Posted in writing advice

Fellow RV Novelists: Judy Howard

Judy Howard’s books have been very popular since she started writing them. Through her workshops and presentations she’s inspired many other to pick up the pen or start typing, including many RVers. We’re happy to be able to share some of her thoughts about her writing in general and writing as an RVer in specific.

Your biographical note on your Amazon home page includes this quote from Henry David Thoreau: “How vain is it to sit down and write, when you have not stood up to live?” At what point did you realize you needed to write about what you’d lived?

My husband passed away in August of 2004 and 3 months later I made my first solo trip in my motorhome from California to Florida. People referred to me as an inspiration, that I gave them courage to tackle things they had been afraid to try.

Six years ago when I wrote my first book, Coast to Coast with a Cat and a Ghost, I felt my story needed to be told. An author, Louis Urea said, “Sometimes, God tells you what to write.” I believe it is the same for me. I intended the memoir to be somewhat of a travel log.

Instead, it evolved into a story about not just dealing with the loss of a loved one, but also of facing spousal abuse and finding courage to stand up for myself and through the process, becoming stronger and greater than I ever dreamed of becoming.

Your books are listed as novels, but the main character shares your name. How much of the character’s experiences in your books (Coast to Coast with a Cat and a Ghost and Going Home with a Cat and a Ghost) mirrors your own life?

Coast To Coast With A Cat And A Ghost is definitely is the closest to a memoir. It was my first book and was well received, surprising me. So, as a new author, flying by the seat of her authorial sweat pants I wondered if I could make something up.

And wa-la! Going Home With A Cat And A Ghost was born. My sister called me egotistical because I didn’t want to lose the character, Judy Howard. If she worked in the first book, why not keep her? I hadn’t planned a series but they say that’s how to sell book. Why not? So how much is truth and how much is fiction? I’ll leave that as part of the intrigue for the reader to ponder.

Why did you choose to write fiction rather than autobiography? Your life sounds bigger than fiction!

I find writing fiction to be fun, filled with my dreams.

I can fly high on my fantasies, and unlike reality, I control the ending. The dark moments in a world of fiction may be difficult to write but never as painful as revealing the reality of a personal truth, which didn’t turn out as I had hoped.

You are right, Ellen, my life is as big as the Montana sky and thrilling as lightning in a thunderstorm.

Compared to a time in my life when suicide became a tempting option, the life I live today is more fulfilling and magical than I ever imagined. But those deep potholes from which I dragged myself out and the long detours I wandered through are easier for this author to address with distance , in a novel. Sometimes I do take the easy way but my usual mode of operation is the hard way.

John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

When did you start RVing? Do you still travel by RV?

I began Rving solo in 2004. In January 2017, at the young age of 71, I rented my house out and now live full-time in my twenty-four foot Winnebago which I have named, “The Big Story.” I tow a Smart Car, appropriately named, “The Short Story.”

Do you write in your RV?

I had a custom desk built in my RV. It is my favorite place to write. There is nothing more inspirational than pounding the keyboard while the rain beats on the roof, or when the ocean washes incessantly onto the beach, or the wind whispers ideas to me through the trees. On beautiful days, my cat, Sportster, will not stop howling until I move outside with my computer. It is there he can absorb the sights and smells of his surroundings and plot his next novel …or his autobiography? By the way, his nose is bent out of shape because no one yet has asked for an interview. I told him when he gets a couple more books out he will be taken more seriously as an author. He just twitched his tail, spit and then took a nap.

This is my office, highlights from left to right:

1. The muse. And famous author Sportster [@Sportsterandme.com].

2. If you enlarge the photo you will see a timer. I’m trying out a new productivity strategy.

3. Gifts from a couple of my favorite people who keep me charged up with believing in myself on a professional level. The painted rock. Thank you Deb Sanders.

4. And my latest nonfiction book to insure that someday I will be climbing up on the stage to do my very own Ted Talk. Thank you, Lynne Morgan Spreen.

Oh!! Don’t overlook the most impressive feature, my picture window that changes scenes with the twist of the ignition and a step on the accelerator!!! Welcome to my office!

What inspires you most when you’re traveling?

Nature, nature and more nature! And always the people and their stories. Every person should be required to serve a two year tour, living with the locals of several of the small towns in every fly-over state.

Using one of your books as an example, could you walk us through how you got the idea through the final version of the book? What was the toughest part of the process for you? Why?

By the time I finished my first book, Coast To Coast With A Cat And A Ghost, I was hooked on writing. I figured anyone can write their own story, but I wondered, could I make something up? So I tackled the familiar Hallmark romance story, reuniting with the old high school boyfriend. I mixed it up with some tragedy and intrigue and wrote Going Home With A Cat And A Ghost.

Sportster the cat (featured in earlier books) has for some time narrated a blog. What inspired you to give him center stage as main character in Activate Lion Mode?

After writing, Masada’s Marine, which was about a dog named Masada who becomes a service dog for an Iraq veteran with PTSD, I was emotionally exhausted. It took me two years to write and I considered laying down my pen and shutting off my computer. But writing is like a drug, and I couldn’t give it up. So I decided I would write something fun.

Activate Lion Mode is the first in a new series. When can readers expect the second book? Does it have a title yet?

Yes, they certainly can. Sportster promises Activate Love Mode will be out mid 2018. I too will have an autobiographical novel out in 2018.

Will RVs continue to play a role in your books?

Until they pry my cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

What motivated you to write the Masada series, featuring a service dog for a PTSD-afflicted veteran?

I discovered a nonprofit organization which raised puppies and then sent them to local prisons to be trained as service dogs for veterans. The prisoners win, the dogs win and the veterans win. What a great story!

Your experience as a pet groomer clearly has influenced your writing. Do you have any advice for others who are thinking of incorporating aspects of their professional life into their fiction?

Write about what you know even if your career seems ordinary to you. Your individual perspective and passion will give inspiration and passion to a story that no one else can.

What have I not asked that you’d like to mention?

An issue which writers are rarely asked is, “Writing is hard, lonely and full of doubt. How do you keep going?”  Perhaps the public believes we have a gift, a talent which drives us and that it is easy for us. It is not. To be successful, we all have to do the work. Everyday.

Every day I study the craft, and its many divisions –– writing, character building, plot and structure and so on –– updating my knowledge of the constant changing world of marketing and social media and publishing –– and most of the time I do this alone.

So how do I keep going? I give it away. Through my writing and inspirational seminars, I try to help writers on their journey and, like magic, they help me. I keep going on, giving away the knowledge and support that others have lavished on me.

Oh, and don’t let me forget!! Readers’ reviews keep us writers motivated.

How can readers find you and your books online?

Judy’s Amazon Author Page
Judy’s Blog
Judy’s Website
Sportster’s Blog

Thanks, Judy! And safe travels!

Posted in writing advice

Old Ladies and Murderers

Holidays were the highlights of the year back in my little hometown, and summer days were long and lazy. As a kid, it never seemed as though much happened.

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But some remarkable things did happen.

I can’t claim The Mystery of the Little Old Lady was what propelled me into writing mysteries of my own, but this real-life event stayed with me for years, and I still wonder about who the woman with the white hair might have been. You can read my personal mystery over at the GottaWriteNetwork blog come February 16. Here’s the link to Denise Fletcher’s terrific blog.
Don’t forget to follow it for the latest updates!

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As if that weren’t enough excitement for the little Ohio town, it’s had its share of murders. They’re pretty few and far between, but back in 1999 a woman was killed by her son — and I knew them both. If you haven’t read about The Murderer I Knew at the Motive Means Opportunity blog, you can find it here.

Your turn! What odd mysteries have you experienced in your life?

Posted in writing advice

Being a Bag Lady

Tony Hillerman once said, “A writer is like a bag lady going through life with a sack and a pointed stick, collecting stuff.” Sitting next to me is a pile of papers, clamped with one of those binder clips — my version of the pointed stick. I confess: it’s not so bad being a bag lady.

Often I’ll come across just the right tidbit that frees me from some tight spot I’ve wedged myself into. And the rest of those bits of flotsam and jetsam?

Well, I save those for you, of course! Continue reading “Being a Bag Lady”

Posted in publishing, writing advice, writing motivation, writing prompts, writing resources

The Value of Writing Groups

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Last December I posted about two different types of writing groups. That brief overview was related to a couple of columns I wrote for a private writing group’s newsletter. Even then, I didn’t feel as though I’d said all I wanted to on the subject.

Result?

An expanded how-to guide, with suggestions for getting a group started, identifying your group, and setting some rules, for starters. I included some prompts and other tips, all based on years of experience as a member of both creative groups and critique groups.

Now you can get that 8-page guide FREE. Just click here.

WritingGroupGuide

Oh… and in the critique group section I include an idea for making those groups even better — something I’ve never seen in practice before.

What do you think makes a great writing group? What have your experience been? Do you agree with the ideas in the guide? Let us know what you think!

Posted in writing advice

Writing and Geometry

Oh, but they DO have a lot in common!

I was reading Ava Jae’s great post, “You Don’t Have to Get It Right the First Time” and decided it was time to post about the writing process after a long spell without mentioning it.

In her post, Ava lists the things you shouldn’t be thinking about while you’re drafting. The one thing you *should* be focusing on while drafting, she says, is “Getting the story written.” Period.

And she’s right. (Again. Ava Jae is always right…. if you read the ellenbooks roundup posts, she shows up quite a bit in the links, and there’s a reason for that. So go read her post, too.)

You should be running like a train when you’re drafting, and trains do nothing but stay on one track. If a train scootches even a little bit off that track — whammo — disaster.

So where does the geometry part come in?

Think of the writing process as an inverted triangle — the big heavy side balanced on the tip. When you draft, you’re doing the BIG STUFF. Getting the story into words. Putting the characters out there. Mixing things up. Charging with that train down the track.

When you get through to the end of the story, when you’ve mentally tapped “The End” on the final page, celebrate, then admit that you’re only a fraction of the way to finishing your novel.

You’ve got several more stages in the process to move through — revision, edit, proofreading, polishing. I won’t repeat here what’s been covered earlier (see Re-Draft? Revise?) but you should be seeing the pattern:

InvertedTriangle

Notice how you’re moving from the big chunks down to smaller and smaller bits of the manuscript? Why move your commas around if you’re not sure your story is where it needs to be? You could end up chopping all that proofreading work you’ve done.

New novelists often ask how to be more efficient in their writing. “I spent hours and hours on a scene that I ended up cutting!”

If you HATE wasting time… consider practicing the inverted triangle method. It reduces the chance you’ll waste effort.

Of course, nothing is iron-clad, and the tinkerers among us won’t mind getting those commas in the right spots — even if we drop the entire page — but at least we know the risk we’re taking. Mess with the commas in an early stage of revision, and you just might be “wasting” your time (we’re never wasting our time… but that’s another post).

Where are you in the process? Charging like a freight train down one skinny track? Or are you further down the triangle?

Posted in writing advice

Author Interview: E. Michael Helms

So many questions for E. Michael Helms, author of two novels and several nonfiction works! I sent out word I was willing to read and offer reviews of mysteries, and he was one of the writers who responded. I confess I’d started another book by a different author, one that was not well written, so I put off beginning Michael’s “Deadly Catch.” But once I started downstream with Mac McClellan, the main character, I was hooked (you can find my full reviews at Goodreads and on Amazon). I’m so pleased he’s agreed to an interview with ellenbooks so we can all learn from this very accomplished writer.

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Michael, please tell us which came first, the series idea for Mac, or the story for “Deadly Catch”?

The story for “Deadly Catch” came first. I had toyed with the idea of writing a mystery for some time. I knew I wanted the locale to be the Florida panhandle coast (where I grew up). I didn’t know if it would be a standalone or series. All I knew for sure was the opening line: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. That sentence kept running through my mind like a dripping faucet, and it was the seed for “Deadly Catch.” I had no idea who the protagonist might be, no plot to speak of, nothing except that opening sentence. So, I sat down at the computer one morning and wrote it down. Within a few minutes I knew the protagonist was a recently retired/divorced Marine named Mac McClellan. He was enjoying a fishing vacation while pondering what to do with his post-Corps life. Soon, Mac and the other characters came to life and started telling me where the story was going.

How does “Deadly Catch” fit in with your other books? Is it similar, very different?

All the “Mac” mysteries have different plotlines. In “Deadly Catch” Mac hooks the decomposing body of a young woman which puts events in motion. In the second Mac mystery, “Deadly Ruse,” Mac’s girlfriend, Kate Bell, recognizes an old boyfriend in a theater lobby. The problem is, this boyfriend supposedly died in a boating accident several years before. Did he die, or not? That question gets things rolling along. What’s interesting to me is to see Mac, Kate, and a few other regular characters develop and grow from one book to the next. I’ve completed four books in the series so far (two published), and keeping the characters real, I feel, is an important aspect for both reader and writer.

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Did you publish shorter works — articles, short stories, essays, for example — before plunging into novel writing? Could you give us an idea of your trajectory as a published author?

I used to freelance articles to area and national publications. I’ve written several short stories (a few published), and used to edit a couple of area tabloid newspapers (military/veterans and Christian). My first full-length published book, “The Proud Bastards,” is a memoir of my combat experiences with the Marines during Vietnam. I pitched a portion to the editor of a New York magazine I’d written for, “Vietnam Combat.” He liked it and said he wanted to see the entire work when finished. Acting as my first agent, he quickly sold it to Kensington/Zebra. After more than twenty years it remains in print, currently with Simon & Schuster/Pocket.

You’ve published with Koehler Books and Seventh Street Books. Why have you used two different publishers? What made you choose these two in particular?

I’ve been published by Kensington/Zebra, Simon & Schuster/Pocket, Koehler Books, Seventh Street Books, and Stairway Press. Different publishers have different genre interests, so it was really a matter of my agent placing a particular book(s) with a particular publishing house that fit their interests.

From what I can tell, these companies are small press, traditional publishing houses. Is that how you would describe them? In other words, they took on all of the publishing responsibilities so you can focus on writing and marketing. Is that a correct assumption?

Well, yes and no. Koehler Books is a small press, while Seventh Street Books (publisher of the Mac McClellan Mystery series) is part of the Prometheus group; they’re more mid-sized, and are distributed/marketed in conjunction with Random House. Simon & Schuster is big, while Stairway Press is a small house located in the Seattle, WA area. Obviously, the larger presses can do more than the smaller, but they all assume the expenses of editing, publishing, etc. They don’t charge their authors any money for the publishing process, they pay their authors.

Have your books been placed in bookstores by those publishers? Are they available in any other outlets? Who made those choices?

Fortunately, I’ve seen all my books in brick and mortar bookstores, at least short-term. “Deadly Catch” was a Barnes & Noble “Top Ten Mystery Pick” for November 2013. It was satisfying to walk into one of their stores and see a stack of my books face-out on their shelves! I visited a nearby Books-A-Million store about a year ago and saw a couple of copies of “The Proud Bastards” on their shelves. Not bad for a book originally published in 1990. For the vast majority of books (including my own), shelf-life is very limited in physical bookstores. The online stores are where most sales come from. My titles are easily found in all the major online outlets.

Would you recommend either of these publishers to other writers? Why or why not — or with what advice?

Without hesitation I’d recommend Seventh Street Books to any writer fortunate enough to be signed by them. They are a topnotch mystery/thriller publisher and well-respected in the publishing world. Great distribution, a publicist who works hard for their authors, decent advances, etc. To the contrary, I’ve recently learned that Koehler Books has begun a “cooperative” offshoot for some of their titles where the authors are expected to pay some of the costs of the publishing process. I think this is unfortunate, and could reflect negatively on the authors who are legitimately published by them. They are the only publisher I’ve been involved with that I wouldn’t recommend.

Have you done any self-publishing? If so, tell us about that.

No, not that I think there’s anything wrong with self-publishing if the author has paid his/her dues by learning the craft. I know of many traditionally published authors who are now turning to self-publishing. I’ve read many well-written works that have been self-published. The problem is, with the technology available today, everyone wants to be an “instant author,” and it shows in the enormous number of poorly written and edited works clogging the book trade pipeline today. There are self-published gems out there for sure, but there are also huge piles of, to put it kindly, less-than-impressive books.

Your books are available in print and e-book format. Is one format selling better than the other? Why do you think that is?

Right now it seems my printed books are outselling my e-books. I don’t have the answer to that. A couple of years ago some were proclaiming the death knell for print books, and that e-books would be the biggest thing since sliced bread. That hasn’t happened. One reason might be that the bigger, traditional publishers are keeping their e-book prices inflated. For example, “The Proud Bastards” (Simon & Schuster/Pocket) mass market paperback is selling at Amazon.com for $8.99, while the e-book is priced at $8.00. To me, that’s ridiculous. After the initial setup costs, e-books are basically free to produce; it’s a matter of transferring files. Why such a small price difference? I don’t know. I believe e-reader devices will eventually become more widespread, but I doubt they’ll ever become the overwhelming rage that smart phones are.

What do you think are the three most important things you’ve done (or are doing) to help market your books? Why?

1) Digging and scrapping for book reviews (I’m still amazed how many poor quality self-pubbed e-books by relatively unknown authors have amassed hundreds of reviews, while authors with mid-list books from traditional publishers have such paltry numbers by comparison).

2) Social media participation (Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, personal website, etc.) Developing a rapport with the reading public is invaluable.

3) Book blog tours and giveaways. Giveaways on sites such as Goodreads can generate a lot of interest in an author’s work; even those who don’t win have seen and read a little about the book. A number of those will wind up buying the book. I recently concluded a blog tour/giveaway that attracted almost four thousand, two-hundred entries. That’s also a lot of exposure.

Can you tell us anything about the next Mac McClellan book? What are you working on now? Do you have an expected release date?

“Deadly Dunes” is next up for Mac and Kate. Mac is hired by a young woman to investigate whether or not her brother actually committed suicide, or was murdered as she believes. The victim had evidence that a contingent from Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s sixteen century expedition in Florida may have traveled to the coast and established a fort on what is now Five-Mile Island. Hours after Mac takes on the case, the young woman dies in a suspicious car accident. Mac digs deep to uncover a tangled web of deceit, betrayal, and murder that all hinges on a planned community development on the island. Hopefully, it will be released this fall.

If you could give one piece of advice to a writer working toward publication, what would it be?

Read extensively in your chosen genre(s). Pay close attention to punctuation, dialogue, and how stories are structured. All dialogue and scenes should either reveal character or advance the plot. If not, rewrite it or cut it. Use active verbs, and “show” way more than “tell.” Put your characters “on stage” and let them act out the story. Practice the craft, and be persistent. It’s a tough business. Don’t expect to get rich. Strive to leave something worthwhile behind as part of your legacy.

Where can we find out more about your books?

My Amazon author page is probably best: http://www.amazon.com/E.-Michael-Helms/e/B001K90FSM/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1
Or, my website: www.emichaelhelms.com
How can you be contacted?

Through my website: www.emichaelhelms.com or my e-mail: emhelms63@yahoo.com

I’m also on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, Google+, Facebook and others, under E. Michael Helms. Thanks for having me!
Thank *you* so much, Mike!

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