Local Writers Get Wise, Get Lucky, Get Published

By Kathryn White

Manuel Ramos has been around the block a time or two when it comes to getting books published.

He and a few other North Denverites took time with us recently to share about what they’ve learned getting book-length writing projects across the finish line.

The longtime North Denver writer’s first novel, “The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz,” won the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize in 1993. The award came with a publishing deal. Ramos had sent the manuscript to various agents and editors, but wasn’t having any luck. Until he was contacted by an agent around the time the award came in.

Local writer Manuel Ramos in 2021, the year he was inducted into the Colorado Authors Hall of Fame

Eleven novels, one short story collection and a few different agents and publishers later, Arte Público Press is issuing reprints of Ramos’ first five novels. The noir stories, set mainly in North Denver, feature Luis Montez, a burned-out and sometimes barely surviving Chicano lawyer and former activist. Montez reappears in Ramos’ more recent books too, joining felon-turned-private investigator Gus Corral. Ramos is working on his latest Gus Corral book, after releasing “Angels in the Wind” in 2021.

After his success with the Montez series, Ramos started looking around to different kinds of publishers.

“I realized,” Ramos said, “that what happened with my first book might not ever happen again, you know, so I had to think strategically in the sense of it’s a long-term thing. Anybody who’s thinking about [getting published] has to be willing to accept the fact that it could be a long-term process. They might hit it off with a first novel and sell millions of books and become famous. Or they might not.”

North Denver writers Manuel Aragon and Eric Fretz might be about where Ramos was in the mid 1990s.

The Denver North Star first caught up with Aragon in 2021 when he was working on “Norteñas,” a collection of short stories set in North Denver. After subsequent years of expansion, revision and work to clarify the role each story would play in the collection, Aragon feels he now has a cohesive project with stories anchored in a theme and approach. He described them as speculative fiction, light sci-fi time travel. Aragon has an agent now and expects his manuscript to be sent to potential publishers this spring.

When a project took many years to come to fruition, as many do, what kept Aragon engaged and able to keep at it?

Aragon credits novelist and American Book Award recipient Mat Johnson and a class Aragon took from Johnson in 2015. Johnson wanted students to look past the idea of writer’s block to focus instead on keeping an artistic practice going, whether the practice resulted in words on a page or not. 

For Aragon this meant reserving some sort of creative space in his life each day, tucking it in most often in the evenings, when the rhythm of family life has quieted and his workday at Colorado Youth for a Change has ended.

“When the short story collection would hit one of those points where I couldn’t focus on it,” Aragon said, “I was still artistically active doing photography or film projects or going back to a novel I also wrote over the past couple years.”  

“I think of writing similarly to running. I run every day, and some days are really great runs. And some are awful, awful, awful,” Aragon explained. “This morning was a really cold, slow run. But it’s become a constant practice over the 10 years I’ve been running. Same with writing, trying to keep that consistent practice.”

Eric Fretz’s debut novel, “Groundswell,” came out in November. The Regis University professor reached out to 100 agents and publishers. In the end Fretz was offered a publishing deal from Derrick Belanger, one of the first people in the industry he spoke with after he finished writing his book. 

Belanger, who Fretz met through a colleague, runs Belanger Books with his brother Brian. Known for its Sherlock Holmes focus, Belanger didn’t see a place for Fretz’s work in its inventory. But months later, after Fretz was ready to give up on the idea of finding an agent or publisher, Derrick Belanger reached back out. The company had expanded its vision and offered “Groundswell” a place in it.

Angie Hodapp, director of literary development for Denver-based Nelson Literary Agency, knows just how hard it is for a first-time writer to get published.

On a scale from one to 10, Hodapp said 11. 

“And I say that tongue in cheek. But the odds are seemingly impossible,” said Hodapp. “They are incredibly challenging. I don’t think that’s a reason not to try.”

Nelson Literary Agency represents writers like Jamie Ford (“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”) and Josh Malerman (“Bird Box”). But for agents, Hodapp said, there are benefits to taking on a debut author. They come into the industry with fresh eyes, Hodapp said, “we get to take them through the process for the first time, which can be fun.”

An important factor in navigating the challenges of finding an agent and getting published, Hodapp said, is a willingness to revise, to be “the debut author who can write a really good book, and then also be open to changes the agent will have to hit the zeitgeist right now, to really position the book in a particular market or slice of the market.”

Next, agencies are looking for an author who’s actively involved in the promotion of their book. 

“Somebody we know can be on marketing calls with the publishing team. Someone who is enthusiastic about going out to bookstores and talking to readers or going to conventions and conferences, giving interviews,” Hodapp explained. “Somebody who is going to be the face of their book. That’s important.”

Ramos knows the drill. He learned it with his first book.

“I had to hustle a lot to get the book publicized,” Ramos said, “even though [the publisher] was willing to spend some money to help me out with publicity. I arranged initial readings at the Tattered Cover, Rue Morgue and Murder by the Book. And I had to do things like arrange for interviews locally, or even outside of the state. Most writers today are telling me that they spend a hell of a lot of time marketing and trying to get publicity.”

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