What makes a book sell to a publisher, and sell-through to readers? It is NOT how fabulous your website or blog is. It is NOT how many facebook or twitter friends you have, how many publishing links you forward or put on said website, blog, facebook and twitter. It is not how much editors and agents like you, though being a pain in the arse will NOT help you in any way, shape or form.

What sells a book is THE WRITING coupled with an ORIGINAL, COMPELLING CONCEPT!

You have heard that great writing will rise to the top and find its way. Yet we all know that not all great writing sells. There is marketing and sales to contend with, and even in my  short years of agenting I have had quite a number of books that editors loved and sales and marketing told them that it would sell, but just not enough....and the books are still not published. Breaks my heart. Breaks the editors' hearts. And oh, the author. So very unfair. BUT, publishing is a business and fair is not the leading part of the equation here.

But couple GREAT WRITING with an ORIGINAL AND COMPELLING CONCEPT and you are 75% there. The rest is luck, timing, bizarre unknown factors that none of us understand but we kill ourselves trying to, and kismet. When HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT, WIMPY KID, 13 REASONS WHY, etc were brought to acquisitions meetings and given the green light, publishers made an educated guess that these books would sell. They make those educated guesses on other books (and in some cases pay big advances and pump marketing dollars into them) that are equally fantastic but for some mysterious reason never find their audience. I worked in marketing for a couple of decades and this is just how it goes. What made the Pet Rock, Silly Bands, Chia Pets, Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Bear Soap, etc sell? Don't know.

Is it all word of mouth? Is it superior product--maybe yes in books, but in Pet Rocks?

So let's talk about 'superior product in books'. In my opinion, the ORIGINAL, COMPELLING CONCEPT outweighs mediocre writing, but the better writer you are (LEARN YOUR CRAFT!) the stronger CAREER you will have as a writer be it traditionally published or self-published.

And to the self-published, $0.99 sales price may get you a heck of a lot of first time readers (if you are so lucky) but if your writing is crap, who the heck is going to buy your second book? Let me quote my friend and 80+book author Kathleen Duey: Almost no one expects musicians to get good on an instrument without years of lessons, books, years of practice. There is a similar learning curve for writing. (read full post here)

So, my advice to writers other than the all important LEARN YOUR CRAFT---

1. Brainstorm concepts and pitches before you commit to a new book.

Even if you love your your new idea....write 10 more to get your creative juices going and see if you can come up with something better and/or improve on your original idea.

Brainstorming without self-criticism is an excellent way to unearth your creativity.

2. If you have a critique group/agent--consider picking the 3 that you most want to work on and share it with them to see if you are on track to writing something truly original and compelling.

3. Find the manuscript voice you want to work with. This is not Author Voice--Author voice is your unique voice that permeates all your work, this is the Manuscript Voice--the tone you want to tell this particular story in.

4. Write 3 chapters in your chosen Manuscript Voice and see if it is working. Share it with your critique partners, and, if you have this kind of relationship, with your Agent. While these first chapters may end up in the dumpster as many first chapters do, it is the tone/ characters/ setting/ concept/ freshness/ uniqueness that must shine through. Sometimes we come up with an amazing concept but we just cannot write an amazing manuscript to do the concept justice. I find this all the time in queries....amazing concepts with pages that are not compelling. If you cannot write to the chosen concept, pick another one. You have a list of 10+. Or brainstorm again.

5. Be absolutely mindful of every character you choose to put in the book. Why are they there? How do they move the story forward? What is interesting about them that will make a reader care about following them from page to page to page? What would make a reader demand book 2 and 3 because they can't bear to say goodbye to these characters? This is a must even for stand-alones. Don't you love that feeling when you slow down at the end of a book because you just don't want it to end?

6. Plot the heck out of the book. If you are a pantsers (as opposed to an outliner), no problem. Just make sure you go back through one full revision with the plot in the forefront of your mind asking How can I make this book UNPUTDOWNABLE?

by Jill Corcoran


I have been doing a lot of first 10 pages critiques lately, and I find myself writing…START YOUR STORY and ACTIVATE YOUR STORY on almost 100% of the manuscripts. Choosing where to start you story is so very important in grabbing your reader and willing him to keep reading, captivating him so he cannot put your book down.

Unfortunately, so many writers start in the wrong place. They start in what seems to me like they are talking to themselves, working out what is happening or who their characters are or what the back story is and putting that in the first chapters rather than starting where the book needs to begin. Starting right before everything changes for your main character.

Right before? Yes, I know you have heard so many times to start in the action, to start at the moment your character’s life is about to change, but by doing this we often do now know who your character is so we don’t care that their life is changing. We don’t care about who they are or what is their peril.

Don’t start by describing what is going on. Don’t start by having your main character ‘think’ about/tell us about all that is happening in their life. Don’t start with shot from a gun, waking from a bad dream, dialog of people fighting, random thoughts from your character that does not activate your plot and bring the character and the reader into the character’s world. Don’t write a passive, telling, descriptive beginning.

START YOUR STORY. Show your character in his world, interacting with other characters that give us a glimpse into who your character is, what problem is he facing and why this problem means something to him, and to us the reader.

In one of my favorite books, Gayle Foreman’s IF I STAY, Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence….a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:

Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

And then we are back in her world.  A world where the main character is not telling us what is happening but shows us through other characters’ actions and dialog, as well as her own.

Look back at the first pages of THE HUNGER GAMES, SPEAK, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE, STARGIRL, SWEET EVIL the list goes on and on.

These are captivating beginnings that establish voice, character, plot, setting without plunging us blindly into the ‘problem’, the ‘crisis’. They also do not bore us with little details that talk down to the reader to make sure they are going to ‘get it’, that make sure the reader knows everything they need to know so they can follow your story.

Often you have to finish your book so you can rewrite/re-envision your beginning. Often you have to toss out your first couple of chapters. Do not mourn those lost words.  Thank them for helping you get started, for helping you understand where you book is going, for activating you to write rather than spend your years like so many wannabees saying I have a story I want to write but I just don’t know where to start. Congrats. You started. You got to the end. Now rewrite that beginning. Activate your story.

by Jill Corcoran