The year was 2012, my second year as a Catherine judge, my first as a category coordinator, and, since we were a little shy on volunteers, I coordinated two categories instead of one. Involvement in a contest keeps you busy, and as category coordinator, it wasn’t appropriate for me to read the entries, but I was piqued by three fun titles in the Strong Romantic Elements category.
Murder, Curlers, and Cream. Murder, Curlers, and Canes. Murder, Curlers, and Cruises. The titles and the author’s name would have stayed in my head even if two of her entries hadn’t placed in the final round.
Fast forward to July, 2013. I’m on the down escalator, a lovely, smiling lady is on the up escalator. Nearly every female in the Atlanta Marriott Marquis that week is attending RWA’s National Conference, but this lady reads my name badge, lifts her own badge, waves it like a beacon, and says, “Hey, Sherry Isaac! It’s me, Arlene McFarlane, from The Catherine Contest!”
After a squee of excitement I reached the end of my escalator ride and immediately went back up. Several hugs and congratulations and so-happy-to-meet-yous later we catch up on each other’s news. I have none, to speak of, but Arlene had two of her manuscripts on ‘The Donald’s’ desk.
No, not Donald Trump. Puh-leaze. We’re talking Donald Maass!
Visit Arlene’s ‘The Buzz’ page on her website (www.arlenemcfarlane.com) and you’ll see consistent contest showings for her Murder, Curlers series, including a finalist spot for Cruises, a winning spot for Canes and a Golden Ticket Round win for Canes in Toronto’s The Catherine Contest in 2012.
Sherry: Arlene, you’ve placed in some big name contests including Daphne Du Maurier, Heart of Denver’s Molly, and The Golden Heart, but by the looks of your website, you must name every placement ever received. Is every contest final an honour for you?
Arlene: Certainly! Winning a contest is an even bigger honour. When I’d won Toronto’s 2012 Catherine and also The Gold Ticket Round, I was over the moon. To have my work critiqued by Kelley Armstrong as the prize? A great honour, indeed. I know of writers who have tried for 10 years to final in a contest. It’s a different climb for everyone, and I definitely appreciate the tenacity to stick with it. Lucky for me, I finaled in the first contest I entered. Mind you it wasn’t a win, but I can’t express the validation I felt because people liked my idea and said I was onto something.
Sherry: Contests can deliver some rough blows to a writer’s ego. Has there ever been a time the most hard-to-take feedback was also the most valuable?
Arlene: Great question. Yes, contests can deliver some rough blows. This is in part because of how feedback is delivered. I’ve had judges make constructive criticism without bruising the ego, and I’ve had judges make hurtful remarks that leave me wondering who they are as people. Sometimes I’ve had to step back for a day or two before revisiting those comments and discern what is valuable and what is merely a distaste for my voice. One judge ripped apart most of what I’d written in an entry then in her final comment said, “Superbly talented, incredibly skilled writer. If not published yet, I have no doubt that you soon will be. These pages reek of future success for its author.”
Sherry: Scratching our heads over feedback must be some kind of a writers’ right of passage. Navigating through differences in opinion can be the hardest part of sorting through feedback. Tricky enough when one judge’s opinion seems to contradict another’s, never mind their own.
Arlene: To this day, I still haven’t figured that one out, but I like to believe [the judge] saw something in my writing and wanted me to strive for my ultimate best. So this was valuable beyond words.
Sherry: After so much success on the contest front, is there still a pay-off to entering contests? Are you still able to take feedback from judges and do you still undergo revisions based on their comments?
Arlene: Yes. Yes. And yes. The contest I won last week (2014 Fool For Love Contest) had the final judge request the full ms. She’d actually read my ms in the past and though she’d said my voice was terrific, she’d made some suggestions on how to improve my story. I took that as gold and was obviously pleased that she’d seen a difference in my entry. It’s a win-win, placing in a contest AND getting it under an agent or editor’s nose. The pay-off is also knowing I’m on the right track with a story. Because I’m too far away from the nearest local chapter, contests and periodic workshops are my connection with other writers. Honing the craft and getting contest feedback has always been very important to me, and I take it seriously because I want my writing to be the best it can be. I still make slight revisions based on judges’ comments. My characters are over-the-top and bigger than life. That’s my style, and judges either love or hate my voice. The trick is to find something of merit in the feedback and try to learn from it.
Sherry: So many writers are in such a rush to publication, so I can’t express how much I respect your drive to make your story the best it can be. With such a long string of success, it would seem you place in every contest you enter. Is that true?
Arlene: A lot, but not all. I’ve actually slowed down on the contest circuit. This year I only entered 2 contests—Fool For Love was one of them.
Sherry: Seasoned receiver of manuscript feedback that you are, what skills have you learned to apply when you critique another writer’s work? What do you look most for in feedback, and what do you most strive to give?
Arlene: What I look most for in contest feedback is how well a funny scene is received, and secondly, how fast or slow the pacing is. Unfortunately, I don’t participate in critiquing. I write 10-12 hours a day, and when I’m not writing, I’m being mommy, doing volunteer work, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and playing the piano. Having said that, I love hearing of another’s writing journey. I’m also a great encourager! If, during a conversation, I can support and cheer on someone, I will most definitely do that.
Sherry: From the lemon yellow VW bug that shoots pink plumes of exhaust (which I suspect is scented with Valentine’s favorite perfume) to the pistol that shoots lipstick ammo, the elements of romance, mystery and fun are in living colour on your website. Which would you say is harder to convey? A cozy romp of romantic suspense on the printed page, or on the webpage?
Arlene: Ha! Definitely the printed page is harder, yet I love both equally. Writing the Murder, Curlers series is a ton of fun, but writing humour is difficult. The set up, the dialogue, the delivery. It’s got to be bang on. I love when readers tell me they snorted coffee out their nose because they were laughing so hard. The website? I couldn’t find a web designer to see my vision, so I designed my website myself. I spent weeks looking for the exact images I wanted to convey. After I found an adorable car, the sleekest curling iron, the perfect shoes, the sexiest legs, the best salon, the right lipsticks, etc., I put it all together. It was a huge job, but I had fun, cutting and pasting and seeing it come to life, so to speak. Then I sent the blueprint to someone and had her add the flash. Unfortunately, I just learned apple mobile device users cannot access my homepage because of the flash—and there’s lots of it. So in order not to lose those visitors, I need to change my website. Not sure what it will look like at this point, but stay tuned. . .
Sherry: Seems nothing in a writer’s life is free from revisions, including our websites. Speaking of revisions, helping women discover their inner and outer beauty seems important to you. If you could pick just one beauty item, what would you advise a fellow writer never to travel to a conference without?
Arlene: Since I owned and ran a full-service salon, there was nothing more rewarding than seeing the joy on a woman’s face after creating a makeover or a fresh haircut. Inner beauty often radiated from that. The beauty item? This is tricky because most women have their favourite never-leave-home-without-it-item. And probably, for a lot of women, that would be lipstick. And while I’m all for that, I’d have to say it couldn’t hurt to pack an eyeliner pencil. It has dual purposes. First, applying a little strategically in the outer corners of the eyes, and then smudging it a tad, works wonders to make eyes more dramatic. Secondly, women often overlook their eyebrows, leaving them unshaped and/or unnoticeable. Eyebrows frame the face, and more importantly—the eyes. Skillfully using the same pencil (assuming it’s the right shade), one can also enhance the eyebrows, creating a stunning look in minutes.
Sherry: Funny you say that, because a few years ago that eyebrow tip changed my life. (Okay, maybe not my life, but it did change my look.) What characteristics do you and your heroine, Valentine Beaumont, have in common?
Arlene: Ha-ha. Sweet question. Janet Evanovich said it best when she said, “I’m not Stephanie Plum, but I know what neighborhood she lives in.” Honestly, there’s a lot of Valentine Beaumont in me, and I like who she is. Valentine is sweet, sassy, vulnerable, and sexy—though she doesn’t know it. Those who know me well would probably be able to tick off some of those traits. Valentine’s a hard worker, has an empathetic heart, and cries easily. Me, ditto. And humour is a big part of her world—even if it borders on sarcasm. Oh yeah, Valentine is way more adventurous than me. I’d rather write a fast-paced, comic, murder mystery than live one!
Sherry: Stories are all about character arc. Whose climb has been more difficult to navigate, yours or Val’s?
Arlene: It’s a tie. Over the course of three books so far completed in the Murder, Curlers series, Valentine has had her share of problems. She’s discovered dead bodies, almost lost her business, dealt with her lunatic staff, tried to dodge blind dates thanks to her mother, and has had to put up with a handsome but arrogant cop—who she’s falling hard for. Plus she’s hired a leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding, world-traveling, Herculean, sexy stylist, who’s added mouth-watering tension in the salon. If that’s not enough, she’s survived explosions, death threats, kidnappings, a drug-smuggling operation, a hair contest gone bad, lived through jokes about her mystery-solving tactics, and much more. Suffice it to say, the climb to becoming the woman she wants to be has been pretty difficult.
My climb is still ongoing. I’ve got a hard work ethic, and I’m extremely determined and disciplined. I’ve been writing for 10+ years, and people have, at times, wondered why I haven’t given up. But they don’t realize that writing, for me, is like breathing. I can’t give up. Nor will I. Contests have been great. Finding the perfect agent, challenging. Remaining gracious through all the rejection and well-meaning advice has been character-building. Though the climb has been difficult to navigate, I have faith something good will come of it.
Sherry: What’s up next for Valentine and for Arlene?
Arlene: For Valentine, more and more wacky adventures, sexy romantic situations, and yes, murder! For me? I just joined FB and am having fun posting things uniquely Arlene. My dream publisher was always St. Martin’s Press because they publish comic mysteries like mine. However, the more I learn about self-publishing, the more I’m convinced this holds the most hope for new authors. With any luck, book one, MURDER, CURLERS, AND CREAM, will be ready by Christmas or next spring. I’ve already designed covers for the first three books, carrying the brand throughout the whole series. Finding an excellent cover artist to improve and/or craft it to size will be the next step!