Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Caskets of Batesville

Something new from Clive Barker?  Peter Straub?  Another sequel to Psycho?

Nope.  It’s not a novel, it’s not a book at all.  It’s just a thing.  Spontaneous and demanding of my attention.

I can’t shake it until I get it out of my head.  And into yours.

Writing is like that, as you already know.  Because you are a writer.

This post is about writing.  About life.  Something to share with other writers. 

Or anyone, writer or not, who isn’t done.

Or even more so, anyone who thinks they are.

It’s a true thing, too

It happened to me during a road trip – still underway – that gifted me with nearly 20 hours of interstate solitude well in excess of 70 miles per hour.  Amazing what so much dreary monochromatic scenery does for the writer’s introspective imagination.

Between Palm Springs and Phoenix — that’s as dreary as it gets — while busy outlining my next novel in my head, I came up fast behind yet another 18-wheeler.  One of thousands I’d passed on this trip.  I respect those guys, they know how to share the road, especially in contrast to the occasional clueless Camry-driving airhead cruising in the left lane below the speed limit. 

Don’t ever be that guy. 

I like trucks.  A holdover from childhood fascination, one of many, all of which I cling to with age-resistant melancholy.  I always notice the graphics on the big trailers, just for the hell of it.

Sometimes I can tell what’s inside.  Sometimes not.

Trucks are like people in that way.

This particular truck, though, changed my day.

Almost wrecked it, in the sense that it became my day in both a dark and beautiful way. 

Dark because it linked to another of those childhood fascinations that took the form of terror.  I’ll tell you more about that in the next post, because it, too, relates to one of the most basic truths of storytelling.

Beautiful, because it also inspired today’s post, three days later.  Which I’m finally, right here and now, getting out of my head and into yours.

The truck was full of boxes.  Nearly 100 of them, by my rough calculations.

Caskets.  Coffins. 

The side of the truck proudly, yet in an appropriately understated way, showed the logo for the Batesville Casket Company. 

My immediate thought: inside that truck was the inevitable eternal home for 100 people still spread across the planet, still living and breathing, with no idea whatsoever that their final abode was heading east on I-10 at that very moment.

Empty now.  But with a destiny as certain as my own.

And yours. 

Sobering.  I wondered if they were done

Some were certainly already lying on the bed upon which they would die –  literally and figuratively — others driving in the cars that would kill them.  Still others were out there simply living normally, tending to children, absorbing the latest Lindsay Lohan news on television, silently worrying about their 401K balance.

Then I wondered if any of them might be writers.

And if they were, if the story they were writing – their last – would be the one they’d want to be remembered by. 

If it would be a parting gift to the rest of us.  Or an unburdening, a confession, a hopeful vision, and vicarious dream.

If they were writing it the right way, informed and empowered.  Or if they were just wandering through a sea of options with no awareness of what works and what doesn’t.

I wondered if the story they were living – we are all living a story, writing each page as we go, and in complete charge of how it ends – was the one they’d script for themselves.

Story planning, life planning, intention, discipline, values, choices… same consequences. 

As Donald Miller says in his brilliant book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, the best, most rewarding lives inspire funerals in which the attendees share a common thought: what a shame, he/she wasn’t done.  His/her story was unfinished.

That kind of grief honors a life well-spent. 

A story well told.

I pray that my own story is still going strong – indeed, that it is a blazing, raging fire of passion – when that day arrives on my calendar.  You are all invited.

Writing is my vehicle on that journey.  It is traveling east on I-1o, in the shadow of that truck, trying to out-race the clock.

As the truck faded into my rearview, I found myself overcome with gratitude that I am a writer.  That I can scribble these thoughts onto a blank sheet of white software-generated space, and create something that might touch someone, somewhere, that I’ve never met and never will.

Someone who, by virtue of reading this, realizes they aren’t done.

And perhaps that their story – on paper, and in life – isn’t the one they hope to stake their legacy on.  That it isn’t worth the time, which continues to tick, as they move forward toward a destination they cannot comprehend.

To connect, just once.  To pay it forward, and know that it will live on after me.

That is what it means to be a writer.

If you are one, too, you are already connected to the destination.  

Because for us, more than any other avocation I can think of, the journey is the point.  To have started, to persevere, is to have arrived.

The objective isn’t to publish.  The objective is to connect with someone you’ve never met and never will.

Or not.  To have strived for that linkage, to risk, to reach out, is the point.

And the story we leave behind is the gift that bears our name.

Write your story.  Live the story that defines you.

That gift goes both ways.

Never be done.

As for me… I’m thinking cremation.  Those boxes still creep me out.


Please buy my new ebook, about getting published before you die, before either one of us does.  Thank you.

You can read a review HERE, HERE and HERE.

Photo credit: Michal Minter


Filed under other cool stuff

The Last Thing An Agent Wants to Hear From You

You’re at a writing conference.  You’ve scheduled your ten minutes with someone from New York you’ve never heard of. 

That person is an agent, and this is your shot.

The pleasantries are over.  You’ve introduced yourself, you’ve both commented on how wonderful this hotel is and how funny the morning keynote guy was.

Your butterflies begin to settle down.  This agent seems nice, not the bored been-here-heard-that intimidator you expected.

You’ll throw up later, but for now, in that awkward pause between hellos and getting down to business, you believe you’re ready.

That’s when the agent says it.  Or some form of it

So what are you working on?  Tell me about your story.

And suddenly all those butterflies are back.

The next thirty seconds will decide the fate of this relationship.

Because you are now at a crossroads.  You have two choices. 

You can do this properly and demonstrate your mastery – not only of your story, but of the craft of storytelling – or you can make the most common mistake in the business. 

At least when it comes to pitching agents at writing conferences and in elevators.

Which is… you simply start.  At the beginning.  In sequence.

You begin to narrate the whole damn book, as if your words are to be heard as a condensed stand-in for the printed story itself.

As if you can tell it as well as you believe you wrote it.

Newsflash: you can’t.

You may be allowed to go on and on and on before the agent holds up a hand and asks for clarification… if that even happens at all.

Or they just say it sounds interesting but it’s not for them, and ask if you have anything else in the works.

It’s too late.  You’re already toast.

Here’s what’s going on in those 30 seconds.

At least, if you don’t do this properly.

Within seconds the agent is asking herself questions like… excuse me, what genre is this again?… where did this idea come from?… where the hell is this going and why is it taking so long?  

And perhaps… I wonder where the closest Carl’s Jr. is?

Because a professional author (which doesn’t necessarily mean published) – someone who knows what makes a story really tick – doesn’t do it this way.

A professional knows that what makes a story tick is context.

A set-up.  Just as when a reader who picks up a book off the shelf (a form of pitching at the retail level), there are things that are clear from the outset: the genre, a hook from the inside flap or back cover, a sense of story from the cover art, and some semblance of context-setting by way of revealing the novel’s backstory.

In other words, why the author is excited to tell this story – indeed, must tell this story – and a preview of what the thematic impact of it all will be.

If Dan Brown was pitching The DaVinci Code, he might begin by saying something like:

“I’ve written a thriller that blows the lid off the entire Catholic church and threatens to undermine the very heart of the Christian religion, all within the guise of a murder mystery involving priests, crooked cops, secret sects, Leonard DaVinci and some pretty cool codes, all of it based on accepted mythologies.”

He’d say that before he utters a word about the sequence of the story itself.

And the agent – because they can smell a winner from the parking lot – would already be praying that this will work.

Imagine you’re a realtor, and you’re driving the client to see a new house you think they’ll love.

In the car on the way over you tell them why you think that.  You tell them what kind of house it is, the background of the house, the way the house will make them feel, and the quality of the construction.

When you get there – if you’re a pro and you’ve done your job well – the client is already arranging their furniture in the back of their mind.

When pitching your novel…

… if you don’t do something similar before you launch into the story itself – if you don’t set it up, don’t preview and pre-sell it – the agent’s defenses are already up.  Once they hear you begin with… “So there’s the guy who leaves home when he’s sixteen, and then he meets this girl…” they know this isn’t going to work.

Chances are they won’t ask for clarification.  You haven’t given them a reason to.

No, as they sit there politely listening, they’re already asking the questions – the ones I told you about a moment ago – that you forgot to cover.

Agents aren’t readers, they’re sales professionals. 

Which means, they’re looking for a professional-level sales pitch on your book.

Expose yourself as an amateur by simply launching into the nature of your first chapter and you’ll not only induce a fog in the listener – no matter how good the book may be – you’ll announce yourself as someone that doesn’t understand storytelling as well as you should.

Because if you can’t pitch it properly, if you don’t recognize the power of context and theme and intention and passion and a killer hook – not to mention the limitations of the pitch vehicle itself – how can you possibly write it well enough to interest them?

But the agent won’t be asking that question. 

It’s a given in their mind, and they’re already deciding between a salad and a tuna melt as soon as you’re done.

If you’d like to understand more about the relationship between your story and your pitch, as well as concrete ground rules and examples of how to deliver one effectively, please consider my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.”


Filed under getting published