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.