Meet my new friend, Connie Cox. I really like what Connie has to tell us about contests, contests judging and critique groups. Thanks for a great interview!
1) Tell us a little about yourself and what part of Louisiana you live in. Does living in LA influence your writing and are you originally a LA girl?
I'm a Louisiana gal, born and bred. I grew up in Shreveport, raised my family in West Monroe and now write full time just north of Bossier City in a small town called Benton. Growing up in the northern part of Louisiana definitely has influenced my writing as well as my life.
I love where I live. I am in awe of the respect we give to each other. In my little town, we still pull over for funeral processions to pay our respects, we wave at strangers when we pass them on the streets, men of all ages call me Miss Connie and ma'am and hold open doors for me and we stop to ask about the family when we see each other at the grocery store. And it's all sincere. We all truly care about each other's well-being.
2) What do you write and tell us about your path to publication. I'm an eclectic writer just like I'm an eclectic reader. I write traditional fantasy, urban fantasy and contemporary romance. I think most writers have a love/hate relationship with writing. One moment we're emptying our hearts onto the page and the second moment we're wondering if anyone will really care. In the next heartbeat, we're writing again because the story needs to be told, whether anyone else wants to read it or not. That's the art of writing.
Then we have to remember that publishing is a business.
Like any other business, networking is essential. I met an editor for Avalon Books at a local writing conference. She read the first few chapters, asked for more, then six months later, left Avalon. Fortunately, she passed my manuscript to editor Faith Black who cared enough to buy it and make my dream of being published become a reality. Today, my sweet Southern romance, Taking Flight is on the bookstore shelves. That book shows a big piece of my heart.
3) You're a Golden Heart finalist and you've won and placed in other contests. How important is entering contests?
It seems that writers enter contests for two different reasons 1)feedback from their peers or 2)a chance to get their work in front of the final round judges who are agents or editors.
As for feedback, they are also one of the best reality checks a writer can buy. Contests advice can be insightful or awful. A new writer must strike a balance between valuing the feedback that the anonymous judges give and believing in her own vision for the book. If a writer really wants to learn from a contest, she should volunteer to judge. Analyzing someone else's work gives great insight into your own work and take your writing to a new level in a short time.
IMHO, legitimate contests are one of the best networking tools a writer has. If a writer wants to bypass the slush pile, entering contests where the final round judges are editors and agents can get you noticed, and sometimes can get you that first sell--if you final. Then, again, if you don't final, that doesn't mean your book isn't any good. Having coordinated a huge writing chapter contest recently, I was privileged to see many great entries. I would say that the top ten percent, about twenty entries, were all wonderful, but the contest only allows for six finalist. So six lucky entries out of twenty great entries landed on agents' and editors' desks.
A writer needs to make her own luck through persistence and stubbornness. Entering contests until the right person sees your manuscript is one way to make your own luck. A great contest for romance writers to enter is The Suzannah sponsored by NOLA STARS writing chapter which is a north Louisiana chapter of the professional organization Romance Writers of America. I think NOLA STARS start taking entries in September.
Of course, not every contest is legitimate. I would guess that contests sponsored by writing chapters would be safe bets, but be aware of contests that offer book editing or self-publishing contracts for an added fee as the grand prize. Check out the final round judges and ask about the scoring procedure.
4) If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?
I would tell myself to write the story that needs to be told, not the one that I think will please an agent or an editor. I've started a lot of stories because of my idea of market appeal. The only problem they had was that they stopped appealing to me. Write the story that needs to be told. If it's a good story, well-told, someone will want to buy it.
5) Do you have or have you ever had a critique group? What advice do you have for those writers who live and breathe critique groups? I do have a critique group. I love them for their encouragement, enthusiasm, brilliant writerly conversations, pity parties after bad news and diversity of opinions. There are about five of us that drop in and drop out as needed. We all need different things from each other and we all have different strengths and weakness. To make a critique group work for me, I had to figure out my own personal strength and weakness. It turns out that I'm good at helping to brainstorm for other's stories. I love playing what-if, devising actions and motivations and fixing plot holes. But it also turns out that my strength for my group is my individual weakness. When my partners offer to brainstorm for me, I lose sight of my own story and start second-guessing myself.
Instead of helping me brainstorm, my critique partners read my completed first draft for credibility, consistency and commas (another individual weakness) but they respect my need to leave the initial story to me. It works out great for all of us!
When I first started writing, I was sure that everyone who critiqued for me knew the secret to success and if I changed my story to suit them, I would learn the secret, too. So I changed my story every time someone offered an opinion. I throw out hours and hours of work and change my story to fit the latest suggestion. My husband who is my greatest fan asked if I was really writing my own story or if I was just taking dictation and allowing the story to be written by committee! It was an eye-opening--if sarcastic--question. It took me a while to understand that opinions are like noses. Everyone has one, but some smell better than others. Even after ten years, I need to remind myself to gracefully accept my group's support and gently leave the well-intentioned group story plotting on the table.
6) Do you blog? How does blogging fit with your writing and has it helped you market your writing? Can you tell if your website/blog has raised your profile as a writer?
I don't blog. I wish I did. But I seem to only have a limited amount of words in me each day and blogging leaves them all on 'net instead of in my manuscript. I think blogging is a great publicity tool, as well as a wonderful outlet for writers who might be isolated from the world. I wish I had enough words to go around. But, alas, I seem to have a daily quota and once I've written them up, they're gone.
8) What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?
The hardest part of writing for me is having faith. I'm from a culture where everything has a dollar value on it. The whole time I'm writing, this horrid little voice sits on my shoulder and screeches into my ear, asking if I'm getting value from my time. It chides me and taunts me and gets downright ugly about my presumptuousness that I could make a living by writing. I have to give myself daily (sometimes hourly) lectures, to remind myself that we all have a purpose, and I truly believe that my purpose in life is to write. When I write, I have to talk myself into closing my eyes and free-falling and believing the net will appear. It helps that I have a great support group (see critique partners and husband) that boost my ego when I can't. My brother-in-law Pat and sister-in-law Sonia, have always believed in me, too. Someday, I hope to believe in myself. Maybe next book.
9) What piece of writing advice have you been given that you still bring to mind each time you sit down to start a new book?
Write something, anything! Even dreck! You can fix a bad page, but you can't fix a blank page.
10) What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? Do you have a job outside of writing?
I wrote on weekends and stolen week night hours for years. When I sold my first book, I made the leap and now write fufull timeI can't say I write any more than I used to. But now, I have a life on weekends and after five. It's probably the best life decision I've ever made--which doesn't mean I advocate it! Make sure you can support yourself first! Starvation really doesn't lead to better art.
Okay, here's an addendum. I also design websites for writers and other artists. I take very few new clients and only by referral because I guard my writing time carefully and can get lost in web design too easily and have no time left for my stories. I'm an electrical engineer by trade, and love the beauty that happens when art and technology collide.
11) What is the last book you read and why did you read it?The last book I read was Grimspace by Ann Aguirre. The cover had been calling to me during my last few bookstore foragings and finally, I let the book go home with me! It's a gritty, in-your-face book by a new writer. If you like good quality space opera, give it a try. Before Grimspace, I read Devil in the Junior League by Linda Frances Lee. What a great Southern book! I hear the Austin Junior League was a bit miffed over it. One of my favorite writers is Barbara Samuels. She is so brilliant at turning emotion into words. I'm in awe of her talent.
Did I mention I read eclectically?
12) If you could change the publishing industry in any way, how would you change it?
Hmmm. If I could be Queen of the publishing world, I would listen to booksellers. I've never met a bookseller who didn't have strong and accurate knowledge about what their readers want. They'll even give the information away for free! No expensive, demographically-hampered test group needed.
I would buy diversity instead of a carbon copy of what sold yesterday. And I would promote heavily, not just my publishing house's stories, but reading in general. I think that promoting reading will not only gain more readers which should equal more profits, but will also contribute to the greater good for our world. Knowledge IS power and the publishing houses have the ability to spread that knowledge far and wide.
13) What professional organizations do you belong to and why? How have they benefited you?
I belong to Romance Writers of America (RWA), to whom I owe my writing career. This professional organization teaches the business of writing as well as the skill of writing. If I could only use one word to describe RWA, it would be nurturing.
14) Tell us what it feels like to be a debut author for Avalon Books. :)Being a debut author is great and writing for Avalon Books makes it extra special! My editor and her staff took such good care of my manuscript and turned it onto a real book with a great cover (I'm really into covers.) Having a hardback book that is so heavily distributed to libraries as well as in bookstores makes me feel immortal, or at least makes my writing feel immortal!
Tell us what's new on the horizon for you, etc.
Having the opportunity to be a full-time writer is better than I could have ever dreamed. I'm working on a gritty urban fantasy that is very different than Taking Flight. The first draft is done and I'm fighting off that nasty little voice of self-doubt while I layer in all the words I had meant to put in the first time around. I hope to have it ready to send off by the end of summer. After that, I'll pick whichever story my muse dictates to me. Zeb, from Taking Flight has been wanting his own story. After the intensity of the book I'm working on now, I'll probably be ready for a sweet Southern story again. No worries about writers' block for me right now. I've got more than a lifetime's worth of stories that want to be told.
Be sure to check out Connie's website and go to Avalon Books to study their writer's guidelines. To order Taking Flight, go here.