Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Story Development from another perspective

Randy Ingermanson is known as the “snowflake guy” for his approach to story development. His approach quite closely mirrors the approach I have designed over the last decade and what we use when writing fiction at Writers of the Round Table. He very eloquently, yet simply lays out an approach of how a story goes from being a simple triangle in your mind with only three distinct points, to be coming a snowflake, rich in texture and completely unique.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Character Bibles

I work closely (week to week) with about a dozen different writers every year and part of our process is a VERY in depth character bible for any character that makes a significant appearance in a story.

The process works like this:

1. Label the greatest failures and successes in your character's life up to the point in which they enter the story (as they relate to the major issues we all encounter: love, money, family, sex, drugs, art, accomplishments, education, career).

2. Using a narrative approach, describe the events of each and every one of those failures and successes.

3. When you've got 20 pages per character, summarize the major VICTORIES and SCARS of each character on a single page.

The product of this work is your bible; your contract with your character that you will write them true to their own life story.

Throughout the world of your story, your characters are subconsciously chasing the greatest moments of their past to repeat the glory, and running from their greatest failures to avoid the pain. Great stories arise out of circumstances where a fear has to battle a desire and one has to win at the cost of the other.

For example: Samantha

Greatest Failure: Dropped out of school.

Narrative description: When Samantha was in the 7th grade her mother was killed in a hit and run car accident. Samantha was the oldest of four children and because her father was passed out drunk, she had to go and identify the mutilated body of her mother. When she returned home, something clicked inside of her and she realized that with her father as incapacitated as he was, she was the new head of the household. She faked her age and immediately got a job at a local restaurant where she went every day after she sent her three younger siblings off to school. For the next two years, she worked her tail off to keep food on the table. Then her father took some pills in a drunken stupor and never woke up. From there she elevated her game to a higher level, finagled her way into a corporate job with a major theme park and took on the full role of caretaker. Her siblings are a great personal joy for her, but every day at work, she secretly worries that her lack of a degree will one day be found out and send her life and their stability tumbling down a steep hillside.

Greatest success: Employee of the year

Narrative Description: In her fifth year of working with the theme park she was promoted to a management position, and made responsible for an event that hosted 30,000 guests at the park. She had to manage the entertainment (a prominent young singer), the catering (over 300 staff), and relations with a VERY picky client who wanted everything done perfectly. The success of the event earned the theme park a series of very lucrative contracts for the next three years that generated an additional annual $3 million dollars and earned her the coveted employee of the year award, a job she competed against thousands of others to win. To her it meant that she could actually accomplish anything she set her mind to; that she was worthy, and that regardless of her lack of education, she had a place in this world and could compete with anyone, and take care of her family.

Notice that her greatest failure and her greatest success in this area are two sides of the same coin. This is by design. (Imagine 10-20 pages written out this way that highlight both sides of the coin for her as they relate to love, sex, money, family, etc.)

Now that you have outlined how important her status has become to her, imagine if her "secret" is threatened by another character with equally powerful fears and desires. How might she behave to protect her secret?

As you can imagine, this kind of work makes the eventual writing of the chapters rather easy because the characters have their own agendas that you have carefully constructed. I liken it to raising a child and then pushing them out of the nest. You hope you have raised them well, but ultimately, they will make their own mistakes and be accountable to the consequences as they learn how to live and behave and navigate their world.

Spending your time doing this kind of "homework" before writing lends to very powerful interactions between characters, like multiple balls being let loose in a pinball machine. They ricochet off of one another and are difficult to control, which mirrors life.

Happy writing!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Using POV in your writing

POV is a brilliant tool once you get the hang of it. Admittedly, it took me a year of intentional practice to get it right. I had submitted what I thought was a fantastic fantasy vampire manuscript to an agent and she pointed out all the "head hopping". Rewriting that forced me to learn. 

The way that I explain POV to writers I work with is by using a film analogy. The scene is the scene, what happens is what happens, but where you put the camera makes all the difference in the world. Consider a scene from your book and think of how it would be shot for a movie. Are you looking down on the action? Are you looking up at it? Are you seeing it from the perspective of a single person in the room?

POV is an opportunity to allow your audience to become intimate with your characters. To truly feel that connection, you want the audience to see the world through their eyes, thoughts, and emotional reactions. As the author, you control this by deciding whose perspective the story is being played out through.

I have a scene from a fantasy manuscript I am finishing that I'll use to demonstrate. It's an Arthurian Legend piece, where Merlin has been poisoned by his mother and is laying in bed in delirium. Initially we wrote the scene from the POV of Blaise, a priest from the Forest of Fire who is trying everything he can to heal Merlin. We initially saw the healing ritual through his eyes and his thoughts and his actions. Anything that happened in the room was interpreted by him. So when, in his stupor, Merlin cries for his sister Arianna, Blaise, not knowing who she is, has to interpret the meaning of the cries. The reader, like Blaise, becomes frustrated trying to communicate with Merlin who appears to be speaking gibberish.

Later, we went back and revisited the scene, writing it from Merlin's POV. Now we are putting the reader inside the delirium itself. The result is that the reader feels trapped inside Merlin’s poisoned mind as these phantoms chant over him and he goes from being lucid and hearing Blaise's prayer to heading off into the depths of the insanity caused by the poison.

Both options are relevant and both work. Both give the reader a different emotional experience. What does not work is flip-flopping back and forth sometimes being in Merlin's mind and sometimes in Blaise's. Less experienced writers take this omniscient POV and don't realize that they are preventing their reader from experiencing an intimate connection with their characters. Head hopping confuses readers because they are spending their time trying to stop the room from spinning instead of enjoying the story and being taken off into their own imagination.

If you really want readers to connect, you have to be very intentional about whose eyes they are seeing the story played out through.

I hope this is a decent starting point for the conversation. Ask more questions or make comments if you have them!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blog Maniacs

With blogging taking off like mad and people and businesses realizing the potential of generating a dedicated readership, we have been flooded with those who want to blog, but are:

1. burnt out from already blogging for a while;
2. intimidated because they have yet to blog; or
3. just too busy to make time to blog.

As a result we have taken on nearly a dozen new clients that we blog for just in the last 30 days. And WOW, we’re having fun and they are just bowled over. Here are two responses I saw yesterday:

“Incredible, Awesome, wonderful, and on top of it all you have exceeded my expectations! Can’t wait to see the new blogs. You are Unbelievable!”

“Wow! Now that is impressive!”

Sue Publicover and I are in the process of building an entire business model around blogging. Here’s what we do:

1. Write and post exceptional blogs.
2. Generate multiple profiles on social networking sites for the blogs to feed into.
3. Find and comment on related sites, drawing those dedicated readers to the new blog.

This combination is explosive and if repeated over time, has the potential to generate great visibility and strong leads for our clients. And all at a price point that cannot be beaten for this type of quality. Blogging is such a cost-effective way of marketing what you do, and it is amazing how many bad writers are trying to write their own blogs and actually pushing people away when a service like this is available! I suppose we need to get the word out!

Happy Blogging!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How reading makes you a better writer.

I’ve heard weigh-in on this question by the greats and the not yet greats, and there are so many varying opinions. Some don’t want to read the work of others, for fear that the words and metaphors they read will sneak into their own writing. Others crave the words of others and throw caution to the wind. I’m a firm believer that reading other’s work is imperative to your own. The act of reading exceptional writing is an injection of stem cells directly to your imagination. Great writing has a literal way of activating new pathways in your brain and opening up areas of new thought. As a business owner, I am constantly reading books on leadership. As an artist, I am constantly reading books on creativity. Both speak about similar topics but through completely different lenses. Consider it like a film. The scene is the scene, but where you put the camera makes all the difference. It’s the same argument of form vs. content. If you package the same thing in a different way, it becomes a different thing. With more than 6 billion people on the planet, there really are no new ideas (cliché because it’s true), there are merely new lenses, new ways of looking at old conversations. So dive into the work of others and let it expand your own horizons.

Friday, December 5, 2008

You know you're an author when.

I love this phrase. In my life I have taken more than two hundred dance classes, but I would never call myself a dancer. I cooked at restaurants for two years, but I am not a chef. I have acted professionally in more than a dozen national commercials, on eight different television shows, in several films and four dozen stage plays, but I don’t refer to myself as an actor. So what defines us? In an acting class I took in LA, led by the brilliant actor Jeff Goldblum, he once said it takes 20 years to build a true mastery as an actor. I believe that applies to any discipline. Twenty years of constant study. Twenty years as a full time occupation, not as a hobbyist.

Devotion is what defines you. What gets you out of bed in the morning is what defines you. What you do, not what you think, is what defines you.

My good friend and co-author Angelica Harris, had written and published two books when I met her five years ago, but she was still not a writer. About two years into our work together she started rearranging her life around her third book. She completely restructured so that her writing became a priority. That was the day she became a writer. Now she spends the majority of her time writing and speaking about her books, coaching other writers, and attending events important to her fantasy genre (renaissance fairs are huge for her!).

Many people do many things in life. We all dabble here and there. If you want to truly be recognized in a specific discipline, have enough respect for that craft to only call yourself a member if you have truly devoted your life to the consistent practice of mastering it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The most important thing to remember when writing under pressure.

Honestly, when I’m under pressure, I just need to sit and keep writing. I remind myself that this is not the final draft, but I need to start somewhere. The goal is to put out the first crappy draft so I can move into revisions. Then I usually read the piece out loud and from that experience I find a dozen areas that need work. So I dive in on draft two and take care of those issues. Then I read it aloud again and find the weak spots. Around the fourth or fifth time of reading it aloud it really starts to flow. If I can, I like to then put it down for 24 hours. If time is not a luxury I submit the draft and look forward to comments from my client, editor, business partner or wife, whoever it’s going to. I let them help me find the areas that still need work and then I revise again. For something that is important, I have been known to revise a dozen times or more.

The first draft is a BRAIN DUMP.
The second draft is about making each section COHESIVE.
The third draft is about the overall FLOW of the piece.
The fourth draft is about PACING and RHYTHM.
The fifth draft is about SUBTLETY.
The sixth draft is about REINVENTION.
The seventh draft is about EPIPHANY.
The eight draft is POLISHING.
The ninth draft is PROOFREADING.
The tenth draft is when someone probably needs to take it away from me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

5 Critical Mistakes Most New Writers Make - and How You Can Avoid Them

This will be a five part blog! So hang onto your hats. Here is number 1 of the 5 critical mistakes most new writers make: Most writers just start writing—TRAGEDY! As writers, or artists of any kind, we feel that if it doesn’t just come naturally, or divinely, that we must be a failure. So how do we behave? We dive right in—hoping that the spirit moves us to brilliance. Shame on us! Do accountants just hope that equations come to them? Do Doctors just hope that they’ll figure out what to do with you once they’ve opened you up? Of course not!!! We have to prepare like everyone else. There is so much work to be done before we start writing, whether it be a manuscript, a piece of marketing copy, a speech, whatever…there is homework to do!

The problem that typically arises when we don’t prepare is that we either 1) lose faith when we hit a roadblock and give up; 2) have to expend 5 times as much energy to arrive at a halfway decent result; 3) find ourselves less than brilliant, and sometimes even pathetic to the point of depression. This can have dramatic effects on our psyche that then influence our professional and personal lives. The reality is that artists are typically rather fragile. Talk to someone with writer’s block and you’ll see a raincloud over their head. Talk to a dancer with an injury and you’ll see a fog around them. Talk to an actor who can’t find his zone and you’ll recognize that his expression resembles that of a zombie!

The first step is recognizing that we have to take better care of ourselves by doing the homework before diving into the pool of words. For our manuscripts, there is character development to embark on. For our marketing copy, we have to consider our core values, our core essence, our calls to action, the heart of our message. For a speech we have to structure out our presentation and how we’re going to lead our audience from A to B to C (the REVELATION!).

You create a blueprint before you construct a building. We can save ourselves and those around us grief of untold measure by preparing. Do the homework. Set the stage. Then begin writing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How to help your writing help you.

One thing you have got to realize and take so seriously is that every piece of writing that you let out into the world is going to work for you FOREVER. That means that it is going to represent you to people who have never heard of you, and many who have read nothing else from you other than what pops up in a search on the internet. You have to consider every single piece of your writing as a possible introduction to you. That means you have to always consider your grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as any visual design that might accompany your work. Think of it like this: every piece you send out into the world is a little foot soldier representing you and going to work for your brand. So it has to dress nicely, speak respectfully, and inspire!

What happens when you meet someone who trips over themselves and knocks over your coffee when reaching out to shake your hand? You get a very quick, probably negative impression. What happens when you meet someone in a business environment who is wearing an old shoddy blazer, smells like they have not bathed in weeks and hasn’t shaven for just as long? You get a probably negative impression. And how do you feel when someone spits on you while meeting them for the first time? You might have a negative impression.

In the same way, you can also be very impressed with an initial meeting. Someone who dresses well, looks like they take care of themselves and doesn’t behave in some ridiculous fashion actually gives you an opportunity to hear what they are saying, as opposed to hearing their negative behavior. And then there is room for the AHA moment where epiphany strikes. That’s what you want every interaction with a reader to feel like. You want to be someone who lights epiphanies in their mind. This builds value in your perceived brand. And it encourages others to spread the word about what they have experienced.

So be aware of your foot soldiers. Take care of them, train them well, teach them to be respectful and mind their manners. If indeed, you have something worthy of sharing, they will serve you well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What is your Author Platform?

Think of your platform as your launching pad. The place you’re taking off from. Essentially, it’s where you are today in terms of your exposure, your following, your regular speaking gigs and the organizations you’re already involved with. Publishers and others who are going to be interested in getting into bed with you (hey now!) are going to want to know how impressive you are. The way you demonstrate your grandeur is by presenting your platform, in descending order of impressiveness. Items that would be included in your platform might be:

1. The appearance you did on MSNBC last month.
2. Your long-standing relationship with the Boys and Girls Club.
3. The 35,000 friends you have amassed on facebook.
4. The 3 people who follow you on Twitter.
5. The 3 reading groups you participate in regularly.
6. The 17 speeches you gave to regional writing groups.
7. The online articles you’ve written for Comicbookhero.com.
8. The published article you wrote that was accepted by Cookbooks Anonymous Magazine.
9. The 347 people on your regular newsletter list.
10. Your current, up-to-date and smashing looking website!

Ultimately, your potential business partners want to know who you know, and who they can rely on to support you both through publicity and book sales. So your platform is where you are today.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why not just start writing?

I'm a huge fan of spending time building characters before beginning the plot.

1. Label your main characters' greatest fears and desires.

2. Write a narrative around the root of each of those fears and desires. What was the moment that created the emotional scar, or the euphoria?

3. Repeat this process for ten fears and desires.

The goal of this exercise is to bring your characters to life. Think about how you act on a regular basis. We are faced with millions of choices every day and each choice comes up against an unconscious fear vs. desire. Even simple thoughts like what to have for dinner. Desire for flavor vs fear of gaining weight. Choices like whether or not to be honest with our spouse about our sexual desire for fear of being romantically rejected. If you can build the source of each of these fears and desires for multiple characters and then stick them in a room together with goals they want to achieve, they'll play off each other like ping pongs.

The idea here is that if you develop them well enough, they'll have their own agendas and you'll just be the conduit. If you're having to "think" too much, then your characters are not alive and chances are good that they will all sound a lot like YOU, not themselves.

Once I have my character bibles down, I do a skeletal plot outline; only one sentence per scene. (Because the character bibles are done, the characters inform the outline.) Then I move into an in depth outline, similar to what screenwriters call a treatment. One paragraph per scene. This gives me time to really dig into the plot and I make the majority of my big changes here which saves SO MUCH time when I move into writing chapters.

Then I begin with chapter one, knowing it will be the chapter that will be rewritten the most. I don't start with exposition mind you; I begin by dropping the characters into the middle of conflict. "John felt for the wedding ring in his pocket as Mandy cornered him in the alleyway that night. She had already killed three people in the last hour and John was the last one blocking her path to freedom." CONFLICT where both the protagonist and the antagonist have a reason to fight for their life, figuratively or literally.

I use chapter to create the style and the rhythm that I'm looking for in this particular piece. Then I move chapter by chapter, attempting to stick to the outline, but not being afraid to stray if the characters tell me they have agendas that they have to explore.

I hope this helps you! Oh yeah...and "sit your ass in the chair and do your damned job!" When I get stuck I look over at that sign I have posted on the wall. It was something a business coach once told me and I've never forgotten it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

EDGE has been named a finalist

We are pleased to announce that EDGE! A Leadership Story has been named a finalist for the National Best Books 2008 Awards in the category of Business/Motivational.

We want to extend our thanks to each and every one of you who have supported this effort and who continue to spread the word about this work. If you have not yet read the book, we invite you to pick up a copy today at Amazon.com.

Thank-you again for your continued support.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How do you carry on when it’s WHO you know, not how you write…

It's a combination. The reality is that you do need to know people. That's why it takes ten to twenty years to build a successful writing career. Accept it and get busy on the marketing of your work so you can be seen. Writing is a business. If you fail to treat it as such, you'll wind up pissed off with nobody reading you. Your talent is only one of four elements you have to focus on:

1. Development: all things related to your writing ability (classes, exercises, writing gigs, your novel, conferences, writing magazines, reading competitive work).

2. Marketing: This is how you communicate with your potential audience. Who would benefit from reading your books? You have to find them, reach out to them and convince them to spend their time and money reading your work. You can do this through a website, through getting short stories published, or through a blog you write.

3. Networking: everyone you meet falls into one of two categories: 1) they can buy your work; 2) they can commission you to write something for them. It is imperative that you collect contact info from everyone you meet for step 4.

4. Publicity: whenever you have a writing victory (getting published, receiving an award, getting reviewed, etc), you have to have a mechanism for reaching out and telling people. If you don't shout it form the rooftops people will assume you're doing nothing and that does not benefit you. People love watching artists become successful - it makes them feel they are a piece of the dream. Publicize your successes.

Focus on each of these 4 areas equally and you’ll build a legit career.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How do I avoid being too sales-y with my writing?

This one’s easy. Don’t SELL in your writing. Focus on providing valuable information. The goal of your writing is actually not to sell. It’s to demonstrate your validity as an expert in your field. Few people have the ability to close a deal with writing alone. You need your writing to invite people into your sphere. From there you have to find a way to relationship build, either through personal contact, blogging, vlogging, working on small projects, advising, etc. Once the trust is there, selling happens naturally. So spend your time giving away the information you have been working so hard to obtain. Give it away for free over and over again and people will flock to your business in droves. And some of those people will become clients or customers. Some of them will work with you on small projects and some of them will work with you for years. Contrary to what so many professionals advise, I say stop trying to sell and start trying to help people. Make a difference in their life and they will pay to keep you around. It’s a fair trade. The man with money meets the woman with experience and they trade. So get out there and make yourself trustworthy by caring and affecting change.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Should my business be sending out press releases?

Yes, Yes and Yes. The real answer to this question though lies not in just sending out releases. What most press releases lack is a good emotional hook…a reason for a journalist to want to call for more information and to run a story. They receive hundreds of releases every day. The key is tapping into what is timely in the news cycle. If the economy is in turmoil and that is all that news stations and print media are reporting on, your environmental press release about going green is going to get passed right by. However, if you angle it to how people can save money by going green…AH-HA! PR is all about the angle, and it’s all about repetition. If the media has never heard of you before, they are going to assume you will disappear as quickly as you showed your face. So demonstrate longevity through repetition. Consistently sending out new releases that impress the media gives them an opportunity to get to know you…to get to like you…to eventually buy into your story.

So the simple answer to whether or not you should be sending out releases is “yes”. The more important answer though is related to what they say and how often are you sending them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How do I find an editor for my novel?

I'll always edit up to three pages at no cost. It is important for the writer to see the style of the editor. We all work differently. I do a line edit and pages of notes. The notes are for overall issues and the line edit gives them a definitive path for each issue I raise so a writer is not left in the dark about what to do. I'm also on the higher priced side, so it is especially important that writers know what they are getting for the money and view it as a valuable trade. Never just consider price, though. Look at strengths and weaknesses. I specialize in character development, dialogue, plot structure and rhythm and flow. I do not excel with language. We all excel in different areas. You will want to respect an editor's time and not just ask everyone to do a free edit. Find three you really like who are in your price range and ask each of them for a short sample. If you really like them and they won't do it for free, you might consider paying for a short sample--it's not unheard of. The main point is that you want the best quality at a price that is just out of your reach. Too far out of your reach and you'll be too stressed as a result. Too under your reach and you won't get the value you really need to push you to that next level.
 Best of luck!

Monday, November 10, 2008

How can I increase business with my writing?

In this day and age where everyone is making quick decisions based on what they find on the internet, how you communicate with your potential customer has tremendous relevancy to your bottom line. How many websites have you visited that failed to capture you immediately, and so you moved on? How many were full of errors that turned you off and possibly even offended you? How many were simply so verbose that you took one look and bolted off the site?

So here are three ways to increase business with your writing:

1. Crystallize your current message. The goal is to use as few words as possible to motivate someone to action. Being overly verbose is detrimental to your business, like the guy at the party who won’t stop talking well beyond everyone around him getting the point. You need to speak to your reader’s hearts, to their minds, and to their spirits, all in one or two sentences. If you’re not doing that, you’re losing potential business.

2. Be Bold. Your writing is an opportunity to communicate your core values and your beliefs as a business; an opportunity to turn off those who would otherwise waste your time, and an opportunity to light a fire under those who see life from a similar perspective. So be bold. Be authentic. Lay it on the table and you’ll find that you’ll attract more business that is aligned with you!

3. Increase your frequency of communication. If you do not have a blog, you are failing to capitalize on one of the greatest marketing revolutions of our time. The more frequently you give away exceptional and free information, the more you become a trusted expert in the minds of those who read you. When we have a legitimate problem, where do we look first for an answer? To whom we trust. When we have money we want to trade for experience or a product that will impact our life, where do we want to go first? To whom we trust. This passive sales approach can bring in tremendous business, and most importantly, business that has been vetted through the building of a relationship between the potential customer and your blog (which they see as YOU!). One blog written daily can create relationships with hundreds and thousands of potential buyers who are comfortable with you because they feel like they know you and what you stand for. That’s powerful!

The more intentional we are about honoring how people search for information, and the more we articulate what we offer, the better we position ourselves as the solution to a potential buyer’s problem. Become a trusted provider of solutions, and you’ll have prospects lined up out the door, and across the internet!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How do I choose a title for my book?

In my experience, titles come from a lot of crappy brainstorming. Write lists of possible titles. Even if 100% of that list is garbage, the act of writing down possibilities engages the brain. Then you have to let your mind do its work. Think about the title in the shower, in the car, while you’re drifting off to sleep. You want to know when I named “From the Barrio to the Board Room”?


I woke up from a dream and there it was. I wrote Robert an email immediately before I forgot it and here we are today. And that’s not the only book I named at 3am! Titles have many incarnations. It is the act of intentionally playing with combinations of words that eventually leads to the AH-HA you’re after.

So make lists. Discuss possibilities. Keep something to write with at your side. Try ideas out on friends.

Eventually the choice will become obvious.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How does PR work?

The key to generating PR is repetition. The media is very skeptical of what they read and so it takes time to generate buy-in. Buy-in is created by being consistent and submitting solid content to the same media players over and over again. Think of it like this:

1. 1st release reaction: never heard of them.

2. 2nd release: who are these guys?

3. 3rd release: I think I’ve heard of them before.

4. 4th release: So what do they do?

5. 5th release: Looks like a solid company.

6. 6th release: I should keep them in mind.

Then the boss comes down the hall and says we need “such and such” a story, and the reporter says, “I have a great company I’ve been following for that.” Then BAM you get the call and suddenly your story is being told.

An ideal campaign is one release every two weeks. Results traditionally begin as online and printed stories. Then after a few of those have been acquired, you graduate to radio coverage and then eventually to TV. TV media wants to know you are ready to handle their stressful environment and so they look at your overall media experience. Radio wants to know you have your story down and so they look to your print experience. Print is the easiest to get because the story is controllable and so we begin there and start building your media portfolio.

What is essential to recognize is that every success is something you can use on your company’s resume forever, so the investment is worthwhile if you have the funding to move forward with a regular campaign.

If your company or you as an individual are eager to begin a PR campaign, we’re available to set up a time to speak to you on the phone and go over the specifics of how we work. You can call us at 815.346.2398, or contact lauray@writersoftheroundtable.com.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Setting the scene...

Locations in your book should be as well defined as characters because, in fact, they are characters. Locations are living and breathing. Like people with hearts and minds and souls, locations also have hearts (the community of people that reside there), minds (the government and systems of the community) and souls (that indefinable spirit of a place). So do yourself a favor and treat your setting as though it were a main character. Give it spirit, give it history and eventually you’ll find that the location has its own set of needs and desires.

Friday, October 31, 2008

What if people find my writing offensive?

If people find your writing offensive that is probably a good thing. If you’re not turning people off, you’re not turning people on. Think of your favorite actor or actress. I guarantee that as much as you adore them, there are plenty of people who cannot stand them! You have to put your authentic self out there to be judged, or no one will have ANY impression of you. Do not be bland. Do not try to appease everyone. Be true to yourself and your core demographic. The rest is out of your control.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Finding a character's motivation

Characters are just like people—completely unpredictable! At least they should be. Ask me what I think my wife will do in a given situation, and I’ll have an opinion. I won’t be right though, because inevitably, she always surprises me! So how do we create unpredictable behavior?

We do it through character bibles.

Character bibles are the homework we do before we start writing our manuscript. They are imperative in my opinion! In our character bibles we write out, in narrative form, the most impactful moments of our character’s lives. Everyone on this earth who has lived to the age of 1 has already had a series of successes and failures. Failures scar us and victories provide that euphoric feeling that we spend the rest of our lives chasing. You have to intimately know the fears and desires that battle within your characters every single day of their existence, if you expect to create characters who will surprise you throughout the writing process and surprise your readers as they turn the pages.

Consider this: I have a female character with a fear of being abandoned (based on a father who left her and her mother at a young age and was never heard from again). She also has a desire for wealth (to support her dream of opening her own clothing boutique). What will she do when she is propositioned by a wealthy gentleman who is crazy about her, but has a history of running off on the next great adventure? Her desire for wealth and her dream of opening a clothing store battle her fear of abandonment. Which will win out is based on the depth to which she feels the details of those fears and desires.

So in our character bible we explore the specificity of those fears and those desires. We analyze the moments of her life that relate to her father abandoning her when she was young. We write out three prominent memories of what it was like to not have a dad in their most painful reincarnations. The day she went to a friend’s birthday party who was turning five and her father had built her a dollhouse from scratch. The day her own mother told her that she couldn’t go to camp that summer because mom was holding down two jobs and still couldn’t afford to send her. The day that she finally felt the loneliness her mother went through and endured just trying to keep a roof over their heads.

Each of these moments is profound. So we write a narrative three pages about each event. We explore what it looked like, felt like, smelled like. What stood out about the moments, about the players, about the setting. If we let ourselves go to these places, we begin to feel sympathy for our characters and that means the process is working. We all have these scars. Everyone’s is uniquely theirs. Conversely we all have tremendous victories. Explore those with as much detail.

Once you have taken the time to develop the peaks and valleys of a character’s life through narrative, descriptive writing, your characters will start to take control of their lives. It is that point that they are ready to start playing with other characters. Like toddlers fumbling around, sometimes running, sometimes falling. This is what you’re after. This will define their motivations.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Developing a character's voice...

A character’s voice should be found from the inside out, not the outside in. Meaning that characters are created through a writer’s willingness to dive into doing their homework and truly bringing a character to life. You can read my article on character development to see how I approach breathing life into a character. The process is simple, and the results are profound if you’re willing to do the work. The overall intention is not to impose your own voice onto your characters, but to unveil their own voices as a sculptor would reveal a form by removing clay from a mound. Your characters are ultimately like your children. The goal is to raise them well and spend time teaching them about the world so that ultimately you can let them go and trust them to make their own decisions. We have to trust our characters and let them fall on their faces as they navigate our stories. If we have built them correctly they will have fears, desires and agendas of their own that they will fight for on every page. That is their voice. When you have found it—uncovered it—it will flow through you. You will only be a conduit putting words to paper.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Should I send a query letter?

Almost ALWAYS! Query letters are standard in the industry. That being said, what is most imperative is that you do your homework when approaching any agent. They each have a preferred method of submitting work to them. Most of them begin with a query letter. That being said, what makes a successful query letter? In my experience, a great query letter is often not written as much as it is arrived at. I usually write a pretty good first draft, but don’t really find that my query letters are working until around the sixth draft. Remember that the goal of the query letter is to get an agent to request additional material. So determining the quality of the query letter is done relative to the number of positive responses. If no one is asking for your material, look to the content of the query – specifically the following:

1. Very short personal and professional intro that demonstrates that you are not just mass emailing agents.
2. An exceptional logline. One or two sentences at most that combine your protagonist’s goals, motivation, external conflict, internal conflict and the setting of the story to create an awe inspiring reaction.
3. Your credentials – a BRIEF explanation of why you are qualified to write this book.
4. A succinct and professional ending to your letter.

In this equation it is the logline that agents care about most. If that does not inspire them, then the remainder of the query letter becomes irrelevant. Does your query capture the conflict? Does it activate the imagination and inspire images in the mind of the reader? For most people, that is a tough question because by the time you are writing your query, you probably have very little objectivity around your story. So test your query. Create a small focus group. Ask them what images come to mind if any. Ask them if they would want to read that book based on the logline. Ask them if it had them at the edge of their seat. Anything short of that, and you’re not there yet!

All of this being said, the average writer will send out 100 queries before finally getting represented. So hang in there. Revise until your query works. And then stick with it once it does. The focus then will move to the quality of the manuscript.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Are pen names a bad idea?

I’m not in favor of pen names unless you are moving outside your brand and are afraid of confusing people. We all know what happened to coke when they tried to redesign their image – it flopped. So if you are a mystery writer who wants to take up travel books, you might consider doing them under a pen name. Otherwise, if you are a first time author, you have to be willing to stand up for your book and be the face of your conversation. Otherwise, who does the media contact? Who is going to do the interviews? Transparency is a big word being thrown around these days and readers want to be able to get to know their authors and see their faces, look them up on social networking sites and learn about their daily lives. I think it is imperative, especially if you are in the earlier stages of your career, that you build a brand around your books. They you remain consistent with your messaging, that you stick with a single theme and set of core values that guide your writing and benefit your reader. Let your name become synonymous with your message and do so with pride.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Which is a better market for my book: online or in stores?

A great question. The answer to that lies in your goals. I typically work with people whose intention is to make a difference in the lives of their readers and to build an entire operation around their book. They are not always writers per se; they are typically people who have a massive conversation they want to be the spokesperson of. People like Robert Renteria and Bea Fields. Robert’s book From the Barrio to the Board Room is a grass roots effort. We don’t sell them in stores and though we do have an online presence and do sell copies that way, the majority of our sales are directly to organizations and individuals who want to make a difference in their community by inspiring at risk youth. These sales are set up directly for the most part and done in large quantities at a discounted rate. For Robert this makes sense. More of the revenue comes back to our partnership, which gets reinvested in spreading the message and inspiring greater numbers of kids.

For clients like Angelica Harris who is a writer first, her new book, Excalibur Reclaims Her King, needs to be sold through bookstores. While Angelica does have a coaching business and works with other writers, her first love is writing. Her second love is marketing, but only out of necessity! Her ideal situation would be a strong publishing partner that could invest in the promotions of the book so that she could continue with the writing of the sequel (which we’re actually almost done with!) and then the next book.

When you work with a commercial publishing partner, you’ll get the support of both bookstores and online outlets. So the better question might be: self publishing, independent press, or commercial publisher?

As you can see, the answer is relative to your goals. Some people are crusaders with a message like Robert. Some people are writers whose imaginations is on the page, like Angelica. Both require different approaches to sell their books. Consider your goals when considering your strategy.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pursuing the Agent

It is imperative that you have a process for pursuing an agent. The last thing you want to do is go into this blindly. Jeff Kleinman at Folio Lit, had a brilliant idea that he shared with our writers on a call last year. He recommended that writers make three lists of agents, an A List, a B List, and a C List (each with 10 agents). Your A List is agents who you would love to represent your work. Your B List is agents you would like to represent your work. Your C List is your last resort list. He recommended that with each round of queries you send out, you pull a few from each of those piles. I am going to modify that thought. I recommend that with your first two mailings, you only pull from your C List. Hear me out.

The first aspect of the submission is the query letter. It is the agent’s first line of defense. It summarizes quickly for them where you are in your career. Your query letter (explained in more detail in a future blog post) has a job to do. The job of the query is to motivate the agent to request your manuscript, or the first 3, 5, 30 or 50 pages of it according to their own protocol. What is important to recognize here is that query letters have to be test-marketed to see if they do their job. If you test market your query letter on your A List, by the time you have created the perfect query letter, all you’ll have left is the C agents on your list. So I say, start with the C’s and use them to perfect your query.

Then use the B List to perfect the pages you send them. Nothing like getting that A List agent to request the manuscript and sending them the first 30 pages only to realize that your story really gets bumping around page 31. TRAGEDY!

So use your C List to perfect your query. Do not move on to your B List until they are requesting the manuscript. Then use the B List to submit manuscript portions to and do not target the A List until the B List requests the full manuscript.

You have to be thinking of human psychology when you put all this together. It is imperative. Get into the psyche of the agent and help them to see your work in the best light. To do that, you will probably have to rewrite your query and your opening pages multiple times. Remember, agents will only consider your work once, so start at the bottom of the pile and use them to test the effectiveness of your strategy so that by the time you are hitting your A List, you have your act together!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dean Koontz's Life Expectancy

This past weekend my wife and I were doing a lot of driving through the colored fall countryside of Wisconsin and we ended up listening to Dean Koontz’s Life Expectancy, the audiobook. We actually found ourselves, wanting to take little day trips just to be in the car a bit more so we could make progress on the story. What I enjoyed most was Koontz’s ability to paint a scene. His use of metaphor is superb and while at first it felt overused to me, I eventually found myself panting for the next great string of words like various and delicious flavors of popcorn hung on a holiday tree; varieties that often would not appear to please the palate together, and yet when touching the tongue offered the most delightful combination of sweet and salty flavors that not only satiated me in the moment, but left me craving the next bite.

This book was my introduction to Koontz and I would imagine that I’ll peek at another of his books in the future; hopefully read by the same exceptional narrator whose rich baritone was musical in nature and whose dialects imposed on the various characters were melodic or harsh as necessary. You can sneak a listen here.

This was an especially enjoyable read considering the Halloween mood of the Midwest, as the temperature cooled and the oranges, reds and yellows painted the trees. If Clowns scare the hell out of you – pick up a copy. You’ll love it. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How long does it take to write a novel?

In my experience a good novel takes about 12-16 months to write. When I approach the writing process, I do three months of character development, two months of plotting and then the remainder of time is spent building the manuscript. That being said, the realities of the writing business are such that after the writing process comes focus groups, revisions, and submissions to agents/publishers. Agents are then going to have notes that you have to determine what to do with and publishers are going to have notes for you to address. So it is not unheard of for a novel to take 3 to 5 years from concept to print. It is this long process that often develops great material.

Persistence is key to the process. Most writers have numerous manuscripts sitting in their closets that remain unfinished, and had they remained steadfast, those manuscripts might have gotten released into the world. Writing a novel is all about revealing the diamond buried in the idea. You are constantly carving away what hinders the viewer (your reader) from enjoying the brilliance of the piece. Art needs room to be created and then it needs to breathe, to be revised, and then to breathe, to be massaged and then to breathe. At some point you have to let go of it and let it out into the world. Determining the right point to release on a never-ending path is never easy. That’s why having the support of a team can make such a difference. It helps to not make such decisions in a void.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I've got a great story idea. Now what?

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is king. If you have a great story idea, ask yourself, is it so good that no matter what happens to me over the next five to ten years of my life, I’m willing to push through and persevere for the sake of this idea? This brings up the topic of theme that I often discuss. How does your idea match up with the theme of your life? We all have a theme that pushes us daily, a mission that drives us through life that is based on very deep fears and desires that rule our smallest every day choices. How does your idea relate to your theme? Is it so powerful in your life that you simply must follow that idea no matter the downside? If not, move on from that idea or simply pursue it as a hobby. The “idea” that you pursue is a small business, an invention, a piece of art. All three take tremendous determination and investment of both time and money to bring to the light of day.

That being said, if you have a great idea and the willingness to devote a massive portion of your life to it—emotionally, financially, and through your time—call my assistant Lauray and she’ll set up a time for us to speak. 815-346-2398

Monday, October 13, 2008

What lies at the heart of your writing?

So many call it your voice, but I call it your THEME! Not the theme of your story, the theme of your life. We all have a unique perspective on the world that is our own and we write from that center. If you can articulate what that is for you--what you fight for every single day you drag your butt out of bed--then you can sell your writing!

Author Robert Renteria has the central theme of Chasing the American Dream. Every day he wakes up and works to prove to himself that he has the right to the American Dream, and now with his memoir, From the Barrio to the Board Room, Robert is working every single day to prove to at risk youth and others that they have the right to chase that American Dream, too! Not only is he challenging them, he is challenging those more fortunate to join the barrio movement for the sake of all our futures.

Sophie Mokhtari has a central theme as well. It’s creating a sweet life from sour circumstances, and she’s using her novel China Girl to do two things: empower young women who are in abusive situations to find their voice; and create a community of healing for women who have endured any form of abuse. Sophie believes that all women who have been abused have the right to not only survive, but to thrive!

It is Robert’s and Sophie’s ability to articulate their theme and build a manuscript around it that is allowing them to pioneer these much needed conversations. Their manuscripts provide a platform from which they are lifting others up. That is the power of theme. When we embrace our theme and realize that our struggles in life are actually our greatest gift, then we can actively commit ourselves to being an instigator of change through our writing.

What is your theme? Articulate it. Build a manuscript around it. Use that manuscript to change one person. Use that manuscript to change ten people. Use it to change 100 people and you can use it to change the world.

Friday, October 10, 2008

How do I know which publisher I should send my pitch to?

In my opinion, you should never send a pitch to a publisher if you are expecting them to buy your book and pay you with an advance. Any commercial publisher worth their salt doesn’t accept queries and pitches directly from authors. That is what agents are for.

That being said, if you are looking for a business partner for your publishing, you’re in a different situation. Working with a commercial publisher, they are the boss because they have paid you. Hiring a publisher yourself puts you in the driver’s seat. The model is completely different! This model is for people who have the financial capability of participating in the business of their book and in taking on the risk. They are also the people who know that those who take the risks also benefit from the rewards. The average profit margin for the author in a commercial publishing structure is around $1 per book. Our clients earn 400% to 800% more per book!

So, if you are in the financial position to call the shots, you want to find a publishing company that is going to surround you with an exceptional team, that is going to behave professionally, and whose books and authors you respect. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Working with companies like createspace and lulu and authorhouse, is a different experience than working with a Writers of the Round Table or a Wyatt McKenzie. The former are companies that provide very little customer service. They make their money from the volume of authors they attract who pay for template services that require no human interaction; not from book sales and elite services. The latter are companies that provide tremendous personal attention and creative teams that focus on both the creative process and the resulting sales.

Compare pricing and revenue models.
Compare customer service practices.
Compare services (template services, vs. original branding).
Compare up-front fees.
Compare the quality of the design and the writing of books they represent.

All of these should be part of your decision making process.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Do I need an agent?

YES! You (probably) need an agent. The question is actually not, “Do you need an agent?”, the question is “WHEN do you need an agent?”!

Agents are an imperative piece of the puzzle for (most) any writer who wants to write full time and actually get paid to do so. They are the first door in a series of multiple doors that have to open for you on this adventure. And the first one is typically the toughest to crack open! You’ll frequently hear stories of writers who were rejected more than a hundred times before they finally found their agent. That is not because finding the agent is so hard—they are everywhere. It’s actually because learning how to pitch to them and being qualified enough to demand their attention takes a LONG time.

I don’t care how phenomenal your manuscript is, if you don’t know how to pitch it, no one will ever be inspired by your pages. I also don’t care how amazing the entire read of your manuscript is; if you don’t understand the function of the first page, no agent is going to experience your book in its entirety. So there are lessons to learn here (we can cover the function of the first five pages of your manuscript is a separate entry) on your way to finding representation.

I used to hate agents because all they did was reject me and my authors. So I built a business that did not require their buy-in for a long time. I have authors earning some nice paychecks for their books without talking to an agent or dealing with a commercial publisher. You make more with an indie press than with a commercial press, so they sell fewer books, but the return can be immensely larger. That being said, there typically comes a time that the equation changes and having an agent becomes imperative.

ASIDE: My partner Robert Renteria (www.fromthebarrio.com) is really my only partner whose book will probably never need an agent. We have a goal of selling ONE MILLION books and getting them into the hands of at-risk youth. This is not going to happen through traditional bookstore distribution. This is happening from non-profits, individuals, high schools, middle schools and universities who are buying the book en masse (see www.thebarriochallenge.com). That is a unique situation! But the point is valuable – every author has their own goals and determining those goals will bring clarity to the agent question.

Most of my other authors want to be in bookstores and so I am having to go out and find the right agents for them again. Our books are highly developed, exceptional journeys and still I have to know my marketing and pitch them appropriately or our books won’t be looked at. Something to realize here is that authors looking for that first publishing break are in the toughest position and they have to be vigilant about learning how to understand the process and what agents/publishers are looking for.

SO! If your book requires a commercial publisher (not because you’re lazy, but because your demographic buys books in bookstores), then pursue the agent. But do so with a strategy. (We can discuss that strategy in another posting!)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Another Wrangling with Writing Testimonial

“This is the first conference out of seventeen where the keynoters mingled and worked with the agents, editors and publishers as well as the attendees. You were everything we wanted you to be. You lit fires. You made friends. And you encouraged writers to learn the importance of digging deeper into the heart of their story. Best of all, you created that feeling of energy, which lasted throughout the conference. We can't ever thank you enough for launching and maintaining the spirit we have looked for in the past and never quite found until you blew into our Arizona desert like a fresh monsoon.”

-Penny Porter
Co-Director, Wrangling with Writing
Past President, Society of Southwestern Authors

Monday, October 6, 2008

Wrangling with Writing Testimonial

“I attended several of Corey’s workshops at the Wrangling With Writers conference. The first one was about preparing the “pitch” to snag and reel in agents or editors who might be matches for a writer’s best efforts. Corey moved around a lot and worked the room like a “loaves & fishes” preacher man - which meant that my eyes had to follow his animation. That was a good thing because the night before I had been up too late and the eye-movement thing was keeping me with the program. He had succinct directions, talked loud enough and his facial expressions were not rehearsed (at least I couldn’t tell). He was extra polite to the most dense people, and demanding of those with a few “lights on upstairs.” I liked it that he said: “I don’t think I follow you,” when I was yelling silently at them: “Are you just plain stupid or what?” He provided concrete building blocks for the perfect pitch. In fact, when putting his recommendations to the test just a few hours later, I almost had her (the agent) except for my own “screw-up” on sequence, and she “got away”. I was not crushed because I was still practicing and would have “let her off the hook” anyway - not a good match for my blockbuster novel to be!! Corey had suggested “bait and release” with little fish until we proved that we were ready for the “real deal”.

Big “C” gave me some more tips during our one-on-one and I grabbed up the weapons from his arsenal and prepped my hook with a bit more cunning. This was too awesome! I hooked the Big One. I’m still working my reels and using Corey’s advice as to timing. In my book he is a pro all the way! I took Character Development too - and my roomie and I worked through the first night resuscitating our comatose protagonists. By morning they were on the road to recovery and my gal is almost well enough now to make that long flight to New York City riding the pages of my manuscript on her own steam. Do I recommend Corey? YES, if you listen and believe.”

Sylvia Smart, Writer

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Are Writing Conferences important?

This is the perfect question to ask upon my return from the Wrangling with Writing Conference in Tucson, AZ.  I’ll let you answer that question for yourself based on my experience.  At the conference, I taught four workshops, gave the lunchtime keynote speech and saw 15 people for one on one interviews working with them to hone their pitch. I have already heard from three whose manuscripts were requested by agents or editors after they presented what we created together. Of the 15 pitches I heard and worked with, about 5 were really ready to pitch and I could not have been more excited for those authors. They were well spoken, knew their stories/ideas intimately and were well on their way. What they needed was support in crafting their marketing angle – their logline that would be used as a part of their pitch.  As writers we lose our objectivity so quickly, but it is imperative that we portray our story in the most compelling way possible when we sit in front of people who can help us to raise our game.

That being said, there were another ten writers who still needed to flush out their ideas, their characters, or their structure.  They came to me with a variety of issues and it was my job to diagnose their problem and suggest the right cure.  So what they found with me was clarity about their next steps.

And I was one of about 20 faculty invited to participate.  Bottom line: conferences have so much to offer.  Writing is a lonely business and the more we get out there and network, the better chance we have of surviving.  Face time is imperative to building a network.

I walked away excited to continue relationships with four or five writers and an agent (quite a hilarious agent who kept stealing my drinks at the bar).  There is no telling what the future holds, but friendships do develop at these conferences and from those friendships, great business relationships can be formed.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing? Part III

Per my last series of posts, we have discussed the importance of articulating theme. It’s an essential ingredient to being able to create a career out of your writing. But how do we become objective enough in our own life to be able to really decant our own essence and put it into words?

We do it through a series of questions that you have probably answered before.  But we’re going to look at them in a new way!

1.       I want you to think back to your greatest failure in life.  I’m talking about a time you fell on your face hard.  Maybe it was in your career. Maybe it was related to love.  Maybe it was related to education. Maybe it was related to family, or to health. Whatever it was, it caused you humiliation and embarrassment.  So much so that you might have taken months to recover, if you ever recovered at all.  Now I want you to think about the pain that was caused by this failure.  The pain that devastated you.  And I want you to analyze that pain. I want you to dissect it and find its root.  I’m not talking about a shallow response to this question, like “my business failed,” or “I didn’t win the race.”  I’m talking about the real root of the pain.  What did that failure prove that you were not worthy of?  That you were incapable of? If you can articulate that in its rawest form, you might be on to your theme.
2.       Now I want you to think about your greatest accomplishment. Your greatest success. The time you were on top of the world. Maybe it was in your career. Maybe it was related to love.  Maybe it was related to education. Maybe it was related to family, or to health.  And I want you to think about that joy you experienced. I want you to analyze it, to dissect it, and again, to find its root.  What did that accomplishment prove to you that meant so much? What did that accomplishment validate in you? If you can truthfully articulate the root of that joy, you might be on to your theme.
3.       My last question to you is this: If you found a magic lamp, and in that lamp was a genie that granted you one wish that you could not use for yourself—one wish that you had to use on someone else in your life—what would you wish for?  If you can answer that question truthfully, you might be on to your theme.

The intention with questions like these is to truly look at what is important in your life based on your behavior; not on your idealism, but on your reality.

Start to look at what is the real essence of you. What makes you get out of bed in the morning (other than the idea of that cup of coffee, and the screaming kids).  What drives you?  What means more to you than you?  The reason we have to find this piece of the puzzle is because the road to building a career will take tremendous energy, discipline and dedication, and the only way you will barrel through the obstacles ahead of you, is to have a reason more compelling than the fear of failure that will prevent you from getting where you want to go.

So articulate that theme that is all you. Respect it.  It’s a gift. Then take responsibility for it. For doing something with it. Once you’ve done that, we can begin the real work.  The next stage? Building your business.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing? Part II

Once you have determined where you fit in the equation of writing (see previous post), then you are ready to investigate your selling point.  Whether you are the writer looking to get hired to tell someone’s story, the blind old man in the park looking to hire a writer, or the blind old man and the writer combined and looking for a publisher; the one thing you all need to do is sell yourself. The goal is to make a living putting words together, yes? So we have to be able to sell ourselves. To do so, we have to be able to articulate our theme. And I’m talking not about the theme of any given story. I’m referring to the theme of our lives. We each have a major theme that we wake up every day and play out—and if you can articulate that, you can sell what is uniquely you.

Consider one of my partners, Robert Renteria. Robert grew up in the barrio of east LA. He slept in a dresser drawer as a child in a one room bachelor apartment. When he was three, his father abandoned their family in search of heroin and alcohol. When Robert was six, his head was crushed by a carnival ride and as some of his family members were mentioning funeral arrangements, Robert made a miraculous recovery. In his teen years, Robert followed the path of too many Latinos and dropped out of school to help his family put food on the table.  During that time he also ran with gangs, did and dealt drugs, was shot at and stabbed and gave back his fair share. Robert was headed straight down the path to where his father would die when Robert was 17—on Skid Row.

But Robert’s Grandfather challenged him to get out of the barrio.  To make something of himself.  And when Robert was in his early 20s he took that challenge, went back and got his GED and entered the military. He served our country for over 7 years and when Robert returned to LA, his so-called friends had graduated to hard-core drugs. Some of them were in prison and some of them were dead. So Robert left again. He moved to Chicago with $200 in his pocket and he slept on a friend’s floor until eventually he got a job.  He worked every single day for years, not seeing his family, but dedicated to making something of his life. Five years later, Robert was the VP of a publicly traded company and he never finished high school.

But today Robert couldn’t do that.  Kids need to stay in school and get their education. Especially at-risk kids. They need that education to level the playing field. And so Robert wanted to tell his story in the hopes that he might inspire a few other people to make better choices in life as he had been lucky to do.

Today, From the Barrio to the Board Room is supported by Princeton University professors and ghetto and barrio middle school teachers alike. Congressman and Mayors have endorsed the book. Organizations and individuals are buying the books by the hundreds and the thousands and donating them to their community schools and churches. Most importantly, the kids are reading the book and talking about their own lives. To them, Robert is a symbol of hope.

Per my previous post, Robert is the old blind man, I am the writer, and these children around the world are the passersby in the park. We are all part of a new legacy. We are all part of Robert’s theme. That theme is Chasing the American Dream. Robert wakes up every single day and goes to work proving to himself that he has the right to that American Dream, and proving to everyone he meets that they have the right to it to. It’s part of his DNA.

What you need to determine if you’re going to have a successful writing career of your own, is ‘what is your own theme.’

I have worked with over 300 writers and every single one of them had a theme. Most could not articulate it until we started working together. Until we started being intentional about putting it into words. In the next post, we’ll discuss how you can look at your own life and start to put your theme into words.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a career out of writing?

I’m sure that I could write about this for days.  There is so much advice that someone needs to make a career out of any art.  I have three main steps that I believe are pieces of the equation. I’ll detail the first here and that is knowing who you are and how you fit into the equation of storytelling.

This weekend, I am giving the keynote at the Wrangling with Writing conference in Arizona and I am using this story to illustrate my first point. It’s a short film I saw recently that opens on a part on a traditional summer afternoon.  A breeze blows through a nearby Jacaranda tree as couple stroll through giggling. A little girl runs through a flock of pigeons feasting on bread crumbs. A little boy chases a balloon. A squirrel nibbles on a date.

Eventually the camera pans over to a pair of shoddy tennis shoes, and we pan up to see an older man in a dirty blazer with an unshaven face. Next to the old man is a tin can and a sign that reads “Have compassion, I am blind. Now people who walk through the park and pass by the old blind man, all read that sign, but very few are moved by it. Occasionally someone drops some change into that tin can, but for the most part, they all continue on with their day.

Eventually a young man in a business suit walks over and stares at the sign. After a few moments, he picks the sign up, flips it over and with a pen of his own, writes a new message on the back of the sign.  Then he sets it down and walks away.

For the rest of that afternoon, nearly everyone that walks by deposits change or bills into that tin can.  So much so that it’s ringing like a slot machine and the old man is trying to stuff all the change into his pockets, but it goes spilling all over the sidewalk.

Later that afternoon, the young man returns and the old blind man recognizes him from the sound of his footsteps and the feel of his shoes.  The old blind man asks, “What did you write on my sign?”

The young man responds, “The same thing with different words.”

The camera pans over and reveals that what once read, Have compassion, I am blind,” now read: “Today is a beautiful day. And I cannot see it.”

In this scene in the park, the old man had something to communicate, but not the words to reach beyond himself.  When the writer came by and helped him to articulate what was in his heart, the old man’s world changed. And so did the life of the passersby who were moved to act and in so doing opened themselves up to something larger than themselves. They all became part of a community that day.

So the first question I ask people who say they want to write, is where do you really fall into this equation?  Are you the blind old man with something to say, but not enough experience with words to communicate your message?  Are you the writer, looking for a muse?  Or are you a passerby in the park?  Once you answer that first question we can move onto the subject of theme.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Secrets of Character Development

Seven steps to creating characters that write themselves:

1. Label the Desire Essences of each of your main characters: The first key to deepening your work comes from finding the major motivators in the lives of your characters. What drives their actions and reactions? Do their desires stem from specific experiences? We all have deep-seeded aspirations that spur our choices, thoughts, acts, and responses. These stimuli are what differentiate us from one another and we will refer to them as “Desire Essences.” Some examples of Desire Essences are the desire to: be intellectually brilliant; be socially famous; hide from the world; belong to a group; be loved; party wildly; or end your suffering and die. Desire is at the core of every being. We naturally aspire to be, do, or possess something that is just beyond our reach. Desire can be simple or deeply passionate. Write down the ten most important desire essences of each of your main characters!

2. Label the Fear Essences of each of your main characters: What lies at the root of each of your characters’ darker sides? For every desire they possess, they should also exhibit the antithetical fear of failing at attaining that desire. These fears will battle their aspirations for control over their behavior. Understand and then label the darker sides of your characters. This step is imperative to creating the dimensional and imperfect characters you are after. Some examples of Fear Essences are the fear of being: stupid; ordinary; socially exposed; rejected by a group; loathed; boring; or having to face life or love. Write down the ten most important fear essences of each of your main characters.

3. Get specific with your backstory: Human behavior is made up of a string of moments and the reactions to those moments. A character’s present is carved out by her past. Current behavior is a battle between fear and desire, and your character’s immediate choices are based on very specific (yet unconscious) experiences from her past – experiences that leave imprints much like DNA. Though your characters should be unconscious of these past experiences that have influenced them, you the writer must create these histories in your preparation of their backstory and be fully aware of them before you move into your manuscript or screenplay. Here is an example of what won’t benefit you versus what will when you get specific with backstory.

Bad example of getting specific: Rachel is a pretty girl who thinks she is unattractive. She prefers to live in her books as opposed to being with friends or family. Her father abused her sexually throughout her youth. She hates attention.

Better example of getting specific: On her graduation day, at a party her mother is throwing for her, Rachel’s father shows up drunk and congratulates her, hugging her too closely, grabbing her rear end with both hands, and calling her pretty in front of a room full of her friends and family. She runs away humiliated and hides in her room, escaping into one of her fantasy stories. That night she moves out to stay with a friend and doesn’t tell anyone where she is going. Two weeks later she finds out through another friend that her father died in a car accident. He was drunk.

In the better example of getting specific, the reader can have a visceral reaction to your words and you as the writer can more easily understand what motivates your characters while you are writing them. This is caused by the detail. The generality of the bad example is logical, but lifeless. In the better example, it is easy to determine what the essences of our leading lady might be: desire to hide, maybe even desire to die, desire to live in her books, desire to be valued for her intellect instead of her body, fear of loneliness, fear of her appearance, fear of the opposite sex, fear of losing a loved one, fear of being abandoned, fear of people who drink.

4. Describe their current behavior: Take the essences and the specific examples you have created and determine what kind of behavior your character might exhibit as a result of their past.

Simple examples: our leading lady, a woman who: hides her body; avoids friends from her past; mistrusts anyone who comments favorably on her appearance; desires to control her education and her intellect; avoids alcohol.

5. Raise the stakes: Emotions are extreme. Play in the realm of this extreme when dealing with the fears and ambitions of your characters. These essences are all encompassing; meaning that we spend our lifetimes with them. Don’t cheat your characters by being afraid to raise the stakes as high as you can. Needing to find a precious stone to sell to an art dealer by midnight to raise the financing to save your character’s mother’s house before the bank takes it away from her tomorrow is exciting! Look back at your own life and think of how seriously you take your essences. When your essences are threatened, will you fight to extremes to defend them? Just as when they are fulfilled, do you enjoy some of your greatest moments in life? Play in the realm of the extreme. Raise the stakes. Your essences are life and death to you – let them be that way to your characters.

6. Don’t meddle: Of course, you might be saying to yourself, “How do I not meddle? I’m the writer!” But a truthful story is going to grow from your willingness to let your characters make their own decisions, based on how you have defined them (which, after these exercises, will be in great depth). As their “parent”, you have to let your children go; this is the point at which your story truly begins. DO NOT MEDDLE IN THEIR LIVES. Continually remind yourself that it’s not about you. You just serve the story. Let your characters make their own decisions. If you ever find yourself not knowing what decision they might make, question your homework and rework their essences, behaviors, and stakes until their choice becomes obvious.

7. Let your characters play: Once you have developed several characters by labeling their essences, getting specific, defining their behavior, and raising the stakes, you are ready to begin to let them interact. It’s like the first day at a new school, ripe with possibility. When properly developed, there is no way to predict how your characters will behave in any given situation, but they are so full of life and their own agendas that they are ready to interact with other characters who have been developed to the same level. If you have done the work to get to this place – this is where your characters will begin to write themselves.