Friday, December 2, 2011

Writing Consultants – Do We Really Need Them?

It’s been a few years now, so I’m less embarrassed to admit one of my biggest writing mistakes. What was it? Paid a free-lance editor to review my manuscript.

“What’s wrong with that?” you might ask.

I took the “finished” manuscript right to my printer and paid for 1000 books . . . without reading the final proof. I trusted her. Imagine my shock when I received twenty cases of books, complete with typos that my editor should have caught. Even worse, I had an order from Barnes & Noble to ship through my distributor and no time for a reprint. I had to live with the result. Sure, she refunded my money (after admitting that she did not finish the job) but this lesson nearly cost me $4,000! Ouch! What is even more painful is that it could have been avoided at a nominal cost if I just asked for advice from a publishing consultant.

Writers wear many hats, not just that of wordsmith. Successful book sales depend on a myriad of skills that follow completion of the manuscript, synopsis, blurb and killer query letter. These things are only the basic foundation for good book sales. Once a literary agent gets an acceptable contract offer, a whole new set of skills come into play. Marketing, accounting, public relations, cover art design and layout, distribution, author platform development, internet support, and more. Authors who think the publishing companies will “take care” of all that stuff are naive.

Smart writers cultivate a team of experts in book production and sales. For example, a current buzz phrase in publishing is the “author platform”. What is a platform? Where do you buy one? Do they come in designer colors? Okay, so much for making fun of this industry notion, but the simple fact is that publishers don’t take it lightly. Build a “platform” or suffer the consequences. A good agent or publicist can help with platform development. Same with market development skills and contacts. Can you set up radio/TV interviews, celebrity endorsements, big-name critic reviews and high profile book signings by yourself? A good marketing agent can. And, the book-support team is even more important for self-published authors or those going with a small press. It’s not uncommon for authors to decide on cover design, graphics, book size, font style and a host of other important decisions about the BUSINESS of being an author.

Did you catch that word?  BUSINESS.

That’s right, being an author, no matter if it’s through a traditional publisher, small press or self-published, it IS a business. Do you know any successful business owners? Ask them why they pay an accountant instead of taking a course in accounting and taxation. Find out if they design their own advertising programs or use professional agencies to generate sales campaigns. Heck, they probably don’t even sweep their own floors. Why? Because it’s more cost effective to invest their limited time generating new revenue for their company than to clean floors. The BUSINESS of being an author is no different. Sales and profitability improve with the help of a team of dedicated consultants. Your book is your “business” so get the help you need to maximize success. Or, get yourself a small piece of cardboard, a magic marker and write the following, “Starving author. Will write for food.” You know the rest of that story!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hunting Beta Readers: Shhh . . . Be Vewry, Vewry Quiet!

I love the cartoon character, Elmer Fudd. His antics while “hunting wabbit” provide good advice for writers in search of beta readers. "Oh come on," you think. How can a silly cartoon help me find good beta readers? Well, it’s all about stalking and snaring the prey (beta readers), and it begins with stealth.

You’re probably cringing at my use of words like “stalking”, “snaring” and “stealth.” Calm down. I’m not advocating nutty behavior or abuse of unwary literary assistants. Quite the contrary. Good beta readers help writers polish stories to make them marketable to literary agents and publishers. These coveted pre-publication readers bring objectivity to their critiques and often discover problems, or even expanded plot possibilities, that our writer-bias prevents us from seeing.

So, how do writers hunt down good beta readers? And, how do we get them to commit to the demanding task of providing feedback?

First, we need to know our prey before we start hunting. Here’s my outline of the traits I want in a good beta reader. I don’t claim my list works for everyone, but it works for me and is a good place to start. You should develop your own list. Here's mine, in order of importance:

1.  Love of the genre,
2.  Must be well-read within my genre so comparisons are meaningful,
3.  Agree to offer honest, objective feedback, no matter how potentially hurtful,
4.  Have sufficient articulation skills to provide clear critique, and
5.  Understand some basics of writing; plot, character development, pace, plot holes, hooks, et cetera.

Second, plagiarism potential exists when you give a “stranger” unlimited access to your creative genius. Sucks, but it does happen. How can we minimize that risk? Begins by being a good judge of character. Don’t be in a hurry. Get to know potential beta-readers before making a leap of faith. Is the person you’re considering also a writer? That might spell problems. Ask yourself, can another writer set aside his or her writing-style bias to give objective feedback? What about teachers or editors? Nope. They often focus so much on SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation & Grammar) or every little plot hole, that they don’t “invest” emotionally in the story like a typical fan would. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and when you find a highly skilled person who can also remain objective, you have a diamond to be cherished.

The single most important opinion a beta reader offers is whether or not they “like” the story. Then, they will tell what things they like, or don’t like, about the story. Good beta readers compare your manuscript to the competition. Such input can make all the difference in crafting a successful story. Petty crap like typos, misplaced commas, small plot holes, or run-on sentences can be handled by copy-editors who spend their lives tracking down evil dangling participles or misapplied em-dashes. But, the grist of the story--the characters, tension, climax and denouement that keep readers reading--if you get those right, then you have a great story That’s what beta readers do for you.

Where do we find these highly prized test readers? The simple answer is, if you plan to hunt bears, you must go into the forest where the bears live. (Okay, okay, I know you’re getting tired of my silly metaphors, so I’ll stop.) If you write murder mysteries, go where fans of your genre hang out. Join websites of major murder mystery authors. Participate in their talk-forums or “Comments” sections where fans share thoughts. You’ll meet lots of genre-specific, dedicated readers.

Writing sites like AbsoluteWrite ( or Writers Digest forum ( offer genre-specific discussion “rooms” where you’ll find lots of dedicated fans. Get to know these people until you feel there are some who meet all the necessary requirements on your beta-reader qualification list. Even after you find a couple folks who seem to fit the bill, don’t send them your manuscript. Try sending them one chapter with a specific question like, “Does this hook catch your interest?” or “My villain traps the protagonist’s daughter in this scene. Is it too violent?” See what happens. Over time, relationships will grow and a few reliable beta readers will develop. What do THEY get for the effort? Signed copies of your book, or mention in the book’s acknowledgments or introductions during book signings and other public appearances. Sometimes a simple, "Thank you" will do. Beta readers often become your best fans.

I hope these suggestions help to build some great writer/beta reader relationships. Also, I do not claim to be an “expert” in such matters. If you have ideas that might help others find and cultivate good beta readers, then please add your comments. I welcome them, and I know my fellow writers will, too. Now, back to my Looney Toons. Elmer traps Bugs Bunny in a hollowed out tree! He exclaims, "I have you now silly wabbit. You will be my new beta-weeder . . . or else!"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hide! They’re Coming!

Black hair, blond hair, brunettes . . . even a few redheads . . . all different, yet, all the same. Precocious literary engines that spell trouble for contemporary authors may soon be earning those coveted few writing contracts available each year. Most of them show no outward signs of the threat that lurks beneath their cheerful, grade-school camouflage. But, I warn you, do not let their humble facades and freckled dimples trick you into complacency. They are here--and, they will be threatening your publishing contracts before you know it!

Who are these up-and-coming apex predators of the literary world? I’ve seen them. I’ve looked into their intense eyes. I’ve walked among them, but, most importantly, I have read their writing. We are doomed.

Why the alarm?

Two weeks ago, I participated in a little kick-off talk with fourth and sixth grade students at the Loomis Basin Charter School. It started out innocently. They and their teachers planned to participate in the NaNoWriMo concept of writing a novel in a month. Sounded like fun. Lots of questions pertaining to the process of writing made my job easy. I had a good time and agreed to weekly visits to mentor the kids in their effort. I had no idea of the lurking menace.

In my first mentoring session (last week), I spent a couple hours with child-writers discussing their stories. Oh my God! Exciting plots, vivid imaginations and pretty darn good writing skills poured out. Limits on imagination do not exist with these kids. I could easily envision half their story ideas evolving into full-blown novels, complete with intriguing plots, fascinating characters and great hooks to capture reader interest. The future of creative writing looks healthy. So much so, that I’m afraid they could displace many present-day writers.

Should we writers fear them? Should we sabotage their growth by crushing imagination under piles of academic “truths” in high school and college? I hope not. It should be our mission to nurture such minds, helping them become the best they can be. If these future Hemingways and Asimovs eat into the limited pool of publishing contracts, so be it. The bright side is that new ideas and innocent testing of literary status quo may inspire new readers. With luck, they won’t need to steal away our fans, because they will bring an entire new generation into a love of reading.

These kids represent the future of our great nation’s literary talent. From what I’ve seen, we may be teetering on the brink of a modern day Renaissance. I wish all writers could spend a day with kids like these. They bring fresh faces to the table of ideas in literature. I can’t wait for my next meeting to see how much more they have added to their stories.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Beta Readers: Is My Story Any Good?

Every writer dreams about happy readers. They’re called “fans.” Those wonderful supporters provide the motivation for all fiction writing. We writers crave approval and fans feed our egos. They put money in our pockets, so we can continue writing (even if we live on Top Ramen and string cheese). Fans also help us sell books as they spread the word.

My biggest concern when I am writing a book is simple. Will fans like my story?

It’s a scary thought that I might toil for months, putting together hundreds of pages detailing a fantasy world, only to discover that nobody wants to read it. Fortunately, wonderful folks called “Beta Readers” give me essential feedback along the way. I capitalized the term on purpose, because these people are that important to me.

Beta Readers (called “BRs” from this point forward) are hard to find. Good BRs possess unique characteristics; understanding fundamentals of writing, love of literature, brutal honesty, genre specific knowledge and they willingly invest their time to help me improve my story. Are they family? With one exception, family usually struggle with bias for, or sometimes against, the writer-dad/spouse/child/etc. Fortunately, my wife has never hesitated to point out my flaws, and she’s an avid reader, so she makes a great BR.

What about fellow writers? Most of my BRs are not writers. Writer friends have good intentions, but they struggle with a tendency to inject their personal writing styles into their opinions. Yes, I am guilty of that when trying to help fellow writers. It’s tough to suppress.

Is there a formula for good Beta Readers?

You bet! I look for avid readers in my target genre who agree to be completely honest with me. If something sucks, I want to know why it sucks and if it’s worth fixing. They also know my competition and will often "rate" my story against future competition.

One big mistake writers make with BRs is having them search for SPAG errors. To tell the truth, the single best feedback a Beta Reader can provide is their impression of plot and characters. Did the book catch their interest right away? Were there slow parts? Did they like the ebb and flow of action (pace)? Did they connect with the characters? Are they excited about a sequel? Those elements make for a good story. The mundane SPAG errors will be corrected by some anal-retentive copy editor whose boring existence comes down to proper placement of a comma or formatting ending quotation marks. Leave the “periods” to the copy-editors and build an exciting world with dynamic characters. The rest will take care of itself.

Tom Clancy said it best in a Writers Digest interview I read. He was asked about the most important skill in writing. He didn’t say punctuation, spelling or grammar. He said it was the ability to tell a good old-fashioned story. I want my Beta Readers to tell me if my story meets Tom Clancy’s test. Does it capture and hold their interest? Do they want the sequel? If my Beta Readers help me achieve those goals, then fans will love the story, even if a few typos make it into print! Thank you to my Beta Readers. You know who you are.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Kids and Writing – Pass it on.

It’s November and that means NaNoWriMo is off and running. What is NaNoWriMo?  It’s an organization that promotes writing a novel of 50,000 words or more in one month. Last year (2010), over 200,000 people signed up for the challenge and more than 37,000 succeeded.

Today, I had the great pleasure of visiting the 4th and 6th grade kids at Loomis Basin Charter School to talk about writing. Their classes accepted the challenge to write-a-novel-in-a-month and seem eager to experience the process. That’s a tall order for first-time novel writers.

Let me tell you, these kids were wonderful! Bright. Inquisitive. Motivated. Every one of them had that special twinkle in the eye that comes from a love of learning and enthusiasm for challenges. It will be fun over the next few weeks to read their ideas and help them grow as writers. On one hand, I would love to encourage a future Hemingway or Mark Twain, but, to tell the truth, I’d be just as happy to have every child achieve a personal “best” and enjoy the creativity that writing evokes.

For me, writing is a passion that stimulates the mind, challenges the spirit and results in immeasurable satisfaction when a “project” reaches completion. That said, nothing could be more fun and rewarding than to cultivate that same love for writing in eager young minds. Thanks to Justin VonSprekelsen for asking me to visit his school. And, thank you to the 4th and 6th students at Loomis Basin Charter School. It was fun talking about the writing process. See you in a week or two!

edit:  Shame on me! In my blog, I forgot to recognize the initiative and hard work of the 4th and 6th grade teachers in providing this wonderful, creative opportunity to their students. Kudos to the teachers for this decision and taking elementary school education to a higher folks are great!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Always Room at the Top

How many vampire novels does it take to saturate the genre-market? For that matter, how do writers even know when a market is reaching its limit?

Back in the 60’s, I began college as a physics major. Wanted to be a nuclear physicist in the power generation industry. My college counselor told me I should change my major to something “with a future”, something like electronics engineering. When I asked why, he said there are too many physics majors and the nuclear industry job market would be saturated by the time I got my degree. I was disappointed.

That night, I spoke with my dad about changing my major. He said my counselor was wrong. Dad’s comment surprised me, because he knew nothing about nuclear energy.

“Dad, how can you say that? My counselor has all the data to back up his advice.”

“I don’t doubt the statistics,” he said, “but your advisor is reaching the wrong conclusion.”

“If there are too many graduates in my field, wouldn’t he be right?”

“Nope.” Dad smiled a coy little upturn at the corners of his mouth that let me know there was a catch in his reasoning. “Son, there will always be people in life telling you why you cannot accomplish your dream. Some make compelling arguments. If you buy into their reasoning, then they are right. But, what happens if you ignore the naysayers and charge ahead?”

“In this case,” I joked halfheartedly, “I’ll be highly educated and unemployed.”

Dad shook his head. I wasn’t arriving at the right conclusion.

“Dean, there is always room at the top. If you want to be a nuclear physicist, all you have to do is be the best one available. You will be hired and some poor slob who is hanging on near the bottom of his field will fall off.”

There is always room at the top.”  Those words stayed with me for a lifetime. And, the theme applies equally to the publishing industry.

Back to my opening question. How do you know when a genre is becoming saturated? Simple. Major publishing companies buy fewer manuscripts. Senior editors know what the market will bear. By the same token, they live and die by the same principle my father taught me over forty years ago. There is always room at the top! As a market becomes saturated with cookie-cutter zombie or vampire-romance novels, acquisition editors look for gems--the one story that stands out, that belongs at the top. The others? Most become e-books and never earn a substantial income for the authors.

So, how do we break through the glut of writers to achieve the dream? By being the best! Writers must stand out from the pack and offer readers a compelling difference. Every facet of writing must excel from plot to character development to quality of writing to the extra time needed to polish a manuscript. And, it takes humility to accept criticism from qualified professionals, but those tidbits of advice can make all the difference. Most of all, it takes guts to brush aside negativity and reach for the stars. In the end, there is always room at the top! (Thanks, Dad. I miss you.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Atheist in Heaven

An atheist died at an old age and discovered, to his surprise, that there is a God. Now, it was time for an accounting.

“During my life, God, you were never there for me. I prayed. I begged. I demanded. Yet, you did not respond.”

“What would you have me do?” God asked.

“When I struggled to feed children in the orphanage in Vietnam, you could have helped. I begged you for help.”

“Go on,” God replied patiently.

“Do you remember the time when I shot one of my own men for raping that little girl in the village? Every time we raided a VC village, he raped one of the young girls. I reported him to HQ, but they didn’t punish him; said it was his word against mine. Where were you then?”

“I was there,” God said.

The old man continued venting.

“I gave up on you after Vietnam. Decided the only justice in the world would be whatever I could create. I tutored friends in college for free. When I met that family with no father, I made sure the kids had Christmas presents. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could afford during college. I lived my whole life that way, because you didn’t care.”

“Do you really think I didn’t care?”

“You never answered my prayers. What else could I think? I gave up on you and tried to do all the things I could to help people. I donated time in kid’s sports programs and made sure old people in my neighborhood were okay during heat waves. One time, I saw two men trying to entice a little boy into their truck. Do you remember that?”

God nodded.

“I stopped them and escorted the boy home. Where were you? Where were you when that fishing boat capsized and the grandfather could not rescue both his grandkids at the same time? Froze my ass off swimming out to that boat, but somebody had to do it. You would have let the little girl drown. Some loving God you are!”

With a wave of his hand, God brushed aside the fog of life and there stood angels that the old man recognized. They smiled and nodded at him, people whose lives had been touched by the old man’s generosity or willingness to get involved. With another hand gesture, images formed of young people, none of whom the old man recognized.

“They,” God said, “benefit now from the trust fund you left on Earth. Some receive warm food when they would have had none. Others are poor students who manage to get a college education through the scholarships your trust provides.”

God wasn’t through. He stood, uplifted his arms, and thousands of people appeared in images among the clouds. “These are your people. You touched all their lives through others you helped.”

The old man was astonished to see the results of his lifetime, but his anger remained.

“If one small man like me can make such a difference, then why didn’t you do something for humanity?”

God waved and all the angels and people vanished. He descended the stairs from his heavenly throne and placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder.

A tear perched on the old man’s eyelid. “I tried, I tried my entire life to help people. I did the best I could, but it never seemed enough. Why didn’t you do something?”

“I did,” God said. “I sent you.”

Monday, October 3, 2011

Marine Corps Advice for Writers

One thing you learn in the military is to fight through adversity. Every branch of service has their version of the Marine Recon slogan “Adapt and Overcome.” I’m here to tell you, that theme of never quitting applies to all of life. For writers, it should read, “Adapt and Never Stop Writing.”

A couple months ago, my literary agent warned me that my manuscript faced possible resistance from publishers because of a movie, Contagion, that could saturate the public market for any book using a similar theme—that being—a deadly virus. I went from the doorstep of final submission to dead-in-the-water after a year of working up through the system.

I was momentarily blind-sided by this obstacle. I admit, there was a temptation to quit and move on to the next manuscript, but I just don’t work that way. Yes, I might fail in this publishing chase, but not until my lifeless body becomes carrion for the publishing vultures.

Here’s what happened since.

My literary agent did not bail out on me. Instead, she emailed my manuscript to me with copious notes throughout. She compared my writing to Dan Brown (I felt very upbeat about that) and she felt the story could be saved if I re-wrote it to change the core threat from a virus to something else. “Yeah, right,” I thought sarcastically. “Let’s see, rabid pigmies, or maybe, pigeons with acid poop. Seriously, some of her suggestions excited me, so I rolled up my literary sleeves and got down to business.

Holy moly, Robin! The story almost wrote itself and came out better than the original. It went from 22 long chapters to 78 short chapters with lots of cliffhangers (classic Dan Brown technique). Two characters got a face lift, fleshing out their personalities better. In addition, I added substance to a minor character who will become a main character in the sequel. The changes worked! Delivery of the story became more compelling. I also made a tough decision and decided not to worry about the movie. If it becomes a success, more people will want a “virus” story. Look at what happened with vampire books after the success of Twilight. A successful "virus movie" could be a selling point. If the movie fails, then my book will stand on its own two feet as a high-powered, fast-paced, terrorist attack with a lethal virus as the weapon. Either way, it WILL stand out because it scares the hell out of the reader! I’m thrilled!

Thank you Marisa Corvisiero for the good suggestions that helped me with the re-write. More importantly, thank you for your confidence in my ability to “fix” the situation. It means the world to me.

In Vietnam, I was part of a team. In publishing, it’s no different. Marisa’s on my team, and together, we will adapt and overcome. If your agent does not respect you as part of a team, then find a new agent! For anyone struggling with the publishing process, I am proof that persistence pays off. It would have been easy for me to abandon this story and move on, that is, if I was inclined to quit. And that, my friend, is the moral of this blog. I did not quit. And, neither should you!

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Penny for your Thoughts?

I have been invited to be the kick-off author/speaker at a local International Baccalaureate charter school on November 1 for their NaNoWriMo program. As you know, November is the write-a-novel month.

These kids are high achiever 4th and 5th graders. My kick off speech will be limited to 20 minutes and should get the kids excited about writing a story. How would you approach this speech? What would you say to inspire, motivate and excite kids at this age?

I really DO want to hear your thoughts and I appreciate you taking a few minutes to comment, because I want to do the best job possible for these children. So, how about it? A penny for your thoughts...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Overcoming Defeat the Write Way

There are some common slogans in writing that are designed to keep aspiring authors motivated. One such adage is "Never stop writing." If you submit some query letters, the waiting can be excruciating. After you find an agent and you've submitted your manuscript, again, the waiting game sucks. Even after a publishing contract is signed, it's often a year before your story gets released. Wait. Wait. Wait.

I was lucky. I got a great literary agent. Her initial impression of my story was that it had "Best Seller" potential. She felt it was unique, frighteningly realistic and timely.

It died today!

A new movie, filled with big name actors, came out this week. Contagion tells the story of a military-altered virus that gets loose and leads to a global crisis. The science in the movie is unrealistic. Dialog is ridiculously dramatic. And, the Hollywood-inspired special effects make the movie little more than an excuse for cheap scare tactics like melodramatic screams and hysterical people. Nevertheless, it has some big name actors and lots of Hollywood hype.

My book tells about a well-planned terrorist attack using, yes, a military-altered virus with lethal impact. My research was exhausting. The terrorist's virus replication laboratory uses real equipment. Tools in my research laboratory are state of the art. Infection rates follow real statistical models. And, everything in my story could REALLY happen. But, my agent says that this new movie suddenly transformed my book from really exciting and unique to "It's already been done."

What do I do now?

Remember at the beginning of this blog, I mentioned the writer's advice of  "Never stop writing"? I followed that advice all while Jihad was making its way through the system. I now have three more manuscripts in the works, and, ironically, I have a new storyline that might fit perfectly into my Jihad book. It will remove the lethal virus and substitute a creative new threat against the US and our allies. I have never seen this threat in a recent movie or book, so my characters, and the Jihad story, are saved. The key to overcoming adversity for a writer truly is to keep on writing. Well, it's getting late and I have some special cloned terrorists to insert into my Jihad story . . . yes, that's a little hint!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writing Whores . . . What’s Your Price?

I generally avoid politics in my blogs but could not resist this joke sent to my wife by one of her friends:

“We are all familiar with a Herd of cows, a Flock of chickens, a School of fish and a Gaggle of geese. However, less widely known is a Pride of lions, a Murder of crows (as well as their cousins the rooks and ravens), an Exaltation of doves and, presumably because they look so wise, a Parliament of owls. Now consider a group of Baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not . . . a Congress! I guess that pretty much explains the things that come out of Washington.”

That said, writers face decisions of a “political” nature when they write. Every story has an audience with identifiable expectations. “Politically correct” expression infringes on freedom of speech. Where does the writer draw the line? Don’t use the “n”-word. Don’t use certain profanity like the “c”-word or the “f”-word. But, what if your character curses like a sailor and uses racial epithets? Or, let’s say you are writing a rape scene; would the rapist address his victim as “maam” or “miss” or would he slug her in the face and call her a . . . you get the idea. What is the writer to do?

I believe writers must “know their target audience” and write accordingly. For example, kids should not be exposed to certain concepts or foul words. What about writing for adults? Should adults be coddled like kids? Should writers produce non-offensive Pablum to placate sensitive readers? Is the writer selling out by softening language or protecting the reader from brutal realities that might fit the story? By resisting temptation to write the story as it NEEDS to be told, we become whores to the market. Here are my personal rules for writing about volatile topics such as politics, religion and sensitive stuff like gay scenes or “PC” subjects:

Rule 1:  Never promote a political agenda. You instantly lose 50% of the buying public. Write for the left—you lose the right. Write for conservatives—you lose the left. Write for fishermen—you lose almost everybody. Most people don’t want to read about fishing and most fishermen don’t read. (just kidding!) Maybe that’s why writers like King stick to horror stories that are equally frightening to both political parties. That way, no book sales are lost to closed minds.

Rule 2:  Never write strictly for men. Why? Many men don’t read unless there’s a centerfold in the publication, (Calm down, I didn't say ALL men.) The corollary to this is that most women DO read. It’s okay to write “for” women, because your potential market doesn’t shrink much. That explains the success of romance novels and sappy stuff like the Bridges of Madison County or Gone with the Wind.

Rule 3:  Ignore rules 1 and 2 if you think you can make a bunch of money selling your story to fans of Hannity, Joy Behar or Billy Graham. Does this make you a writer-whore? Uhhh, yeah, but who cares? The ugly little truth is that ALL writers crave recognition for their work and many will gladly parade around bookstores, or babble in radio interviews, trying to enhance their sales.

So, if writers sell their services to the highest bidder, including years of promoting the book after it hits the market, then I guess the only remaining question is, “How far will you go for fame?” And, don’t deny that you would dress up in a giraffe suit and dance in front of Barnes & Noble, if it meant selling another dozen books. That brings me to my own "price" for success. I will do anything that is not illegal, immoral or totally tasteless to bring attention to my book(s). I recently bought a bagpipe and Scottish kilt. Picture a 300 pound, rugged-looking writer dancing along the sidewalk in front of your favorite bookstore playing Amazing Grace (the only song I know on the bagpipe) over and over. Wouldn't you be at least a little curious? Now, help me make that age-old decision . . . under the kilt? Briefs or commando? What do you think?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Self-publishing Screw-ups

Let's talk about self-publishing. I've done it all. Wrote a book. Handled all my self-editing. Hired a professional freelance copy-editor to "polish" the manuscript. Purchased a cover design program from Contracted for professional graphic arts. Negotiated bids for printing, selected the winning contract and worked closely with the printer to "design" the physical book. Along the way, I formed a publishing company, bought ISBN numbers, contracted with a national distribution company, established a publisher contract with Barnes & Noble. Also, purchased a local business license and got a reseller's permit from the California Board of Equalization. Heard enough yet?

Those are the things I did to publish my sci-fi novel, Space Chronicles: The Last Human War. I also made mistakes . . . lots of them . . . mistakes that could have been avoided if I had a good source of guidance along the way. Here are a few of my mistakes that good advice might have prevented:

Mistake #1: Self-publishing. I never sent a single query letter to any literary agent or even a direct submission publisher. Was this a mistake?

Mistake #2: Editing. I hired a freelance copy-editor to do the final edit. That doesn't sound like a bad idea, huh? Well, I "hired" her on a handshake, paid her in advance and established a general timeframe for her to complete the job. I'll give you a hint what happened . . . she gave me a full refund AFTER I had already paid $4,000 for the first 1000 books. How could I have handled this better?

Mistake #3: Rush to print. As soon as my "professional" copy-editor finished her "edit", I simply inserted her suggestions and rushed the book to the printer WITHOUT a final proof reading by yours truly. DUH!

Mistake #4: Cover art. I agreed to a certain basic design with a nationally known graphic artist. We agreed to a price, general specs and the delivery method. Then, he sent me his "contract" and I discovered some outrageous terms. I called him and he became indignant that I would request changes to his contract. We parted company and all that time and effort was wasted. Fortunately, I discovered a young up-and-coming graphics artist (in Denmark) who gave me exactly what I wanted for half the price, but I lost a lot of time and burned a bridge in the process. See the mistakes I made here?

Mistake #5: Constructing a book. My printer seemed wonderfully helpful. He suggested using higher grade paper, saying it would result in a more professional looking book and would have a nice heavy "feel" to it. He also helped me use Adobe In-Design to layout the actual printed pages, including page/book size, bleed, removing "widows and orphans" and properly numbering the table of contents based on final book specs. What went wrong? I listened to the printer! He's selling stuff, not necessarily interested in my bottom line. Everything he said sounded good, so I didn’t question his judgment. Result? The final weight was a full pound per book. Do you know how much it costs to ship 48 books per case to a wholesale distributor? Even the sale of individual copies cost $2.50 per book to ship USPS Media Mail. Also, the extra high quality paper made the book so stiff that the "tightness" of the perfect binding forced a reader to break the spine to be able to open the book comfortably. I’ll bet Marisa or Jo Ann at Literary Powerhouse Consulting would have offered better ideas.

Mistake #6: Website. Rookie mistakes on the website. I was excited about building a website that showed off my awesome graphics. I provided a "free" chapter to attract buyers and added some interesting back-story, trying to draw people into the book. It was a “show” website, not a “selling” website.  Initially, I did not even provide a mechanism for interested people to purchase directly from the publisher. I literally did not ask people to buy it! I figured a good show was all that was needed and the public would beat a path to the bookstore. DUH! Marketing advice would have been especially valuable at this point.

Mistake #7: Free books for promotion. I managed to make a profit on this book, mostly by direct author sales and book signings.  Word-of-mouth created by some "Centers-of-Influence" (people whose opinions influence others' buying decisions) saved the day. You may be wondering, if my promotions led to hundreds of sales, then where is the mistake? Taxes! When I had to report to the Franchise Tax Board the number of books I "distributed", they included promo books and forced me to pay taxes on the free books I gave to Centers-of-Influence. Then, my CPA informed me that special tax rules apply to the publishing industry. I could NOT write off my printing expenses in the year they were incurred. I was forced to write them off only against actual sales each year. I don't know what advice LPC could have given me on this matter, but at least I would not have been surprised when my $4,000 printing deduction was rejected.

Mistake #8: Marketing.  I overcame resistance from Barnes & Noble, when they agreed to carry my book. Whoopee! I thought I could now count on a steady stream of sales. Nope. They only order very small quantities from “small” publishers and toss them into a few test markets. If those first 20 books sell, they’ll order another 30 copies. Big whoop! And they don’t help you market.  There’s a concept called "wallpaper" in bookstores. It means that the only books that get substantial exposure (end-cap displays or "special" displays like the "New Releases" rack) are those from big publishing houses. All the rest of the books in the aisles are known as "wallpaper.” There are ways to overcome this limitation often called “guerilla” marketing techniques. Some of the guerilla marketing ideas are fun; like reverse shoplifting, piggy-back sales or borrowed prestige. Of course, the best way to make bookstore sales is with book-signings. Book-signing events are also an area where LPC can offer ideas to attract more customers/sales. A well-designed and advertised book signing is worth it’s weight in gold. I could have used such advice!

Mistake #9: Liability. My book is still out there. B&N still has some inventory along with a few other places. I recently decided to stop marketing The Last Human War in hope of attracting a traditional publisher that can re-publish and offer the kind of market penetration I need for substantial sales. The problem is those copies in current inventory are a liability that may come back to haunt me. Book stores and wholesale distributors have a contractual right to return any unsold copies for a full refund. That liability requires me to hold a cash “reserve” against unsold returns. Is this a “mistake”? Nope. It’s the way the industry works, but it came as a surprise to me, because I did not have the benefit of advice from a company like LPC to guide my decisions.

So, there you go. I could list more lessons that I learned the hard way, but I think I’ve already shown plenty of completely avoidable mistakes that could have been resolved with proper advice. Fortunately, Literary Powerhouse Consulting offers self-publishing authors such a resource to smooth out the bumps in the publishing road. Don’t learn the expensive way . . . like I did!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

“Taking a Break”

Ever wonder what writers do to “take a break?” Do they go swimming? Maybe take in a movie. Sometimes I play blues on my guitar to relieve the stress.

Last week, I was half-way through the final edit on a 135,000-word manuscript. Couldn’t eat another peanut or drink another Pepsi. My writer’s cave morphed into a writer’s prison, complete with ominous corner shadows and moaning. (okay, okay, so the moaning was my little Dachshund under my desk groaning that it was time for his dinner.) Anyway, I desperately needed a break. What did I do?

Books! That’s right, I needed a break from writing, so I bought books. Four of them to be exact. I got all the way home before it dawned on me that I didn’t have time to read any of them. Oh well, they can wait, but just the smell of all those books in the “indie” bookstore invigorated me. Add a bag of microwave popcorn and I was ready to edit again.

For me, the problem with taking breaks is that, if I enjoy myself too much, I tend to get distracted and lose the self-discipline for writing or editing. It’s like the proverbial tumble off the horse. Gotta get back on fast or it might not happen.

What do you do for relief during long periods of writing or editing? Do you have favorite rituals or “brain” food that helps you along? Are you one of those writers who doesn’t have to worry about such things. Gosh, I hope I’m not the only one with this problem!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Free Story...Yes or No?

Baen Publishing, a big sci-fi publisher, presented an idea to their authors. It goes something like this . . . authors should make the first novel in a series available to the public as a free e-book. Yep, I said a “free” book. No royalties, no advance, no physical book; only a free download.

Baen reasons that readers will appreciate receiving the free electronic book, and if they enjoy the author’s style, they will gladly pay for the rest of the books in the series. It’s a way to market entire series, and develop an author fan base, at the same time. Here’s the link to Erick Flint’s lengthy explanation of this controversial idea:

Here’s the problem I see with this approach. If I’m a first-time published author, I don’t have a “prior” book in the series. Even if I am an established author starting a new series, there’s no “prior” story in the series. What then? Maybe I should write two books in a series BEFORE approaching Baen for publication. Then, the opener-story for the series could be the freebie with the sequel being the fee-based book. Sounds like a lot of work to risk on the sales of just one story.

Space Chronicles: The Last Human War was my self-published, sci-fi story. It was received well by readers but not very profitable because I was selling books a few at a time. I lacked access to major advertising and marketing media, so I sold copies through personal marketing effort until I made a small profit. Then, I gave the remaining 500 books to the soldiers in Afghanistan.

Now, the sequel to LHW is coming along, and I hope to go through a major publishing company to get widespread marketing. I'm willing to offer The Last Human War as the free e-book download to introduce sci-fi fans to the Space Chronicles series. I asked my literary agent about it, and she expressed excitement about the potential, offering to represent both books. In addition, she already has a good relationship with Baen . . . this is getting exciting.

What do you think about this Baen marketing idea? Free story:  yes or no? How would you handle that "first-book" in a series problem?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Timeline to Publication or How to Watch Paint Dry!

I was browsing Baen Book publisher today, trying to see how much success they are having with their policy of offering the first book in a series as a free download. They believe readers will become fans after reading the opening book in a series. Then, they will trust the author’s writing and buy the rest of the series. Theory sounds good. I sent them an email asking for statistics on sales since they started the freebie-deal to see if sales back up their expectations.

While visiting Baen, I noticed a table showing what happens from the time an author signs a contract to the actual first day of sales for a new book. This timeline offers a sobering reality.

Here are their words below, or you can go look at their nifty timeline video at:

From Manuscript to Bookshelves

(By the way, their video runs too fast on my computer so I clicked on stop button and advance it one slide at a time.)

If you don't feel like using the link, here are their month to month points:

Month 1:  Sign Contract, Submit Manuscript, Art Gets Assigned
Month 2:  Editorial Input, Author Revisions
Month 3:  Tip Sheet Process Begins, Need Info/Bio From Author
Month 4:  Entry of Data for Title, FINAL MANUSCRIPT IS DUE
Month 5:  Marketing Strategy Meeting with Sales People
Month 6: Artwork is due for catalogue, Jennie Prepares Seasonal Catalogue and Brochures
Month 7: Proof Reading from Month 7 through 9
Month 8: Sales Conference held to present titles to sales force
Month 9: Advance Reading Copies of Manuscript sent to reviewers
Months 10-11-12: Off to the printer

Then, a month before distribution and publication, there’s more for the author to do:

- Visit local bookstore and libraries. Let them know your book is coming soon.
- Offer to do a book signing event in their store (line up friends and family to come)
- Tell publisher office about your plans and schedule so they can offer support.
- Arrange radio/TV/internet interviews and blog about the release on your own.

Let’s get this straight. As an author, I already spent the better part of a year writing, revising and editing my manuscript. Then, I waited anywhere from a few months to a couple years querying literary agents to represent me. An agent begins pitching my book after reviewing it and offering any little adjustments that might make it more saleable. That puts the process somewhere between one and two YEARS before signing a publishing deal. Yipee! I finally signed my contract. Uhhh...not so fast buccko, the publisher says, it will be at least another year before the book hits the shelves.

This publishing business is sounding more and more like watching paint dry. Guess that’s why they say the best thing a writer can do after completing a manuscript is to get started on another one. Ya know, despite the nerve-testing delays and frustrations of waiting for publication, I still get excited every time I watch a new story unfold. It’s the writing that makes this whole process worth the trouble. Now, where’d I put my laptop?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Writer’s Cave - Where Do You Write?

Where do you write? I need to avoid disruptions when I write. Even anticipated disruptions, like expecting the phone to ring, or knowing the dogs need to eat . . . any break in my writing routine changes my “mood” and alters my train of thought. More importantly, they piss me off. I don’t write well when angry . . . some character always seems to die . . . lol.

I envy writers who can write anywhere without being sidetracked by life’s interruptions. I know some people write in public places. How do they do that? I certainly could not. Other writers have the ability to write any time they can snatch a few free minutes. Fifteen minutes here, forty-two minutes there. It boggles my mind how they can stay on track with plot development and character growth in such short snatches of writing. But, it seems to work for them.

I’m curious. What’s YOUR favorite writing venue and why?

Here are a few pictures of my writing cave . . .

This is the writing corner next to my antique oak desk:


These are my writing buddies. They usually nap at my feet while I write. Notice the puppy toys under the table; they squeak when I step on them and Dink (little blonde Dachshund) goes nuts thinking I want to play fetch:

This wall is next to me with dad’s picture on it:

Opposite wall with my competing interest . . . blues:

When I close the door to my writing cave/music studio, I enter another world, one where fantasy comes to life and life becomes the surreal. I ask you again, how do you write? Any special rituals? Is your writing empowered, or adversely affected, by your environment?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Note to Dad

Hi Dad. Wherever you are, I hope you’re happy. I’m not sure if there is a heaven, but if there is, I know you’re helping somebody in need, like you did throughout your life.

Every Fathers Day, I get to wondering about the afterlife. What if the Buddhists are right about reincarnation? I could see you coming back as a single daffodil, picked by a small child who runs to her mommy with her, bringing a moment of happiness to both child and parent. If Einstein is right, then you belong to the universe. I like to choose one star out of the night sky and say hello to you. Sure, I know it’s really just a ball of burning hydrogen, but it makes me feel good to think that your essence, your love and all those memories, still exist in that bright spot in the sky.

I didn’t always think of you with such admiration. Your leather belt scared the hell out of me as a child. Discipline was swift and simple. You taught me right from wrong. And, I hated it when you and mom argued. It made me feel insecure. Even when I left for Vietnam in my late teens, you tried to hug me, but I pushed you away in my youthful anger. Guess I was still too young to appreciate you for the lessons that molded a man from a boy.

Before my twentieth birthday, something extraordinary happened. You changed. Wisdom filled your voice when I called you from the USO in Vietnam to share my fears. You said I'd be okay. Do you remember that three AM phone call? You told me you had great confidence in me, as a man, and that you would stand by me no matter what happened in Nam. Your strength, and your confidence in me, carried me through some tough times. I found strength knowing that you respected and trusted me. Then, I realized, you didn’t change a bit. I did, thanks to you.

I tried to apologize when I got home, for my stupid behavior before I left for Nam. You rebuffed my effort, saying no regrets were called for. Turns out, you had similar angst when you were young and it took you many years to grow up, too. You always knew the man I would become, because I am just like you. You saw my potential, instead of my failings, and you made me the man I am today.

Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ouch! Smashed My Thumb!

Hammers!  I hate them. They never hit where I’m looking. If my thumb is anywhere near the target spot, that hammer usually delivers another missing thumbnail. Here I go blaming the hammer, when, in truth, the problem is the carpenter, not the tool. Same goes for saws, screwdrivers, most power tools and, of course, the dreaded propane torch...ouch!

What does this have to do with writing?

It’s about the tools of our trade. Have you ever thought about our tools? I’m not talking about sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, spelling, plot, character development or all those other “mechanical” things that are often thought of as writer tools. Can you imagine a reader finishing a great story and remarking, “Wow! That was awesome sentence structure through that whole story!” Or, how about this, “I loved that story because there was not a single misspelled word in the entire book!” Sure, an English teacher might orgasm over such a book, but normal people “react” to a story, rather than notice the mechanics of writing. In fact, the mechanics of writing are best when they go completely unnoticed. They are SKILLS, not tools.

So, we’re back to my question...what writing “tools” am I talking about?

All people experience life based on a unique set of core personality traits and values. What are they? Here is a brief list of some traits and their opposites:

Outgoing personality / Introverted
Loyal / Disloyal or Untrustworthy
Courteous / Rude or Inconsiderate
Open-minded / Closed-minded
Compassion or Empathy / Emotionally Cold or Lacking Empathy
Generous / Greedy or Self-interested
Industrious / Lazy
Energetic / Sickly or Lethargic
Positive or Optimistic / Negative or Pessimistic
Brave / Cowardly
Strong self-control / Weak Impulse Control
Calmness or Serenity / Excitability or Nervousness
Independent / Dependent
Happy Overall / Angry Overall
Honest / Dishonest

Human characteristics like those listed above create emotional reactions in readers. Here’s an example:

Handsome male college student, Andy, is romancing a particularly vulnerable young woman, Sasha. Her life experience includes the death of her father when she was only ten. Her mother did a wonderful job providing for them, but our young college coed craved male acceptance, leading her into several abusive relationships in the past. Naturally, she is reluctant to dive into another relationship and has avoided dating for over a year. Andy is different. He’s gentle, understanding, upbeat, sensitive...everything Sasha needs. After months of starts and stops on her part, she finally commits to the relationship and spends a weekend with Andy at a snow ski lodge. It seems like she finally found that special man she craved.

Andy’s temperament changes when they return to college. He becomes less tolerant, sometimes even rude, as she tries to carry on ordinary conversations. One Friday night, Sasha drops by his apartment and discovers a rowdy party of a dozen of Andy’s male school friends. He tries to prevent her from entering but several of the party-goers begin hooting and hollering about the girl in the video. Sasha pushes past Andy and sees a video playing on his wide screen TV. It’s them making love at the ski chalet. Sasha soon discovers that Andy won a bet by bedding her, and, distraught, she leaves college. At her aunt’s home, deep in the mountains of West Virginia, Sasha endures fits of depression and struggles with suicidal ideas. Eventually, she finds peace in a friendship with a small ground squirrel that learns to eat out of her hand. A long-standing drought caused severe danger of forest fire. The aunt goes into town to get groceries and a fire breaks out, preventing her from returning home. She calls her niece and tells her to get out using the back road. Sasha agrees, but never leaves. Instead, she tries to lure the squirrel into a box so she can take it with her. The fire cuts off her escape road and she hides in the house.

Andy deeply regrets what happened and has been searching for Sasha for months to attempt amends. He finally tracks her to the aunt’s place, but fire officials prevent him from passing fire road closures. While he looks up the road at the distant smoke, an old woman frantically approaches the fire chief pleading for someone to rescue her niece. You can figure out where the story goes from here...

Let’s examine the “tools” used in this story to create connection with readers. Compassion + Empathy - at the beginning of this short story, most readers care about Sasha because she suffered an understandable and unfortunate reaction to the loss at a tender age of her father. As Sasha overcomes her caution and Andy displays several traits that Sasha can trust, readers experience a sense of happiness for our female lead. Sasha’s betrayal is also the reader’s betrayal as they had also come to “trust” Andy. Readers then worry about Sasha’s suicidal thoughts and her withdrawal from society. A little reader-hope creeps into the picture as Sasha builds trust with the grey squirrel. The fire changes the reader’s reaction, yet again, introducing tension and fear. As the fire approaches, readers respect Sasha’s concern for the squirrel, but are frustrated with her poor judgment. Andy’s arrival at the road blockade causes mixed feelings in readers...some anger, some hope, curiosity about how he can possibly overcome his betrayal.

The point of this little story is to illustrate how the tools that pull a reader into a story are based on emotion, not of the characters, but emotions of the reader! The goal of a writer should be to draw a reader into the story; to make the reader “feel” the story-character’s angst. To do this, the writer has to use the emotional tools effectively. This is the secret to all great stories. The tools of such writing are human character traits that make life interesting.

I found a great list of human traits on the following website. It’s a handy reference I use while writing:

Now that you know what tools I have in my toolbox, I hope it helps in some way.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ooops...Broke a Cardinal Rule

Can’t believe I made this goof.

My manuscript, Jihad: The Breath of God, is reaching the end stages of scrutiny before being offered to publishers. Marisa, my agent, let a couple of her publishers know that she has a great thriller coming down the pipeline, kind of tickling their interest. Everything looked great, until...yep, there always seems to be a worm inside that shiny apple. Osama Bin Laden’s death was great for the nation, but a lousy break for my story. Why?

Every fiction writer understands that if your story contains an element of the present in it, then the book can become obsolete the moment circumstances change and no longer fit the story.

My story is speculative fiction. It features current airport security protocol, modern military ability and present day scientific knowledge and technology. I carefully referred to the President of the United States but never give him a name because I wouldn’t want my book to become outdated after just one election. Past events like the Second Battle for Mogadishu in 2006 are real. Street names, gang warfare in Somalia and ultimate outcomes are all real and recent history. I paid attention to avoid references that might “date” the book. All but one! I used Osama Bin Laden, by name, as the presiding leader of Al Qaeda. Guess that “realism” got shot to hell this weekend. Mind you, it’s a happy “shot to hell”, but it’s also a strong reminder to me that I violated a cardinal rule of writing by providing the story with built-in obsolescence. And now, it happened. To tell the truth, after ten years of avoiding our best black ops guys, I figured he was good for another ten years, especially with Pakistan hiding him. But, alas, an important character now doesn’t fit the ending. Yikes!

Fortunately, the correction requires simple changes to a few scenes involving him. I'll insert a replacement terrorist leader who says the same things and makes the same decisions as I had Bin Laden making. In fact, the story becomes even juicier as the plot incorporates revenge for BL's death as a core motivation. This actually might improve the whole thing, even the ending.

Got lucky this time. I broke a fundamental rule of writing and got caught. The end result will strengthen the story, but it could have been a disaster in the other direction. Imagine if the book was already on the market! So, if you’re writing a present day fiction, don’t learn the hard way as I did. Avoid temptation to incorporate known characters or evolving situations in such a way that they could change quickly and destroy your plot.

Well, I dodged a big one. Promised my agent the revised manuscript by Friday, so I’d better get to to the keyboard-mill. By the way, if you don't wash your hands a lot now, you WILL after reading this story!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dollars, Dreams and Delusions

Somebody recently said to me that the publishing industry is driven by ego. Ego? Yeah, it certainly drives one thing in publishing...writers. We authors are arrogant enough to believe others will actually want to read our "inspired" words. Let’s call a spade, a spade. That's pure ego. Self-publishing through vanity presses and overpriced books from POD publishers provide ample evidence of the desperate egotism of writers. The rest of the industry, however, is not driven by ego. Rather, profits move the industry.

Literary agents, those gargoyles who restrict the entrances to the big publishing houses, they follow the money. They set high literary standards and reject all submissions that fail to meet strict expectations. Why so tough? Capitalism. It's all about the buck. Authors face brutal competition imposed by literary agents, but are these demands fair? In truth, it's no different than college. Not all students earn top grades. Some even flunk out. This process of meeting high standards assures quality in the final product, regardless if that is a great book or an advanced degree in physics. The same theme applies to big publishing houses. They select and promote books solely based on potential for economic gain. Ego drives writers and money drives the industry.

What is my motivation? Okay, I admit being attracted to the ego side of writing. I want everyone to love my stories, and someday, I crave for my book to make the New York Times bestseller list. Then again, I’m an old guy. I’ve been around the block, and I’ve learned that ego can be pretty well satisfied with material things like, say a new guitar, or, better yet, a new bass boat. Heck, my ego would be delighted with a mansion, or private jet, or a villa in...sorry...starting to slip from dream into delusion. The most important lesson for aspiring authors is that the magic happens when the successful release of a book meets both needs, ego and profit. Now, where did I put those real estate ads for Homes of the Rich and Famous?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Making Your Literary Agent Cry?

When I started writing novels, I wanted to make people happy. I envisioned readers who stayed up past their bedtime because my story caught their fancy. That motivation gave me all the energy I needed to spend countless hours in front of the computer, writing and editing. It’s still the most important source of my inspiration...happy readers.

My current manuscript, Jihad: The Breath of God, has been accepted by a great New York literary agent named Marisa Corvisiero. When I signed the contract with her, I wondered what would happen next. She sent me a list of hoops to jump through in preparation for developing a presentation package for publishing companies. That’s called a “pitch package.”

Marisa had previously sent my manuscript to two of her subordinate “readers” for their impressions. Both said they could hardly put the book down and gave it a big thumbs-up. I was thrilled with the feedback. Now, all that remained was for Marisa to review the book for final edits before the pitching can begin. A couple weeks went by. I heard nothing. Marisa’s comments on her Facebook page told me she was tied up with lots of agent-related activities. I wondered how she would even find time to read my manuscript with all the demands on her schedule.

A couple questions on the “to-do” list needed answers. During the conversation, Marisa mentioned a few observations about the story. Something was wrong...dreadfully wrong. This was the first time anyone had “read” my story and did not find it compelling. She actually put it down. Warning claxons went off in my head. Is it possible she was having second thoughts about signing me? Why was her experience with the book so vastly different from everybody else?

Last Friday, my private phone line rang in my insurance office. Must be my wife, I thought. Imagine my surprise when it was Marisa...and she was rambling on like a person possessed. She said she was calling from a taxi cab in New York, in between appointments, and just had to tell me that her husband got frustrated with her “last night” because she could not put down my manuscript. I thought, “She finally ‘connected’ with the story.” She said the terrorist attack creeped her out so much that she didn’t want to touch anything in the taxi for fear of contamination. The realism of my terrorist plot hit home with her, as it had with others before her. Little does Marisa know that the next few chapters are even more intense!

My mental alarm bells switched off, but this experience taught me one powerful lesson about the publishing process. Of all the people in the world who are fans of a writer’s work, the number one fan needs to be the literary agent. An agent can’t “like” a story. The agent must LOVE the story to pitch it with enthusiasm and conviction. I can’t wait for Marisa’s next phone call. It will probably be after she reads about a little boy named PJ. Marisa has twin boys about PJ’s age, and that sub-story is a real tear-jerker. I can imagine the call, “You jerk! Why did you do that to PJ?” What can I say? It’s all about making an emotional connection with the reader, especially a literary agent reader. Muahahahaha!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Old Man Grows - Character Development

I was recently asked about the difference between character development and characterization.

Let's say a story begins with an old man...say a retired factory worker who is set in his ways and harbors long held biases about the roles of men and women in marriage. His wife becomes ill and dies at the beginning of the story. The man becomes lonely, but he's unwilling to share those feelings with others, instead becoming cranky and reclusive. When his only daughter comes out of the closet and tells him she is marrying her same-sex lover, he is outraged and disowns her. Months go by with him refusing to answer or return her phone calls. She finally gives up.

One day, our depressed old man suffers a massive heart attack. Paramedics use CPR to keep him alive until the hospital can take over and he survives. He deeply appreciates a young paramedic who provided him with hope and encourangement during the ambulance ride. After regaining his strength, the old man drops by the fire station to personally thank the young lady paramedic. His daughter and her new baby happen to be there visiting with her "spouse". The baby is beautiful and reminds him of his daughter when his wife first held her. This awkward moment causes the old man to reassess his prior values. Not long thereafter, he and his daughter's family take a trip together to Disneyland where someone directs a disparaging homosexual insult toward his daughter, her spouse and their young child. The old man comes to the defense of his "new" family and finds himself extolling the virtues of their love and commitment. He also comes to realize, he's not so lonely anymore.

Conflict drives stories. Why? Because it provides the tension that makes a story interesting. The old man's rigid value system resisted change...he even disowned his only daughter. Then, the baby broke through some invisible emotional barrier, causing the main character to undergo a fundamental change in his value system. That process of reacting to conflict is character development...and it was only made possible by the old man's initial characterization. Characterization is all the values and features of the character that will react to events in the story.

Pretty simple concept, huh? Then, why do so many writers struggle with the difference between character development and characterization?