Writing Advice from Zoraida Córdova

by Mari Hotchkiss

Zoraida Cordova

An unusual career path.

As a young child in Ecuador, Zoraida Córdova grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories that were filled with magic and wonder. At six years old, she immigrated to the United States with her mom and grandma, causing her to abandon her love of stories. “I stopped reading. I stopped thinking about books as something that was for me because I hated the books that they gave me in school,” Córdova said. Well-meaning teachers gave her books like The House on Mango Street, thinking she would relate. “That was not my experience; that’s not my culture or my country. I’m sure we share similar things in our collective background, but I didn’t want to read that. I wanted to read stories about magic.”

At thirteen, Córdova fell in love with books again after reading In The Forests of The Night. Córdova remembers thinking at the time: “Amelia Atwater Rhodes was thirteen when she sold that book to Random House; it was a huge deal. I was like, ‘Oh, she’s my age…um, this is something I can do. I can be an author.’ As soon as I had that realization, there was no going back for me. Everything that I did from that moment forward, including writing some terrible short stories and novels along the way, was in preparation for becoming an author.”

Córdova submitted her first query letter when she was seventeen. “I had a finished book—it was really bad, I still have it in my closet—a historically inaccurate witch tale from the 1600s. My query letter was better than my book, so I did get some interest. I still remember my rejections. It’s hard for a seventeen-year-old; it’s easy to react to your emotions, ‘I’m being rejected, everything sucks,’” Córdova said, “but because I did so much research about the industry, I figured out I needed an agent. Then the agent gets me a book deal, that simple. I signed up for all of the Writer’s Digest books and queried again, but after my first query attempt, I waited another year before I had something else to send out.”

Many beginning writers think that the only way to a career in writing is to get a master’s degree in English. Córdova proves that it isn’t necessary. “I dropped out of Hunter, Marymount Manhattan College, and the University of Montana in Missoula, but I didn’t feel like college was the right place for me. I quit, to write my novel, which became The Vicious Deep.”

As a young writer, Córdova didn’t let the fear of failure stop her, and she still doesn’t, “I still have that fear, but by the end of this year, I will have 15 books published. I have books coming out through 2022, and I still feel like ‘Oh my God someone is going to pull the rug from under my feet, or like I’m going to wake up, and it’s just going to go away,’” Córdova shares. If everything did just go away one day, we would find Córdova hiking a mountain trail somewhere exciting. She explains, “I would just hike, like all over the world. Last year when I was hiking the Hebridean Way, which is beautiful and really wet, I got all the rain. I had to write on a little notebook I kept in a zip lock bag so it wouldn’t get wet. It’s inconvenient, but it’s doable.”

Writing advice for seasoned and brand-new writers.

For Córdova, a writer’s education doesn’t have to come from a university, she found inspirational instruction from the dedicated educators in her life. “I had this teacher named Mr. Johnson. He was my social studies teacher. I wrote this essay about how I wanted to be a writer and submitted it to the National Book Foundation writing camp. I was 16. The writing camp was 10 days in Vermont. It was such a unique experience to be able to learn from folks like Jacqueline Woodson, Kimiko Hahn, and Harold Schechter. In these workshops, I learned about workshops, how to critique without being rude, and how to look at language. I learned about the publishing industry, and mentors taught us what a query letter is.” Córdova admits, “It was the most valuable experience of my whole life. I never found a creative writing workshop that was ever as good.”

Learning to outline and writing a series.

Like all writers, Córdova has made mistakes along the way. “My very first book, The Vicious Deep, was a trilogy that taught me the importance of planning because I didn’t plan it. I was like, ‘I’m just going to write. It’s going to be three books, and I have a vague idea,’” Córdova said. “I definitely made mistakes with the timeline. I wrote things into book one that were so hard to untangle in book three. From then on, I was like, ‘I am going to outline! I am an outliner now! I am never going to pants a book ever again!’ After The Vicious Deep, I learned how to outline.”

Córdova continues, “Sometimes, outlines are a little bit more detailed, and others are vague bullet points that tell me I need to advance the plot. Whereas, other outlines are chapter by chapter. It depends on what the story calls for. I think that we have to treat every book like its own individual snowflake or problem child. I take a lot more time through the editing process, and I break everything down in index cards chapter by chapter. Sometimes it’s scene by scene. I don’t assign chapters until the second edit because sometimes a scene is just in the wrong chapter, so I move it around.”

As for a series, Córdova said, “I think of trilogy’s as a hero’s journey but in three books.” Each book has an internal three-act structure. In addition, there is an overarching story broken into three parts so that each book becomes one act of that larger structure.

Deadlines are a real thing.

Since 2012 Córdova has been writing on contract. Staying on so many deadlines takes planning and dedication. Córdova says, “I like to think that I’m a very strategic planner, but I’m not. I’m not a writer that doodles beforehand or does preliminary writing or world building. I do that all in my head until I can’t stop thinking of something, then I get to work. But because all of my books so far have been series or sold on proposal—which makes everything a little bit different—I work backwards from the deadline date. I’ll give myself four months to do a skeleton draft because I’ve learned over the years to not lie to myself about how much time I need. I used to be able to have more 24-hour writing sessions. I can’t do that anymore. I’m 33. I think that I have exhausted all of my all-nighters,” Córdova jokes.

But not every contract or book is the same, Córdova says, “there are some instances like some IP (Intellectual Property) projects where I’ve been brought on. Star Wars asked me to write this book—A Crash of Fate. I had no time to think before I had to sit down and just start writing because the deadlines are so truncated, which is a very polite way of saying, so short they kill you.”

For Córdova, community and accountability are essential, “The way that I keep myself on deadlines is having a support group; writing communities are really important. During quarantine Dhonielle Clayton and I get on Skype or FaceTime and just sit in silence and work. I’ll be writing, she’ll be writing, but we just have this accountability. Before quarantine, one of the ways that I maintained my deadline was I got an office outside of my home. It helped in treating writing like my nine to five. I need structure. Otherwise, I would just be in chaos all the time.”

Writing for Intellectual Property publishers.

The process for working on IP projects is different than any traditional route to authorship. Out of the many books Córdova has written, Incendiary, a book based on the Spanish inquisition and a unique magic system, was the most stringently outlined. Córdova says, “I worked on it with the packager, Glasstown. I had three editors at the same time. The editorial process was harder for me because there were so many chefs in this kitchen, but I’m very proud of that book.”

Intellectual property is one aspect of the publishing world that many writers don’t think of when starting out. “It’s a different part of the industry, and there’s so many publishers that also have in-house packagers.” Packagers approach authors with an idea and work with them to create a book that both the writer and the publisher are happy with. Córdova states, “At the end of the day, it’s still your work, and if it’s a good book, it’s a good book.”

There are a few reasons to consider working with an IP publisher. Córdova says, “you’re either an established writer who wants to restart your career, find a new audience, or find a new genre. Or you are a brand new writer who auditions for these companies like Alloy or Glasstown. Packagers are always looking for new voices. You just have to do your research.”

Know what you’re trying to say.

We’ll leave you with one last piece of writing advice from Zoraida Córdova, “Figure out what you’re trying to say. Sometimes the thing that is hindering you from connecting to an agent or an editor is that you don’t know what your book is trying to say. It takes me four or five drafts before I know what my book is completely about. Even if I know, I don’t understand it fully because every novel has so many layers. Once you figure out what you’re trying to say, you understand where your book belongs in the conversation with the other books on that shelf. Incendiary is in conversation with the big fantasies that I read and loved in the last five to ten years. My Brooklyn Bruja’s books are in conversation with books like Holly Black’s Tithe.

The quickest way to the heart of your story is knowing the heart of what you’re trying to say. If your book is about good versus evil, okay, but what about good versus evil? Is it that that dichotomy doesn’t exist, or that there are grey areas that we should pay attention to, or that good is actually bad? Go deeper than the initial theme.”

(Zoraida Córdova is a speaker and keynote presenter at this year’s Willamette Writers Conference: www.willamettewritersconference.org)