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 ( 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 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.