John Ramsey Miller
Recently someone asked me what the highlight of my career (to date) was. I said it was when I sold my first novel. I’ve thought about that and the truth is there have been scores of “best” moments. Seeing my first book in a store. Writing with tears in my eyes. Seeing three of my books in one rack in an airport. And there was being nominated for peer awards on a couple of occasions. Didn’t win, didn’t much matter, still doesn’t. One of the best was having my wife toss me a line that “made” the scene and the book a lot better. The problem was why one character would allow himself to trust another after he felt betrayed by her. It was something that had perplexed the editor and my agent and myself. Finally I told my wife what the problem was and she gave me the line that made it all make sense. None of us could figure out what that needed to be, but Susan knew. Had I asked her weeks earlier, it would have never been a sleep loser. How had I assumed my wife wouldn’t know the power of love and trust, and how to put into a short sentence that was in perfect pitch for both of the characters.
One of my favorites happened when my first book was making some noise. I was invited to Denver to speak about my process, etc… to between 1000 and 2000 people at a National Kidney Foundation fundraiser, which was one of those formalish deals. I was to speak just ahead of Clive Cussler. At the opening hob-nob I had three scotches. Clive Cussler reminded me that we were at 5,000 feet. Not to worry, I hadn’t made any notes on what I was going to say so I didn’t have to fret flubbing my lines. I have never planned out what I intend to say before I stand at the podium. I talked about my childhood, early influences, and (as I recall it) I had the crowd eating out of my hand. My opening line was about being a Native Son of Mississippi and about the tradition of porch sitting and storytelling. You told a story on my porch and there had better have been interesting descriptions, setting, character development, a build up, and a punch line to entertain or amaze. I said that my uncle was a Supreme Court justice and my aunt a hopeless hypochondriac who made up stories to keep me from going outside where I could be killed or carried away. I said, “Guess which one I spent my time with.” Somehow, everything I said brought the house down. I was well oiled and the stories just appeared to me. The best part of the story (I mean how hard is it to have too many drinks and say the right things to people who are also having drinks?) was when Mr. Cussler started his talk with the words, “I’ll never follow John Ramsey Miller again.” To have him say that made me feel very important indeed, and that is a great feeling.
My favorite part of my career has always been the time I have shared with other authors and their families followed by the time I’ve spent writing.
1.) What’s a fair ebook royalty rate? Is 50% a more acceptable industry standard or should it be subject to negotiation deal to deal?
2.) Can a book deal be done where an author retains ebook rights to be leveraged by an agent? Would 15% agent fee be warranted then?
3.) When can an author get rights back in a digital world—from a publisher or an agent?
4.) Should any publisher get only a limited time period to said rights? If so, what royalty value would that have and is the term of the arrangement variable and negotiable?
“The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term ‘charge’ in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials.”
How did you get started writing mysteries or thrillers? Assuming you were an avid reader of the genre, did you outline the plots of your favorite stories? Study structure and pacing? Attend writing workshops by seasoned authors? Or did you use a how-to book?
Keeper of the Rings, my fourth sci fi romance now available in digital format, is the story wherein I learned how to plot a murder mystery. It has all the elements for a cozy: a limited number of suspects, most of whom know each other and who have a motive for the crime, a confined setting, and an amateur sleuth.
Here’s the story blurb:
Taurin is shrouded in black when Leena first meets him, his face shaded like the night. At first she believes him to be a simple farmer, but the man exhibits skills worthy of a warrior. With his commanding presence, he’s an obvious choice to be the lovely archaeologist’s protector on her quest for a stolen sacred artifact. Curious about his mysterious background, and increasingly tempted by his tantalizing touch, Leena prays their perilous journey will be a success. She must find the missing relic, or dangerous secrets will be revealed that may forever change her world.
Who stole the sacred horn that must be blown to reset the annual cycles of Lothar, the god worshipped by the people of Xan? Only the members of the ruling priesthood, the Synod, had access to the holy artifact. Was it Zeroun, the ambitious Minister of Religion? Perhaps Karayan, a friend of Leena’s family and the Minister of Justice, is involved. Or maybe Sirvat is guilty. As Minister of Finance, she has something to hide. So does everyone on this twelve person council, including the Arch Nome himself.
While Leena’s brother is assigned the task of investigating the Synod members, her mission is to retrieve the artifact. Here the story becomes Indiana Jones meets Star Wars. Leena and Taurin survive one peril after another on a desperate quest that takes them around the globe and deep underground beneath the ruins of a holy temple. Do they find the horn before disaster ensues? Is the thief unmasked? Was he responsible for the accident that killed Leena’s mother?
Here’s an excerpt where Leena and Taurin discuss the suspects with her brother, Bendyk, and his assistant, Swill.
Swill tugged at the long sleeves of her burgundy blouse, tucked into a black skirt that hugged her hips. “Magar makes regular unexplained entries in his receipts, which Sirvat deposits into the Treasury. Magar refuses to elaborate on the source. Sirvat’s financial records are impeccable, but the odd thing about her is these trips she takes every so often, returning with a new piece of jewelry each time. The items are created with rare gemstones. Usually, she’s not one to adorn herself.”
“I’ll bet I know where she gets them.” Taurin related what he and Leena had learned about Grotus and Sirvat’s relationship.
“I don’t believe it.” Bendyk shook his head. “She seems so strait-laced.”
Leena gave a small smile. “Perhaps she hides a passionate nature. She certainly has a peculiar bent to fall for a man like Grotus.” Her face grimaced in disgust at the memory of the smuggler. “You know, some of those items I saw in Grotus’s mansion are similar to pieces in Karayan’s house.” She pursed her lips in thought. “Karayan has quite an extensive art collection.”
“Are you implying that he buys his art works from Grotus?” Bendyk asked with a horrified expression.
“Not really. They just share the same kind of artistic taste, although Karayan is a much better dresser.”
Beside her, Taurin snorted. “We’re not here to discuss anyone’s preference in art or clothes. Did you investigate Zeroun? As Minister of Religion, his department is responsible for administering the Black Lands. Someone there has granted the Chocola Company illegal rights.”
“We’ll check into it,” Swill assured him. “We’ve cleared most of the other Synod members but weren’t sure about Sirvat’s trips and Magar’s secretive dealings in his trade commissions. I still feel he’s withholding information from us.”
“You’re wasting your time with Magar,” Taurin snapped. “I suggest you check out Zeroun. The Minister of Religion would also be responsible for—” He held his tongue; he’d nearly said for excising any records of the Temple of Light. “—for the Black Lands,” he finished.
They could easily be discussing suspects in a murder. This was the last romance I wrote before switching to mysteries, but it taught me everything I need to know about plotting a whodunit. How did you learn the craft?
Note: TKZ is delighted today to welcome guest blogger Camille Minichino, author of The Periodic Table Mysteries.
I grew up on the East Coast, about as far from cowboys as you could get. In my neighborhood the Columbus Day parade band played the march from Aida or the drinking song from La Traviata. So what if many of them were goons—they were goons with classical taste.
So how come the satellite radio system in my car is set to Willie’s Roadhouse, where Willie Nelson and his friends tell their sad, tragic stories with steel guitars and nasal tones?
I love country music.
How did that happen? I don’t drink. I’m too lame to get into a pick-up. I hate the outdoors, with all that dirt and creepy bugs. I barely tolerate living in San Francisco, too far west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My first rodeo was also my last.
But I sing passionately along with Wynn Stewart: I bought the shoes that just walked out on me.
I’m often asked to explain it. My brother-in-law, a real life dude rancher in his youth, asks me often, as if he considers me unworthy to blend my voice with Patsy Cline’s.
I‘ve got your picture; she’s got you, I twang out.
There are limitless possibilities for backstory in that line, and in this early Willie hit: Hello, walls. How’d things go for you today?
It’s like flash fiction. And that’s it in a nutshell. Or cowboy hat. Country music lyrics have everything a writer could ask for. It’s grand opera without the libretto.
You want PLOT? Country music gives you revenge, big time. What better inspiration for a crime fiction writer?
Take Waylon Jennings: Well, I hope that the train, From Caribou Maine, runs over your new love affair. And Miranda Lambert: His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger; He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.
You want CHARACTERS? Country music has the saddest of the sad, the meanest of the mean—ornery sheriffs, jailbirds, a busted-flat girl named Bobby McGee, and a boy named Sue.
Country characters can be the cruel: How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away? Who doesn’t need Travis Tritt at least once a day: Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.
The Oak Ridge Boys give us an expansive image: Gonna take the Mississippi, the Monongahela, and the Ohio; gonna take a lot of river to wash these blues away.
You want more METAPHORS? Here’s a gosh durn winner, my favorite, from Johnny Cash’s Flushed from the Bathroom of your Heart:
On the river of your plans I’m up the creek;
Up the elevator of your future I’ve been shafted;
On the calendar of your events I’m last week.
Ouch! My poor achey breaky heart!
Unlike the popular music when I was growing up, country music isn’t slave to cliché rhymes, like moon-June-spoon, or true-blue-you.
Instead, country gives us Conway Twitty’s tongue-twister, When we said I do, we really did, but now you don’t.
Okay, it’s not all lyrical.
Do you get inspired by music? Is your taste classier than mine?
Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer, the author of The Periodic Table Mysteries. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of ‘The Square Root of Murder,” debuting July 2011 is on her website: http://www.minichino.com
I recently jumped into something called “Google+.” I still haven’t figured Twitter out and don’t really know if I want to; as far as Twitter goes, I feel like that proverbial farmer who is watching the south end of his prized possession galloping down the road just as he is getting around to closing the barn door. I accordingly figure that if I jump onto every other platform or whatever its called that becomes the “next big thing” in social networking, I’ll be ahead of the game.
As far as Google+ is concerned, however, I don’t think I’ve quite jumped on entirely; I’m hanging on for dear life to the boxcar door, but the toes of my shoes are dragging along on the tracks, squeezing out sparks.
I don’t quite know what Google+ is, or what it does, or how the heck to use it. I only know that it’s pretty easy to set up once you have a Google account and involves adding people to your circles of friends, colleagues, and associates. It looks to be some sort of cross between Facebook and LinkedIn. I have been added to some peoples’ circles and have added some people to my circles and I already feel inadequate because I have fewer people in my circle than other people I know, like anyone under the age of twenty. I did find a post in the excellent “My Name Is Not Bob” blog by Robert Lee Brewer which is titled “11 Google+ Tips for Writers”
http://robertleebrewer.blogspot.com/2011/07/11-google-tips-for-writers.html?et_mid=511511&rid=3005603 and I cannot understand even half of them. And that’s not the fault of Bo…er, I mean, Robert, either. No, my lack of understanding is due to what I call a PICNIC problem. Problem In Chair, Not In Computer.
The question is: from a professional stanpoint, should I bother? I made a new year’s resolution in 2010 to post to my face book page daily and to read the comments of all my friends, but I quit doing so by March of that year. Part of it was time; at one point I was spending hours reading, commenting and the like, and it became a time bandit. I didn’t really need to know every intimate aspect of the lives of everyone I know and/or care about. And trust me, you DON’T want to know mine. I thought that was what e-mail or the phone was for. But is it worth it for a writer to jump on this new bandwagon? Is anyone paying attention, honestly? Or are there already too many social networks contributing to the chatter? I think it is too early to tell. Accordingly I am circling my friends, but circling the wagons as well. What do you think?
By John Gilstrap
If you’ve been visiting my little corner of The Killzone for any time at all, you probably know that my rules for writing are limited to only one: There are no rules. There are really good suggestions, but at the end of the day, if you can make something work on the page, it doesn’t matter if there’s a widely accepted “rule” against it. This game is all about originality.
But a little clarification is in order. When I say no rules, I really mean no universal rules. I have rules for my own writing because they work for me. I would never presume to suggest that the same rules would work for any other writer.
Every now and then, though—usually in the context of a writers’ conference involving manuscript evaluations—other writers’ rules collide with mine, and then things can get awkward.
Over the years, then, I have developed a list of Gilstrap’s Ten Rules for Manuscript Evaluation:
1. Number your pages and put your name or project title on every page. The reality is that I will lose your paper clip and I will drop your papers on the floor at least once. I don’t do this on purpose; it just always happens. Sometimes the pages get separated in my briefcase. However it happens, jumbled papers are jumbled papers. It helps to know which ones belong to whom, and in what order.
2. Have confidence in Times New Roman 12-point type. Reducing the font size to sneak in more story does not slip past unnoticed. I recently participated in a conference where someone actually gave me 15 pages of double-spaced 8-point type. Ignoring the fact that it pissed me off, I literally could not read the text. While I like to think of myself as young, my eyes are marching toward old age.
3. For me to believe that your story has any hope of success, something must happen in the first two hundred words. That’s the length of my interest fuse. Billowing clouds, pouring rain and beautiful flowers are not action. Characters interacting with each other or with their environment is action.
4. If you insist on walking into the whirling propeller that is a prologue, check first to make sure that your prologue is in fact not your first chapter in disguise. Next check to verify that your prologue is truly for the benefit of the reader, and not a crutch for the writer who needs to dump a bunch of backstory so that the first chapter will make sense.
5. Ten pages are plenty. Actually, five pages are plenty, but I understand that conference organizers can tout the larger number more easily. In my experience, unless dealing with a journeyman writer, the sins committed in the first few pages are replicated throughout. It’s rare that I discover a new issue on page thirteen or fifteen that hasn’t been noted several times previously.
6. Understand that I write thrillers. That’s really the only genre I understand—and at that, my understanding is tenuous. If you submit a romance or historical fiction manuscript to me, understand that it will be evaluated through the lens of a thriller writer. I’m not being obstinate here; I’m just not that intellectually nimble.
7. I write manuscripts, I don’t buy them. I am a terrible resource for determining what is and is not marketable. If I knew what the public was going to be clamoring for in two years, I would write those stories myself and sit atop the bestseller lists year after year.
8. Since you asked my opinion, I owe you honesty—as filtered through the prejudices and preferences of a self-taught writer of commercial fiction. I don’t demand that you agree with my opinion, but please don’t try to talk me out of it. Right or wrong, mine is the only opinion I have, and I can’t do much about it.
9. Understand that I do the evaluation exercise to be helpful. I can tell you what works and doesn’t work for me, and I can explain why. At the end of the day, though, your story is yours, and you are the only one who can fix it.
10. Unless you submit your best effort for evaluation—fully vetted, fact-checked and spell-checked—you’re wasting everybody’s time.