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.

Interview with Jessica Renheim, Associate Editor of Dutton/Penguin Group

Interview originally published at Chiseled in Rock blog by Dave Jackson on June 4, 2014.

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is pleased to welcome Jessica Renheim to the Colorado Gold Conference September 5th through the 7th.

jessicarenheimJess joined Dutton in 2007 and has been there ever since. She edits both fiction and nonfiction at Dutton, including speculative and paranormal fiction, mystery/crime, thrillers, narrative nonfiction, and memoir. Among the bestselling and critically acclaimed writers she has worked with are the #1 New York Times bestselling authors Richelle Mead and Kelley Armstrong, as well as New York Times bestselling and award-winning writers Mark Adams, Dan Savage, Stephen White, Meg Gardiner, Brian D’Amato, Jennifer Lee Carrell, Raymond Khoury, and David Rich.

We are particularly pleased to interview Jessica because she apparently makes rare appearances on blogs!

CIR: How important is it for an author to be flexible with edits? By the way, I’m so flexible my leg is curled around my head as I write this.

JR: Flexibility with edits is always very welcome, but ultimately it’s the author’s book so he/she is going have the final say on most things. The editor’s primary job is to provide guidance where we think it’s needed. Is a certain character feeling too one-dimensional or predictable? Is it too easy to guess the mystery at the heart of the novel? Or is there some inconsistency between the start of the story and the climactic showdown at the end? These are the kind of editorial questions and concerns that may need to be addressed to make the book better, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with talented writers who can step back from their work and assess what’s clicking and what needs to be reconsidered.

CIR: In just the past few years the major publishing houses have become very active with electronic publishing. Can and or will this open the door for more experimental stories to be published in New York from unknown authors since costs can be saved on printing?

JR: I think so. There are quite a few digital original or digital only imprints publishing new authors across different genres these days. One recent example is Tor.com announcing the launch of a new imprint devoted to publishing original novellas, shorter novels and serializations. This seems like a natural area of growth for science fiction and fantasy, and a great way for aspiring writers to get stories published that wouldn’t have been the right fit for more traditional formats due to length or other considerations.

CIR: Have you had the chance to meet any celebrities and if so, who was the coolest?

JR: Dutton publishes the occasional celebrity book, but I have yet to work on one. There have been few brief encounters. Nick Offerman has come by our office to work with his editor. John Hodgman gathered a sizeable group of his (well-known) friend to shoot a scene for his book trailer at the office once. If you watch the trailer here http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/4cc168ca62/that-is-all it’s the scene in the conference room. I also worked on It Gets Better and American Savage with Dan Savage, who is so lovely and down to earth that I sometimes forget he’s a celebrity.

CIR: Did you always know that you wanted to be in the publishing business, an editor?

JR: I think by senior year of college I realized that I wanted to pursue a job in book publishing. I was lucky enough to attend the Columbia Publishing Course, which not only led directly to my job at Dutton, but also helped me to decide that becoming an editor would be the best fit for me. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to work with an author through the entire process, from acquisition to well after his/her book hits stores and online retailers.

CIR: Because we strive to be unique, I must ask a bizarre question. How do you think Charles Dickens would have felt about E publishing?

JR: Well, Dickens was a prolific writer whose novels were mostly published in monthly or weekly installments, a format that allowed him to evaluate his audience’s reaction and use that feedback to shape his stories. Serializing his novels also made them cheaper and more accessible, so my guess is that Dickens would have loved the greater flexibility and access digital publishing affords to readers.

CIR: I have to ask this one because many friends and I have experienced it a couple of times. If an editor had very encouraging things to say about a manuscript, but rejected it stating that it would be better as a…we’ll say a YA, or any number of other succinct suggestions…and the author revamps it as such, do you think the writer is out of bounds to try a resubmission?

JR: It’s a good question. I think if an editor feels strongly enough about a manuscript to provide very encouraging and specific feedback before ultimately rejecting it, then it’s fair game to resubmit the manuscript if it’s been substantially reworded. There’s always an exception to the rule, of course, but in general editors are looking to fall in love with a project and champion it. As long as you’re not submitting a newly revised YA novel to Dutton—where we only do adult books—chances are the editor will take another look!

Thanks Jessica!

We look forward to seeing you at the Gold!

Interview conducted by Gusto Dave

Oh Those Wonderful Librarians!

Remember those days as a kid, wandering into the library and being guided to a book by the librarian? I have very fond memories of both school and public librarians of my childhood years. Their recommendations provided me rich rewards and a deep appreciation for books.

At the end of May, I had the honor to participate in a panel of authors at the Library Journal Day of Dialog. The audience was an energetic collection of librarians from across the U.S. That experience brought home to me once again just how large the role of librarians is in our lives as readers and writers.

As children, most of us rely on adults to shape our reading choices. If we are lucky, we encounter those wonderful mentors who have noted our interests and taken the time to get to know us. They lead us to new authors, suggest unfamiliar books, and launch us into great adventures.

I recall the librarian in the children’s section of the public library helping my sister pick out my earliest books. She always made sure we left with a pile of five or six or seven and fostered my initial love of books and the library so much that I played “library” with friends, creating cards for each of my own books and carefully entering names and dates each time I loaned to a friend…even if it was only for the couple hours of play time.

In my elementary years, my school librarian walked me through the Paddington Bear series, showed me the biography section, told me about Maud Hart Lovelace (the Betsy-Tacy series); suggested the Boxcar Children and Happy Hollister mysteries, made sure I found all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and let me read Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret a year early (it was restricted to sixth graders).

When I moved, just before sixth grade, the public librarian in my new community led me through their entire Nancy Drew collection during my first six months in the small town– I think I read ninety-nine books in that time (they didn’t have the entire series). When new books came in, she always made sure I knew about them. She introduced me to YA, long before it was called YA—I’ll never forget Lois Duncan, Betsy Byars, and Judy Blume. She and made sure I didn’t miss Gone with the Wind and other classics. Then, just as I was tiring of Harlequin’s sweet romances, she put Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and LaVyrle Spencer into my hands and sealed my fate.

With each move I made during my adult life, I always found the library. While I didn’t forge the relationships with librarians that I had during childhood and adolescence, they always remained important to me.

As an author, I find librarians still play a big role in my life. Five Star Publishing focuses on the library market. Thus, libraries make up the bulk of my sales and librarian recommendations drive increases in my readership. The Day of Dialog brought me face to face with many of those librarians responsible for building collections. They were articulate, curious, intelligent, nurturing men and women…just like all the librarians I remember in my life…and I can’t help waxing nostalgic as a result.

What memories do you have of librarians? Do they still play a role in your life? In your children’s lives? Tell us about them.

Then…remember to tell them!!

The Joys of Being a Contest Judge

The first writing contest I ever judged was the Colorado Gold almost twenty years ago. After that first contest, I was hooked on judging and have been a judge in dozens of other writing contests ever since. Imagine my excitement when I received my entries for this year’s Colorado Gold. It brought back wonderful memories of those early years and reminds me how judging has helped me improve my own craft while introducing me to some talented new voices in fiction.

I understand how scary it is to enter a writing contest, to put yourself out there in front of strangers and have your work judged. You’re being brave and generous because judges, who are writers themselves, have the privilege of reading your work.

What are the benefits of judging a writing contest?

Honing your craft: When you read the work of others, whether it’s through critique or a writing contest, you have an opportunity to consider craft issues you might miss in your own writing. You see first hand how someone else does it the right way, or the wrong way, and can then identify those same issues in your own writing.

Stylistic Differences: The entries in a writing contest help you understand how styles differ for every writer. You get to experience how style affects the voice of the writer and you come to understand that differing styles are not wrong, only a unique signature of the writer.

Appreciation of Imaginative Voices: The talent of others is a privilege to see. Every entry has a creative spark to appreciate regardless of any technical problems it may have. As a judge you can review the writing for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

New Perspectives: If you ever wondered what it might be like for an editor or agent to read through the slush pile, judging a writing contest can offer you a fresh perspective. It helps you view the writing from a publishing professional’s point of view.

Paying it Forward: A fair judge with good intentions of helping other writers is paying it forward with constructive advice and feedback. It’s a win-win for us all.

If you’ve never judged a writing contest, please consider volunteering to do so. The rewards are real and everybody wins. If you’re a contest entrant, I want to thank you for the joy of reading your entry. And if you’ve never entered a writing contest, I hope you’ll consider doing so in the future.

I have a pretty good memory and I still remember many of the writing entries I’ve judged in past years, even those that didn’t win, and I’m always hoping to find those stories on bookstore shelves (virtual and otherwise) someday. Thank you for the privilege of reading your work!

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

Karen DuvallKaren Duvall is an award-winning author with 4 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series last year, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. She is currently working on a new contemporary fantasy romance series.

August RMFW Workshop Announcement: Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals)

August RMFW Workshop
Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals)
Saturday, Aug. 23
1 to 3 PM
Sam Gary Branch Library
2961 Roslyn St., Denver (Stapleton neighborhood)

Presented by: Tracy Brisendine

One of the most fascinating and feared crimes is murder—it can completely immobilize a community and tear a family apart. It can also make for some really great writing.

The life and death of your story can depend on the authenticity of your detail, so step beyond the crime scene tape and get it right! Learn basic homicide investigative techniques, motives that induce a person to kill, commonly used cover-up methods, and the importance of physical evidence at a death scene.

Do you know the fundamental characteristics of gunshot wounds, stabbings, and blunt force trauma? What about the tell-tale signs of an asphyxiation death? You will after this class.

So if you plan on offing someone, fictionally of course, don’t miss this free program.

About Tracy:

Tracy Brisendine’s invisible pet dinosaur landed her in the principal’s office in second grade, and it was downhill from there. In order to protect her mental health, she allows some of her ideas to bleed out onto the page. When she is not battling demons of deviance, she serves as RMFW’s Publicity Chair.

Tracy lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and snaggle-tooth dog named Max. She worked in law enforcement for seven years and has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, with a concentration in Criminal Justice, from Colorado State University. Currently, Tracy works as a locate investigator for the City of Denver, and writes urban fantasy as TJ Valour.

Follow Tracy on Twitter: @WolvesCanEatMe
On Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorTJValour

Author Services – Watching Out for the Predators

The Mark of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy

This is my big excitement for the week – a friend spotting my new book in Minneapolis-St. Paul, right next to Guy Gavriel Kay. Funny how these little joys make it all so fun.

Because, we all know that getting our books published and out there doesn’t always bring joy and fun. Far from being the Golden Ticket that transforms our lives and brings us Eternal Happiness, publication brings a new set of problems. Once we get over the shock of this revelation, it makes total sense. After all, life is like this. Any grown-up knows it. Each new step, every new phase brings its own joys and sorrows. The trick is to manage the sorrows and savor the joys.

One of the biggest discoveries that publication brings to most is that it doesn’t pay all that well. Especially to begin with.

It’s part of the mythology of the author – that it’s a career guaranteed to bring in wealth. Maybe we believe this because we hear the book deal numbers for those high-profile authors. We see the JK Rowlings, the Stephenie Meyers and the James Pattersons making literal fortunes and extrapolate that to all writers. Again, once we get a grip on the reality, it makes total sense. Really in no profession does anyone make the CEO salary when they’re at entry level. Any grown-up knows this. We figure out how to manage our expectations and move on.

What’s difficult to manage is the expectations of other people. Especially the predators and parasites.

I’m seeing more of them than ever. I think this is because of the boom in self-publishing, with so many high-profile voices publishing their sales figures, trumpeting their financial success. (How prevalent that success is would be a whole ‘nother discussion. Suffice to say, I think a small percentage still makes the really high dollars.) Like coyote populations expanding after a boom in bunny rabbit births, like mushrooms after a rainy summer, “Author Services” are popping up everywhere.

I can think of five people offhand who’ve started businesses as author assistants or ebook formatters in the last six months. Several times a week – sometimes several times a day – I receive “offers” for some kind of service meant to help me write or sell books. I see notices of new followers on Twitter that are book publicists, publishers, cover designers, author assistants – you name it.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing.

But I think it’s not always a good thing, Certainly not for all authors.

Sure, it’s great that these services are out there, if you need them. If you can afford them. But there’s increasing competition for the prey. Once there are more coyotes than the bunny population can sustain, the coyotes start to get hungry. These folks are getting hungry. Which means they need to convince more authors that their services are not only necessary, but crucial to success.

They can instill panic. DO THIS OR YOUR BOOK WILL FAIL.

I’ve seen it.

So, my point is – beware of author “services.” They might be very nice people, with great stuff to offer, but you’re not necessarily their cash cow. They figure you can afford it. That you are the wellspring of wealth, with so much that it could spill over onto them. Most of us – particularly early in our careers – simply can’t afford that outlay. Most of us have day jobs for that reason. If you can’t afford it, don’t feel pressured into ponying up for it.

Services are lovely to have and they can help us out. But they’re luxuries, not necessities.

Orange is the New Black is Back So I Spent My Blog Writing Time Watching it…

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

My original post was going to be something very profound and enlightening, something that would make your writing career, and eventually put you at the NY Times Bestseller List, and then I started watching the 2nd season of Orange is the New Black…

If you haven’t seen Orange is the New Black, you really should, for your writerly sake. It is just plain, good storytelling. It can teach you a lot about characterization too. The story starts off about a young woman of privilege who ends up in prison for a crime she committed many years ago. But it grows into so much more as we see the world through the eyes of various inmates, in humorous, sometimes sad, gritty and grim, but very honest ways.

I LOVE this show for many reasons, the writing, the plot twists, but most of all for the characters, for each is deeper, and their stories sometimes horrible, but also entertaining. At the end of every episode, I feel for them. I carry them in my thoughts after the show is over. I embrace and connect with them.

All things we as writers want our audience to feel.

Then there’s the main character, Piper.

I hate her. Seriously can’t stand her.

But I continue to watch.

She is an anti-hero in the finest way.

I don’t like her, for she isn’t very likeable. She started off likeable, and I even felt sorry for her. Now I feel like stuffing her in a wood chipper.

Her choices are poor ones, resulting in causing others much pain.

And yet, I watch every episode, hoping things will be different. Hoping she’ll be redeemed in some way. Hoping for a happy ending, not for her, but for the sake of those around her.

Yes, I hate her.

But, like it or not, I connect with her.

Now I’m not suggesting you go and write crappy characters who I will hate. Nicolas Sparks fills that void for me just fine (Kidding, no Sparks’ related hate mail, please).

I’m merely pointing out, that every character is flawed in some way. Find those flaws, exploit them for your audience, show us who the character is beyond a description in the mirror (please, please don’t describe your character by having them look in the mirror; it’s been done a million times, by yours truly half of those times). Give your hero warts (not literal ones unless your heroine like to apply wart remover), and make us want to heal them.

This is perhaps most true when writing the antagonist. Too often we only show the antagonist’s flaws, his evilness. But to make a living, breathing bad guy, show us beyond his evil façade. Show us why he is the way he is, show us his humanity, and we will continue to read on.

Any of you watching season 2 of Orange is the New Black? What do you think? Care to defend Piper? Or anyone have another example of a great anti-hero, besides Hannibal Lector?

The Top 5 Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Ever Got … by Trai Cartwright

1.   If you’re holding something back for later, drop it in now.

Last Thursday, a friend and I both had one of those explosive days you live for as a writer: the day when your story just electrifies you, delights you, reveals itself to you. She told me she had just written the scene that told her it was just another 25 pages until the supernatural elements of her book could be introduced. I’d just written a scene that was wholly unexpected: a dude who wasn’t supposed to reveal his true nature for many (many) pages to come suddenly whipped off his mask.

This reveal not only changed my whole book but radically improved it in an instant.

This trick comes from a writing teacher I reviled except for this gem. Don’t hold on to the secrets. Don’t write an entire book knowing that in the last 30 pages, all will be revealed. It drains your writing of life-giving creative energy. By “giving away the store”, I was seemingly left with nowhere to go. In fact, I was forced to imagine greater. My story expanded in the most delicious ways because I didn’t hold back.

So my advice to my friend who’s waiting 25 pages to unleash her tasty goodness: just do it now.

2.   Write something beautiful, something grotesque, and something odd on every page.

This one came from a poet who’d just published her first novel, and it’s what her editor said transfixed her. The poet had always used these tricks in her poetry, and had unconsciously carried it over to her fiction. The effect: pages and pages of surprises in the sentences, creating a unique texture that illuminated her world in unexpected ways.

3.   Don’t let the reader catch you writing.

This is from Elmore Leonard and a habit I had to break in my early years. If you’re overly-enamored with your own scintillating, bombastic, lyrical writing style, chances are your readers know it all too well. My voice often over-took my story, and instead of carrying my readers away on a fantastic journey, I was demanding they stand in awe of my cleverness. The point is this: you’re a storyteller first. The voice has to be in service to the story, not your ego.

4.   Don’t confuse, don’t bore.

This from my MFA director Tod Goldberg. Written in big letters on the board, first day of class. If your readers are busy trying to sort out why someone said such-and-such, how they got from the parking lot to Rockefeller Center, who it is they are talking to, when their mother became reanimated because you could swear she died in the first ten pages, they are being carried way on a fantastic journey. They are confused. Confusion equals disengagement as we readers try to conjure the answers that are not on the page.

And boredom, well that’s easy too. If you’re bored writing your story, your readers will have already put your book down. The fix? See #1.

5.   Stop with the semi-colon. And the em-dashes. And the parenthesis.

This is from my god-like genre teacher, Stephen Graham Jones. We all do this. We all suddenly fall in love with some punctuation device that to our minds displays brilliance, adds essential information, and in the case of parenthesis, delivers a dollop of writerly humor.

Readers get exhausted by these devices. Semi-colons create complex sentences that can feel like a challenge to some. Most of those sentences can live independently of one another, so drop in a period instead.

Em-dashes—which, to our mind, can create urgency, provide delightful intrusion, or give crucial tangential information—work maybe every five or six pages, but more than that, it’s a red flag to readers. We start tracking your over-use of the device rather than read your story. It’s like using a word like “stupendous” on every page—we will notice. And it will annoy us.

And as for parenthesis (those semi-smiles of bardic narrator grandstanding), they often break the fourth wall just so you can impart your own sense of humor rather than the character’s. Or worse, it’s a piece of exposition that the writer couldn’t figure out how to include any other way and shoe-horn it in awkwardly. The answer is simply to not employ them. We probably didn’t need that info to follow the scene anyway. And we certainly didn’t need the distraction of your joke.

So that’s it: my top 5 best pieces of writing advice.

What are yours?

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

Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.