Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where Have all the Recluses Gone?

Are you a little shutter shy?
How reclusive are you?
Much like Paula Cole asked back in 1997 when it came to the cowboys, I too have a similar question. We live in a day and age where just about any pertinent (and some that isn't) piece of information one wants to know about a film star, a musician, a reality junkie, or heck, even an author, is out there for all to see. But there was a time when no one really cared about that black and white glossy on the back flap of a book or the quick bio indicating how many dogs the author lived with and what he/she enjoyed about living in (insert a state that doesn't come easily to mind). No. There was a time when the unknown author was, well, unknown.

Today, any aspiring author is told that in order for her work to sell, she must have a built-in audience already in place for that big day when her book hits the shelf. Anymore, there seems to be an endless list of what aspiring authors should be doing and not really focusing on what's most important to a writing career -- the writing. I've heard more than one agent or editor stress that those time-consuming things we do on the side (i.e. blogging, tweeting, etc.) are almost more important than what's written on the page. How have we gotten so off-track in the publishing world, to the point that the writing has been placed on the back burner?

I'd like to take a look at a few of the authors many of us have come to know and love and, yet, they shunned the public eye. They pretty much thumbed their noses at it and told everyone to leave them alone. But we love them to this day, and not because of their "platform" or how many "followers" they have tagging along behind them. No, we love them for . . . you guessed it, their writing.

J.D. Salinger -- 1950
J.D. Salinger, who is known for his one and only full-length novel, Catcher in the Rye, was probably one of the most reclusive writers in American literature. Catcher in the Rye took Salinger ten years to write and when it was published it became an instant hit. The book has never gone out of print, but according to, "as the novel's popularity grew its author became more and more reclusive, refusing all interview requests and virtually never being seen in public." Even his neighbors in Cornish, New Hampshire fiercely protected his privacy. Up until the time he passed away on January 27, 2010, he reportedly spent his time writing, but for himself and not for the public. His last work to ever appear in print was a novella entitled "Hapworth 16, 1924," which was published in The New Yorker in 1965. Talk about longevity and basically off of one novel! I'm assuming he never opened a Facebook account, right?

Marcel Proust -- 1900
Marcel Proust was a French novelist who became a permanent fixture in Paris salon society up until the turn of the century. With his brother's marriage, his parents' death and health issues, including crippling asthma, he lived a reclusive lifestyle during the last seventeen years of his life. According to, "Proust, who soundproofed his studio with cork walls and installed layers of heavy curtains to keep the light out, would stay up for days on end working on his 3,200-page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. When greeting guests, he was often unsure of whether it was day or night." Before his death in 1922, there was a three year period where Proust rarely (if ever) left his apartment.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy isn't quite as reclusive as the aforementioned authors, since he showed up on Oprah not too many years ago. But it had been a while. Fifteen years to be exact, since his last interview. Although McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, came out in 1965, it wasn't until the 1992 publication of All the Pretty Horses (Yeah, you remember that dud of a movie starring Matt Damon, right?) that he earned recognition for his writing (and most of his career he's spent without an agent). All the Pretty Horses would go on to win the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. The only newspaper interview McCarthy has ever done was for the New York Times and the only on-air interview he's ever done was for Oprah Winfrey in 2007, when he told Winfrey that he doesn't know any writers and much prefers the company of scientists (interestingly enough, he doesn't care for Marcel Proust's literature, either). His most recent bestsellers include No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006). He leads a quiet life in Tesuque, New Mexico.

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons
Thomas Pynchon has lived a similar reclusive lifestyle to that of Salinger, although with a little twist of humor along the way. His most celebrated appearances? The three that took place on The Simpsons, most notably with a bag over his head. Pynchon has a penchant for fooling the public and most wonder why he's chosen such a low-key lifestyle. He's been praised for his novel Gravity's Rainbow which was released in 1974 and won the National Book Award. He sent comedian Irwin Corey in his place to accept the award. It took four decades before New York magazine tracked him down in 1996. Although he's reportedly spent much of his career living in Mexico with brief stints in California, the magazine found him living a quiet life in New York. He shuns the public eye and has rarely been photographed or seen on camera (surprisingly enough, per his request).

Harper Lee -- 1960
Harper Lee's one and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came out in 1960. She was a long-time friend of Truman Capote and based most of her novel off her life growing up in Alabama. Her novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year, but that didn't mean Lee was doling out interviews. For years, Lee politely refused interviews and public appearances. It wasn't until 2006 that Lee broke her longtime silence. She finally agreed to do an interview for the New York Times but would only answer questions pertaining to the University of Alabama's annual awards banquet honoring essays written about To Kill a Mockingbird. To this day, at the age of 85, she politely refuses all interviews with a handwritten note.

After seeing how some notable authors have been able to retain their privacy to this day, my question is, why is the social network so important when it comes to selling fiction? I recently attended a writers' meeting where the guest speaker spoke about the imbalance between those who follow him on Facebook and Twitter and how many books he sells on average. Basically, what he said is that followers on those sites don't translate into sales, something he's worked long and hard to attain through social networking.

Perhaps you're a little like me and don't care for all the details when it comes to the author. Does a little ambiguity make us enjoy an author more, and does it lend a little mystery to the writing craft?

What do you think?

Do you believe the online community has helped or harmed your writing career? Do you waste time connecting to others, or do you use your time wisely and learn to balance your writing with your online social life? Do you believe a writing career today would be harmed by adopting such a reclusive lifestyle?

☞ Make sure to stop by The Random Book Review and see what Sister Stephanie has to say about this week's controversial novel! ☜

Sunday, August 21, 2011

To Err is Human, To Learn Divine

My 8 Biggest Mistakes in Writing

From the time we learn to form complete sentences, we notice and point out other people’s mistakes and flaws (for a sample, visit your nearest playground or listen to a pair of siblings arguing.) But it takes decades for us to acknowledge our own errors—if we ever do. It seems especially difficult to find mistakes in our creative endeavors, particularly in our writing. There is something about this art form that feels very personal. Many times we need someone else to tell us what's wrong with our manuscript. Other times—if we’re objective enough—we’re able to identify the problems ourselves. This is an important step for a writer; if we never acknowledge our mistakes, we are bound to repeat them. Equally important is to be able to learn from them, but this is not always easy. Sometimes we’re too immersed in our work to see clearly, or we’re too impatient to be published to take the time to rewrite—even if a little voice inside our heads keeps telling us the novel is not ready. This is why time and distance are key. If we come back to our novel weeks, months or years later, we’ll be able to read it like outsiders and identify what’s not working. But we won't be able to do this until we have grown in our craft. Thus, practice and reading are essential. Our favorite books, or even the ones we don’t like, can be great learning tools. As with any other skill, like playing the piano, cooking, or roller-skating, the more we do it, the better we’ll get at it.

Going back to the earliest drafts of my first novel, I can now see clearly the mistakes I made. Here are my eight worst mistakes and what I’ve learned from them:

1. Ms. Ghost or the Passive Protagonist

In my attempt to create a vulnerable and likable heroine, I made the mistake of making her too passive. She was agreeable and nice, but boring. (And she was always smiling!) Things just happened to her and she had no other option but to react. Somewhere in the creative process, I crafted secondary characters that “came to life” and became a lot more interesting than my protagonist. Ms. Ghost became a witness to the more active characters and I kept hearing how much my readers loved the other characters (buuh!)

Possible solutions: If another character becomes more engaging to you, consider making her the protagonist. If this is impossible, then find ways to make your main character more active and interesting. Instead of letting the circumstance and/or other characters dictate her actions, make her take the initiative. Give her a backstory (but don’t share the entire thing with the reader, please.) One of the problems I had with my heroine was that she was “born at 19.” I never gave her a past, therefore I didn’t know who she really was; only what was going to happen to her in the future.

2. Ms. Magnet or the Inexplicably-Attractive Character

Not only was my heroine passive, but men were falling for her like flies on a quarter sheet of chocolate cake. (Maybe because of her smile?) She was an irresistible magnet and at least three men in the novel were fighting for her affection. The leading man, for example, practically fell in love with her “at first sight.” Although it’s not unusual for people to be immediately attracted to each other, it’s not enough to build a convincing/touching tale. Neither is it realistic that with so many women in the world, everyone falls in love with the same one.

Possible solutions: Dissolve her fan club and focus on the relationships that are relevant to the plot. More importantly, give the hero and heroine things in common: likes, dislikes, backgrounds, ideals, goals, etc. You know, things that make couples in real life fall in love.

3. The "We are the World" Syndrome

If you ask me how many characters and subplots I had in my first draft, I couldn’t tell you. There were just too many to remember! My innocent goal was to tell the story of a town, not just a family, a la Peyton Place/Macondo. The problem with this is that it’s extremely difficult for a novice writer to keep track of all the developing storylines and character arcs, and be able to time them just right with the main plot. Not only that, but the manuscript becomes as thick as an encyclopedia, and you find yourself cutting down on scenes that contribute to the main plot or the characterization of important characters. (I should mention, too, that I was jumping from head to head at whim!)

Possible solutions: Press “delete."

4. The Anything-Goes Novel

In my conversations with other writers, we all agree that there is an innocence and bliss to that first draft that never comes back. When you first start, you feel unrestrained, powerful, enthusiastic with your creations and developments. A free spirit. You are overflowing with ideas and you must fit them all in your magnum opus. You are the “owner of your world.” But then you bump into that first door (aka: reality) be it through an editor, agent, teacher or critique partner and you realize you’re not as free as you thought. Your world has to have a direction, they tell you. You can’t have errant scenes just because they’re fun to write if they don’t lead anywhere. You can’t ramble about until you find a solution to the protagonist’s dilemma and your manuscript reaches 153,000 words. (True story.)

Possible solutions: Plan your novel before you start writing it. By planning, I don’t mean “think about it.” I mean write an outline or a summary of scenes. If you cringe just reading the word “outline," then at least figure out how you’ll get from opening dilemma to climactic scene to resolution. I know this is not a popular answer. Many writers feel their creativity will be shut down if they use any kind of structure or guideline. But in my own experience, complete freedom can be more paralyzing than setting limits for yourself. (If you can go any direction, how do you know which one is the best one to take?)

5. “Do what I tell you, Dammit!”

So you have an idea of how your plot should go. You figure out every twist and turn until you reach a satisfactory conclusion. Then you create your characters. But for some reason, they’re not doing what you want them to do. Or if they are, IT’S NOT MAKING SENSE. You’ve fallen into the trap of forcing your characters to follow the plot. They’re little puppets acting in ways that seem unnatural to who they are or to real life reactions.

Possible solutions: Be honest with yourself. How would you really act under the circumstances you’ve orchestrated in your novel? Don’t try to make your character act a certain way just because you want to use a particular setting, line of dialogue, or because you want to include that funny scene you love. It’s more important to craft believable characters and situations that your readers will buy. (A noteworthy comment: if you don’t think something you wrote is funny, neither will your audience.)

6. The Unsolvable Puzzle

When I first started writing it was difficult for me to determine how much information I should give away and how much I should withhold. Since I was writing a mystery, I was very careful not to give away too much. But the problem is I didn’t give enough and some conversations and scenes were so cryptic my readers had a hard time understanding what was going on. (I apologize for the frustration I imparted on my early readers.)

Possible solutions: Make the reader an accomplice of the protagonist’s discoveries. Give away information throughout the novel so that the reader doesn’t have the feeling he skipped three pages and doesn’t want to waste any more mental energy interpreting what your characters are saying/doing. In the end, you may lose your reader to a bottle of Aleve.

7. Telegraph Scenes

In my first draft, scenes were very short and lacked enough setting and inner thought. They were like characters in a school play coming in and out of the stage to recite their lines. My average chapter had ten or more scenes!

Possible solutions: Figure out what purpose each scene is serving and find a way to meet these needs by either joining scenes or rewriting them. Balance the dialogue with inner thought, action, setting, etc.

8. Rushed Ending

Somewhere in the middle of the first draft I read that 150,000 was a high word count (imagine that!) When I came to this realization, I started rushing my novel so that I wouldn’t add too many words to my already Bible-size manuscript (actually I did this with the second draft, too). What a mistake this was! There is nothing more unforgivable than an unsatisfactory ending! Many readers will swear off a writer if they don’t like how he or she wrapped up a book. Some writers also make this mistake because they’re eager to finish their books.

Possible solutions: If you realize late that you have a high word count, don’t sacrifice the quality of your book in order to cut down your words. When you revise the text from the beginning, cut any extraneous scenes/characters/subplots/words.

Your turn to own up to your mistakes. Which ones did you make when you first started to write and what have you learned from them?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

From Book to Screen. Film Adaptation or Plain Distortion?

Most published authors share an ambition: getting Hollywood to take an interest in her/his novel. It’s a terrific way to raise sales, find more readers and climb to immortality. However, as many disappointed readers (and some authors) have found out, film adaptations might end up butchering the book.

In days pre-TMC and DVD or video versions of GWTW, I had to wait for my local movie house to bring a revival of Gone with the Wind. While waiting in line to buy my ticket, I could feel butterflies fluttering in my gut. I was ten years old, and Peggy Mitchell´s opus magnum was my favorite book in the world. I still remember the thrill of those four hours in the dark, sitting on the edge of my seat, absolutely spellbound.

The fact that the movie was not entirely true to the book did not bother me a bit. I didn’t miss Scarlett´s other children, although the absence of a formidable character like Grandma Fontaine saddened me, but there was so much to compensate for those little flaws. Alas! It is a rare occasion when we can be contented with both the print and the film version of a beloved novel.

I always look forward to the translation of my preferred novels to movies, but I seldom feel happy with the results. There are films that I like better than the book that inspired them (Arthur Haley´s Airport comes to mind) . Others have become odious precisely because the producers massacred an entertaining yarn (Leon Uris’ Exodus, and all the unfortunate adaptations of Jacqueline Susann’s novels).

Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset's romance was warmer in the film version of Airport than in the book

I have noticed that classics fare better in the hands of producers than commercial bestsellers. Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place and anything by Harold Robbins that ever went to Hollywood only kept the title from the original text. The stories were rewritten, characters changed completely, and the final product bore no resemblance to the book.

Classics are treated with much more respect. Since new film or television adaptations tend to appear every decade, chances are that one of them will remain faithful to the original. As it is, in my mind Jane Eyre will forever look like Joan Fontaine, Jo March will always be Winona Ryder, and Heathclieff can only be the incomparable Ralph Fiennes. Yet, I am sorry to say, despite its many versions, made all over the world, no screen adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’Quo Vadis has pleased me.
Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

Several reasons account for the failure to adapt a book properly. Length limits, audience’s sensibilities, fads, and censorship are some of the culprits. The Hays Office that controlled Hollywood production for almost four decades, besides barring explicit sex from moving pictures, also demanded moral endings. In 1947, Mildred Pierce, based in the James Cain's novel, had wicked Veda (Ann Blyth) going to jail. This ending that was not in the book, but upheld the belief that all evil should go punished, at least in Hollywood fables.

Recently, I watched the HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce. It is excellently made—Kate Winslet might get an Emmy for her performance—and is as true to the book as it gets. Despite its graphic sex galore (with plenty of shots of Guy Pearce´s bare rump) it left me with a bad taste in the mouth. I missed Joan Crawford’s tearful execution of the protagonist. This Mildred was mean, vulgar and hard-as-nails.Her obsession with her eldest daughter came across as a girlish crush instead of motherly devotion.

Having said so, I still prefer books-into-miniseries. That format allows for more time and space to develop story and characters, so the end result is much closer to the novel than a hurried film version. With miniseries, every so often, the author might get involved in the adaptation improving the plot while controlling the amount of damaging changes. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and Stephen King’s The Stand illustrate my point. Authors worked hand by hand with the scriptwriters, advancing and sometimes rewriting the content so it could appeal to massive audiences.

The best example of how a book does better on a miniseries format than a film is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. In 1981, Granada Television adapted Waugh’s saga of an aristocratic British family caught between sin and religion. In its day, Brideshead broke television taboos, implanted fads and turned Jeremy Irons into a star. Today, this miniseries is considered a classic piece of television.
Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Most importantly, the script managed to convey the inner layers of a story that combined nostalgia for an Oxford of yesteryear with an iconic view of homoerotic friendships and the disturbing pressures of faith in modern life. I loved it from the start. I still cry buckets when I watch it, and it brought me to read and love Evelyn Waugh’s sarcastic and yet graceful prose.

In 2008, some misguided demon convinced British producers to make a film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It simply reeked! The casting was preposterous and the script made shameful use of Waugh’s milieu and characters to create some ridiculous mishmash of tortuous love affairs among the rich and the eccentric. My only comfort is that those who love Brideshead Revisited can still enjoy the marvelous and true-to-the book miniseries in DVD format.

Have you gone through a similar experience? Is there an adaptation that turned your stomach and a film version that did justice to the print version? Would you like to see your novel turned into a Hollywood blockbuster or a cozy miniseries?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Too Dark for Teens?

How dark is too dark for Young Adult fiction? When I began writing a YA novel a few years ago, I struggled with this question. I wasn’t sure how to handle my protagonist’s burgeoning sexuality, or how graphic the fight scenes in the book should be. I’m not the only one worrying about this: parents and teachers are chewing their nails too. When we have teens reading stories about racism, rape, murder, drug abuse, suicide, and genocide, have we gone too far? Do we want our young people reading about an isolated group of children who turn savage and fight to the death? What happened to the days when the most daring book a teen might read was “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?”

A few weeks ago, this national conversation — which has been going on at least since the middle of last century — got a bit more heated when the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon excoriating the horrible, awful, no-good, very-bad state of YA lit. Gurdon writes, “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”

Before I get into my take on this debate, it bears repeating that “Young Adult” is a broad genre, and that a 12-year-old is quite a different reader than an 18-year-old. The last few Harry Potter books may be too dark for the former; The Hunger Games trilogy ditto. But most high-school seniors will consider those books kid stuff. They’ve been assigned books like “Heart of Darkness,” (it's right in the title!) and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” They’ve been reading about holocausts, racism, and rape. Parents, kids, and authors all have to recognize that in spite of the one-size-fits-all title, YA encompasses an enormous range. Just because a book is not appropriate for a 12-year-old doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written.

Back to teenagers browsing through books about rape, genocide, drugs, and children fighting to the death. Am I referring to “The Hunger Games?” Or to Sherman Alexie’s gritty novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” about life on the rez? (Both of these books are on Gurdon’s “too dark” list.) No. I’m recounting books assigned to most high school students over the past fifty years or so: “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Outsiders,” “Go Ask Alice,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Oedipus Rex,” and most of Shakespeare.

“Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail,” writes Gurdon. Really? Take Hamlet: you’ve got suicide, incest, parricide, and everyone dies in the end. In “Lord of the Flies,” two sweet boys are brutally murdered by other children, and the vivid description of a pig slaughter will put you off your tea for days. In “A Clockwork Orange,” a 15-year-old and his friends go off on a murder-and-rape spree. These are all classics, all read by teens forty years ago (or more).

Another WSJ article takes up Gurdon’s cause: “Until recently, the young-adult fiction section at your local bookstore was a sea of nubile midriffs set against pink and turquoise backgrounds,” writes Katie Roiphe. “Today’s landscape features haunted girls staring out from dark or washed-out covers. Current young-adult best sellers include one suicide, one deadly car wreck, one life-threatening case of anorexia and one dystopian universe in which children fight to the death. Somewhere along the line our teenagers have become connoisseurs of disaster.”

Roiphe must have forgotten Deborah Hautzig’s “Second Star to the Right,” published in 1981, about a 14-year-old’s near-fatal bout with anorexia. (Amazon lists it for “ages 12 to 15.”) We’ve already covered suicide and children fighting to the death with Shakespeare and Golding. These themes are not new, and young people’s exposure to them is not new. In fact, required reading for high school is inevitably going to include books with grim, dark, difficult themes.

The current kerfuffle over the state of YA is, I suspect, the result of Good Old Dayism: these people are remembering a past that never existed. Gurdon might have read Judy Blume when she was a teenager, but I was done with those books by the time I was 11. As teenagers, my friends and I read Pet Sematary and Clan of the Cave Bear. We read VC Andrews and HP Lovecraft. As teens still do today, we actively sought out dark books, books about people with problems bigger than ours, books about sexuality we hadn’t experienced. It was a way to experience things without actually having to live through them, a way to learn lessons without having to get hurt. While Gurdon seems convinced that reading about bad things will convince kids to go out and do bad things, I suspect it more often goes the other way — especially if the story explores the negative consequences of poor choices.

As a writer who has dabbled in YA, and as the parent of a teenager, I’m constantly aware of story content and context. They’re both important, but when it comes to writing and reading YA stories, context trumps content. A violent scene, or an early sexual experience, is completely different to read about when couched in different ways. Sex can be presented as meaningless or as part of a loving, consensual relationship. Violence can be gratuitous or illustrative. It’s all in the presentation. The point is not whether things are too dark, the point is whether the story reflects my value system — as the parent, and as a writer.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Interview with Western Author Melody Groves

The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood would like to welcome Western author and SouthWest Writers' president Melody Groves!

New Mexico native Melody Groves has a deep love for anything cowboy and Old West. As a member of New Mexico Gunfighters, she “shoots” sheriffs and outlaws every other Sunday in Albuquerque’s Old Town.
Winner of two first-place writing awards, Groves is President of SouthWest Writers and publicity chairman for Western Writers of America. She writes for American Cowboy, True West and New Mexico magazines. Her non-fiction book, Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide: All About Rodeo, is a guide to understanding the sport. Additionally, Hoist a Cold One! Historic Bars of the Southwest, a look at the history and beauty of 26 front and back bars, launched in mid-July.

She is also author of the Colton Family Saga series, Border Ambush, Sonoran Rage, and Arizona War. Recently, her essay about living in New Mexico was published in Voices of New Mexico.

As an author, what drew you to not only become a writer, but specifically the genre of Westerns?
 I’ve always been a writer—I think it’s a passion that comes from within. And specifically the genre of Westerns, it also comes from within. I wrote them kind of in a closet for years until realizing that they’re a valuable, viable part of literature. Since I grew up in southern New Mexico and spent time on horseback and visiting old ghost towns, Westerns are sort of in my blood, so to speak. I feel a definite connection with the past.

Border Ambush
by Melody Groves
When people think of Western novels, they tend to think of writers such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. Do you think their work still properly represents the types of Westerns being published today? Are Western novels as popular today as when authors such as L’Amour and Grey were being published?
L’Amour and Grey’s Westerns are similar and yet different from today’s. All of the Westerns speak to redefining oneself and also the landscape is usually a character. Westerns today aren’t quite as popular as say, in the 1950s, but we’re seeing an increase in readership and sales. I think it’s because people want a good story and are looking for something with moral characters. People would buy them if bookstores would promote them. There’s definitely a need and a market for Westerns.

Why do bookstores shy away from promoting Westerns? Is there something specific about the genre that keeps them from doing so?
It's a nasty spiral. Bookstores don't carry a wide range of Westerns because people don't request them. People don't request them because they don't know about them. I've attended many Western events where we sell a wide range of Westerns, and people are always so very grateful. They say they can't get them anywhere else. And I don't think it's necessarily the genre itself, it's the sales that guide the book sellers. WWA is doing what we can to change people's reading habits. It's frustrating, to say the least.

What was your experience like on the road to getting published?
My experience to getting published was up and down, pretty much like everybody else’s. Once I decided that I really, truly wanted to get published, then I attended workshops, conferences, classes and talked to everybody I could. A ton of rejections later, I got an article published in a magazine, and the rest as they say…is history.

Your novels are published through La Frontera Publishing, a smaller press. Can you give some insight as to what it’s like to work with a smaller press as opposed to having your work published through one of the “Big Six”?
A small press has tons of advantages and disadvantages. The publisher knows you and you know him/her. It’s usually easier to get him on the phone than a larger publisher. They’ll also keep your book in print longer than the Big Six. The down side is: they’re small, which means even more of the marketing burden is on you and if they have a personal crisis (I know one small publisher who had pneumonia and then hip surgery, so was out for almost a year), the work pretty much stops.

A larger press has a staff to handle everything that needs to be done to get a book published. It’s a bit more impersonal, but their books could have a wider distribution range. The down side: if your book doesn’t perform well, it’s taken off the shelf in a matter of months.

Would you recommend a smaller publishing house, or does it depend on the genre and what a writer hopes to accomplish with his/her work?
My recommendation as to whether to go large or small—just go. There’s nothing wrong with small publishers, I like them a lot. The important thing is that if your book is on the shelf, somebody will pick it up and buy it. If your small publisher isn’t doing his job, then try to find another who will. Genre really doesn’t matter.
Ropes, Reins and Rawhide
by Melody Groves

You’ve also written a non-fiction book entitled Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide: All About Rodeo, plus you have another non-fiction book that was recently published about historic bars of the Southwest. Is it more challenging to write non-fiction as opposed to fiction or vice versa? 
Non-fiction or fiction—which is more challenging? Both. Writing is hard work, whether it’s made up or real. In both areas, you’ve got to be accurate with your facts, whether it’s the date of a certain battle or what kind of matches they use.

What type of advice would you give to an aspiring writer of a non-fiction work?
Write about something you love. You’re going to spend thousands of hours with the topic and if you don’t have passion about it, you’re going to end up hating it and probably not doing your best work. Also, pick a topic that will appeal to a wide audience. That’s your best chance of getting published.

What I mean by that is instead of writing about say, hummingbird nests of Albuquerque, make the topic something like “Small birds of the Southwest.” That way, people in Phoenix may buy it, too. After my rodeo book came out, I decided to write a book on Ranch Rodeo. What I discovered was that very few people knew the difference and even fewer knew what one was. I didn’t want to spend my time promoting a book to people who needed to be educated first. So, I abandoned the idea, even though I had a publisher for it!

I’m seeing a wide audience for my bar book, Hoist a Cold One! Historic Bars of the Southwest, which just came out in June. Everyone knows what a bar is and they’re even more interested when I tell them that it’s not about the building, but about the wooden bar itself.
Melody Groves' newest release!
If you could pick out one scene in your writing that proved to be the most challenging, what would it be and what made it so difficult to write?
One of the first scenes I ever wrote in a Western was the most challenging.--a cattle stampede! Why did I think it would be easy? Not only did I have a thousand steers running in various directions, thunder, lightning, rain, dust and cowboys yelling all had to be described. Needing to bring in all the senses: smell, sight, sound, taste, seeing…it was organized chaos. I got through it and then realized I’d forgotten wind. Any time I have a barroom fight or some such, those are tough because there are so many moving parts.

You are the current president of SouthWest Writers, an all-genres writing group in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As the president, what kinds of challenges do you face when it comes to managing a fairly large writing group?
As president of SouthWest Writers, the biggest challenge is providing speakers, classes, workshops and conferences that address the various levels of writing skills our members have. Unlike Western Writers of America where in order to join you must be published in the Western genre, SouthWest Writers accepts anyone who is even vaguely interested in writing. Our members range from those who just like to be around writers, to those who’ve won national awards. Trying to please everybody is tough.

Conferences are a large part of any aspiring writers journey to getting published. In the last year, SWW has not held a writers conference. Can you give a little insight as to what goes into organizing a conference and what happens if for some reason the conference has to be cancelled?  Do you have any alternate suggestions if an aspiring writer is unable to attend a conference due to any number of reasons (i.e. financially unable, time conflict, conference doesn’t offer what writer is looking for, etc.)?
Conferences are extremely important, so in developing one, we look for wide appeal but a specialized topic that many genres can learn something from. To organize one, we need about five dedicated people to select topic, place, date, speakers, etc. The best is to start at least a year out. We’re organizing a February 2012 conference on screen and script writing, which at first blush sounds like it’s a limiting topic. But from my own personal experience, I know that two classes on screenwriting I took drastically improved my dialogue and understanding of structure in my fiction. This conference will offer something for everyone.

This year we had a perfect storm for not being able to put together a conference or two for SouthWest Writers. In a span of five months, I had two conference coordinators quit, even though the conferences were in the works. The executive board and I sat down and did some hard, cold number crunching. We decided that no matter what, we’d lose money and we didn’t have enough time to put on the quality of conference we wanted. Canceling it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make.

There is no good substitute for conferences, but the next best thing would be to read on line about the various writing topics. With today’s online blogs and websites, writers can pick up a lot of helpful tips. But my recommendation: save your pennies and locate a conference that you’re interested in and go!
According to your website,, you make several appearances throughout the year for book signings and conventions such as Western Writers of America. When it comes to publicity and marketing your work, how important are these scheduled events to your career?
Publicity and marketing—hugely important. Scheduled events such as signings and presentations have several benefits. First, you meet people who are unfamiliar with your work. Now, they know your name. Second, you become more and more comfortable speaking about your work and talking to strangers. Third, you get to meet some amazing people.

When I attend Western Writers of America conventions, not only do I get to renew my friendship with writers across the US, but meet editors and agents who become not only friends but critical elements in my career. I look at it this way: I can write all I want to, but if I want someone to read it, I need to get out in public. Thankfully, I’m no longer shy.

On your website you also list that you are a gunfighter re-enactor. You play “Mad Mel” and you “know what it feels like to shoot a sheriff.” This sounds like it would be so much fun. Does doing something like this allow for you to feel, in some small way, what the characters in your book would be going through? How important is re-enacting when it comes to your writing? 
 Believe it or not, my Old West gunfighting re-enacting is vital to my writing. While it’s a ton of fun, and we do use blanks, I learn something new every show that I can put in my writing. I’ve stood toe to toe with sheriffs and outlaws, shooting at them, they shooting at me. And while the bullets aren’t real, the adrenaline is. It’s scary to stand facing someone with a gun.

And I know what it feels like to hit the ground after being “shot.” It hurts, unless it’s on grass.

A couple of years ago, my group was in Tombstone playing at the OK Corral. I was Morgan Earp, so I was lined up on one side with my “brothers” and Doc. On the other side stood the McLowry’s and Clanton boys. Two things happened that I’ve used in my writing. Doc’s shotgun had a hair trigger—it went off before the cue was given. We all started shooting, ducking, dying earlier than we’d rehearsed. Secondly, there was so much dust from our boots and smoke from our guns that I couldn’t see across the corral. I knew they were there, but I couldn’t see my target. That was the way it really happened. Spontaneous and smokey.   

If you could give two words of advice to any writer out there trying to break into the publishing world, what would those two words be? 
Keep Writing. Pure and simple. You won’t get any better or published by not writing.

My mantra, especially when I’m discouraged: “Never Give Up. Never surrender.”  Thank you “Galaxy Quest” movie. 

And thank you, Melody Groves, for your wonderful insight into the world of Western writing!

Feel free to visit her website at