Saturday, February 26, 2005

When Life Gets Tough

Have you ever lost touch with old friends and suddenly have them contact you? It happens often in the Writing Life and is a great experience to reconnect. It happened to me yesterday and brought back some fresh lessons about the life of a writer and editor.

Several years ago, one of the books I acquired at Cook was a little book called When Life Gets Tough, Finding Strength in Times of Trouble by Henry Gariepy. Normally in my role as acquisitions editor, I didn’t edit books but that book had some special circumstances attached to it. The Salvation Army ordered 15,000 copies of the book with the initial print run and needed to have the book out in late February for a special world-wide mailing.  The Salvation Army version of the book included a different back cover and their red shield logo. In publishing, we call this a special sale and publishers love these types of arrangements. It’s highly recommended to any author because most of these types of sales come from the author’s leads. It’s the topic for another post on the Writing Life.

As an editor, I learned about the sale in late November and spent a good chunk of my Christmas vacation that year working back and forth with the designer on the details of this book so it would go to the printer on time and be available for the Salvation Army’s use. I was the editor of this little 80–page book. In this case, the book was produced before it could be promoted or sold into the bookstores through the regular channels. It was produced in an unusual fashion but released later in the year into the bookstores.

This little book includes 30 days of devotions to use in times of difficulty. Whenever there is a crisis, often the Salvation Army is present to feed people, provide clothing and spiritual strength. This book was designed as a resource to give away in these circumstances.  It’s a special book because almost everyone knows someone in crisis who needs encouragement.  Because of the original mass distribution of this book, letters came in from around the world about how it was being used and touching lives.

Yesterday Henry wrote to say the book was going to be released in paperback with the Salvation Army printing another 25,000 copies. I was thrilled with the potential.

If you are needing a word of encouragement, I recommend you get a copy of When Life Gets Tough. Keep it in a place where you will regularly turn to it and read it. It might be just the word that you need for today’s experiences.


Friday, February 25, 2005

Put It Together -- Part Eight

Editor’s Note: This post is the eighth and final in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven.

You are working hard on writing a magazine article which is targeted for a particular publication.  Some of the details of how you put together the specific article will depend on the particular audience. No matter which type of magazine article you are writing, you always need to keep in mind the reader. It’s a common mistake that many unpublished or even experienced writers make with their magazine writing.

You’ve accomplished your research and your interviews for the article.  What next? Do you transcribe your interview tape?  At one of the publications where I worked, we were required to transcribe any interview. Some times an assistant transcribed the tape and other times we transcribed the tape. It’s common for me to tape my interviews but I have learned not to take the time to transcribe the tape. For me, it’s a problem because it puts the words in stone—firmly fixed. Writing is more of a fluid process and you need to have the freedom to move around the quotations and information from another person to shape the best possible article. I use my tape to verify the quotations and make sure I have the details from the personal interview. I do not transcribe these tapes.

With the various pieces of information, I create a brief outline of the entire article. Will the article contain subheads (short headlines which divide the article)? These subheads break up the text and make it more inviting to today’s reader and the editor will appreciate your efforts in this area. How will your article begin? With a provocative question? With a stirring quotation? A startling fact? A riveting story? There are many possible beginnings. To make this decision is a key part of the writing process. Also how will your article end? What will be the takeaway message? Will it have a key point for the reader? It should have a key point for when the reader completes the article. There are full length articles written on beginnings, middles and endings of magazine articles. It’s also key chapters in magazine books. Here’s three books I recommend you locate and carefully read:

 The Magazine Article, How to Think It, Plan It, Write It by Peter Jacobi (Indiana University Press). Dr. Jacobi regularly teaches at Folio seminars which is where editors of the major magazines get additional training.

* Basic Magazine Writing by Barbara Kevles (Writer's Digest Books). This book covers seven different types of articles.

* Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (Writer's Digest Books). Here is a compilation of some of the best articles about magazine writing from past issues of Writer's Digest magazine in one volume.

Through this series, I’ve only scratched the surface of the magazine article creation process. My hope is to have stirred some help for you in this area.



Thursday, February 24, 2005

Last Resort Interview -- Part Seven

Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five, and Part Six.

When I discussed the types of interviews yesterday, I missed one possible option—the email interview. With this valuable question from a reader, I’m going tackle this type of interview in this post.

Last year, a magazine assigned me to write a story which was printed just before the release of Glorious Appearing in the Left Behind series (over 60 million books in the series). My editor wanted me to interview retailers along with some people from Tyndale House Publishers plus the authors. The last persons on the interview list proved to be my greatest challenge.  I’ve known Jerry B. Jenkins, the writer, for more than twenty years and he graciously gave some time for the short interview.  I could not wrangle an interview time with Tim LaHaye—despite years in this business and the fact that I’ve interviewed more than 150 bestselling authors over the years. My last resort was an email interview with Dr. LaHaye.  I submitted my questions ahead of time then waited for a response. Thankfully it came before my deadline and I was able to include some of material in my article. As a journalist, it’s an unsatisfactory experience to interview someone via email and only used as the last possible option. It’s not something I recommend writers use for several reasons:

  • The interview is totally outside of your control for what information you gather.
  • The person you are interviewing via email might never answer your email or send it late after your deadline.
  • There is no opportunity for follow-up questions or clarifications or immediate insight. Yes, you can send email follow-up but again you abdicate (yes strong word) your role as the writer to the person you are interviewing. You essentially lay down and put the volume and information in their hands. From my experience it leads to poorly crafted articles—because you must start with great material for a good magazine article.

Some of my best magazine articles came from a follow-up question when I was personally interviewing someone. The questions weren’t on my list of questions but they were asked and brought out some fascinating detail. It happens on the telephone (my least favorite medium) and it happens in person (my recommended choice for interviews if at all possible).

Also let’s examine this question from the role of the person being interviewed via email:

  • Yes, they can answer the questions at their own convenience.
  • I’ve been “interviewed” via email several times and I find the experience a lot of extra work—and I’m a writer. Imagine it for a person who doesn’t like to write. How do they handle it? Or skip it?

Yes, it takes time and energy to set up face-to-face interviews or telephone interviews. But the pay off is better information for your magazine article and the opportunity for give and take interaction. It’s also simpler for the person being interviewed (yes they have to think about who they are talking to and what information they are providing) but they simply talk (in person or on the phone), then hang up and go on with their activities.

Only use the email interview as your last possible resort. It will lead to better writing and more creative and revealing magazine work. Now tomorrow, we return to what you tackle after your information is collected. 



Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Don't Panic, Interview -- Part Six

Editor’s Note: This post is the sixth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five.

For more than thirty years, I’ve been interviewing different people. Some of them are well-known celebrities and bestselling authors. Some of them are unknown people.  No matter who I’m interviewing, I get a touch of panic right before the interview happens. Maybe it’s the same sort of adrenaline rush that I’ve read about in figure skating. I’m hesitant to admit it but it still happens. Whether well-known or unknown, each of these people have graciously answered my questions and provided the story material that I’ve needed for my magazine articles.

Whether you interview on the telephone or in person, it’s an excellent skill for every writer to add to their skill set and highly recommended. For beginning writers, I recommend you begin with someone familiar—such as a family member or a friend. Prepare a list of questions, establish a time to interview them and turn on your tape recorder. I recommend taping the interview so you can capture the quotations and don’t always have to be tied to writing notes. I’ve never been able to write fast enough (even learning shorthand in high school—and haven’t used it since) to capture someone talking at a regular pace. It slows down the interview process to continually pause and for the person to wait as you complete your notes.  I record mostly to make sure I get my quotations right.

If you are recording on the telephone, I recommend you use the Radio Shack “Smart” Phone Recorder Control.  For legal reasons, you need to tell the other person that you are recording and secure their permission on the tape (the rules are different in every state but to make sure it’s the best procedure). This device makes recording easy because it’s directly connected from your telephone line into any tape recorder. Telephone interviews are some of the most difficult—because you can’t see the other person for the visuals to add to the article. Also it’s a situation much more out of your control. For example, the other person can have an interruption, such as another phone call, and suddenly end your conversation—and some times you are stuck not getting your required information.

Whether on the phone or in person, make sure you prepare with a list of questions and a plan. It’s not a firm plan because other questions will develop during the interview. Like many of the skills that I’m highlighting in this series, interviewing is something to practice repeatedly and you will improve your techniques.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed at the people who forget about my tape recorder and will say to me, “I’ve never told this to anyone but…” Often this story material becomes some of the best in my articles.

During the interview, I always make sure to find out how to return to the person for possible follow-up questions or to give them a copy of the article. If you don’t, you will be shocked how you think of one important question as you write the article or you hang up the phone—and can’t get back to the person.  In general, the high profile the person, it’s more typical for them to call you—and not reveal their phone number—often for control purposes.

There is much more to say about interviewing. It’s an extensive topic but I’m going to pick up tomorrow on what to do after you have the information to write your magazine article as I continue this series.



Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Getting It Together -- Part Five

Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

If you’ve never been published, then the road can be ladened with mines and throw you off at any juncture.  You’ve decided to write a magazine article which is focused on the reader (a key error many make) and you have one publication or several publications in mind to send your article. You’ve either determined to write the entire article and send it unsolicited or you’ve written a one page query letter and received an assignment.  With increased publishing experience, you can expect to write more on assignment and less on speculation (spec).  Even an assigned piece can some times not work out for a particular publication. Maybe the editor sees it and thought the query was a good idea—but the execution is wrong for their publication. I’ve not had this experience often but it does happen. In these cases, the magazine will often pay a “kill fee.” It’s a token payment for the writing work you poured into the article. Believe me, it’s better than nothing but pretty disappointing. 

Many years ago, I interviewed Dan Quayle on a magazine cover story. It was a challenge to reach the then-Vice President but the article was perfect—a November cover story during an election year. (This publication doesn’t exist any more—another common occurrence in the magazine world.) Unfortunately the Vice President was running late and crammed my 30 to 45 minute scheduled interview into about 15 minutes. My assigned format was a Q & A — which means the interview has to have something worthy of his actual words appearing as the main text of the article. I got nothing but cliches and pat answers in the crammed time frame. I wrote my article, turned it in—even turned in my transcribed interview. It resulted in a kill fee for vast amounts of time and energy.

Just remember, on the road to publication there are many possible junctures where it can fail.  Some are in your control and others are completely outside of your control. You control what you can and you work with the other details. It never gets published until you hold the finished magazine article or book in your hand.

You have your magazine idea and hopefully an assignment from your one page letter. What resources do you need to write this article? Will it involve research at the library or online? Yes, there are many resources still not online and the library is a valuable resource for any writer.

Will you need to interview someone for the article? How do you snag the interview with an expert? It’s easier than you would initially imagine. Has this “expert” written a book? Then your best course of action is to set up an interview through their publisher. Call the publisher and ask to speak to someone in publicity. It’s one of the few times I recommend people call the publisher. Tell the publicist about your assignment and ask for background materials (review copies of the books, other articles, etc.). Then ask the publicist to set up your interview and give the person the times when you are available. Wise authors who want to sell books take advantage of these interview possibilities.  You will quote this “expert” and mention their book in the article and get to tap their expertise and quotes for your article. It works as a package and everyone has something to gain from the experience—you, the expert and the publisher.

I’ve got much more information to say about the actual interview process but we’ll have to handle it tomorrow.


Monday, February 21, 2005

Crafting A Query -- Part Four

Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

As a magazine editor (like book editors), I have many more responsibilities than simply reading unsolicited manuscripts.   Yes, I’m looking for new material yet as an editor, I’m also proactively pursuing material for my publication. Most of the higher paying magazines prefer to receive a single-page pitch letter called a query letter.  Within a few minutes, the editor can determine if the idea is appropriate or not for their publication. Because of the volume of submissions, many editors will never respond if the answer is “no thank you.” It’s one of those reality checks that writers need to hear about.

You aren’t looking for “no, thank you.” I’m not looking for this response I’m looking for an assignment or a “go ahead” or a “yes” response from the editor. One of the most important skills for writers to develop is this query letter.  It’s also something that requires repeated practice.  As you write these letters, you will refine and improve your technique.  Some times at writer’s conferences, I will teach an hour on this topic and give detailed examples and a checklist in my handouts. I continue to recommend Lisa Collier Cool’s excellent book, Irresistible Query Letters (Writer’s Digest Books). I have part of my personal technique in my magazine article basics.

Rather repeat this information here, I’d suggest you follow the links to learn more about this critical skill.

I prefer writing on assignment and you can snag magazine assignments as you learn how to write a riveting query letter. You want the editor to read your letter and be compelled to pick up the phone and call you for more information or an assignment. Or you want that editor to open an email and write you immediately asking when you can have the article ready for their magazine. I hope you can see the importance of this skill as a writer.

Because I’ve been published repeatedly in different magazines, many mistakenly believe I was born this way. Wrong. I garner my share of rejection in this process. There are many reasons for rejection and some of them relate to the pitch and some of them do not relate to the query letter.

Years ago in college I took a magazine writing course. We were required to write several ten-page magazine articles. My key mistake was a lack of understanding of the market or the audience for the publications. When you write your query letter, you have to focus on both of these aspects. You want the idea to be perfect for that particular publication and you want to think about the publication’s audience when you write the query. If you don’t handle these two basics, then I can almost guarantee rejection. My writing and my research for the college articles was right on target—yet these articles were never published because they had no market or audience in mind. Don’t make that same mistake.

Tomorrow, this series will continue. You have an assignment or an magazine article to write, how do you begin the execution of writing?



Sunday, February 20, 2005

Two Good Choices For Your Idea -- Part Three

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series of basic steps to writing the magazine article. If you are wondering about my headlines. I know it’s a bit different but I’m changing the headlines and extending the parts since they are connected.  Check out the previous articles: Part One, Part Two.

Does the idea drive you wild? Does it drive you to begin researching or writing the article? The experience doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. Yet occasionally it is the case. You have to find a piece of paper or get to your computer and write this particular idea.  If you’ve not done much magazine writing (or even if you have done it), it’s perfectly OK to write the entire article—as long as you have several things in mind when you do it:

  • When you write, always keep the reader firmly in your mind. What will they take away from your article?
  • Who is the potential market for the article? Where will you try and get it published? Some publications read full manuscripts while others will only read query letters.
  • The most likely possibilities for magazines are ones that you often read and are intimately familiar with their contents and their readers (since you are one of these readers).
  • Keep in mind the standard length for these target publications. It will not help you to write 3,000 words if the longest article in the magazine is 1,000 words.  In general, magazines are using shorter articles.
  • In general, magazines are planning their content about four to six months ahead of their publication date. For example if you have a Valentine’s Day experience which you want to write, that’s OK. I’d encourage you to write it—but plan on it getting into print in some February 2006 publication.

There are several different basic types of magazine articles.  If you have decided to write the article, often one of the strongest types is the personal experience article. The story is written in first-person and you tell your personal experience—yet in a targeted way so you have a single key point or take-away from the reader. Other types of magazine articles include service articles (to promote or tell about a new consumer product or service), how-to articles (how to do some activity), personality profile article (often focused on some well-known person or someone who has an interesting life or life experience), “as told to” article (where you write in the first person tense of another person and write their story) and the celebrity interview (often done on assignment—more about this aspect in a future post).

And the two good choices? Your enthusiasm carries you to move ahead and write your idea. You get it on paper. It’s a good choice. The other good choice is to channel your enthusiasm about the idea into a one page letter called a query letter. I’m going to explain more about this choice—tomorrow.


Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ideas Are Everywhere -- Part Two

Editor’s Note: While the title is changing, this post is the second part of a series. I’m taking a detailed look at writing the magazine article with some specific insights for each aspect.

Ideas are one of the most fluid and free-wheeling part of the writing process. I love to have new ideas—and they come constantly. Some times the waves of what I want to write spring into my mind so fast, it’s like standing under a waterfall. You can’t possibly catch everything—and like a waterfall,  you can only stand the spray for a tiny bit—before you get washed away.

Conversations with people can stir ideas. You may be taking a break at work and listening to someone’s story and decide a much-changed version of the story could be part of a novel. Or possibly from the conversation, you see your friend struggling with a personal crisis and discovering a unique solution to this crisis or handling it in a different way. You decide that experience could be the beginnings of a how-to article.  I’ve given only two examples of how we can find ideas from our conversations with others.

Other times we read the newspaper and learn about a new product. Because we read magazines and other types of print or internet publications, the idea comes to write about this product. You take this idea and pitch a magazine (more about this aspect another day) and you snag an assignment to write about the product. Reading stimulates your idea process.  Can you take the idea and twist it in a different fashion and reveal the product or service to a new audience and a different publication?

About fifteen years ago, I was reading the Orange County Register and living in Southern California. In the business section, a small news item announced Disney was printing Disney Dollars. I was fascinated with this bit of news and wanted to learn more.  As a part of the experience of being in Disneyland, they have Disney Dollars which are the same quality of regular currency. I pitched a numismatic magazine with the article idea and received an assignment.  In a matter of weeks, I was on the back lot of Disney — where no “guests” are allowed and interviewing one of the Vice Presidents about this new currency.  For me the process began with a small news item in the newspaper. You can find ideas in the same way.

Almost anything can stir ideas—family activities, walking through the mall,visiting a historic monument or _____ (you name it).  I’ve learned to always carry a piece of paper because ideas will strike me at odd times. I have to write it down or it will pass through my mind and be forgotten. (In general, I ignore the ones that come in the middle of the night).

OK, now you have an idea. What do you do with the idea? It will be key to whether you get it published or it disappears.  I’ve got more to say about this aspect—tomorrow.


Friday, February 18, 2005

Idea To Article -- Part one

Over the last ten to fifteen years, books have been my passion and the bulk of my writing life. It’s not where I began and I write much more than books.  Please don’t misunderstand. I love books but I continue to believe many writers are missing golden opportunities by not practicing the short form—magazine writing.

In the article format, I’m able to practice many of the techniques I use in my books, yet in a more compressed form.  It’s a sharpening process for my writing life and important. If you’ve strayed into only writing books, then I recommend you return to writing magazine articles. It will build something into your books.

Over the next few posts (I’m unsure how many), I’m going to provide some specific insight into each step of the magazine writing process. Where do you get ideas? How do you pitch your ideas to the editor with a query letter? How do you find people to interview? How do you interview? After the interview what happens? How do you write the article?

I’ll be walking you through the specifics and hopefully providing some insight and tips for you—whether you are starting the process or have written hundreds of articles and several books. I’m eager to begin this series but it will have to wait until tomorrow. Hurry back.


Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Fun of Rewriting

I’ve got a book-length nonfiction manuscript which I’ve worked over several times. It’s been carefully copy edited and now it’s in one of the final stages of typesetting. I’m carefully reading this typeset version of the manuscript and marking only the most important changes. It’s (likely) my final sweep through this particular book before it gets into print.

At the same time, my editor/ publisher was reading through the manuscript. He raised several important questions in the big picture of the manuscript. I ask myself a natural question, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

He called several things to my attention but the one worth mentioning involved the time line for the overall book. In this book, I include stories about a number of my personal experiences in publishing. Throughout the book, I used phrases like recently or last year or ???. My original intention was to show timely stories that are current. This type of sensitivity to time is important in nonfiction magazine writingMagazine writing is often tied to a time and place.  If you write for the newspaper, it’s even more tied to time and a place. It’s different in a book.  The addition of these words fail to account for the longevity of books. I want this book to stay in print for many years. Will the story with “recently” or “last year” be relevant or dated in five or six or sixteen years?  My editor’s question was an important one and I’ve been carefully rewriting each of these stories to make the stories timeless. Because this version will be the last one I see before it as a printed book.

That’s one of the advantages of an editor. These skilled professionals approach a manuscript with a new set of eyes and call your attention different situations. Don’t beat yourself up about what you missed in your initial submission—but press on and get the changes done. Editors are to be blessed and appreciated for their efforts. For some books I’m the editor and for other books I’m the writer. I’ll admit some times I feel like yelling at them and chaffing at the work and changes they are suggesting. Some writers resist the editorial process to the point they become known as someone “difficult.” I don’t want to fall into that category (written or unwritten) with the editor. I tend to have the resisting feelings, walk around my office alone, yell (if necessary), then return to my desk and do exactly what the editor has asked me to do. These types of writers are the professionals. They understand they have to pick and choose their battles in this rewriting process—and that the editor has new eyes and a different, valued perspective.

If you are perfectionistic about your writing, you have to learn to let go. If you are sloppy about your writing, you have to learn to be more professional. Balance is the key. Learning that right moment to let it go and move on through the process. It’s a learning experience for each of us. I’ve got a few more pages to check and rewrite, then the book will be ready to move into the next stage of the process.

I love the journey of this process—but I don’t have much fun rewriting.  At times, it’s tedious but I’m committed to quality and producing the best possible end product. As I rewrite, I’m focused on the reader and the end result. It’s worth the effort.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I Do What I Can Do

Today it hit me again. It’s one of my strong operating principles about this publishing life. I try to do what I can do and leave the rest of it in God’s capable hands. I fully realize it’s impossible for me to do everything that needs to get done.

In the last few days, I’ve touched base with a number of people via email. Some of those people have been responding and one or two of them have been calling me.  My phone rang this afternoon and it was a guy who had lost my business card and phone number. Thankfully I didn’t lose his information and I wrote to him. 

Months ago I interviewed him for one of my books. He asked, “Did that book get finished?”

“I believe so. I haven’t seen it but I believe it’s out there,” I hedged in my response. While my part of the project is completed, I haven’t seen the finished work. This person was interested in buying a large quantity of this particular book. I sensed this large potential sale and I passed the information along to the appropriate people—but the sale never sent through and the deal was never closed.  There are a million different reasons why it never happened—and all of them out of my immediate control. This sale is not a lost cause and could still happen down the line but didn’t happen at the beginning of the project. In some ways, I shook my head—then I remembered my philosophical statement—I can only do what I can do. And I felt better.

Any type of publishing is a consensus building process. In the magazine world, you have to work with your editor. That editor has to work with other editors and designers to produce the best possible magazine. In children’s books, you have to work with your acquisitions editor. This editor has to convince a number of others inside the publishing house before the book appears in print.  After a book gets into print, sales and marketing have to get behind the book. The retailer has to purchase the book from sales and stock it in the bookstores. Special sales have to move the book into various markets outside the bookstore. Word of mouth has to get going and people have to be buzzing and talking about the book. The press has to be talking about the books in different media like newspapers, television, radio and print. It’s almost a domino effect. If one or several of the dominos aren’t in alignment, then the book doesn’t get into people’s hands and it doesn’t sell. Many things can derail this process along the way. It’s much more than one person.

Several years ago, I was involved with a book which I thought would naturally sell a ton of copies. The author was well-known in certain segments of the market. Publicity got behind the book and this author did almost 100 radio interviews during the time the book was released. The author even produced a short tract from his book and with a team of people handed thousands of these tracts out to people. I worked with the author and made sure the tract matched the cover of the book—and the tract included order information about the book.  The impact? The sales were limited for this book.  What happened?

Looking back I’m unsure. I know I did what I could do—but it takes a team. Who knows if sales were able to convince bookstores to carry this particular book. And if sales sold the book, how many copies did they sell? One or two? When they sold, did the retailer have the right inventory control to quickly restock the book? Or did that process take several weeks or months or never happen? There are many places in the selling chain of a book or a magazine or any product, where it can break down.

Part of me was bothered with my phone conversation today. It was somewhat of a missed opportunity. I tried to do what I could do—I called the publisher and reminded them of this opportunity. I followed up my phone call with an email including the information. I did what I can do.

Now the hard part, I’ve got to leave the results in God’s hands.

You may be facing all sort of challenges with your writing today. You may have articles in circulation and be getting rejected. You may have book proposals that you can’t sell. You may have fiction manuscripts where you’ve worked long hours and they are not finding a home and all you are getting is form rejection letters. Are they in circulation? Then applaud and feel good. You are doing what you can do. If the manuscripts are still tucked inside your file drawer, you’d better get moving.



Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Change or Stay the Course?

Some routines feel delicious and familiar.  For example, I love to get up early in the morning, make some coffee and read my Bible then my newspaper.   The coffee cup feels familiar and I love the routine of the experience.  I find this familiar routine carries over in my writing. It’s easiest (but not always best) to follow the same familiar course.  It’s easy to write for the same magazines or book publishers or write the same type of material.  Change isn’t easy for anyone but it’s how we grow as writers.

Last night I began to consider this topic (again) as I read the Editor’s Note in the March Entrepreneur magazine from Rieva Lesonsky, the Editorial Director.  Her article, Change Is In The Air, was focused on telling the reader about the magazine redesign. Her last paragraph is what struck me [and you can substitute writer or editor for the word “entrepreneur], “Most people think all entrepreneurs automatically embrace change. But the truth is, while some jump at the chance to transform, others fear the unknown. As change advocates, we strongly believe change should play a major part in all entrepreneurs’ businesses, for as noted author Gail Sheeny once wrote, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow.”

As a writer and editor, I want to constantly be evaluating my work. Is something working or not? How can I change and grow in this situation? It’s a continual process of growth.  Last night with my wife, we began to discuss some recent lessons from the past—just to make sure I’ve fully learned from those experiences. It’s simply stubborn to continue the familiar routine if it’s not taking me where I want to go with my writing and editing life. The key is to be discerning and try and know when to change and grow.

The March issue of Entrepreneur includes a terrific article by Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenslager called Mind Over Market. I suspect this article will be online in a month or so but isn’t at the moment. It talks about having a market mind-set. In a sidebar, it included the Guerrilla Marketing Creed encouraging the reader to keep it where you could see it all the time.  These words are also relevant for writers and editors. You can keep the word “market” or you could substitute “writer” for some added insight:

I Am Committed To Marketing. I will always think of my customers’ needs and desires first, and shape my business, products and services around them


I Will Approach My Thinking Creatively, using my talents and all available resources to develop the best solutions for clients and customers.


I Will Always Strive To Improve My Marketing Knowledge, seeking new and innovative ways to develop products and services and ways to communicate with customers and prospects.


I Will Give My Customers And Prospects The Proper Attention, all the time. This will be done in a proactive manner, not a reactive one.


I Will Continue To Seek Out New Business Opportunities. These include strategic alliances, fusion marketing, joint ventures, cooperation and other partnerships.


I Will “Think Marketing” all the time.

Do I have it all figured out? Not even close. I continue to learn and grow as a writer and editor.  One of the continual themes is the focus on the reader for my writing efforts. It’s the needs of the reader and the needs of the editor which will make a difference in my ability to be published or to continue to get rejected.


Monday, February 14, 2005

Join the Overcomers

Some times I surprise other writers about what I read and where I learn more about publishing.  My work is primarily in the spiritual/ inspirational/ religious/ Christian marketplace for the majority of my writing. You can pick your label but if you look at what I’ve written it’s pretty obvious from most of my writing such as Teach Yourself the Bible in 24 Hours.

Because of my journalism training, I continue to learn from many different places.  There is a fairly constant theme from the lives of many well-known and lesser known writers: each one has overcome some remarkable obstacles in their path and journey.  About twelve years ago, I was writing a lot of author profiles about different authors. Reading through a news release from a publisher,  I learned an author had overcome severe dyslexia yet continued writing. Bodie Thoene’s determination as a writer continues to provide inspiration and encouragement to me. Follow the link and you can learn more about it.  Or many people have forgotten the personal story of pain that bestselling author Frank Peretti told in The Wounded Spirit, which is one of his few nonfiction books.

Last week I was reminded of this principle again with the announcement of Arthur Miller’s death.  Through reading Power Line, I discovered this story from the Los Angeles Times (written in 2000) about Miller. The story begins, “If the young Arthur Miller ever thought he was "The Man Who Had All the Luck," he learned otherwise when his play with that title closed after only four performances, in the playwright's Broadway debut in 1944.” and it ends with some interesting insight for writers in this quote from Arthur Miller, “Every play has a secret. This one has a deep one. It's a combination of fantasy and reality--and you've got to strike the balance just right.”

Or make sure you catch this phrase in the lead paragraph of the MSNBC story about Miller, “Arthur Miller never stopped writing.” His early experience in playwriting could have discouraged him to the point that Miller quit writing. Instead, he pushed beyond this experience and joined the overcomers.  It drove him to write plays like “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.”

I appreciated the insightful interviews with writers which Terry Gross put together last year in her book, All I Did Was Ask : Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists. Like almost any book of this nature, the overcomer theme was throughout the pages.

Each of us face our own daily challenges in the writing life.  If you need encouragement, possibly you can find it in Marvin Olasky’s article, How to Become A Good Writer. Are you choosing to persist and overcome? Possibly the painful experience of the present (or your past) can become something precious for your writing. It is in my life.


Sunday, February 13, 2005

Advance Buzz

This weekend I caught some buzz stirring among some fiction authors.  I’m on an email group as a part of the American Christian Fiction Writers (excellent group with many benefits).  A member of the group posted a link to this article entitled, “How Much Does A Science Fiction or Fantasy Writer Make?” 

Some people might instantly respond, “I don’t write or read science fiction or fantasy. Why should I care?”

Throughout my years in publishing, I’ve never seen this type of data. Admittedly, the Internet makes gathering such information easy then it’s also easy to distribute it. I know science fiction and fantasy writing is an active genre of fiction. People have strong feelings about this genre—positive or negative. The quotation in the article which jumped out from my perspective was under the category of First Novel Advances: “The average was $6363.” Now that is a hefty advance from my experience —either as a writer or an editor. As one of my friends wrote to me, “Maybe I’ve better start writing science fiction.”

If you’ve never heard the term advance, I found a great definition on the Author’s Guild website: “An advance against royalties is money that your publisher will pay you prior to publication and subsequently deduct from your share of royalty earnings. Most publishers will pay, but might not initially offer, an advance based on a formula which projects the first year's income.”

This definition matches my experience inside a publishing house. Typically before the publisher offers a book contract to an author, they try and project the sales of your book for the first year.  Asking their sales team, the publisher takes an educated guess at those numbers.  As an acquisitions editor at my previous publisher, I had to fill out a detailed P & L to project the actual costs of the book, the number of pages, the type of binding, the print treatments for the cover (such as foil stamping), etc.  With this information, I was able to calculate what I could offer for an advance on the book. As an author, you want your book to earn back the advance because then you will receive royalty checks or payment from the publisher as you sell additional books. Each publisher has a different accounting system. Some times they issue financial statements to their authors quarterly, other times twice a year and some times once a year.

I understand authors like to receive the largest advance possible. That strategy might not be the best one to pursue. If your advance earns out so you make additional funds, you will be a much more attractive author to your publisher—than the ones who don’t earn back their advance. It’s something else for you to consider when you reach this point in the process.

Some times I’m amused at the query letters I receive from would-be authors. They want to jump right into the discussion and learn about their potential royalty rate and advance—before they even tell me about their project. In those cases, the author is walking around with stars in their eyes—and not in reality.

As a would-be author, your first order of business is to convince the editor they need your manuscript. For first-time fiction authors, it means writing such a dynamic manuscript, I can’t help but turn the pages. For nonfiction, it means writing a book proposal which is so complete and perfect for my publishing house, that I need to call an internal meeting and get things rolling for others inside the publishing house to offer you a book contract.

It’s all fine to buzz and dream about your potential advance.  As a reality check, make sure you take care of first things first—and get the publisher to offer you a contract. Instead of thinking about the money and the earnings, focus on the idea. Who will it reach? Why is there a need? Why are you the best person on the planet to write this particular book?

If you work hard to answer these questions, it will give you a more realistic means to contact publishers and gain a hearing.


Saturday, February 12, 2005

I Could Hear the Panic

When I answered the phone, I could hear the deep rumbling familiar voice.  It had been weeks or maybe months since I had talked with Bishop Porter.  Several years ago, I spent hours with this terrific man of God writing two books. I would drive to Denver from Colorado Springs, sit across from Bishop as we ate a meal and he would tell stories. I took those stories and wove them into two full-length books.

Over the last few years, we’ve not talked often. After some introductory remarks, he got to his reason for calling. With a bit of manic he asked, “Do you have the computer files on our book, Let the Walls Fall Down?” 

“I have them around somewhere, Bishop. They are likely in an old format and will need to be converted,” I said, “Why do you need them?”

“I’ve got to reprint that book real quick.” I probed a bit more to find out why he would have to reprint. To my knowledge the book is still in print with Creation House Press. It looked like Bishop Porter’s next call was going to be to the publisher to doublecheck about the availability of our book.

Why? Bishop Porter was one of several African American pastors on the Focus on the Family broadcast yesterday about Erasing Racial Divisions in the Church. These radio programs are syndicated and heard daily on more than 8,300 radio facilities in 25 languages in more than 164 other countries. At the end of the broadcast, Bishop Porter told me that our book, Let the Walls Fall Down was offered to each listener.

Suddenly I understood Bishop Porter’s urgency to make sure this book was in print. Millions of people probably heard about our work for the first time. It was a thrill and I hope the book reaches many people from the broadcast. Take some time to listen to this broadcast. You can do it online and at your convenience. It was informative and remarkable about the issue of racial reconciliation and what’s going on in the United States.

Some days we wonder about the impact of our words as writers.  We have good days where something wonderful comes along to encourage us. Other days aren’t so good and involve lots of hard effort to get something written or edited and out the door. Or maybe there is a problem that comes to our attention and needs resolution. Or maybe we get a series of rejection letters and wonder how to persist in this business.  I have the same mixture of positive and negative experiences. I believe it’s something called life and it’s almost inescapable.

Today I calmed the panic in Bishop’s voice to me. It was a good phone call to me—because without it, I probably would not have known about the broadcast and promotion of our book. It made for a pretty wonderful Friday.


Friday, February 11, 2005

More About the Full-time Leap

Yesterday I began writing about when to make the full-time leap into the writing life. It’s not a light step and (if possible) should be done with a great deal of planning and thought.

There is a common saying among the writing community and something you hear often from editors and at conferences, “Don’t quit your day job.” Over the years, I’ve watched countless people take the plunge into full-time writing.  Maybe they belong to an online writers group and leap out there. Then the emails begin to come to the group about their struggles to pay their monthly bills or their struggles to find work. I shake my head and know they didn’t spend enough thought before they took that leap into the full-time work.

I’d speculate the actual numbers of people who write full-time without another day job are pretty small. If you eliminate the people who have a spouse working full-time at a job and supporting their writing, the figure would be even smaller. I’m not going to be able to detail every aspect in this post but here are some aspects to consider:

1) Are you prepared to face some lean months (or even years)? Have you saved the resources for this possibility? Understand that the book publishing world moves slowly to make decisions and often it takes a while to land magazine assignments (even the smaller ones).

2) Are you a self-starter? Do you get things done without supervision? You will have to be able to do this key skill if you write full-time?

3) Do you have the business background to run your own business? Or at least a willingness to learn? You will have to create invoices, bill, follow up on late clients, build clients, and many other business related skills.

4) Are you willing to write anything? Or simply focused on one type of writing such as children’s writing or magazine writing? Too often, people who want to write full-time are focused on a singular type of writing. Are you willing to write public relations related materials, annual reports, brochures or newsletters? Or are you simply willing to write things where your by-line or name appears on the particular article or book? You will have to consider these decisions.  If you have decided only to write your own materials, I believe it’s the sure way to possible failure (in most cases). Flexibility will be helpful.

5) Are you willing to learn during the writing life? Or have you arrived? Your attitude will be key in this leap to full-time work.

6) Do you know if you have a talent for the writing life? Have you tested the market? I’m talking about getting published in the smaller magazines or newspapers or newsletters before you try and write a book.

We live in an instant gratification society. People want to be able to get it and get it now. This type of attitude isn’t realistic to make the leap into full-time writing.  It will be necessary to learn the business and learn it well. It will be necessary to apprentice in your craft and be mentored in the writing life.

I’ve only scratched the surface with this topic. Hopefully I’ve stirred some solid questions for you to consider. It’s a journey and each of us are on it. It begins with a single step.


Thursday, February 10, 2005

When To Make the Leap

It’s a question I get asked fairly often: When should I make the leap into the writing world? Often the person who asks this question has never been published. Or when should I make the leap to full-time writing? The person asking this question may have been published a bit and they are asking going into it full-time.

It’s an easy question to ask but often I ask one in return: Do you really want to learn the answer? Are you willing to devote time and energy to learn and grow in your ability to write? I’ve found some people who are able and willing to roll up their shirt sleeves and dive into this world. Others aren’t.

For me, it’s kind of like going to the car mechanic and saying, “I’ve been thinking about being a car mechanic. I don’t have any training or information about it. It sounds like fun. When should I start?”

Sounds a little ridiculous huh? Yet people regularly approach the idea of writing in this fashion. For example, let’s consider children’s books.  Moms and Dads have stacks of these short children’s books which they read to their kids. Some of these parents are amazing storytellers and very animated and creative in their approach.  They decide to write a children’s book. It’s got to be simple right? Wrong. Children’s writers who practice their craft work long hours selecting the perfect words for their book. They have to do so because they only have a few words to use in the book. This type of selection is particularly critical in the picture books with only 24 or 32 pages and a tightly woven story.

Recently some writer used my submission form at Right-Writing and said something like, “I wrote a children’s book. How do I get it published?”  I didn’t answer this question. I had no idea where to begin to ask the questions:

Who was the audience? Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote it? Which age group? Is it for the Christian marketplace or the general marketplace? Educational or inspirational?

The children’s market is highly segmented. A board book for ages 0 to 2 is completely different in focus and shape than a picture book for ages 3–5. If you are going to write these types of books are you willing to learn the publishing distinctions then shape your work to fit the editor’s expectations? If not, then please don’t bother sending out your manuscript because you are simply going to waste your postage and be a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Children’s books are a lot of fun and I’ve written my fair share of them. I hope to write some more in the days ahead but I definitely go into the marketplace with my eyes wide open about the necessity of meeting an editor’s need. I don’t simply open a blank file and begin to write. The field is much more complicated and involved.

If you are interested in children’s writing, I recommend you begin exploring Jill Esbaum’s exploring some basic tips. She’s got some terrific beginning tips and you will see that your journey in this area has only started. Like almost any type of writing, it will involve focusing on the particular audience, understanding that audience and market, then writing appropriate material for that market.

And if you’re wondering about what I have to say about making the leap to full-time writing?  In my next entry, I’m going to focus on this question with some tips and insight into the writing life.



Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Stress-Buster Tools

Have you ever spent hours on some small task then wondered where your day went? With the life of a writer and editor, I’ve had this experience repeatedly. Maybe it’s a computer snag that should take a few minutes and instead it absorbs hours. Possibly you’ve misplaced a significant piece of paper and you spend a lot of time looking for it. Or maybe that business card from an editor has been tucked somewhere and you can’t lay your hands on it now—and now is important because you are ready to call or email or mail to that particular person. Through the years, I’ve had this experience repeatedly in my publishing career.

Today I want to call your attention to three stress-buster tools to help your writing life. I know these tools have been helpful to me.  You may want to mark them so you can return to them often.

An Online File Conversion Service

A continual challenge to my writing life is in the area of file conversion.  Until a few years ago, I was one of the last writers who hung on to WordStar. This word processing program came with one of my first computers—an Osborne.  Yes, I was one of those folks with one of the first lug-able computers. I wrote a great deal of material on this machine. I even preserved some of my computer files and book projects from the old machine. How to convert them? I discovered this online file conversion service. It depends on what you need to convert but the service is instant and quick.

Yesterday I had a book-length manuscript to convert into an Adobe PDF file. I have Adobe Acrobat Professional 6.0 on my computer yet for some reason I could not get my Ms-Word file to convert to the PDF format. It may have been my computer memory or I’m unsure what else. I tried four or five times. Each time the program hung up and didn’t complete the job. I’ve never had this problem in the past with shorter files.  A simple job that should have taken minutes was stretching into several hours. I was frustrated. Then I recalled this online file conversion service. It would take my Ms-Word file and convert it into a PDF in a matter of minutes for $10.90. It was worth every penny from my view. Mission accomplished.

Google Desktop

Have you misplaced a file on your hard drive? I was talking about this issue with literary agent Steve Laube. He recommended down loading Google Desktop.  According to Steve, this program works behind the scenes on your computer to categorize the contents of every single word in every single file on your computer.  He recently had a file that he needed to find and had no idea where to locate it. He typed a unique phrase from the computer into this search tool and instantly the link appeared.  It’s been a continual time saver and stress-buster, according to Steve. Writers should check out Steve’s link page. It’s full of great resources. 


My final stress-buster tool has been BlogJet. As I’ve had ideas for future posts for The Writing Life. I don’t have to be online but I can pull up this tool and use it to write my thoughts.  For most of these posts, I’ve tried to save them on my hard drive, often printing them and reading through them one more time before posting them. And if I make a mistake, I can pull them back off the site, fix the error then repost them—all with simple clicks. If you have any type of blog, look into the free trial for this tool.

The stress for your writing life may come from a different place entirely. I’m constantly learning about new stress-buster tools. They may cost a bit in terms of financial investment but they pay dividends in time-savings and the ability to quickly move from one area into the next. It will keep your writing life on the move.



Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Eyes Wide Open

Several days ago I was sitting at my desk as the sun was setting over my shoulder. I tried to ignore the sound I could hear. It repeated over and over, “Who? Who?” 

I wondered, who is making that noise? I grabbed my flashlight and walked out in my yard to see the roof on our house.  Perched on the top of our chimney was a large desert owl.  I called my wife to see it. We watched as I played my flashlight over the owl, then it lifted it’s wings and moved away.  If I had ignored the sound, I could have missed an amazing experience.

Isn’t life and in particular the writing life like that? As I have new experiences (and they happen constantly), I can choose to learn from them or ignore them and be doomed to repeat them.

Yesterday I received the edited version of my book manuscript. This morning I’ll be reviewing those edits and answering any questions or clarifications embedded in those questions. It’s part of the drill to get a book ready to go to press. In one sense, I’m grateful to be one step closer to holding the finished book in my hands. In another sense, I’m dreading looking at all of the editor marks changing my copy. When I see those marks today, I face a choice. I can either ignore them and figure someone else will catch them next time I write. Or I could beat myself up about my terrible writer and editor skills and how I should have caught these things in the first place. The negative messages could swirl through my head and beat me down about myself and my writing. These negative thoughts could cripple my ability to write in the future. Or I can choose to learn from the experience, improve my writing and editorial skills for the next time.  I choose to learn from the experience of reviewing those edits and improve my writing for the future.

Rejection comes with the territory within publishing. I spent a bit of time yesterday processing manuscripts. Unfortunately there are only a few possible publishing spots and a great deal of material coming across my desk. I was not rejecting the writer. I love how James Scott Bell writes about rejecting rejection.

For me, the world is full of learning and lesson. I’m determined to keep moving ahead with my eyes wide open.



Monday, February 07, 2005

Mission Impossible

Some days it seems like the tune from Mission Impossible is constantly playing in the background of my life and work. Do you ever feel like that?

Disquieting voices tend to rise up inside and say words like “can’t” or “never.” Maybe it’s with a particular project or book or job or client or magazine piece or _______. You fill in the blank. I’ve been there in the past and I’m also there today—depending on the particular project.

When I consider the impossible, I recall a comment from Al Janssen, who has been in publishing many years in different roles as an editor and writer. Most recently, Al wrote a new book for Brother Andrew called Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire. Late one night at a writer’s conference, Al and I were sitting around talking about books and he told me, “Terry, every time I sit down to write a book, I wonder if I’ll be able to write it.”  Talk about honesty! I have the same fears as I write.  For example, I work hard, create a proposal and get a book contract from a publisher—but I wonder if I’ll be able to pull it off. You’d think as many times as I’ve done it that inside I would hear a resounding yes. It never comes—instead I get doubts, fears and questions—every single time.

As an example, I think about my first collaboration book project with Chris Woehr called One Bright Shining Path, Faith in the Midst of Terrorism. In the early 90s, the Shining Path brutally killed a national translator in Peru, South America.  At the time, I was the manager of the editorial department at Wycliffe Bible Translators and in charge of their books, magazine and printed materials. I felt this story had to be told in book form and I was looking for the best writer to do it.

I called Philip Yancey and asked him to write this book for Wycliffe. He knew about the story and was interested in it but Philip has a busy writing schedule. The year before he had interrupted it to write a book about the Russian church—and he was determined not to interrupt his writing schedule again. He was polite but said no. I’ve heard the word no before and I was racking my brain trying to figure out who could write this book.  Back then the Wycliffe office was a mile and a half from the beach in Southern California. I went out for my lunchtime run and during that time, I reflected on my own experiences in Peru and this part of the world.  I had never written a full-length adult book but I knew I could taste the dust on those roads and I had been with the people and could describe them to the reader. It was like the Lord pulled on my heart and told me I could write this book. Chris Woehr and I combined our talents for this project and Crossway Books kept the book in print for many years.

That book looked impossible at different times.  The work was hard—in fact none of my books have been easy—even though going into them I’m optimistically thinking they will be easy. Each one takes a lot of energy and hard work. When I’m in an impossible situation, I try and reflect on the words of the Apostle Paul, when he pleaded for God to remove a thorn in his flesh. These words are some of the few in red (from Jesus) past the gospels in the New Testament, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9m NIV)



Sunday, February 06, 2005

Beyond Expectations

When it comes to my writing, I work hard at it, turn it into the editor and work on rewrites (if needed) then rejoice when it comes out in print. It could be a new book or a magazine article. In general, I ask God to use my entire writing and editing life but I don’t put a lot of thought into the details about how that will happen.

I certainly have dreams and aspirations as a writer for my work. I’ve found it unproductive and at times disappointing when I place a lot of personal attention on such issues. It’s pretty dismal to learn that one of your books with high hopes is going out of print. Or maybe you receive a quarterly or semi-annual or annual royalty statement and learn it’s sold less than ten copies during that time period. Yes, it happens and it has happened to me.  I write, work hard on the words, then commit the results into God’s capable hands.

Some days God surprises us with what has happened. Because of my body of work, each book has been written with a different set of parameters. For example on some books, my name doesn’t appear on the cover or the title page. It’s only on the copyright page. I wrote these books early on and in general as a work-made-for-hire, which means no additional earnings beyond the single paycheck.  Some writers dislike this type of work but I’ve found it a productive way to make a living.  This type of work is common if you work with book packagers. (Follow this link if you don’t know this term as a writer.)

Last week, I received a short email about one of my early books, Lighthouse Psalms. Long out of print, I wrote these books over a brief period seven years ago.  I wrote Lighthouse Psalms and Love Psalms which included short devotionals and verses from the Psalms. The only place my name appears is on the title page and I wrote them as work-made-for-hire, received a few author copies and moved on to my next writing project. From discussions with the book packager and others, I know these books sold at least 60,000 copies (or bestselling numbers). I’m pleased for the ministry of these books but I hadn’t thought about these beautiful books in some time—until last week.

I received an email written with some desperation searching for a copy of the book…for a special situation of an illness. She wrote, “This book has brought comfort to him over the last few months as I read to him from it and other members of his family do as well. We then go to our Bibles and will look up the chapter in Psalms or particular passages and read the entire chapter. I cannot tell you the comfort that it brings to him when I read it.” The email continued to explain that she couldn’t locate the book but wanted to get a couple of copies.  I don’t have many copies of these books but I dug out what I had to send to this reader.

I was stunned. Something that I wrote eight years ago continued to have such an impact on someone’s life. In some ways I shouldn’t be surprised at God’s working. The Apostle Paul laid it out to the church at Ephesus in his prayer, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurable more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20).

I have a vivid imagination and can ask God for some huge things. This response to my writing was definitely beyond any of my expectations.


Saturday, February 05, 2005

A Mistake With Justice

OK, I’ll admit it. Writers are an insecure bunch of folks—and I’m one of the first to stick up my hand and say that I’m one of them. As creative types, we pour ourselves into our work. If it’s a novel, then we get totally wrapped up with our characters and the dialogue and our plot twists and turns. If it’s nonfiction, then we are weaving story with how-to information to combine to drive the reader in a certain direction. If it’s a magazine article, then it has a particular shape and point to it.

When we tuck our manuscript or book proposal into an envelope and send it out. Or write a query letter to an editor, we are putting ourselves out there. It hurts to get rejected and turned down.  I know it’s just business and not personal but we still believed we were sending our article or our manuscript to just the perfect place—and the answer was no. I’ve mentioned some of the reasons for rejection in earlier posts here. It’s unfortunate but some writers get so bothered with the responses, they never send in their materials or try to get it published. It’s a shame.

About twenty years ago, I was living in Southern California and involved in a monthly critique group. The experience of meeting with these four people was instrumental in shaping my own experiences as a writer and editor.  (If you have no idea what I’m talking about and want to organize one, follow this link). Each month we met for breakfast and critiqued each other’s manuscripts. One member of the group had never published anything. His skill was writing the long form (anything over 60,000 words).  My writing life was getting started and I was thrilled if I could complete a short 1,000 word magazine article during the month between sessions. I admired this writer who could produce volumes of material. Unlike some writers, Bill had (and has) a huge talent for dialogue and plot twists.  We reviewed part of a novel each month and it was eagerly received and read. It turns out Bill had written seven of these full-length adult novels (80,000 to 100,000 words). One day I turned and asked, “What do you do with these, Bill, after you complete them?”

He looked a little sheepish and said, “I put them in my file drawer and start on the next one.” I was surprised that he never tried to get these stories out into the marketplace. If you go to a writer’s conference or are involved in a writer’s forum, it seems to me like almost every other writer is working on a long novel. There are literally thousands of these manuscripts in circulation at different publishing houses.

From what I’ve seen most of these novels are submitted way too early. The writer hasn’t learned the craft of writing or skill in storytelling. Many of these novels are simply clogging the publishing world. In one sense, you admire the courage of these writers to try and get it out there—but because they receive form letter rejections, they have no idea how to fix their work. The editors can’t give you this feedback. You learn to fix your work and grow in your craft through the critique process.  Through the encouragement of our little group, Bill learned about the marketplace and how to submit his materials, gain a hearing and get published. I’m thrilled to report most (possibly all) of those novels are in print.

We’re insecure and make mistakes. Yet as writers, we are tough skinned and continue to get our material out into the marketplace—and work to find a home for it.

Remember my recent business card incident? I told about proofing the wrong zip code.  My new cards were ready so I went to pick them up. Because I pre-paid, they simply handed me the cards—in two boxes.  I was surprised since I only ordered one box of 500. I had paid for the batch of previous cards with the error (my mistake), then put them into the recycle bin. I showed the customer service employee my receipt for one box of business cards. Then he said, “I thought you ordered 1,000 cards. I guess you lucked out.” To me it was much more than luck. It looked like a mistake with justice.


Friday, February 04, 2005

Organize To Thrive

Finally I had enough. I had to take a bit of time to organize my writing and editing space. It happens periodically and I’ve learned to listen to those feelings. The piles around me grow huge and I can’t seem to get anything done because I spend half of my time looking for a particular piece of paperwork—and finally finding it.

For several hours, I tore into my desk paperwork, sorting it into files, creating new files, and shuffling my file drawers. I came to a place where I couldn’t stuff another document into several of my drawers. I knew that much of the information in those particular drawers was dated and not in current use. It was fairly simple to sort and put things back into their place. For my writing life, I have to be organized in order to get things done. As an editor, it was the same way. I’d walk into some editors cubicles and paperwork was piled everywhere. The editor could barely get through the papers to find their computer and work on it. For these editors, they worked in chaos but I couldn’t. I try to find balance in this area and not be overly organized. One of my editor friends had each of the books on her shelf alphabetized by the author’s last name. And her CD’s? I understand they are also in alphabetical order. I’m definitely not that organized!

For a fascinating book on this topic for writers, I recommend The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1996). (If you follow the link, I don’t know why a used copy is $75 when it originally retailed for $35. Maybe track it down through your local library.). With a single photograph and a small bit of information, you visit some of the best-known writers of our time like Kurt Vonnegut, E.B. White, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Roy Blount, Jr., George Plimpton and many others. The book provides a fascinating glimpse into their work space and habits.

After a few hours, I completed my office transformation. Everything isn’t perfect but enough of it is under control that I can easily continue on different projects and move ahead. It felt good to shuffle around the files and rein in a bit of the chaos in my working space. I’ve learned that I need to organize to thrive.


Thursday, February 03, 2005

Starting Over -- Again

Recently I made some new business cards. I needed them because we moved last August to Arizona and I needed some cards with simply my editor/ writer information.  Microsoft Publisher has a business card template which is simple — even for someone like me who has little graphic design skills.  I entered the different fields of information, then tried different templates. Quickly the card changed and I selected one with a creative twist.

Driving to a nearby store, I turned in my card and a few days later I picked up my new business card. To me, it looked great and I’d even handed out a few of them.  The other day I glanced down at the card and noticed they were printed with the wrong zip code. Immediately I turned to see if the store introduced the error. I’d love to blame someone else for this mistake but I couldn’t. I put in the wrong zip code and they printed what I submitted. Suddenly instead of having a new business card or an asset for my writing life, I had a box of 500 mistakes and felt terrible.

With chagrin, I admitted the error to my wife and she instantly responded, “When you showed me the cards, I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t like the design of that card.” Besides making the typographical error, I had missed a critical step in the production process—checking with someone else and getting some feedback.  While not a writer, my wife has terrific taste and keen insight. For this particular job, I didn’t tap into her expertise but I put it together, selected a design and made it happen. 

Suddenly I found a good reason for starting over—again. Besides getting a correct card, I would have an improved image. I began to be thankful only a few people saw the flawed card and design. This time I gathered her input about the overall look. My new business card has clean lines and a clear message. I double checked and triple checked the information to make sure it’s right. In a few days, I will have a new box of cards.

In my writing and editing life, I’m constantly starting over.  I have a new relationship with an editor or a new magazine. I turn in one magazine article and begin another one. I finish a book manuscript and begin a new project. I’m grateful that even with an occasional mistake, I learn new insight.

As I think about starting over again, the weeping prophet of Israel, Jeremiah, came to mind. The short book of Lamentations contains a promise filled with hope, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22–23, RSV). It’s something to cling to and begin again.


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Like A Half-Marathon

I’ve never run a full marathon. I’ve thought about it several times during my life.  At one point, I even purchased a marathon guide book for a training schedule. For a multitude of excuses, I never managed to complete the marathon distance.  At one point, I built my distance to where I ran a half-marathon distance. It wasn’t in a race but on my own out on the road.

In many ways, writing full-length books is like running a half-marathon. You have to work at it consistently to finish. Through writing a bit each day and completing different sections, eventually you manage to complete the project. You can’t push too hard or you will get exhausted and not finish. If you think about the entire project from beginning to end, it becomes overwhelming at times and you can’t complete it either. Instead, you focus on the task for that particular day such as completing a chapter or part of a chapter, then you complete the next chapter, etc. It’s not a sprint or short race but a lengthy effort.

Last night I felt the exhilaration when I finished another book-length manuscript. I had written part of this manuscript last year. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working hard to expand it, rework the sentences and add new stories along with current how-to information and statistics. My overall goal was to expand the content about 30% from its former size. When I completed my planned additions, I counted my words and was please to discover that unconsciously I had written to my overall goal. 

I printed the entire manuscript and gave it one last read before I sent it off to my editor. What a relief to have this project in the hands of a capable editor. I’ll have to go through another round of revision (or two or three). It’s the editorial process—even for much published writers and editors like myself.  I want to always continue to grow in my craft and be open to revision and changes. It’s one of the pure signs of a professional from my view. While I’m aware there will be more work ahead for this particular project, I’m relieved to have completed this part of the process.

I’m unsure where you are in the writing journey. Maybe you are wondering if you can even write. Or maybe you write short magazine articles and are wondering if you can complete a book. You never know if you don’t try. 

Have you fallen for the big lie that writers are born? Or maybe you believe you either have it or you don’t have it and it can’t be taught? I’d encourage you to read and re-read James Scott Bell’s personal story, Putting the Big Lie to Sleep. It will encourage you to maybe try that half-marathon.