Guest Blog: Start by Starting, and other Strategies for Aspiring Writers by Sarah Symons

ImageAlmost everyone I know has an idea for a book or screenplay. Some of these ideas are quite compelling, and I for one would love to read them. However, writing a book – actually completing one and getting it edited and published – is a challenging undertaking, and many great ideas are lost along the way.

Believe me, I had many bumps in the road on my journey to completing This is No Ordinary Joy. Writing this book (from the day I typed the first word to the day I got my first galley copy) took a full five years! Many times I nearly gave up. Okay, I’ll be completely honest: I did give up a few times, but thankfully came back from the ledge with the help of some good friends, some helpful strategies learned along the way, and driven by the overwhelming compulsion to share my story (how I went from being a TV music composer living on Cape Cod, to helping girls get free and remain free from modern day slavery in India, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand).

I hope these strategies will be helpful to any of you readers and book-lovers out there who also aspire to write a book:

Strategy #1 – Start by Starting
Thinking about a book does not have the same benefits as writing one. You will love the feeling of accomplishment you get from writing even just one page or chapter. Forget about making an elaborate outline of your story, and just put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). As Stephen King suggested in his book ‘On Writing’, put your characters in a situation and see what they do. Discover what happens as you write it. It will come together. But first you have to take that first step. Just do it!

Strategy #2 – Ask a Friend
Three years into my writing process, I was over halfway finished, and then lost my laptop (and a year’s worth of writing) in an airport. I know, I know, I should have backed up my work. But I didn’t, and then I felt so frustrated and beleaguered, I wrote nothing at all for 6 months. When I told my friend Nicole my sorry tale, she offered to help by becoming my first reader and editor, and my writing accountability partner. She suggested I email her one page a day for the next 2 months. She read each page I sent, and gave encouragement and some editorial comments. Her main mission was just to help me move forward, and it worked! Three months later I had my first draft completed.

Strategy #3 – No Editing or Marketing While You Write!
Editing is easier for me than writing, and I at first became obsessed with working and reworking everything I had written. That, combined with a lack of a disciplined daily writing practice (more on that below) was why I only wrote 30 pages my whole first year. Another creativity-crushing approach was trying to figure out my sales and marketing plan while I was writing the book. ‘Who is going to be interested in my story?’ I worried. ‘How am I going to get it out to the potential readers? How much is too much to share?’ Of course, this line of thought made me feel terribly insecure and shut down my creative process, paralyzing my writing. You will have plenty of time to edit and to create a marketing plan when you have finished writing your first draft. Trying to do those things too early will only ensure that you never have a finished product to edit and sell.

Strategy #4 – Daily Practice
If you always wait for inspiration to strike, or for the perfect quiet moment to do your writing, you are unlikely to finish your book. Instead, set aside time every day – even if it is only 20 minutes some days – to write. If for any reason you are unable to start working on your book, then write in a journal or write a blog. I have established a daily writing practice, which helps both with my creative writing (I’m currently writing a novel) and with writing for my work (I write blogs for Relevée, a social purpose jewelry company related to my work fighting slavery). I find that my business writing, journal writing and creative writing inform and inspire each other, and when I start writing for one purpose, I often get into the groove, and end up doing more writing of a different kind.

Strategy #5 – Chardonnay!
This strategy might not be right for everyone, and if you’re in recovery, you could substitute a steaming hot cup of green tea or chai. But whatever feels like a treat to help you relax, and most importantly to define for yourself and everyone else that this is your time, set aside for your creativity, go for it. Pour a glass of wine (or tea), tell your kids that ‘it is mom or dad’s quiet time and you are welcome to join me by doing your own creative activity, but please don’t bother me for the next 30 minutes’ and get writing!

Sarah Symons is the author of This is No Ordinary Joy, available for the Book Festival, Sept. 27, through The BookMark of Neptune Beach, and at Learn more about her work and vision at


Guest Blog: About Fur People by Vicki Hendricks

Vicki HendricksFor the past twenty years, I’ve been immersed in crime—reading, writing, and learning. I fell into that genre and made a quick splash. But it was not the complete me—a life-long interest in animals begged to come alive. My crime novels and stories have always been peopled with iguanas, cats, dogs, apes, dolphins, horses, snakes—probably many I’m forgetting—but now, finally, I’m writing specifically about my dearest subject, and I have recognized a dark truth about myself in the process.

In Fur People a young woman, Sunny, whose sensibilities are not far from my own, gathers her fur family, a busload of dogs, cats, a couple of ferrets, and rabbits, to travel back to her hometown in central Florida. Forced by lack of money to live in the woods, she struggles against nature and the authorities.

Thirty years ago, I came close to choosing that sort of life. I lived in a house, but had nine adopted cats and sixteen rabbits. I thought they were well taken care of, but now I realize they were my captives, living on the edge. Like Sunny, I couldn’t afford to keep them in the comfort and safety they deserved. The rabbits were confined to hutches most of the time and got little exercise. The cats ate cheap food, ran free outside, and didn’t get their shots on a regular basis. They probably suffered from fleas, as well, since flea protection was unavailable at that time, except for dipping. I did try that once—I have the scars to prove it. Yes, I loved my animals to death, a phrase that gives me chills. Over the years, I was lucky, and most of them lived out their natural life span. But not all.

Even now, I still want every dog and cat I see—and ferrets, skunks, a mini-horse. (They can be house-trained!) Chickens, of course, and I would love a pig. YouTube videos and animal photos fill me with the desire to intermingle species. I can’t go to the humane society because of my lack of will power. I suffer, seeing the trapped, neutered, and released cats in the woods near the beach close to where I live. They rub their faces on my ankles, and their need for love is overwhelming. I am always on the verge of adopting, and it’s like alcohol or heroin—the more I get the more I need. I’m angry with people who allow these animals to breed unchecked, yet I bred those rabbits, and I still have a compelling desire to raise baby animals. It’s inborn, the same as for my character Sunny.

These conflicting emotions have gone into the writing of Fur People. It’s not a tragedy, and there are many light moments and humorous animal anecdotes. But the ironies of natural struggle and nagging questions of how we should relate to the nonhumans with whom we share our homes and the earth hover in the background. There’s a heavy motif of bacon in the novel. Bacon, yum,—how can we keep eating it? How can we stop?

They say when you get older all of your tendencies become more condensed, more obvious, less flexible. Hoarders we see on reality shows are mostly old, probably because young hoarders have the capacity to hide their obsession, like I did. I was a hoarder on a small scale. I might have come to a horrible end. I might still. But describing the sting of flea bites and a puppy’s hunger pangs have made me acknowledge the sad results of love taken to the extreme. Fur People has helped me to dig into my psyche and accept what I didn’t want to know. I hope it helps some animals.

Vicki Hendricks is the author of five noir novels, including Cruel Poetry, a finalist for the 2008 Edgar Award, and several short story collections. She teaches writing at Broward College. Her plots and settings reflect participation in adventure sports and knowledge of the Florida environment. Her love of animals, apparent in her earlier novels, comes to the forefront in her new novel, Fur People.

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Guest Blog: The Truth About Crime Scenes by Lisa Black


Lisa Black

Crime scenes are the most interesting part of forensic science. You get to actually see the setting instead of individual, out-of-context pieces of evidence, and picture how it all went down. And it gets you out of the bloody lab.

They’re also the biggest pain in the neck. They’re never anyplace fun like a shopping mall or a museum, they’re places that are cold, muddy, or unbelievably filthy. They’re abandoned apartments crawling with cockroaches, streets where you automatically keep your head ducked just in case anyone decides to take a shot, houses that make you tsk and say, “I can’t believe anyone lives like this.”

I could write a book on houses. If you ever think your own place is a little messy, you should see the places I’ve seen. This crosses all ethnic, cultural, gender, psychological and economic lines. I guess some people are comfortable with clutter—imagine if you took everything out of all your closets and all your drawers, scattered it over the floor, and lived like that day in and day out—and some aren’t. This may sound like simply a pet peeve, but it actually complicates the investigation. How do you tell if something was ransacked? How do you tell what’s out of place?

In short, crime scenes should be glamorous, but they’re not. For one thing you usually don’t have more than a two-minute warning. Dispatch calls, and you’re given a sketchy summary (half of which will, more often than not, be wrong) and an address. For another, all the work that you planned to get done that day is not done by someone else in your absence—it’s still waiting for you when you come back, and your boss doesn’t care that you had to go.

The fun thing about crime scenes is that each one is different and, again, it gets you out of the lab. The pain-in-the-neck thing about crime scenes is that each one is different, and you can’t be positive that you’ve gotten every piece of relevant information. How do you know if the matchbook sitting on the windowsill was put there by the teenage son three weeks ago, or if the killer set it there while he waited for the victim? How do you know if the oversized pair of shorts on top of the laundry pile was for the victim’s ‘fat days’ or if they were left there by an irate, departing boyfriend? How do you know one of the forty thousand cards in the victim’s collection doesn’t contain the killer’s fingerprint? Answer: you don’t. You have to collect what seems reasonable to collect, and leave it at that. You can only do your best. Remember that during the exhaustive investigation of the Charles Manson murders, there was a pair of glasses left in Sharon Tate’s house that no one ever identified.

You never get all the answers.

Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market Best Sellers list.

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Guest Blog: Crossing the Bridge by Bill DeYoung

ImageFor many years, I had a recurring dream about driving across a ribbon-thin road that stretched across the open ocean. On either side, I remember, there was nothing, no buildings, no billboards, no trees, nothing. Just a drop-off into cold, silver-blue water. In the dream, I had a sense of purpose in continuing forward, as if stopping even for a second would be disastrous. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know where I was going.


Periodically, inexplicably, the oceanic highway would rise up, sloping higher and higher over the water, until I was almost driving in the clouds. Still, I continued.

It was always frightening. Tellingly, I never saw another car. This was a journey that I took alone.

Looking back, I wonder if this dream, which I’d had since I was in my 20s, was the spark that ignited my passion for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans 15 miles of Lower Tampa Bay. Over open water.

I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, and the Skyway was something you saw, and experienced, all the time. I don’t recall thinking too much about it one way or the other, except that at its highest point, 150 feet over the bay, it was scary. As a kid, as a teen, as an adult, I always got a little queasy when I reached the top and looked out across the bay.

On the morning of May 9, 1980, a 606-foot freighter coming into Tampa Bay was caught in a violent squall that materialized virtually out of nowhere, and sent it crashing into one of the Skyway’s high support piers. Nearly 1,300 feet of roadway collapsed, and seven vehicles, including a Greyhound bus, fell from the highest point. Thirty five people died.

It was, and is, the worst ship/bridge disaster in American history, and one of the blackest days Florida’s ever experienced. I remembered it only too well.

Now, I’ve been a professional writer and editor for more than three decades, and by and large, I am an entertainment journalist. I write a lot about music and musicians, and I suppose I always assumed that were I to “do” a book, it would be on that subject.

At the end of 2008, for reasons I can’t quite remember, I was thinking about the Skyway collapse. Online, I read every commemorative anniversary story, and with each successive piece, I noticed that some of the “facts” changed. The passage of time was blurring history.

This drove me crazy. What really happened? Stunned by the misinformation that had become “legend,” I began to dig deeper. Soon I got pretty familiar with the principal characters, especially John Lerro, the harbor pilot who’d been in command of the ship.
In Lerro, I found a protagonist right out of a Shakespearean tragedy. Here was a man who was simply doing his job, and over the course of two minutes – for that was all it took – his life, his world, everything he knew, came crashing down.

Of course, I never forgot those 35 poor souls whose lives were lost. But I found myself coming back, again and again, to John Lerro. Even after all these years, the perception remained that he was somehow a villain, a drunk, a loser. At the very least, a lousy pilot.

He was, I discovered, none of those things.

It took nearly three years to research and write Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down. “What makes you think you can do this?” I kept asking myself. “You’re an entertainment writer. This is serious stuff.”

And now, without getting too precious about it, I feel as if I’ve contributed something to Florida history. I’ve written a pretty good nonfiction narrative, and hopefully encouraged people to reconsider one man’s lost reputation.

Where did it come from? I’ve learned not to question the Muse. But I’ll tell you this: I don’t have that dream anymore.


Bill DeYoung is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down. He lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife Amy, three cats, and a room full of Beatles records. He has been a journalist for 35 years and was Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Gainesville Sun for two decades. He is currently working at Connect Savannah as A & E Editor and Senior Writer. He is well known for his music and entertainment journalism, and his essays have been included on more than 100 CDs.

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Guest Blog: Selling Every Word by Mark Wayne Adams


Mark Wayne Adams

As an award-winning author, illustrator, and publisher, I speak to thousands of people annually. Public speaking and selling books go hand-in-hand in my success. You may ask, “How could public speaking increase an author’s book sales?”

Writers’ words generate money in many ways. Public speaking is a great platform to sell the author’s story. Below is a brief example I will use during my Selling Every Word: Business of Public Speaking session at the 2014 Florida Heritage Book Festival in September.

My publishing goal was to create a quality product that I was proud to sell. I used a professional editor, illustrations, and printer to create a profitable book. Why wasn’t I selling hundreds of books every month with this great product?
I promoted my book using trusted traditional methods: word-of-mouth, social media, and retail stores. I learned word-of-mouth advertising travels only as far as I spread it. Elementary readers don’t use social media. And major retail exposure was a book spine facing outward on a store shelf.

Where could I reach a high volume of readers in one location? The answer was public speaking. Reluctantly, I accepted a teacher’s request to be a guest author/illustrator in an elementary school. Two hundred fifty students expected me to entertain them for forty-five minutes. My first and last unsuccessful reading was to a group of high school peers. This elementary event would be an epic fail.

With my back to the audience, I planned to wow them with my drawing skill. Wrong! Excited students roared behind me. Teachers hushed them with no success. I faced the crowd. The room fell silent. I turned and proceeded to draw. The students roared. I turned facing them again. The auditorium became silent once more. These students wanted my words. So, I nervously spoke.
I shared a childhood story about an uninspiring friend. The students felt every word. Next, I discussed my favorite book. The students nodded and laughed along with me. The presentation ended in applause. My epic fail was more than I had expected. A crowd of inspired students and teachers surrounded me. Some wanted to become an illustrator or author. Others wanted to purchase my presentation sketches, books, and autograph. Something in my spoken words sold everything I had.

As a public speaker, I was selling inspiration. An uninspiring friend and my favorite book evoked similar feelings within the audience. Students saw me as a peer. Teachers saw me as a mentor.

Public speaking became successful in four ways:

1. I connected with my target consumers.

2. Schools paid me to present.

3. Teachers referred me to other schools.

4. Ten percent of attendees purchased products. One day’s book sales equaled a month’s work using traditional techniques.

Publishers evoke emotion in consumers through author bios, author book signings, and author appearances. Authors in turn can use public speaking as a platform to sell every word.

Mark Wayne Adams was born in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. He graduated college with a BFA in Drawing from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He then moved to Central Florida and has called Florida home for over twenty years. His work experience includes Walt Disney World Company, SeaWorld Orlando, Art Director for GSI Architectural Sign Company, and store manager for Sprint Print, Inc. Mark is now CEO of Mark Wayne Adams, Inc., and serves as President Elect for the Florida Authors & Publishers Association.

Mark has illustrated over thirty children’s books in six years winning numerous children’s book awards. An unexpected reward in his publishing journey has been public speaking. Whether at professional organizations or elementary schools, Mark offers valuable insight, inspiring presentations, and a voice that reaches audiences across the United States.

Mark Wayne Adams can be reached at or via email at Follow him on Twitter: @markwayneadams

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Guest Blog: The Bones of Mysteries and Thrillers

Elizabeth Sims

Elizabeth Sims

The Bones of Mysteries and Thrillers

by Elizabeth Sims

One of the most popular presentations I give is “How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that SELLS.” I initially wrote it as a webinar for Writer’s Digest, then I adapted it for in-person presentations and workshops, and then I included some of the material in You’ve Got a Book in You. I’ll be giving the presentation at the Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine in September.

Today’s post is to give you one of the nuggets of that presentation.

When I started out writing fiction seriously, I made a point to read stuff on how to write great fiction or at least fiction that doesn’t suck, like writing magazines and interviews of famous authors. And I remember having anxiety about whether my stories were mysteries or thrillers. Why? Because so many writing authorities, including editors and agents, were shouting that you have to write one or the other, and the forms are very different, and you must follow the correct form, or your manuscript will be shoved into the feed box of the monsters that live in the tunnels below Manhattan, because editors and agents require precise categorization of the novels they traffic in, and they have like zero patience.Tunnel monster

[I risked my neck to capture this image of a Manhattan tunnel monster during a recent trip to New York City, so I could prove to you they exist. As you can see, one hand is a catcher’s mitt, the other a Garden Weasel. Terrifying.]

The thing was, every authority’s definition of mystery and thriller was different! The formulas seemed complicated, dogmatic, and hopelessly impossible to follow exactly. Anyway, what kind of writer would want to?

It took me a long time to figure out the single basic difference between the two forms:

A mystery is a puzzle.

A thriller is a pursuit.

You just went, “Yeah!”, right? Because somehow you knew that already, and it totally fits.

To be sure, most mysteries and thrillers contain some puzzling stuff, plus some getting-chased-by-the-bad-guys stuff. But it’s usually more of one than the other, and so there’s your category.

Currently, it seems agents and editors (not to mention readers) aren’t as hung up on dueling definitions, but they still like to categorize books for the sake of promo and marketing, which is important.

But most important of all is a good story.

Join me in St. Augustine, OK?

Elizabeth Sims is the author of seven successful novels, including the Rita Farmer Mysteries (St. Martin’s Minotaur) and the Lambda Award-winning Lillian Byrd Novels (Alyson Books). Booklist calls her crime fiction “as smart as it is compelling,” and Crimespree magazine praises her “strong voice and wonderful characters.” Elizabeth writes frequently for Writer’s Digest magazine, where she is a Contributing Editor. Her latest book is You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (Writer’s Digest Books). A popular instructor at workshops and conferences across the country, Elizabeth has helped thousands of fledgling writers find their wings. She holds degrees in English from Michigan State University and Wayne State University, where she won the Tompkins Award for Graduate Fiction. She belongs to several literary societies as well as American Mensa.

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