Writer's Notes

April Fool: Oh, the Mistakes I’ve Made by Judy Alter


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By Judy Alter

Looking back, it seems I’ve played the fool many times in my life. In matters of the heart for sure; as a parent, though I lucked out there and my four children turned out to be absolutely wonderful adults. But then there’s the matter of my career as an author. Oh, the foolish mistakes I’ve made.

I’d venture that ninety percent of authors, even successful ones, start out timid, insecure, and—here’s the biggie—apologetic. A post from an unpublished writer asking for advice recently said she’d submitted to an agent, hadn’t heard anything in almost year, hated to be a nuisance but what should she do. Whoa! Hated to be a nuisance? I wanted to shout but I managed to keep a level tone and my fingers off the cap key as I advised, “It’s your career. Take charge of it! You’re not badgering the agent; you’re asking for him or her to do his job. Don’t apologize!”

That’s a lesson I learned in hard knocks well after I’d begun writing. My first agent, way back in the eighties, specialized in young-adult fiction set in the American West, and that’s what I was writing. We met at a conference, and he approached me, so I was spared the long, painful search for an agent that so many authors go through. I hadn’t yet met the world of reality

When I did, it was a shock. By early in this century, the western market as I’d known it had fallen off, and I wanted to turn to mysteries. Only then did I begin to search for an agent—and realize what a difficult, long process it was. When an agent who knew my western work offered to represent my first mystery and gave me a year-long contract, I was grateful. Grateful for locking into a year-long contract? I should have been indignant, angry, at least reluctant. His initial enthusiasm turned to indifference and finally resentment. Promised new assignments never materialized, reports of submissions of my work and reactions were rare, and to this day I suspect he was doing precious little. I was on hold for a year, at the end of which he had, so he said, submitted my manuscript to all then-six major publishers, effectively killing it at those houses for another agent.

My next submission was to a highly respected smaller house that took non-agented submissions. They liked it, but they just weren’t sure. Could I give them more time? Each time I agreed, until they finally said they were sure—I was an almost-ran. They didn’t want my manuscript, but they did want me to feel free to submit another manuscript any time. Another year wasted.

One more time: I called an editor at a major mystery publishing house, a man I’d known as a colleague during my years with Western Writers of America. He was interested but liked my ideas for the sequel better and wanted me to make that the first book in the series. I declined, pleasantly I hope. I had the series story in my mind, and it began where I’d begun it. Many authors would say I’d been the fool again, turning down a tentative offer from a major house. But it was the first time I felt I’d taken charge of my career, and it worked out.  I published five novels in the Kelly O’Connell Mystery series and two in the Blue Plate Café Mystery series with a small indie publisher before the company went out of business. By then, I felt I had enough readers to become an indie author, and I’ve been driving the train myself ever since. I just wish I’d started years earlier.

In each of those three years where I allowed others to put my career on hold, I was essentially a victim. And that was my foolish mistake. Today, I’d take charge, give deadlines, be pro-active and less submissive.

In retrospect, I think it’s a lack of self-confidence that leads us to play the fool as authors, lovers, or parents. We carry out apologetic tone into all areas of our life, whereas we need to arm ourselves with a strong sense of our own worth.


Alter cover 3x4.5hires (002)Murder at the Bus Depot is the fourth Blue Plate Café Mystery by Judy Alter. In it she explores the tension between a developer who sees great possibilities in a small town and residents who want to preserve the history and atmosphere of their town. The conflict is complicated by a resurgence of interest in a thirty-year-old unsolved murder.

Buy it here: Amazon Murder at the Bus Depot


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Judy Alter is the award-winning author of three mysteries series: Kelly O’Connell Mysteries: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, Desperate for Death, and The Color of Fear; three in the Blue Plate Café Series: Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House, and Murder at Peacock Mansion; and two Oak Grove Mysteries: The Perfect Coed and Pigface and the Perfect Dog.

 She is also the author of historical fiction based on lives of women in the nineteenth-century American West, including Libbie, Jessie, Cherokee Rose, Sundance, Butch, and Me, and The Gilded Cage, and she has also published several young-adult novels, now available on Amazon.


Writer's Notes

When is it THE END?: Terry Shames

T Shames Unsettling Crime_coverNot So Fast, Honey by Terry Shames

Done! Finished! The End!

I wrote several novels before I got published. When I sent them off, publishers said, “Close, but no cigar.” I always thought that if I wrote just one more book, the new book would leap the hurdle. I thought secretly, as I know many pre-published authors do, that it was “them,” not me. It took an important workshop to force me to reconsider. In the workshop, author Sophie Littlefield cautioned that if we were writing one book after another and not getting published, we ought to consider that it was not “them” (publishers) at all—it was the book. She said she knew from personal experience because she had written many books before she finally hit her groove. She urged aspiring authors to reach deep inside to write the best book we could write.

Immediately after the workshop, I came up with the idea of the Samuel Craddock series. It seemed as if it had always been there, waiting for me. I gave the first book to my writer’s group to read, and they loved it. They said I had finally found my voice. The only problem was that the end came too fast. It wasn’t the first time this criticism had been rendered in the books I wrote, but it was the first time I took it seriously.

This time I really pondered what I had to do to satisfy readers. What did not work in the end? I realized it wasn’t what I had written that was at fault, but what was left unwritten. In general, the book had depth, so what was missing? If I had gone back to my old habit of simply dismissing the critique as irrelevant, I would most likely have missed what now seems to me to have been the obvious “real” ending.

Last year, when I wrote the sixth book in the series, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, I hoped I had finally mastered getting to the end. I was satisfied when I sent it off to my agent. Not so fast, honey! My agent said it wasn’t really finished. After grumbling to myself that it couldn’t possibly be true, I knuckled under yet again. I asked myself these questions:

1)    Have I resolved every aspect of the crime? In one of the books, I had hinted at the resolution, but had not put it in an actual scene. I realized that it’s important that the reader have the catharsis of being present for the resolution. In “Unsettling,” the answer was no, I had not resolved every aspect, but I had accounted for why it couldn’t be so—it was in my original intention.

2)    Had I met my original intention? Sometimes in the writing, a book strays from the original goal. This is okay, but the end needs to address what actually happens in the book.

3)    Have all the characters been accounted for? In the first book in the series, I added the last chapter after my critique group said it felt unfinished. I didn’t know enough to actually ask myself these questions, but by luck I came up with a “finishing” chapter that accounted for a character who had slipped away. And this turned out to be the answer to how to finish An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock. One of the characters I loved had simply dropped off the page. It took staring into space and really considering how to bring her back in before the answer came to me clearly. I actually cried when I got to the real end.

Had I depended only on myself to get these books right, the ending to all of them in the series would have been stunted. Why can I not see this for myself? I think it’s because I’m so glad to get to the end, that I stop writing the best book I can write, and just write a “good enough” book—the kind that got rejected again and again before I got published. That’s where a good critique group or a good agent who reads critically comes in. I keep hoping that one day I will be able to ask those three important questions on my own, but until then I depend not on the kindness of strangers, but of people I trust to help me get it right, all the way to the end.


Terry Shames writes the award-winning Samuel Craddock series, published by Seventh Street Books. It’s her understanding that fans of the novels fall into two categories: women want to marry Samuel Craddock, and men want to be him! Find more about Terry on her website, You can also find her on her author Facebook page,


Cop loc auth close upMalice cover

Read Thonie Hevron’s books:

By Force or Fear, Intent to Hold, and Malice Aforethought are available through Amazon.


Writer's Notes

10 Tips for Finding an Agent

This week a friend honored me with a request for advice. I spent some time researching the answers and decided there were others who could benefit from this information. The links to blogs and websites are places I go for my advice. If you’re a writer, you may learn something. If not, skim this post and appreciate all the hard work that goes into that paperback you’re reading.


Dear Andy,

Thanks for asking for my advice. I love to tell people what to do (after all, I got paid for it for 35 years). Since your manuscript is completed, including editing, I’d go with an agent search first.

  • Several websites will offer you contact info. QueryTracker, AgentQuery and WriterDigest are all helpful. I’d check out the free ones, first.
  • Narrow the search field down by genre. Find someone interested in your genre-mystery/police procedural so you don’t waste time with an agent who only accepts romance.
  • I also cut it by only querying agents who took e- submissions versus hard copy. I want someone savvy enough to be looking to tomorrow.
  • Once you have a half dozen interesting agents, read their submission policy.
  • Follow directions to the letter as skipping a specified step can put your query in the trash. Agents get hundreds of queries every day, so a small thing like not following directions can make email triage very easy.
  • Your query text should be fairly uniform for all agents except for the opening paragraph. Assuming your friend John Grisham hasn’t referred you to his agent, you should try to establish a link with the agent. Try something like, “I see in your bio that you attended Caltech. I got my advanced degree in physics from Caltech in 1999.” or “I see in your submission policy that you are interested in steampunk YA. My new SP YA novel has been hailed by my writing professor as ‘a great example of steampunk’.”
  • Make sure you know the agent’s name and spell it correctly. Check to be sure he/she is still at the agency you are querying. Agents seem to move around a lot.
  • There are varying formats for query letters but generally they should be about 3-5 paragraphs. The above link should be helpful.
  • After you send out your query letter, keep track of who, what agency, date query sent, result (manually, on software such as QT or on an Excel spreadsheet, your choice). That way you don’t duplicate efforts in three months when your head is in a tailspin trying to remember who you queried. You also can use this for follow up emails as needed.
  • Keep writing, editing, etc. while querying. I used to send out a half-dozen a week. I rarely heard back from any but all it takes is one!
Writers Digest
Writers Digest

Writer’s Digest is also a wonderful resource for all thing pertaining to the writing life. The online version is as good as or better than the print copy. The Writer is also wonderful and has an online version. A good rule for finding a reputable agent is to look for AAR-Association of Author Representatives. They have a stringently protected code of ethics that begins with never pay for agent services. Check for membership at the above link.

Hope this helps. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not so tough. There are plenty of blogs that deal with the mechanics of finding an agent. Janet Grant’s agency Books and Such Literary Management may look like homespun calico but these folks are pros. A list of their books will tell you what kind of activity they generate. Each of their agents post on the company blog during the week, complete with Q&A. I’ve learned much from this one! Rachelle Gardner is one of my favorites. Nathan Bransford’s post from 2008 is entertaining and still pertinent. Fuse Literary is another great reference.

The trick is this—do your homework and follow directions.

Good luck! Nah, I don’t believe in luck. Get to work.

Writer's Notes

Those Annoying Word Counts-Why Bother?

By Thonie Hevron

Counting words is downright annoying. Yet demands for word count are everywhere—agent/publisher guidelines, contests, academic papers, magazine and news articles all are at the whim of the digit. So imagine my delight when Microsoft Word tucked an unobtrusive little tally on the lower left hand corner of each word document.


Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal

Keeping track of the number of words has morphed into a work tool that I use to measure my productivity. I know, I know—artists should be at the mercy of the muse not the calculator. I’ve heard this by many successful writers through the years but it’s never really worked for me. Gore Vidal said, “Amateurs hope, professionals work.” Thankfully, I read that quote early in my serious writing career. What matters is getting words on a page. Period.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time looking out the window, day dreaming. Teachers often told me I could amount to something if I quit day dreaming and applied myself. In retrospect, while it wasn’t totally wasted time (where do you think those stories came from??), I didn’t have anything to show for it. No short story, novel, screenplay, nothing. I squandered a lot of time.
At some point in my life, I finally figured if I didn’t write something, all my stories would die. When I found Gore Vidal’s quote, something clicked. I had to stop thinking of writing as fun, a hobby, something to while away all my spare time (spare time doesn’t exist, if you want my opinion). Writing became work. Work I love, but a job nonetheless.
Working included sending out query letters to find an agent and/or publisher. Each agent has very specific criteria for reading potential client’s work: submit a 100 word synopsis, the first 10,000 words of your manuscript, and a one page cover letter specifying why you are the best person to write this story. I caught on quickly—keep track of word count. It matters. These days I have several bios: 50 word, 100 word and 500 word. I keep these and similarly constructed synopsis and outlines of all my marketed books. I’ve learned to have these on hand when someone taps me for an interview or story. They came in very handy last month when my computer crashed. I was between pcs and I got an interview request. But it came with an expiration date, one that was prior to the new pc delivery. Out came the thumb drive and off went the info—all done on my tablet.
writer at keyboardWord counts are helpful to keep up my motivation as well. When I sit at the keyboard with a general idea what I want to accomplish, I mull over the plot points, point of view, and scene goals and start in. I fall prey to the same anxiety all writers suffer from—what if I can’t come up with anything to say?
Here’s where word count comes in. If I put 500 words on a page, edit them, massage phrases, find synonyms and delete whole paragraphs, I’ve done my job. I’ve made those 500 (or 300 or 700 …) words count but it wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t put them on paper in the first place.
In my writing studio, I usually work in the early morning. I can get anywhere from 200 to 1000 words down in a couple of quiet hours. I’m goal-oriented enough to work for a number, hopefully a minimum of 4 digits. For me a good day is any day I can tally an increased number of words from the last total.

The only way I know is to look at my word count. Just another tool to get the job done.

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