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I just got back from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. “Just got back” is a bit of a stretch, since the conference happened in Seattle, just a quick twenty minute commute from my house.  Writers gravitate to these conferences for a number of reasons: to see colleagues and be with other writers, to attend workshops on craft and marketing, to hear key note addresses by successful authors and to pitch their own stories to agents and editors.  In past conference in Seattle and in Austin (Writers League of Texas meets there) pitching took front and center in my mental and emotional space.  I’d be sitting in a workshop on character development or social media, trying to focus on the topic, but in the back of my mind, I ran through my pitch.  A few writers out there may find the whole pitching thing fun, but for me it has always been a bit of a rattling experience.  How do you condense a three hundred page novel down to sixty seconds in a way that not only does justice to the work, but does it in a way inciting to an agent?

As a leadership development coach (past life) I’ve spoken in front of groups from a handful to a thousand. But there’s something about sitting down one-on-one with an agent to share a story you’ve put your heart and soul into, your baby.  I think the angst comes from a fear most writers hold deep down inside — I’m not good enough.  My writing doesn’t measure up. And so the fear of a professional in the business not desperately needing our story feels overwhelming.

Of course, the reality is that an agent or an editor is simply looking for something new, something unique, something they can sell.  Good writing is essential. Storytelling craft is essential. But given good writing and storytelling, something all writers always continue to develop, agents will pick the thing they can sell.

Last year I pitched two novels at both conferences in Austin and Seattle.  I had a science fiction novel called SHAPER which won in the Sci-Fi category in the WLT Literary Contest.  And TOXIC RELATIONSHIP was a finalist in the thriller/mystery/suspense category in the same conference.  One thing I learned last year is that it’s difficult to pitch two books in two genres at the same conference.  I limped along as best I could, using some notes to make sure I didn’t go brain dead mid-pitch.  Sometimes I did fine, other times I crashed and burned.  One agent asked me if I had ever pitched before — ouch. But even in the midst of the burning wreckage of my pitching, I managed to get enough of my story across to J. Ellen Smith of Champagne Books, who happens to now be my publisher.

This year, with a novel about to come out in August and a second one in the hands of my editor, I didn’t need to pitch.  I discovered a rich world of interesting conversations, workshops and talks without the angst of pitching.  Was pitching essential to finding a home for my work?  Yes. Do I miss pitching? Well, here’s the thing.  The other side of writing is selling.  So I don’t get to miss pitching because now I pitch all of the time.

One other note about the PNWA Conference I want to share.  Two colleagues in my writing group were finalist in the literary contest. Chris Caldwell and Ben Starnes.  And to my delight, Ben won in the Middle Grade category for his very fun novel, Poppy Bell and the Witches of Shadow Marsh. He of course is now in the process of looking for an agent, but I know this book will make it to the marketplace soon.  And if you have a middle grade reader or like to read middle grade, you’ll want to pick this one up.  When the time’s right, I’ll be introducing you to Ben and his novel.

Here’s the list of all the first and second place winners in the PNWA Contest.

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I have my dad’s 1911 Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol, the very one he wore in a leather shoulder harness as a B-17 bombardier in the Pacific doing low level bombing of Emperial Japanese warships. I’ll bypass the whole “low level bombing in a B-17” thing for another time. The last and only time I ever saw my dad fire his pistol was with me in 1966. He decided to use up his remaining ammunition from the 1940’s and give his son a chance to fire a real .45. We trudged into a wooded area in Alabama, outside of Birmingham where we were living at the time, until we found a nice spot with a high embankment and a stump just begging to be shot multiple times. I still remember the combination of excitement, adrenaline and being inside “the man club.” My dad was about to hand me a man tool, used in a man war, with real man bullets. I could hardly breathe.

Dad fired the first few shots, explaining how to hold and sight the gun. I recall him warning me about how a .45 kicks and not to let that bother me. “Don’t anticipate the kick, just slowly squeeze the trigger.” In deference to my dad, remember the year, 1966. No seat belts, no rubberized deck for playscapes, no “playscapes” for that matter, no bicycle helmets, nothing. And so without eye or ear protection. (trust me, only bad guys, law enforcement officers in the field, characters in novels and stupid people shoot a .45 without eye and ear protection these days) I stood on a hot, humid day in some Alabama woods, a nine year old holding what felt like 20 pounds of steel. My hands quickly fatigued with the gun’s weight, but I gamely did my best to aim at the condemned tree stump, squeezing the trigger as coached. BAM!!!! The chunk of iron bucked back, beyond my control, the noise louder than any clap of thunder I had ever heard. I’m fighting to keep from peeing myself, watching, in terrified wonder, a tracer bullet etch a phosphoric trail right into my enemy tree stump. I don’t recall what passed through my mind as a child, but the adult translation is something close to HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, JESUS CHRIST AND ALL THE ANGELS!!!!!!!!!! I stood there, my dad having the prescience to take the loaded weapon from my trembling hand. He chuckled. “Pretty loud, eh? Told you about the kick. Wanna go again?”

Yes. No. Yes, but I don’t know. Here’s the thing. My dad let me sneak into the “Man Club.” The idea of gently closing my finger around something capable of such earth shattering mayhem, noise and violence left me hesitant. But when you’re in the “Man Club” turning away from man stuff, well, even at the age of nine I knew it just wasn’t done. If I turned my back on that pistol because it scared me, I would live with my shame the rest of my life. Dad handed me his gun, I took my stance, took aim, my heart pounding in my throat. I squeezed the trigger, only this time anticipating an explosive kick. BLAM!!! Missed. I shot out the magazine, missing every single time, all the while my dad encouraging me not to jerk my hand or shut my eyes in anticipation.

When our last bullet went down range, my eyes burning and ears ringing, we walked back to our car. Dad put his large hand on my shoulder as we walked. I may have only hit our stump once, but I stood in the woods with my dad shooting the biggest gun I had ever seen. The gun he had in The War.  And so, for a few brief hours, we shared an unspoken truth about the strange twisted joy of destruction, the horrifying violence of war and the love between a father and his boy.

I’m excited to have Angelica Hart and Zi in the blog house for an interview.  To say these two authors combined, have been prolific, is a bit of an understatement.  Between them they have thirty seven titles published and over five hundred shorts in various magazines and newspapers.  And the awards! EPPIE finalist for three books, Cecil Whig award, Hob-Nob Reader’s Choice Award, Champagne Books Novel of the Year, Champagne Books Author of the Year.  They write mystery, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy and twelve of those books I mentioned mix one of those genres with romance — what fun!  

Thanks again for being with us today.  I want to get to your upcoming book CHRISTMAS EVE…VIL,  but first let’s talk a bit about you both and your work.

A:  We’re tickled to be here.  (Pulls up a cyber chair, sips her chai latte and looks for the chocolate, loving the no cal zone of cyber land)  We adore doing interviews. 

Z: What a wonderful summer day to be crawling around the attic, running wire for a new ceiling fan.  I am so glad that this interview has availed me the opportunity to stop sweating to the point of you-gotta-be-kiddin’-me.  So with grand sincerity, thank you Richard Hacker for allowing me to sit in the air conditioning.

A:  Double thanks Zi for taking a shower first!  (Looking at the nose clip she had ready just in case)

A writing team, while more the norm in the screenwriting world, is a little more unusual among novelists.  How did this partnership begin?  And why do you think it works so well? 

Z:  T’was a gloomy Thursday when a sudden crack of lightning startled me, followed by a maneuver of my black Volvo swerving to avoid an ominous rain puddle. The effort went for naught, and water was forced up the underside of the engine, mist and steam rose and the need to pull the car over was eminent. By some act of divine intervention, I found myself in the parking lot of Borders Books. A big yippee-ki-yay for any book fan. I trudged and dodged through blankets of water — a veritable downpour with hellacious lightning and stomach’s butterflies scared by thunder crackling about me as if the world were about to split apart and I would fall into an abyss. Managing to enter, I paper-toweled myself dry in the men’s room then returned to the sales floor. I noticed a woman manning an area of the cafe, perched on a high stool, touting her art work. She was Angelica Hart. The ensuing conversation went something like this: Hey…hey…nice art…thanks…are you interested in illustrations…yes…give me your card…here…thanks, I’ll call you…Do. There it was. Left the store to a world that was bright and sunny, filled with possibilities. And eight years later, it’s still sunny.

A:  The meaning of kismet happened that day. 

Z: Furthermore, in the eighties sitting just west of Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the grassy foothills at the base of the Grand Tetons, looking across the Snake River at a bull moose I began to read a piece I had just written in my journal, out loud, for the moose to hear. Yup, did it! I learned the moose was not my audience as he meandered deeper into the high grass but I was not discouraged and continued at the top of my speaking voice. About seven feet from me sat a molting coyote engrossed in my presentation. Its eyes held me as if a pup or its suckling mother and I felt one with that energy. Stunned that it did not run, amazed at its calmness in the face of my presence I continued. When I was done, the canine rose, walked next to me, rubbed its matted fur on my arm, passed, and it was lost to the high grass. It left upon me its musk, telling me I was one of its pack. In the capture of that moment in time, I felt validated as a writer. Years later, sitting over coffee, talking about writing, I felt that same validation again, and that person was Angelica Hart. I understood destiny.

A: Everyone has felt that thing that has been called the click, and the ease at which that happens.

Zi and I purported from first instant was astonishing, there was an immediate synergy that told me that one and one equaled three. I read his work, was moved. We lamestormed which is our practice of presenting ideas and deeming them lame or not. Of twenty ideas, ten from each, not one idea had merit. Our potential partnership stalled before it started. Then in an email, Zi sent me a touching fantasy love story, where a Mage stole a young man’s heart so the woman he loved could soar. He gave it willingly. I cried. I understood destiny.

It can’t be all fun and games, can it? What do you find to be the most challenging thing about being a writing partnership?  

A:  Yes, it can.  Be a fly on our wall.  Some readers are when they visit Dawn’s Book Nook on Thursday mornings, our weekly article is titled WRITERS WRITE…WRITING PARTNERS FEUD , and you’ll know we laugh a lot.  We battle a lot.  Not warrior battle, but the sort of battle to always get the best out of each other.  The battles that require water pistols and paper ball hand grenades.  It’s always about the story, what will make it better.  It’s about the reader, what will they enjoy.  And it’s about cookies….  When all else fails, break out the cookies. 

Z:  One of the first tenets that we put in place before we ever shared creativity was that we would agree to agree.  This means we would argue our point of views but the story had to will-out and we would not be so selfish as to pout or sulk.

Having said the afore, Angelica sulks and pouts…far more than any human I have met.

A:  Take that back or I’m leaving.  (Pouting AND sulking)

Z:  Angelica I am so sorry, I was so boldly honest.  Please forgive me.

A:  That’s better!  Where’s the cookies?

Here’s a question I think writers who struggle to find a genre niche and curious readers will want to know more about.  You have a number of titles that include mystery, suspense and sci-fi fantasy combined with romance. What is it about romance you find so compelling?

A: For me, it is because I was brought up on the princess fairy tales, the ultimate romance of the beautiful damsel and the brave, strong knight.  Only problem was that the bleepin’ princess was ooohhh, ahhhh, I need to be rescued, and even as a child, I decided to get out my crayons and let the princess shine.  She would rescue the prince, slay the dragons, and whip up a mean chocolate Sundae to boot.  In the end, though, I adored the struggle, the emotions, the happily-ever-after, and still do.

Z:  Romance is an omni-present force in everyone’s life.  We all crave it, but from time to time struggle to comprehend it.  The reasons we desire another and pine for lust are important.  I have been ultimately privileged to read every day another’s sojourn; Angelica can touch a place in humanity that defines those powerful feelings without ever being tawdry.  This is amazing.  Of course, there are those tactile hands on (ha-ha) moments that we hope that we have crafted, are entertaining.  The compelling part is that by considering the import of romance we make our understanding of human nature deeper and more complex.  Having said the afore, I adore entertaining women.

It’s always interesting to know what authors read.  What are you reading these days?  Any favorites?

A: Books are a passion of mine and with the Kindle I fully indulge that passion. I usually have two to three books going at once, one in the form of a CD for the car (currently reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsey) another CD in the house while doing this and that (Son of a Witch by Gregory McQuire)and then there is the reading before bed book (After the Mist by Cathy Coburn and Duaine Neill – A Champagne Book), and the family room book (I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.)  Then, of course, there are the mags…Discover, Woman’s World, Writer’s Digest….  Hmmm, think I better stop there.  I mean, you might think I’m compulsive or something.

Z: Reading…ahhhh…most recently a wonderful recipe for sweet and sour meatballs, which I made and subsequently amazed my company.  My neighbor’s palm insisting that she was going to meet an intriguing gentleman.  A series of blogs about the Eagles, 76ers, Flyers, and Phillies.  Did I enter comments?  Does a fly run into a glass window?  A little Stephen King for the humor of it all and emails to and fro to my daughter and son-in-law.  That was the last three days.

If you could go anywhere, do anything, where would you go and what would you do?

A:  Exactly where I am and what I am doing.  We get to laugh and joke and become awed by possibilities, cry at sorrow, experience drama, travel the world and spin magic with words.  What is more adventuresome or glorious then that.  Besides that, being with my family and being amazed that I am so blessed. 

Z:  I would buy into Einstein’s understanding of time relativity, and find myself a portal and return to those twenty-seven missed moments of my youth and discover if doing it differently, made a difference.  I would have never got caught peeking in the girl’s locker room, I would have kissed Amy who wanted to be kissed, and I would have never jumped up into the go-go dancer’s cage and danced with her.  (Note: The last one got me arrested!)  Dag.  

Tell us about your current project.  

A:  We have taken a bit of time and indulged the whimsy that resides in our quirky little souls, creating a twenty-five book series, titled THE SIN-SIN IN CINDERELLA.   If you like feghoots, parody, irreverence and naughty limericks then this cute/sassy series is the way to go.  We had a hoot creating it, and it can be found on our website: http//angelicahartandzi.com

Z:  The alter egos of Dona Penza Tattle, Esq. and Associate Wrye Balderdash, who also write a column for the Champagne Books Newsletter, Bubbles-n-Bits,  are the authors of the afore pieces.  Their personalities dance right on the edge of risqué profane.  We like that…they’re fun. 

CHRISTMAS EVE…VIL, comes out soon.  Sounds like a good winter read.  Tell us about it. 

 

A:  (Clears throat) Anya Petrichona, the guardian of an ancient amulet that permits entry to the supernatural realm, is pursued by an maniacal preacher.   While seeking refuge in the New Mexico Mountains, she becomes snowbound with the enticing and gallant Luke Calico. 

Z: (Hums a few bars of Jingle Bells) As Christmas Eve approaches, Anya’s and Luke’s ardor sizzles even as the preacher’s malevolence henchmen encroach.  Survival depends on Anya outwitting the preacher, bent on abusing her powers, and resistance to a seductive, demonic spirit.

A:  Though she does not resist Luke’s seduction.  

Z:  That’s cause we wrote it that way!

A:  Noooo, it was meant-to-be that way. The characters said so.

Z:  Of course it was. (Wanting to avoid any lower lip protrusion)

Where can we find your books?

A/Z:  At CBG:  http://champagnebooks.com/ and/or http://angelicahartandzi.com as well as Amazon.

Thanks for sharing yourselves with us today. Be on the lookout for CHRISTMAS EVE…VIL.  Angelica and Zi, may your successful work together continue to grow.  Before we finish, is there anything you’d like to add?

A: There is something so splendid in knowing that a reader has been transported to another place, has dipped into the sensual, explored things that do not exist, has found a place to escape.  This world has its challenges and sometimes the need to stop the spin and find a haven can be great.  If we can create just one special moment, one bit of comfort, balanced with smiles and tears and the belief that they too have been well-loved, then we have done our job.  

Z:  Also, thank you so much for having us, and we look forward to adding your book, TOXIC RELATIONSHIP to our TBR pile when it comes out in August.  Sounds awesome!


When writing a scene I also work to bring the tension up.  Falling off a curb and spraining an ankle?  How about falling off a cliff and breaking your back? You get the idea.  But I’ve also found that I have to use some judgement about how far I take things or they begin to shift from suspense to comedy.  A case in point is a scene from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol I watched over the weekend.  If you’ve never seen the movie and plan on catching it one of these days, stop reading NOW.

As the story unfolds we find our gallant IMF team in a Dubai hotel.  They need to get to the servers in order to gain control of the building security systems, but the security is so “military grade” they cannot quickly hack it.  What to do?  The only path is to climb outside of their hotel to the server room several floors above them.  Where is this room?  On floor 130.  So they cut out the glass, but how to scale a glass building?  With electronic sticky gloves, of course.  So Tom goes out at least 1000 feet above an unforgiving desert floor to scale the wall.  But wait. There’s an approaching dust storm.  Better hurry.  But wait. The gloves begin to malfunction.  He muscles it along, breaking through a window and getting the job done.  Now he has to get back, but the gloves have gone completely kaput, so he grabs some nylon strapping, racing down the outside of the building. But wait. The strapping isn’t sufficiently long to get him to his room.  So with the dust storm coming, he does a little swinging then flies toward the opening where his colleague hope to catch him.  But wait.  He slams into the wall below the window which should lead to certain death. But wait. One of his colleagues grabs him by the ankle and the team pulls him to safety.

I like the forward momentum of this scene, but I have to say, about halfway through, I felt like I had landed in the middle of Ginsu Knife commercial.  “But wait! There’s more!”  And each time the suspense artificially cranked up, the scene lost some of the power it could have retained by staying with its key elements.  Climbing outside a glass tower over 1000 feet in the air has all the makings of a terrifying activity.  Why not explore that terror more fully, the distance to the ground, the wind knocking him around, his struggle to gain a foothold.  Instead, by adding more elements, we lost the moment.

My take aways from the scene?

  1. Be sure I’ve taken full advantage of a scenes key elements before I start adding more complications
  2. Don’t get carried away with the complications, unless I’m shooting for comedy, rather than suspense.

I love a good adventure. Doesn’t have to be too crazy, just something out of the usual day to day.  Last weekend my bride Sidney and I hopped on the Vespa and went to Tacoma.  We couldn’t take I5, since the 150 will only do 50 or 55.  So we had to get a little creative.  We drove through the city to West Seattle, taking a ferry across Elliott Bay to Vashon Island.  This lush, green 5 X 15 mile island has a nice, laid back vibe.  We stopped at a little cafe then rode to the south of the island, taking another ferry to Tacoma, then drove along the shore to downtown.

Our quest?  The  newly opened LeMay Museum — what has got to be one of the premier automotive museums in the country now.  I’ll plop a pic or two down in the blog, but believe me, my photos can’t do the place justice.  If you’re a gear head, drive, walk or crawl in the direction of this place.  Favorite?  A ’32 Ford like the one my dad drove as a teen in the late 30’s, a Jaguar E Type — probably the closest thing to sex in car design, and the Tucker from the 1950’s.  The Jag to the right is a 1952 XK120.  I could go on and on.

Sunday morning, we took the return trip, this time stopping at the birthplace of the coffee craze in Seattle, which oddly enough is on Vashon Island.  After a second ferry over to West Seattle, we stopped for pizza and beer by the beach.  While couples and families strolled the sidewalks, guys and girls in swimsuits played beach volley ball, boats with sails straining in the breeze and motorcycle drivers rumbling by, we drank cold ones, celebrating a great dayto be alive.

In order to fit in with the big Harley’s rumbling past, we discovered we could put out a Harley-like exhaust tone by doing raspberries in unison.  Well, it sounded good inside the helmet anyway…

Read a story today about the author of Ready Player One, Arthur Cline, is giving a prize away for any reader who can find a clue in his novel, then successfully navigate three challenges in an online video game at a specific web address. The contest sounds kind of cool. Much more skill based than say Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. All you had to do to win that one was be either seriously lucky or a glutton. Cline’s contest involves some detective work to find the “Easter Egg” as he calls it, then be pretty decent at gaming.

Most authors give out copies of books and other low cost swag for a contest. But not Cline. He’s giving away a DeLorean. That’s right, an honest to god DeLorean he picked up on eBay. So you’re probably wondering if there’s a catch. How can this be? Find a hint, win a video game and get a car? The only catch I can see is that if you win, you’ve got a DeLorean. Not the most high performance car ever built — not even in its time. But at low speeds you could cruise downtown and I imagine, once parked, you’ll gather a crowd.

I appreciate Cline’s marketing initiative on this one. Every gamer into his book will want a piece of this action. USA Today, and I’m sure other news outlets, picked up the story. And people like me have just written blogs about it. My gull wing door tips in your direction Mr. Cline. Now that he’s raised the bar, I guess I’ll have to start buying cool stuff to give away as prizes.

What’s the best author contest you’ve ever seen? And if you received a prize from an author, what would you want it to be?

As I may have mentioned, I’ve got a novel coming out in August published by Champagne Books.  TOXIC RELATIONSHIP is a thriller with a humorous twist set in the Hill Country of Texas.  My protagonist, Nick Sibelius, moves to the small Texas town of Pflugerville, turned Austin suburb, to set up a private investigation business, find some peace and maybe, himself, after a murdered partner, a cheating wife and a lost job in Houston.  When a young couple disappears and a bass fisherman turns up dead, he finds himself drawn into a web of toxic relationships: MaryLou, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, Junior, a failed farmer whose best intentions seem to always result in a dead body, and Barry, a sociopathic dentist turned illegal toxic waste and methamphetamine entrepreneur with visions of grandeur.  When the felon who killed his partner in Houston joins forces with Barry, Nick must not only stop the toxic waste dumping while finding his client’s missing daughter, but keep from being killed in the process. In the end, MaryLou’s dark secret will either help him or kill him — whichever comes first.

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I’ll be posting occassional stories about writing this novel, pics, backstory, character descriptions as the publishing date draws near.  My hope is that the novel is as fun to read as it was to write.