Thursday, June 30, 2005

Some Links Worth Checking

Several weeks ago in an entry on The Writing Life, I pointed out an article in the advertising section of The New Yorker magazine by Meakin Armstrong titled, “The Stories Behind the Best-sellers.” This article wasn’t online but only in an advertising section of the magazine. Later that same day, I received a note from Meakin thanking me for the mention. The experience reminded me of the public nature of these entries. It’s a world-wide community that we tap through blogging.

Yesterday I received another email from Meakin, who is in Russia for a project. I learned the complete article is now online. Leaders of major publishing houses talk about what makes a bestseller. It’s an article worth reading.

If you read these entries very often, you will know I love reading the local newspaper. Yesterday on CNN Inside Politics I learned about an online location which shows the front page of newspapers around the world.  To me, it’s a fascinating resource. If you want to see these front pages in a different format, check out this link to see 409 front pages of newspapers from 45 countries.

I live near the northern border of Scottsdale, Arizona. The Cave Creek Complex Fire has burned more than 172,000 acres over the last nine days. Today I can taste and smell the smoke from this fire when I walk outside.  While the fire is 40% contained on the southern edge, it’s not contained at all on the northern edge of it. I found a place online to monitor the firefighters progress on this local (yet internationally covered) event.

You can do a great deal of research for your magazine articles or book proposals sitting down at your computer.  It’s worth investing a bit of time to learn (and continue to learn) how to do this type of research. It will improve your writing skills.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

It's Not All In Fiction

Over the last few days, I’ve been going through another stack of manuscript submissions. It’s reminded me again of the massive numbers of people who are trying to write fiction—yet often doing it poorly. I believe at least some of these writers should be working in the nonfiction area to hone their craft. In particular they should be writing shorter magazine articles before they attempt anything like a 80,000 to 100,000 word novel.

At the conference this past weekend, bestselling novelist Debbie Macomber divided the fiction authors into three different groups. She said, “I described what I consider are the three types of people who write.  The first group is the storytellers, the second is the writers who have the craft of writing down pat, and the third group is a combination of both.  Now, it’s the third group that I think hasn’t suffered enough, because they have it too easy, in my opinion.  I fall into the first category.  I love to tell stories.”

From my perspective good storytelling isn’t only in fiction. Good storytelling is in fiction and in nonfiction.  Someone who writes nonfiction is working with facts and weaving those facts into a fascinating story. I believe some people have read boring nonfiction and it’s turned them off from the form—just like there are some boring novels (thankfully most of them don’t get published).

If you haven’t read some great nonfiction, go to your local library and check out Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Then follow the link and read the first page or two of the book.  The book came out in 1966 and as Amazon.com says about the book, “Capote combined painstaking research with a narrative feel to produce one of the most spell-binding stories ever put on the page. Two two-time losers living in a lonely house in western Kansas are out to make the heist of their life, but when things don’t go as planned, the robbery turns ugly.” It is nonfiction at its best and highly recommended.

Another nonfiction example of excellent storytelling would be the recent book from Jack El-Hai, The Lobotomist. Originally I purchased this book to support my friend from the ASJA. When Jack started this project, he assumed that he would be writing about an American Hitler-like person, Dr. Walter J. Freeman, who ranks as one of the most scorned physicians of the twentieth century for initiating the operation called lobotomy.  Through his research, Jack learned about a remarkable man who helped many people in this operation. I found the book compelling and fascinating about a topic that I knew nothing about with excellent writing.

If you haven’t read The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester, make sure you pick up a copy of this book. It’s about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—the most comprehensive dictionary in the English language. Doesn’t this sound like a boring topic? Who would guess that the greatest contributor was an American who was locked up in a mental institution on Great Britain? The storytelling is fabulous and the book was a New York Times bestseller. It’s as worthy of your reading time as any novel.

Finally in the area of nonfiction books, I recommend the new book from Michael Finkel, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. I know it sounds like I read a lot of true crime. I hardly ever read such books but recently in the bookstore I stumbled on this cover, “Just as I was fired from a job I had coveted almost all my life, I learned about the murders. A man named Christian Longo, who was wanted for killing his wife and three young children, had fled to Mexico. He’d been hiding out there, pretending to be a writers for the New York Times—pretending, in fact, to be me.” See why I had to read this title? It’s compelling drama yet nonfiction and excellent storytelling.

You don’t have to turn to books to find excellent nonfiction storytelling. It’s everywhere if you are open to reading it. For example, I was fascinated with the detail, description and vivid storytelling in this piece in the current New Yorker magazine on God and Country, A college that trains young Christians to be politicians by Hanna Rosin. Check it out.

I love fiction but those writers don’t have the corner on good storytelling. It’s necessary for fiction and nonfiction. Just make sure as a writer you think about the various elements of a good story and include them in your writing. It will elevate it from the mundane into something that has to be published.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Every Clip Isn't Equal

In the world of magazine writing, after an article is published, we commonly refer to the article as a “clip.” I have no idea when this practice began. After almost twenty years of writing for various magazines, I’ve got boxes of magazine clips.

Particularly when you are beginning to write for publication, these clips are important. You make a photocopy of it and add it to your query letter to the magazine.  If you’ve been published in a national and easily recognized publication, then it’s easier to use these clips to validate your publishing experience. The editor looks at these clips to learn a bit more about your writing style. Also clips are sent when you write for a new publication.  Other writers will simply point to several of their magazine articles on a website to show their writing.

Thousands of magazines are printed each month in various areas of the marketplace. Some of these magazines are inspirational / religious magazines while others are trade magazines (like for a particular organization). Other magazines are consumer magazines which you can easily find in your local stores.

I enjoy writing for magazines as well as the longer book projects. The magazine articles some times lead to book projects. The assignments get the writer out into the marketplace of ideas, interviewing people and interacting with organizations.  I find many writers focused on longer books—when often they need to begin in the magazine area to build some publishing credits. Magazine writing is shorter in length and also a shorter time frame for publication.  It can often be a year from submission (even a contracted book project) until a book appears in print. Most magazines are working four to six months ahead of their publication schedule. If you turn in the article, it appears several months later.

Several months ago, I took an assignment from a small publication. I’ve not written for this particular magazine for many years but the assignment was short and different. Typically in these smaller publications, the payment isn’t large but some times these opportunities can lead to other things. I didn’t want to ignore these possibilities.

I put together the article, received my payment and haven’t heard anything else from the publication—until this week. This type of practice is fairly typical for these smaller publications with limited staff. In the larger publications (and when I was a magazine editor), we would send the author an edited version of their story. Usually you have a tight deadline and are only checking for accuracy. Often this accuracy check doesn’t happen in the fast-pace for the smaller publications—but it should.

In my weekend mail, I found my contributor copies of this publication. The magazine is impressive and full-color on every page. I eagerly turned to my article.  I knew the information about my background would be brief. I was surprised to learn that I live in Tuscon, Arizona (their spelling since the city is correctly spelled Tucson).  It’s not where I live. I live in Scottsdale, Arizona which is outside of Phoenix. It was a beautiful short article and my only consolation is they correctly spelled my name.

I completely understand how such errors happen in the rush to publication with limited staff—yet I was a bit chagrined with the error.  I walked over to a market guide to check the circulation estimate of this publication.  I was relieved to see it was less than 50,000. Sometimes the circulation numbers are much higher. For example, over a dozen years ago, I was editor at a publication with a monthly circulation of 1.8 million copies. When we made such an error, it was a much bigger mistake.

I’m pleased to have written for this publication. It will likely not be a clip that I will show to many people. Every clip isn’t equal in the magazine business.


Monday, June 27, 2005

Expanded Possibilities

During the last few days, I’ve been in Amarillo, Texas at the Frontiers in Writing Conference.  What a great opportunity to escape my computer and my piles of manuscripts to get some one on one time with writers. The conference was one of the best organized that I’ve attended in some time and ran like clockwork with every detail under control.  Because I’ve worked behind the scenes to organize conferences in the past, I appreciate the amount of energy, planning and effort that goes into these conferences. Often the organizers don’t get to attend any of the workshops but they generously give back to the faculty and the attendees to make sure they have the greatest benefit from the gathering.

I enjoyed the opportunity to meet with writers, listen to their dreams and aspirations then explore possibilities. I taught a couple of workshops including understanding and negotiating contracts plus about book proposals that sell. My intention whether interacting with an individual writer or teaching a workshop or leading a critique group is to expand their possibilities and give them the greatest value at the conference. I understand it’s a high expectation and goal but I understand each person has invested time and money to be able to attend the conference. I hate for people to go home feeling like they wasted their effort.

In my workshop about book proposals, I saw several people catch a new idea (really an old idea for those of us in publishing). These writers understood for the first time that if they are writing a nonfiction book, they didn’t need to write the entire manuscript before submitting it to a publisher. Instead, they can write a terrific book proposal plus a couple of sample chapters (to highlight their writing skills) and get a book contract from the proposal and chapters.  Then if a publisher accepts and contracts the proposal, the writer will create the full book manuscript. If not, then they haven’t invested hours and hours of writing into a manuscript which isn’t published.  It’s how nonfiction works within the publishing community. A proposal is needed not a full length manuscript. The proposal contains many elements that never appear in your book manuscript—but these elements are critical for a publisher to make a decision. Several in my workshop caught this idea for the first time.

Also at the conference, I met some people who may expand possibilities for my own writing life. They will only become reality if I follow through with the opportunity.

Writer’s conferences are terrific. They are opportunities for new relationships and instructive teaching and life-long friends.  Some people attend these conferences for the inspiration (a good aspect) and yet never follow up on their opportunities (a negative aspect). You can only expand your possibilities, if you follow up from the conference.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On The Way Out Again

Early tomorrow morning I’m on the way to Amarillo, Texas. I’ll be on the faculty of the Frontiers in Writing conference.  I’ve never been to this particular conference but the Panhandler Professional Writers sponsor these meetings, which is one of the oldest writing organization in the nation. It’s been many years since I’ve been to Amarillo so I look forward to the experience.

I’ll be teaching a workshop on Understanding and Negotiating Contracts. Because I’ve been on both sides of the table with these types of negotiations I hope to give writers some insight. It’s hard to do in a single hour on the topic so I try and give other resources in my handouts.  Also I’m teaching another workshop twice on Book Proposals That Sell. I’ve got way too much material to cram into an hour but what I will be saying is different from the content of my book—yet tied to it with lots of other handouts and resources.

I enjoy the opportunity to meet and listen to other writers and editors. It’s one of the benefits to attending these conferences—even if you are an experienced writer or whether you are just beginning. I’ve signed up for several more conferences later this year. If you want to follow my speaking schedule, I try and keep it up-to-date. Check the various links for the specifics about the conference.

Despite years of traveling experiences, I consistently forget something—usually something insignificant. I’ve tried packing lists and all sorts of methods to avoid this matter but it still happens. My biggest challenge when I travel is figuring out which book or books to read. I love the uninterrupted reading time which I get traveling.

If you want to catch some interesting information about speakers—particularly Christian speakers, the current issue of Forbes magazine touts the Celebrity 100–– the top money earners for the past year in different areas.  As I read through the magazine this week, I was fascinated with this short article featuring speaker and author Ken Davis titled “The Messenger.” Apparently the high earnings of some speakers have caught the attention of this widely-circulated publication.

It will be a challenge for me to write any entries about The Writing Life over the next few days. If I can, I will do it.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to return to Right-Writing.com and scour through the various articles. As I can, I continue to add new material to the site. If you aren’t a newsletter subscriber (free), make sure you check it out and have access through the back issues link to literally hundreds of pages of how-to write material which isn’t accessible through any other means.



Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Box of Hope

Yesterday I received a box of the new releases from a publisher.  Like many houses, each season they have a new series of books to introduce to the retailer. The telemarketing sales staff at the publisher are calling their various accounts to sell the book into the store. Other members of the publishing house are traveling to key accounts to present the books in person—and hopefully collect their orders.  Then when the books are printed, they are automatically shipped to these various places.

I carefully looked at each book in the stack of releases. Some were targeted as gift books. These colorful packages have a lot of graphics inside the pages of the book and a small design size. They are the perfect impulse buy item and ideally will be sold near the cash register for those impulse purchases.  Because I’ve worked inside a publishing house, I know that someone had a vision for these books and guided the design and the finished product. The writer produced an excellent manuscript but someone had to guide the production until it became a real book.

Other books were targeted to mothers of small children. Yet other books were for fathers and other titles were for grandmothers. These books will find their way into the marketplace over the next few weeks. Notice they were each targeted for a particular segment of the marketplace.

I’ve talked with many would-be writers about their potential audience. They proudly tell me, “This book is for everyone.” Internally the editor cringes when you say that sentence. It’s the pure sign of the rookie, unskilled writer. Every book needs a target audience. This target has to be large enough to merit publishing the book and gaining a broad distribution. Yes, there will be people outside the target who purchase the book—but they will only be a few people. The bulk of the sales will be from the target audience. I discuss this principle in Book Proposals That Sell. Each book has a target.

As these books get into the marketplace, some of them will be successful and find their audience. Their sales will climb to an appropriate level. Others will not make it. It’s a reality of the publishing business.  Each year books go out of print. But at this point in time, this stack of new releases represents a box of hope.

Writers are a hopeful bunch of people. We pour our energy and effort into our manuscripts, our query letters, our proposals and our storytelling. Why? We hope some editor will read our material, champion our cause and get it into print and help people.

A few weeks ago, I received an email which thanked me for a series of sticker books I wrote many years ago. Each one represented a key Bible figure.  This person had enjoyed hours of imaginary fun playing with these stickers and learning about these Biblical characters from these books. I responded to the email and one key question was asking the writer’s age. She responded that she was twelve.  I was encouraged to learn my writing had encouraged this young reader. I thanked her for her email and writing. What are you doing in your writing today to bring hope to others? If it wasn’t a part of your plan, maybe it will be now.


Monday, June 20, 2005

Start Writing Early

I’ve interviewed a number of writers and often they have a career in one area then stumble into their writing late in life. Others started young and stayed with it. Maybe as a young person, they didn’t publish lots of material but they had an interest in words and reading.

For me, a high school English teacher saw some spark of life in my writing and encouraged me to join the school newspaper. That boost set me on a course to major in journalism in college. Then I made a left hand turn away from my writing into linguistics for ten years—but I wandered back into my writing and I’ve stayed in the field. During those years in linguistics, I did not write anything for publication except a few letters.

This month St. Martin’s Griffin released a book that I wish had been able to read when I was a teenager. I would have gleaned a great deal of information from it. Timothy Harper and his daughter, Elizabeth Harper teamed to write Your Name In Print, A Teen’s Guide to Publishing for Fun, Profit and Academic Success.

This month St. Martin’s Griffin released a book that I wish had been able to read when I was a teenager. I would have gleaned a great deal of information from it. Timothy Harper and his daughter, Elizabeth Harper teamed to write Your Name In Print, A Teen’s Guide to Publishing for Fun, Profit and Academic Success.

The book is excellent and covers a broad range of topics to introduce teens to writing. I loved this quote in the early pages of their book, “Getting published is less important than the process, discipline and goals involved in writing. Even for teenagers who don’t want to be professional writers—even teens who really don’t care whether they ever get published anywhere beyond their school paper—writing is something that can stretch their creativity and help them find their niche, and it’s fun.”

I love the emphasis that teens need to have fun in the process. Otherwise why write? If it’s drudgery then I’d rather the teen head into a different profession. Yes, writing involves craft and many other variables—but it should be something they enjoy doing. You can see my full review of Your Name In Print on the Teenreads.com website.

Think of the young people who cross your path today. Maybe they are in your family or extended family or your neighborhood. Could you be that person to drop some encouragement into their life and steer them in a different direction?


Sunday, June 19, 2005

Skeptic but Surprised

This past week I’ve been seeing and reading reviews and interviews with the various cast members of Batman Begins which potentially is the blockbuster movie for the summer. When my wife offered to go see it, I leaped at the chance.  (She usually not real keen on these action types of films).

We’ve seen the other movies in the Batman series. Several years ago when we saw the last Batman movie, it was so dark and the story so poorly crafted that I almost fell asleep in it. I wondered about Batman Begins and if it would live up to the advance publicity. Last week I watched an interview with Christian Bale who plays the lead of Bruce Wayne (Batman). Hee emphasized the film would have a story and that was one of the keys to his involvement in the film. The skeptic part of me thought, Yeah, right. Story. Like the last Batman film?

After watching the film, my skepticism turned into surprise. The movie has a solid story and the story carries throughout the film—from beginning until the end. Yes, it has a lot of action and comic-book like characters but I was impressed with the final product.

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned how to use Movietickets.com. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like standing in theater lines (if there is another choice).  While movietickets.com has a service charge, I’ve discovered moviewatcher.com (free). If you select one of those theaters (which is near our home), you can purchase your ticket in advance (without a service charge) and avoid the line. When you arrive at the theater, you swipe your credit card in the machine and it says “Print Your Tickets?” and you touch the button and your tickets are instantly printed.  It’s something else to explore in the technology realm—if you haven’t already used it.

I love being skeptical about a movie or a book and being surprised. It was a gift.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Digit Difference

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been working to complete an assignment for Writer’s Digest magazine. It’s an article about Seven Ways Writers Can Profit From Blogging.  My original title may not stick (always the magazine’s right) before the article is published. I poured a lot of effort into the article and interviewed a couple of well-known people who I included their quotations in the article.

I have a contract and a due date for my assignment. It was due June 17th. 

Friday morning I re-read my article and polished a few more sentences then wrote a cover letter to the editor, attached my article and sent it.  Within a matter of minutes, I received an automatic response from the editor. They were at a writer’s conference and wouldn’t return to their office until June 27th.

At first I was fuming. I had raced to complete this article by June 17th and yet the editor wasn’t going to receive it for ten days. Then I thought maybe the editor was leaving tomorrow—and she turned on her automatic message early.  I’ve received such messages in the past—when actually the editor is in their office. The automatic message wasn’t turned off or was turned on early because I get a real message from the editor later in the day. It didn’t happen here.

I dug out my contract and re-read it. My mind had latched on to the wrong date.  My article was due June 27th (the day of her return) not June 17th.  I experienced the digit difference. Laughing at my error, I pressed on to some other editorial responsibilities.

In general, it isn’t a problem if you send in the article early. Most editors appreciate the early manuscript and it helps their own production schedules. Or they acknowledge it and set it aside until the time scheduled to read and edit the article.

Editors face a completely different story when you are going to be late with your manuscript. Whether it is a book manuscript or a short magazine article, the editor has scheduled your material and expects it to arrive at a certain time.  A number of authors are notoriously late with their book manuscripts and it sets off all types of problems for the publisher. When you sign your book contract with a certain due date for the manuscript, behind the scenes the publisher generates a detailed production schedule. The author never sees this production schedule but it tells everyone internally when certain aspects are supposed to take place (cover design, catalog copy on the book, press releases, book goes to press, and many other steps). Editors spend hours in schedule meetings discussing each book and whether it is on schedule or off schedule. If you are late with your book manuscript, your late action could have been why your book didn’t get the proper publicity push. The manuscript wasn’t in the publishing house to send to the trade publications (typically four to six months ahead of the release date). And if no one tells this author, then they never understand the importance of their due date for the manuscript.  It’s one of those “joyful” duties of an editor (not).

I’m glad my magazine article arrived early rather than late. I learned about the difference a digit makes.


Friday, June 17, 2005

A Different Perspective

For many years, I’ve been studying how to write a book proposal.  I’ve written more than a few of them plus I’ve received hundreds of them from writers (because of my role as an acquisitions editor). Yet there is always a different perspective on the same topic and more to learn.

This week I posted Ten Factors to Consider When Writing Book Proposals by Dr. Dennis E. Hensley. He includes a different twist on some of the standard elements. For example, consider the element of neatness and Doc Hensley writes, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression, so it had better be your best effort. Dog-eared pages, erasure smudges, strike-overs, faded ribbons and correction fluid smears are sure indications that the manuscript has been passed around. Make sure that the manuscript smacks of professionalism. Use #16 or #20 weight Bond white paper, and be sure to have an ink cartridge in your computer printer that is full and dark.”

You may not think the editor will noticed that dog-eared submission—but we do notice.

I love the opening story in this article (don’t miss it). It points out a common fallacy that writers have about acquisitions editors at a publishing house.  These writers wrongly believe if their proposal isn’t just right on the mark then the editor can “fix it.” Why? They think that is how editors fill their days. Wrong.

As an editor, it doesn’t take much time to learn your day is filled with many different responsibilities from the publishing house. I explore these aspects in-depth in Book Proposals That SellI recommend every writer read this chapter and understand the stress and pressure from their editor. It will spur you to excellence with your submissions.

Some times, I see a glimmer of something that interests me in a proposal. Yet there is no time in my schedule to pull out glimmers and recraft them into a full-blown-gotta-buy-this-one type of idea. If a proposal comes in about 75% to 85% of the way to the target, then it is a wise investment of my time and energy to push it the rest of the journey.  Squeezing this last 15% to 25% often takes a lot of time but if it results in a book contract and an excellent product for my publishing house, then it’s worth the effort.

OK, now go back and think about your proposal and your expectations for what the editor will do. If your idea is anything less than almost perfect for the publisher, I can practically guarantee it will be rejected and returned. The days of an editor working back and forth to help a writer craft their proposal are gone. The volume of submissions and the paper flow is too great to do anything else other than send a form rejection letter.

My encouragement for every writer is to polish your proposal to perfection—before you stuff it in the envelope and send it to the publishing house.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

More Straight Talk

In yesterday’s entry, I talked about straight talking and the challenge to find it in the editorial world. This morning on Publisher’s Lunch (the free email newsletter that you should be getting), it connected to the entry saying, “MacAdam/Cage editor-in-chief Pat Walsh (whose notable books included Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea) is also leaving, after seven years at the publisher.” The world of the editor is in continual motion. To me, it’s a reminder of our need to maintain relationships—no matter how small.  

I’ve continued reading in Walsh’s book, 78 Reasons Why Your book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might (Penguin Original, June 2005). As I mentioned yesterday, the book has no religious or spiritual connection.  Some of you might be offended by a bit of how Walsh expresses himself—but it is unvarnished straight talk about publishing. His first reason: The Number One Reason Your Book Will Never Be Published Is Because You Have Not Written It.

How true is that statement? I’ve met a steady stream of people who dream of writing a book yet never get their fingers on the keyboard and produce an excellent manuscript. It’s no excuse to say, “Not yet” unless you are moving toward the goal. You might move in incremental steps. For example, you can write a series of magazine articles to learn about the business before you jump into a full-length book project (highly recommended).

And if you dream of earning a big financial pay off from writing, then Walsh brings more straight talk to the writer saying, “Given the amount of time it takes to write a good book, working at McDonald’s makes more financial sense. In a nutshell: Getting published requires an unholy amount of work and a great deal of time. It is often closer to the culminating of a career rather than the beginning of one. If you are looking for a hobby and enjoy writing, then by all means, have at it, but know that being published is a long shot in the best of circumstances.”

The truth of his statements ring loud to me. Yet don’t get discouraged and feel dashed from this straight talk.

Each of us have to find our own journey in this business called publishing. Pick something short (like a basic magazine article) which you can accomplish today (or at least begin). When you do it, celebrate. Then keep moving ahead the next day. It works for me.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Unvarnished Truth

Most of us don’t want the unvarnished truth about publishing—especially if it comes to our own writing.  We can’t find it with family members. They will often gush over anything that you give them.

Critique groups are another possibility. It’s a great place to get some feedback from fellow writers about your latest work in progress or magazine article or children’s book. The quality of the feedback will depend on the skill of the other members of your critique group. You will have to learn how much to take and not take from that feedback process.

Some times you get some glimmers of unvarnished truth at a writer’s conference. I’m thinking about those one on one meetings with an editor. Yet again you have to use caution about the feedback. I’ve been in those meetings repeatedly—and I know if I’m too honest I could hear about it from the evaluation forms and the conference director. Besides people invested a lot of their financial resources to come to these conferences—mostly for encouragement—not to be discouraged.

You can’t give the unvarnished truth in rejection letters. It’s why editors and agents have carefully crafted rejection letters that say something about “it’s not right for their needs” (whatever that means in terms of the real truth). I was interested when one of my agent friends said she learned the hard way not to give too much personal information in a rejection letter. If you give too much, it encourages the writer to try again. Or it encourages the writer to get into a dialogue and almost argument with you about your insight. And what agent or editor has time for such dialogue—especially with unpublished writers? They don’t.

So the gentle rejection continues and the flood of material coming our direction as editors and agents for consideration.  I attempted to do a bit of the unvarnished truth in Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success. Particularly in the introductory chapters, I clue writers about the busy life of the editor and help them understand why editors don’t immediately return emails or phone calls (in general). I want to give the writer the best possible chance for consideration and help them be professional in the process.

Despite what people think about editors, we are not God nor do we have the final word on your writing. One editor’s pleasure is another editor’s poison to reject. You are looking for an editor to champion your cause internally in the magazine or publishing house and bring your writing into print for the general public. It’s a difficult relationship to locate—for anyone.

If you can’t find the unvarnished truth about your work, what do you do? You continue to hone your craft. Learn more about the publishing business and how it works and continue writing.  As another step in my learning process (yes, editors and writers have lots to learn), I’ve started reading a book from Pat Walsh (not a Christian writing book) called 78 Reasons Why Your book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might (Penguin Original, June 2005).  Here’s what intrigues me about the promise of this book—unvarnished truth for writers. Yes, the truth hurts but often we need to hear it. Walsh is the founding editor of MacAdam/ Cage, an independent publisher of nonfiction and fiction.

As Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (another excellent writing book) says, “Three reasons to buy Pat Walsh’s book on getting published. It’s a punch in the gut, a slap in the face, and a poke in the eye. In other words, a much-needed wake-up call about the delusions of the literary life. Buy one for every struggling writer you know.”

Not all of us can handle the unvarnished truth about this publishing business. For the little I’ve read, I’m going to learn a lot from this book. I’m always eager to find the unvarnish truth because it’s the only way I can take steps toward improvement.


Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Books & Tie-Ins

It happens more often than you would think—and especially with first-time novelists. They negotiate hard with their contract about the movie and film rights to their novel. Why? They believe they can do something with them or believe they can have someone else do something with these rights. It’s a rare day for anyone in book publishing—especially book publishing where a novel becomes a movie. It’s something to keep in mind next time you are involved in one of these matters. Hundreds of novels are published each year (more all the time) and few of them become movies.

It’s even more rare for a nonfiction book to become a movie. It does happen. In the last few days, I completed Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaaps. It’s an excellent sports book and I have little background in the area of boxing. It is a moving story about the life of James Braddock. The writing is crisp and the story moves with fascinating anecdotes. While the movie has received a lot of recent attention in the media (because of the director, Ron Howard, and the starring actors Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger), I found the book is the in-depth way to learn about the subject. Very little of the content of a book is able to be captured on the movie screen and it’s an excellent way to learn more information.

I was interested to read what Bob Miller, president of Hyperion Books said about tie-ins (in particular the article was about television tie-ins) in this week’s issue of Publisher’s Weekly.  He said, “I wish there was a science to it—a way to predict the success of TV tie-ins, but you can’t, no matter how popular the show is…You have to look at the show, figure out what’s driving its popularity and come up with a book that offers something beyond what they might already know.”

So next time you think about squabbling on your contract negotiations to keep the film rights for your novel. I’d encourage you to consider whether you have the possibility of doing anything with those rights or not (rare), then make your plans.

And if you have no contracts to negotiate or film rights to consider? Keep writing. Persistence is the name of the game in this business. In the meantime, keep learning all that you can about the various aspects—including how books are connected to movies and TV tie-ins.


Monday, June 13, 2005

Develop A Query Checklist

One of the most difficult things to proofread is something which isn’t on the paper.  It’s a skill that editors need to develop when they work on books or magazine articles.  For example, as a magazine editor, many years ago, I recall leaving a critical bit of information off the cover of the magazine—probably the month of the publication. Despite several of us proofreading the publication at various stages of the publication process. It was overlooked because it wasn’t on the page. Imagine our chagrin at printing 200,000 mistakes. The only redeeming factor is that in general, magazines are not kept for a long period of time (particularly the organization magazine that I was working on at that time).

This skill isn’t only for editors but an important skill that writers need to acquire as well. As the Fiction Acquisitions Editor,  I receive a steady stream of query letters in the mail as well as online.  You would be surprised how often the writer leaves off a critical detail for the editor. Here are a few things to make sure you include in your query letters:

1) Double check the query before mailing it or before emailing it.

2) Do you have the editor’s name spelled right? Despite my photo across the Internet, I regularly receive query letters addressed to “Ms. Whalin.” Wrong! Or “Terry Whalen.” Again wrong!  If you make this mistake, it makes an instant impression on the editor and they think, How many other details are wrong? It’s not the impression you want to leave with the editor.

3) Did you have a title for your manuscript? A compelling title? A number of queries for book ideas don’t include a title. It’s a mistake and an oversight from the writer.

4) Do you include the length of your manuscript and whether it is completed or not? Again many writers leave off this detail. If I want to know the detail, I will ask the writer—or maybe it’s easier to reject it (something writers don’t want to happen). If you leave out this detail, then you’ve set yourself up for the easiest answer for an editor to give you—no.

5) Did you include a way for the editor to respond? An email address or an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope)? It happened again last week. I received a large priority mail package from a first-time novelist (a manuscript I asked to see more detail) yet it included no SASE or instruction about what to do with the novel if rejected. As I process this manuscript, I will have to initiate correspondence with the author about what they want me to do with their material if rejected.

Also I’m amazed at the writers who short-change the publisher on the return postage. If it costs $11 from your house to the editor. Why would it cost $7.50 from the publisher to the writer? Is the publisher going to kick in the missing postage? Doubtful. That postage is an unbudgeted and unexpected expense that when multiplied by thousands of submissions could amount to a great deal of postage. And the experience makes an impression on the editor—and not one that you want to leave with the editor.

Another common query that I receive in the mail has no SASE nor an email address to respond to the writer. At times, it is obvious from the printed letter in the mail, the writer found my information on the publisher website—yet they give me no means to respond. It is the writer responsibility to give the editor a means to respond (at the writer’s expense). It is not the publishers responsibility to respond to a query with no SASE and no email address. Writers who send out this material are probably the loudest complaining about the lack of response from editors. I tend to have pity on writer—and stick a stamp on the envelope with my rejection—and a note about it. I suspect that I’m a rare editor to make this type of gesture.

You will have to develop your own checklist before you send your query or manuscript. I’ve been discussing purely mechanics in this entry on the writing life. I’ve said nothing about compelling material which is targeted exactly to the right publisher (another key).  Your responsibility as the writer is to give the editor something they have to publish. 


Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Emotional Connection

Yesterday in the dark theater, my wife leaned over and said to me, “I’m glad you’re the type of guy who likes to see these types of movies. Thank you for bringing me.” 

I love the action movies as much as anyone else—but I found the recent over-hyped Star Wars movie boring in spots and pure dullness (and yes I like fantasy and have seen all of these films multiple times—before I get blasted from the Star Wars fanatics).

You don’t have to read these entries about the writing life long to understand my love for books but also movies and the theater. Each of these venues, I process in a variety of genres and types. Yesterday we went to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Before going to the movie, I read the reviews and knew about the bestselling teen series from Ann Brashares (her first novel)—but I knew little else.  There were other men in the theater—but it was mostly packed with teenage girls.

If you haven’t seen it, four lifelong 17–year-old girls are apart for their first summer. They keep connected through a magical pair of jeans. Before they split up to different places, they try on a single pair of pants. While each is a different build, the same pair of pants magically fits each girl. They decide to share the pants through the mail and each girl takes a turn wearing the magic. As Ann Brashares writes, “I’ve always liked the idea that clothing can hold emotions and memories or connections to other people, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine a pair of jeans could be a physical repository for a living friendship.”

This coming of age story connects with the audience in a remarkable way. We fall in love with the characters share their joys and heartaches. The scenery is beautiful in the film—particularly on a Greek island. Be prepared if you go for an emotional rollercoaster that I didn’t expect. Suddenly I was watching a section and tears are rolling down my cheeks (good thing the theater is dark). It was like I was transported back to a teenage memory and the heartbreak of the experience. And it wasn’t just me. Many people in the theater were also reaching for a Kleenex. As my wife later told me, the teen girl beside her uncontrollably sobbing so much she felt like putting an arm around her to comfort her—but she didn’t since it was a complete stranger.

As writers, we can learn a great deal from how these movies and books are constructed. In some regards, it’s a bit of magic but in other ways it’s a technique that you and I can learn. If we understand and make the emotional connection.


Saturday, June 11, 2005

What Motivates Your Writing

When each of us sit at the keyboard or pore over a manuscript, we have a certain motivation. It might be to simply get it done for a deadline. It might be the material itself and its potential impact. Or it might be simply a job to make money. For me, it’s always been about the impact—much more than the money. Compensation is good and necessary but not my primary reason for moving my fingers on the keyboard.

I’m thinking about motivation today in light of some news I received this morning. It will resound today around the world—the passing of Dr. Kenneth N. Taylor. While the director of Moody Press, Ken and Margaret Taylor had small children at home. At one point they had five preschoolers and three in diapers. Ultimately the Taylors had ten children. As they read to their children, Ken lamented the fact there was no book that covered the entire Bible for children. When their children brought home Sunday School papers, Taylor handwrote stories to match the pictures. Encouraged with the responses, he submitted that material and ultimately Moody Press published The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes, an all-time bestselling children’s book.

While few people remember it now, at that time, the King James Version of the Bible was the only Bible. Today we have numerous modern day versions. Ken Taylor wondered if he could paraphrase the entire Bible for adults as he had for children. Each day he commuted on the train from his home in Wheaton to the Moody Press offices in downtown Chicago and he used this travel time to modernize the Scriptures. It took him seven years to paraphrase the New Testament Epistles. He was unable to find any publisher interested in printing this material so Ken took a $2,000 loan and privately printed the book. It didn’t take off in terms of sales until Billy Graham recommended Living Letters from the pulpit. The success of this first book led to the founding of Tyndale House Publishers and the completion of a much loved book, The Living Bible.

His motivation wasn’t money—which eventually came—but to capture the Bible in a readable way for everyone. It was my privilege to interview Dr. Taylor several times for magazine articles. I was writing a round-up article on children’s Bibles and I caught up with him on the floor of the Christian Booksellers Convention. This huge trade show had rows of publishers selling books to retailers. I pressed him saying, “Dr. Taylor, don’t you feel the competition? Look at all of the different products which have come out just this year in this area.”

The gentle man shook his head and smiled, “Oh, Terry, if it’s the Bible and people are reading it to their children. That’s all that matters.” May each of us find such a pure and simple motivation for our writing.


Friday, June 10, 2005

Look At the Dark Side--Returns

Writers practically never think about this aspect of the book selling business. I guarantee publishers think about it constantly—but rarely discuss it with anyone outside of their company circles. It’s the area of returns.

When you walk into a big box bookstore (Borders or Barnes & Noble) and see all those bargain books? They are remaindered or discounted for a reason.  Those titles have been slashed and in many cases returned to the publisher—then shipped back out to be sold inexpensively. It’s a tale-tell sign the particular book is on the way toward going out-of-print. Or maybe the book was initially a hardcover and the publisher is about to release the paperback edition. The publisher will want to clear out their remaining stock of the hardcover.

Often I’ve asked publishers about a particular title. Maybe their publicity is touting a large print run (say 50,000 books). I will hear things like, “Yes, we sold it deep into the stores (a good sign) but we don’t know about the returns.”


Yes, if you read Michael Korda’s Making The List you will learn that after the Great Depression, retailers told publishers they couldn’t absorb the risk of buying all these new titles. They started a policy which continues today. After a period of time (different for each book and each store), the retailer can return the book to the publisher for a refund.  So writers need this reminder: in traditional publishing situations who is absorbing this risk? It’s not the writer. It’s not the retailer. It’s the publisher.

According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, Time Warner Book Group has two warehouses near Indianapolis. One building is called the “happy warehouse” and another the “sad” warehouse. Trachtenberg’s article is fascinating and can be part of your ongoing education about the bookselling business.

So what can writers do about this dark side of publishing? Again, they can actively enter into all the various marketing aspects for their books.  They can produce stellar book proposals and include marketing sections. Most importantly, they can write remarkable books that everyone wants to buy and talks about.


Thursday, June 09, 2005

Run Out of Gas

I’m sure you’ve read these types of novels. They roar in the opening chapter yet somewhere in the middle portion, they go into a stall and almost a tailspin. The story engine has run out of gas. If you have this happen to your novel, the alarm bells should be ringing in your head. Danger.

Some readers will put down your book and never finish it. It’s sad to say it but it’s true. I used to be one of those “gotta-clean-your-plate” readers. You know these types of readers. They are the one who have to keep reading the pages (even if it’s boring) until they reach the final page.

In recent years, I’ve changed. I don’t mind leaving a little food on my plate and feel no compulsion to finish the novel. If the writer hasn’t pulled me through their fiction or nonfiction or book proposal until the final page (and I have no other compelling reason to finish such as an assigned article or book review), then I will often put it down and go on to another book. Life is too short not to respond in this fashion. There are way too many books getting into print. Our challenge as readers is to find the good ones. It’s the same challenge for every acquisitions editor and literary agent.

If your novel or work-in-progress has gone into stall, how do you get your story engine running again? I recommend you check out what Jim Bell advises in this article. It may be just the fix you need to keep from running out of gas.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Map for Novel Lovers

From interviewing a number of creative authors, I’ll make a general observation—a number of them are directionally challenged.  My sense in this area seems to fall somewhere in the average area. I’m not absolutely terrible—but I’m not like some men who are able to tell you if they are headed north (or whatever direction).  I love maps and try to use them often—particularly when I’m in a new city or a different location. It helps me arrive to my meetings on time and without the general panic that comes from being lost.

In honor of last week’s Book Expo in New York City, The New York Times Book Review put together a fascinating Literary Map of Manhattan. A great deal of mainstream publishing transpires in the towering structures on the island. If you love novels, then you will enjoy this interactive literary map of Manhattan which is subtitled, “Here’s where imaginary New Yorkers lived, worked, played, drank, walked and looked at ducks. By Randy Cohen and Nigel Homes.” The printed version is in last week’s Sunday Times. In this case, the online version has some interactive advantages of reading reviews and learning more about these classic books—besides seeing their Manhattan location pinpointed on this map.

As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the Battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.”

Enjoy the experience.


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Dirty Little Secret of Publishing

The proposals and manuscripts come into my office almost daily.  Many of these proposals are from new and unpublished authors. They expect the publisher to do all of the marketing for their books and their task is simply to write. It’s true you have to write a great moving novel or a dynamic, can’t-put-it-down book. Yet you also have to learn everything you can learn about the way books are marketed. Today I’m going to focus on one of those secrets.

This past weekend publishers poured into New York City for the Book Expo America trade show (now over).  In preparation for the event, The New York Times Book Review included some fascinating articles about the business of books. If you don’t read the online version of The New York Times, then you need to be doing it. It’s free but you do have to register.

Randy Kennedy, a New York Times Arts reporter, investigated one of the open secrets of bookselling—the fact that publishers purchase display space in major bookstores.  The article admits that almost no one would talk about this practice—even off the record. So when you walk into your local big box bookstore (Barnes & Noble or Borders) and see those three tiered racks with a new hardcover or paperback, you should know the publisher has purchased that advertising space. Does it work? Kennedy talked with one publishing executive who said a book with sales of about 800 copies a week when the book was placed in one of these racks instantly increased to 3,000 to 4,000 copies a week. It’s a substantial increase and these displays occur in every store in the country—as an advertising/ marketing expense.

Two paragraphs jumped out as I read this article, “While publishers disagree about the merits of paying for display, one thing about the arrangements is clear: they further concentrate money and attention on the books that need it least.”

“The phenomenon, which has been called a reverse Robin Hood effect, happens because publishers pay huge advances to star authors and then feel they must support that author's book with substantial promotion money. Of course, this was happening well before bookstore display emerged as a force. But publishers say that display arrangements have made promotion budgets even more lopsided in favor of the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels of the book world, meaning that new authors or less prominent books are given increasingly little advertising or display help.” (I added the bold).

I encourage you to read the entire article for your own education about the book business.  It will give you some more motivation to include a stellar marketing proposal in your next submission to a publisher. Whether you write novels or nonfiction, you can gain more of my insight in Book Proposals That Sell. If you read the book and following the advice in it, it might help you look at publishing with a different vision and fresh insight.


Monday, June 06, 2005

Some Writer's Choices

When we write anything, we make an infinite number of small choices—which topic to address in the first place, which audience to address, how to start, how to write the middle and how to end it. These choices are clear whether we write a single page or a magazine article or a full-length novel or book.

Today, I’m thinking about the choices after you conduct an interview. You talk with someone on the phone or in person for 15 minutes or longer.  Then you have a wealth of material from this person.  As the writer, you select which quotations you will use and which you will ignore.

This weekend, I saw the issue from Writer’s Digest on Personal Writing (currently on the newsstands).  From an email, a reader told me this blog had been included in the issue. I dashed out to the bookstore and picked up a copy of it. The author interviewed me months ago and I had practically forgotten it and wondered if he would include anything from our conversation (some times they do and some times they do not).

At the time, I only had a few days of writing these entries under my experience. He selected a quotation from this entry titled Urban Writing Myth Is Real. The writer was amused with some of my comments in the fifth paragraph about the handwritten manuscript. His choice did showcase what I’m doing in the various entries and was a wise one.

After an interview (if possible), I will write my quotations into a computer file—or I will star them on my notes. I’ve discovered it makes it easier to return to them and use them in the particular magazine article at a later time. Some writers transcribe their tapes. I’ve never found that particularly valuable. I do return to my tape and spot check the quotations but I do not transcribe the tape. The transcription process seems to cement the information and stop the fluid nature of it. Years ago, long-time Guideposts Contributing Editor Elizabeth Sherrill described writing after an interview as like the sculptor who takes a block of stone and sees a beautiful statue inside.

It’s the same process for the writer after an interview. You see a well-crafted article that comes from your research and interview—even before it is written. Be aware of your various minor and major choices in this process. I believe it will help your craft.


Sunday, June 05, 2005

Beating The Distractions

I’m fascinated with many different subjects. During my college years, one of my majors was political science. It set a lifetime habit that continues to this day and I follow many aspects in the political realm.

I love to read a good fiction book—and read a number of them in different genres of fiction. Yet, I read in the nonfiction world as well—many different types of books.

And magazines? I take something like 40 of them and flip through most of them fairly thoroughly.

If you love to learn and discovering new information, the Internet can be a treasure trove of new ideas and new concepts. You can read and research until the hours have disappeared. And the work? What happened to the writing and editorial work? Did it get accomplished? Not if you get distracted from it.

How do you focus and keep on track? Some great advice and wisdom is built into this article from my friend Kristi Holl on Dealing with Distractions. It’s a new addition at Right-Writing.com and just might be the perfect insight for your writing life. I hope so.


Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Writer's Gold Mine

Pssst. It’s a secret—not that I want it to be. This week I made a rough calculation of the number of pages in Right Writing News which is loaded with how-to write material.  I’ve produced 19 issues and most of them average around 20 pages for a total of at least 380 pages

The newsletter is free but only to subscribers. Except for only a few exceptions, these newsletters contain articles that do not appear anywhere else on the website. You have to subscribe to have access to these articles.

This week I looked into the circulation of a couple of print magazines targeted to writers. The Writer is one of the oldest publications and it’s circulation is about 40,000 copies. Then I looked into Writer’s Digest and saw its circulation is about 150,000.  Admittedly these print magazines are a different type of publication than my newsletter—but in other ways they are similar in containing quality how-to write information. My circulation for the Right Writing News is less than 3,000 but I’d love for it to grow. 

Here’s my idea: if each of you reading this entry about the Writing Life could encourage others to subscribe, then the list would grow. Maybe you participate in an online forum or write for a printed publication or just have a bunch of writer friends. Please tell them about this writer’s gold mine. Encourage them to go to this little link: http://snipurl.com/rwnews  My advance appreciation for anything you do in this area.

I’m going to take a moment in this entry and tell you about two free Internet tools and why I use them on a regular basis. The first is called TinyURL. In an instant, you can take a long Internet address and change it into a short one. For example, I took this URL: http://www.right-writing.com/newsletter.html and changed it into http://tinyurl.com/d5h5g (if you check, each URL goes to exactly the same place). Why make this change? You have no idea what will happen to an address as it is sent in an email or newsletter. The shorter the URL, the greater the chance that it will be preserved (and not broken in the process). TinyURL took a name which was 44 characters and reduced it to 24 characters. It’s not a huge saving but it’s something. I recommend TinyURL as a great tool.

Another URL tool which I use more often is called SnipURL.com. If you register at this site (free), then when you return to Mysnipurl.com (the personalized section of the site), you can personalize the shorter URLs. As an example again using the same link (http://www.right-writing.com/newsletter.html), SnipURL.com changed it into two forms. First, they give a generic name to it: http://snipurl.com/fcpa with only four letters to remember (or at times, it’s a letters and number combination). SnipURL.com allows you to designate your own name (at least five letters and no more than 20 characters). Usually this personalized format is easier to remember (at least for me). For this example, I made this link: http://snipurl.com/rwnews 

Behind the scenes at Mysnipurl.com, I’ve learned to use the “Title” field in addition to the “nickname.” After I make a URL, I return to Mysnipurl.com and edit the newly created URL. I add a Title or an explanation about the specific URL (for example the book title and that it’s an Amazon.com link—which is normally a very long URL).

Why make this additional effort? I have hundreds of shortened URLs stored on this site.  At the bottom of the page, Snipurl.com has a search feature. If I need to return to a previously snipped URL, I can quickly find it with this search feature—usually through the “Title.”

OK. Now back to my writer’s gold mine or the Right Writing News.  I need help to let others know about the value of this free resource.  Paste this link somewhere you can remember it: http://snipurl.com/rwnews I’d love for as many people as possible to know about this gold mine for writers. 


Friday, June 03, 2005

Take Stock

At the start of the summer and about the mid-point in the year, it’s always good to take stock. Where are you with your writing life? If you are frustrated, getting no answer from editors or getting rejected, then I have a few ideas for you.

I’ve seen a lot of submissions—with books and also with magazines. Because I’ve worked in both areas of publishing, I’ve learned a great deal from what writers pitch for ideas. Many writers dream of writing a book. It’s something solid to hold in your hand and maybe see in the bookstore. It’s a good long-range goal but is it realistic for the short-term. In most cases, the answer is no.

Book editors want authors who have a publishing history in magazines or newspapers. These writers have learned a lot as they practice their craft in the shorter format and are more attractive to editors. What can a writer learn from writing a shorter magazine article? A great deal is the answer.

First, for the higher-circulation (and higher-paying) publications, they learn how to write a one-page query letter.  You have to grab the editor’s (and the reader’s) attention in the first paragraph of a query letter and you show your writing style is attractive. I find that most writers don’t understand this technique in the early days of their work. I certainly didn’t understand it. I had to learn to pitch ideas to the magazine editors which were targeted to their audience and attractive to them.

Your job as the writer is to understand the needs and desires of the editor—then be a problem-solver for the editor. You pitch the editor the perfect idea for their publication. You can learn this skill in magazine writing.

Also through magazine articles, you gain a variety of other skills. Often you have to interview someone else for the contents of the article so you learn how to conduct interviews and ask the right questions. Magazine writing teaches how to craft an article with a beginning, a middle and an ending (with a key point called a take-away for the reader). You also learn to write on deadline (something important for magazine and book publishing).  The magazine editor will tell you how many words to write for the magazine. As the writer, you deliver that amount of words—not lots more or lots less—right on target. If you write too much initially, then you learn to cut. If you don’t write enough, you learn how and where to expand your article. It’s a skill that translates into book publishing to make sure your chapters are suitable lengths for example.

Many times with new magazine writers (even the professionals), their first submission isn’t exactly what the editor was thinking. Admittedly it’s hard to get into the editor’s head. As a writer, you learn how to follow the editor’s instructions for rewriting and again meeting a new deadline from the editor.

My experience says that many writers hold unrealistic expectations about what can happen in their writing life. Few people leap into the marketplace with their first book and become a best-selling author. The majority of writers instead apprentice. They learn their craft with a smaller goal, then eventually they are able to accomplish the higher goal. For many years, I wrote magazine articles before I wrote my first book. Jerry B. Jenkins author of Left Behind wrote more than 100 books before the ground-breaking series.

It’s valuable to have writing goals and aspirations. Each of us hold them. It is also valuable to take stock. Can you make a smaller goal or an incremental step in the direction of your goal in another part of the writing world? 


Thursday, June 02, 2005

My Warning Bells Sounded

The package looked pretty innocent when it arrived. A USPS priority mail package addressed to me because of my Fiction Editor position. I opened it and my internal warning bells sounded.

First, it was a bound manuscript. Again it wasn’t too unusual. Some times a fiction author will produce a Print On Demand version or self-publish their novel and be interested in a traditional publisher acquiring the book for a broader distribution.

Then I noticed the cover letter came from a literary agent (someone I didn’t recognize). Again it’s not too unusual because anyone can hang out an agent shingle. Many people are getting into the agent business. Some editors are becoming agents, etc.

With this agent’s cover letter, the warning bells sounded. I think it was the phrase about a “compilation of prayer and insightful prose” to “to guide readers along a path to spiritual enlightenment.” Then the next sentence claimed the book “appeals to readers of any faith.”

OK, I thought. Let’s check it out.

Loud warning bells sounded. Large typeface (helps you produce a larger book than would normally happen). Every page was a one page chapter of a thought or prayer and the bound book was published from an outfit that I’ve seen numerous authors complaining about their results on some online groups. I’d never seen an actual book from this outfit—until now.

Over the last few years, I’ve opened thousands of these submissions—but I’ve never seen a package like this one. I looked a bit closer about the author. Her first book and she’s working on a second book (admirable).

Then I thought I’d check for some more information about the agent. (Writers should listen up here—I’m going to teach you how to fish—for information). First, I went to Everyone Who’s Anyone In Trade Publishing.  This page has a search engine and I entered the first and last name, then searched. Nothing was found. Then I just entered the last name and searched. Again nothing. Then I entered the first name and searched. Nothing.

Next I turned to the Association of Author’s Representatives home page. They have a search engine feature for their database. Again I looked for this agent’s name. Nothing. It’s again not too unusual—because not every agent is a member of the AAR. Most of the Christian literary agents that I work with on a regular basis are not members.

Finally I tried a Google search on the person’s name. I found nothing. Now not everyone in publishing is on the Internet. I searched on my own name “Terry Whalin” and in 0.25 seconds, Google found 3,700 results with the first few entries accurate and you could learn my background. It sounded more warning bells.

I sent this “literary agent” my standard form rejection letter, then logged some details into my fiction manuscript log. The experience bothered me for the author who is obviously putting some effort and energy into getting her project into the marketplace.

Each of us as writers want someone to want our material. It’s admirable as we pursue our dreams of publication (and sales) that someone comes along who wants to be our literary agent. It’s our responsibility as the author to check out the agent—and make wise decisions.


Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Only Thick Skinned Need Apply

Almost every day I see someone with this quality and I’ve got to admire their persistence. It’s like the boxer that gets smashed yet continues to stand for another round. Or when the boxer gets knocked down, they shake it off and climb back into the ring the next day.

If we are involved in publishing, the odds are against us. Reading continues to decline. Publishers are cutting back on the amount of books they will publish in a season. The number of books continue to increase (mostly because of self-publishing and print on demand). There is a massive amount of material in circulation for editors to read. Some people estimate that at any given time there are over six million manuscripts and proposals in circulation. There are many more reasons but those are a few where the odds are long on success. Yet, writers find their motivation deep inside and persist in attempting to get their message to the public.

My opportunity to see such persistence is my role as the Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Howard Publishing. I regularly tell people about the high volume of submissions and the few books which are contracted. Yet even armed with this information, writers continue to send their material. Agents continue to submit material from their clients. I admire the internal fortitude and commitment to continue trying. Many people can easily tout Babe Ruth’s home run record.  Few people seem to recall in 1918, 1919, 1923, 1924, 1927 and 1928, Babe Ruth also led his league in strikeouts. You can’t get published in magazines or books unless you are submitting and in the marketplace.

Many years ago I encouraged a friend to send his work to publishers. He picked up on my encouragement and mailed his material. A few weeks later, I checked to see how it was going. “It came back rejected a few times and I decided that no one wanted it. I put that material away,” he said.

In some cases, it’s a good idea to put away your manuscript and not send it out. Like many writers, I’ve got a number of things in my files (which I worked hard on at the time) and they were soundly rejected. This material may get reworked and out into the market but I suspect, most of these ideas will stay in my files.

Often I find new writers grow discouraged from the rejection—and simply quit. There are many reasons for rejection—and not all of them relate to your specific manuscript. Maybe it’s the wrong timing or the wrong place. You need to have thick skin and persist in getting it out there. You are looking for a connection and it might only take one more attempt.