Blathering: A Nibble

So at the Tony Hillman Conference, they had a session where you could put your name into the hat for a reading of your first page in front of two best-selling authors and an agent.


I got lucky (gulp!) and my number was drawn, so I read my page, voice shaking with fear.

And they all loved it! I was so stoked, especially when I approached the agent after the session, and she said to send her the first 50 pages.

Just got an email from that agent this week, too. She wants to see the entire manuscript once she gets back from her holidays!

Wish me luck, guys!

5 Tips to Writing Emotionally

One of the areas many new writers have trouble with is emotional content. Their writing may have a lot of description, even vivid images, but there is no connection for the readers.

Writing With Pencil

Here are some tips to help you include emotion in your writing:

  • Remember – use your own memories to help you understand how your characters would feel in certain situations
  • Imagine – how would you feel if you were in the same situation as your characters are?
  • Talk – talk to your friends and family about their feelings, and ask how they would feel if that situation happened to them
  • Research – read about real people in real situations – you know how the media always asks people “How do you feel about that?” when there’s a news event? That’s so they can connect to their viewers and readers.
  • Feel – allow yourself to really feel whatever emotion you’re trying to evoke in your characters, so you know what the emotion brings

The important thing about emotion in your writing is that you must not be afraid to include it. Many writers are embarrassed by emotions, and fear that their readers may ridicule them or think less of them for having certain emotions in their writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers cannot connect to characters without emotion, so the more emotions you can stir up in your characters, the better the readers identify with them.

The Art of Blogging

This was a panel at the Hillerman Conference, featuring Dawn Wink, Susan Tweit, and Joe Badal.


Advice from Dawn, whose blog is called Dewdrops:

  • Follow your passions
  • Figure out who your community is
  • Strive for character, personality and texture

from Joe, who writes a blog on Everyday Heroes:

  • Write interesting articles about subjects that complement your book
  • Do not share photos of your meals … unless you write cookbooks
  • Do not share stories about your adorable dog Fluffy … unless you write dog books
  • Do not share how romantic your significant other is … unless you write romances
  • Do not share your illnesses and disorders
  • Do not blast-market your books

And from Susan, who is also a plant biologist:

  • Add value with your blog
  • Convey your passions
  • Bring added dimension to your books

To Outline or Not to Outline

This was a panel at the Tony Hillerman Conference, featuring Anne Hillerman, CB McKenzie, Sara Hoklotubbe, and John Sandford.


Q: Do you outline or wing it?

John: There’s no right way to do it. I actually do both. I do not outline for the first 75-80 thousand words. As I’m struggling through the story, a lot of weird stuff comes up, and can add a funky quality to the work. Then, when I need the velocity to pick up, I outline to the end. Outlining makes your prose tighter and faster.

Sara: I wrote a synopsis, started on an outline, kept changing it so much that I finally threw it away. I do have a large whiteboard that I keep everything on: each character, how old they are, etc.

CB: It depends on what you’re doing. Different works require different approaches. I outline for a plot-driven novel, but if a character goes off in a new direction, I’ll follow the character.

Anne: My whole writing background has been nonfiction. You don’t really outline, but you know what you have to include in each section. I got a few scenes down, and realized that I needed some structure. I’ve tried to be more organized with my second book.


Q: How do you keep from getting lost if you’re not outlining?

Anne: Thank goodness for “find and replace!” I can go back and take out all those lovely descriptions and whatever wasn’t part of the story.

CB: If you’re writing a certain type of story, the story itself will keep you on track. Make your story compelling enough. If you’re failing to do that, you’re failing at the novel.

Sara: When I write, it’s like watching a movie in my head. I’ve been called a perfectionist. I revise as I go along.

John: I work much the same. I’ve been doing this long enough to have an instinct for what’s good. The most important chapters are the first and the last. Remember that you don’t have to write the entire story at once: you can go back and fix stuff.

Anne: One reason it took me three years to write Spider Woman’s Daughter was that I’m also a perfectionist. I finally realized I was just treading water, and I’d have to move forward and revise later.

CB: That’s where an outline can help you; they give you a practical way to move on.

Thanks for the great advice, guys!

The Serious Art of Writing Humor

Kris Neri shared some of her secrets with us at the Tony Hillerman Conference. Here are a few tricks of the trade.


Teaching humor is hard, Kris says. To teach, you must analyze and explain, and the more you analyze humor, the less humorous it becomes!

Humor is semi-verbal, semi-visual, and semi-visceral. It is often a leveling device, sometimes a more acceptable way of expressing anger or coping with other emotions.

Humor can show aspects of your characters that you can’t show otherwise. It provides an emotional break for your readers. It softens tough ideas (the “candy-coated pill” approach). It also provides a great writing voice.

Here are some tools of humor:

  • Expectation and reversal – taking an unexpected reversal to an expected outcome
  • Incongruity – pairing concepts in an unconventional or illogical way
  • Hyperbole – stretching the truth to a level that becomes comic
  • Understatement – downplaying, or a droll presentation (the opposite of hyperbole)
  • Absurdity – exaggeration pushed to a ridiculous level, often for a satirical effect
  • Contrast and proximity – pairing contrasting elements that become absurd when coupled together
  • Miscommunication and misunderstanding – cross-purpose communications that cause comic confusion

Concept of creativity. Tin can.

Some additional guidelines:

  • Simple is almost always better than complex; short is better than long
  • Determine the purpose of your scene and always factor your humor to non-humor ratio into that purpose
  • Humor must come from the character for – for the character to point out the absurdity of a situation, he has to see things a little differently from a non-humorous character
  • Abandon logic – humor thrives in chaos, not order
  • Don’t over-analyze
  • Be willing to surprise yourself – to write someone ho sees the humor in a situation, you’ll have to open those pockets within yourself
  • Abandon your dignity – you can’t be funny if you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself – you also can’t write serious prose if you’re afraid to take emotional risks!
  • Let your voice and attitudes, as well as those of your characters, flow
  • Trust your own humor; don’t try too hard to be funny
  • Don’t sacrifice truth for a funny effect – good humor always contains a grain of truth
  • Don’t let your characters laugh at their own jokes – that’s the prose equivalent of a sitcom laugh track
  • Handling taboos: the more absurd your material and the farther its set from reality, the more sacred cows you can make fun of

Tony Hillerman Writing Conference

I’m back down from the rarified air of this lovely little conference!


This is my second Hillerman Conference and I’m definitely going back again (and again)!


If you’ve never attended this conference, save up your loose change and get on board! It’s the friendliest writing conference I’ve ever attended – where else can you walk up to Craig Johnson or John Sandford, shake their hand and have them compliment you on your Stetson or thank YOU for listening to their lecture?

Some of the highlights of this year’s conference:

  • “The Art of the Rewrite” by Susan Cummins Miller
  • “What Writers Can Learn from the Movies” by Sandi Ault
  • “Writing a Series” by Steve Havill
  • “Tricks from the Screen Trade” by Melinda Snodgrass
  • “Strategies for Successful Collaboration” by Susan Boggio and Mare Pearl
  • “The Serious Subject of Writing Humor” by Kris Neri
  • “Contracts and Copyrights for Writers” by Sherri Burr
  • “The Writer’s Business Plan” by Susan Guyette
  • “Basic Advice from an Editor” by Peter Joseph

We also had great panel discussions:

  • “To Outline or Not To Outline” with Anne Hillerman, Sara Hoklotubbe and John Sandford
  • “The Art of Blogging” with Dawn Wink, Joe Badal and Susan Tweit
  • And a couple of great Q&A sessions with CB McKenzie/Peter Joseph and John Sandford/David Morrell

WP_ABQ_Prickly_PearAnne Hillerman and Jean Schaumberg put on the best conference you can imagine – join us next year!



What Writers Can Learn from Cinema

Sandi Ault is a great teacher! This session shared some of the tricks and tips of the screenwriting trade which can translate to novel writing.


There are four design elements you need to start your story with:

  1. WHO: an intriguing protagonist/premise/cause/theme
  2. WHAT: an opposing premise, antagonist or battle that creates conflict
  3. WHY: a goal; something the protagonist wants, something your idea or premise seeks to achieve or highlight, an objective to be achieved by the work or the characters within it
  4. WHAT IF: the stakes – what’s at stake if #3 isn’t achieved?

Next, build up some “beats” around these four pillars:

  • Premise or Dramatic Theme Stated – dramatically defines the theme of your work
  • Flesh-out or Set-up –  introduces additional characters, ideas, premises, key facts, etc.
  • Catalyst or Trigger – the event or idea that changes everything
  • Upward Momentum – advances the theme/plot/premise and introduce additional obstacles that must be overcome
  • The Post-Catalyst State – when the event or idea changes everything, what are things like now?
  • Raise the Stakes – the idea/premise/concept/dramatic theme heats up even more and the arc of th work advances sharply upward
  • The Wolf at the Door – design the platform for the worst0case scenario and people it with your antagonist or oppositional ideas
  • Christ on the Cross – the moment when it’s all over, or seems to be – your idea/premise/protagonist seems to be totally defeated
  • Redemption – the solution!
  • Finale – change has (or will) occur, obstacles have been overcome, and everything is tied up

You can also have a false redemption, where things seem to be resolved, but actually get worse – or a cycle of false redemption/raise the stakes leading up to the wolf at the door scene.

The Art of the Rewrite

Susan Cummins Miller gave a great talk at the Tony Hillerman Conference. Here are the highlights:


A Baker’s Dozen: Common Writing Mistakes

  1. Starting at the wrong point – usually it’s too early. Start just before the really interesting part, or the inciting incident
  2. Lack of dramatization – beginning writers tend to “tell” instead of “show.” Get rid of “telling” adverbs and adjectives and “show” the action and reaction, and give the dialogue.
  3. Poor plotting – beginning writers often mistake a great premise (the 2-3 line pitch) for a great plot (what actually happens between Chapter 1 and The End. You should know what your characters want, and make them work for it, with a primary objective plus some smaller sub-goals. Each scene must have conflict, a climax, and resolution, and each incident must have repercussions and reactions.
  4. A contrived ending – let your characters interact and lead you to a logical ending. That needs to grown naturally from the building blocks of your scenes.
  5. Point of view errors – remember that, whichever point of view you choose, it must emotionally pull the reader into the story. Avoid the authorial voice (“telling”). Also, be sure that the reader knows whose head they’re in. Don’t switch point of view within a scene because that’s too confusing.
  6. Ineffective dialogue – dialogue should support and develop the plot, or give a little bit of backstory. Check for stilted or uninspired dialogue, or for cliches. Enliven your dialogue with revealing details.
  7. Weak characterization – no cardboard characters allowed. Your characters must be three-dimensional and emotional beings.You have your entire novel to reveal backstory, so avoid the temptation to tell everything about the character all at once. Give small, specific details a little at a time instead. Know what makes your character travel (physically or emotionally) toward their goals and remember to place them in stressful situations.
  8. A pointless story – this is when your reader finishes the book without having an “aha!” moment. It usually means you’ve either failed to define your objective, or neglected to show the development of your protagonist. The solution is to make sure that every action has a reaction and leads inevitably toward the climax and resolution.
  9. Flat writing – this is caused by “playing it safe” and not digging too deeply into your own emotions, or by fearing the logical reactions in your story. Cut narrative or dialogue that has no relevance to the plot, and be sure that you’re showing instead of telling.
  10. Lack of vivid, realistic settings – instead of giving paragraph after paragraph about your setting, choose one or two small but vivid details that will stick with your readers.
  11. Too much backstory and exposition (the dreaded “info dump”) – choose what’s important and present it in “dribbles and drabbles” in a vivid way. Keep in mind that backstory, if used correctly, can actually increase tension by slowing down the pace and delaying the crisis.
  12. Failing to listen (to what people say about your work) – Susan recommends that you have a first reader who knows what they’re doing, or that you join a good critique group that will actually provide useful criticism.
  13. Submitting your work too early – don’t send out your first draft. Be sure you’ve edited and polished until you’re sending out the very best you can produce.



More from the Hillerman Conference to come!