Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Classes, Conferences & Community: Author Sheila Sobel talks about Writing

I'm pleased to have a guest blog today by ITW Debut author Sheila Sobel

As a Senior Auditor for Warner Bros., Sheila oversaw production costs for films including “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the “Matrix” trilogy, “The Dark Knight” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” 

After working on 70+ Independent and Studio movies, Sheila stepped away from the film business to complete her first YA novel. A member of SCBWI since 2010, Sheila is also a member of International Thriller Writers (ITW), Children’s Book Writers-LA (CBW-LA) and Women in Film (WIF). 

She was nominated for the 2016 AllegraJohnson Prize in Novel Writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. When not writing, Sheila volunteers her time walking dogs rescued from local shelters by the Amanda Foundation. She lives in Southern California with her husband, two rescue dogs and two rescue cats. 

The Blog Post

In early 2010, my husband handed me a course description for a class called “Touring Wonderland,” an introduction to writing for the youth market. Intrigued, I registered for my first of many classes offered through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. The last time I had written creatively was college, over thirty-five years earlier. After graduation, like most people, my creative dreams had been left to simmer on the back burner of life while day to day survival took priority. Decades passed as my writing aspirations became more distant.

It was in this class that the first chapter of my debut YA novel Color Blind was written. Admittedly, the writing was not good, but the premise was sound. I enrolled in class after class, joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and worked to improve my writing. It was in those UCLA classes that I found not only like minds that ultimately formed our writers’ group (now entering our fourth year together), but valuable feedback that continued to guide me chapter by chapter, through the many incarnations of Color Blind. 

In September 2011, at my first SCBWI writers’ retreat, I proudly presented my baby to “outsiders,” people I had never met. I was crushed when a faculty member, a literary agent, kept asking me why she should care about my protagonist or anything else in my chapters. When the retreat ended, I returned home discouraged. But, after a little wine and a great deal of honest reflection, I decided that as much as it hurt, the agent was right. The following day, I booted up the computer, sent my work product (ten chapters) to the recycle bin and started over.

The most valuable thing I learned that weekend was to not be married to my manuscript, especially since I was getting consistent, less than positive feedback, both in class and during the retreat. Challenging yourself is a good thing, having your work challenged is a better thing. It makes you a better writer.

For the next three years, I continued with classes and conferences and established our critique group. In July 2014, after submitting a query letter and three chapters to a publisher, the feedback I received was immediate and positive. They were interested. I delivered a 65,000 word draft to them in January 2015. An editor worked with me off and on throughout revisions and in December 2015, they made an offer. Color Blind released in October 2016.

Fast forward to December 2016: the same literary agent from my first retreat was on the faculty at the Big Sur Writers’ Conference, where I was workshopping chapters from my new novel. One evening, I found her in the dining room and gave her an autographed copy of my book. She was happy for me and enjoyed learning that her critique five years earlier had been critical to my process.

For me, there is a great benefit in getting out of my comfort zone, away from my critique group to attend classes and conferences, ones that have nothing to do with my chosen genre, writing for the youth market. Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans was a good opportunity for getting me out of my zone. The prospect of a Mystery Writers’ conference drew me in like a well-crafted plot, so I booked a flight to NOLA. By myself. No husband. No members of my writers’ group. Just me and my overwhelming desire to learn from the mystery masters, like Heather Graham, Harlan Coban, Michael Connelly, and David Morrell. I wanted to expand my horizons and my community and the conference did that for me. Bouchercon is where I met Elena Hartwell, who generously took time to visit with me before a panel began and recommended that I look into International Thriller Writers and their Debut Author Program

Going forward, there will be more classes and conferences and my community will continue to expand. Every writer needs a community, people to share in your joy when great things happen, like becoming a debut author, or to bolster your spirits when the reviews aren’t so kind or the sales figures aren’t so great.

There is nothing more exciting than this journey, at least for me, at this time in my life, when writing is now a career path instead of a hobby. Is it scary putting yourself out there not knowing if you’ll be ridiculed or rewarded, or worse, ignored? Of course it is, but you can handle it. You have a large community on your side, #amwriting.

You can follow Sheila on social media - visit the links below




Isabella Maldonado: Crime Fighter-Crime Writer, an author talks Police work & Police Procedurals.

This week, I'm pleased to host ITW Debut Author Isabella Maldonado. Her first novel, Blood's Echo, launched March 8, from Midnight Ink.

Isabella Maldonado retired from law enforcement as a Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. During her long career, she was recognized with a Meritorious Service Award and a Lifesaving Award, and she was selected to attend executive management training at the FBI’s National Academy. Isabella is a past president of the Phoenix chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can visit her at www.IsabellaMaldonado.com.  

The Interview

You spent two decades in police enforcement before becoming a crime writer. What brought you to that career? What was the best and worst parts of being in police work?

While still in school, I thought I wanted to be an attorney. After doing an internship in a now defunct law firm, I lost my taste for that profession. Since I still had a passion for the law, the idea of practicing in a more direct way appealed to me.

Turned out I was very fortunate in my career choice. Law enforcement was a great fit. Some of the best things about it involved the feeling that, while I couldn’t change the world, something I did might make a small difference in someone’s life.
Face it, people don’t call the police because they’re having a great day. As a cop, you encounter people at their worst. You see the worst humanity can offer in the violence we perpetrate against each other. On the other hand, a police officer also sees people at their best. You become aware of the sacrifices we make for each other and the underlying dignity in each person despite their circumstances. 

Most of us have to do a lot of research to try to get our police procedure and other details correct in our mysteries. What areas of writing do you find the most challenging in terms of accuracy/believability? Where have you had to turn to an expert? Have you ever found yourself thinking you can't write something the way it really happens because it won't work dramatically?

Writing a police procedural presents unique challenges. The inner workings of an organization, especially a major city police department, are filled with bureaucracy. A fast-paced story can’t be bogged down with the red tape involved in a police shooting. Sometimes knowing too much causes trouble. I have to be selective about what to include. I want readers to get an authentic sense of what’s happening without drowning in minutia. (You do this really well. The book moves fast, but also feels "real.")

Despite my LEO background, sometimes I still need to do research. The first book in my Veranda Cruz series involves fires. To get my facts straight, I interviewed a Phoenix Fire Department Arson Investigator. His input was invaluable to the accuracy of the story. Even a seasoned law enforcement veteran must stay up-to-date with current technology and investigative techniques. The longer I’m out of the game, the more work I put into research.

You are very involved with Sisters InCrime, especially the Desert Sleuths chapter located in Phoenix. How did connecting with that group change your writing career? 

Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to write. With that goal in mind, I looked up crime writer groups soon after I retired and moved to Arizona. Sisters in Crime seemed like a great fit, and they had an active chapter in Phoenix. Upon attending the first meeting, I knew I had found my tribe. 

The group is amazing, supportive of each other’s efforts, and willing to help. There are so few writers who make it to publication, and the members of Desert Sleuths cheer each accomplishment and help one another with an array of talented published authors willing to share their wisdom. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for support from Sisters in Crime.
After being a member for five years, I was elected president of the Phoenix chapter in 2015. I had a fantastic time working to serve our membership and help other aspiring writers attain their goals. I recommend groups like Sisters in Crime to new and established authors. The networking and support are priceless.

Blood's Echo revolves around a drug cartel. Did you base the story on any real event? Or is it a combination of experiences? How much is pure fiction? 

The cartel I created is pure fiction. Most narcotrafficking operations are not as sophisticated as the one I developed for my story, but a few are quite formidable. Law enforcement officers and agents face a serious threat when they go after cartels. With millions of dollars at stake, these criminals have a powerful incentive to protect their business.

In addition to the cartels, however, Blood’s Echo is foremost a story of one individual’s fight against a ruthless and powerful organization. It’s also about her struggle to discover who she is and how she fits into a police department where her past makes her a liability.

Who are some of your favorite authors to read? Do you find yourself being more critical now than you were before you learned craft? Or are you more appreciative of other authors, knowing how much work goes into it?

I have a much greater appreciation for the work authors put into their stories now that I’m published. I used to be more critical about any deviation from standard police procedure, but now I understand the need to create a cohesive plot and the resulting challenges thrown in the path of a writer.

Some authors, however, manage to consistently nail it. Michael Connelly puts tons of authentic detail about the LAPD into his Harry Bosch series without dragging the plot down. He also skillfully ages his protagonist in a way that keeps the timeline intact while allowing a reader to pick up any book in the series and enjoy the tale. I also enjoy the humor and supporting cast developed by Janet Evanovich in her Stephanie Plum series. Her family begins to feel like your own as you continue to learn more about each member in subsequent books. (And who doesn't love Titus Welliver as Bosch?)

What are you working on now?

I was fortunate enough to get a three-book contract with my publisher. So right now, I’m launching book one, editing book two (I submitted the manuscript to my publisher in January), and writing book three…all at the same time! It’s super busy, but I’m living the dream, so no complaints from me. (Congratulations!)

Final words of wisdom:

People ask me how to give themselves the proverbial kick in the pants to get their draft finished and out into the world. My best advice is to make a declaration. Say it out loud. Set a date for completion, and commit. No one will ever know how brilliant your manuscript is while it’s still in your hard drive.