Livin’ the Dream
by Doug McQuiston
Well, take heart. Living among us are those enviable few who have managed to break through and finish that novel. Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with an attorney who has done that and more — published author and noted Denver lawyer, Manuel Ramos.
Ramos is a well-known Denver attorney, currently the Director of Advocacy for Colorado Legal Services. His "day job" is demanding — he is in charge of staff training, backup and support, and direction of the program’s litigation. As if that weren’t enough, he also has taught literature courses at Metropolitan State College.
My first question pretty much asked itself — where in the world does he find time to write novels?! His answer revealed much, not only about his prodigious work ethic, but also about what it takes to be a successful author. He said, "I eventually end up doing what I need to do because I want to do it. You need to love it to find the time." Because he loves it, he finds himself writing late at night, on weekends, on vacation, and any other time he can snatch away from his schedule.
Ramos first wrote short stories and poetry in college, but confessed, "I quit writing creatively in law school." Following graduation and passage of the Bar in 1973, he entered private practice and dedicated himself to establishing his professional career. He worked in both private practice and legal aid in the 1970s, moving full-time into the legal aid field in 1980.
He read detective novels as a kid, poring over the masters like Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others. He developed a love of the hard-bitten crime novel characters in those books, and the characters in his novels began to take shape in his mind, demanding that he "tell their stories." Picking up his creative writing again in the 1980s, he published a number of short crime/detective stories in magazines and anthologies. His first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, was published in 1993. Since then, his writing career has taken off. He has published six novels, with more on the way. In addition to Rocky Ruiz, he has written: The Ballad of Gato Guerrero; The Last Client of Luis Móntez; Blues for the Buffalo; Moony’s Road to Hell; and Brown-On-Brown.
His website, http://www.manuelramos.com, describes these novels, and is worth a close look. All are still in print, and all are excellent reads. His favorite recurring character, burned-out Legal Aid lawyer Luis Móntez, is "not autobiographical, but he’s interesting." Móntez has become jaded and cynical, but still clings to his ideals. As he described Móntez, Ramos’ love for his character, and the stories he could tell with him, became brightly apparent.
"I don’t write for the money. I do it because I have stories to tell."
Advice for lawyers who think they might have a story or two to tell? First, "revision is the heart of writing." He writes, then rewrites, until he finally has worked the raw product into something he "wants everyone else to read." Even now, six published novels later, "it doesn’t get any easier." However, he keeps at it because "the more I write, the more I learn."
Ramos approaches his writing like preparing for trial. "Do your homework, be prepared, focus. Know your characters and your story." Then, "set aside time to write, and discipline yourself to do it, a little every day." As you do, he said you might find your characters "surprising you," moving your story in ways you might not have anticipated. "They take over a part of your consciousness. You find yourself thinking about them throughout the day."
At the same time, he warned serious writers to "pay attention to the business side." Talk to other writers; get recommendations for agents and markets. Get prepared for rejection; then start submitting your stories.
In addition to novels, Ramos still writes short stories, published in anthologies of crime fiction such as the magazine, Crime Spree. One of his best, "If We Had Been Dancing," is published in the CBA/DBA anthology, Disturbing the Peace (2001), available from the Colorado Bar Association. He said short story writing helps writers "focus" their approach to longer pieces of fiction. Ramos follows the advice given to him a long time ago about short story writing: "Start late, and leave early." He tries to "pick up" a story almost as if in mid-tale, quickly establish his characters and plot, then leave them before every detail is tied down. This leaves the reader to fill in the rest, which he believes is the key to any successful short story.
Ramos identifies himself as a writer, as well as a lawyer, "but only if pushed." He lives with his wife, Florence Hernández-Ramos, CEO of Denver’s public jazz radio station KUVO. He has two adult children and four grandchildren he enjoys spending time with when not busy with his practice, teaching and writing.
Interviewing Ramos, I basked in the glow of someone who not only enjoys his work, but is entirely comfortable with himself and what he has accomplished in life. He clearly enjoys a rich life full of family, friends, rewarding work and, of course, the characters whose stories he tells.
Now, where was that novel I started back in the ’80s …