Manuscript Consultation Program Alum: Carla Damron

In June of 2020, author and social worker Carla Damron was at work on a novel about human trafficking. With a complete draft of the manuscript ready to go, she decided to participate in the Black Lawrence Press Manuscript Consultation Program and worked with John Mauk. Afterwards, Carla wrote to tell us that she…”received VERY helpful feedback from John Mauk on my suspense novel, The Orchid Tattoo. It was accepted for publication…and has won four literary awards. I use the book as a platform to educate people about human trafficking and I’ve done about forty events (including book clubs) so far.” Interested in learning more about Carla’s publishing journey, we conducted the following interview…

Black Lawrence Press: Your novel The Orchid Tattoo, which has racked up quite a stack of impressive awards, is about a social worker who goes on a quest to locate her missing sister and finds herself facing the grim realities of human trafficking.What compelled you to write this story? And how did your professional experience as a social worker inform the novel?

Carla Damron: I worked as a state chapter director for the National Assn. of Social Workers and, in that role, advocated for more progressive anti-human trafficking laws. I met survivors, law enforcement people, and advocates who taught me so much about this crime and its pervasiveness. I heard story after story of terrible things happening in my own community. Human trafficking thrives in the underbelly of our community, and plenty of others. This haunted me, and it led to writing this novel. Plus, I love using fiction to address important social issues. 

BLP: How long did it take you to write The Orchid Tattoo and what was the revision process like?

CD: I worked on this for over four years. In earlier versions, I went into graphic detail about what the trafficking victims experienced, which made it very hard for people to read. I learned that I didn’t need to show those details on the page. I could let the reader’s imagination show them what happened by describing how the characters are affected. But it took trial and error to get the right balance. 

The other struggle was deciding on POV characters. I have three: Kitten, Lillian, and Georgia, and worked hard to get each voice right. 

I’m blessed to have some excellent, honest writer-friends who read this and gave me important feedback that helped me shape it. I think I went through four rewrites before I sent it to John Mauk! 

John Mauk

BLP: Can you talk a little bit about the work that you did with John Mauk?

CD: His feedback was incredibly comprehensive. In addition to line comments, he sent a five page narrative of overall strengths/concerns/impressions. He raised issues I hadn’t even considered, like gender politics. (You’re right, John. All the bad characters were men!). I didn’t agree with everything he suggested–I’m stubborn that way–but used 90% of his input in my last revision. 

He also agreed to a phone conversation for clarification. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, but this was very helpful to me. And I loved his enthusiasm about this project. It helped me keep the faith. 

BLP: There are so many paths to publication. How did you decide to publish with Köehler Books? Did you have a good experience working with them?

CD: We tried, HARD, to get a big-five publisher, but they were skittish about the topic and about my protagonist having a mental illness. So we pursued smaller, indie presses. I queried Koehler, which is an unusual publisher–they do hybrid AND traditional publishing contracts. When they wanted The Orchid Tattoo, my patient agent negotiated a traditional deal. What I liked about working with them: they are FAST. We signed in early December and the book came out the following September. They do great cover art and produce a very nice product.

They don’t do anything related to marketing so I’ve had to do all that myself, but that tends to be how things work nowadays.  

BLP: You’ve clearly done an excellent job getting the word out about The Orchid Tattoo. What advice do you have for writers about publicity and self-promotion?

CD: GET HELP. I talked with other writers. I hired someone to help with social media/promotion. This is important–we all need to plan to spend money on marketing. So budget for it!

I didn’t turn down a single speaking request or book club. I queried podcasts that might accept me as a guest. I did everything I could to engage with readers.

I’ve used this book as a platform to educate people about human trafficking, so I spend as much time talking about that crime as I do about the book itself. What I love is how word spreads organically–I’ll do a talk for one civic group and someone will approach me about coming to their book club, and I do, and there someone asks if I’ll talk to their women’s group, and when I’m there I meet someone else … It’s been a WILD ride. 

BLP: What advice do you have for authors who are currently shopping their manuscripts?

CD: Persistence is everything. For every rejection, send out three more submissions, so that you always have someone you haven’t heard back from. If a rejection comes with specific feedback, PAY ATTENTION TO IT. 

BLP: What’s some of the best craft advice you’ve ever received?  

CD: Never forget the power of story. Amazing metaphors and gorgeous narrative are important, but they don’t mean anything is the story isn’t strong and resonant.. 

BLP: What are you working on now?

CD: I just published the fourth in my Caleb Knowles mystery series, Justice Be Done, about a murder that happens during race riots spawned by a hate crime. So I’m busy promoting that work. I’m also drafting a sequel to The Orchid Tattoo, because I loved those characters and wasn’t ready to leave them yet.


Interested in participating in our manuscript consultation program?

Learn about this month’s consultants right here.


Excerpt from The Orchid Tattoo

The lady said she would come just after sunrise.

These words thrummed in Kitten’s mind as she stared out the window, hoping for the first trace of light and her chance to escape. Even at that hour, the trailer had a strange percussion. Roman’s snores rumbled in the living room. A box fan in Dulce’s room thumped against the window. The steady hum of an ancient refrigerator. Kitten wouldn’t miss the smells either—pot and cigarette smoke that had soaked into the furniture. The sour garbage from the overfilled trash can in the kitchen.

Once the last buyer left, Roman had finished a six-pack and a joint before passing out on the mustard-colored sofa just like most nights. Dulce had come in from working the streets and closed herself in the other tiny bedroom. Hopefully, enough hours had passed that Dulce was now fast asleep.

Kitten grabbed the knapsack from under her bed. The secret phone—the one the lady gave her—was in the front pocket. She snatched a small photo she kept tucked in the mirror frame; Mama, her brother Brandon, and Kitten sitting on their porch steps, taken the day after her fourteenth birthday. The photo was all she had of the before-life. She placed it with the crumpled twenty-dollar bill her last buyer had slipped her.

The lady had said not to bring too much, she needed to be quick. But that wasn’t a problem. She wanted no reminders of her time in the trailer when she fled. She put on a T-shirt and shorts that fit more loosely than everything else Roman dressed her in. She laced up the high-tops that she wasn’t allowed to wear except to work the cantina. She was escaping Roman’s rules, too.

As she tiptoed through the galley kitchen, she snatched a bruised banana to eat later. The floor creaked when she passed the ratty rocker, which silenced Roman mid-snore. She froze, backpack dangling from her arm like a caught fish, and waited. Roman turned over and the snores resumed.

He always locked them in at night, but Kitten knew he kept the key in the right pocke

t of his leather jacket slung over the arm of the couch. She groped the scuffed leather, found the key, and crept toward the door. She slid it into the double-bolt lock and turned it, casting a frantic look back at him when the door squeaked. If he catches me . . . He huffed, smacked his lips, then growled out another snore.

The rickety steps twitched as she stepped down them for the very last time. Kitten smiled, shrugged the knapsack onto her shoulder, and took off running.

She blew past the scattered trailers along the dusty clay road— almost as old as the one Roman rented. Lights blinked on in a singlewide, so she picked up her pace. Nobody needed to see her now, not with freedom so close she could taste it.

She slowed as she reached the Blue Rose Cantina, a squat cinderblock building with metal bars across its windows. This was where Roman sold her. For sixty bucks, you got a drink and a dance with Kitten. Add a hundred and Roman escorted you to the trailer for time alone with her. Add four hundred and you had her all night.

Not anymore. She looked toward the road, toward the future. Once she reached the highway, she just had four blocks to get to the meeting spot—the 7-Eleven on the highway.

No cars waited in front of the store, but the sun had barely inched over the horizon. Soon the lady would come. Kitten didn’t know her name. She’d asked once, but the lady said, “The less you know the better. That’s what they told me.” Kitten didn’t know who “they” were, but she didn’t care. What mattered was her escape. “My number is programmed into the phone. Call me if something happens,” the lady had said.

Kitten pushed through the front door and smiled at the whiskered man snoring behind the cash register. She’d never been inside; Roman always made her wait in the car when he stopped by for cigarettes or be

er. The candy aisle overwhelmed her with its choices. She settled on a Snickers bar and a bottle of cold water from the cooler, making enough noise to rouse the guy as she approached the counter. She used the twenty-dollar bill to pay.

“You new around here?” The man slapped her change into her hand.

That word, “new,” jolted her, but Roman wasn’t here. New didn’t always have his awful meaning.

“No,” she said. “I mean sort of. Just passing by.”

“Passing by without wheels?” He smiled. His front teeth crossed each other like fingers. She shoved the money in her knapsack. He leaned over. His hot breath smelled like cinnamon gum. “You one of Roman’s girls, ain’t ya?”

Kitten fought a wave of dread. What if he called the trailer?

“You a pretty little thing.” His hairy-knuckled hand slid across the counter. “Probably cost more than I got. But maybe we cut Roman out of the deal.”

Kitten could handle this guy. She handled men like him all the time. Her brows quirked up in a flirtation. “Maybe we can. But later.”

“Later?” He licked his lips.

“Sure, baby. I got a customer meeting me right now, but I’ll be back at noon. Will you be here?”

“For you, little lady, I’ll make sure I am.” She winked, spun around, and sashayed out the door.

Once outside, she hurried to the dark side of the building. She leaned against the wall, burying her shaking hands between her knees. She had to be more careful. When headlights from a lone car approached, she prayed, prayed it was the lady, but this car didn’t look familiar. What if the lady changed her mind? What if she didn’t come?

But she would. She had promised. Kitten sat cross-legged on the grass and retrieve

d the cell phone from her knapsack. She pressed the lady’s number. Nobody answered. Maybe she’s on her way and doesn’t want to use the phone. Safer that way. Kitten could be patient.

A man climbed from the shiny silver car and opened the gas tank. Kitten unscrewed the top from her water bottle and downed a third. The Snickers bar went into the knapsack; fear and dread had taken away her hunger.

Her head bumped back against the brick. How long had she been in this hellhole? A year? Longer? Time had a different meaning now.

Up the road, Kitten spotted two cars approaching. Finally, enough light splashed across the road that she could see that the second one was dark—maybe gray. That could be her. Kitten stuck the water bottle in a pocket of her pack and stood, brushing bits of dirt from the back of her shorts. She’d dash to the car and slam the door. She’d lie down in the seat so nobody could spot her. She’d imagine Brandon and the possibility she might see him again as the lady drove her away.

She’d breathe in, for the first time in so long, real freedom.



Carla Damron discusses working with a manuscript consultant on her novel THE ORCHID TATTOO, which is now in print and has won numerous awards.Carla Damron is a social worker and author whose last novel, The Orchid Tattoo, garnered four literary awards, including the 2023 NIEA Award for suspense. Her book The Stone Necklace won the 2017 WFWA Star award. Damron authors the Caleb Knowles mysteries; the fourth in this series, Justice Be Done, was just released. Damron’s careers of social worker and writer are intricately intertwined; all her novels explore social issues like human trafficking, addiction, and mental illness.

Photographer: Bradford Lee Photos