Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Forever Discussion

Maybe I’m feeling a bit jaded today.  For years, I’ve been involved in several online writing groups. We welcome new people and new writers. It’s a great place to learn and grow—and highly recommended for a number of reasons if you aren’t involved in them. Some times you have to hit the “delete” key pretty heavy but it keeps me in touch with some of the “forever” discussions—something that will always be discussed around publishing tables or among writers or among editors and writers or among publishers and retailers.

I’m moving just a tad of the discussion—and more importantly my personal answer to the group into this entry about the writing life. Then if you aren’t a part of this particular group (which has almost 600 participants), then you can also see it.

Here’s a couple of sentences from this new writer, “Here’s the dilema, one of my characters is very sassy and unsaved. She curses. I want to market the book to Christian readers but I don’t know if I should edit out all her curse words or be real to my character and let her live on the pages of my book.”

OK, now that you understand the issue—cursing in Christian books. Here’s my response:

I’m going to weigh in on the cursing in Christian novels or novels which will be sold in the CBA. In a word, don’t.

Publishers hate retailers to return books (one of the key rights of a retailer with every single book they order into their store). You’d be surprised what retailers have complained about over the years—and it’s killed sales of books—because they allowed a single word to creep into the text. Imagine if it’s multiplied in the name of “realistic dialogue.”

Also those curse words are not needed to tell a good page-turning story. Just look at books like The Client or A Time to Kill from John Grisham if you need the reminder. The characters could have cursed—but it wasn’t necessary for the story.

Here’s the more important fact for you to consider—you want your book to be published. To get published in the CBA marketplace, you need to capture the attention of an agent or an editor. The agent to champion your book or your book proposal to the editor—then the editor to champion your book inside the publishing house. I can’t say it often enough—publishing is a consensus building process. Marketing, sales, publishing executives, and other editors have to be excited about your story and you as an author. Anything can kill that excitement—anything—especially cursing.It will prevent you from being published—and all you will receive is a form rejection letter and never receive the reason (the volume of submissions is way too high to do anything else).

While you want to tell the best possible story and create page-turning prose and riveting dialogue—never forget, the editor is looking for a reason to say, “no.” Your challenge is to give him or her a reason to keep reading. Some people estimate you have five seconds. It may not be that short—but it’s a pretty limited window of direct attention from the editor—where the editor will decide of you move ahead in the process or your material is returned.

Since January, I’ve received over 500 queries, manuscripts and proposals for six to eight possible books. How do I know I have received this many submissions? I have a “submissions log” and could pull up an exact number. Editors keep these types of records on the material that passes across their desks. Literary agents as they submit materials do the same sort of record keeping. It’s good business. These submissions came from individuals and literary agents. If you can’t recall, I’m the Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Howard Publishing. The odds are pretty ridiculous in many ways. The author includes cursing—no—reject. The author includes a misspelled word—return to the brief quotation above and take a look (it is spelled dilemma)--no—reject. It’s a bit of reality of how this business works. Now I will admit that I overlook misspelled words but that’s the risk you are taking when you include them in your submissions. You’ve just given the editor a reason to say, “no.”

The discussion about including cursing in Christian books will continue—forever. Publishers have taken a risk to get an author’s work into print—and they don’t want that risk to be sitting in a warehouse. Instead they want it in the hands of enthusiastic readers who will tell friends to purchase the book.

7 Comment:

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Gina Holmes Left a note...

Terry, great post. I'm going to post a link to my critique group. Very eye opening. Appreciate it.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...

Thanks, Gina. Writers can debate as much as they want on the cursing issue. Often they do this sort of debating or griping in these online groups among themselves. But a bunch of those writers who include cursing in their manuscripts in the name of being "edgy" or "realistic" simply can't get published. They don't understand the real business dynamics of publishing. Publishers and retailers want to sell books--great stories and get those into the hands of readers who tell other readers. It's a complete side issue (including even a "mild" curse word in a novel) and it can completely derail the sales for the book. It's a risk Christian publishers aren't willing to take--and it's not necessary to take from my perspective.

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Heather Ivester Left a note...

I'm so glad to know publishers in the CBA feel that way about cursing in books. There are certain authors I love to read and others I avoid because of language issues. I can turn off the TV or close a book (or not purchase it) if I hear words that assault my conscience.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Pam Kumpe Left a note...

silly question on my part...how does someone find out the type of products, like in fiction that CBA publishes? I started following faith in fiction (blog) and got curious...

and thanks for the great post, insightful as always...

what is your writer's group called? is it online?

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...

Pam, there are no silly questions. You learn about what different publishers will publish mostly by reading and following the market. That's pretty simplistic but basically how it is done. As for the group--I belong to several but this one was the Fellowship of Christian Writers (FCW) and it's free to join. Go to yahoo under groups and search for it.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger violet Left a note...

This reminds me of Dale Cramer's book Bad Ground. In it he succeeds in convincing the reader one of his characters, Biggins, has a purple vocabular without having him utter a single swear. It can be done.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Camy Tang Left a note...

Excellent post, Terry. It's good to hear reasonable, logical explanations for the CBA stance on cussing from an industry professional.

Personally, cussing doesn't bug me. I've heard the myriad discussions from writers belaboring the strict standards. But I have also heard all the horror stories of the nitpicky, stupid reasons books are returned to bookstores. I can understand the kinds of things publishers have to put up with.

I hope you don't mind, I want to put this post link in my blog.



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