Writers in the Storm

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We’re All in This Together, Anecdotes from the Front Lines

 By James R. Preston

I’m going to take a break from technical advice about structure or the gaming world and how the Boss Fight relates to fiction, and talk about meeting other writers and what you can get out of that. I’ll throw in some Rules of Encounter and Warnings, Scary Moments, and maybe elicit a smile or even a chuckle. 

For once I know exactly where the idea for this essay came from. I have two thirty-something friends with whom I share movies and books and from whom I learn much. Driving back from a show I said something about Frank Herbert and one of them said, “Wait, stop. You’ve met Frank Herbert?”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact I have and I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to talk about that encounter because I believe it has meaning, a meaning that perhaps will help you in your writing efforts. 

Big-Time Authors

As writers we spend our time at the keyboard, or thinking about what we will say once we return to the keyboard, or studying ways to improve what we produce at the — well, you know where I mean. There can be an underlying, hidden assumption that somehow the big-time authors are different, that they have some secret, that they are not like us. It ain’t so. 

All of us, from The NY Times list down to the newly-published writer share attributes.

We are all in this together. Meeting your writer heroes will help you to understand just how true that is, how strong that bond is, 

A few of my own True Life Adventures will illustrate this point and I’ll add some Rules as well as Words of Warning. 

Writing is not easy. For all of those times when the characters leap off the page and entertain you with their stories there are a lot more — at least if you are like me — times when it’s pulling teeth or worse. One of those True Life Adventures stars was Harlan Ellison and I’ll let him explain what it’s like.

True Life Adventures 

You may say, “But I’ve never met any important writers or agents and don’t have a clue how to.” Part of those meetings is luck, part is persistence. Here’s how I did it, and with each example there’s a Takeaway, something to remember. 

Harlan Ellison

Ellison taught a UCLA class called Ten Tuesdays Down the Rabbit Hole and it was an epic event. Through a friend I was offered a chance to be a Teaching Assistant. I was working full time and taking two classes — six units — but I said yes anyway. I helped a little bit with various things and as a result got to meet Harlan and actually come to know him. I’ll never forget him saying, “Writing is easy. You just cut off part of yourself and put it on the page.”

Takeaway: Say yes. Seize every opportunity, grab it by the ears and figure out how you’ll get it all done later. 

Frank Herbert        

Frank Herbert lectured at Golden West college. After the lecture was over I hung around to say thanks and to tell him how much I loved Dune. I expected that he would be surrounded by a crowd of admirers but that was not the case and to my amazement I found myself sitting and chatting with a man whose work I admired. I got to tell him how I had read Dune when it was serialized in AnalogScience Fiction, and he asked about my work!

           Takeaway: hang around after a class/talk. If nothing else, say thank you.

Paul Bishop

At one convention in San Diego you could sign up and submit a chapter in advance for review by one of the writers at the conference. I did and my reviewer was Paul Bishop, author of Tequila Mockingbird as well as other excellent thrillers, and career LAPD police officer. At one point in the review, I had something wrong in my description of a revolver. Bishop reached down into his boot top, extracted a small weapon, and showed me the right way. Yes, it’s true. I’ve had a reviewer pull a gun on me. 

Takeaway: If you attend a convention and have an opportunity to get your work reviewed, take it! (See Harlan Ellison note.)

Donald Maas

At a convention in Alaska I must have looked like a writer because this guy in the airport wanted to know if I’d share a cab to the hotel. It was the agent Donald Maas and I did not pitch my work In the taxi. We talked pc issues and since my contract work lately had centered around just that I was able to answer some of his questions. Later I was able to use this as the lead when I pitched my work, “We met at . . .”  Ultimately his agency chose not to represent me but I had a chance. 

     Takeaway: take notes, keep a journal. When you submit work, lead with “We met at Bouchercon, and you said . . .” This is not an original thought on my part. It has turned up in my reading several places. One source went so far as to suggest that you say, “We met at and you suggested I send in  . . .” even if you had not, in fact met them, because at a convention with thousands of people they’ll never remember.

My take on this is not to do it. One, they might remember they’d never met you. (Back to Donald Maas — this is a bright guy. He’d remember if he had not, in fact met you like you claimed. Can you spell, “Kiss of Death?”.) In addition to possibly backfiring it’s dishonest. 

The Horror

We all make mistakes. I comfort myself with that thought. At a Bouchercon convention my publisher had equipped me with the usual giveaways, bookmarks, postcards, and cards announcing a talk I was giving that afternoon. So I’m handing out this stuff and here’s a lady sitting in the end seat in an auditorium. I stop and hand her a card, then I realize that it’s Sue Grafton and she was deep in conversation with two other writers in the row in front of her. She was gracious. I was busy slithering away on my belly like a reptile. 

Takeaway: Be observant! Pay attention to name tags. Especially pay attention to whether or not the person you want to talk to is otherwise engaged. Learn from my mistakes. 


At another convention, this one in San Diego, I had studied the list of agents and identified one I wanted to meet. I found her talking to three or four other ladies. Not wanting to barge in I hung out for a while and then found a moment to step up and introduce myself. (I’d emailed ahead of time to see if she’d be willing to talk.) I said I didn’t want to interrupt when she was talking to her friends She took my elbow and guided me away, whispering, “Thank you so much. I’ve never seen those women before in my life and they would not stop talking.”

  • Rule: Don’t interrupt but wait for a good moment. You might be surprised. 
  • Rule: Don’t hog the line at a book signing. I’ve seen this — wannabe writers standing in line and then pitching their work to an author who is signing books. It’s rude, and it is a sure way to not get your work read. 
  • Rule: Never, under any circumstances, hand a writer or editor a ms at a convention. Whether it’s paper or disk don’t do it. I know, you have invested years of work in this masterpiece, and you are desperate to get it read. Do your homework, make contact ahead of time and then if the person you have selected is open to looking at your work, ask them what they want to see. Corollary: Do reveal the end. Don’t describe the work, pause dramatically and then say, “And to find out how it ends, agree to publish the book.”

Strong Suggestion: thank you notes that do not say buy my book. If you meet somebody at a convention, send them a thank-you email, a “bread-and-butter note.”

A Final Word

I left home at seventeen and moved into the dorm at Cal State Long Beach. All I knew was that I wanted to be a writer. One day I wandered into the CSULB bookstore and saw this little old man (Now I’m older than he was then — yikes! How did that happen?) sitting behind a table buried behind stacks of books, looking lost and alone. Nah, couldn’t be. Books? A writer? I’d never met one. For once I wasn’t broke, so I bought a copy of his book and even a kid like me could tell that he was glad to sign it, glad to talk to me. The book was Jenny by Nature and the writer was Erskine Caldwell. 

Takeaway: It works both ways. He was as happy to have someone to talk with as I was. We really are all in this together. 

Writing is not easy for anybody. Talking to other writers or agents, or people who work in the industry, will make it easier for you to get back to the keyboard.

Now it’s your turn. Who have you met? How? Any tips?

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

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Telling a Life: Tips for Composing a Compelling Biography

by Louise Privette

The picture shows a library that is partially submerged in water. There is a waterfall in the background.

People read biographies to learn more about people they admire or better understand the motivations of those they despise. A great biographer offers a glimpse into the lives of noteworthy individuals. Readers share the individual’s journey, experience their triumphs and failures, and gain insights into their own lives.

I recently wrote a friend’s biography. The task took longer than the return on my five-year certificate of deposit, and I faced some unique challenges while crafting his life story. Here are some lessons learned and tips for writing a captivating biography.

Choose a Subject Worth Knowing

Make sure their story passes the “so what?” test. Although many people lead honorable lives and are loved by those close to them, they may not have a story that the wider world will want to read. Whether writing about a historical figure, a famous person, or your next-door neighbor, make sure this person has a story worth telling.

Sylvia Nasar offers a relevant quote in A Beautiful Mind, the biography of mathematician and inventor John Nash. Nobel Prize winner Nash said:

“Find a truly original idea. It is the only way I will ever distinguish myself. It is the only way I will ever matter.” 

Find the Hook that will Resonate with Readers

What is it about your subject that will draw readers in and make them want to learn more about this person? Is your subject a:

  • cancer survivor?
  • modern-day hero like Captain Sullenberger of Hudson River fame?
  • villain like Adolf Hitler?
  • member of a marginalized group?

After researching the key events in baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s life, author Doreen Rappaport found her hook. She realized that courage and defiance defined the man who opened the gates for athletes of all races. Due to Robinson’s contributions to the sport and society, Major League Baseball retired his number. Ms. Rappaport hit a home run with the title of her book: 42 Is Not Just a Number: The Odyssey of Jackie Robinson. 

Set the Scene

Ground your reader in time and place. What historical events were happening at the time of this person’s life—Woodstock, Desert Storm, the Civil Rights Movement? Capture the mood, music, and culture of your subject’s era.

Jack Weatherford immersed himself in the region and culture to write Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

“It took an anthropologist—who spent years learning Mongolian, living on the steppes for a part of each year, and listening for the truth of Genghis Khan’s life—to flesh out a biography of a man whose life may actually have been bigger than his myth.” https://www.audible.com/blog/article-best-historical-biographies

Do Your Research

Ask for diaries, personal letters, and photographs. Gain permission to interview family members and people who know the person well to gather anecdotes and gain different perspectives. After interviewing my subject’s girlfriend, she provided dialogue and vivid descriptions of the settings. She also offered insights that made him more vulnerable and relatable.

If your subject is long deceased, review historical records, newspaper articles, speeches, and other books about this person. Genealogy sites like ancestry.com may lead you to surviving family members or descendants.

Walter Isaacson is one of the most famous biographers of our time. His works include Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Elon Musk, and Einstein: His Life and Universe. Isaacson conducted more than forty interviews with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and conversed with over 100 friends, family members, and business rivals to complete the biography of this entrepreneur.

I wrote the biography of Tristan Peigné, a biracial man. Through my research, I discovered that interracial marriage only became legal in the United States following the Supreme Court decision of 1967, the year of Tristan’s birth.

Create a Timeline

Subjects rarely recount the events of their lives in chronological order. After listening to the most compelling stories of my subject’s life, I organized the chapters into a coherent narrative arc. Like any great story, there should be a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. Although structure is essential, I began my subject’s biography in medias res, in the middle of the action, to focus on a critical moment in his life and capture the reader’s attention. Then, flashbacks clarified the situation, foreshadowed future events, and enhanced the story.

Jeanette Walls, the author of Glass Castles, also began her life story in medias res with one of the most memorable opening lines:

"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster."

Take us on an Emotional Rollercoaster

Most writers know the adage, Show, don’t just tell. Use descriptive language to help the reader feel the ups, downs, twists, and turns of this person’s life. Engage the reader’s five senses to evoke sensory experiences and immerse us in the story.

“Like my father, I’ve always been a daydreamer, and sometimes I’d imagine that on the way home, a terrorist might jump out and shoot me on those steps. I wondered what I would do. Maybe I’d take off my shoes and hit him, but then I’d think if I did that, there would be no difference between me and a terrorist. It would be better to plead, “OK, shoot me, but first listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. I’m not against you personally; I just want every girl to go to school.”

 ~ Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (Prologue, pp. 6-7).

Help Your Subject to Become Vulnerable

Most of us don’t want others to know our deep, dark secrets; however, people unwilling to share their flaws, failures, and challenges will not be relatable to their readers. I’m fortunate to have a doctorate in counseling psychology, and I used this knowledge to guide my interviews. However, biographers don’t need a background in Freud to employ active listening skills. By gently probing, listening without judgment, paraphrasing, and clarifying, I gave my subject the space, respect, and safety to tell his story. Using my iPhone, I recorded my subject’s life story over four years while traveling in a car, dining together, or meeting at his studio.

Identify Overarching Themes

Themes describe the lesson or message that the author wants to convey. The overarching theme is central to the individual’s character. For example, many people associate Abraham Lincoln with honesty, Mother Teresa with compassion, and Walt Disney with imagination.

In Dancing Through Life, the protagonist’s story is one of resilience, perseverance, and passion. Tristan faced the challenges of dyslexia, homelessness, injury, illness, and racism. Use your subject’s themes to provide structure and insight into your character’s motivations.

Exercise Good Judgment

A biographer must balance a need to tell an honest story and protect the privacy and feelings of others. When possible, obtain the necessary permissions to divulge personal information and be mindful of the potential impact of your words. Unless you’re comfortable with a Jersey Boys handshake, consider a contract to outline the terms of your agreement.

Purchase professional liability insurance if you wish to add a layer of protection. Together, my subject and I chose to omit several chapters and various facts that might cause psychological harm to individuals who are still living.

Review, Revise, and Polish

I had no idea how long it would take to complete the biography of my dance instructor. Covid halted the interviews, gave my teacher an unplanned vacation, forced me to pull out my old Jane Fonda exercise tapes, and set the project back for over a year.

Due to my subject’s dyslexia, I had to read each chapter aloud to him. He then provided clarification while I recorded the necessary changes. I revised each chapter at least five times.

Don’t plan on pounding out the biography in six months and scheduling a Caribbean cruise with your royalties. Allow yourself enough time to write your initial draft, edit, revise, and polish your work. I joined several writers’ groups whose members provided invaluable feedback. Once I finished writing the manuscript, I sought the assistance of several beta readers who focused on not only the grammatical errors but also the flow of each chapter.

Final Thoughts

Writing a biography is an opportunity to honor someone’s life and legacy. Hopefully, it will be a labor of love that enables you to present someone’s extraordinary and complex life. Following these tips, you can craft a biography that captivates, informs, and delights your readers.

Have you considered writing a biography? What do you think is the most important aspect of writing a biography? Do you have a favorite biography?

* * * * * *

About Louise

Louise co-authored Dancing Through Life: A Memoir and served as the executive editor of Many Worlds, Many Stories, Inkslingers Anthology Volume 5. She practiced school psychology for over 30 years and taught classes as an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University. Louise holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Argosy University.

As the 2015-16 president of the Arizona Association of School Psychologists (AASP), Louise wrote a monthly column for Intervention, the official newsletter of AASP. She is currently working on The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide. Keep up with future projects and events on her website: https://louiseprivette.com.

Louise enjoys ballroom dancing, oil painting, volunteering as a Goodyear arts commissioner, and spending time with family and friends.

Top image from https://pixabay.com/photos/book-store-knowledge-library-books-7643976/

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First Impressions Matter: Effective Front Pages

By Kris Maze

It is the season of NaNoWriMo, a festive writing time when writers challenge themselves to madly type away at their latest-great-idea, trying to complete 50,000 words in a manuscript. Writers devote a lot of time to plot out their story line, to build their immersive worlds, and to craft compelling characters. When finished with the first draft, there are multiple layers of revision for writers who want to see their book in print.

But jump ahead a few months, to when you have revised and edited your manuscript. Dreaming big, your book may be picked up by an agent, or you may decide to publish with a hybrid publisher, or on your own. Even if the story is superb, there are many writing tasks involved with writing the front pages of a book for publication. And those parts, even though they are only tangential to the core of the story, are important too.

Next Steps – Prepare for Publication

The pages in the front of the book matter, especially for publication, and require the same attention to detail as the beats and story arcs. In recent work with a hybrid publisher, I realized that a list of these parts of the book, their functions, and how they should look in a published book, would be useful for organizing these key book parts.

Here are the pages that occur at the beginning of the book, in the order that they should appear. Each has a quick explanation of it’s function, the type of content it typically has, and the desired page side of the book (odd pages are on the right and the even pages are on the right.) Read on for considerations for authors and how they can leverage these pages to give readers the best experience with your book possible.

Having this information ready after the manuscript is finished will speed up your publication process. Completing these pages with thought can lead to a better reader experience and more engagement with your ideal audience.

Anatomy of the First Pages of a Book

Title Page (Odd Page Number):

  1. Explanation: The title page is the opening page of your book and serves as a cover for the internal part of the book. It features the book's title, your name as the author, and may include the publisher's information or logo.
  2. Considerations: Make sure the title page is aesthetically pleasing and reflects the tone of your book. Consistency in font and design helps create a professional look.

Copyright Page (Even Page Number, Back of Title Page):

  1. Explanation: Found on the reverse side of the title page, the copyright page includes legal and bibliographic information such as copyright details, publication information, and ISBN. This is the only page in this section that has to appear on the left side of the open book.
  2. Considerations: Ensure all necessary copyright information is accurate. Include any disclaimers or permissions and consult legal professionals if needed.

Dedication (Odd Page Number):

  1. Explanation: The dedication page allows you to express gratitude or dedicate your book to someone special.
  2. Considerations: Keep the dedication concise and heartfelt. Personal touches can create a connection with readers.

Table of Contents (Usually Starts on an Odd Page):

  1. Explanation: The table of contents lists chapters and sections, aiding readers in navigating your book.
  2. Considerations: Ensure accuracy in page numbers. If it spans two pages, the second page can start on an even page. A clear and organized table of contents enhances the reader's experience.

Foreword (Or a preface):

  1. Explanation: A foreword is an introduction to your book written by someone other than you, providing additional context or perspective.
  2. Considerations: Choose someone relevant to your book's theme or genre for the foreword. A compelling foreword can generate interest in your work.

Preface (Or a foreword):

  1. Explanation: The preface is your own introduction to the book, explaining its purpose, scope, or context.
  2. Considerations: Use the preface to connect with readers, sharing insights into your writing process or motivation. Keep it concise and relevant.

Acknowledgments (Can Go in Front or Back):

  1. Explanation: Acknowledgments express gratitude to individuals or organizations that contributed to your book.
  2. Considerations: Decide whether to place acknowledgments before or after the main text. Would it be better for the reader to see which individuals and organizations supported this work before or after reading the novel? Be sincere and specific in your acknowledgments.


  1. Explanation: The introduction sets the stage for your book, providing context and preparing readers for the content to come.
  2. Considerations: Clearly outline the purpose of your book in the introduction. It's an opportunity to engage readers from the beginning and to hook them into the story.

First Text Page (Should Start on Odd/Right Page):

  1. Explanation: This is the beginning of the main content of your book, typically starting on the right-hand side for a clean layout. This is the start of the reader’s main journey and it should draw the reader in right away.
  2. Considerations: Ensure the formatting is consistent and visually appealing. A polished beginning creates a positive, intriguing first impression.

Final Considerations for Authors

Authors can use these pages to their advantage when selling books by considering the following:

  • Professionalism: A well-designed and organized front matter creates a professional impression, enhancing the overall quality of your book.
  • Reader Engagement: Elements like the foreword and introduction can capture readers' interest, encouraging them to delve into the main content and to keep turning pages.
  • Marketing: Consider using the dedication or acknowledgments to subtly acknowledge and thank readers. This personal touch can foster a connection and encourage word-of-mouth promotion.
  • Navigability: A clear table of contents and properly formatted page numbers make it easy for readers to navigate your book, enhancing their reading experience.

By paying attention to these details, authors can present a polished and engaging book that appeals to readers and contributes to its overall success. Use this list and the considerations to assist your preparation for book publication. 

Final Thoughts

What tools do you use to organize the parts of your book?  What stage is your work in progress?  Share with our readers below and encourage each other in our writing efforts.

About Kris

Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications, including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and young adult writing on her website. Keep up with future projects and events by subscribing to her newsletter. And other writing work HERE.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.

And occasionally, she photographs shy mushrooms in the forest.

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