Interview | Colleen Clayton

Today I’m interviewing the great Colleen Clayton.  I won an advanced reading copy of her book through a contest and adored it…which means I had to find out more about the person who wrote it.  I’m so glad I did because Colleen is awesome.  Even if she is a Brown’s fan.  🙂

Enjoy this interview, and the review of her book, What Happens Next, will be posted soon!



Hi Bethany! Thanks for having me today!

Hey thanks for being here!  Let’s dive right in, shall we???  On your fabulous website you have some quick facts posted about yourself, such as your favorite song, musicians, and authors.  You have a pretty eclectic mix of authors as your favorites.  Do you have a favorite genre to read?  

Young adult and Adult fiction! (That’s sort of cheating, I know…) I really very widely and try not to get tunnel vision in my reading. Right now I’m making my way through Daniel Woodrell’s body of country-noir work (TOMATO RED, THE DEATH OF SWEET MISTER, WINTER’S BONE) I am also reading IMAGINARY GIRLS, a YA novel by Nova Ren Suma.  (I’m a book surfer…) Next up will likely be a steampunk or sci-fi YA novel. I’ve never read CATCH-22 so I want to get to that eventually as well. I have so many novels sitting on my shelves that I have yet to read, it’s very hard to choose!

Some advice that is frequently given to writers is to read a lot.  Do you think it’s more importantto read a lot in the genre they’re wanting to write, or to just simply read everything?

Everything. No question. Like I said above, I’m a big believer in reading widely. It helps me be a better reader, writer, and human being. To read only one type of book is the same thing as eating only one type of food, going only one type of place, having only one type of friend. It is my hope that every book can teach me something different about writing, as well as teach me something about the human condition. I go into each book hoping to learn how to be a better person.

Speaking of reading….I won an ARC of your story What Happens Next.  Since I don’t want to give any spoilers away, can you describe the book for us?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT is a story about a teenage girl who goes on a ski trip and trusts the wrong person, a really bad guy. He does the unthinkable to her and she has to find a way to deal with the trauma. She makes several missteps along the way but because she is, deep down, a true fighter, she is always able to hold onto the hope that there will be a brighter day.

Your main character Cassidy “Sid” Murphy is one of the most complex characters I’ve read in a very long time.  Did she already exist, fully formed, in your head, or did you have to really construct her?

She did. She came to me fully formed. Everything about her from her hair, to her eyes, her body, her laugh, the things that she enjoys, her pet peeves,  her spunky yet cynical nature, it all just appeared in my mind’s eye. Sid was a gift from God, truly. Within one page I had her voice nailed. This is a rare thing for a writer. Often times we struggle to find the voice of our characters. This wasn’t the case with Sid. She came bursting onto the page and said: Here I am. This is my story.

What are some tips you can give for writers who want to develop a really great, multi-layered character?

Flaws are good. Embrace flaws in your characters. You must, of course, enjoy your main characters and make them someone you and the reader will want to root for but always be on the look-out for a “Mary Sue.” This is a character that is a wish-fulfillment or direct extension of the author’s desires to live out a certain fantasy on the page. They’re usually either stunning and physically perfect or they are a complete blank slate in which the reader and writer can insert themselves without hesitation. Everything goes the character’s way, she is good at everything she tries, everybody in the story loves her to death, and the only flaws she seems to have are minor and “endearing.” It’s the worst literary offense in my opinion. I’ve slammed books shut on a blatant Mary (or Gary) Sue. While overall, you want your character to be likeable, have your character misbehave terribly once in a while. Show them feeling awful about it. Have them screw things up royally and then do everything they can to fix it. Have them fail a lot, everyone loves an underdog. Create conflict always. Never end a chapter (except maybe the last one) in a place where the character gets everything they want.

Goodreads just did a giveaway.  ARCS are being distributed.  Your baby is taking baby steps into the world!!  How are you feeling?

It’s amazing but also scary! You want so much for everyone who reads your book to love it.

Overall, the response has been very positive. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the shelves of bookstores. Only a few weeks to go! Yikes!

You’re from Ohio (I forgive you.)  🙂  Has living in that city informed or inspired your writing at all?  I know living in Pittsburgh (yay!) has definitely inspired me! 🙂

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m a Rust Belt girl and love place-based writing. I grew up outside of Clevelandbut relocated to Youngstownabout twenty years ago. I can’t imagine living anywhere else but Ohio. I love the seasons, the brutal winters, Lake Erie, the people. I love the fact that Rust Belters, especially Clevelanders, don’t just get up when we’re knocked down but jump up, fists in the air. My characters are sprung from this mindset, one I think that I developed, in part, by living in the Rust Belt. (Also, I forgive you too…for being fromPittsburgh. But we can still be Rust Belt sisters! Just from opposite sides of the football stadium!)

You wrote some pretty blunt advice on how to get published: Write better.  Query often.  So, what’s an average writing day for you like?

I write in spurts. I don’t write every day. While I would love to write every day, it just doesn’t seem to happen for me. I write like a maniac and then take a period of rest. For three months sometimes I don’t write. But then I’ll get on a roll, inspiration will hit, and I’ll write twelve hours a day until the story is finished. Also, back when I was trying to get an agent, I would query and spend a lot of time fretting myself to death over it. It wasn’t the prettiest or most economical process in the world but it was mine. I try not to question it too much or I’ll kick myself. I try to think about the fact that I managed to get a book on the shelf. So, I did something right…I must have!

And on the second side of that equation, how was your query process like for What Happens Next?

Ugly. Long. Brutal.

Back when I was first querying the manuscript, most agents wanted snail-mail queries. It was expensive to print out sample pages, pay postage, only to endure that disappointing walk to the mailbox. It was like the Literary Green Mile, I swear. I would have to drag myself to the end of the driveway, see a letter fromNew York City, get a jolt of hope upon opening it, and then drag myself back to the porch, holding yet another DEAR AUTHOR rejection. I have stacks and stacks of rejection letters and a special email folder for my manuscript rejections. I kept them every one. But it only took one yes. After so long, it took one lovely, bright, talented literary agent to say yes. Alyssa Reuben saw something in this story and in my character Sid that no one else saw. She said YES. And now look! I have a bona fide book coming out soon! It’s been a very long road. I’m going to treasure every second of it.

Finally Colleen, my favorite question: what words of wisdom do you have for a writer who’s just finished his or her novel and wants to query?  Any tips, tricks, or dos and don’t?

Don’t say you’re the next JK Rowling, say: “fans of Harry Potter might enjoy this novel…”

Don’t query agents that don’t represent your genre.

Double, triple, quadruple check the name spelling of your target agent and their agency. Polish your grammar. Many agents are former English majors and grammar buffs so they’ll notice if your query is littered with misspellings and blatant grammatical errors. They’ll notice and they’ll pass.

Don’t brag about writer’s conferences you’ve been to, professors you’ve studied under, your minor in creative writing. Nobody cares. I’m not kidding. During the query stage, they really, truly don’t care. What they care about: Does this sound like a good story? Has the writer captured the voice of the narrative in this one page query letter? Do I feel compelled to read this story?

Don’t blow your wad in one shot, meaning don’t query fifty agents at once. Query in batches of five to ten.  Receive the feedback, if any, and craft a better query and manuscript for the next round. If ten agents flat out reject you with no feedback then your query is not hitting the mark. Make it better, try a different angle. On the other end, don’t query one agent at a time. You’ll be in your grave, a hundred-year-old writer, still trying to get an agent before it’s all said and done.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t put your “new writing” on hold to query, query, query. I spent a good two years of my life not writing, just querying and feeling sad and rejected. That is two years I wasted as a writer, two years I’ll never get back. Always be writing something new.

Never give up.

Great advice!  Thanks so much!

You are very welcome. Thank YOU for the interview and for the kind comments about my book. It means a lot.


0 thoughts on “Interview | Colleen Clayton

  1. Hi Bethany:

    Loved this interview! Colleen has some great advice for writers! I loved what she said about not waiting to write because you’re writing query letters, you truly are wasting good writing time!

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