Q&A with thriller author Matthew V. Clemens

ClemensLong-time MWW attendee, faculty, and board member Matthew V. Clemens, with his collaborator, Max Allan Collins, has penned 17 TV tie-in novels including  CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, Dark Angel, Bones,  and  Criminal Minds. Twilight Tales published the pair’s collected short stories in  My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence. They also have authored thrillers — You Can’t Stop Me, No One Will Hear You, What Doesn’t Kill Her, and  Supreme Justice for Thomas & Mercer. Fate of the Union was released in November 2015, and the next Reeder and Rogers thriller is due this year. A resident of Davenport, Iowa, Matthew can’t quite recall if he first discovered MWW in 1990 or ’91, but he’s attended every conference since. Matthew’s high regard and affection for MWW is mutual, and we look forward to welcoming him back to Muncie for his 25th (or is it his 26th?) conference this July.

MWW committee member Janis Thornton won the lottery, and her interview with Matthew follows.

MWW: You identify author R. Karl Largent (a frequent MWW faculty member until he died in 2003) as a writing mentor, who greatly influence your writing. (1) What other MWW faculty have made a positive impact on your career? (2) What were the most inspiring and helpful insights they taught you about writing? (3) How have you applied them to your writing over the years? (4) How do you incorporate those lessons into your workshops and pass them on to your attendees?

MC: 1) Holy frijoles, all of them. I’ve met amazing people, legends, at MWW since my first conference in 1991. Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, William Brashler, Donald E. Westlake. So many people that I read when I was learning. More recently, I have learned a ton from John Gilstrap, William Kent Krueger, and Julie Hyzy, in particular. You never know enough about storytelling. I don’t care who you are, and the moment you stop learning is the moment you begin to wither.

2) I have no real idea how to answer this. Every insight is helpful in some way. Karl taught me PYAITCAW — Plant Your Ass In The Chair And Write. That, more than any other tidbit is the one that has kept me going. I’ve learned to write tight, to get in and get out, and a thousand other bits that are all part of the process.

3) This is a weird one. Some lessons you know right away — okay, I can use that, I can do this step better because I’ve learned this tip. But I remember after my very first writers’ conference that I went home annoyed, thinking I hadn’t learned much. Then, about a month later, I wrote something that made me just stop as I realized that before the conference there was no way I could have written that piece, that paragraph, even that sentence.

 These tips we learn, they all go into the simmering soup that is our creative brain, and we may not even know they’re there, like bay leaves, but sooner or later they surface and you understand how important these little bay leaves of knowledge are to what you’re trying to accomplish. Not everything is cayenne pepper and immediately noticeable, but it is all part of the whole.

4) My first conference as a student was 1987, so almost thirty years of learning to tell a story as well as I can, the last twenty-four as a professional and I still feel there’s so much to learn, but when I teach, I try to bring up as much of what I’ve learned as I can. You throw it all out there and some of it will stick in this person’s brain, some totally different item will be important to someone else. It boils down to teachable moments and hearing the thing you need when you’re ready to hear it. Writing is not a destination; it’s a journey. The sooner you understand that, the easier it is to accept that not everything you do is perfect, or even good sometimes, but you keep at it, you keep learning, and you get better.

MWW: You met your favorite author, Max Allan Collins, at a 1987 writers’ conference, when you were still a budding writer. At that event, Collins told you that your writing had possibilities. Just five years later, you sold your first short story and quit your day job. To top it off, before the decade ended, Collins had become your writing partner. So the burning question is: What did you do after 1987 to hone the writing skills that helped you land a partnership with Collins.

MC: I wrote every day. I read every day. Then eventually, I started working as a freelance editor. Along the way, I met Pat Gipple and we collaborated on Dead Water: The Klindt Affair. That was a true crime book about a murder in our hometown. In doing that, I met some police investigators who became friends. About that time, Max and I started writing short stories together and looking for something we could do in a novel format. When he was offered the tie-in gig doing novels for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, he called me and asked if my cop contacts would help us get the forensics right. I sat down with a crime scene investigator I knew who fed us the correct science, and Max and I ended up doing ten novels, four graphic novels, and short stories for eight CSI jigsaw puzzles and even designed the story for a CSI: Miami computer game. Our collaboration has continued, and now I’m putting the finishing touches on my draft of our twenty-fourth novel.

MWW: When did fiction thrillers and true crime first draw you in as an author? What about them attracted you?

MC: I started reading mysteries in grade school. First, it was Donald Sobel’s Encyclopedia Brown series, then I skipped the Hardy Boys and went straight into what has been a lifelong love of Sherlock Holmes. As both reader and writer, I am attracted to seeing justice meted out, and as I have gotten older, I’m interested in trying to understand what makes people capable of the cruelty we inflict on one another. There is always a conflict of some sort to be resolved, and honestly, I like to see the good guys win.

MWW: Just as your books thrill readers, whose books thrill you?

MC: So many authors, so many good books. Because of my schedule, I tend to read my friends. I love Gilstrap, Hyzy, and Krueger. I’m late to the party on people like Johnny Shaw, Sean Chercover, and Lou Berney, but they’re all great, too. A lot of what I read is in my capacity as a consulting editor. Some of my clients are published, some not, but I read a lot of good books that way, too.

MWW: Your intensive workshop, “Making Your Thriller Thrilling,” promises to reveal steps for writing a suspenseful thriller: characters, settings, building suspense, incorporating other ingredients such as humor. What do you want your attendees to know before they step into your classroom?

MC: You need to know we’re going to write in class. Writers write. I’ll talk a lot, but we learn this craft by doing, so we’re going to spend time writing and talking about what we’ve written. I would love them to all take a couple of hours before class to watch “Jaws.” That movie is a great tool for learning how to create suspense, and how to use humor to break tension.

MWW: And now, before we close, I’d like to offer you the last word — perhaps you’d like to share a tidbit of insight to put attendees at ease, or maybe you’d rather ramp up the tension with some intrigue. It’s up to you, Matthew!

MC: Put my attendees at ease? I’m going to make someone cry. Happens every year. I have a streak to protect. Seriously, we’re going to have fun, we’re going to work hard, and if this works like it should, we will all learn something new. Even when leading a seminar, I learn something too. Storytelling is a vast art form, and there are as many ways to do it, as there are people who imagine telling a story. What I will do is pass along what I’ve learned, and what has kept me afloat in an ever-changing publishing world for the last quarter century.

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Matthew’s Part I session is:
Making Your Thriller Thrilling:  From inception to completion, we will touch on the steps to writing an exciting, suspenseful thriller.  Creating real-life characters, intriguing settings, building suspense, and even using humor. We will also discuss adding tools to your writer’s toolbox that will allow you to succeed regardless of your chosen genre. Not just a lecture, we will do numerous writing exercises in a workshop setting. [NOTE: this session is 53% full! Register soon!]
His Part II sessions are:
Saturday, 1:15-2:15 p.m.– Panel on the crime writing business (also includes Lori Rader-Day, Larry D. Sweazy and D.E. Johnson)
Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m.– Master Class: Nuts And Bolts: Basics Of Novel Writing + The Book Doctor Is In. A discussion of completing a novel from the first glimmer of an idea through writing a complete manuscript. Gleaning an idea, developing it, researching it, writing the first draft, revising, and editing, all the way through to searching for the perfect agent for your work. Including a 25-point checklist to know if you’re done with your novel. Matthew uses the checklist is his own work and as a developmental editor.

Q&A with Larry D. Sweazy

MWW welcomes mystery author Larry D. Sweazy!

Sweazy Larry2Larry is the author of 12 novels, including A Thousand Falling Crows, See Also Murder, Vengeance at Sundown, The Coyote Tracker, The Devil’s Bones, and The Rattlesnake Season. He won Western Writers of America Spur awards for Best Short Fiction in 2005 and for Best Paperback Original in 2013. He also received the 2011 and 2012 Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western Fiction for the Josiah Wolfe series. He was nominated for a Derringer Award in 2007, and was a finalist in the Best Books of Indiana literary competition in 2010, and won in 2011 for The Scorpion Trail. He has published more than 60 nonfiction articles and short stories, which have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; Boys’ Life; Hardboiled; Amazon Shorts, and several other publications and anthologies. He is a freelance indexer and has written back-of-the-book indexes for more than 850 books in 19 years, which served as inspiration for the Marjorie Trumaine mystery series.

Larry is teaching an intensive session for Part I on Thursday, July 21, 2016.

It’s A Mystery

Some mystery novels are gritty and dark, while others are light and funny. No matter what type of mystery novel you are writing, all of them have basic elements that require attention and skill. This class will be part lecture, part workshop, with plenty of room for discussion with multiple award-winning author Larry D. Sweazy about characterization, plot, setting, fair play, writing a successful mystery series, and much more. 
MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Larry about what he will teach at this summer’s conference.
MWW: What does it feel like to have such a complimentary, starred review by Publisher’s Weekly for See Also Murder? … “[A] terrific first in a projected series… The characters are superbly drawn, and the prairie–its flatness, winds, and critters–is an evocative character in its own right.”
LDS: It’s always a good day when an author gets a great review like the one in  Publishers Weekly. It means the book might get a little extra push into the world and make it easier for readers to find. This review was especially gratifying.  See Also Murder, and the series as a whole, was a huge risk for me to write. I had previously published paperback Westerns, a naturally perceived male-dominated genre. My main character in this series is a middle-aged woman who lives on a North Dakota farm in the mid-1960s. My publisher, Seventh Street Books, took a huge leap of faith, too, with the series idea and me. The fact that Marjorie has been well-received helped to validate that risk and what I have believed all along: There are no limitations to what a writer can, or should, write about. No one should ever tell a writer that they can’t at least try to write something outside of the box. If I had told myself that I couldn’t write in Marjorie’s voice then I would have shortchanged myself as an artist, and, most importantly, the readers who have enjoyed her stories.
MWW: Please provide some details for the intensive class on mystery writing that you’ll present Thursday. What kind of information will you provide? Will there be writing in class? 
LDS: I learn the most in classes that are interactive.  I like a little bit of lecture, learning from the experience of the instructor, then applying the lessons, and finally, talking about what we have learned. I hope to balance those elements in this class. Yes, there will be writing. Students should be prepared to work, but I also know that everyone has some burning questions that they want to find the answer to, so discussions are important part of my classes. We all have something we can learn from one another.
MWW: Give us a thumbnail sketch about how you landed in the mystery genre. With so many different sub genres, how would you describe yours and how is it faring in popularity these days?
LDS: I’ve always read and loved mysteries, even though I got my start in the Western genre. If one thinks about it, there are plenty of mystery elements in a Western. There’s usually a crime of some kind, which in turn demands a law enforcement character to set the wrong back to right. My first five novels were Westerns, then I published a modern-day mystery (set in Indiana), a few more Westerns, then to where I am now, which is writing all mysteries. I would argue that a majority of my novels have been mysteries. They were just shelved in a different section. I think the mystery genre is as healthy as it’s ever been. Readers seem to have an insatiable appetite for murder, mayhem, and ultimately justice, which is the reason we read mysteries in the first place.
MWW: What has been your most memorable career experience, or just the award you are most proud of?
LDS: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been lucky with awards and good reviews. I’m happy that I get to write every day and that readers seem to enjoy what I do. I recently received a letter from a reader who read my books while she took care of her elderly mother. My books, she said, provided an escape and some much needed entertainment from a dreary and hopeless situation. To know that your work moved someone, took them away to a different place, and gave them a little relief from reality is what writing and storytelling is all about. I’m proud to know that I did my job as a writer for that reader. Honestly, that’s as good as it gets.
MWW: What would you say to those on the fence about coming to your intensive, those who are perhaps nervous about their skill level or how much value an in-person class can offer them?
LDS: I attended this workshop over twenty years ago. I remember what it’s like to be starting out. What I remember the most about my early workshop experience is that it was encouraging and safe. I was surrounded by people who wanted to see me succeed. I had something in common with everyone there–the aspiration to become a writer and to improve my craft. The faculty was approachable and generous, willing to share their knowledge no matter how successful they were. Making the commitment to come to a workshop like MWW is huge, not only financially, but emotionally. Perhaps it’s the first time a person has put their dream out for public view, or shared their work with a room full of strangers. It can be scary, but it can also be a gratifying and instructive experience to get honest feedback, and to see a path that will allow the dream to become a reality. It did for me.
MWW: Anything else to add?
LDS: I say this all of the time. Dream big. Work hard. Never give up. Do those three things and you’ll be surprised at what happens. What are you waiting for?
Follow on Twitter: @larrydsweazy

Q&A with Jen Malone

NEW for MWW16 — sessions on writing for the middle grade reader! And we’re pleased to welcome author Jen Malone.

Malone JenJen Malone writes sweet and funny books about tweens and teens for readers of all ages. Her middle grade titles are with Simon & Schuster/Aladdin and Penguin Random House and include At Your Service, the You’re Invited series (co-written with Gail Nall), and The Sleepover. Her young adult titles (with HarperCollins/ HarperTeen) include Map to the Stars and Wanderlost. Jen’s a former Hollywood movie marketing executive who runs critique group seminars through Inkedvoices.com and freelance edits for a host of kidlit and romance authors. You can find more about her and her titles at jenmalonewrites.com. (Twitter: @jenmalonewrites / Facebook: jmalone)

Jen will teach a Part I Intensive Session (Thursday, July 21) called: OMG, Like, Whatevs: Writing For Tweens 

This session tackles the ins and outs of writing for the tween market including how to nail that hard-to-get tween voice, the pros and cons of using slang, and what “content” does and doesn’t fly with this age group. Jen is the author of six novels aimed at the upper middle grade market under Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin M!X imprint, and her favorite comment from tween readers is, “Your characters really act like my friends and me!” In this seminar we’ll do an in-depth examination of issues relevant and appropriate to this age group (as told by tweens themselves), and discuss common considerations facing authors writing for tweens. Lastly, we’ll discuss the publishers and imprints dominating this space and what types of books they’re on the hunt for at the moment.

MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Jen about her writing and what she will present at MWW16.

MWW: At MWW, you’ll teach an intensive on writing for Middle Grade but you also write YA. Will your intensive be beneficial to writers of both, to an extent? I know all types of writing have some commonalities.

JM: I definitely plan for it to be and I certainly hope it will! The focus of the intensive is on understanding the middle grade kid before attempting to write for him or her: what’s important at this age, what’s not, what details can you include to make your story ring authentic to the reader in this age group, what things should you leave out, how much do you need to be aware of/include pop culture references, slang, etc. The blueprint for how to do that research and the areas to pay particular attention to can be applied to any category (PB, MG, YA and adult), so I’d like to think anyone would be able to find something of value.

MWW: If someone comes to your intensive, what can they expect as far as format, in-class writing, read-aloud, etc.?

JM: The feedback comments from past conferences I value most are where people describe my teaching style as “easygoing and approachable.” In my marketing workshops I offer the mantra “share, don’t sell,” meaning “make it about the other person and what value they’ll gain from reading your book/booking you for a festival/having you in to their bookstore to do a signing, etc” and I would say the same applies to the intensive I have planned. “Share, don’t preach” is my teaching philosophy and I hope everyone who wants to will feel encouraged to join into a discussion on our topic, with me acting as a facilitator to keep us on point. But part of the time will be a more structured Powerpoint presentation with tons of hilarious videos to demonstrate my talking points. And there will be writing time and read-aloud time as well. Oh, and also a cute hedgehog picture or two, likely. Basically, we’re going for the full gamut!

MWW: Since we’re catching up with you on your way to RT (the Romantic Times convention in Vegas), how about a thumbnail sketch of your participation there, in addition to signing? I saw “Pitch Wars Road Show” and “You’re Never Too old for Y.A.” as topics. How will those work?

JM: The one I’m most excited for is a panel with two other Hollywood execs (in my pre-author life I was a movie marketing exec) about applying strategies we learned in movie marketing to outside-the-box book marketing. I’ll be presenting a version of this workshop at MMW! The Pitch Wars session will include aspiring authors pitching their book concepts to published authors in order to collect feedback and encouragement, and You’re Never Too Old for YA is a fun “hang-out” session with a dozen YA authors to celebrate readers of all ages, in recognition of the research that shows more than 80% of YA readers are over the age of 35!

MWW: From your website, I noticed that you came to writing after another career in marketing and travel. What made you decide to take up writing and what has your journey to publication been like?

JM: I did. I was in charge of New England publicity and promotion for 20th Century Fox and for Miramax Films, working through a PR firm in Boston. Part of my job was sitting through press screenings of movies, to try to gauge what critical reaction to that film might be, so I was literally paid to watch movies during the work day. Not a bad gig! It ended up being an invaluable way to absorb story plot and pacing through osmosis, even though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, nor did I ever have plans to be an author! I started writing in 2012, when my youngest started kindergarten and was learning to read. I thought it would be fun to write a little story about her, that she could read to me at bedtime. It was like getting hooked on a drug from the first time — I started and couldn’t stop! I kept going until I looked up a month later and said, “Um, I think I just wrote a book.” The next thought was “Now what?” Luckily, the first person I shared it with pointed me straight to a writer’s conference, because I had never even heard the words “query letter”! “They” (whoever they are) say to embrace the unexpected, and I’m certainly glad I did!

MWW: Several of your books have themes centered around travel. Wanderlost involves a European bus tour and Map to the Stars is centered around a teen movie idol’s European promotional tour. Has that helped your career, having connections in your books?

JM: If I’m not having fun writing it, a reader won’t have fun reading it, so it makes sense to me that I should write about the things I love most… and topping that list is travel! I saved up for years so that I could spend the year after college backpacking around the world. I hit 45 countries and it was the single biggest influence on who I am as a person now. Now I have young kids and a husband with a fixed-in-place job and a mortgage and all that other stuff that gets in the way of wanderlust, so I have to satisfy my itch by writing about some of my favorite spots on the planet. Whereas MG characters are often trying to figure out how they fit in with their very specific groups (school, friendship circle, etc), YA characters’ focus is growing broader and they’re often looking beyond the “here and now” to figure out where they fit into the world at large. So dropping teen characters out there into that big, crazy world is really just pushing that theme and it’s something I love exploring. As for building a brand around travel romances and how that’s helped my career, I think it’s probably still too early in said career to comment on that one, but here’s hoping it works for readers, because my 2017 YA with HarperTeen is also a travel romance (via sailboat, along the coast of Oregon and California) and I love armchair traveling as I write them. Hopefully readers feel the same as they read!

MWW: You’ll also speak at MWW on marketing your books. In promoting your books, I see you visit a lot of Girl Scout organizations. Were you a Girl Scout? 🙂

JM: I was (and my mom was my troop leader) and I loved it, but we weren’t exactly the most dedicated troop. I have a rather sad collection of badges and some memories of begging my dad to take my cookie order form to work with him so I wouldn’t have to go door-to-door!

MWW: What is the biggest mistake you see authors make when it comes to marketing?

JM: I have two, both of which I am sometimes guilty of as well!

The first is overestimating the general public’s interest and enthusiasm level (even within the book community) when it comes to book promotions and contests. Does someone have to follow ten steps to enter your contest, or cut and paste complicated links into Rafflecopter to demonstrate they’ve tweeted about it, or email you a picture of a receipt as proof of purchase? Sadly, nine of ten people are not going to take the time to do those things, when, for them, it’s “low stakes.” (Just like you probably don’t take the time to fill out the survey on your receipt from Michael’s/The Gap/The Olive Garden/etc for your chance to win a gift card.) Time is a hugely valuable commodity to people and anything requiring significant effort usually gets passed by, especially when there are so many other promotions competing for attention.

The second is front-loading your time and energy on a promotion, without thinking about the end result of an effort. If you spend weeks designing a teacher guide for your book, but haven’t given any thought to how/where/when you’ll get it in the hands of teachers, that’s probably not the best use of your time. Just sticking it up on your website and hoping it will be magically discovered will probably leave you disappointed in the outcome. Same with ordering thousands of postcards (or any other type of swag) without any idea of how or where you’ll use them to help promote your book… I’m a big advocate for marketer “smaller but smarter.”

 

Q&A with Heidi Schulz

Heidi_Schulz_PhotoHeidi Schulz, first and foremost, is a storyteller who wanted to be a writer for the better part of her life. And once she got down to it, success followed. Her debut novel for middle grade readers, Hook’s Revenge, was published by Disney Hyperion in 2014. Its sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code is due out in September. In addition, Bloomsbury Kids will publish her picture book, Giraffes Ruin Everything, in the spring of 2016. It’s been a whirlwind of a start for Heidi, and MWW is eager to welcome her to its 2015 workshop. Committee member Janis Thornton snagged a few minutes from Heidi’s very busy schedule recently to ask a few questions about her writing career, her process, and what tips she hopes to impart at MWW15.

*  *  *

MWW: When did you receive “the calling” to write? How long did it take you to answer “yes,” and why did you choose the middle grade reader as your target audience?

HS: For as long as I can remember, I have loved to tell stories. I remember telling my kindergarten teacher a tale about going up in an airplane (something I hadn’t actually done at that point in my life). I told her that I saw an escaped balloon floating by, so I opened a window and grabbed it. That year, I learned a lot about the difference between telling fibs and creating fiction.

As I got older, I continued telling stories: sleepover ghost stories that scared me more than anyone, funny stories about where my little brother really came from (that he was a shaved, tailless monkey is one I still remember), and eventually, bedtime stories for my daughter.

I also wrote in my journal and later, on a personal blog. I always thought I would write books one day, but I was waiting for the right idea. Good thing it arrived! I’ve since learned that I can’t sit around waiting for an idea to fall on me. I have to go out and grab it. The best ideas come when I am writing the worst ones.

As far as writing middle-grade, just a few days ago I was talking with a friend about why I think I am drawn to this category. I had a very difficult period of time toward the end of elementary school. Things were hard at home and things were hard at school. Without getting too personal, I’ll just say I often felt very sad and also unsafe, both physically and emotionally. The only time I felt really secure was when I was lost inside a story. Books brought me comfort, gave me courage, and helped me feel less alone in the world – all things I desperately needed to get me through that time.

Though things eventually got better, I never lost that special love I developed for middle grade stories. The idea that I might be creating a safe place for a child who needs it is such an honor.

MWW: In just three years, you’ve gone from unpublished-but-hopeful author to not only a published novelist (Hook’s Revenge) – but published with Disney behind you, a scheduled release of Book 2 (Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code) in September, and a picture book (Giraffes Ruin Everything) due out next spring. <Pause to allow readers to catch their breath.> To what do you credit all of this phenomenal success?

HS: I’m still trying to catch my own breath! I credit hours and hours of hard work, a lot of stubbornness, some talent, a bit of luck, a wonderfully supportive husband and daughter, a truly great agent, and editors that are fantastic to work with.

MWW: You have said that you worked almost eight years on Hook’s Revenge, but in only about a year, you produced its sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code. What were the most valuable lessons you learned that enabled you to so effectively streamline your plotting and writing processes?

HS: That was quite a change, and it was intense. I did very little plotting on Hook’s Revenge. I knew how I wanted the story to end, but only had vague ideas on what should happen to get there. I wrote when I felt like it, a scene here, a chapter there, then put the manuscript away for weeks or months at a time. Writing was a meandering, exploratory process — a fun hobby.

I wrote my second novel on a short timeline, turning in a first draft just eight weeks after I began writing it. I could not have done that without a detailed outline. I spent quite a lot of effort, both on my own and through brainstorming with my agent and editor, creating an extensive plot for The Pirate Code before I began drafting.

That’s not to say there were no surprises along the way. The story changed from that outline to the first draft, and again in each subsequent draft, but I was able to reach my destination much sooner with the use of that map, even if I did go off road from time to time.

Once I was ready to begin writing, I made myself a word count schedule — and later, one for revisions — plotting out the work that needed to be done each day in order to meet my deadlines. I wrote six days a week without fail, but always took a day off to give my brain a rest.

There were writing days I was tempted to keep my laptop closed, but I knew that my job was to create, whether I felt like it or not. I was being paid to tell a great story and I had deadlines to meet. Both those things can be very motivating.

MWW: After two novels, what prompted you to produce a picture book (Giraffes Ruin Everything, due out in the spring)?

HS: I actually sold Giraffes only a couple months after selling Hook’s Revenge. (Picture books can take a long time to publish.) Prior to writing it, I hadn’t thought much about working in any category other than middle grade, but my agent encouraged me to flex my writing muscles and give it a try. I played around with a couple different ideas, but it wasn’t until I tapped into something deeply personal — my utter loathing of giraffes — that I found the story I wanted to tell.

(If you would like to know why I dislike giraffes, I have written about it on my blog: http://blog.heidischulzbooks.com/2012/12/in-which-we-explore-heidis-fear-of-dolls-and-giraffes/)

MWW: You are scheduled to conduct two craft-related sessions for MWW15: “Clearing the Air: Writing Middle Grade Humor that Goes Beyond Fart Jokes”; “Percy Jackson or Katniss Everdeen: Key Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult”; and to be part of the panel, “Agent & Author Relationships.” What advice do you plan to give your attendees to help them attain their individual definition of success?

HS: I love that you mention “individual definition of success” because that will vary from person to person and will also change throughout a writer’s career. However, one thing that should remain pretty constant is a striving to continually improve one’s craft, no matter what the person’s other writing goals may be. I plan to give my workshop participants new and/or sharper tools in their writers’ toolboxes, and a better understanding of the different age categories they are writing for.

I also hope attendees will come away from my workshops and panel feeling encouraged and empowered. Each one of them has important things to say. I hope to help them to find, or refine, their voices.

MWW: Heidi, do you have any other information you would like to add?

HS: I would like to applaud all the writers who are spending their resources — time, energy, and money — to attend Midwest Writers in order to improve their craft and industry knowledge.

I’ll also be teaching a free writing workshop for kids at Kids Ink in Indianapolis on the Sunday following the conference. Details can be found here:

http://www.kidsinkbooks.com/young-pirate-inspires-writing-workshop

I hope to see some familiar MWW faces there!

MWW: Thank you, Heidi!

Interview with Literary Agent Alec Shane

Midwest Writers committee member Summer Heacock interviewed agent Alec Shane over on her blog. The beginning of the interview is here and the rest is over on her blog. Enjoy! 

Today I bring you an chat with Alec Shane, awesome person and literary agent with Writer’s House.

AlecHS

1. Let’s start with the basics: How long have you been an agent, and what made you dive into this wacky business in the first place?

I originally moved to New York to get into finance, actually; I was familiar with that world and didn’t have any other bright ideas at the moment, so I figured I’d give it a shot. But I arrived at my apartment in Brooklyn in June of 2008, which is – almost to the exact month – when the economy collapsed and a lot of the big hedge funds went under. Knowing that what few financial institutions left weren’t hiring (and probably wouldn’t see “former stuntman with very little experience” as a huge selling point if they were), I decided to see if I could get a job doing something I loved instead. And two of the things I love most are sports and books. Since NYC has a big presence in both arenas, I started applying for both sports and book jobs. I didn’t really even know what agenting was, and I had never even heard of Writers House; I just called them because I stumbled onto the website and thought it was a pretty building. Luckily for me, Writers House was in the process of hiring interns right around the time I first reached out, and the rest is history. I started as Jodi Reamer’s assistant in 2009, and have been building my own list since 2012.’

2. Because inquiring minds always want to know, what genres do you rep?

Mystery, thriller, horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, biography, military history, humor, sports, “guy” reads, and any type of nonfiction about an event/person that most people don’t know about, but should. I do a little bit of memoir, but not much. I’m also very passionate about helping young boys reading, as they are falling behind girls in almost every category, so books geared towards younger male readers are very much on my want list – more specifically, an MG adventure or ghost story. I’m not the best fit for romance, YA featuring angsty teens with first world problems, straight fantasy or sci-fi, self-help, and women’s fiction.

3. What type of story do you pray to the literary gods will land on your desk?

I think that horror is long overdue for a comeback, and so I’d love to find the author who can vault the genre back into the spotlight where it belongs. Most of the horror I get reads like an 80s slasher movie – which is fine, but that’s not what’s going to take things to the next level. I’d also love to find a great children’s adventure series and the next Roald Dahl. More immediately, WWII is something I’d love to learn more about – more specifically, an account of the US soldiers imprisoned at Berga towards the end of the war. We’re at the point where veterans of WWII are in their 80s and 90s, and thus won’t be with us much longer. We naturally lose our personal connections to a war when there are no living veterans who fought in it, so now is a great time to preserve that piece of history and ensure that the stories of that war never die.

And if I’m praying to the literary gods, I may as well ask them to put in a good word for me that Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfus, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken will all look my way when they decide to publish their memoirs.

READ THE REST At Fizzygrrl.com

Interview with Literary Agent Elise Capron

Midwest Writers committee member Gail Werner interviewed Elise Capron with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. Elise will be taking pitches alongside 5 other agents at this summer’s conference. 

Capron 2013.jpg
MWW: What made you want to become an agent? What kinds of stories do you rep?

EC: What initially appealed to me about agenting, and what continue to be some of my favorite aspects of this job, are that it’s all about being creative and about compelling problem-solving. Working on books I love, by authors I greatly respect, devising a strategy to find the best publisher, staying involved with the publication process and all the challenges and successes that come along the way keep me energized and excited. Every book’s life is different, and so, in a way, I take part in creating the rules for that journey. It’s very rewarding!

I have repped many types of books over the almost-12-years I’ve been at SDLA, though these days I am most interested in serious adult literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, particularly cultural history.

MWW: Tell us about something you’ve sold that was recently released.
EC: I’m excited about a book of mine that came out in April called Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett. This is my second book with Cynthia, who is an amazing journalist and story-teller, and it will change your ideas about  our relationship with the world’s water. It also represents the mix of serious non-fiction and great storytelling that I find especially compelling right now.

MWW: What do you enjoy best about meeting writers at conferences versus discovering their work in your inbox?

EC: I LOVE going to conferences and meeting writers in person! Email can get exhausting, and staring at a computer screen will never be the same as having the chance to meet face-to-face. It changes the dynamic and allows me to learn a lot more about each writer, their passions, why their project is important to them, and more.

MWW: Any words of advice for the writers pitching you at MWW this year?

EC: Every writer at the conference will have different priorities. Some specifically want to get an agent, others want to practice pitching and talk with other writers and industry professionals, others might be at an early stage and just want to get a taste of it all. My advice would be that no matter what stage you’re at, don’t lose sight of the conference as a learning process full of opportunities. For example, if getting an agent to request your material is your only priority in the pitch session, remember to take a step back and use the pitch for much more than that: Whether or not the agent is interested, it is a chance to get feedback on how you’re pitching, or to talk about your idea, your struggles, and more. Build relationships and connections, since that is what publishing is built on.

 

Q&A with Christa Desir

C DesirChrista Desir writes contemporary fiction for young adults. Her novels include Fault Line and Bleed Like Me and the forthcoming Other Broken Things. She lives with her husband, three small children, and overly enthusiastic dog outside of Chicago. She has volunteered as a rape victim activist for more than ten years, including providing direct service as an advocate in hospital ERs. She also works as an editor at Samhain Publishing.

MWW Planning Committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Christa about the sessions she will present at MWW15.

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MWW: Please tell us your background and something about your path to getting published in YA.

CD: Well, I wrote a terrible book. It was awful. I revised it 57 times, but it was still terrible. The idea was good, but I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing. Then I started to connect with lots of people who did know. I had writing mentors and critique partners and I went to workshops and I learned how NOT TO SUCK. (Pro tip: part of this is knowing you’ll suck the first several times around and you have to keep going and practicing until you don’t suck anymore.) So, one of the workshops I went to was a writing workshop for rape survivors, and I wrote a scene in that workshop that was told from a seventeen-year-old boy’s point of view, and somehow, that voice crawled inside me and took up residence. Six months later, Fault Line was ready to go. Except it wasn’t, of course. More revision with my agent, more revision with my editor, more fixing, more trying to inch further away from sucking. And two years later, I had my first published book. Still imperfect (because there is no perfect in writing), but closer.

MWW: At MWW, you’ll be discussing how writers can use their life experiences as fodder for writing YA. You’ve written about date rape and others write about difficult topics as well, like cancer and death. Any tips for writers looking to write edgy who are without personal experience on difficult topics?

CD: Everyone has difficult personal experiences because life is messy. You don’t have to write about the world’s worst experiences to make a book meaningful and connect with readers. I took a writing class once that had us do an assignment: write about the worst thing you’ve ever done. Then we read a short story about a woman whose best friend was sick in the hospital and she couldn’t get up the courage to visit her. It wasn’t edgy, but rather soft and lovely and spoke about some very real and painful human truths. So “writing edgy” isn’t the point as much as writing something authentic that will connect you with readers. One of the books I absolutely love is The Chocolate War, which from the outside seems to be about a boy who doesn’t want to sell chocolate bars for his school. Hardly edgy. But there are so many layers to that story, so many ways that Cormier connects to readers, you realize that what may seem simple is actually quite complex. Every character is in a different kind of struggle in that book, grieving and pushing and pulling for power, and it doesn’t really have to do with chocolate at all. That authenticity is what I want writers to search for in themselves.

MWW:  What would you say is the top one, or three mistakes, people make with the genre?

CD: That’s a very BROAD question, but mostly I think people’s mistakes in writing (and life) come from trying to follow too many rules. Yes, rules exist for good reasons and there are how-to’s for everything, but each person’s journey, how they learn, how they find their voice, how they engage, that’s different, and rules are very confining. I’m one of those people who finds the line someone has drawn in the sand and will do just about anything to figure out if I can cross it. That makes for authentic writing, and authentic human-ing. To me the purpose of rules in writing is to figure out what you really care about and why things matter. Everything else is just personal preference.

MWW: In general, tell us a little about what to expect from your intensive session, and the Part II sessions. What stage should a YA writer be in to benefit most from your classes? Specifically, who is your ideal attendee for these sessions?

CD: What’s fun about my intensive is that it’s for all levels of writers, because we’re talking more about the human side of us vs. the nitty-gritty of craft. And that has a lot to do with finding your voice, figuring out what you believe and what you want to include on the page and what you don’t. I think new writers will benefit from it if they are worried about what to write, and I think seasoned writers will benefit from it if they’re wanting to push themselves a little out of their comfort zone.

MWW: Do you have any advice or general thought for those who want to break into YA?

CD: Write more, read more, listen to people’s stories, have a rich and full life, make friends with other writers, stay out of Twitter drama, fail boldly, repeat.

MWW: In trying to get to know you a bit better, what is a surprising or unique aspect of who you are, either personal- or business-wise, something that would serve as an icebreaker if we were to meet?

CD: I’m made up of many flavors. I do roller derby, and work with rape survivors, and edit erotic romance, and teach Sunday school, and am ragingly awkward and inappropriate in social situations. I’ve had a hundred jobs and am incredibly forgiving of people’s screw-ups because I mess up so frequently in my life. I do a podcast about sex and YA books with my friend Carrie Mesrobian, and the two of us have such strong Midwestern accents when we talk to each other that it sounds like a dirty girl version of “Prairie Home Companion.”

MWW: Would you like to add anything else?  Please let us know some places to connect online. Twitter handle? FB address? Website? Other?

Website: www.christadesir.com

Twitter: @ChristaDesir

FB: https://www.facebook.com/ChristaDesirAuthor

Q&A with D.E. Johnson

 

Johnson DEAlthough D.E. “Dan” Johnson always wanted to write, for the first half of his life, he chose practicality over passion.

After a long, successful career in the audio-video retail business, he sold his Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company in 2006. He took a couple years off to get back to the dream and use the time to hone his writing skills. As it turned out, it was time well spent.

In 2008, Dan met veteran P.I. novelist Loren Estleman, who agreed to read some of Dan’s work. Dan sent him the first three chapters of his novel in progress, The Detroit Electric Scheme, a historical mystery set in 1910 Detroit. To Dan’s delight, Estleman praised the work, comparing it to Les Miserables. The book found a publisher (St. Martin’s Minotaur Books) and hit the bookstores in September 2010. The Detroit Electric Scheme was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the Year and won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award.

Dan followed up with three more books in the series — Motor City Shakedown, named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by the House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award; Detroit Breakdown, placed on the best crime novels’ list for 2012 by multiple publications; and Detroit Shuffle, which earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews in 2013.

A 2009 Midwest Writers Workshop Fellow, Dan calls MWW’s summer workshop one of the best conferences in the country and certainly the best value.” He is joining MWW’s 2015 faculty, teaching an all-day Thursday intensive session, “Writing the Crime Novel,” an hour-long Friday afternoon session, “Settings You Can’t Escape”; a Saturday morning buttonhole, “Characters You Can’t Forget”; and a Saturday afternoon session, “The Hows and Whys of POV.”

Dan and his wife, Shelly, make their home near Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he grew up. We thank Dan for speaking with MWW Planning Committee member Janis Thornton earlier this week about his writing and his journey as an author. The result, a Q&A with Dan, follows.

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MWW: When we first met at the MWW fellows’ retreat in the spring of 2009, you didn’t yet know it, but you were on the brink of landing your first publishing contract, resulting in your highly successful The Detroit Electric Scheme, which came out the very next year. What did that achievement do for your confidence as a writer, your passion for writing, and your writing itself?

DEJ: It was very affirming to get my first book deal and a thrill beyond description to see the manuscript in hardcover. My confidence really jumped, which let me give myself permission to take more chances in the subsequent books. As far as passion, I had pretty well maxed that out already. After denying myself writing most of my adult life, I dove in with both feet in true compulsive fashion.

MWW: Now, four books later, what has been your biggest writing-related surprise? And what has been the most satisfying aspect of becoming a published novelist?

DEJ: I’d say the biggest surprises have been the affirmations by critics. My books have gotten three starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and one each from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. I’ve also won two Michigan Notable Book Awards, which I didn’t even know existed until my publisher submitted my first book. I was just hoping to get a book out there in the world, so it’s been really gratifying to have a good reception for four of them so far.

The most satisfying aspect, without a doubt, is reader email. Two kinds in particular: my fave is the “You kept me up all night” email, because that tells me I did my job, and also emails from readers who feel like my book has connected them to some aspect of their past, usually an ancestor who lived in Detroit during the time period. Just the fact that people feel compelled to share something about their reading experience with me is amazing.

MWW: Please tell us a bit about your writing process. For example, do you write until you reach a daily word goal, a certain number of pages, or a particular stretch of time? Do you plot your story in advance, or do you let the story reveal itself as you progress?

DEJ: My process is to write every opportunity I get. I’ve seen quotes from many writers along the lines of, “I get inspired by putting my butt in my seat.” Since I also work a “real” job, I can’t wait for my muse to call. I write early in the morning and most weekends — all weekend — until I’m done. On occasion, I’ll give myself a word count goal, but usually I slog along until I’m finished.

I plot in advance but give myself permission to change anything and everything. Two of my books even have different antagonists than I expected when I started. A mystery plot has to follow a pretty specific convention, and I find it much easier to have a plan.

MWW: Where are you in your Detroit series? Now four books into it, you’ve taken your readers from 1910 to 1912. How far into your character s’ future will you keep the series going? Is there a new series brewing, and if there is, what is it?

DEJ: I’m giving Will, Elizabeth, and company a well-deserved rest. They need to heal their bumps, bruises, cuts, gunshot wounds, radiation burns, etc., before I punish them further. I’m currently working on two different Chicago-based series, one in the gambling world of the early 1900s, and the other in a grimmer reality after the Great Fire. Both still need work, so I’m not sure which will surface first.

MWW: What is the ratio of time you spend conducting research vs. time you are writing? What is the primary source for your research? When you are writing, how do you make that mental shift from 2015 to 1912?

DEJ: When I was working on plotting The Detroit Electric Scheme, I spent three months full-time on research. I’ve been able to use that material throughout the series, and I’d guess I probably spent another four weeks in research out of the year, give or take, it took me the write each book. There are a lot of good sources for researching the time period, none better than the archives of the Detroit News and Free Press.

As far as “thinking 1912,” I give myself a running start. Before I go to bed, I read the section I just wrote to put me in the proper frame of mind for the next morning. I’ll usually read it again just before I start writing.

MWW: What advice do you have for writers in their mid-life years, and beyond, who dream of being a published author but are still looking for that first book deal?

DEJ: Don’t give up! Perseverance is the most important trait for a writer to be published. Hundreds of famous authors were rejected dozens or hundreds of times before they made it. However, you also need to be realistic about your project. Even though you’re in love with your post-Apocalyptic YA novel, chances are agents are not going to be these days. Look for your next idea, sit your butt down, and get to work.

MWW: You are booked for a Thursday intensive session, “Writing the Crime Novel.” What would you like your participants to know in advance about you and the material you’ll be teaching? What’s the best way for them to prepare for the class? And what is the most helpful writing advice you plan to pass on to them?

DEJ: First of all, we’ll have fun. The class will be part lecture and part workshop, with a lot of interaction. I’ll be touching on all the important aspects of writing thrillers, mysteries and crime novels, from characters and setting to plotting and writing violence that kicks the reader in the gut. My topic is so big I don’t know that I can single out any one piece of advice I think is most important. My goal is to give the writers a blueprint for writing the best book they can. If the attendees have works in progress, that’s great, but the only prep necessary is to drink lots of coffee beforehand and be ready to go!

MWW: Thank you, Dan! We look forward to seeing you in July.

Q&A with Martha Brockenbrough

marthabrockenbroughMartha Brockenbrough (rhymes with broken toe) is the author of two books for adults and five books for young readers. She’s the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. The former editor of MSN.com, Martha has interviewed lots of celebrities, including the Jonas Brothers and Slash (his favorite dinosaur is the diplodocus). Her work has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years. Her debut novel Devine Intervention, was one of Kirkus Reviews Top 100 books for teens in 2012, and was a Kansas State Reading Circle selection. Her books include the middle grade nonfiction opus Finding Bigfoot, and a picture book called The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy. Her YA novel The Game of Love and Death was released April 2015 by Scholastic. Martha has taught writing for children at the University of Washington continuing education program and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle with her family.

An  L.A Times reviewer said about Devine Intervention: “It is a pleasure to read a writer who so delights in language, and who writes so captivatingly in a teen voice with such imaginative description.”

Kirkus reviews: “The rules governing Jerome’s afterlife lead to frequently hysterical prose…. Beneath the snark, though, runs a current of devastatingly honest writing that surprises with its occasional beauty and hits home with the keenness of its insight.”

And Booklist gave a starred review for The Game of Love, released in April. “This original novel is a thoughtful exploration of courage, love, and the price we pay to live.”

MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Martha for our E-pistle e-newletter issue.

MWW: Please tell us something about your background, how you became a novelist, and perhaps enlighten us on what an “educational humor column” is.

MB: I was one of five kids, and always sort of the odd one out. My brothers and sisters were matched pairs, and I spent a lot of my time putting my cat in baby clothes and carrying him around in a basket, and when he’d had enough of the indignity, I’d read. I loved reading, and once I realized that there were new books being written by people who were not yet dead, I began to consider it seriously as a career. I was 8 at the time, though, and didn’t know where to start. I read voraciously, though, and often reread the same books until I’d memorized passages and their page numbers. Little did I know I was teaching myself how to put together pleasing sentences and paragraphs (plot and structure came later for me and were harder to achieve). I had a number of other careers before becoming a writer: teacher, journalist, web producer, game question writer. The educational humor column, which I wrote for the online encyclopedia Encarta, was my first regular freelance job. It was so much fun–I could write about anything that interested me, and my goal was to interest readers enough to pursue more information on the subject. I wrote about bigfoot, grammar, secret societies, the influence of names, happiness … a lot of what I learned doing that column for nine years still informs my writing and my life. I also believe that writers of fiction would benefit greatly by reading a lot of nonfiction. The more of the world we can draw into our stories, the richer they will be.

MWW: You have received glowing reviews of your work that many of us would dream of getting. Does such acclaim influence your writing? If so, how?

MB: The thing with reviews is that they come after your work is done and after you have spent a lot of time with your agent, your brilliant editor, his team of assistants and copy editors and proof readers, the book designers and illustrators and marketers and sales people….

All of these things shape reviews, particularly the hands-on work of your editor, which is why I am fortunate to work with one of the masters. Great reviews tend to come when everyone on the team has pulled out all of the stops. That said, not every book is for every reader, and there is a lot of luck that comes into it. Did your book fall into the hands of someone who was ready for it at that time? That matters, too. What I’m saying here is that reviews are about a lot of things and not just your work, and you can’t let them take up too much space in your head.

The better thing, I think, is to develop your own sense of excellence in storytelling.

This is a combination of many things: character, setting, plot, theme, language, inventiveness … Make each of those as strong as you can. Make each story as big and beautiful as it can be. Challenge yourself. Persist. Take time. Of equal importance is understanding your own strengths and the unique aspects of your voice and point of view as an artist. The more deeply you can go into your own well, the more humanity will flow on the page.

The process really is everything. It can take many years to write a book. My own books each contain fragments of my life reinterpreted through fiction. There are moments from many years ago whose meaning I come to understand when struggling with a story. I like that. I’m also glad to work hard, to hone my patience and persistence, to practice being kind to myself and my fellow writers, and to cultivate the optimism and faith that the discipline will pay off. I think these are good qualities to have as a person, and I really appreciate becoming a better human being through my work (or at least trying to).

Writers can illuminate the human condition. We can alleviate suffering. We can be company to the lonely. It’s a good way to spend a life, and these hours of striving and giving are the thing that matter–not the reviews, although I will forever appreciate my good ones and understand my less-than-great ones, and be grateful for the way they help readers find books.

MWW: It seems to be a good time to be a YA author, since many agents seem to be acquiring it. On the flip side, the competition is fierce. What would you say is the top one, or three mistakes, people make with the genre?

MB: The competition is fierce and this is a good thing for books and readers. If your book isn’t better than what’s on the shelves, it shouldn’t be published. That sounds harsh, yes. But I think that’s the view that pushes the category in new and deep directions. Middle grade is actually a bit more in demand these days–the YA market is saturated because books in this category have been such an immense force in pop culture for the last decade or so.

When I think about books and writing, though, I don’t really think there are category-specific mistakes as much as there are writing mistakes in general.

First, while books for young readers are intended to a young audience, they can and are often enjoyed just as much by adult readers. Why? Because the books are about being young. A picture book like Where the Wild Things Are is about the experience of rage and returning to safe emotional harbors. It works for very young children but it also resonates for adults, almost all of whom will have had that emotional experience and can take pleasure or satisfaction of find catharsis in reading about it.

So, the first mistake might be to think you are writing /for/ someone rather than /about/ being human. Yes, books are for people. But they become so because they contain something meaningful within them. If you think it is somehow easier to write books for children, well, that would be a mistake.

If you are writing for children because “there are no good books for children,” that is also a mistake that reveals either you are not widely read, or you are not yet sophisticated enough as a reader to understand why what you have read is excellent (and it goes without saying that you are not reading books that you buy in non-bookstores that are packaged with stickers and glitter, because those are generally book-like objects and not books). I’m not saying that all books in these categories are universally excellent, but there is so much tremendous literature being written today that you could read a book every day for years and have your mind and heart fairly blown.

Another general mistake that writers make is to rush the work. Don’t send out first drafts or second. Don’t query or pitch agents if you haven’t a fully polished piece to send. Don’t self-publish it because you received a few rejections (self publish because you love marketing and want to do that work on your own).

I wrestle with this impulse myself and understand it completely. It comes from doubt and wanting to be reassured that our work is good enough. What you need to do is act as though you ARE good enough. Because you have the potential to be when you do all of the work that is required.

Your task is to go through these steps, again and again. Develop your characters. Know not just what the story is about on its surface, but what it says about the human condition. Write the book. Put it aside for awhile knowing that it will get better as your skills get better. Read other books. Take classes. Talk with other writers. Most of all, though, do the work.  

The writing, the thinking, the wrestling, the deleting, the reading out loud, the loving that this work takes. It’s not a race, and in the end, the most important source of approval and encouragement is your own self. So start giving yourself that kind of attention now, and let all of the useless worry go.

MWW: Your intensive session is divided into sections, from getting the first 500 words right, to querying. What stage should a writer be in to benefit most from your class? Specifically, who is your ideal attendee for this session?

MB: I have written nonfiction for adults and middle grade readers, picture books, and young adult novels. I am a writer’s writer and love all forms of writing and reading. The first 500 words of ANY book (or the entirety of a picture book) absolutely must sing in order to catch the attention of an agent. What you will learn in working on your first 500 words is stuff you can apply to the rest of your project. Having a great opening is necessary, but having a great book as a whole is necessary to all of the rest of the steps of the publishing process.

You can get a lot of excitement and momentum from your opening, but you can never be certain you have the write one until you also have the ending of your book written. The opening is a promise that the ending pays off. Ideally, people will have that first draft and can get a charge for revising with the things we’ll be talking about with openings. But it’s not necessary. With writing, you’ll learn what you are ready to learn when you hear it. And who really knows when that is? That’s part of the magic of taking classes and attending conferences. You’re sticking your shovel in the soil, and the gems appear as if by magic–but it’s really because you’ve readied yourself to receive them.

Querying an agent (my bias is that you do this and not an editor) is an important part of the process. But you don’t have to be at that stage to benefit from knowing how to query.

A query will be a sort of bouillon cube of your story: a condensed version of it that conveys its potential and essential flavors. We don’t always know this about our stories when we are drafting them, but it sure helps when we do. You can choose your images and details with more certainty when you know what you’re about.

Again, I am into the fundamentals: the language, the human elements. We build up from here until we have a hook crafted. You can do it the other way–start with a hook and hang things on it. But I think in general what I say will have more appeal to people who are interested in a classic, literary approach. I’d rather a novel that is deep and enduring than one with a great hook and not much beyond that.

MWW: Given that you seem to have had numerous types of work in publishing, do you have any advice for those want to make a career in the writing field, in addition to novel writing?

MB: People will always need good writing. Unfortunately, many people confuse the ability to type with the ability to write. We are also in an era where otherwise sane people have bought into the “writing for exposure” economy. I like to remind people that exposure is another word for freezing to death or illegally flashing your naughty bits. One leads to the grave and the other to jail. Neither should be a life goal.

Study it and get good. Many people are intimidated by grammar or profess its unimportance. You don’t hear a lot of professional athletes whining about how hard the rules of the game are. If you want to play with the best, learn the rules. Then go ahead and break them with purpose and style (more Michael Jordan than Tom Brady). Likewise, know books. Spend time in bookstores and libraries and read what is being published today in addition to what has endured. Most writers are readers, and the ones who aren’t make me scratch my head a bit.

Second, value the craft. This means charge a living wage for it. Everyone who works for free or for inappropriately low wages makes it harder for the rest of us.

Third, create your own opportunities. If you have a day job, find a way to make writing part of that job. Companies have blogs and twitter accounts and tumblrs and all of the rest; if you can make doing that something that helps earn your paycheck, you’re on your way.

MWW:  In trying to get to know you a bit better, what is a surprising or unique aspect of who you are, either personal- or business-wise, something that would serve as an icebreaker if we were to meet?

MB: Know this! I am not judging your grammar. Yes, I did found National Grammar Day, but that was for fun and for the high school students I was teaching at the time, and unless you have specifically asked me to look at the grammar of something and are paying me to do so, that part of my brain is turned off and I am focused on getting to know you-where you’re from, what you love to read, whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, whether you prefer Twizzlers* or Red Vines, and whether you would take a one-way trip to Mars if you were offered the chance. There is so much we have to talk about! And I can’t wait to meet you.

* The Devil

MWW: Would you like to add anything else?  Please let us know some places to connect online. Twitter handle? FB address? Website? Other?

MB: http://twitter.com/mbrockenbrough

http://facebook.com/marthabrockenbroughbooks

http://marthabrockenbrough.com

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An interview with Agent Alec Shane

Committee member Summer Heacock bring us this interview with agent Alec Shane, who will be one of the 6 agents at our conference this summer. Only 30 spots left! Register now!. This post first appeared on Summer’s blog Fizzygrrl.

Hello my darlings!

Today I bring you a chat with Alec Shane, awesome person and literary agent with Writer’s House.

AlecHS

1. Let’s start with the basics: How long have you been an agent, and what made you dive into this wacky business in the first place?

I originally moved to New York to get into finance, actually; I was familiar with that world and didn’t have any other bright ideas at the moment, so I figured I’d give it a shot. But I arrived at my apartment in Brooklyn in June of 2008, which is – almost to the exact month – when the economy collapsed and a lot of the big hedge funds went under. Knowing that what few financial institutions left weren’t hiring (and probably wouldn’t see “former stuntman with very little experience” as a huge selling point if they were), I decided to see if I could get a job doing something I loved instead. And two of the things I love most are sports and books. Since NYC has a big presence in both arenas, I started applying for both sports and book jobs. I didn’t really even know what agenting was, and I had never even heard of Writers House; I just called them because I stumbled onto the website and thought it was a pretty building. Luckily for me, Writers House was in the process of hiring interns right around the time I first reached out, and the rest is history. I started as Jodi Reamer’s assistant in 2009, and have been building my own list since 2012.

2. Because inquiring minds always want to know, what genres do you rep?

Mystery, thriller, horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, biography, military history, humor, sports, “guy” reads, and any type of nonfiction about an event/person that most people don’t know about, but should. I do a little bit of memoir, but not much. I’m also very passionate about helping young boys reading, as they are falling behind girls in almost every category, so books geared towards younger male readers are very much on my want list – more specifically, an MG adventure or ghost story. I’m not the best fit for romance, YA featuring angsty teens with first world problems, straight fantasy or sci-fi, self-help, and women’s fiction.

3. What type of story do you pray to the literary gods will land on your desk?

I think that horror is long overdue for a comeback, and so I’d love to find the author who can vault the genre back into the spotlight where it belongs. Most of the horror I get reads like an 80s slasher movie – which is fine, but that’s not what’s going to take things to the next level. I’d also love to find a great children’s adventure series and the next Roald Dahl. More immediately, WWII is something I’d love to learn more about – more specifically, an account of the US soldiers imprisoned at Berga towards the end of the war. We’re at the point where veterans of WWII are in their 80s and 90s, and thus won’t be with us much longer. We naturally lose our personal connections to a war when there are no living veterans who fought in it, so now is a great time to preserve that piece of history and ensure that the stories of that war never die.

And if I’m praying to the literary gods, I may as well ask them to put in a good word for me that Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfus, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken will all look my way when they decide to publish their memoirs.

4. I’ve heard that before leaping into the literary world, you spent time in Hollywood as a martial arts coach and a professional stunt man, among other things. Which I think makes you the most badass person I’ve ever interviewed, just FYI. Tell us a story. Did you ever jump out of a moving car? Off a burning building? I’m intrigued.

Most of the stunt work I did was of the fight choreography/getting beat up by the good guy variety, so I don’t have too many crazy stories about getting set on fire of fighting a lion to share, unfortunately. I did get thrown out of a breakaway glass window once; it was 20 floors up in the movie, but in reality I fell maybe 3 feet onto a nice, cushy mat. I also got thrown down a flight of stairs once – that wasn’t fun. Both of those scenes ended up getting cut from the movie as well, making the whole effort fruitless. But probably my most enjoyable stint doing stunts was for a movie I was in called (I’m sure you’ve heard of it) Half Past Dead Part 2, in which a prison riot broke out and the guards had to come in to try and stop it. Needless to say, the convicts end up winning the day. I played one of the guards, and it was a blast – and a little surreal – to be right in the middle of an organized, well-run, safe, planned prison riot. Everyone is standing still, the director yells “action!”, everyone starts beating each other up, the director yells “cut!” and everyone just stops. By the end of shooting that scene we all pretty much abandoned all of the choreography and just started fighting each other in earnest for as long as they’d let us. It was great.

5. What is your very favorite part of agenting? And for the sake of balance, what makes you want to cry sad agenty tears?

Hands down my favorite part of agenting is finding a new manuscript in the slush pile that just blows me away. It happens so rarely, and you have to sift through so much stuff that isn’t quite right for you in order to get there, that when it does happen it’s just an amazing feeling. Equally as amazing is calling that author whose book you found in the slush pile to let him/her know that the book s/he wrote just got picked up by a publisher.  For the most part, working with authors is a wonderful experience, and this business exposes me to some of the coolest, weirdest, nicest, craziest, most genuine people on the planet. I’ll always be grateful for that.

As for my least favorite part of the job…it’s extremely hard to read for pleasure, which is really sad. I always have at least 1,000 pages of work reading to do at any point, and so it makes it hard to sit down and just read for the hell of it – and even when I do find a few free hours to read a book I’ve been looking to check out, I find myself editing it or reading it with my agent hat on. When you read books for a living, it kind of changes the way you read books for enjoyment.

But I feel like this question is posed in order to give authors some tips for what not to do when reaching out to an agent. In that case, I’ll say that I can’t stress enough how far a personalized query letter will go towards getting your stuff read. If I get a query in which the author clearly just cut and pasted the same letter, changed the names, and blasted it out to every agent whose email address is available online, that query immediately has a stigma attached to it. But if I get something even as simple as “when researching agents online, I was happy to see that you are currently looking for thrillers, as I have a thriller that might be right up your alley,” that immediately tells me that whoever sent me this manuscript sent it to me for a reason. That’s huge.

6. Tell us something you’re working on right now that’s giving you excited feels?

I have a few projects in the works that I’m excited about – one is a thriller about an expert linguist, kicked out of the FBI, who has to solve a plot based on a random bit of Arabic spray-painted onto the wall of her apartment. I also have a mystery about a former Olympic swimmer-turned PI who delves into the seedy underbelly of Olympic sports in order to find a missing girl. I’m also getting ready to go out with a book about my beloved New England Patriots, aka THE SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS. So there are a few irons in the fire at the moment.

7. You will be coming to the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer as faculty! For those on the fence about attending, woo them with some details on what you’ll be offering up in your panels/sessions/critiques.

Oh jeez, wooing people has never been my strong suit. But I will say this: I love attending these conferences, interacting with writers, and meeting my fellow publishing professionals. Authors should always – always always always – feel free to approach me at any time throughout the weekend to ask questions they might have, pitch their book, or to just say hello. I consider myself a pretty straight shooter, and I’d like to think that authors find that helpful when attending one of my panels or sitting down to a critique session with me; if you want to hear about how perfect your manuscript is, give it to your mom or grandma. But if you’re genuinely looking to improve as a writer, to hone your craft, and get the kind of feedback that will help take your work to the next level, come see me. It’s always friendly, and I always keep it positive, but if something isn’t working, I’ll definitely let you know – and if at all possible, I’ll work with you on some ways to fix it as well. I’d like to think that authors who sign up for a critique session with me will walk away from the experience excited about the new direction they can take their book, and as far as I know I haven’t left anyone crying.

Yet.

8. As is customary on my blog, it is here I request an embarrassing or hilarious moment. Bonus points if industry related.

I made the very egregious error, during my first time ever at BEA (the Book Expo of America), of accidentally walking through the Harlequin booth during a rather busy period of romance author signings. By the time I realized where I was and what was happening, it was too late.  If I was remotely as popular with girls my own age as I am with middle-aged women who love romance novels, I’d never find myself at the singles table at weddings ever again.

Fizzy here again! 

My favorite part of this is that he ended up with one of the absolute best lit agencies in all the land because he thought they had a pretty building. If that’s not kismet, I don’t know what freaking is.

Also, I’ve been to that Harlequin booth. The man is lucky he made it out with his life.

And that’s Alec, my dears!

Follow him on Twitter HERE.

Or check out Writer’s House HERE.

OR! Even better, come see the sir in person this July at the Midwest Writers Workshop. A good time will be had by all.