Writer’s Idol

Ellen Smith, Cassiel Knight, and Peter Senftleben. Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.
J. Ellen Smith, Cassiel Knight, and Peter Senftleben.
Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.

My husband loves horror movies. I’m not sure why, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with the anticipation and the adrenaline, that delicious feeling of knowing something is about to happen, but having no idea exactly when it will come or how.

I don’t like horror movies, but I do understand the allure of that state of heightened awareness and tingly uncertainty. Maybe that’s why I submitted my pages to Writer’s Idol at the Colorado Gold conference.

Here’s how it works. You sit down in a conference room, nervously clutching two sweaty, printed pages from your manuscript. As three editors take their seats at the head table, the moderator (Angie Hodapp, in this case) works the room, accepting pages from the brave and foolhardy. She takes her stack back to the podium, where she shuffles them as she introduces the panel. She says she’ll read each excerpt aloud, and the editors will raise their hands when they reach a point where they would stop reading. She won’t stop until she hits the end of the two pages or all three hands are raised.

Your heart races. You think you might be sick.

The moderator clears her throat and begins reading:

The basement of Quigg Street brewery was haunted by a two-bit con artist named Nat Riley—at least, so claimed the Denver Ghost Walk pamphlet I’d stuffed in my bag at the start of the tour.


Gulp. That would be the first line of my manuscript, folks. I was first. First! At least it was over quickly. Although…not that quickly.

Our panel consisted of:

  • J. Ellen Smith, publisher at Champagne Book Group
  • Cassiel Knight, senior editor at Champagne Book Group
  • Peter Senftleben, associate editor at Kensington Books

I watched them like a hawk while my excerpt was being read. Who needs horror movies when you can sit in a room and watch an editor’s face as they listen to your manuscript being read aloud? I’m not gonna lie. It was terrifying. Also? Editors have really great poker faces.

In the end, they all made it through my two pages, and the feedback wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. Okay, so they did use the word “overwritten,” but I took comfort that it was preceded by “maybe a little.” And yes, they did say that my protagonist wasn’t apparent enough in the excerpt, but they tempered by adding that they liked the voice. But even when the comments stung, they were incredibly useful. I left the panel knowing exactly how to improve my opening scene and, better, excited about doing so.

Here’s the thing about Writer’s Idol: it wasn’t just about hearing the comments on my pages. I stayed all the way through to the bitter end, listening to every excerpt and internalizing all the feedback. Maybe I didn’t make a certain mistake in this novel, or on those particular pages, but that’s no guarantee I wouldn’t make it in the next one or I didn’t already make it in chapter three or chapter eighteen.

In the end, the advice came down to one basic thing: write the story. The story is the good bits. It’s not the sitting-around part, or the describing-the-characters part, or the gawking-at-the-scenery part. If you want to keep a reader’s attention, skip the boring throat-clearing small talk. Write the story.


Colorado Gold Nuggets, Writing Workshop Insights, Part II

Jessica Renheim, Margaret Bail, Elizabeth Copps, and Susan Brower. Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.
Jessica Renheim, Margaret Bail, Elizabeth Copps, and Susan Brower.
Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.

I’m back with a few more gems from the RMFW Colorado Gold conference. You can read Part I, with brief notes from the craft workshops I attended, here. Today is all about the publishing industry.

  • From “Everything You Wanted to Know About Publishing (Now’s Your Time to Ask),” with Peter Senftleben: Self-published authors looking to break into traditional publishing really need to have sold around 20,000 copies. That being said, platform isn’t all that important for fiction writers just starting out. That can be built after a book is under contract. Also, even large publishers are looking to digital-only releases, especially with new authors, to build an audience before moving to print.
  • From “Editor/Agent Panel,” with Lucienne Diver, Kerri Buckley, Shannon Hassan, and Raelene Gorlinsky: Writing momentum expectations vary a lot by genre. Romance readers often expect three or more books per year from their authors. Fantasy and science fiction readers might be content with one book a year. From a career-management perspective, if you can’t write more than one book a year, you shouldn’t be writing in more than one genre.
  • From “Editor/Agent Panel,” with Margaret Bail, Elizabeth Copps, Susan Brower, and Jessica Renheim: Jessica Renheim, the only editor on this panel, said, “I work for a lot of great authors.” I wrote it down, because I thought that “for” was telling, as a lot of authors, especially early on, feel like they’re working for agents and editors. The agents pointed that they aren’t just there to negotiate contracts, either. Their job is to help authors with general career management.

I have two more sessions that I haven’t covered in these brief notes, but I think both of those are worthy of their own dedicated posts, so stay tuned!