Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Secret to Edgar Sawtelle’s Success

Writing a novel is an exploration into something that is inherent in all of us, yet, these ideas must be fed and nurtured in order for our stories to grow and take shape and finally resemble something of value. Not just in a monetary sense, as a product, but value as in something meaningful to you as well as your prospective readers.

Aside from the
Sawtelle story, I'm also touching on Toni Morrison's new novel, A Mercy, which is a challenge considering her level of literary achievements to date which she has taken to new heights with her latest offering; and what a classic it is, I might add. (It grows on you.)

Your stories, if crafted well, will also take root in the hearts and minds of your readers and they will tantalize their beliefs and disbelief's. At least they should. I’ve never looked at it any other way, however, there are two main differences among writers and aspiring writers; authors on the cusp of breaking out, which David Wroblewski, of Edgar Sawtelle fame has recently done. (More than just luck.) In one of my previous posts I had poked fun at him and his story, which we all know is another form of admiration. I’ve recently had the time to read his novel and although it has its flaws (like all literature does) it is a very well-crafted and superbly written tale. But the focus here is not on his writing, but on the book's successful marketing. Yes folks, it's all about sales. The almighty dollar, as usual. Let's face it, if we were only interested in writing for ourselves, all our precious manuscripts would be shoved in a bottom drawer where no one but us new they existed.

Okay, maybe I’m just another dreamer like you, but let’s face it, marketing books is not easy, but not impossible. The more stories I read, the more I’m convinced that I can accomplish the same thing. Which reminds me that aside from Wroblewski, Toni Morrison is one of my favorite new authors. Wroblewski, I’m sure is flattered that I would mention him in the same sentence along with the incomparable Toni Morrison. Although they are very different writers indeed and furthermore, W. is in training wheels just as I am, while Morrison is in a league all her own.

But, I’m finally investing time reading and discovering Morrison's incredible writing. I like her flavor. She’s of course been around for a long time and has been one of my favorite writers ever since the movie and novel by the same name,
Beloved. But again, she’ll be the subject of another post which will be very interesting because she is Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate, after all. An amazing talent and I look forward to reading her most recent short novel, A Mercy, which should arrive in my mailbox by Saturday. Ahh, something to live for, at last. It feels that way. Sometimes the literary world seems to stand still, for me at least, since I am such a picky reader.

But the good thing is that when I finally get to another writer on my long wish-list of books, it’s always a very exciting time. Something to write about. Life is just way too short and foraging through the vast sea of literary work is daunting to say the least. And BTW, how did such a great writer such as Morrison slip by me for so long? Blame McCarthy, Faulkner, Hemingway, and a host of so many others for that. Like I said prioritizing my reading list is hard work, but I’m finally ready for some Toni Morrison and I can’t wait.

Meanwhile, let me sidetrack, if I may, into my own debut novel, a.k.a., DFB before I get into the Wroblewski story, but don’t skip this part because it is integral to the whole message/lesson and that’s why I’m bringing it up. There’s no way I can make this a short post, but I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible.

First of all, my MS is in its Final Draft folks and I’m so happy to say that it has reached the 95k word mark and going on to 100k soon enough, I suspect. That to me is amazing because my first draft was only a scant 60k. My writing is very tight and so I keep a lot of what I write so I don’t expect the word count to drop by much after editing. My book needs the volume so it won’t look so short and not worthy of the price. Although we all know the old page thickness/formatting tricks of the trade, but that only goes so far.

And here’s where the lesson comes in. How do you go from what you think is a finished story at 60k to 100k in the space of 3 months? BTW, my initial first draft word count of 60k is roughly the equivalent to Morrison’s finished novel (
A Mercy, novella) of 176 pages.

Obviously, I’ve decide that my novel needed some padding, (nice commercial word) also some much-needed detail in my opinion. Let me take a deep breath and get on with this.

Here goes:

The world according to publishers, these days in particular, is all about perceived value. And what that simply means is that in these tough times, consumers more than ever before want to get their money’s worth, regardless of what product they buy. Novels (books) are no different. So how is it that Toni Morrison can publish a short novella of 176 pages and get away with it?

Get away with what you ask? Don’t ask me. I have no problem with short novels. I only have a problem with short, crappy novels, or long crappy novels for that matter. It always boils down to the quality of the story. And by that I mean not just writing technique--that must always be a part of the mix. But more importantly it has to do with the level of story. And that in word is what we all know as “High Concept”.

In case you’re not familiar with that term, in Hollywood speak it is simply the premise of your story. Its nucleus. Its defining image. What propels the story into motion. The reason it exists to begin with. You get the idea. A short logline such as:
Aliens invade planet Earth, A boy that can fly, A preacher that raises people from the dead. Those are high concepts in their most basic forms. Without these defining images, stories have no impetus, no magic, no flashpoint to interest anyone, especially agents or producers and therefore they are not considered marketable.

That’s right folks, for the most part, stories that lack this component are nothing more than mountains of scrap paper in the solitary heap of proverbial slushpiles. Sorry to break the news to you folks, but that’s the whole point of these posts. You actually learn something valuable that you can use to improve your stories. (Come on now, stay away from your MS for another 10 minutes, more good stuff is on the way--read on.) Actually, I'm going to make an exception to this High Concept rule and as an example use the novel and a magnificent movie by the same name:
A River Runs Through It. There are other stories similar to this (Robert Redford style) that are subtly as powerful. The point being that the HC rule applies mostly to unpublished writers. Write a HC, high profile story first and then you can write stuff like Redford and Morrison and "get away" with it. As new writers we have something to prove.  Then again, new writers break through with stories like "A River..." once in a while. (There is hope for us, after all.)

Morrison’s new novel is priced at about $24 (hardcover) but you can get it at a discount on Amazon, of course for about $14. Some people might still think that’s even too much to pay, lest they forget who the author is. And that’s the obvious difference right there, folks. While Morrison is not, by definition, a commercial writer, she cannot exclude herself and her great books out of the necessary machinery of publishing commerciality. And these days, Oprah has a lot to do with that machinery.

BTW, thanks to Oprah, Morrison’s
Beloved was put on the map and my literary radar ever since it was featured in Oprah’s book club years ago. That’s how I heard about Morrison and as a result, have recently purchased her latest novel, practically sight unseen. I already know it’s going to be good. Besides, this is the genre I enjoy the most. Literary fiction--yes, even though Morrison’s books are usually categorized under African American Literature but, literary nonetheless.

This classification, in my opinion can be an advantage to Morrison because it caters to her fan base, which is mostly black Americans, I suspect. (That is her audience, by her own admission, and rightfully so. Should we expect otherwise?) But the flipside of that is that categorizing her writing that way also opens the door for readers that really know and appreciate great literature for what it is, as opposed to what it is not. And that is to say that literature is first and foremost, a form of expression that not only entertains us, but involves us in ways that other art forms cannot. So for those adventurous readers who crave the unusual, the offbeat, a perspective from someone else’s point of view, that’s where writers such as Morrison and McCarthy come in. They are very giving writers and offer us a lot of themselves and their beliefs are built into their stories. They not only write stories, they have lived them as well. That’s not to say that everything in their stories is factual, it is fiction, after all, but it means that their core beliefs, their raw identities are always superimposed above their stories.

Their novels are layered thick with more than just conflict, but with the inner workings of all things that make us human and make our hearts beat and our souls ache for their characters and their difficult lives as portrayed in reflection to who we are at any given time.

These writers do not cater to commercialism. They write for themselves and do not compromise their words or their ideologies. They don’t adhere to formulas (except their own) and they don’t copy what everyone else is doing. They are originals and innovators in the world of literature. They don’t follow all the rules and they make their own rules along the way.

They are gifted and that’s why they’ve both been awarded Pulitzer prizes and Nobel Prizes. Yes, there it is folks, the “G” word. It’s what separates the men from the boys, as they say.

Many people believe that writing cannot be taught, but what they really means is that the “gift of writing”, such as Morrison, McCarthy and Hemingway were apparently born with, cannot be taught. And they’re right. And not to diminish the “gift” in any way, this so-called gift is nothing more than a unique way of looking at the world and expressing it like no other can. But of course it is much more than that as well. It is a perception far beyond what most of us see. A structure and a musicality of words and ideas that only they can envision, and only they see in their unique way. This cannot be mimicked or imitated. Great writers such as these are great visionaries first, writers and crafters, second. That’s what sets them part from the crowd and allows them to write memorable and lasting works such as,
Sula, The Old Man and the Sea, or The Crossing, which brings me back to my point: Why couldn’t I have written a short novella and get away with it? Publishing standards, of course.

If you’re a first-time author, a novelist, you must adhere to the minimum of about 80k words as a standard length for a novel. Anything less will mark you as an amateur and inspire the prospective agent or editor to fling your beloved MS into the slush-pile heap, even if it’s a great story. And they would be right to do so. Do you think anyone will buy a short novel from an unknown, unproven writer without a track record? A wannabe writer? Of course not. I wouldn’t and neither should you.

Excuse my digression, this brings me back to the Sawtelle book (what I'm supposed to be writing about). It is almost 600 pages, mind you. Almost two novels in one. Why? Why not the standard 350-400 pages? Well, I don’t have an answer to that because Wroblewski’s editor, Lee Bourdreaux is not saying.

In my opinion, I think the story could still work, minus a few hundred pages, without affecting the plot one bit. Although I suspect that since it is written in a literary style, that its length, its wonderful words, are part of its charm. So why delete them? Not to mention that since he is a first-time author, maybe Bourdreaux reasoned that he had something to prove, and allowed Wroblewski the words to prove it, and he did. Bravo to David, but shame on his editor. She should’ve had more confidence in his writing to begin with and not opt to sacrifice a stronger plot in exchange for page volume and perceived value to the consumer/reader. But then again, I speak as someone who knows a lot more about marketing than I do about writing and publishing. Enough said.

I congratulate the Sawtelle “team” for the book’s success. I enjoyed the story, nonetheless. Even though I cheated and skipped quite a few chapters, which I’ll get to whenever I have more precious time on my hands. I owe that much to the book’s author and his story which is certainly worthy of every word.

Okay, so we have a hodge-podge of ideas I’ve presented to you, randomly in a stream of consciousness and it should all lead to some profound point somewhere along the line. I don’t see it yet, but it’s on the tip of my tongue. In fact, here it is: if you’re an aspiring novelist and you have a debut novel, an MS that’s ready to be shopped around, where do you begin?

Unless you know someone who knows an agent and can possibly introduce your work, you'll have to scour the internet and literary markets for good agents. Read their Bio's and what they've recently published and try to match your story that way. And BTW, let me say that all agents are not the same. Which is to say that all people are not the same, for that matter. But, the right agent/editors can make or break your career, or the start of your career, whatever the case may be. Some are more ambitious and resourceful than others and those are the ones you need to look for. The ones with rare vision and a keen sense of marketing prowess. Because that, among other things, is what it takes to make it in publishing. (It always helps to know someone, of course.)

How do you think the Sawtelle book got its marathon legs? Simple. Its clever editor sent the
Sawtelle MS to none other than Stephen King (since he’s the master of suspense) and he loved it. He gave it a raving endorsement that was used on the back cover. A gem of a blurb that catapulted the book into the stratosphere, practically overnight. That’s the secret to the book’s initial jump-start. Phase one. Phase two, was also successful thanks to’s marketing savvy when they featured the book on their homepage with the King endorsement and a personal note from Wroblewski. Do you know of anyone who would not be interested in a book, endorsed by the master himself?

What they did was link Stephen King’s enormous fan-base to another suspense/thriller and voila, paydirt. Very smart, although it’s nothing new as far as marketing techniques go, but very effective nonetheless when executed the right way. Phase three had a life of its own, as multitudes of very opinionated readers had plenty to say about the story on Amazon’s one-of-a-kind Book Review forum. Whether they liked it or hated it, that doesn’t matter. Any kind of talk, or buzz about any product or person is always a good thing. In fact, the more controversy, the better. (You better pray that lots of people also hate your book too. Controversy is always good publicity.)

Phase four? Drum roll please…that’s right, you guessed it folks, it’s a damn good story. I’ll admit that I was very skeptical at first, but I must confess that whatever praise the book has gotten is well-deserved. It is a well-crafted, beautifully written and very entertaining story. Yes, a contemporary classic. And that’s what gives it what I call, marathon legs, like a centipede. Traction, beyond the hype. That being said, it has its flaws (as all literature does) as I’ve already pointed out, mainly with the story length which affects the plot to an extent, and for me, it was a bit predictable in many ways, not just the fact of knowing beforehand that it was modeled after Shakespeare’s,
Hamlet, but it is written (no comparison intended, but very much unlike Morrison) in a very linear form, which by its nature tell-tales many of its events.

Wroblewski has many strengths as a writer but by far I believe that the characters in this story, resonate masterfully-- especially Claude and Edgar, its antagonist and protagonist, respectively, which are as real and as vivid as any of the classic characters in recent memory. A hallmark of classic storytelling. Cheers David! (Excuse the dorky exclamation mark.)

Okay folks, I’ve set all that up to say this and if you’ve been following my posts you’ve heard it before.
Everything in your story must work. You cannot leave anything to chance. Especially your marketing. Sure, “lucky” writers such as Wroblewski had the good fortune of teaming up with a courageous agent, such as Eleanor Jackson, and a savvy editor such as Bourdreaux. Yes, courageous, as in, she had the audacity to stand by her writer and sell his story against all odds. This is not your typical, marketable story, mind you. And yes, savvy, because Bourdreaux took the chance and got the MS into the right hands for the perfect blurb of all time. A clever marketing strategy that paid off in many ways and helped launch a promising writing career for Wroblewski in the process. Everybody wins in this case, especially the readers who now have a wonderful story for life, which is the most important thing from a literary/societal standpoint.

Take heed my friends. Work on your stories and polish them to your agents’ and editors’ delight as I’m also endeavoring to accomplish in due time. Good things cannot be rushed. Great stories must be nurtured with TLC into full-grown status before they can become valuable, viable, marketable products. The point I’m trying to make with this post hearkens back to an older post where I also mention many of the things that I’ve said here and that’s because these points are important to realize if you want to breakout as a novelist in today’s marketplace, and therefore worth repeating.

Writing a novel is much more than window dressing and you must decide the type of writer you want to be or the kind of writer you aspire to become. In my case, with
A Death for Beauty, I think that my story is as marketable as the Sawtelle story, which is to say that it will not be easy, but not impossible either, depending on the agent/editor/publisher involved. I’m already in deep. Two years of my life, deep. That’s a considerable investment in time and effort and I’ll go as long as necessary. I’m into my 7th and final draft folks and the more I work on my story, the better it gets. But as a first-time author, I can’t get away with a short novella. I need to put out a standard length book that is similar to others in its genre. Similar to their look and feel as well. If a new writer wanders too far off the beaten path, they’ll get lost in a world where most readers are comfortable with writers they already know and trust, like Morrison and McCarthy, among others.

Experimental writing is not for new authors. Not if you want to break into the mainstream book market. But if you’re happy writing for your eyes and ears only, then by all means experiment all you want. Just don’t complain when your novel doesn’t sell. Although Wroblewski's novel might be considered experimental in a way, however, what really sells his story is not that it is a hybrid structured after Hamlet, since many folks would never have noticed that to begin with, but I believe that its core audience, suspense enthusiasts and dog lovers too, had much more to do with it, plus the fact that the characters were so well developed. (That's what hooked me.)

New authors must first fit into the current literature mold, before we can break it and remake it to our own liking. We must conform and acquiesce to publishing standards and bravely face our “rites of passage” (Can you hear the graduation music?) into the world of American Literature as we know it and understand it, at least until we’ve proven ourselves beyond our first book, our first novel.

But we must also plan wisely. Great stories are not enough. Great things don’t just happen, we have to work hard and work smart to make incredible things happen. Whether that means doing our homework to write the great American novel, (Something that Norman Mailer never achieved, by his own admission. That's scary.) or the ultimate non-fiction book, we must rightly do all things that lead to the proverbial brass ring. Nothing else will do. Think Archtype, high concept characters and ideas. The things that made famous stories such as:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Old Man and the Sea, for instance.

Here’s the tall order for aspiring novelist:

• Study diligently literary work within your genre
• Read and learn from books you love
• Master writing techniques within your genre
• Write your heart out every day
• Hire a competent freelance editor
• Develop a high concept
• Write with all your heart and soul, the kind of stories you would like to read
• Develop your own voice
• Write the next great American novel and polish it with re-writes and as many drafts as necessary to make it shine
• Shop for a competent agent/editor/publisher
• Self-publish an ARC and enter as many writing competitions as possible
• Seek endorsements from notable writers
• Learn the ins and outs of marketing your book and marketing yourself
• Never give up

I'm sure you can add to this list. Nobody ever said it would be easy and it usually never is. I believe the phrase goes something like this:

Faith without deeds is dead.

Stay tuned for my next post about Toni Morrison’s new novel,
A Mercy. This post is bound to blow your mind. Not because I’m writing it, but because I’ll be discussing some of Morrison’s writing techniques and why her methods, her unorthodox structure is not something you tamper with, especially if you’re a new writer.

Till next post, Godspeed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Strong Medicine For Novelists: Pinch Nostrils--Open Wide

...And Down The Hatch

Okay folks, for those of you who’ve been wandering around the planet, in a bubble of utter confusion, like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, trying to figure out what it takes to succeed as a novelist, here’s my one-of-a-kind ProseFreak spin:

Which of these two books would you be inclined to buy?

Joe Pantoliano’s Memoir, or Frank Sinatra’s Unauthorized Bio?

See what I'm getting at? But let’s expand this ridiculous comparison even further and have some fun. Shall we? Hey, unless you had plans to finally isolate that pesky MD Strain in the next 15 minutes or anything remotely similar to that, I’d read on.

Hang on, this is a strange elixir indeed my friends. Here’s your spoonful:

For starters, who the fuck is Joe Pantoliano? That of course, is a fair question, and here’s the answer: Remember the movie From Here To Eternity? No, not the one Frank Sinatra starred in, the other one. Right, the one with Maggio. Yeah, that one in the photo. That’s Joe Pantoliano, otherwise known as Ralph Cifaretto in HBO’s, The Sopranos. Now you know who I’m talking about. Well, it turns out that all three of us: Frank Sinatra, Joe Pantoliano, and yours truly, Alberto Rios, are from Hoboken NJ. Notice the descending lineup and name recognition. From megastar, to the actor whose name you can never place, to a complete, obscure and unknown I hesitate to even mention in the same group. (I can take it.)

SO NOW whose memoir would you rather buy? You see that? Is selling millions of books really all about celebrity status though? Uhh…YES! Of course. That’s the way the world works. What else did you expect? Hell, if a good actor like Pantoliano can’t sell his memoir (I checked it out at Barnes & Noble last year. I read the back cover and quickly tossed it back into the pile of bargain books for a buck.) Get the picture? Hey, if you’re not following any of this by now, schedule an emergency session with your shrink and ask him to help you decipher it and suck it up. On second thought, never mind. All he’s going to do is keep looking at his watch anyway.

So the next logical question comes to mind: Is there any hope in God’s green universe of me ever selling my memoir, or my novel, unless I’m someone like Frank Sinatra? Hmm…very good question. I could end this right here, wooosh down a whole bottle of Percocet with some Aquafina and call it a day, or a life, but that would be no fun at all. I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. (I’ll leave the pills for later.)

Uh…where was I? Oh, right, the Frank Sinatra thing. Okay, so if that’s the case, how did first-time novelist Wroblewski (That’s the Edgar Sawtelle guy.) wind up on the bestseller list? Trust me this guy’s no Frank Sinatra. Doesn’t even look like Frankie. Matter of fact, throw a curly wig on him and slap a ruffled collar around his neck and you’ve got a modern-day version of Shakespeare. Come on now, that was a good one folks, and more importantly to Wroblewski, it ties in with his story, so I doubt he’ll be offended by a little humor as long as it helps promote his book. Believe me this guy knows good publicity when he sees it. BTW, I’m going to bestow him with my Medal of Sheer Marketing Genius Award which he so deserves. Shakespeare, dogs, and a murder mystery? Now that’s brilliant. Forget the story, all the marketing is built right in. That’s all you need. I think he started a whole new genre all by hiself. (This typo was due to my cheap-ass Gateway keyboard, and left-in as an ode to Cormac McCarthy, but I digress.)

Okay, so now things are starting to look my way. Maybe there is hope for my novel after all. Marketing huh…positioning in the marketplace, an author’s platform, planting marketable ideas, and themes inside my novel as a way to help promote it. Wow! Why didn’t I think of this before? (Okay calm down, it’s been around since Aristotle’s Poetics.)

Great you say, but doesn’t all that built-in marketing dilute and commercialize my story? Not if you gracefully weave in your relevant themes with a little misdirection. Hey, you want the low-down dirty truth or not? This is a brave new world when it comes publishing. Anything goes. Unless you want to settle for the labyrinth of POD’s out there, parading as real publishing houses, I’m sure you want to attract the big guys, like: Harper Collins, Little Brown & Company, Random House and all their imprints. Or maybe you’d be happy with a smaller publisher: A University Press, for instance. Whatever’s your fancy.

So many choices, so little time. And, if you’re like me, and you’re not Frank Sinatra, or even look like him, you’ve got your work cut out my friend.

Unless you work on YOU first, building yourself as a Name Brand and transferring all that wonderful charisma onto the page and into your wonderful tomes, you’ll always be at a loss. Not just in the business of writing and publishing, but in life in general. You need to be recognized. You need to be liked. You need a plan.

NOBODY buys from a NOBODY. (Not in mass quantities anyway. Write this down folks, you don’t hear quotes like this every day. Hell, my own momma probably won’t even want to read my novel. In fact, she’s already told me she won’t. Oh…the trauma—the trauma.)

That’s the lesson folks. I warned you there was going to be some unsavory stuff. But here’s another spoonful. Come on, open wide. All that celebrity stuff is just the tip of the ice cube folks. Lots of tiny ice cubes that make up this gigantic literary iceberg.


Let’s not forget some of the golden rules of marketing, advertising, and sales that always apply, regardless of who you are: You think your publisher is gonna invest marketing dollars in you? (Belly-ache, side-splitting, roll-over-the-parquet-floor laughter right here.)


  1. It helps to be well-known, not as a celebrity, but as someone likable, especially because of controversy, but not always the case.
  2. Professional and Academic credentials help.
  3. Champion a social cause or develop a Platform around your subject or expertise.
  4. Write a good, short, sales pitch for the back cover, a.k.a., a Book Blurb. (Maybe the subject of my next post.)
  5. Try and promote your book during relevant events.
  6. Come up with a great title, or maybe steal one from the KJV version of the Bible, just like Hemingway used to do. (Don’t blame me if God never forgives you.)
  7. Write a great Press Release, and submit it to places like:, or, many others.

  1. Identify your target audience and make sure they find and understand the book you’re offering. Answer their question: What’s in it for me? (with banner, text, or print ads)
  2. Research your market and experiment with different book covers to see which one gets more attention, responses, interest. Design intriguing covers that stimulate curiosity.
  3. Make sure you put together an irresistible offer that will encourage prospective readers to buy your book.
  4. For example: Buy now, pay later. (That’s one of the best offers of all time.) Get this book at 25% off until (date here), etc.
  5. Here’s a statement that will throw you. “People don’t buy products or services. They buy benefits and offers.” That’s a proven fact. I didn’t make it up, ask any advertising rep.
  6. You can literally sell ice to an Eskimo with this approach. It works every time, although it depends on other factors too. (Hey, what can I say, this supposed to be a short a blog post, but turning into the GB Address)


In your world, there is one seller, YOU, but many potential buyers. That means many kinds of buyers with different levels of desire and motivation to buy a given product at any given time. Hopefully your book, but maybe they have too many obstacles in their way.

  1. Your page-rank on Google is in the cellar. You need to be on the first page, at least not passed the 3rd. Fine-tune your META TAGS. Consider buying Google AdWords.
  2. The price of your book may seem too high to many buyers.
  3. Buyers don’t trust you. You must convert all prospective buyers into first-time customers with persuasive copy. Then, if they order and you deliver what they consider a good and valuable product, you’ll get repeat business, but only if you repeat the right offers. You must build trust in your sales copy. (Another lesson.)
  4. Your website sucks. It looks cheap and unreliable, reflecting the assumed poor quality of your book to the reader. Learn HTML or hire a web designer.
  5. Your shopping cart sucks. It’s confusing and time-consuming and most orders are dropped because people become impatient, flinging their laptops down the stairs.
  6. Your sales copy is pushy and arrogant. Here’s a tip: Don’t sell—Present and display your product with quality graphics, and state the facts in an interesting way with a kick-ass offer. Then shut the Fuck up! (Ahhh…shades of Julianne Moore.)
  7. Your ex just wiped out your bank account. (Call the cops.)
  8. You get the idea folks, everything has to line up with all the planets and the godforsaken moon has to rise under the seventh house. Something like that.
  9. Here’s the tortilla Wrap:
  10. Put together a great book that people will want to read from cover to cover, over and over. Nothing else will do.
  11. Make your book available at the most visited and accessible sources: Scour the www.
  12. Put together a great offer. Everyone loves a bargain.

Any questions?

Good. Now, apply these sacred principles, wait a while, sit back and watch your bank account swell practically overnight into 6 figures. And remember, I also have a beautiful bridge in New York I'd like to sell you.

Yeah, the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a bargain. I bought it off a famous New Yorker years ago--for a song.

Yeah…from him, that’s the one.

Spontaneous Rant: Now, if only I can get a damn role in the next production of “From Here to Eternity”…

Monday, September 1, 2008

STORY: Lipstick on a Pig is Not Good Enough

The book, Story, by Robert Mckee, which came highly recommended to me by my editor, without question, is intended for writers who are as serious as Mckee about telling a good story. So serious, in fact, that it almost reads like a textbook. But that’s a good thing folks. If you’re starting out, as a screenwriter, or if you’re a writer at any level, this book is the first you should read, over and over again. (And apply its principles, of course.)

From an insider’s POV, Mckee, deftly lays the solid foundations and the principles of screenwriting and offers a broad overview of Hollywood screenwriting and storytelling in general, in a way that you “get it” without sounding too heavy-handed.

Here’s one quote you’ll never forget: “If the scene is about, what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” In a nutshell, this is all you’ll ever need to understand about the all-important and ever-so-elusive “subtext”, mind you.

Mckee starts, appropriately enough, with “The Decline of Story” and champions his cause with all the major nuts and bolts you’re going to need to bring this “decline” to a much higher plane. And in my view, he succeeds brilliantly at outlining the many steps you need to know in order to get there.

(Scratch the needle across the vinyl record right here folks, or the laser’s optical eye, if you’re under 35.)

I’m as much a skeptic as you. And I ask myself: Why can’t I think of one screenplay that Mckee has written? As in Oliver Stone’s, “JFK”, or Tarantino’s, “Pulp Fiction”.

Which movie can we tag Mckee’s name to? Well, if you read the fine print, in this case, the back flap of the book, you’ll find that it says: ‘Mckee has written numerous television and feature films,’ and that, ‘in addition to writing and lecturing, Mckee serves as a consultant to major film production companies such as, Tri-Star, and Golden Harvest Films’, and so on. Yet, it never mentions any of his screenplays that have been at least optioned, let alone any that have been produced. Although, there is a long list of Mckee’s students that have either written or produced impressive movies, themselves.

Hmm…the only answer I can come up with is; that you’ve probably never heard of Oliver Stone writing a bestseller on the art of screenwriting either. He’s probably too busy either writing another screenplay or directing another movie, while Mckee is probably just as busy teaching his craft to sold-out crowds. Fair enough. (Focus, people, focus.)

But there’s a catch, ladies and gentlemen, and here’s where Mckee’s all-important disclaimer comes in: ‘ “Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent. You must be born with the creative power to put things together in a way no one has ever dreamed.’

In other words, for those poor souls that weren’t born with that “creative power”, there’s not much hope for you, and not even Mckee’s fine “STORY” will save you. (If you want to write over-and -above the “decline”, that is.)

All those writers who want to wing-it by trial and error, or for the sake of the almighty dollar, are of course welcome to do so without Mckee’s help. And that’s why, as in years passed, Hollywood will crank out dozens of movies that audiences will most likely see only once, and then just as quickly forget about them. They’ve paid their hard-earned $10 bucks, sat in an uncomfortable chair with their boat shoes stuck to the floor, and as always, they’ve left the theater in disappointment: trying to find a shred of redeeming value in the last 2 hours of their routine lives.

But even though most theatre-goers have been bilked by Hollywood’s movie-making machine, everyone else in the movie-making food chain has been well-fed. Actors such as, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie, are easily taking in 10 to 20 million per film, and you’ve just paid part of their fortune folks. But in the end, nothing was lost. After all, you got away from the kids, your spouse, or your wonderful mother-in-law.

And it was well-worth the $10 bucks and the $3 dollar box of Good & Plenty. I should know.

Now, as for Mckee and his book: he’s the seller; and we’re the buyers. End of story.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I Was So Bored, I Joined Shelfari

And Here's What Happened:

I unleashed one of my classic,
and extreme *ProseFreaks, just for Shelfari readers, inside my profile, and it goes like this:

The books I enjoy are like music. I'm really selective about what I read because life is way too short to waste time with a book that you're not absolutely crazy about. I do stick with mostly mainstream and popular titles. For me, it's many of the classics:
Tom Sawyer, The Catcher in the Rye, and the tried and true; a lot of the books that have been made into films, such as: The Scarlet Letter, The Bridges of Madison County, The Hunt for Red October, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, All The Pretty Horses, to name just a few.

I also love to read screenplays because they’re much faster to get through:
Moonstruck, The Fourth of July, JKF, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction; you gotta love Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. Too many others to mention: The Godfather Sagas, great dramas, and just about every war movie you can think of. Kubric’s Full Metal Jacket, a favorite. (How can you not love a movie that inspired the song, “Me so Horny”?) A few romantic comedies/comedic movies: Monster in Law, Meet the Parents.

I’ve also authored several screenplays and my first novel,
A Death for Beauty. What can I say, it’s inspired by many of the great books that I’ve read and it’s a story that’s very close to my heart and soul--I enjoyed writing it. I love mostly literary fiction, westerns and coming-of-age stories.

Biographies/Anthologies: My favorites so far, Norman Mailer’s,
The Spooky Art. And Summers/Swan, Sinatra.

Yeah, I’m also a big Frank Sinatra fan: He's the subject of one of my screenplays. His daughter, Nancy Sinatra’s,
These Boots are Made for Walkin’, was a classic oldies hit that I love too. If only she realized that my story, some day would also become a classic. What went wrong? After all, I did make Nancy the subject of my letter, but I prosefreaked my pitch right into it, near the ending. The moment she opened that letter, and I know that she did, I swear that I felt the tectonic plates of planet Earth, shift and moan, ever-so-slightly in my direction: in the form of a curse.

Yeah, I was brash (and stupid) enough, and tried pitching my Sinatra screenplay to Nancy Sinatra ( I made a big point about how she was mentioned in it, as a baby.) but she wasn’t interested. So where did I go wrong? Well, I could hardly believe it, but I had dug deep into her website and came up with her home address in Beverly Hills. And I sent her the sweetest letter ever, trust me.

The day after she got my pitch in this gigantic certified envelope, she yanked her address off the website so fast, that I think her Webmaster is still reeling from it. Did she really think that her home address would be safe? She could thank her agent for dodging me for so long.

That was soooo wrong, but I knew it would be fun somewhere along the line. Either that or I might’ve gotten a call. (Sure thing.) Gotta work on my pitch, the screenplay is on the “dinero” folks.

Uh…still planning on selling that Sinatra story. Trust me, it’s a modern cult classic. You heard it here first.


*Prose-Freak- noun: [prohz-freek] An article or essay that begins with an innocuous opening, and then seamlessly segues into something hilarious and absurd.

2006-08; Introduced by Alberto Rios <>prōsa lit., straightforward (speech), akin to frīcian to dance]

' I never saw it coming, but by the end of the story, it blew my mind. I'd been prosefreaked.'


This PF is
extreme because I worked my shameless plug into it. Masterful.
Be proud Shelfari Reader: You’ve just been tagged by ProseFreak!

My next ProseFreak! Tag will be in RedRoom. Check it out next Monday on my new ProseFreak Literary MindBlog. It's just as ridiculous.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A New Story Structure?

If you’re the kind of writer that likes to be on the cutting-edge of publishing trends, slant your ears on this:

Today’s story openings, for authors of fiction, might not be what they once were, or should be. You know, short and sweet with no backstory, because today’s readers want stories that get right to the point. Apparently because attention spans are not what they used to be a decade ago, or anything like in the days of Aristotle, when there was nothing else to do and the public indulged in long, tedious stage plays as entertainment.

As for literature, today we can still enjoy long, tedious novels like McCarthy’s fantastic Border Trilogy. You know—like that.

Some folks, me included, still enjoy that sort of stuff, while the majority of today’s readers, like their stories condensed, and fast-paced. Therefore, a contemporary story structure, as follows:

According to today's so-called publishing standards, and according to published novelists and screenwriters, who’ve already been tried by fire, the evolution of story structure in the past decade has recently been: that proper story beginnings, are the key to publication, for first-time authors, that is.

Consider the antithesis to today’s story beginning in the recently published and highly acclaimed “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”, by David Wroblewski.
If you haven't read it by now, check it out, and you’all come back, hear.

Hmm…WTF. As you can see from its opening paragraphs, there’s a very mild hint as far as an inciting incident goes. I suppose that the flashback of, ‘20 tons of rolling maple that buried a man’, counts as the inciting incident. Edgar, the protagonist, is revealed by the end of the chapter, when he is born.

Not a bad opening, (...right) although I had to read it several times to understand it. (I don’t get enough sleep folks. Let’s face it, it’s either that or all the smoke from the 60’s is still affecting my brain cells.) BTW, the excerpt they use on Wroblewski's website is not the beginning chapter. They chose a more interesting, more engaging section about the dog. Good choice.

So where is all the highly touted openings, in medias res deal, and the all-important first sentence that must grab the reader by the collar, and then the follow-up with a clever, and pertinent inciting incident that supposed to address story questions, arouse curiosity, and catapult the book into the annals of literary treasure-dom?

Good question. When you find the answer, make sure I’m the first to know because I’ve been fiddling with the opening to my first novel for the passed year and have yet to nail it down just the way I want it. (I’ll let you know what my editor thinks of my most recent revision. I suspect she might roll on the floor with belly-aching guffaws, again.) Beats me. I’d rather time-travel back to the Mesozoic era, wither away under a cretaceous rock until the next millennium, and reincarnate as Cormac McCarthy. That would be much easier than re-writing my first chapter. Trust me.

I’m telling you, I’m brain dead (as you’ve probably noticed by now). But, I’m trying to pin down that glorious opening, at least according to all the great books I’ve read regarding story beginnings, such as: Les Edgerton’s Hooked, (my Bible on openings) or Robert Mckee’s Story, which is geared more towards screenwriting, but nevertheless, makes very valid points regarding the all-important opening of your story, among other things.

Check out this great opening, cited in Edgerton's Hooked, from Dominica Radulescu’s, Train to Trieste, that probably earned her MS publication, but was drastically altered upon publication.

‘I am returning from the Black Sea wild and disheveled, my skin golden and salty and my hair entangled and blonder from the sun. A girl I used to know has just died on a hiking accident in the mountains: she was hit in the head by a rock on a trip with her boyfriend. He had accidently sent down that rock, as he was walking behind her, on the steep path.’
(Middle portion of excerpt omitted for the sake of brevity.)

‘But this summer when I am seventeen and returning from the Black Sea, I am bursting into being a woman and I don’t care about empty stores and sugar and flour rations. All I care about is that this man grieving for his dead lover turn his eyes on me.’

You can get the gist of her this wonderful opening by reading just these few paragraphs, especially the way it ends. Because of copyright infringement and since the chapter is way too long to post here, take a look at how the new opening to her book was recently published:

Uh…you have to click on the link above first. You did? Okay, as you can see, it’s a huge difference and in my opinion, the original MS is far more intriguing and it fits within the “writing model” according to the great story beginnings with no backstory, that readers in today’s marketplace love so much, since they’re allegedly so hyper, and must get right to it.

Why did the editors and/or publisher decide to change the opening? Well, I wish I had a solid answer to that in the publisher’s own words, however, I imagine that they changed or amplified the opening according to current story trends within the genre, therefore accommodating the most important people in the story chain: the readers. Give ’em what they want, sort of thing. But what does that have to do with ruining a perfectly good beginning? Enlighten me…please.

It’s anyone’s guess. Although, I suspect that it sure pays to know a good agent or an editor who has the inside scoop as far as what’s most likely to sell and who’s buying what at any given time. They do know what publishers are looking for, but who’s to say what readers will like, after all? Then again, it could be her "Platform". She is a literary hot-shot after all.

It’s like that old saying in Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything,” when it comes to stories, regardless of how they’re structured. What one person considers junk, another might fall in love with.

Just like so many different opinions/book reviews on can attest to.

“Good Night and Good luck”.

Spontaneous Olympics Rant: If I see one more Chinese Panda chomping on bamboo chutes, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

About Your Pesky Editor

Okay folks...what do you say when your editor takes a look at the revisions on your beloved MS, and then slices it, dices it, has it for brunch, and then spits it out?

Ahh...Bon Appetite, of course.

And how would you know since nothing remotely like this has ever happened to you, right?
Come on now, we all know how it works, and how it hurts, oh soooo bad. But listen, if editors could write, they would be writing and making tons of money. They do what they do best: they edit and critique.

They look at your so-called masterpiece, the one that you've slaved over for the past year and butcher it to pieces. And of course, they always make a good point. Or two, or three. You get the idea. Editors can see what we cannot, and they know what we don't know. We're usually focused on telling a story, and getting our characters to do what they do. And so, we get lost in a rhythm, (just talking myself down from the last revision folks) and in all the telling, and all the narrative and all that fantastic dialog.

Meanwhile, editors think like...editors. They watch out for all the passive sentence construction, the embarrassing typos, the split infinitive's, the run on sentences, the dangling and the wangling, and the structure of it all. And who knows what else? Well, I know of a lot more but I don't have all day to list it here.

But here's the point: Yes, editors can be ruthless at times, and honest and very transparent and they basically pull no punches. And that's the way it should be. Who wants an editor that doesn't help make your story better? An editor that helps make your work shine will labor hard and doesn't tell you what you want to hear. They make corrections, offer suggestions and point out all the inaccuracies that one tries to get away with. (It is fiction, after all. Right.)

Heck, just look at the professional reviews for so many published books out there, already on the bookshelves. They often don't fare much better, even after publication.

There are no perfect books, or perfect stories of any kind, as we all know, however, the goal is to come as close to perfection as one can get. And that goal, simply cannot be done without another pair of eyes that can catch all the mistakes that keep one from publication. (If an agent can smell money in your MS, you're in. They could care less about inaccuracies.)

That's where our trusty editor comes in. They know what agents are looking for and they steer you in the right direction. And I for one am very grateful to have one of the best editors I could ever ask for.

Here's where you can find more of them. Click on the Headline hyper-link for the website where you can post your editing job for hire.

Good luck!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What Makes This Book Trailer So Effective?

If you missed yesterdays post, scroll down and take a quick read and check out the Duma Key Trailer. (The Jeopardy music is on)

Here’s the follow-up:

This trailer gets your adrenaline pumping. (grips your emotions) It’s exciting and suspenseful (since it is a mystery) and it leaves many questions unanswered (the curiosity factor in action).

So, in all of 32 seconds (a flash) we’ve just seen one of the best sales pitches, ever. It makes you want to run out and order the book. Why? Because suddenly, we want to find out what this is all about, but more importantly, we need to know how it will end. So far we’ve only seen a glimpse of the trouble to come. Bloodshed, a drowning, cadavers, and so on.

In mere seconds, we feel involved and we want to be a part of this story already. We want to see it unfold and we want to be swept away and scared by it. (For all of you thrill-seekers out there. Mostly somewhere around a 20 to 35 years-of-age demographic. And that means a book trailer like this would be advertised within those target markets, almost exclusively.)

Let’s Break it Down:

Notice how this trailer starts with an innocent, serene beach scene, framed by lovely palm trees. And then to top it off, that innocuous image is reinforced with the mellow sounds of Hawaiian strings. Oh…how peaceful and tranquil. Just another wonderful day at the beach.

The Headline reads: Need To Escape?

So far, the first few seconds seem quiet and relaxing enough…UNTIL blood starts to drip around the corners of the screen.

Next line: Then Take a Vacation You’ll Never Forget

You now have a powerful opening that juxtaposes two very different happenings. Calmness against bloodshed. Very effective. Now that they’ve got your attention, the blood goes from drips to covering the whole frame, little by little as the music becomes ominous, a sheet of blood covers the screen.

We know something awful is about to happen, or just did. But first, an introduction of the master of mystery and suspense.

The name (Stephen King) appears under water. This builds the suspense.

Next line: (Stephen King) Invites You To Get Away (As the music escalates and becomes even more ominous.)

And then, suddenly, everything goes blank, and just as quick, images of doom and gloom flash about:

A paintbrush mops blood across the screen
A pirate’s ship lost in turbulent seas
A doll’s face rolls its eyes ( a “Chucky” the killer doll, reminder or inference)
A ghostly cadaver takes a deep breath

And then, the Book’s Title is shown under water, drenched in blood, as was the author’s name a few frames before.

Suddenly…the music builds and then slowly comes crashing down and…BOOM. A shot of the book against some of the elements that will play out in the story:

Stormy skies, artists paintbrushes in a can, and so on.

Again…another build-up of music and…BOOM.

Visit Duma Key…Return Trip Not Guaranteed

A short pause and then…the date the book debuts.

Fade to black.

You’ve got to admit that this is highly effective marketing. Notice how in a short 32 seconds, they’ve managed to stir-up emotions and questions inside of you that all of a sudden, you want answers to. And how do you get those answers? You buy the book, of course. BTW, those short 32 seconds create a false sense of urgency and impulse that further escalates your desire to dig deeper and see how this story will play out.


That’s what all book trailers are supposed to do right? Sure. But instead, what we usually see is the opposite. Most Book trailers want to show and reveal too much. Therefore taking out all the suspense and mystery that the book has to offer. They answer too many questions, so there’s nothing left for you to find out. Nothing for you to wonder about. Big mistake.

Your book trailer or better yet, Book Teaser as it is more appropriately called should do just that. It should tease you and entice you and motivate you to take action, because now you want to know more about what you’ve just seen. They’ve whet your appetite and you’re hungry for more information, more thrills, more fun. You now want to be a part of the story. You want to buy the damn book. And you want it Now!

And BTW, the NOW factor is another marketing technique. Otherwise known as “buying on impulse”, before your emotions cool off and you loose interest, or get side-tracked and forget the whole damn thing. They want you to buy NOW, not later, because later, may be too late for them to make the sale, close the deal, or in layman’s terms, cash-in. Ca-ching!

That’s why they try to get at your deepest emotions because that’s where they reach deep inside you and make you go gah-gah over their products. So they hit you hard, and you become attached to the message and they blind-side your sense of reason and rape you…and…Oh…the horror -- the horror! And…uh…well you get the idea.

It can get any sillier than that folks.

Here’s the whole enchilada wrap-up:

Find something in your story that hooks readers and use that in your book teaser. Don’t have a hook in your story. It’s never too late. Come up with one, weave it into your MS and then use it…everywhere.

In the Duma Key teaser, the hook is… Are you ready for this?

Drum roll please…

And you thought I was going to repeat the same old thing but in short bulleted sentences. Right?

Drum roll again please…

And the hook in the Duma Key teaser is…
…that life is like a box of chocolates? Scratch that, right idea, wrong movie.

Let’s try that again:

And the hook in the Duma Key teaser is…

…that life is uncertain? There you go. You never know what can happen. Just when you thought everything was fine and dandy, and the water was so blue and so still…


It’s all over. A great metaphor for life is what it is. And that’s the subtle, but effective hook. That’s why you crave to know more, because you were not expecting something that horrible to happen -- but it did. That’s also known as misdirection, something you learn in writing your terrific prose along the way. Especially if you write in the mystery and suspense genre.

But wait, there’s more.

That’s right, all these rules of suspense and mystery don’t only apply to that particular genre. Remember that all stories must contain some level of suspense, otherwise you won’t have a very interesting and engaging tale to tell.

So, in other words, every teaser must incorporate these elements, whether they are romances, literary tomes, cowboy and Indian westerns, and so on, and so on..

Like the devil, the element of surprise is always in the details.

Okay, I had another teaser set-up for tomorrow’s post, but for some reason the link is not working so we’ll have to scratch that part until further notice.

Stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why Most Book Trailers Suck and How To Improve Yours

So what’s all the fuss over book trailers? Well, here’s a clue. The people who put together many of these marketing atrocities have managed to generate plenty of publicity, purporting the importance of book trailers, in order to sell them to you at very high prices.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, have you ever heard an author praising his Book Trailer from here to eternity because it keeps generating sale after sale? Of course not, and you never will because measuring the success of these trailers is nearly impossible to begin with.

Nobody really knows when a sale has been made as a result of a prospective customer viewing a particular book trailer. Although, yours truly will admit that after viewing the book trailer for Stephen King’s DUMA KEY, I was curious enough and inspired enough to take a look at his book on Amazon and considered buying it. And I’m not even a KING fan. What does that tell you?

Simply this: Either I'm gullible -- or the Duma Key book trailer, and others like it, must have a lasting effect on its fans, and furthermore, it must have led many fans who saw it, to buy the book. Could be a little of both.

So, in other words, YES, book trailers can work and they do work, but only if done properly.

The Real Purpose of a Book Trailer:

1) Your Book Trailer must generate enough curiosity and generate excitement (emotion) that in-turn will lead a prospective buyer to search for more information about your book. And that stimulus will hopefully lead to a sale.

That’s it folks. Don’t look for any other reason under the sun. Yes, fanatics of certain authors may very well go out and buy a copy of a book they just saw presented in a book trailer, BUT, those cases are few and far between. Those kind of authors have been around for some time and have developed a loyal following. Many of their fans await, breathless, and salivating like Pavlovian dogs, for their favorite author's next tome to hit the bookshelves. Most of us don’t have that luxury.

Again: The purpose of your book trailer is not to make a direct sale, but instead, to trigger an emotional response, a hot button, that can lead to a sale. Big difference. Here’s what you need to know:

1) Your BT must arouse curiosity.
You’ve heard this word over and over and that’s simply because without curiosity, you have nothing going for you. You can’t tell your whole story in 30 seconds, or 3 minutes, so don’t try it. It doesn’t work and it’s counterproductive. Find a hook, a gimmick, a phrase, that will push all the hot buttons, or at least one of them.

2) Your BT must excite, move, and inspire, the prospective buyer to take further action. (To buy your book)

3) Your BT must be produced in a way that hits all the right notes. Its graphics, message, music, etc., must all mesh and synchronize as a unit, with one purpose. (To stimulate and evoke a response, and direct someone where to buy your book.)

4) Uh…that’s it. Want more?

You already knew this? Well then, try and apply it and get your Trailer on YouTube and dozens of other sites and start building some credibility at the very least. Remember, in yesterday's post I mentioned the "C" Factor. The Credibility Factor. It's something you have to work on and build upon over the years.

Debut authors have disadvantages. We're unknown, and unproven to "get the job done". To get the masses to clamor and jump, and salivate for our books. (Learn to write first.) That's why publishers have double standards. New authors must pay their dues before they're accepted into the wide, wonderful world of publishing.

But there are filters in place, called Lit Agents, and they're the gatekeepers in the land of publishing. And they're sick and tired of so many lame queries. (I don't query any more.) That's why most queries rarely work, because agents are not even reading them. They know they're usually going to waste their time, and they're right. So how do you get passed the middle man?

Learn your craft and learn it well.

And that folks, is accomplished by doing your homework, polishing your material and finding the right agent that will take an interest in your idea, or someone who can refer you to an agent they already know or have done business with.

So where does your kick-ass book trailer fit into all this? (Cuckoo clock chime right here.)

It's part of your marketing and promotions package, of course. Just like your press release, and your synopsis, and your website and your blog. Plus a zillion other things. And while Book Trailers are not a must at any point in any authors career, they certainly can't hurt either. (Unless they really suck, like most of them do, and therefore the subject of this post.)

Tomorrow we'll discuss the Duma Key Trailer and why it works so well. Plus, we'll look at another book trailer that almost succeeds but falls a little short, and why. Don't miss this post.

Click on the Title Hyperlink to see the Duma Key book trailer.