Author Interview — M.J. Ritchie

Today I’m pleased to present my interview with M. J. Ritchie, another author with a story in the anthology Hides the Dark Tower.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00001]A lover of words, and things that go bump in the night, M. J. Ritchie’s been writing since the age of nine. She has degrees in business from Drexel University and Johns Hopkins University with experience in everything from accounting to sales. As a faculty associate at The Johns Hopkins University Carey School of Business, she has helped graduate students learn the intricacies of business processes and organizational change. In her consulting practice, she works with organizations to improve performance. Writing fiction indulges her desire to play god on a small scale. She hopes her writing will educate, entertain, or inspire her readers. She’s married and lives in Maryland. Visit her at www.mjritchie.com.

Now for the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: When and why did you begin writing fiction?

M.J. Ritchie: Ever since I learned to talk I’ve had a love of words and language. I began writing poetry at the age of nine and have written in various forms for my own enjoyment throughout my life. I began writing fiction with an eye toward publication a little more than a decade ago. At the time, I was working as an independent consultant on a variety of systems projects in which the only project variable that didn’t change was my deadline. Writing fiction appealed to me because it allowed me to play god on a small scale, to be the one in control. I’ve since learned that playing god isn’t easy.

P.S.: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

M.J.R.: To this day, I remember the plight of the land turtle crossing the road, so vividly described in The Grapes of Wrath. I think I read that book in high school. It was my introduction to Steinbeck, who devoted a chapter to that one scene. That book made me aware of what good fiction could be and do. I made it a point to read all of Steinbeck’s works available to me at the time. I also enjoy the psychological horror of Shirley Jackson, as exemplified in “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’ve written an homage piece to “The Lottery,” which I hope to get published. I love the Irish short stories of Frank O’Connor, and Frederick Busch’s “Ralph the Duck,” a study in understated writing that packs a wallop. I love the beautiful simplicity of children’s stories. The Velveteen Rabbit and Charlotte’s Web with their life lessons are favorites. I enjoy reading poetry too, especially when I’ve hit a writing wall. Poetry has an evocative effect that helps me work through a stumbling block.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

M.J.R.: I don’t know that any aspect of writing is easy for me. Like Dorothy Parker, I “hate writing, but love having written.” That being said, I can’t imagine not writing. One of my biggest writing challenges is to write multi-sensory descriptions without having them seem appendages to the scene. I admire those who write scenes so that you can smell the coffee, or the manure; hear the wind or see the room and its garish furnishings. I struggle with that.

P.S.: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

M.J.R.: Anywhere and everywhere: My own life experiences, watching people, eavesdropping, reading articles. Every once in a while, an idea just pops into my head.

P.S.: What is the primary genre you enjoy writing in? What interests you about that genre?

M.J.R.: To be honest, I don’t know that I have espoused a genre. I’m still flirting with different types of stories. I enjoy writing stories that entail elements of tragedy, lives gone awry, darkness, the supernatural, mysterious events, adversity. I have a curiosity about things that we can’t see or explain. I also am awed by people who, despite misfortune, somehow survive, succeed.

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other authors in your genre?

M.J.R.: This is a difficult question to answer because my writing is not specific to a genre. I’m interested in character and what motivates people to do what they do. I like exploring how people react to life events. Many of my stories involve a death of some kind. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve experienced the death of loved ones that I’m drawn to that topic or not, but I have a certain fascination with the subject. I also am a great admirer of the human spirit and its resilience, so my stories, though sometimes dark, are usually hopeful.

P.S.: What is your favorite story that you have written? Can you tell us a little about it?

M.J.R.: My favorite story is my novel, Emily’s Child, which is about a happily married couple whose world shatters when their eight-year- old son dies. Each grieves the loss of their son, but in different ways.

The husband, Tony, juggles the increasing demands of work, while tending to his grief. His position as the lead architect on a major project keeps him away from home and his wife, Emily. The stakes are high—this is the career opportunity of a lifetime.

When a project of her own falls through because of a trusted colleague’s betrayal, Emily feels increasingly lost and adrift. She begins acting strangely. An accident causes a psychotic break, and she is hospitalized. Here, she must unearth and confront her past.

This story of a young woman’s confrontation with death and her past is also a study of human relations. The story explores the ways that people cope with loss—some healthy, some not, and the strain that such loss places on relationships. Childhood trauma, betrayal, and mental illness are also potent themes of the novel.

P.S.: Your story in Hides the Dark Tower is “Soul for Sale,” a haunting tale of the value of that thing one shouldn’t offer on an online auction site. What prompted you to write it?

M.J.R.: Several years ago I read an article about the bizarre items people were auctioning on eBay. I remember thinking at the time that the theme might make for a good story. This idea resurfaced when I saw the submission guidelines for the Hides the Dark Tower anthology. I’ve been to the Yucatan and thought that it would be a good setting for “Soul for Sale,” which tells the tale of atheist Nicholas Marsden who sells his soul—something he doesn’t even believe he possesses—on eBay to a wealthy, attractive buyer for whom money is no object. The buyer’s sole condition of purchase is that Nicholas accompany her to Mexico on an all-expense paid trip. Such a deal, right? At the outset, Nicholas finds the whole arrangement amusing, as well as lucrative. He soon discovers, however, that this venture may involve a high price—to him.

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

M.J.R.: I’m currently writing a story with the working title “Semper Fi” that’s about the casualties of war. A couple loses their only son, a young Marine, in the war in Iraq. The fallout of this terrible loss is their relationship with each other. Marva, the wife, who did not want her son to join the military in the first place, handles her grief by building a wall around her emotions. She is unavailable to her husband, Jude, who consequently enters into a brief relationship outside the marriage. Marva has to decide on how to move through her grief and whether she can forgive her husband.

My research for this story renewed my appreciation for our military and the sacrifices they and their families make. We need to remember that their sacrifices enable our freedom and the lifestyle we enjoy. While we sit eating dinner or watching TV, people are putting their lives on the line for us. No one returns home from war the same. Not all wounds are visible. These days, it’s all too easy to forget that we are indeed the “home of the free because of the brave.” We have to honor and value our veterans.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

M.J. Ritchie: My advice to aspiring writers and to anyone pursuing something that matters to them is to keep at it and to listen to your intuition or gut. Quiet your internal critic as best you can and don’t set up imagined obstacles for yourself such as I’m too old, too young, not smart enough, not talented enough, not whatever enough. Focus on what matters to you. Write what you enjoy writing. I have a saying hanging in my office: Dum spiro, spero. While I breathe I hope. Do the work, put it out there, and hope for the best. Save your old stuff—your rejected work that never saw the light of day. When you become famous, everybody will want to publish it. And if possible, join a solid writers group. My own group has been an invaluable source of knowledge and encouragement. They’ve kept me going when I might have given up otherwise.

Thank you, M.J.!

Readers inspired to find out more about her can visit her author website at www.mjritchie.com.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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New Book Alert – After the Martians

That’s right. I’m announcing the upcoming launch of a new book in the What Man Hath Wrought series. It’s called “After the Martians,” and the cover is sensational.

AftertheMartians72d

Here’s the blurb for the book, an alternate history occurring after the events of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds:

In 1901 the Martians attacked Earth, but tiny bacteria vanquished them. Their advanced weaponry lay everywhere—giant three-legged fighting machines, heat rays, and poison gas. Now, in 1917, The Great War rages across Europe but each side uses Martian technology. Join Corporal Johnny Branch, a young man from Wyoming, as he pursues his dream to fight for America. Follow magazine photographer Frank Robinson while he roams the front lines, hoping to snap a photo conveying true American valor. Perhaps they’ll discover, as the Martians did before them, that little things can change the world.

Gypsy Shadow Publishing and I are planning for a book launch in early May. You’ll find more news about “After the Martians” here at this website, so check back frequently with—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Of Brands and Platforms

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned ‘author branding’ a few times in passing, and wrote a post on ‘author platforms.’ But what’s the difference between the two, and is one more important than the other?

First, let’s define both terms. In Brian Niemeier’s post on the subject, he quotes Jane Friedman’s definition:

Author Platform = the proven ability to reach a target audience with visibility and authority

Niemeier then cites Joe Konrath’s definition of brand:

Author Brand = the reader’s linkage of author name with a positive reading experience

Author BrandTo understand branding, think of the effort major corporations put into getting customers to associate the corporations’ products and logo with a happy experience.

Philip Martin has listed the ways author branding is akin to religious faith, though I wouldn’t go that far, and the analogy with religions quickly breaks down. In my view, it’s better to think of branding in the context of corporations, such as those marketing fast food or soft drinks.

Even better, think of your favorite authors. Just the act of recalling each of their names evokes the linked memories of your satisfaction with their books. For each author, you form the mental gestalt of their genre, writing style, typical settings, and common character types. The whole pleasurable reading experience comes flooding back to you upon the mere mention of a name.

That’s the effect you want to create in your readers. How do you do that? First, write great fiction. Ensure some commonality between your stories, in genre, style, settings, or character types. The more of these that are in common between your books, the more effective your branding will be, since readers will better know what to expect. You’ll achieve the consistency necessary for closer linkage of your name with your body of work. Lastly, you’ll have to do the marketing necessary to keep reinforcing that mental connection of name to experience.

Once you achieve effective branding, where a tribe of loyal readers associates your name with a great reading experience, then they will spread the word about you, and through them you’ll reach new readers. It’s that ability to reach new readers that is your platform.

Having defined and described platform and branding, what is the relationship between the two? Obviously, they’re related and intertwined. If you have a recognizable brand, you’ll have constructed a platform, which further establishes and cements your brand.

Think of platform as being from the point of view of a major publisher. Traditional publishers don’t often risk publishing works by authors who don’t already have a platform. Think of brand as being from the point of view of the reader. It’s in the reader’s mind where the desired linkage of name and experience occurs.

In my view, brand comes first, then it builds your platform, which then reinforces your brand and they snowball together after that.

That’s it, pardner. I reckon you better stop readin’ this an’ start heatin’ up your brandin’ iron. You got a heap o’ work to do, and so does—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X

 

Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Writing Success, Thanks to Mr. Pareto

All things being equal, no two things really are equal, are they? That strange little fact, along with a rule thought up by an Italian economist, could improve your fiction writing, or at least allow you to manage your fiction-writing time and other resources better.

220px-Vilfredo_ParetoVilfredo Pareto came up with a principle now named for him—the Pareto Principle. It’s also called the “80-20 Rule” and the “Law of the Vital Few.” Pareto noted the following inequalities, or uneven distributions: only 20% of the Italian people owned 80% of the land, and in his garden, 20% of the peapods contained 80% of the peas.

It’s surprising how often this rule applies in everyday life, and it could even apply to your writing. Let’s say you’ve written ten stories and had them published, and over a given period, here were the number of sales:

Title Sales
The Wind-Sphere Ship 12
Within Victorian Mists 40
Alexander’s Odyssey 8
Leonardo’s Lion 4
A Steampunk Carol 9
The Six Hundred Dollar Man 6
A Tale More True 1
Rallying Cry / Last Vessel of Atlantis 2
To Be First/Wheels of Heaven 1
Time’s Deforméd Hand 4

If I sort the data in order from most to least, make a bar chart, and add a line representing the cumulative percentage, I get a Pareto Chart, like this:

Pareto chart

If these really were my sales numbers, I’d note it’s not quite true that 20% of my stories were getting 80% of the sales, but this graph still illustrates the concept of the vital few.

Seeing this data, you might be tempted to shift all your marketing efforts to the three or four books currently selling well. Not a bad idea, but I’d caution you to continue monitoring the books out at the ‘tail’ of the curve. Watch for a book that’s trending leftward and increasing in popularity.

If you had enough data on your (and others’) writing efforts, you might find:

  • 80% of your writing time is spent on 20% of your writing product. Thanks to Bob Parnell for this one, and the next two.
  • 20% of all writers achieve 80% of the sales income.
  • 20% of writers are sending 80% of the submissions to publishers.
  • 20% of your science fiction world-building will be enough to satisfy 80% of your story’s needs. Thanks to Veronica Sicoe for that.
  • 80% of your sales come from 20% of your marketing efforts.
  • 20% of your blog posts get 80% of the hits.
  • 80% of all fiction book sales occur in 20% of the genres.

I’d caution you not to take a strict interpretation of the Pareto Principle. It’s just a guide to show you the outputs of your efforts are not uniform, and give you ideas about where to focus. There’s a good critique of the Pareto Principle written in a guest post by author Debbi Mack.

For now, I think we’d all agree that 80% of the best fiction out there is written by 20% of the authors, especially that one who calls himself—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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