Thursday, June 9, 2011

Last stop on the road to RMFW's June Education Event: Interview with Charlotte Cook

First off, tell us a little bit about how you got into the writing/publishing industry. When/how/why you became an editor.
Since I was ten years old I wanted to write and teach. Somehow the force of Story and the ability to bring people to their own realization of their talent and the opportunities of Story has always held my imagination and focus. Then in 1991 several career opportunities collided and produced a world in which I could teach writing ... and teaching writers to be better readers ... at prominent local adult schools. I began with how to write a mystery. The class was an immediate hit, drawing almost thirty people and several local well-known writers and journalists. From there my reputation grew, and I became the central writing teacher at two adult programs.

Also at that time I took a wonderful writing class from a young writer Craig Collins who found within my writing much talent and lots of bad habits. His work with me, his focus on giving me better habits in place of the naive and sometimes melodramatic ones I fostered, and his support of my writing showed me several things: A teaching style based on identifying habits and raising a writer's levels of talent by centering attention on the positive to strengthen the writer's unique capabilities, and a love of sensitive reading and how it plays an important role in writing.

Because of Craig, I entered an MFA program where I worked with excellent literary writers such as Pam Houston, Christopher Tilghman, Lynn Fried, Jervey Tervalon, and Louis Birney as well as wonderful teachers such as Ed Biglin, Carol Lashoff, and Alden Reimonenq. Pam Houston I owe a grand thank-you. She developed and reinforced my ability to read a work with the sensitivity of a reader who loves to read and therefore find more subtly and creativity in my own works. Maybe a small thing to some. To me, I learned to measure the completeness of the writing effort by the writer's ability, craft and commitment by the ability to be absorbed by the writing. 

There too in graduate school I learned that my unique contribution in workshopping was to articulate how a story stayed on target, how well characters stayed "in character," and why readers turn the page. Christopher Tilghman celebrated my talent one evening when he said, "You all aren't too sure about Charlotte's ability to get you turn pages and her comments on how you could better stay focused to do the same. Well, if you want to be published and have readers, Charlotte is the best example among you of understanding and employing what's needed to her own and your writing."

After earning an MFA, I went into the business of editing and teaching full time always being cited as a "Story Editor" for my ability to make a story "work." I taught some thousand students over the years, more than 10% of them getting published, winning awards and even getting into special programs as a result of working with me. Several even placed in the top 100 of the Writers Digest Annual Story Contest, out of some 40,000 entrants. So statistics may seem strange to cite, but my results with my students and clients are often better than more well-known editors and teachers. And recommendations often include: "If you want to write at a higher level and if your goal is to be published, maybe you should be studying with Charlotte."

Then in 2005 I was asked to start KOMENAR Publishing. I was approached by someone who wanted to be published and also start a publishing house that focused on first-time authors. The money was provided for the publishing house with the understanding that I would build the business from scratch, acquire the titles, supervise all the necessary publishing functions and story edit the individual works. Across five years we published six novels, all of them breaking industry sales records for debut novels from a small publisher and most winning prestigious awards. Also two have gained increasing Hollywood attention along with agents and bigger publishing houses showing interest in second novels from several of these authors. When 2009 economic forces drove KOMENAR into hibernation, I made plans to move on to the the part of the industry that most feeds my own creativity ... helping talented authors complete polished and publishable works. 

Then around the same time I met Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter with a multi-award-winning script he wanted to adapt into a publishable commercial mainstream novel. We worked together on his manuscript through the completion of Garbo's Last Stand, now with agents. And we discovered that our love of Story made us an excellent creative and business team to write the book Adapting Sideways. We also created the business also entitled Adapting Sideways, based on being adaptable to the times, economics and talents of the industry to reach writing and publishing goals ... If you can't go straight at something, Adapting Sideways has the strategies and can find industry professionals who can still make "it" happen for the writer and project by just adapting differently to the circumstances!

As further validation for the criteria I hold dear regarding publishable books and my experience with the industry, I have twice been a major judge for an international book contest held annually in coordination with Book Expo America (BEA). This year I judged seven separate categories as well as choosing the three grand prize winners in fiction. I have done similar judging for reputable writers conferences, but this opportunity was an acknowledgement of my work along with Jon's successes with contests and judging, as the standards and process of judging evolved out of our work. As the market place adjusts to eBooks and self-publishing, I am fortunate and honored to be considered as an industry professional who can see the past, present and future in the current crop of published fiction works. 

This Saturday, you will be the presenter for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, first annual Colorado Western Slope Education Event. You presented The Final Edit fworkshop last May in Denver for RMFW and received great reviews from the attendees. Can you tell our readers a little about the workshop and what attendees can expect.

Writers don't really know what acquisition editors and agents do and think when we open a submission from a writer. My goal is to make that process as open and understandable as it should be. 

Too often people who are neither acquisition editors or agents tell writers what goes on ... but I am a former acquisition editor and now a "pre-agent," someone who matches ready work to appropriate agents and even publishers who will take unagented work. I know this process intimately across some 5,000 submissions; 1,000 clients; and 100+ published writers. And I can articulate it in practical terms and strategies to committed writers.

In this interactive and practical workshop, I will read and share first impressions, praise and suggestions to participants based on the pages they bring to the workshop. That's it. Our whole focus will be on what's in my hand and what I would do if I were the agent or publisher.

We'll discuss and question. I'll draw diagrams and suggest agents and publishers who might be appropriate. I'll also counsel patience and preparation. Basically we will increase your chances of being successful getting an agent, being published, and being rewarded with great exposure and sales based on how a publisher reaches out to readers, reviewers and booksellers. After all that's what publishing is--whether you publish your own work or Random House offers you the deal of a lifetime.

In addition to being an editor and speaker, you have a book out. Tell us a little about Adapting Sideways and how it came about

Jon James Miller and I wrote Adapting Sideways to articulate the elements that make a manuscript publishable--in this case specifically one adapted from a screenplay. But the big take-away is that a polished manuscript that your author and writer friends think is great may or may not be ready for a publisher's investment. Knowing how to insure that your work is publishable should be as major a goal to a writer at that point in time as completing a polished manuscript earlier.

We published through my old publishing house KOMENAR for timing sake. We needed to have a salable book available Fall 2010 after Creative Screenwriting Magazine published a three-page feature article on our work and philosophy for the Fall issue and that year's LA EXPO. Now we're using it as a template for a longer manuscript represented by a top nonfiction literary agent. And another book is in the works: Lights! Camera! Novel! This book combines Jon and my love of film and literature and how to use film to make novels more effective on the page. Note: We didn't say "screenplays," we said "film."

I understand your publishing house isn't currently active, what are you doing, besides presenting workshops?

My creative and business relationship with Jon has opened a new world of writers. Working with screenwriters turning to novel-writing and advising nonfiction writers on how to manifest more Story in their work has brought some amazing and talented people to us. Also we are called on to work in more industry settings to comment on the industry and impact of the changes and the chaos. But most of our clients are novelists, memoirists, and short story writers who are working to raise the level of their craft as well as complete that work or start the next one. My goals are to see strong writers polished, published and successful. So anything that feeds that need is my passion. 

KOMENAR is actually not my publishing house, but the one I co-founded and ran for five years. My ties to KOMENAR are professional and helpful but I am not an employee or shareholder. Though I do work regularly with several of the novelists and others with whom we sought to work. 

When not working, what do you do to have fun?

I am an avid reader across a wide arena of subjects, styles and eras. I am also a committed short story writer, having finished one just days ago. Literary short stories are like Rubik's Cubes to me. So much to do in a refined space of words and paragraphs. I'm most interested in the dimensions of emotional challenge and fulfillment. 

I also watch a lot of films, which I totally enjoy deconstructing with Jon because we are such Story and Structure fiends. Also we're both quite visual and metaphoric in our appreciation of Story on the page or film. Recent favorites include: "The Fighter," "The King's Speech," and surprising little films such as "Everything is Illuminated." Some films I watch over and over again. I'm currently watching "It Happened One Night." Oh, and British mysteries are so wonderful that I bought a region-free dvd player so I could watch the most recent episodes of "Lewis," only available from

Beyond that I have a husband whom I deeply love who is a scholar and bookseller. We love to travel when we can. Otherwise we love our home and family of friends as well as our pets, most central to our family being two dogs Jewel and Bella. Both are rescues and female German Shepherd mixes. One is barely 50 pounds and almost 13 years old, while the other is 85 pounds and not two years old. The younger, bigger one is a great indulgence for me as Bella is all surprises, from her mix (GS, pit bull, Doberman, and hound) to her extreme attentiveness. We all have our weaknesses, and Bella is mine. In surprise fact of Bella's pit bull heritage so staggered me that I wrote a piece published in the Oakland Tribune about how I overcame my quickly rising and very consuming fear of pit bull mixes in the face of an adorable, affectionate and very large puppy.

Anything else you would like to tell us about?

When learning to write and working to complete a manuscript, your best peers and coaches are writing teachers (from those who work in adult schools to those with degrees in grad programs), fellow writers, and authors. 

When taking that manuscript to an audience of industry professionals (from agents and publishers to reviewers, publicists, designers and marketing people) your best peers and coaches are people with industry experience publishing books, not having books published. 

The difference in the two objectives ... writing and publishing ... should alert the writer to the difference in the best populations from which to seek advice, counsel and support. That and patience ... time works for you in this industry ... will give you a writing career if not the realization of a successful project.


  1. I love how you found a way to make your MFA pay. I thought about going back, but didn't know how it would help my career. Short sided that.


  2. The Final Edit workshop received... "Great reviews from the attendees"
    Not all of them...

    Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot of valuable lessons at her workshop. They just weren't the lessons I expected to learn.

    Such as: Why should I pay money to be insulted at a workshop, when my critique group will insult me every week for free? ;)

  3. When Charlotte's interview was posted, I was helping with the workshop preparations and hangin' out the her. She is one cool lady! Anyway, my comments are late because of that, and I apologize to the blog...
    But, Charlotte, thank you so much for doing this interview. I learned a little more about you through it. I absolutely adored the conversations we had this weekend. You are so knowledgeable about writing, and your entertaining persona just invites everyone in to learn.
    Folks, if you've never been to one of Charlotte Cook's workshops and you have any influence in writing conferences/retreats/workshops, I recommend Charlotte Cook. I learned a great deal just from listening to her analyze others' pages. Wow! She knows how to break a novel down and explain what works or doesn't, from an editor's perspective.
    Kudos to you, Charlotte, for recognizing the changing trends in the publishing industry and adjusting with them (or even a bit before, if I'm understanding your interview answer correctly). That speaks to me. There are so many changes happening in the publishing world right now, and so quickly; seeing someone (you, Charlotte) switch gears to rise above and succeed in this confusion is inspiring.
    Now, I'm off to read Charlotte's book, "Adapting Sideways: How to Turn Your Screenplay into a Publishable Novel."
    Thanks again, Charlotte, for hangin' at our blog and for hangin' with us in real-time.
    I feel like I've made a friend for life!

  4. To anyone planning to attend a Charlotte Cook workshop, I must give you fair warning from my own experience last year.

    One of the promises made of the event was that Charlotte would read two pages of the attendee's work.

    She stopped reading mine after three sentences, called me "illiterate" in front of the whole audience, and then said "I can't help you."

    If she truly "loves to read", and my writing stops her dead in her tracks after only three sentences, my novel must be the Antichrist of prose, an unholy alchemy of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer that sounds the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse every time someone opens the front cover. Talk about some difficult expectations to live up to! >;^)

    I'll conclude on a more positive note by saying:
    #1: At least Charlotte liked my work's title.
    #2: The impromptu advice she gave attendees about the industry was more than worth the cost of the workshop, even if she didn't read your full two pages.