Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Own Private Rulebook


by Chris F. Holm

One thing I've discovered in my writing life is I'm no good at predicting whether or not an opportunity is gonna prove worthwhile. But I've also learned I don't have to be. Over time, I've developed a few simple rules to guide me. They've helped me immensely; mayhap they'll do the same for you.

On Online Networking
The best networking advice I've ever read came courtesy of novelist Sandra Ruttan, who said, "The first rule of networking is STOP TRYING TO NETWORK!" Fact is, publishing is full of interesting folks who love the stuff you love. So stop trying so hard. Just make friends. Congratulate folks on their successes. Champion work you love. Believe me, you'll get it back in spades, and wind up with relationships you'll cherish, not just a glorified mailing list.

On Short Stories

Write. Submit. Repeat. Shorts are the best possible advertisement for your work. Market-wise, don't be afraid to aim too high; my first acceptance came from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a long shot that paid off. But don't discount the little guys, either; I got a Spinetingler Award and a Derringer nomination for stories published in online 'zines, and when a buddy asked if I'd contribute a story to a new magazine he was starting up called Needle, I had no idea that story would wind up in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. Oh, and agents read short stories. Just ask internationally acclaimed author Stuart Neville, whose agent contacted him out of the blue after reading a story of his in Thuglit.

On the Value of Free

Don't be afraid to give your work away. Use your best judgment, of course, and always aim for paying markets, but plenty of reputable short fiction markets don't pay. That one I wrote for Needle, I did for nothing. Funny thing is, the check for BEST AMERICAN was for more than I'd been paid for all my other shorts combined.

On Stepping Outside One's Comfort Zone
Most writers are uncomfortable in the limelight. It's an occupational hazard. But don't let that hold you back. If ever someone asks you to participate in something – be it an interview, a panel, or, say, a blog post on writing advice to be read by loads of thriller writers– and your only objection to saying yes is it's outside your comfort zone, SAY YES ANYWAYS. In my case, doing so put me on a panel at Bouchercon alongside pulp badass Christa Faust; a terrifying experience, sure, but one of the most thrilling and memorable moments of my life. And if I said one not-stupid thing, I might've even sold a book or two.

On Writing Advice
Writing advice (this writing advice included) is only as good as the work it does for you. There are a thousand ways to do this job, and none of them is the One True Path. So when it comes to advice, keep what works and toss what doesn't, regardless of the source.


Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. He wrote his first story at the age of six. It got him sent to the principal’s office. Since then, his work has fared better, appearing in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. DEAD HARVEST is his first novel.

To learn more about Chris and DEAD HARVEST, please visit his website.


Miranda Parker said...

Chris, thanks for being a sport and revealing some plays from your rule book. My background is short story writing. However, I haven't submitted any since I became published. You've definitely excited me a bit.

Since your book just released, what have you learned in these few weeks that you would add to your rulebook?

Chris said...

Thanks for having me, Miranda!

Truth be told, I'm not sure I've got any kind of perspective yet on this whole crazy process; it's been a blur of not-sleeping, vanity Googling, guest blogging, and insane stressing about the tiniest of details.

I will say this, though: as silly as it sounds, what's kept me (slightly more) sane throughout is taking the time to get in a run, a few hours' sleep, a bit of reading here and there, or a nice meal out with friends. Sometimes, you have to walk away from the circus of a book launch so you can remind yourself just how lucky you are to be there...

Oh, and one other thing: thank the folks who help you along the way. Those people are saints. They deserve your appreciation. And they more than make up for the calls untaken, the emails unresponded to while you try your damndest to peddle your wares.

Funny aside: my word verification for this comment is "Killit Pubmill". Not sure what Blogger's trying to tell me.

Miranda Parker said...

lol "killit pubmill"

From my experience you've nailed the first month. I thought I was very good with my schedule. As a publicist I also keep up with at least five client's schedule by the hour. However, when my first novel released everything went out the window. I agree getting away from The Crazy for a little while keeps you from blowing away.

I will share a rule about doing Author In-Store Events. Bring a wing man or wing woman, to walk around the store and drive traffic to your table, to pass out book marks, to stand at your table so others will see you. Sometimes patrons want to come over, but they are shy. If someone is already there, somehow they feel more at ease to meet you.

Chris said...

That's great advice! Though my wife (er, future wingwoman) may bristle slightly...

K.L. Brady said...

Great advice about the short story writing. An editor told me the same thing but I think I'm chicken to really try. I've only written novels. My first written work (for publication) was a novel and I've been a novelist since.

I think I'm intimidated by the short story and the fact that you don't have as much space to build your characters and story arc. I don't think I've written one since sophomore English in college.

This is an area I definitely need to work on.

Miranda Parker said...

she would be great!

Miranda Parker said...

KL, that's funny.

I didn't think I could write a novel, because I wrote short stories. I wanted to get featured in The New Yorker. lol.

Chris said...


I hear what you're saying about the tighter space, but I view them as a chance to explore an idea I like, but that maybe doesn't have the legs to be a novel. I'll bet you have a dozen Post-its lying around with story ideas you'll never get to in novel form that might fit the bill.

Also, I like shorts as a lab for my longer works. DEAD HARVEST features an alternating past and present narrative that blend during the climax of the book. That's a trick I first tried in a short called "Seven Days of Rain." If I hadn't tested the technique there, I'm not sure I would have had the confidence to attempt it in a longer work.

Miranda Parker said...

Exactly. I learned how to hide the I s in my novel through writing shorts.

you made a good point about using the short to try out a story. I have to pitch a new series and hadn't thought about testing it it on a short

Cathy Perkins said...

Hi Chris

Congratulations on your debut!

Your first rule about Online Networking hit the right note for me. In fact, I'd extend that to all networking.

Playing it forward - helping others before I published - came back as a boost when my book released. Friends and acquaintances offered guest spots and helped spread the word. And the rest of the year, I know some pretty wonderful people :)

Still haven't figured out the short story skill set though...

Chris said...


Take a crack at it! If it works, include it in your pitch.

And Cathy,

Thanks very much! That rule helped me immensely, because I felt icky trying to schmooze when I was first starting out. Then I read Sandra's words, and thought, "OH! I don't HAVE to." Since then, I've developed such an amazing group of friends, if I never wrote another word, I'd be sure to keep them in my life. That beats trading blog links any day.

Martin Bodenham said...

Great advice, Chris.



Chris said...

Thanks, Martin! Of course, your mileage may vary, but this works for me...

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks for the post, Chris. I was especially interested to read of your experience in using the short story form to try out a technique you later used in the novel. That story, by the way, is a great one!

Chris said...

Kind of you to say, Linda! Truthfully, I test stuff in my short stories all the time. Tense, third person, framing the story as a flashback, all kinds of stuff I've later tried in novel form. Short stories make for great prototypes.

F.T. Bradley: said...

I cut my teeth writing short stories, so I love this advice.

And I couldn't agree more on the whole networking thing.

Great post! Congrats on the debut, so exciting.

Chris said...

Thanks, F. T.!

jenny milchman said...

Hi Chris! This is wonderful advice. I particularly like your long shot that paid off with EEQM.