Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


Top of the Mountain Book Award

As contest coordinator, I’m thrilled to announce the Northern Colorado Writers are now accepting submissions for the 2nd annual Top of the Mountain Book Award. The contest is open unpublished works of fiction, creative/narrative nonfiction, and nonfiction. The contest is open until march 1, 2013. Winners receive a $100 and a framed certificate, as well as recognition at the NCW Conference April 26, 2013. Get the submission guidelines HERE and good luck!

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Jackson Hole Writers Conference

I just returned from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and I’m ready to jump into my new project, a historical fiction. I’m enjoying this reprieve from Folsom while the publisher goes over the manuscript of my book. Check out my post at AprilJMoore.

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Writing Short and Compelling Nonfiction

The other night I attended a lecture by author and journalist, Greg Campbell. Greg is the author of Blood Diamonds, Flawless, and Road to Kosovo. I first met Greg earlier this year at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference where he presented a workshop on writing narrative nonfiction. Since then, I have tried to attend every one of his classes or lectures because he’s such a master of nonfiction. For this particular lecture, Greg focused on a journalistic approach to short nonfiction, having been in that field for many years. Greg’s book-length narrative nonfiction is certainly something to marvel at—he knows what he’s doing. Flawless was probably one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time—it’s fantastic.

Tuesday night’s lecture focused on writing short, yet compelling nonfiction. To define short, we’re talking 800 to 1500 words; 2500 at the most. Anything shorter, it’s tough to get too “compelling,” but nonfiction at that length, is typically newspaper articles—so you need just enough room for the facts. It could pose a challenge for me considering many of the stories in my book will have to be between 300 and 700 words. I’m up for the challenge.

The following are pieces of sage advice from Mr. Campbell. (I paraphrased) Take notes.

Know your audience. This isn’t just your readership. When it comes to short nonfiction, knowing an editor’s specific style is the first thing to consider. For example, USA Today and The New Yorker may have the same readers, but the types of work they publish is very different. Know your editor first.

Know your story. What is your story? And what makes it important? How does it differ from other published stories on the same subject?

Become a storyteller. Write your story in a letter to someone who knows you well. Tell them your story how you would in a conversation. The recipient will be able to tell you where it doesn’t sound like you, where the holes are, etc.

It comes down to voice. You can either put yourself in the story or not. You have to decide if it’s necessary. Can the story and its characters speak for themselves? If you have a message, trust your reader to get it without beating them over the head with it—it’s distracting.

Responsibility to get it right. It’s a no-brainer; get your facts correct. And forget being “objective.” Be fair and accurate. Greg stresses the importance of knowing enough about your topic to defend it, because you may just have to.

Blog a lot. It’s great practice. It’s that simple.

Greg Campbell’s Top 8 Rules for writing short and compelling nonfiction

8. Jump in with both feet; don’t go wading out. Open with a scene from the middle of the story. Drawing the reader in may require starting somewhere other than the beginning.

7. Use really good quotes—and lots of them. They create mile markers in your story, and what’s not compelling about a good quote?

6. Be declarative when you write. Take out the “he said” and replace it with “he thought.” Taking out the attributes puts the reader into the heads of the characters.

5. Pay attention to word selection. Pick words you actually use; that are colloquial, conversational, the way you would speak. Avoid jargon and using “favorite” words. Throw in some well-played metaphors and similes.

4. Pay attention to sentence selection. You can be “colorful” but don’t do it randomly. Plot them out and make sure they are a part of your vernacular. They need to settle into the background, not take center stage.

3. The inverted pyramid. So picture an upside down pyramid in your mind. The top third is the newsworthy stuff. The middle are details, and the bottom is background/filler. That’s your typical newspaper article. For a bit longer nonfiction, overlap another inverted pyramid on the bottom third of the first pyramid. That’s where you hit the reader with another surprise. Greg called them “electric shocks.” Add another pyramid. These “shocks” keep your readers interested throughout.

2. Find a way to wrap up the story by bringing the reader back to the beginning. This a common technique good journalists use to remind the reader where they’ve been. It brings them back full-circle and shows them that you constructed it that way instead of writing it willy-nilly.

1. Write with confidence! Greg couldn’t stress this enough. This comes back to knowing your topic inside and out. Complete mastery and clarity of the topic establishes you as an authority on the subject which will give you confidence to write about it. And confidence = compelling.

So there you have it. Check out Greg’s blog and learn about his forthcoming book on medical marijuana, out next spring.


Every Writer Could Use a Retreat

This weekend I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Retreat at Sylvan Dale Ranch outside Loveland. This is the second year I’ve done the retreat. Last year, I didn’t get as much done since I hadn’t finished my research at that point, but not one to pass up an opportunity to have peace and quiet (even if it was just to get a nap) I went.

This year, having completed my research, I had no excuses. We arrived Friday afternoon, got settled and had a couple of hours to write before our group of 10 gathered to discuss individual writing goals for the weekend. Then we had another couple of hours before dinner. I couldn’t pass up a rather boisterous game of Bananagrams, but after a few rounds, we decided it was time to write again.

From 9-5 on Saturday, we had uninterrupted writing time where the only sounds heard were the rushing river and the taping of keys on the laptop. I emerged from my room to grab a sandwich for lunch in the downstairs common room, then slinked back to continue tapping away. I did make sure I ventured outside to the sunny and peaceful deck to read over some transcripts.

After dinner, I forwent the evening movie of Dead Poets Society and continued to write for another 3-1/2 hours. Each morning I got in about 30 minutes of writing before breakfast.

I want one of these in my backyard

The only misadventure came in the form of a tiny four-legged critter that darted across my floor and turned me into the a shrieking woman standing on the bed, envisioning a thriving community of mice under the bed. Luckily he escaped out into the hall.

I spent 21 hour writing this weekend and met my goal of writing 15 first drafts of the Folsom stories. I’m thrilled I got these done, as I’m sure my publisher would be, too, however I don’t think he’d be happy to hear that the word count on each one is higher than I previously estimated. How I’m going to convince him the word count for Folsom’s 93 needs to be larger, I don’t know, but I’m going to try.

I’m not against begging.

Having this time to write not only resulted in 15 completed stories, but it rejuvenated my writing mojo. I needed to plow through these in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Not having the everyday distractions of home, I cranked out several thousand words of text I wouldn’t have otherwise written in that time. Don’t underestimate the power of a writing retreat. Even if it’s only a half an hour away, it’ll be far enough from the daily grind so you can focus on your love of writing.

(Also . . . check out this great post, What is a Writing Vacation? by writer Carol Deminski)

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Whiteboard Bliss

Until today, I thought my label maker was the next best thing to the invention of the wheel and a cure for polio, but then I discovered the pure elation of a whiteboard.

Now that I’m working with a publisher and have a deadline and word count to meet, I feel justified in buying this $30 whiteboard. (I had to hold myself back at the $50 magnetic one). I grew weary of writing down notes and outlines on pieces of paper because they often got lost, or I forgot which notebook I wrote them in. Not only did this dry-erase board simplify the paper chaos, but it’s mighty satisfying to use.

As I progress and as things change, I can erase, rewrite, erase, rewrite without using up paper—it’s brilliant. I can even pretend I’m Detective Kate Beckett from Castle; studying it, changing it, adding to it . . . (now I wish it was magnetic so could hang up some mugshots . . . dang it)!

ooh, look how pretty!


The Ink is (nearly) Dry

It looks like my book may finally have a home. I will be working with Linden Publishing/Craven Street Books to publish Folsom’s 93! Right now, the scheduled release date is spring of 2013, which gives me until next spring to have a finished manuscript. Plenty of time, right? Geez, I hope so. Wish me luck—I have a book to finish!


Why Back Matter Matters

First of all, you may be wondering what in the world is back matter. Well, it’s all the stuff following the main text of a book that usually consists of the index, epilogue, afterword, etc. I recently attended a workshop at the Northern Colorado Writers Association about back matter, taught by Natasha Wing, a children’s book author. Natasha routinely includes back matter in her books; anywhere from an activity or lesson, to maps or a glossary.

As I learned in the class, back matter is ideal for nonfiction, particularly, historical nonfiction like Folsom’s 93. In the course of researching for the book, I have accumulated nearly 900,000 words of notes. Obviously, it will need to be molded into a readable, coherent form of nonfiction, but what happens to the fascinating stuff that doesn’t make it into the book? If you’ve been a regular visitor to my site, you already know that I’ve shared many of these things on my blog. But there’s so much more.

I plan to have sidebars throughout the book, but that still is a fraction of what I have. I’d like to talk about Folsom’s cemetery, Folsom prison today, the Folsom Prison Museum, and the current status of the death penalty . . . to name a few.

Back matter consists of, but is not limited to: maps, bibliography, photographs, afterword, appendix/addendum, author notes, epilogue, acknowledgments, index, timeline, and glossary. These give the reader an opportunity to learn more about the subject matter and all in one place. It authenticates you as a researcher and as a professional; that you are an expert in your field. According to Wing, it also increases the value of the book, which is always a good thing.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to include everything that I’d like to in Folsom’s 93. So any leftover Folsom tales and tidbits will be found on my blog. No matter what you’re writing, keep everything! You never know when it can become back matter that matters.


A Ridiculous Understatement

On Tuesday, Timothy Masters, who spent nearly 10 years of a life sentence behind bars was finally exonerated for a 1987 murder he did not commit. Thanks to DNA testing (and a great deal of perseverance) he is a free man. This happened in the city in which I live. In regards to the case, District Attorney, Larry Abrahamson said, “America has the best criminal justice system in the world; however, no system is perfect.” Well there’s an understatement.

The best criminal justice system in the world?! We certainly have the largest, and most overcrowded. I read his quote in the paper this morning and I have thought about it all the day. Perhaps he was referring to the rights Americans have, in which case, I wholeheartedly agree. I love living in a country where its citizens cannot be persecuted for their religious, political and sexual preferences; that we have access to the law and the right to a trial, etc., but imperfection continues to run deep within this system.  So is it really the best in the world?

If we had the best criminal justice system in the world . . .

  • Prisons wouldn’t be at a 200% capacity
  • The U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t have deemed California prisons as “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the 8th Amendment
  • Inmates, both male and female, wouldn’t be getting raped everyday
  • The U.S. wouldn’t have the highest incarceration rate in the world
  • Prisons like Folsom wouldn’t have a 70% recidivism rate

If we had the best criminal justice system in the world . . .innocent people wouldn’t be executed. The list goes on and on.

Is the U.S. criminal justice system as good as its gets? Should I just shut up and appreciate we have what we have and accept these imperfections?

Quotes like this, especially from those in the field, merely shows the public that there is nothing wrong with the system—only that it’s not “perfect.” Until lawmakers start acknowledging the problems, our penal system will continue to be far from perfect.

You can read about Tim Masters and his case HERE.

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Stupid Criminals 1, by guest blogger, Jason Brick

I have the pleasure of bringing you my first guest blogger on Folsom’s 93. Jason Brick is a talented freelance writer and has recently published, Astoria: A Guide to Oregon’s Gate to the Sea. Visit Jason at his blog,brickcommajason to read about his latest projects as well as his great writing advice. Jason has also had experience in the parole and probation fields and has accumulated plenty of “stupid criminal stories” that are always worth passing along. I hope to bring  you several of Jason’s stories in the coming weeks. You can check out my guest post at Jason’s blog: Part 1 and Part 2 of staying on task as a work-from-home writer. Jason also works from home and juggles his career, family and being a ninja warrior. Seriously.

It was almost Christmas and Dan Droper (name changed to protect the guilty) was having a rough week. He’d been laid off, was within a month of foreclosure, and struggling with alcoholism. Worst yet, his wife had left him two nights earlier and he was staring down the barrel of a long weekend with nothing to do and nothing to distract him from his misery.

Dan gave in to temptation, made a collect call to his good pal Johnny Walker. Johnny brought his friends Jim and Jack. They had a party, but the good times turned into a maudlin drunk where the pain of losing his wife ached at Dan like the throbbing of a toothache.

The details of the next several hours don’t need repeating, but at the end of them Dan Droper was standing in the middle of his mother-in-law’s living room, holding a gun to his estranged wife’s head. Dahlia (name also changed) was the only one home, so nobody had called 911. There was no hostage situation, no negotiator outside with a megaphone. Just Don explaining that if she didn’t come back home, he’d end both of their lives right now.

Great Christmas present for his mother-in-law to find. Dahlia opted to go home with Dan. He made her drive to their — his — house. Marched her inside at the end of his gun. Once inside, he locked the door. He put his gun away in the bedroom closet. He cracked a beer, sat on the couch and turned on the TV. Dahlia stared at him and asked “What now?”

“Why don’t you get started on dinner?” Dan said.

Dahlia went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Then she used the kitchen phone to call 911, and ran out the kitchen door.

Dan spent Christmas in the county lockup, and will be spending several of his next Christmases as a guest of the State.

Some folks are just too dumb for freedom.