An Interview with Literary Agent Pooja Menon, Kimberley Cameron and Associates

poojamenon1Pooja Menon joined Kimberley Cameron & Associates as an intern in the fall of 2011, with the aim of immersing herself in the elusive world of publishing. She soon realized that being an agent was what she was most drawn to as the job was varied and challenging and satisfied her craving to work with books. In the fall of 2012, she began taking on her own clients. As a relatively new agent, Pooja is looking to build her client list and is eager for submissions by debut novelists and veteran writers. She represents fiction and non-fiction for both Adult and YA markets, and is searching for writing that has an easy flow, timely pacing, unique perspectives, and strong voices.

In Adult fiction, she is looking for upmarket women‘s fiction, literary/commercial fiction, thrillers, mysteries/suspense, historical and multi-cultural fiction. In YA, she is looking for strong voice-driven contemporary fiction (from the light/romantic variety to fiction dealing with darker themes and subjects), horror, mysteries/thrillers with psychological twists, fantasy, historicals–all of which need to be uniquely spun, fresh, with voices that are strong and multi-layered. She‘s also looking for multi-cultural fiction that is either set abroad or is set in the US with characters from a different culture or background.

Pat: Welcome to the RMFW Blog, Pooja. Could you start by telling our conference attendees (and potential attendees) about your educational background and experience and what specifically led to your literary agent position?

Pooja: Of course! I went quite the linear way to be honest. I always knew I wanted to work in publishing. At the time, I envisioned more of an editorial role when I thought of jobs. I planned on moving to NY and trying to get into one of the Big 6 (at that time) and working my way up. So I did my BA in English Literature from England and then, because I loved to write, I did an M.F.A from Otis College of Art and Design in LA, which was really great because it’s a small program and we’re all very collaborative (the professors and the students) and they have a publishing module/program where they release a select number of literary books each year–each of us learnt what goes into publishing a book while working on these.

Once I finished, however, life changed direction and I got married and my husband’s job required me to be in the Bay Area. So I began looking at other options and found Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I’ll be honest, until that point I didn’t know much about a literary agent and nor did I consider it a career option because I had thought of something else all along. But once I learnt more about it, I applied for an internship with Kimberley and I interned and assisted with her for a year. I realized that the job offered me a ton of freedom with the kind of projects I wanted to work on, offered me the freedom to work with the kind of people I wanted to work with, and I got to do more than an editorial role. Agents wear a lot of different hats and I enjoyed learning about all these various hats. Then in the fall of 2012, Kimberley asked me to join and I jumped at the chance.

Pat: Have you attended many writers’ conferences since you became an agent? If so, tell us a little about your conference experience, what you like most and least. If you haven’t been to many conferences, please describe your expectations, especially about the author pitch sessions.

Pooja: I did, actually. This year has been conference heavy! I attended a couple of local one day and weekend conferences, went to San Miguel in February, Houston in April, Boise in May, this July it will be my second time at the PNWA conference in Seattle, my first at Colorado Gold (so excited), quite frankly, I’ve attended quite a bit and really enjoyed them. I love meeting new writers who come to me bursting with ideas for their projects; I enjoy talking to them about their work and how far they’ve come and where they got their inspiration from. I love hearing about how active in the writing community they are—attending conferences and writing critique groups, doing readings, learning up on the industry, etc (this kind of a writer makes me a very happy agent). It’s really great.

What I like the least is when I meet people during pitches who’ve come to talk to me about their work but won’t take a word of criticism/suggestion/advice without getting irked or defensive. This industry requires people to be open and willing to learn and edit and revise, requires people to be tough skinned when getting critiqued. It also bothers me when people don’t respect the idea of space. I’m very aware that they’ve spent money to be at conferences and they’re eager to learn, but when an agent goes to the restroom or finds a moment to have lunch (unless it’s a lunch/informal pitch session), that definitely is not the best time to pitch your work. Respect boundaries and space. That’s what I think authors (definitely this is a minority) can work on.

Pat: The bio at the beginning of this interview has a pretty long list of fiction genres that you might be interested in representing. RMFW is all for and about fiction writers, so please elaborate a bit on your favorite genres, what you hope to find in the pitch sessions, and which genres are least likely to excite you. Are you interested in the New Adult genre?

Pooja: In terms of what excites me the most, I’m very fond of multi-cultural fiction that deals with family, love, boundaries, etc within a larger framework or plotline. Think of Khalid Hosseini or Jhumpa Lahiri or Adiche Chimamanda or Isabel Allende or Amy Tan or Ann Patchett or books like Shadow of the Banyan Tree and The Tiger’s Wife. Literary fiction that has strong commercial appeal. Now, by all means, not all stories have to be set in multi-cultural settings. I enjoy literary fiction and commercial fiction of any kind, set anywhere as long as the concept is fresh and unique: The Night Circus, The Orphan Train, historical fiction by Sarah Dunant, mysteries or thrillers by authors like Tana French and Kathy Reich’s, or ones that are off-beat (Gone Girl, domestic thriller that’s off-beat and dark and set in a suburb or Alexander McCall, polar opposite, for instance) from the norm.

Frankly, aside from romance, epic sci-fi and fantasy, military fiction, and light frothy beach reads (not overly fond of these), I’m open to anything unique and different. I’m hoping to be surprised and meeting authors’ at pitch sessions is usually the perfect way to be surprised. Many a time, even though I might not generally read books in a particular genre or category, I might make an exception if the writing and the characters are THAT strong and have moved me in some big way. So be ready to bring me your best work!

Pat: What advice do you have for the authors who pitch their work to you at conference?

Pooja: Be calm, be professional and courteous, and prepare your pitch and practice it before coming to a conference because agents would prefer you to pitch them face to face in a conversational manner as opposed to, a) reading off a page b) rambling on and on about your story in an attempt to tell us your whole story in four minutes.

Prepare a one minute pitch, a three minute pitch, a four minute one, depending on the pitch times for the conference you’re attending. One minute pitches regardless because if you’re pitching to an agent over drinks in an informal setting, you want to capture their attention at once, then a strong, intriguing one minute or shorter pitch would be the key. Also, practice on your spouse or friend or parents or partner until they think you’re doing it organically and until you think you are confident enough.

Lastly, we’re just people looking for an amazing story. We’re there to meet you because we want to be and because we want to find stories that make our hearts race. So don’t be nervous. What’s the worst that can happen, really? Practice makes perfect and if you didn’t click with one agent or made mistakes at one conference, there are plenty more for you to try at or learn from. It’s never a waste!

Pat: What changes is your agency experiencing because of the rise in self-published books? Do you see any differences in the quality and genre of submissions you receive?

Pooja: First off, I have to say, the explosion of self-published books hasn’t affected us as much. Mainly because books that are self-published and have sold millions of copies have been the exception, not the norm. We get queries all the time from people who’ve gone the self-published route and then learnt that a lot goes into it to take it off the ground and they would rather focus on writing and have agents take care of that bit, Unfortunately, once a book is put out and if they don’t garner enough sales or attention, there isn’t much an agent can do for them.

In the case of books that do well, people have asked us why they need an agent, and my answer is that if that’s the case, we can still get them a better deal. For instance, if an author has millions of e-book sales, an agent can get them a great print deal with a big publisher, better distribution and packaging deals for print books, movie or TV deals, work on getting an aggressive deal on other subsidiary rights, so many things an agent can do for that author while allowing the author to keep the rights of the e-books he’s sold on his own. So, in essence, agents move and evolve with the industry and our roles get more and more complex, but never less necessary or important.

Pat: The website states your agency is open to emailed queries that include a one-page synopsis and the first fifty pages of the manuscript. When you open one of these queries, what most encourages you to read on, and what makes you stop reading and reject the submission?

Pooja: A stellar query makes me want to read more. Even if a query isn’t so stellar, I still do read the first ten pages at least if I feel like the story has potential or perks my interest in some way. It’s all based on the writing for me, if I feel like the story doesn’t capture me from the first page, I would still read a few more pages in, but if I still feel like I have to force myself to keep going, that would be an easy decision for me to make. When we go through the edits with our clients, we sometimes end up reading that manuscript a dozen times! If I struggled to read it the first time, it will be a painful process indeed to get through it even a second time around.

Pat: When you like what you hear during a conference pitch session, what would trigger a request for the full manuscript?

Pooja: Usually I stick to asking from 25-75 pages based on how well the pitch is put forward or how intrigued I am by the story. I never request a full because I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts fall apart in the middle, so I prefer the cautious and bit by bit approach.

Pat: We know that literary agents spend a lot of their “spare” time reading manuscripts, but what else do you do for fun? Do you have any interesting hobbies, quirky pets, or unusual weekend activities?

Pooja: Ah fun! Well, there was a time when I used to work every day even through the weekends and quickly realized that’s a recipe for disaster. I was getting burned out and my family wasn’t too pleased by it. So I’ve scaled back a lot.

I love reading for pleasure, so I still try and find time for that. We do a lot of hiking with my dog (my quirky goldendoodle) and meet up with friends and watch plays/musicals/movies, I try and fit in working out in there somewhere despite my dislike for it, I do love dancing so I’ve been toying with the idea of signing up for classes. Ditto with wanting to learn how to bake and cook Thai/Ethiopian food, though I have to find time for it. Love to travel, so we try and do a lot of local trips if we can and go outside once a year at least. I also love trying new cuisines so we go around in the city and out of the city in search of food.

Thanks so much for answering our questions, Pooja. We look forward to meeting you at Colorado Gold.

Critical Questions with Sandra Dallas

Sandra DallasIt’s no great secret that next to advances and royalty checks, book reviews are an author’s best friend. But getting reviews are hard to come by, and no guarantee of success. Just ask Sandra Dallas, current columnist and book critic for fifty years with the Denver Post, and who is also a successful author.

“I don’t know how many books are published a year. Isn’t the figure around 400,000?” she said in a recent interview. “It’s a huge volume. You may run two to four reviews a week. What then are the chances of getting a book reviewed? It’s very discouraging for authors.”

And from the reviewer’s perspective life isn’t any easier. “Reviewing is a sideline,” said Sandra. “The Post stopped paying last year, and they never paid much anyway. It’s not keeping bread on the table. National reviewers are paid more, but local papers don’t.”

LOOKING FOR GOOD NEWS

On the bright side, Sandra said that the Post has a new editor for it’s book section; one reason Denver authors should consider themselves lucky. Many papers have done away with this section entirely. And the new editor has hinted at more articles about authors.

Also, with more blogs on the Internet focusing on book reviews there may be opportunities for writing reviews of your own to build a great reputation and add another plank to your author platform.

If you do want to write reviews for public consumption, here are some thoughts Sandra shared about the process:

WHEN TO CRITIQUE AND WHEN TO SAY “NO”

“When I started out, I was told by Stanton Peckham (the Post’s book editor at the time), ‘If a book isn’t very good, don’t review it,’” said Sandra. “‘Why give space to a book that isn’t very good, when there are so many good books out there?’ You review only the books you think are worthwhile. And keep your reader in mind. Your loyalty is not to the author. Your loyalty is to the reader.”

Sandra spoke about new critics and their biggest challenges. “You can tell a novice reviewer by a couple of things. Number one, they love to point out errors. They will take a date that’s a year off and make a big deal out of it. And then they love to be clever and to be critical. And they love to write negative reviews. You see a lot of this in blogs. I think usually they’re trying to be clever at the author’s expense.”

She said that one time a book review blogger just creamed one of Sandra’s books, and then closed by saying that she would review War and Peace in next week’s blog. There was a chuckle to go with this thought.

WHAT TO WRITE IN A BOOK REVIEW

First, you should love reading. Really love it. As Sandra’s sister says, “Hell for us (readers) is being someplace without a book.”

Then, when Sandra does a review, she says she usually keeps a paper or the book’s press release in the book and jots down notes and page numbers as she goes. This is because she rarely keeps a book she’s been given to review, so she doesn’t like to mark them up before giving them away. Occasionally, with an ARC, she’ll underline texts she wants to use.

“I look for interesting things—for catchy phrases—for summations of the book,” said Sandra. “But your job is not to please the author or to promote the book. Your job is to tell readers about the book.” She noted with another light laugh that some authors who practically beg to have their book reviewed will often focus in on the one negative she might point out at the end of a review and give her a hard time for that, forgetting that having a generally positive review is rare and valuable.

ABOUT SANDRA

Sandra didn’t start life as a book critic or author. From journalism school at the University of Denver, she joined the staff of Business Week Magazine, a true thought leader in its heyday, and still a strong voice in business as a member of the Bloomberg Press conglomerate of business news sources. She became the first woman bureau chief and covered the Rocky Mountain Region on a wide variety of subjects, “not just business, but about issues that business people needed to know.”

Then, about 25 years ago, she turned to fiction. “It was kind of a fluke,” she said. “I had never intended to write fiction. I didn’t even read fiction. And I just sort of fell into it, and I love writing it. You know that old line about someone asking you ‘do you like writing?” And the answer is ‘no, but I like having written.’ Well, I actually like sitting down and the writing process of seeing what happens with fiction. I really enjoy it.”

Today, Sandra Dallas has thirteen novels and ten non-fiction books published.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR SANDRA?

This fall she has two new books coming out. The first is targeted toward children readers between ages ten and twelve. Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky comes out in September, and A Quilt For Christmas, and adult novel will appear shortly after.

“My last novel was called Fallen Woman, which was about the murder of a prostitute in Denver in 1885,” said Sandra. “I originally called it Holiday Street, because that was Market Street’s original name, and this was the red light district. So my agent said, ‘You have to change the title because your readers are going to think this is a Christmas book.’ And then she said, ‘Why don’t you write a Christmas book? Why don’t you write a Christmas quilt book?’ And so that was the origin of this book.

So now it’s your turn. Do you have favorite book critics you like to read? How do you think their review process works? Are  you a reviewer? Please add to the conversation and let us know how you judge a book.

Everything I Learned About Writing I learned From Johnny Cash

By Aaron Ritchey

I just finished a biography on Johnny Cash, and love is a burning a thing.  Also, the book business has a lot of similarities to the music industry.

This is what I learned:

1)      Success can be a whole lotta luck — For example, Johnny Cash moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1955.  Summer of 1955.  Do you know what else happened the summer of 1955?  Sam Phillips, the guru behind Sun Records, discovered Elvis.  A few months later, Johnny Cash walked into Sam Phillips’ studio.  Stupid, stupid luck.  What if Johnny Cash hadn’t been in Memphis in 1955?

2)      You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing – So Johnny Cash would get together with this buddies Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, and they would play music together.  They were a garage band in the south in the 50’s.  They weren’t all that good, but since they weren’t very good, they had to kind of fake it, which resulted in was called their “boom chicka boom” sound.  It wasn’t that they were cutting edge musicians, no, they were struggling to just get notes out there.  The result?  Folsom Prison Blues.

3)      You don’t have to be completely original to succeed –  So Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two (Grant and Perkins) had a distinctive sound.  However, Folsom Prison Blues was based on another song, Crescent City Blues.  Johnny Cash made it his own, granted, but in the end, he had to pay out a settlement because the two songs were so similar.  In a way, Johnny Cash’s entire career was based on Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk the Line.  One was an original work; the other wasn’t.  Shakespeare did this same thing.  I’m not saying steal and plagiarize, but for myself, I’ve thrown away perfectly good ideas because I thought they’d been done before.  It’s ALL BEEN DONE BEFORE!  Take your passion, make it happen, and write books in such a way that no one, and I mean no one, would ever think you plagiarized a thing.  I’d still clear of sparkly vampires, though.  Just sayin’.

4)      Writing for the market is iffy.  Writing from your heart makes all the difference – Johnny Cash would write what he thought of as “Johnny Cash” songs, like Ballad of Teenage Queen.  But then he would write his “JR Cash” songs like I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues and Ring of Fire. Those are JR songs (growing up, his family called him JR).  How many people adore and go crazy over Ballad of Teenage Queen?  It was written for the market.   Yeah, I know.  Don’t even bother YouTubeing it.  It’s a silly song.  Those other songs?  Genius!

5)      Artists need outside help and editors are necessary –  By the early 1990’s, it was clear that Johnny Cash’s best years lay behind him.  I mean, he was playing to like a dozen people in Branson, Missouri matinees.  And the people were wanting their money back.  Cash hadn’t really had a stand-out solo song for decades. Then along comes Rick Rubin,  a hotshot hip-hop producer. Why would he want to work with Johnny Cash?  He was a has-been.  Why would Johnny Cash want to work with Rick Rubin?  He was a weird hippie commie liberal sinner.  Well, the hippie part is probably true, the rest I made up.  Anyway, Rick Rubin wanted to see what he could do with a legend like Johnny Cash, someone past their prime.  Or was he?  Johnny Cash suffered from producers who failed to push him to do great things.  Sam Phillips made Johnny Cash a star because Sam Phillips had vision.  So did Rick Rubin.  If you have not heard any of the Johnny Cash American Recordings songs, well, shame on you.  Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, working together, made in my opinion the best music of Johnny Cash’s career.  Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails says that he now covers “Hurt” because it’s now a Johnny Cash song. The cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is inspired. What if Johnny Cash had had someone like Rick Rubin in the 70’s and 80’s?  What kind of masterpieces would he have recorded?

6)      You can’t write books if you are dead –  Phillip Seymore Hoffman will never act again because he overdosed on drugs.  We’ve had Colorado authors who will never write again because they committed suicide.  Johnny Cash most likely should’ve died numerous times.  If he had ridden that addiction train to nowhere, we would’ve been ROBBED of his art.  So take care of yourself.  If you drink too much, stop drinking.  If you take drugs, think about it.  If you don’t exercise and eat junk food, think about it.  You can’t write if you’re dead.  So take care of yourself.

Johnny Cash made the world a better place because wrote songs and played music.  We who write books and publish them also add something vital to this mean old world.

So keep walking that line and write.

Emotional Barrier in Fiction: The Most Important Barrier For You To Cross (Part One)

Written by Tiffany Lawson Inman

Emotions play a big role in writing fiction.

That’s not a big secret, right?

Nope, but what I say next might surprise you. One of the many things I learned during my years as an actor is that most people, including writers, are afraid of their own emotions. Feeeeeeeeeeelings.Kermit Oh yes, those pesky feelings.

Most people are afraid of the thoughts and situations that forced them to feel hate, shame, guilt, terror, deep sadness, and dread. Humans are blessed to have the ability to emote, but they also have within them an emotional barrier to protect them from feeling some of those nasty things. It also protects them from revisiting past emotions. Unfortunately this emotional barrier makes emotions one of the most difficult area of fiction to write.

I say most people because it seemed that all of us crazies that were in the theatre field were only mildly afraid of our emotions. Mildly afraid and wildly fascinated. Any scene or play I came across that would allow me to crack open my psyche, I dove after it with open arms. I knew it was an opportunity to really dig in and polish my craft. Actors relish the chance to explore the demons inside of their brains, hearts, and blood. Because actors know THAT is where the drama is.  That is what the audience wants to see.  And as an actor, writer, or any other type of artist, if you can’t manipulate your emotional barrier you won’t be making true dramatic art.

Really, is that all?

Nope. Writers also have a thread of fascination with crossing this emotional barrier, however, in all of the books and manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve only seen a handful of authors create true emotion. Many get close. Even more miss the mark and are completely disconnected from their emotions.

Why????Why?

The emotional barrier is tall and wide. It has thorns that pierce flesh. It has poison that can flow into your bloodstream and taint the day, week, year after you dare to cross through it. There is no wonder why most people are very comfortable leaving it up for protection.

A few years ago I created an online course to help writers find their way through the emotional barrier and use what they find to fuel more dramatic writing using The Method.

Yesterday I cracked open a book on writing craft to gather inspiration for this post and I was more than pleasantly surprised to see Donald Maass also touching on the subject of human emotions in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction. He asks writers in the beginning of Chapter Three,

“But what is it that moves readers’ hearts? What conjures in readers’ imaginations a reality  that, for a while, feels more real that their own lives? What glues readers to characters and  makes  those characters objects of identification: people with whom readers feel intimately involved about whom they care, and whose outcomes matter greatly?

Emotions.”

He later goes on to say:

“…some writers slide into genre clichés or literary imitation. To put authentic emotions on the page, you need to own them. When you do, readers will respect you. It’s when you hide that readers feel shortchanged, cheated, and only minimally involved.”

Well gosh, we don’t want to cheat or shortchange our readers. And we definitely don’t want to become cliché or just another Joe Writer. That won’t sell books.

As an editor I want writers to be proud of their product and as a reader I want to fall in love with fiction every time I read a book. Maass makes a great point and that is exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned feeling disconnected from a character’s emotions.

One or all five of the following is happening in this type of fiction:

  • The author wasn’t allowing themselves an emotional release.
  • The author didn’t know how to cross their emotional barrier.
  • The author didn’t know how to use the emotions they could reach.
  • The author was too afraid to use their own emotions.
  • The author didn’t think emotions were an important factor in fiction.

Unfortunately in today’s technology age, we have more and more distractions to aid us in keeping the barrier up.

  • Instead of facing a feeling we can just stick our noses to a screen and entertainment will quickly cover up any emotion we are feeling. (have you ever trolled over to Netflix or YouTube for some “feel good” imagery?)
  • Instead of waiting for acceptance or rejection from a potential friend, we click around and connect with another friend.
  • Instead of the dread of not knowing a dollop of information, we can just Google it.
  • Instead of heading into a confrontation that might hurt us or be uncomfortable to face, we can just send an email, or better yet, a text.

As I was mulling over how to express how important I think this emotional barrier issue is, this hugely debilitating artistic conflict in today’s blog, I sauntered over to Facebook for a little brain-distraction (yeah, I know, ironic.) Whilst scrolling through sarcastic status updates, quotes, and friend’s family photos, I stumbled across a link to one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., doing a bit with Conan O’Brian on why he doesn’t want his little girls to have cell phones.

*Twilight Zone music!*

The Universe must have been watching me write this blog, because Louis C.K. brilliantly zeros in on the emotional barrier and why humans are so conflicted. And then he talks about a reaction he had to a song that rolled into his own emotional breakthrough. I actually got a zingy-zappy-tingly feeling in my limbs as he came to the end of his conversation with Conan, because everything he says plays into what I am talking about today; he hits the emotional barrier issue on the head with a cannon ball. 

I transcribed the conversation to the best of my ability because I think it is another learning experience to read the emotion in his language throughout the story. The link is below, if you’d like to come back and watch it.

Louis C.K.’s Case Against Kids Having Smartphones

Louis: Some parents really struggle with, like all other kids have the terrible thing, so my kid has to ……yeah, let’s let… no let your kid go and be a better example to the other kids. Just ‘cuz the other stupid kids have phones doesn’t mean that yeah, ok, my kid has to be stupid or otherwise she’ll feel weird.

Ya know I think these things are toxic.  Especially to kids. It’s just this thing (head downMiss Piggy and Kermitmiming texting) it’s bad.

They don’t look at people when they are talking to them. They don’t build the empathy. Ya know, kids are mean because they are trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, “You’re fat. “ And then they see the kids face scrunch up and they go, “Ew, that didn’t feel good to make a person do that.” But they’ve got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write, “You are fat!”, they go, “Mmm um that was fun, I liked that.”

Conan: Mmm that tasted good.

Photo 1Louis:  Yeah, exactly. You need…um, the thing is you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That is what the phones are taking away. Is the ability to just sit there, like this.  (he sits there, arms still, not doing anything) That’s being a person. Right?  You gotta uuuh, uhhh… you gotta check (mimes frantically checking his phone)

Because underneath everything in your life, there is that thing. That empty, that forever empty. You know what I’m talking about?

Conan: Eh…hehe…yes.

Audience: Hahahaha

Louis: That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you are alone. You know and it’s down there.  And sometimes when things clear away and you aren’t watching it and you are in your car and you start going, Oooooh no, here it comes… that I am alone. and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness, life is tremendously sad. Just by being in it.

SO when you are driving you are going, Aaaaahuuuhaaa…(he mimes just sitting there being a person and looking around at other drivers, alone. )

That’s why we text and drive, I look around and pretty much 100 percent of people driving out there are texting.  They are killing and everyone is murdering everyone with their cars.

But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own…because they don’t want to risk being alone for a second. Because it is so hard.

I was in the car one time and a Bruce Springsteen song comes on and it made me really sad. It’s like Jungle…what’s the …Jungle?

ConanJungleland.

Louis:  Uh, yeah, it’s the one that goes “Aaaarrrhuuuuhuuuuuuuuh! “ And he sounds far away?

(Much humor ensues here and they both start imitating the end of song, then Louis comes back to his story)

Louis: It gave me kind of like a fall-back-to-school depression feeling, it made me really sad. I go, Ooohokay I’m getting sad, I got to get the phone and write “hi” to like fifty people.  And then ya know somebody cool writes back and then them somebody not as cool writes after and I’m like, Eh, f’ you I’m gonna talk to somebody better…but uh… .

Audience: Hahahaha

Andy: Hey how come you didn’t answer my text?

Audience: Hahahaha

Louis: Eh, well. (he laughs) So anyway I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for the phone, and then I said, Ya know what? Don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness in…stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck. And I let it come and there was Bruce,  “Aaaaarraaaahhhooooh”

And I just started to feel, Oh my god, and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much and it was beautiful it was like this beautiful…just this…(gestures to his heart)

Sadness is poetic. You are lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad your body has like antibodies, it has happiness that comes…

Conan: …Rushing in…

Louis: … rushing in to meet the sadness so I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true profound happiness and it was such a trip. You know, and the thing is because we don’t want that first bit of sad we push it away with a little phone *($)#*@ (wacking off gesture with phone)  and you get a little kinda… you never feel completely sad or completely happy you just feel kinda satisfied with your product …and then you die…that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.

*******************

Yup, you just learned something from a comedic bit on Conan. Amazing.

  1. People need more direct contact with one another to be able to see and react to body language and tone. This enables us to build and recognize empathy.
  2. People are constantly being reminded of their own fears which prompts them to seek outside stimulation and social recognition on an almost OCD level of intensity.
  3. When one is in the presence of another person releasing emotions it is possible for the observing person to have an emotional reaction of his/her own.

That last line towards the end of their conversation makes me want to ask you something very important. On what level of satisfaction do you want your readers to be when they are reading your book?  How much true emotion are you infusing into your product?

So, as Louis C.K. explains it in his so-wonderfully-awkward-honest manner, in today’s techno-bombarded world it is very easy to avoid emotion.

The strange thing is humans need that release. They yearn for it. Maybe a little more than pulling off the road for a good cry. Although, I do commend him for sharing this moment with the world, I think we need more than that on a daily basis, so it doesn’t bottle up and pop during a Bruce Springsteen song. But most people don’t get that release and instead of reaching inside themselves and risking getting hurt, they look to fictional characters to do it for them.

Most folks are drawn to art like movies and books for two reasons: they want to be entertained and they want to feel something.  I think it’s easier, um, no, the word I’m looking for is …safer for audiences to experience those feelings by watching/reading a fictional character experience them first.

Yup, you guessed it!  That’s where writers come into the picture!

What does that mean for your fiction? The emotions you write had better be as close to human as possible.

  • Be vulnerable.
  • Look into your past.
  • Observe your inner self.
  • Put the technology away.

You don’t want your readers to feel like they are having a conversation with a kid attached to a smartphone.

**********

Thank you very much for reading today.  Part Two will be posted next month! I will  be talking about creating an emotional base for your characters. Sounds just as important as crossing the Emotional Barrier, right? IT IS!

Can you think of a moment in your writing life where you found yourself hesitant to cross that barrier, or completely emotionally blocked? Share in the comments!  Ever have a Louis C.K. moment? Share in the comments! Have a question? I’ll be around all day.

BIO: Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

Death Becomes You: What Will Your Legacy Be?

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

I’m going blind.

The eye doctor told me this a few weeks ago. I have diabetic retinopathy which is basically uncontrolled bleeding behind my eyes from half a lifetime of having type 1 diabetes. Retinopathy leads to blindness. It might take a year, it might be five, ten, or twenty years.

There is no cure.

I will go blind.

(I’m not looking for sympathy, many others have it far worse. I’d like nothing more than to for you to read on because I feel like there’s a bigger point to be made).

Sadly, my first thought was, my career is over before it really started (I lie and say I’m an optimist when asked, but I come from a long line of Pollyanna-like pessimists).

And if my fate ends with not being able to write anymore (which it won’t since I plan to teach my seeing-eye dog how to type, so forgive me for any future novels begging for bones), what sort of legacy will my works leave?

What do my books say about me?

Better yet, what do your books say about you?

Scary thought, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of every book I’ve put into the world. I’ll freely admit some are better than others. Some suffered from my learning my craft. Some suffered from thinking I knew too much. Hell, in one book, and I won’t say which, I believed that using ‘said’, thanks to a bad critique group, was akin to publishing suicide. I only used it 939 times in 76 thousand word novel (Don’t try this at home; it will result in severe trauma). The book is published and available in ebook and trade paperback. I dare you to figure out which one it is.

But I’m talking less about craft and grammatical insanity than content. I wonder what sort of legacy my words leave in the world because there is immortality in your work. Even if you never publish a single word, it is forever alive.

As much as a part of me wishes to leave behind a legacy like Maya Angelou, who recently departed did, I know better. I am a genre writer, sometimes a good one, and sometimes bad. I love writing romance. I love writing mysteries. I loved writing F***ed Up Fairytales.

But I’m no Angelou.

I’m me.

And I will own my legacy.

And if we’re lucky, after we’re gone, we will have someone like Mark Stevens to convey our uniqueness with the rest of the world like Mark is doing with writer Gary Reilly. Also like RMFW does at every Colorado Gold conference when they honor Rick Hanson’s life’s work with contest where first place is usually a haiku’s using the word sphincter.

I think I’ll end this post here.

But I’d love to hear what sort of legacy you see for yourself, and what you wish your legacy could be? And if you could use the word sphincter, that would be great.

How to Make Your Editor Happy

By Katriena Knights

Nobody wants one, but everybody needs one. Maybe it sounds like a riddle Bilbo Baggins should have tossed Gollum’s way, but it’s really just a fact of the publishing business. Everybody needs an editor. Even the editors.

I’ve worked as an editor for almost ten years, in addition to writing my own books. There’s a certain satisfaction in figuring out what an author is trying to say, that maybe they didn’t even know they were saying, and helping them tease that out of their manuscript. There’s a bit less satisfaction in finding all the typos and grammatical errors an author may have committed, but it’s part of the job, too.

But this post isn’t about working as an editor. It’s about how to interact with your editor in a way that’ll keep your relationship positive and productive. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you’ll be able to work together to produce a piece of work you’re both happy with. And if you and your editor are happy with it, your readers are that much more likely to be happy with it, too.

So, with that in mind, here are some guidelines for communicating with your editor.

  1. Your editor is always right. Well, okay, maybe not always dead right on every issue, but if your editor flags something because it made her cringe or roll her eyes or just get confused or made her go back to read a sentence more than once, it’s worth your time to take a look at the suggestions. And it would probably behoove you to make a change, even if it’s different from what the editor suggests. After all, your editor is your first reader, and if something doesn’t make sense to her, it’s probably not going to make sense to somebody else.
  2. Don’t tell the editor flat-out no. As an editor, I don’t have a problem with an author not wanting to make a change. But I do like to at least hear why they don’t want to make that change. Sometimes, by explaining what they meant to say or get across, the author can give me insight into how a phrase or a plot point isn’t doing what the author intended. When this happens, we rework it together until the author’s intent is crystal clear. At other times, it becomes clear that we’re not on the same page, and that’s fine. The author should win in these cases, unless it involves a conflict with a publisher’s guidelines. And even then, if you’ve explained something to me and I understand you feel strongly about it, I’ll go to bat for you with the bosspeople and do what I can to keep your vision intact.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Fighting about punctuation is a waste of time, unless somebody’s moved a comma and completely changed the meaning of a sentence. In most cases, minor grammatical tweaks like this are a matter of house style, and even if the editor changes them, a line editor will change them back. If it’s really important to the story, then yes, talk to the editor about arranging exceptions. But if it’s just a style issue, it’s better to let it go. (This is an advantage of self-publishing, by the way—you get to make your own style guide. My personal style guide REQUIRES the Oxford comma…)
  4. Save your energy for the big stuff. If it’s worth throwing down over, throw down. There are occasions when an editor or publisher’s demands for your story are so counter to what you wanted to get across with that work that you just have to draw that line in the sand. And there are things worth throwing down over. You’ll know what they are, because the thought of changing them makes you nauseated. Focus on those things. Hopefully, you’ll never run across an editor who works at this kind of cross-purposes with you.
  5. Send chocolate. Chocolate is always a good idea.

MOMENT OF BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION: My new book, Blood on the Ice, arrives tomorrow at Samhain publishing. I hope you’ll take a gander!

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

When It’s Time to Part With Your Agent … by Chuck Greaves

Chuck_GreavesSigning with a literary agent is an early career milestone for many authors. Finding the right agent is, I submit, essential to an author’s long-term success and happiness. Having chosen both badly and well in my brief writing career, I thought I’d share both experiences, as a kind of authorial teaching moment.

When I finished the first draft of Hush Money – my debut legal mystery – in 2008, I proceeded to amass an impressive stack of agent rejections over the course of very few months, until finally hitting the jackpot – or so I’d thought – in the form of a request from a veteran New York agent (we’ll call her Natasha) to read the entire manuscript. My telephone rang several weeks later, and Natasha and I were in business together, our partnership memorialized in a two-page written agreement. Hush Money, she told me, while still in need of some minor fine-tuning, had tremendous market potential.

Several weeks passed while Natasha’s summer intern took a blue pencil to my magnum opus. When the line-edited manuscript was finally ready, I took a notion to fly to New York and collect it from Natasha in person, only to find that her address was a shared suite in a seedy section of Broadway that would have given Max Bialystock pause. Needing privacy, the four of us – Natasha, her husband, the intern, and I – squeezed into an office so small it required the intern to perch, knees to chin, on the radiator.

I flew home with the line-edited manuscript and a growing sense of unease. When I returned the tightened and polished manuscript to Natasha a month or so later, having reluctantly changed its ending and generally accommodated ninety percent of her editorial suggestions, she said she was pleased with the result, and promptly set out to test the fickle waters of commerce.

Greaves_Last_Heir[1]After several more months and a handful of editorial rejections, I flew to New York again, this time meeting Natasha and her husband for cocktails at the Algonquin (where I got stuck with the check.) At her insistence, I agreed to undertake another round of edits. Length (then 120,000 words) was, she said, our biggest problem, and so I tightened the manuscript even further, to a muscular 112,000 words, and sent it off for her final blessing. Meanwhile, I’d finished the first draft of Hard Twisted, my second novel, and sent her that as well.

She abhorred Hard Twisted, stating that the thirteen-year-old protagonist was “impossible to root for.” As for the new and improved Hush Money, she refused to even read it, calling it “unsaleable” unless and until I could pare it to fewer than 100,000 words. At that point I thanked Natasha for her efforts, and terminated our contract.

Newly rudderless, I submitted both manuscripts to the 2010 SouthWest Writers International Writing Contest in Albuquerque. From a field of over 680 entrants, Hush Money won Best Mystery, Hard Twisted won Best Historical Novel, and Hush Money won the grand-prize Storyteller Award, with Hard Twisted coming in second.

I soon had offers from several New York agents, and a second bite at the Big Apple. Should I again sign with a grizzled industry veteran, or should I go with the hungry young newcomer who professed undying love for both novels? I called an author-friend for counsel. He said, “Sign with whoever will still return your phone calls if the books haven’t sold in a year.” It proved to be some of the best career advice I’ve ever received.

Within a few weeks, Antonella Iannarino of the David Black Agency had sold Hush Money – still at 112,000 words, but with its original ending restored – to St. Martin’s Minotaur in a multi-book deal, after which she sold Hard Twisted to Bloomsbury. Hush Money – the novel Natasha had called “unsaleable” – would go on to receive starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, would be a Critics’ Pick from Kirkus, and would be a finalist for several national honors including the Shamus, Rocky, Reviewer’s Choice, and Audie Awards. Hard Twisted, the book with the “impossible to root for” protagonist, would be hailed as “a taut and intriguing thriller” (London Sunday Times) and “a gritty, gripping read, and one that begs to be put on film.” (Los Angeles Times)

So what did I learn from these very different experiences?

First, that reading is a highly subjective endeavor, and one should never be discouraged by the opinions of even a few so-called experts.

Second, that you should think long and hard before committing to an agent whose commitment to your work is other than unequivocal.

Third, that while parting with your agent might seem like a giant step backward, it is sometimes the only way to move your career forward.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chuck Greaves has worked as a bartender, a construction worker, and a librarian. He spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before becoming a novelist (and sometimes vigneron) in southwestern Colorado, where he lives with his wife, four horses, and two German shepherds. THE LAST HEIR (Minotaur), his fourth novel, and the third installment in his award-winning Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries, will be in bookstores on June 24, 2014. For more information on the series, or on his literary fiction written as C. Joseph Greaves, you can visit his website, or get the latest updates here on Facebook.

BOOK GIVEAWAY NOTICE:  Readers who leave a comment on Chuck’s post before noon U.S. Mountain Time on Sunday, June 22nd, will earn an entry into a drawing for a signed copy of The Last Heir. The winner will be announced here on Sunday afternoon.

How to find all those Colorado Gold agent/editor/speaker interviews

Our regular blog contributors and guests have been busy interviewing the agents, editors, and speakers who will attend the Colorado Gold Conference in Westminster September 5-7.

We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for you to find and read those interviews. On the day they post, we put the link on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Facebook page and the RMFW Google+ page. The link usually gets tweeted a couple of times as well.

On the home page of the RMFW website, there’s a link to the interview list. The link is called 2014 Conference Guest Interviews. That link takes you to a concise list of the published posts with an individual link to each.

Additional interviews scheduled so far include Elizabeth Copps on Tuesday, July 15th. We’ll have more on the schedule soon.

Meanwhile, you can go to the 2014 Conference Guest Interview page to view the ten interviews published so far.

Look Who is Coming to Colorado Gold: A Conversation with Agent Sue Brower

By Kerry Schafer

Last month I had the privilege of posting an interview with Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency. Today, I’d like you to meet Sue Brower, another fabulous agent, who works with the Natasha Kern Agency.

suebrowerSue Brower loves finding and developing authors and connecting them with the reader. Book publishing has changed dramatically over the past several years and it’s no secret that the novels that create buzz through their unique writing or concepts are the ones that become bestsellers. Over the past 25 years in publishing, Sue has done marketing, editing, story development and acquisitions for Zondervan, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. Most recently, she was Executive Editor and had the privilege of working with New York Times bestselling authors Karen Kingsbury, Tim LaHaye, Stephen Carter, and Terri Blackstock and was named ACFW’s Editor of the Year in 2010. And now she is fortunate to partner with Natasha Kern at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency. Sue’s been an avid fiction fan since childhood and loves the way stories are able to change lives, heal hearts, and bring joy to readers. Today, she wants to read and acquire women’s contemporary fiction, any kind of romance, suspense, mystery and historical novels. She would love to discover the next breakaway author in any of these genres.

Kerry: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Sue. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Colorado! But first things first. Your bio tells us that you are interested in acquiring women’s contemporary fiction, and also romance, suspense, mystery, and historical novels. Could you tell us a little bit more about what gets you excited?

Sue: I like stories with strong characterization and a well-paced plot.  One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “…fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” I want to be so engrossed in the story that I am disoriented when I close the book. I do not acquire based solely on genre because publisher and consumer trends change so quickly.  But give me a well written book and I think I can pitch it anywhere, anytime.

Kerry: What was the last book you read for pleasure and what did you love (or not) about it?

Sue: I have been on an odyssey the last six months or so to read beyond my normal  favorites. Unfortunately, that left a lot of books unfinished. Probably the most memorable book I’ve read recently is Reconstructing Amelia.  It was a little dark and had some themes that put me off, but it was compelling and I still remember many of the characters.  The best book I’ve read that feeds my love of romantic fiction was Julianne Donaldson’s Blackmoore.  I loved that it drew me into an era that I read a lot about, yet this felt new and refreshing.

Kerry: Now that I have a couple of new books to add to my towering To Be Read pile, could you talk a bit about how you view the author/agent relationship? This seems to be a hot topic for writers these days.

Sue: I view the author/agent relationship as a partnership.  As a former editor and marketer, I tend to be very opinionated, so the writer needs to be open to input on their writing, where they should be spending their time, and how they should brand themselves. Notice I said “input.” I want to be available to help an author to succeed at building a writing career.

Kerry: I think that input is one of the things that makes an agent so important to a writer. Things have changed a lot in publishing over the last few years, and it gets overwhelming trying to figure out where to spend your time. Another question writers often have involves what you see as your role in publishing, and how do you help your clients navigate the slippery territory spawned by Amazon and self publishing?

Sue: I see my role as coach, career counselor, advocate, listening post, and biggest fan.  Editors today do not have time to acquire projects that just have potential. The editorial staff has more and more to do and there are fewer of them doing it. It’s my job to make sure that what I send out truly represents the writer’s best abilities.  With regards to the various ways that a writer can be published, I think we, as agents, should be aware of the pitfalls of self-publishing and coach the writer to make the best choices for their career goals.

Kerry: I see that your agency is closed to unsolicited manuscripts—do you have any advice as to how a querying author could still get your attention?

Sue: There are a number of ways that a writer can get their manuscript in front of me.  The best ways are through referrals from current client authors and through conferences.  I would also say that if you respond to a blog or online class that I am a part of, I would be open to talking with you about your manuscript.

Kerry: Could you tell us a little about what happens when writers pitch to you at a conference?

Sue: When a writer pitches to me at a conference, they need to have a completed manuscript ready to be reviewed.  I want the writer to tell me what their story is about and anything about their research or background that supports why their book is fresh or unique. I will look at a one-page, but I want to hear the writer to engage in conversation with me. If I am interested, I will ask for a proposal, synopsis, and three sample chapters to be emailed to me. If that looks good, I will ask for a full manuscript. Writing conferences are a great way to reach your preferred agent or editor since most will not accept unsolicited manuscripts.  I would absolutely ask for anything that interests me.

Kerry: If you are considering a project that doesn’t immediately shout “pick me pick me” – what tips the balance toward acceptance?

Sue: I don’t usually consider projects that don’t shout “pick me up.” I have too much to read and too many queries to follow up on.  The things that tip the balance for me are usually in the writing. If I am intrigued by a project, but the writing isn’t quite there, I will look for possibilities. Are they willing to revise? How much work will it take to get it ready for the publisher? If I am interested in an author, I usually want to have a phone chat before making an offer. If I see that they are not open to constructive criticism, or are reluctant to do the work, I will pass on the project.  Also, if there is just too much work that needs to be done, I will have to put it aside. I usually make a few recommendations including finding a critique group or editor and I offer to look at it one more time.

Kerry: Are you open to authors pitching their books to you if they see you out and about in the hallways or the bar?

Sue: No. The worse pitch I ever received happened when I was leaving a dinner on the last day of a conference and I was obviously worn out and sick with a cold, but the writer wouldn’t let me politely decline a conversation. It’s never good to approach an agent when they are heading to a meeting or relaxing with colleagues after a long day. It’s absolutely forbidden to approach them in a restroom!

Kerry: I’ve heard horror stories. Personally, I can’t imagine the desperation that would drive a writer to the bathroom pitch, but I know it happens. Would you prefer writers keep to the boundaries of scheduled pitch sessions entirely?

Sue: I think that depends on who the agent is.  If I am sitting in a common area (lobby, for instance) and not already talking to someone, I am open to a writer starting a conversation.

Kerry: Last and most importantly, what is your beverage of choice? Just in case we do find you hanging out in the bar and would like to show our appreciation for spending time with us at Colorado Gold.

Sue: My favorite drink is Diet Coke. I am particularly open to this approach when the venue is Pepsi only!

Kerry: Excellent. I’m a Coke fan myself, so if the venue happens to be misguided I will try to snag you a drink from somewhere. Thank you again for taking the time to answer my many questions.