors and agents. Yes, it sounds fascinating. Yes, it sounds intriguing. Yes, please send me a chapter. On second thought, send me three. Maybe you could send the entire thing?

And still I believed in Riley. I believe that women can be vulnerable and at the same time be courageous in the face of danger. I made big changes to the manuscript, slashed chapters, changed scenes, added and deleted, loved all the feedback, really appreciated the critiques I was getting along the way, but still insisted that Riley was a woman and would stay that way.

And then, at a conference I had begun attending annually, Killer Nashville, something magical happened. I met an agent who loved my premise. An agent who listened to me describe my first book in the series, and my character. This agent was interested. She wanted to see the entire manuscript.

So I sent it. I sent it and wished and hoped and dreamed that this agent would give me a chance. I knew the manuscript would need work, would need changing, and I was completely open to that. When I pitched Expedition Indigo to Jill Marr at Killer Nashville, one of the most important points I wanted to get across to her was “I want to write books that people want to read. I am willing to listen to feedback. I am willing to edit.”

Her feedback was awesome. The magic words I received from her were “You have a good book, but we can make it a great book.”

I did a double-take. A good book? And even possibly a great book?

I was stunned. Someone believed in my story, in my character. A powerhouse agent, working at one of the most reputable, star-studded literary agencies, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, loved my concept, my character, my story and my writing!

That was, I am not joking, four years ago. It took edits, and more edits. Jill is a brilliant agent, and when we thought it was ready, she sent it out. And it came back. And we went through it again. And we sent it out. And it came back. And every time it came back, I worked at sharpening the story. Fixing logic errors. Changing things, deleting things. And I kept changing Riley’s personality, subtle changes here and there, making her nicer, less hard around the edges. I listened to my agent, and I trusted her.

So here I am, a published novelist, with a Romantic Suspense series. I have five more books planned. The second in the series is completely story-boarded and about 1/3 finished. I learned so much with this first book, that the second is going to be, from a procedural standpoint, considerably easier to write than the first.

I am grateful I stuck it out. I am grateful I happened to catch the attention and support of an amazing literary agent. I am happy we found a Publisher who loved my story, my series concept, and my female protagonist.

Connect with Stacy:

Expedition Indigo on Goodreads

Author page




Riley’s twitter

Fiery Seas Publishing

Killer Matchmaker, or Is He?

By Lisa Alber

I’d planned to respond to Christina’s post about her dark-man dreams, but then I remembered that I haven’t mentioned my debut novel (March 2014! Yay!) on the ShadowSpinners blog yet. Self-interest trumps soulful introspection this week.

My novel, KILMOON, features a dark man, but he hides behind a charismatic smile and his role as a celebrated matchmaker in Ireland. He’s not your warm and fuzzy matchmaker, that’s for sure, and that’s what I love about him. In literary parlance, he goes “against type.” I didn’t set out to do this. I didn’t say to myself, Hey, I need to turn a stereotype on its head so that my story will stand out, be original, and answer the question, What’s special about your novel?

Pfft. I liked the idea of a purveyor of love and matrimony and happily-ever-afters who has a murky past, who might be guilty of something, who might tend toward sociopathy.

Or maybe he’s just a flawed man with a tattered but good heart. I’m not telling.

The notion of a dark-man matchmaker got me started on the novel, and I’d forgotten about that until I read an essay about one-sentence elevator pitches. I was intrigued by the essay writer’s #1 tip for creating an elevator pitch: try to remember what originally excited you about the story. Your original idea before the story took on a life of its own.

It’s basically the “What if…” question. For me, the what-if began in Ireland. I happened to be in Lisdoonvarna village for its annual matchmaking festival. Talk about randy, Guinness-drinking Irishmen. It took me awhile to discover that most of them were about the unencumbered shagging, not the matrimony. That said, the matchmaker was, probably still is, a celebrated figure in County Clare.

It didn’t take long for my thoughts to wander to the dark side. What if the matchmaker had a murky past? What if he wasn’t what he seemed? Bingo! The matchmaking festival might have inspired another novelist to write a tale of romance or maybe women’s fiction. Not me, no, I’ve gotta get a little of that sociopathy in there.

So what’s my elevator pitch for Kilmoon? Hah! You kidding me? There’s nothing more excruciating than creating an elevator pitch. But, OK, off-the-cuff? Here it goes:

Desperate to mend her troubled past, Merrit Chase seeks out a celebrated Irish matchmaker–the father she never knew–only to get ensnared in his deadly past instead.

For a proper description of Kilmoon, check out this page.