An Interview with Literary Associate Elizabeth Copps

Interview by Janet Fogg (We’re simul-publishing Janet’s interview with Chiseled in Rock blog)

Elizabeth CoppsToday, I have the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Copps, Literary Associate with the Maria Carvainis Agency, Inc.

Elizabeth began her publishing career in 2010 as an MCA intern after graduating from Florida State University with a BA in English Literature. She was thrilled to join the agency full-time in 2011 as the new literary assistant. Two years later, she was offered the position of literary associate and is incredibly excited to build her own list of authors.

Elizabeth considers herself an eclectic reader, but she is particularly interested in literary, multicultural and contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, young adult and young adult crossover, gritty thrillers and mysteries, memoir and romantic suspense. She appreciates rich and believable characters who immediately draw readers into their world, and she is always captivated by a startling plot twist. Her favorite authors include, John Boyne, Chris Cleave, Gillian Flynn, John Green, Joanne Harris, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier, David Sedaris, Jeanette Walls, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

MCA’s clients include Mary Balogh, Sandra Brown, Candace Camp, Cindy Gerard, Kristan Higgins, Will Thomas, and Laura Wright among others.

Thank you for joining us, Elizabeth!

JF: Please tell us about your typical work day (and how many manuscripts you usually have waiting in your inbox).

EC: Our solicited manuscript log is ongoing, so I have a lot to sift through every day. I usually read between 5 and 10 manuscripts a week depending on whether I am reading partial or full projects. Regarding query letters—the agency usually receives between 20 and 25 letters a day. We try our best to respond to every query within 10 business days of receipt.

JF: What gets you excited in a query letter? Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to submissions?

EC: Queries that read similarly to a blurb on the back of a book always make me sit up and take notice. I love tight, witty language. Additionally, I want to be hooked by a story’s concept from the first sentence or two of the pitch—but fascinating and unusual characters appeal to me as equally as an intriguing plot.

As far as pet peeves are concerned, I have three biggies:
1. Failing to research our agency’s submission guidelines. It’s clear to me when authors have not done their due diligence. Query letters that are not personalized, or queries with 30 other agents copied on the same email are giveaways.

2. Providing biographical information before describing the writing project. I’m very interested in hearing about a writer’s credentials or reading a short biography, but a writer’s first job is to sell me on their book.

3. Starting with an excerpt of the novel instead of a formal pitch. I appreciate receiving 10-15 sample pages in a separate attachment so I can get a sense of the writing, but it is disorienting to begin reading a sample without any context.

JF: Certain agents edit a manuscript prior to shopping it to editors. Others don’t. How would you describe your process?

EC: Providing our authors strong editorial feedback is a service we pride ourselves on at MCA. We want the best, most polished version of our client’s work to land on an editor’s desk.

JF: What do you enjoy most about representing authors to the publishing industry? Least?

EC: In publishing, I really do feel like I get to have my cake and eat it too. I have the privilege of working with highly creative minds as well as impressively business-savvy men and women. I love that I’m in a position where the two sides of the industry merge.

The most unenjoyable aspect of the business has to be sending rejection letters. It’s a necessity, but it can be really difficult. Agents receive rejection letters too, so I know that it is never a good feeling to see one pop up in your inbox.

JF: Which social media venues do you consider most important for authors: a website, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads? Are there others you recommend?

EC: Knowing their way around all types of social media platforms can only benefit authors, especially those who are hybrid or self-published writers. I will say that I believe having a strong website is a necessary foundation for any writer. A website should contain links to an author’s Facebook, Twitter, blog etc. as well as the option to sign up for a weekly or monthly newsletter. Play to your strengths. For example, if you know you can keep up a Twitter account, do so. If you know you hate Facebook and will rarely post, you won’t do yourself or your readers any favors by starting up an account.

JF: What one piece of advice would you offer to authors who plan to pitch their novel to you at Colorado Gold?

EC: Have fun with it! Tell me why you’re passionate about the book you wrote. If I can see how enthusiastic you are about the characters and the plot, chances are I’ll be excited to read your work too.

JF: What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

EC: I’m a big foodie, and I should probably make my motto something along the lines of, “no cookie left behind.” I also have a serious travel bug. This year I am lucky enough to be doing quite a bit of domestic travel for business. Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and of course Colorado are on the docket thus far for 2014.

JF: Now I would like to ask an off-track question. What did you dream of doing when you were twelve years old?

EC: I was convinced that I was going to be a famous painter. The best afterschool class my mom ever enrolled me in was called “Art Safari.” The classroom was in a converted warehouse, and the teacher filled it floor to ceiling with every art supply imaginable. The first day I walked in she looked at me and said, “Create!” It was pretty magical.

Thank you, Elizabeth!

You can visit http://mariacarvainisagency.com/ for submission guidelines, or meet with Elizabeth in Denver when she joins us at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Colorado Gold Conference, September 5-7, 2014.

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Janet Fogg by Aspen copyJanet Fogg’s focus on novel-length fiction began when she was CFO and Managing Principal of OZ Architecture, one of Colorado’s largest (and coolest!) architectural firms. Fifteen writing awards later Janet resigned from OZ to follow the yellow brick road, and Soliloquy, a HOLT Medallion Award of Merit winner, was released by The Wild Rose Press in 2009. Fogg in the Cockpit, co-authored by Janet and her husband Richard, was released worldwide in 2011 by Casemate Publishing. This Military Book Club best seller received a 2013 Air Force Historical Foundation nomination for best WWII book reviewed in Air Power History. Janet served on RMFW’s 2010 Board of Directors as PAL Liaison. You can visit Janet at her website.

How Being an Aspiring Writer is Like Looking for A Media Job

by Trai Cartwright

What could being a filmmaker have in common with being a novelist? Lots! I’ve got a foot in both worlds, so I’m always seeing where they cross streams—including some great advice about how to frame your writing as a job.

With all the news about how Colorado Film is growing, it feels almost the inverse of the publishing world. Whenever I get discouraged about the State of the Novel, I jump across the medium-verse. What I learn there invariably informs how I look at working in fiction.

Take, for example, a recent event I attended from the Colorado Film Commission. The Production heads of the most successful media companies in Denver came to speak about their hiring practices.

My first thought was that the things they had to say was exactly the sort of information aspiring writers needed to hear, too.

Here’s the advice these media pros gave:

1. Everyone wants to live in Colorado. The competition for work is only getting stiffer.

Translation for writers: Doesn’t it seem like everyone you know is writing a book, or just published one? Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the competition has tripled in the past ten years? Where will we all fit? Are there enough readers? What if even 10% of those new writers are better than me? What are my chances?

Whenever I hear an agent or editor asked, “What do you look for in a property?” they all say this: “Something awesome.”

So make it your business to be awesome and you will have no competition. How to be awesome? Read on.

2. Plan on coming in as an intern and if you impress them, they will cultivate and promote.

Translation for writers: Getting one book published is just the beginning, and by no means are you on the road to riches and Amazon #1’s. Many writers never get their second book picked up, and while the reasons for that are myriad, it often comes down to not being up to the effort.

Here are some ways to impress and be cultivated:

Seek out every marketing, book touring, vlogging, residency, interview, and guest blog opportunity. The more you hustle, the more three things happen:

1. Your publishing house will appreciate you and will be all the more willing to find ways to work with you in the future. They know a pro when they see one.
2. The more your fans and soon-to-be-fans can find you, bond with you, and promote you to their friends. (Oh, and sell books!)
3. The more you will feel like a writer. Now all this becomes more than just “making copies and getting coffee” – this is your Job, and as you’ll see in #3, your job is your life.

3. If you aren’t passionate (like, 16 hours a day passionate), you are in the wrong business.

Translation for writers: If this isn’t The Dream, The Thing You Wake Up For, then are you sure this is the right road? It’s a damn hard road, and there are thousands of people for whom this is The Dream, and they are all packed on the road with you.

Every successful writer I know or have read about has the same habits:

1. They treat their writing as a top priority. Which means even those with day jobs write every day. Even on holiday. As one writer said, “If I don’t write every day, I feel like I’m stealing oxygen.”
2. They read. A lot.
3. They attend classes or teach them (both are great ways to learn more about writing).
4. They support other writers because they know that when it’s their turn, their community will support them.
5. Oh, and all that marketing stuff in #2.

4. Consider TV news and corporate videos, as that’s the big game in Denver, and it is absolutely storytelling.

Translation for writers: There’s lots and lots of ways to be a writer besides scoring the big contract with Random House. The concept of the hybrid writer has finally broken through: be every writer you want to be. Short stories, non-fiction, blogs, books in seven different genres, fan fic, poetry, all of it. Do whatever speaks to you, because it is absolutely storytelling, and you are a writer.

5. Once you get a job, don’t plan on ever leaving it cuz media work in Denver is hard to find.

Translation for writers: Hey, how much hard work have you already put in? Hasn’t this always been your dream? Then there is no Plan B. You are in this for the long haul, with all the highs and lows. Hunker down, and get back to work.

Speaking of, off I go. My 2,000 words are calling…

Trai’s teaching a FREE writing class at the Poudre River Library in Fort Collins on August 3rd. Register and come play. Click on “Straight Talk About Dialogue” and sign up.

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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.

So You Think You Can Write

One of my favorite TV shows is So You Think You Can Dance. I watch the episodes streamed on Hulu.com because I’m never able to catch them at the time they’re televised.

While watching the show the other night, I noticed some similarities between dance as an art form, and writing.  Dance is an art, as is theater, music, the visual arts, and of course the various literary arts. Each art can be performed with varying levels of creativity.

One of the points made by judge Little C was how each dancer, as an artist, interprets dance differently. They may each execute the same steps, but it’s how the dance is performed that makes the difference. Some dancers are superb technicians with impeccable timing, posture, extensions, and all the other myriad moves that are choreographed into a performance. But if their heart and style and individuality is left out, they won’t rise above the ordinary. Dancers who give it their all and let themselves feel the joy of dance, who pay less attention to their steps and more to how dance lifts their souls, are the ones who become extraordinary artists.

So I got to thinking about how writing is much the same way. I should change the title of this post to So You Think Can Write a Novel because writing, like dance, is interpreted different ways. There are superb technicians who are competent wordsmiths. Journalists and technical writers might fit in that camp. If you can write an excellent software manual, can you write an equally excellent novel?

Maybe.

Good skill in one area does not guarantee excellence in another even if it’s the same art. Aside from the X factor no one can quite put their finger on, when it comes to writing fiction, there’s so much more to it than good grammar and a knack for stringing sentences together. A great poet may be a poor storyteller, a fabulous storyteller may suck at journalism. I think it’s rare for a writer to be especially good at writing everything, but I’m sure there are exceptions.

So tell me, writers, are you a good writer? Or are you a good storyteller? Do you think there’s a difference?

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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.

Adventures in Genre Writing- Part I

Thanks for visiting this RMFW blog. My name is Jeanne Stein. I currently write two series: The Anna Strong Vampire novels and a new series, The Fallen Siren Series with co-author Samantha Sommersby, under the name S.J. Harper (I’m the ‘J’.) I also have stories in over a dozen anthologies, two of which made the New York Times Bestseller list. I write Urban Fantasy. I’ll be contributing each month on the second Thursday of the month. And I’ll be talking about the craft of genre writing.

What we’ll be covering in these topics applies to all genres. While some are specific to UF/Paranormal/ SciFi, world building, for instance, most pertain to crafting a good a story. I’ll also talk about the business of writing, something often neglected but very important. The publishing world is changing daily. You need to be aware of how those changes affect you.

. I’ve organized the topics as follows:

1. What is genre? Descriptions, Author Lists, Examples

2. Where do you start, especially in the Scifi/Paranormal/UF world? POV, Setting and World Building

3. How do you write for a genre audience? Some “rules”

4. Character development

5. Story Structure – Plotting, Inciting Incident

6. Dialogue – Putting words in Your Characters’ Mouths

7. Conflict – What is it? Why is it important?

8. How to keep a reader engaged — Creating and Maintaining Suspense

9. How much Sex? How much romance?

10. Common Mistakes

11. The Market – Big Press, Small Press, Self-pub

Following the end of most lessons, I’ll include a brief interview with a popular genre author. Among them are Mario Acevedo, Charlaine Harris, Jackie Kessler, Richelle Mead, Lynda Hilburn, Mark Henry, Anton Strout, and Devon Monk. Each will each make an appearance and share some of their thoughts about being characterized as an Urban Fantasy author. A few have sent pictures of their writing spaces. Since if you’re like me and curious about where these successful authors work their magic, I hope you enjoy these glimpses into their working worlds.

I’d like this to be an exchange of ideas. I’ve been writing a long time and published since 2002, but I’m learning new things everyday about writing and the publishing world. I’m happy to share. Writing is a complex, surprising, often frustrating business.

It’s also the best job I’ve ever had.

We’ll only be meeting once a month—but if you have any questions you’d like to see addressed, send them on. I’ll check in here often.

See you in August and we’ll get started!

The Perils of Writing Tribute Characters

Going Under CoverBy Jeffe Kennedy

My new novel-length erotic romance, Going Under, comes out on Monday, so I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and so forth, getting ready for that promo push. One question I get a lot is whether I’ve based my characters on anyone real, or who I know.

I try to give this a thoughtful answer, because I understand that readers are really interested in this idea. Characters feel real to us, so we always wonder, on some level, if they somehow are real. So I don’t give them my immediate, heartfelt answer.

NO.

Never.

No way.

Not that I feel strongly about this or anything…

Okay, I do. I feel strongly about anything that gets in the way of the story. In my mind, the story should always reign supreme. All decisions should be about whether or not [X] makes the story better. While I suppose it’s possible to base a character on a real person and still make decisions based on the betterment of the story, I think this is akin to getting back together with an old lover and kidding yourself that what happened to break you up before doesn’t matter.

It’s not really about what you’re thinking now, but about all that emotion underneath, driving you when you’re not really aware of it.

See, truly basing a character on a real person is nearly always driven by the desire to somehow memorialize that person, or otherwise work out persistent emotions tied to them. Usually intense ones. I’ve had several author friends who’ve wanted to do this – usually for someone close to them who died – and it just never works out well. The need to “serve” that person bogs down every other choice. Decisions are no longer about what’s best for the story, but about that person.

Worse, it just never works out. Because, really, it’s impossible to fully memorialize a complex human being by turning them into a character. No matter our characterization skills, no matter the nobility of the motivation, a character in a book can never be as fully realized as an actual human being. We’ll always fall short in some way.

Then both the effort and the story have suffered.

For me, characters come together more like Method actors do it – by drawing on fragments of my own experiences. In this way, we can access pieces of people we know, pulling in those traits, thoughts, experiences or moments that we hold precious. But then the character becomes someone new, someone who is no longer that tribute character we tried to resurrect in fiction.

Better that they rest in peace.

5 Things You Should NEVER Do in Fiction

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

Writers are given a lot of rules when we first start writing: Don’t change tense, don’t head-hop, don’t plagiarize the Bible… After awhile, we learn to pick and choose what rules are right for us and our work. But there are still some NEVER to be broken rules like those below:

5)  Kill a dog. Just don’t do it. Other animals are questionable decisions at best, but whack Fluffy, and there’s no coming back.

4)  Dare the reader to hate it. Yes, that’s right. Never, ever, dare your reader to hate your book or to put it down. Guess what? I’m not 5 any longer and can see right through your lame ass attempt at reverse psychology.

3)  Stand on your pulpit. If your book calls for political and/or religious views, fine. That’s well and good. Fiction is about what the book needs. But if you’re writing a spy thriller and suddenly I’m forced to read a passage about your viewpoint on building a fence around illegal aliens and I’ll stop reading right then. Never write to hear your own voice.

2)  Add characters to fulfill a quota. Unless that one armed, Jewish, lesbian sidekick is vital to the story, please don’t throw her in. She has a hard enough time playing catcher in her softball league.

1)  Follow the rules. If you want to kill a one-pawed, Jewish, lesbian canine stuck behind a electric fence with the Taco Bell dog, go ahead. I dare you. There are no absolutes when it comes to writing. Good advice on what people hate, sure, but if you dare to write it, then get on it.

How do you feel about ‘the rules’? Any no-no’s you can think of?

RMFW Spotlight on Tracy Brisendine, Publicity Chair

Tracy BOne of the RMFW Blog monthly features is the Spotlight Q and A where we ask a board member or volunteer to tell us a little bit about themselves and the tasks they perform in support of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. This month we welcome Tracy Brisendine as our featured board member.

A special note: Tracy is teaching the August free workshop in Denver called Homicide 101 (For Writers, Not Criminals). You can go to the event page for more information about the course content and Tracy’s bio.

1. Tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I’m RMFW’s Publicity/Public Relations Chair. I organize RMFW’s public face via social media, member communication, and by publicizing our events. I started out volunteering by writing articles for the RMFW newsletter on the free programs. I took over the RMFW Twitter account last year and somehow ended up on the board. It’s possible I may have been coerced, but I won’t name names.

RMFW’s membership is growing and evolving, and I think it’s important our PR grows with us. If anyone has any ideas or comments on where RMFW can improve, or something you’d like to see more of, shoot me an email (publicity@rmfw.org). I’m always looking for new blood; I mean volunteers. So…if PR or publicity interests you, let me know. We’d love to have you on our team.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

I’m slugging through my third round of edits on my novel and in my copious amounts of free time I’m playing around with a novella. I love all things supernatural and paranormal, so vampires, shifters, witches, and the occasional alien almost always make an appearance in my stories.

My short story, Ghostly Attraction, will be published in RMFW’s Colfax Anthology, launching at Colorado Gold in September. Squee! I’m excited for everyone to meet Dina, my ghost-seeing prostitute.

3. We’ve all heard of bucket lists — you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish– what’s one of yours?

I’ve tried and repeatedly failed to learn another language. I have three years of Spanish and various semesters of French, Latin, and Arabic—but nothing has stuck. Most days, even the English language is hard for me! Maybe someday I can pay an exorbitant fee and have Russian downloaded directly into my cerebral cortex. You never know. As a far-fetched dream, that tops my list, but a more realistic goal would be to learn to cook. Like really cook. I can rock mac-n-cheese and an occasional omelet, but I’d love to make delicious, healthy food and enjoy doing it. Humm…now that I’ve typed that I think that might fall in the implausible dream category too. Damn.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what’s yours?

I have the attention span of a pygmy squirrel. I get super enthused about a project but almost immediately get distracted by life or other projects. Speaking of projects, I’ll be teaching the free program in August, Homicide 101: For Writers Not Criminals. If you fictionally address the evils that lurk in our world or if you just want to add some realism to your work, I hope you’ll come. Why you wouldn’t want to spend a Saturday afternoon learning about murder is beyond me.

And…I’ll get back on topic now. Making time to write daily is almost impossible for me. And if I pick up a book my writing will be on hold until I’ve finished it. I have zero will power when it comes to reading, and I can’t read and write at the same time.

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

For me, writing, like reading, has always been a form of escapism. The ability to venture into another world is a cheap mini-vacation. I’ll never get enough of it.

I also love all of the fabulous people I’ve met. Writers are some of the most interesting and fun folks to be hang out with. Other than the lack of money, sleep, and glamour, what’s not to love about the writing life?

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

Don’t take criticism personally. It’s taken me years and years of getting pelted with critical reviews and not-so-nice comments to develop a thick skin, but it’s been worth it. You can learn something from every review and opinion, you just have to take a step back and listen without getting your panties in a twist.

7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Brisendine_HomeDesk
This is clean and organized, so imagine piles of notes everywhere, and a glass of water balanced precariously on the scanner next to a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. As you can see, Boba Fett has a place of honor on my monitor. Sometimes a good disintegration is necessary now and again. The purple-sparkle lizard is my muse, and the signage in the background is for inspiration and motivation.

Brisendine_DayJobDesk
Since I also try to write during my lunch break at work, here is my other desk. This is the desk that gets way more use for un-fun and non-fictional things. I have to hold on to the good vibes at my day job, so I’m not choking out my creative flow. Hence, my work desk is way more glittery, colorful, and lovey-dovey.

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

When Hannah Bowman was here for the May Education Event she made me buy Red Rising. Made me. Like twisted my arm behind my back and threatened to feed me to the anacondas. Kidding, but I just finished it and really enjoyed it. I’ll definitely be reading the second book when it comes out next January. Within the last few weeks, I’ve also read Shield of Winter by Nalini Singh and Maze Runner. Sadly, between judging for Contest, book edits, and working on my various schemes the rest of my reading list is on the back burner until next month.

Thanks for having me on the blog!

Better All The Time?

By Mary Gillgannon

Some of my writer friends enjoy revising. They’re excited to have the first draft done and begin polishing the story. I, on the other hand, dread that part of the process. I much prefer the thrill of having the story unfold in front of me. The adrenaline rush of having my characters come to life and make things happen. That’s what keeps me writing.

Of course, it’s not always like that in the first draft. Sometimes my characters refuse to tell me what the story is. Or they take me off on a wild goose chase and I end up re-writing half of the book. But still the initial process is very often exhilarating.

And yet, I eventually get to the end and have to begin the important work of cleaning up the mess that is my story. It’s a seriously cringe-worthy process: Oh, my God, I didn’t really write that! No! I didn’t really use the word “really” about a hundred times. Not to mention “pretty” and “that’ and a dozen other bad habits. And then there are the doubled words (which Word never seems to catch) and the missing words. The logic problems. The occasional “homophone”; I didn’t mean “there”, but “they’re”!

And of course there’s the process of “quieting the ripples”. Because when you realize the middle part of the book is crap and try to fix it, you inevitably affect plot points throughout the story and have to fix them, too! And my beginning sucks! And why didn’t I think about that earlier in the book?

I always get through it. But it’s not fun. And I especially get discouraged because I’ve been writing for so long. I think: Why isn’t easier? Why aren’t I a better writer after 20 books?

Well, according to a research study, I am better. A scientist studied the creative process by tracking brain activity with MRI’s. His research subjects included both novice adult writers and “expert” writers (they were enrolled in a MFA program). To separate out the creative part of writing, he had them first copy something already written to get a baseline for the actual writing process. Then he did MRI’s as they brain-stormed an original story and wrote it.

He found that novice writers used different parts of their brain even while brainstorming. The novice writers had more activity in the visual center of the brain while the expert ones had activity in regions involved with speech. When the two groups began writing, there were other differences. In the expert writers a region in the brain called the caudate nucleus became active, while in the novice writers it was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is involved in skills that are learned through practice, such as piano playing, basketball or even board games. When a person begins learning these skills, they have to consciously think about what they are doing. But as they become more expert, the caudate nucleus takes over and coordinates these complex skills.

There has been a lot criticism of this study by other scientists, who are skeptical that it really shows where the creative process takes place in the brain. But I found the results encouraging. It suggests that as writers we do become better and more efficient in the writing process. We start using parts of the brain that are involved in more complex functions.

Maybe the problem for me is that as I get better, I also raise my expectations and become more critical. I have to tell myself that even though I still find stupid mistakes when I revise, at least I know they are mistakes and can recognize what needs fixing. So all the years of doing this have paid off and I really am becoming better at this.

At least I’ll believe that until I have to revise the next book!

You can read more about this study on the creative process in this New York Times article.

5 GAMES FOR WRITERS

By Kevin Paul Tracy

Lively Discussion

Writers block is rarely the inability to think of something to write, as most people think of it. Sometimes it is more insidious: we feel as if we’re in a rut, writing the same old thing and not able to break out of the stricture; the plot we’ve outlined for our current project works, but doesn’t inspire us or entice us to sit down and write it; or we sense we are treading ground already tread by other writers and while, yes, we could probably do it as well or better, is what we can do with the subject sufficiently fresh and original to make it worth the effort.

Even if it is writers block in the traditional sense, there are ways to break out of it, with, as the Beatles put it, “a little help from (our) friends.” What follows are five games a group of writers can play to help get the juices flowing again. These can be played in a critique group, at a writers retreat, or just while sitting around sipping wine and discussing our craft. The final output of these games may not be anything of value or use at all, but that isn’t the point. The point is to recharge the creative batteries by stepping away from our current project and indulging in a little bit of literary silliness!

THE CASTING SLOUCH
Before the writers gather, the host creates three characters. She doesn’t name them, only gives them character traits: age, appearance, occupation, quirks, habits, deep dark secret, etc. She then creates a setting: time, place, weather conditions, whatever. Now, as the game starts, the writers are given 30 minutes to write a first chapter or scene, roughly ten pages, using all three characters and the setting to introduce a conflict and begin the plot that will presumably carry through an entire novel. Spelling, grammar, even structure doesn’t matter, what’s important is the story. Once completed, they read their chapters to each other and discuss.

POSTHUMOUS, THE FRIENDLY GHOST WRITER
In this game, the writers sit around a table or in a rough circle. Each writer is given 5 minutes to write a part of a chapter or story. In the first 5 minutes he starts it, then the pages are passed clockwise. In the subsequent rounds, each writer has 10 minutes (5 minutes to read what was written) to continue the chapter they were just given, and so on until the last writer on each chapter concludes it. The writers then read the chapters together. Once again none of the mechanics of writing matter, only the story. The trick here is not to try to fit your writing style to the writer who went before you, but only to continue the story in your own voice, while possibly giving some twist to stump the next writer.

TWISTER FOR GENRES
Here the writers draw genres from a hat. If it is a genre in which they normally write they should put it back and draw again. It is okay if more than one writer gets the same genre. After this, each writer is given 30 minutes to rewrite the first chapter of one of their projects, whether it is one on which they are currently working, or a published one, in the style of the new genre they have drawn. Need I repeat mechanics don’t count, only story. When done, they read them to each other.

CHARACTER ROULETTE
In this game, each writer is given 15 minutes to develop a rough character. A scenario is drawn from a hat, such as: Godzilla has just stepped on the characters’ favorite coffee shop; or a sudden mudslide carries the restaurant at which the characters are dining out to sea; or, the characters show up at a party only to discover it is really an FBI sting operation. Then, without waiting to take turns, the writers state how their characters would react, not only to the situation at hand but to the actions of other characters as they are described by their writers. The trick here is to find creative, original ideas for their reactions that would move a plot forward.

BETTER…OR MORE BETTER?
This one is pretty simple and easy. The writers take turns discussing one major or popular work for fiction from literature, movies, the stage, even a well-known commercial and how they would have rewritten a better ending for it. The writers discuss why this would be or may not necessarily be a better ending.

I know these games might seem silly, but a little silliness never hurt anyone, and you’d be surprised how they break loose the cobwebs and inspire writers to expand their boundaries or even break loose from them entirely. I encourage you to try them.

Look Who’s Coming to Colorado Gold: Matthew Martz, Crooked Lane Books

MattMartzMatt Martz began his publishing career in 2004 and joined Crooked Lane Books / Quick Brown Fox & Company in 2014 after 8 years on the editorial staff at St. Martin’s Press and Minotaur Books. He publishes crime fiction ranging from traditional mysteries to high concept thrillers. The authors with whom he has worked include Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist Kelli Stanley and Barry Award nominee Tim O’Mara.

Pat: Matt, thank you so much taking the time to answer a few questions for us prior to the Colorado Gold Conference. Hopefully these interviews will help conference attendees select the best agent or editor for their pitches or critique workshops (and persuade a lot of potential attendees to join us in September).

Will this be the first time you’ve attended Colorado Gold? What’s your favorite part of the conference experience?

Matt: Happy to. This will be my first time attending Colorado Gold, and I’m really looking forward to it. My favorite part of the conference experience is meeting with new authors and helping them both in terms of their writing as well as their understanding of the publishing industry, which can be a little less than intuitive at times. I also enjoy hearing ideas from other professionals. There are number of talented people out there, and getting their insights on the business can be invaluable.

Pat: Would you tell us all about Quick Brown Fox & Company? Is it a new venture? Is it part of St. Martin’s Press or a completely separate company? With no specific website presence, how does The Quick Brown Fox find great authors and crime novels?

Matt: Quick Brown Fox & Co. is a new venture. It is a publishing startup with a terrific marketing affiliation with Bookspan. Bookspan is the owner of the country’s premier book clubs, including Book-of-the-Month, Doubleday, Literary Guild, and, of course, Mystery Guild, among others. We have tremendous resources to help readers discover new authors and launch careers. The focus of our first imprint Crooked Lane Books will be on crime fiction. The titles we will publish range from high concept thrillers to traditional mysteries and domestic suspense. While our website is not up as I’m writing, it will be up by mid-July (2014). In fact, I’ll be working on that this afternoon.

Pat: Please tell us a little about your background and what led you to join the world of publishing.

Matt: Whenever I’m asked how I came to a publishing career, I normally say that it was a combination of a misspent youth followed by an over-education in a field with questionable employment prospects. You’ll be amazed how well this summary covers most publishing professionals… or at least editors. My misspent youth was spent reading too many books, which led to a graduate program in creative writing. From there I took a job with Minotaur Books where I fell for crime fiction. The combination of top-notch writing and gripping plots made it the perfect home for me, not to mention plenty of readers.

Pat: What do you think of the whole concept of authors pitching to an agent or editor in ten minutes or less? Is there anything a writer can do during one of these sessions to make you more interested in seeing his work? Anything that’s an immediate turnoff?

Matt: The concept of trying to pitch a book in 10 minutes or less is hard, and it seems a little silly at this stage, but is important and necessary. In many ways, the publishing industry works like a game of telephone. The author tells the agent about a book. The agent passes the message onto the editor. The editor passes the message onto marketing, publicity, subrights, and sales who then pass it on to reviewers, bookstores, foreign publishers, and readers. Having a succinct and engaging message is very important.

When presenting a book, writers want to make sure that the editor understands why the book is worth reading, that writer is the right person to write the book, and the writer is the right person to present the book.

Less is more. Let the editors and agents know how you open the book, give them some idea whom the characters are, and give them a surprising twist or conflict. Stay away from running down the whole plot. And if you’re fortunate enough to have an agent or editor ask to see more of your work, give them whatever they want and then get heck out of there. Don’t sell past the close.

Pat: The conference schedule says you’ll be conducting one of the Agent/Editor Morning Critique Workshops. Many of our members have found their agent or publisher this way, so they’re very popular. What do you hope to see among the writing submissions (any particular sub-genre, a story line you’ve been hoping for, historical time period, or even a specific type of character)?

Matt: My focus is on crime fiction. That is a very broad genre, which is one of the main reasons why I love working in it. While I want to see terrific writing and a plot that moves, I also want to see manuscripts that fit into a recognizable subgenre. If a writer is working on a traditional, I want to see that charm, wit or puzzle on every page. If it’s a thriller, I want a fast opening and a high concept worth thinking about. If it’s a suspense novel, then I want to see that family under siege, and I want the book to tug on my heartstrings. More than anything else, I want to see writers who understand the genre they’re writing in and the readers that they’re trying to reach. Writers who can do that would find a very happy home with us.

Pat: How does a writer submit queries or partials to The Quick Brown Fox & Company? Are you open to unagented submissions from writers you haven’t met at conference?

Matt: Unfortunately, due to the quantity of submissions that we receive from agents, referred by writers we know, or manuscripts we solicit, we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts at this time. My advice is to find me during the conference and hit me with a pitch. That’s what I’m there for, so please don’t be shy.

Pat: Crime fiction covers a very broad range from cozy mystery to international thriller. What specific sub-genres do you prefer, both for personal reading and for potential publication?

Matt: My personal reading is broad, and I make a conscious effort to make sure that my tastes do not get in the way of what readers are looking for. Sometimes what an editor likes can blind them to what others like. We read a lot more books than the vast majority of the audience. For the most part, that’s a good thing but not always.

I may have answered this question to a certain extent a little earlier in this interview. I’m not interested in particular subgenre so much as I’m interested in writers who clearly understand the rules of their subgenre. Crime fiction has quite a few rules, which makes for some excellent writing. Authors who know how to give the readers the type of experience that they’re looking for are authors who will have long careers.

Pat: You keep a very low profile online, Matt. As a consolation prize for doing a lot of research with no good results, would you reveal something about yourself that will make us laugh?

Matt: I wish I could, but it’s against the rules of the witness protection program.

Pat:  That works! I laughed.

Thanks again, Matt. We appreciate your participation in our Colorado Gold Interview Project. We’re looking forward to meeting you in September.