Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Back to the List

Several days ago, I mentioned a faculty member of the Glorieta Christian writers conference who was pulling together an impossible list of books.  These lists are always interesting to me. I’ve read many of the books on this list and formed my own opinions about some of the books (you will see that I have a bit of diplomacy here—I’m not going to tell you which ones I don’t like).  If you read these entries very often you will know I recommend books which I like and see value. And the others? We just won’t talk about them.

I’ve arrived in New Mexico for the conference. Finding any time for writing new entries is going to be a challenge. My day is scheduled almost completely from the minute I get up until late at night. I return home on Sunday afternoon.

Just so you can share in the list, I got permission to include it here. One book caught my eye—that I don’t have on my book shelf: James A. Michener’s Writer’s Handbook. I’m familiar with some of Michener’s novels so I cruised over to Amazon.com and looked up this book. Like many consumers I read the reviews of other readers. While the book released over ten years ago (1992) all of the reviews were in the negative category.  I might take a look at this book at some point—but the review gave me a bit of hesitation.

Are there writing books not on the list that you think should be considered? Let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’m off to get a bit of rest so I can hit the ground running in the morning for this conference.



Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Vampires and Jesus

I understand the two words in my title and how they seem to be disconnected. They aren’t.  If you haven’t caught it, the book world is buzzing about an article in Newsweek about bestselling vampire author Anne Rice.  Publisher’s Lunch had the headline “Anne Rice, Born Again (Truly)” when they pointed toward this article. Then the Newsweek article is called “The Gospel According to Anne.”

After writing 25 novels over 25 years, Anne Rice is releasing her first novel since 2003 titled, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I have not read the novel which is centered a seven-year-old Jesus—who is also the narrator of the story.  If you read the Newsweek story you will see that Anne Rice has been through some drastic personal experiences in the last few years including the loss of her husband of 41 years to a brain tumor in 2002 and nearly dying a couple of times herself.  From what I know about people and life, I suspect these experiences have drawn Rice into a greater spiritual awareness. I love the line in the Newsweek story where she says, “I promised that from now on I would only write for the Lord.”

I’ve seen the posts on an online forum about Anne Rice where some people have been throwing out their opinions about whether Rice is a Christian or not.  I have no idea or connection to this story. I hope something has happened in her life. There is certainly good evidence of something happening from her website. If she has built a stronger relationship with Christ from her personal and writing journey, I hope she’s got some terrific Christians around her to help her grow in her faith.

Over the years, I’ve seen my share of “celebrity” conversions and some are more based in reality than others. Almost fourteen years ago, I wrote a children’s biography, Chuck Colson, which was part of the Today’s Heroes series from Zondervan. It was my privilege to work with Chuck, his family and friends to write this particular book.  When Colson came to Christ, it was loudly trumpeted in the media and Chuck wrote his own story in the bestselling book, Born Again.  The year this book released, I participated as an author at the Kentucky Book Fair.  At these gatherings, authors have tables in a large convention room to autograph books. I had my Chuck Colson book.  Despite Colson’s numerous appearance at Billy Graham Crusades where he gave his testimony and his stellar work in prisons around the globe, I was amazed to firsthand meet the skeptics. They would scrunch up their faces and proclaim, “Nixon’s hatchet man? There is no way that Colson became a Christian.”

The experience taught me an important lesson about these types of stories. First, when I receive such information in a media story, I pray that it’s true—the celebrity has actually had a real face to face meeting with Jesus. Then I entrust those results into God’s hands. It is not our role to judge the spiritual condition of someone else. We can simply pray and proclaim our understanding of the truth.


Monday, October 24, 2005

Applaud Design Innovation

Last night I snagged a few minutes in my local Barnes & Noble.  Between traveling and sitting at my computer working, I don’t get to the actual bookstore often but I try and make a point to do so at least once a month (more often if I can).  Last night I only had a few minutes but I made sure to check out the new hardcovers and paperbacks at the front of the bookstore. It’s always interesting to actually hold these new books in your hand, read the back cover or inside flap and see how it’s done. You can pick up a lot of information just from this simple action.

While I picked up a lot of information through this process, one book stood out to me. Simon Winchester’s new book released October 1st, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. When I picked up the hardcover, I could tell something was different. The jacket was thicker than normal and I took a closer look. It was folded and had something larger inside it.  On a single oversized page, tucked into the folds, the publisher put a full-color version of the front page from the San Francisco Examiner.  From my work inside publishing, I can tell you this little “extra” cost some money to put together. I applaud this innovative way to add an extra feature to a hardcover book. It’s the type of action beginning writers will pick up on and propose in their books. I’d suggest caution if you are thinking about adding such a proposal.

This type of innovation (including the newspaper front page hidden in a cover design) is something in the domain of bestselling authors.  If you are printing hundreds of thousands of books instead of several thousand books, then the cost per book becomes a minor issue. When you are only printing a few thousand books (which is typical for the majority of authors) then the price becomes prohibitive. Many beginning authors wonder why the publisher doesn’t print more books and do more innovative design. One of the continual discussions inside publishing houses revolves around warehouse space. You don’t want to print more books than necessary because you have to store these books then ship them to various locations (adding to your costs as a publisher).

I didn’t purchase this new title from Simon Winchester but I’m going to be watching to see how the sales progress for this particular book.  I noticed in mid-July, Crack in the Edge of the World received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Librarians and booksellers follow these starred reviews and pick up on it for their buying plans. If you doubt the persuasiveness of these reviews, just consider the first sentence, “In this brawny page-turner, bestselling writer Winchester (Krakatoa, The Professor and the Madman) has crafted a magnificent testament to the power of planet Earth and the efforts of humankind to understand her.” I suspect many will get the book from the recommendation of this sentence.

While I’m writing about Simon Winchester, if you haven’t read The Professor and the Madman and you love words like I do, then you want to make sure you add that book to your reading list.  The book is a great encouragement to writers because the idea for it came from a footnote (according to a talk Winchester gave at the ASJA several years ago). Winchester is a master storyteller and you learn about one of the most unusual relationships with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The greatest contributor was an American madman.

Next time you reach your local bookstore or section of books. Check out Crack in the Edge of the World. It’s some innovation worth noticing.


Sunday, October 23, 2005

Fuel for Dreams

As writers and editors, we have a lot of dreams about what could happen in the days ahead. Maybe it’s for your writing and how many people it will touch. Or maybe it’s the impact of the printed page in your own life.  However you define that intangible quality, something fuels your dreams and motivates you to get up every day and work on your writing. 

We regularly go to different movies and often on the weekend. Yesterday we caught Dreamer, which is inspired from a true story.  The film is a family movie about a washed up horse trainer who takes his daughter to work one day.  During a race, a horse has a tragic accident and breaks a bone. Normally the life of the horse would be over but the trainer decides to keep the horse and quits his job. Along with his daughter, the horse trainer nurses this horse called Sonador (or Dreamer in Spanish) back to full strength.  The horse not only walks but races again.

The acting and storytelling and dialogue in this film was remarkable. I was captured in the plot and the beautiful scenery. More than anything, the story provided fuel for dreams.  Not in words—but in actions, the story showed how hard the characters worked to make their dreams come true. Cale Crane (Dakota Fanning’s character) was repeatedly shown climbing out of bed at an early hour, making coffee and heading to the race track. Inherent but never verbalized in these scenes was the amount of time and sacrifice that it took for the Crane family to see their dreams become reality.

For me, the film was magical and something that I could watch at least once a month for inspiration. I highly recommend it—and it’s rare that I can recommend such a film without qualifications—yet I can do so with this film, Dreamer.

Each of us have dreams for our writing.  Whether you are writing a magazine article or a children’s book or a novel or a nonfiction book, the dream is the same—to reach people and have it succeed. Too often people are carrying these dreams without the willingness to do the work necessary to achieve it. It’s the hours of time spent learning the craft of writing or the hours of training which others rarely see—yet is critical to the process. And if you are looking for a bit of fuel for your dreams, then catch Dreamer.


Friday, October 21, 2005

Be Prepared

This week I made one of my rare trips to the local post office. I needed to send a package or two and pick up some postage stamps. In general I try to keep a  variety of postage on hand.  Then it’s easy to process any sort of mailing. Also while at the post office, I checked a new postcard that I’m going to be mailing. I wanted to make sure the postcard was the right size then I picked up several rolls of postcard stamps. Why check it?

Several years ago, a publisher graciously produced full color postcards to help market a new book.  I worked back and forth with the marketing department on the text of the postcard. In the final analysis, I figured they were the publisher and knew how to produce the right size postcard. Wrong. They printed an oversized postcard that required first-class postage instead of postcard postage. It added considerably to my postage bill to get that postcard out to people.  Postcards are a terrific inexpensive way to tell people about your book. Tests have shown that many people read a postcard as it moves through the postal system—particularly if it is attractively designed and has great content. I’ve learned the hard way over the years about the necessity of making sure the card has the right content. For example, does your postcard allow the reader to buy the book? Where? Does it give the price and International Standard Book Number (ISBN)? The ISBN is the number any bookstore can use to locate and order your book.  No one can copyright a title but the book number will only point to your book.

When I was checking the card, I asked the clerk if she ever thought about writing a book some day? Why ask such a question? I knew from the surveys that 81 percent of the population has dreamed about writing a book “some day.” My postcard includes the full color book cover for Book Proposals That Sell on one side. The other side has a brief quotation from Jeanette Thomason, Acquisitions Editor at Revell Books, “With practical know-how and tons of proven tips, this book is like that wise friend who's been in the business, knows what works and why. Step-by-step, Terry Whalin guides and inspires both beginners and even experienced writers to doing better, successful, meaningful work.” Also the back of the postcard includes the title, ISBN, price and a couple of websites. After she measured my postcard and I purchased my postage, I offered gave her my postcard. Someone else waiting in the line overheard my conversation and jumped into it. “Hey, I write for magazines. I’d like to do a book some day. Do you have another one?” I didn’t have a second postcard (admittedly unprepared) but I had a small business card with the same information (including the cover of the book). In an instant, I left two pieces of literature as I walked out of the post office. Will anything happen from it? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve at least planted the seeds of potential because I was prepared for the opportunity and I opened the door to the conversation.

As writers and editors and communicators, we are in the seed planting business. It’s part of what we do day in and day out. Yet you have to be prepared to plant seeds. Next week I’m headed to a writers conference.  Whenever I travel or even drive around town, I make sure I’ve got a business card (or two) tucked in my pocket. Over the years, I’ve learned to freely give the information. It’s surprising how people will keep that card and call or write or email months later. One opportunity leads to another—but only if you open the door in the first place. Be prepared.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Secret Is In the Sauce

I’m sure you’ve tasted a delicious meal and asked about the distinction. The unrevealing answer is “the secret is in the sauce.”

The same noncommittal answers happen in the writing community. People always want to know about where do you get ideas.  The key from my perspective is what you do with those ideas. This morning I was reading the Arizona Republic and one article was telling about the sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond. The sitcom creator Phil Rosenthal and six top Hollywood writers (minus Ray Romano) are touring the country and giving a program called, “Everyone Loves Raymond– Inside the Writers’ Room – Secrets of a #1 Sitcom.” While the article is interesting—and you can read it with this link—Dolores Tropiano included this interesting quotation, “Basically the writers and I go on stage and tell the terrible stories of the things that happened to us at home and illustrate these stories with clips from the show,” said Rosenthal, who lives in Los Angeles. “In between you get a sense of what it is like to be in the room with each of us. These people have known each other for nine years. We insult each other. We laugh. These are the funniest people I know.” The team worked together producing 210 episodes that earned the show six Emmy nominations for Best Comedy and two Emmys for Best Comedy in 2003 and 2005.”

The secret isn’t really a secret but very common. These writers draw from their own life experiences. The situations and details are exaggerated but the seed of the idea comes from inside then they are transformed, exaggerated and are written into the script. If you see a clever television show or movie, never forget it’s the writing which is foundational. I’ve repeatedly seen interviews with actors—and if these actors are gracious (as many of them are) then they will attribute at least some of the success to the writers. Without the clever plots and dialogue, the overall package suffers.

I’ve read many fiction proposals in recent days. Unfortunately many of these authors are lacking in the basics such as dialogue, plot and excellent characterization.  Yes, they’ve taken the common advice to writers, “start with what you know” but where have they taken it from there? I agree with Stephen Coontz who writes that writing is very hard work. Each of us have to continue working at the craft. 


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sweet Satisfaction

I’m certain you’ve met these people (maybe you are one of them). They are getting up each morning, gritting their teeth and plowing through their work day.  At the end of the day, they receive a pay check but little satisfaction. Maybe they are persisting to work several more years until their retirement or some other change happens in their life. Maybe these people are working their day job to support their real life—as a writer or some other dream occupation.

My father loved the railroad. Now not every day was a picnic (nor is any job) but my dad loved the trains and anything to do with them. During his college years, he worked as a clerk on the railroad in the summer. Graduating from college with a teaching certificate, he taught for a brief period—and determined it wasn’t for him. Dad returned to the railroad and ultimately retired from an executive position. My dad’s father or my grandfather, loved to be involved in teaching.  For a long stretch, he was the principal and superintendent of a small school in eastern Kentucky.  Grandfather loved education and it was where he found sweet satisfaction in his work.

My reading last night stirred me to consider this aspect of the writing life. The October 10th Publisher’s Weekly includes a review of the next Max Lucado book, Cure for the Common Life: Living In Your Sweet Spot, which releases in January from W Publishing Group. The same issue includes a brief interview with Max from Lori Smith.  Max talks about the surprising statistic that one out of three people hate their jobs—yes hate. Then Lori asks about the decision process about which job we select and how it’s often based on prestige instead of satisfaction or happiness.

Max answers, “That's exactly right. Many people get promoted right out of their sweet spot because of prestige, because of a good salary. And I can understand that. I mean, we all have bills to pay, and yet my contention is that we really pay a high price when we allow ourselves to be promoted out of what we do best. I refer in the book two or three times to my father. He was an oil field mechanic out in west Texas. He loved his work. He was the happiest man I've ever known. And two or three times he was offered the chance to be a foreman, to leave the outside work and come indoors and sit at a desk. He wouldn't even think about it, even though that meant more money for the family. He knew he was happiest working with his hands.” (p. 56) Obviously to me, Max’s father had located his sweet satisfaction working as an oil field mechanic.

I spent ten years of my life away from writing and in linguistics. After a season of this type of work, I had the opportunity to return to my writing and I grabbed it. I wrote a great deal in college but then followed this season in linguistics. I joined the small writing and editorial staff of a missionary publication called In Other Words.  It felt great to return to my editing and writing work.  My associate editor asked me to cut part of a story and I instantly stepped up and without hesitation chopped it down to size so it fit on the page. She watched in amazement at the cuts and wondered how I did it so quickly. It’s never been hard for me to cut something down to size and fits with the way I’m wired. Several months later, this associate editor made a personal decision to return to her home and care for an aging parent. Our small staff suddenly became smaller. It boiled down to a long-term editor/ writer and myself. The long-term editor (and one of my dear friends) didn’t want the responsibility of leading the publication. He knew his sweet spot was staying in his current position. I became the editor and the rest of my writing life is history.

Certainly some days I want throw away the writing life and work at some mindless task. But those days are few and far between. Overall I know that I’m in the right spot as a writer and editor. It’s wise to recognize such a gift.


Monday, October 17, 2005

A Marketing Plan for Every Book

Late last week, Brandilyn Collins asked me to answer a question from one of her blog readers. This reader referred to my Book Proposals That Sell and knew a nonfiction proposal should have a marketing plan. She wondered if a fiction proposal should also have a marketing plan and what would be in such a plan. I wrote the answer and sent it over the weekend so Brandilyn could post it today. With some slight revisions, I’m posting the same entry here. Some of this information I wrote in previous entries but I also include some additional twists (because I continually learn more about this topic):

Does a fiction book needs a marketing plan to catch a publisher’s attention? It’s a good question. Let me give you a bit of my background so you see why I’m answering this question. I’ve published more than 60 nonfiction books and I’ve been a book acquisitions editor for the last four years. While I had written a lot of books, it was a complete revelation when I became a book editor. I began to understand the economics involved and it’s important for every author to understand these dynamics—whether they write fiction or nonfiction. I provide a bit of this information in my book, Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success. While somewhat focused on nonfiction, you can learn a lot about the publishing process no matter what you write from this book.

Here’s the financial information that I didn’t understand (since I’ve never self-published): for every book (fiction or nonfiction), a publisher is going to spend $50,000 to $100,000 (real dollars) to take your manuscript and turn it into a finished book. These numbers are with a modest advance to the author (say $5,000) and zero marketing dollars. These costs are production, cover design, editorial work, etc. on your book. Publishers receive thousands of submissions from would-be authors. I’m the part-time Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Howard Publishing. I’m looking for six to eight full-length novels a year—and I’ve received over 250 submissions from individuals and literary agents. I’ve rejected some quality fiction because of the volume and limited spots. And that is just my story so imagine these numbers multiplied on other editor’s desks. And if you read Book Proposals That Sell, you will see that editors do a lot more than read manuscripts.

Let’s pretend for a minute that you are the editor and have to wade through these volumes of material to find the books for your list. You have two manuscripts. BotIh manuscripts are excellent, fascinating stories. One manuscript has a marketing plan and the other doesn’t. As the editor, you will be held accountable for your choices (within the publishing house). It’s a business to sell books. Which manuscript will you choose to champion to the other editors, the publishing executives (sales, marketing, etc.)? Editors risk for their authors. Your challenge is to prove to be worthy (actually more than worthy) of this risk.

Later this month, at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference, I’m teaching an hour workshop, What A Publisher Looks for in a New Book Idea. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I’m going to focus on how you can make your book stand out for the editor. While I’m not going to give you the contents of my workshop, let me give you several ideas and resources to figure it out. Everything that I’m going to write is based on the assumption you’ve learned your writing craft and produced an excellent, page-turning novel that is appropriate for a particular publisher. A big part of you may resist even creating a marketing plan. Isn’t that why you go to a publisher instead of publishing it yourself? No, you go to a publisher to use their marketing efforts in combination with your efforts to sell more books (and to have your books in the bookstore—a closed system for self-publishing—which is another discussion). Publishers love authors who “get it” and understand they need to roll up their sleeves and take a bit of their energy to market the books to their own network. Also publishers always want to do more for their books especially when they release. Yet they have 20 books to shepherd through this process—and you have a single book. Who is going to be more passionate about the book? It’s you as the author—well show a little of that passion in your marketing plans for your book.

You need to be reading some marketing books and here’s a few titles to get you started: Beyond the Bookstore, How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets by Brian Jud. Over half of the books sold are sold outside of the bookstore. This book includes a CD to help you understand these markets and create your own plan. Please don’t say you are willing to do radio interviews or appear on Oprah (yes, I’ve seen new authors put this repeatedly as their marketing plans and it reveals you know nothing about selling books. Of course you will do radio interviews and appear on Oprah (however unlikely it is to appear on Oprah). Publicize Your Book!, An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book the Attention It Deserves by Jacqueline Deval. Several years ago I met Jacqueline at a conference in New York City. She’s a publisher at Hearst Books and has led numerous successful book campaigns as a Director of Publicity. She knows proactive authors help sell books and has wise advice about how to be proactive but not high maintenance (something publishers avoid like the plague). The techniques in this book will give you practical ideas for your marketing plan. You have a network and the question is: how will you tap it and use it to sell books? Check out PyroMarketing by Greg Stielstra, Harper Business. This book is brand new and will help you see how you can stir people to purchase your book and why mass marketing techniques are ineffective. To get a taste of this book, read this free introduction (I got from Greg—who is the new Vice President of Marketing Christian Books at Thomas Nelson Publishers, the ninth largest publisher in the world). Next take a look at bestselling fiction author, Debbie Macomber, who won a Quill Award last week in the romance category. She has over 60 million novels in print. Bounce the ideas of PyroMarketing (particularly the fourth point of Pyromarketing: saving the coals or saving the data) against this page in her guestbook. I heard a “rumor” that Debbie has over a million names on her own database. Look at the information she is collecting on her guestbook from each person—including your bookstore information. See why she beat mega-bestselling author Nora Roberts (who had two romances nominated for the Quill Award)? Debbie understands what most beginning (and many published authors) don’t understand.

Finally can you bring your publisher a deal from the beginning that will sell at least 5,000 books? It’s not a crazy question since 70% of special sales are something that the author begins. For some creative ideas, check out Jerry Jenkins’ site (not the Left Behind author but another Jerry Jenkins). Most of these ideas are nonfiction but put your own spin on it. One quick completely fictious example, your novel has a main character with an eating disorder who through the course of the book, gets help and is on the road to recovery. Can you open the door for your publisher to cut a deal with New Life Clinics to purchase 100,000 (wild number maybe 5,000) copies of your novel to give to their patients? Some of those patients will never read a how-to nonfiction book but will consume your novel and get lots of ideas from it for their own life. New Life could have their own cover or a special explanation letter in the front or any number of other special things to make it their own book. Now these books are not money makers for the publisher or the author. They are heavily discounted but they spur interest and people talking about the book and they do stimulate bookstore sales. See how you’ve distinguished your book from anything else on the editor’s desk?

I’ve gone on too long but I’m passionate to tell authors about this process of creating excellent book proposals. Publishers are looking for true partners in the process. A marketing plan shows that you are actively going to enter into the process of selling books. Yes, publishers are looking for excellent storytellers but they need authors who care about selling books.


Sunday, October 16, 2005

A Temporary Pain

The news has been filled with dire warnings and stories about the bird flu. MSNBC has even launched a separate area of their health section on it. This time of year, people also begin to think about getting a flu shot to prevent the regular flu. About ten years ago, I used to downplay this process and avoid the shots.  Currently I don’t work in an office building and I have little contact with the general public—except at conferences and occasional meetings.  It was ten years ago, I didn’t take the flu shot and was sick for over a week with the flu (killing all sorts of deadlines on different projects). Since that time, I’ve managed to get a flu shot every year. Last year, I was late getting it because of the national vaccine shortage but I still received my shot.

Because in about a week and a half I’m headed to the Glorieta Christian Writer’s conference then next month a trip to New York City (and who knows what else),  I was eager to get my flu shot and have the protection. For me, I’ve often gotten sick during one of these trips because I work long hours, don’t get much exercise and my regular schedule is generally off kilter. I called my family doctor and he would not have the flu vaccine until November 4th—or too late from my view. I spotted a sign at my local supermarket pharmacy. It required me to fill out a form, fax it to my doctor for his signature then return to the pharmacy for my flu shot. Now admittedly it was a pain to jump through those extra hoops of paperwork.

Several years ago when I worked inside a publishing house, the company arranged for the entire staff to receive their flu shots at work. You talk about an easy appointment! You simply walked down the hall, took your shot and returned to your desk to continue working. I had to push a bit harder this year to pull off my flu shot but I handled it on Friday. Yes, I will use caution throughout the winter such as frequently washing my hands, etc. but I feel a bit more protected as we enter the flu season. While such a discussion may seem a bit off for my musings about the writing life, it’s not.  As a writer, you need to think about these regular precautions—so your schedule doesn’t get knocked with the flu. Since I’ve been regularly exercising and attempting to care for myself, I have less down time from illness and can generally b e a more productive writer and editor. It’s something to think about for your own writing life.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

And the Winner Is...

Several weeks ago, I told you about the Quill Book Award, the first national book awards where readers were going to select the winners. I encouraged you to vote because there was a limited window of opportunity. I hope you went over and voted. The Quill Book Award included books in a number of different categories—so there was a wide range of book possibilities from children to various types of fiction to various nonfiction book categories.

Last week, the winners of the 2005 Quill Book Award were announced. Mark your calendar for next Saturday, October 22nd because Brian Williams from NBC News will host the awards ceremony.  I care about these awards for several reasons. First, they are completely centered on books of all types.  Let me encourage you to note the winner of the Romance category, Debbie Macomber, who was nominated for her book, 44 Cranberry Point. She had a single book while mega-selling author, Nora Roberts was nominated for two different romance books. Yet Debbie won!

Earlier this year at the Frontiers In Writing Conference in Amarillo, Texas, I met Debbie and her husband, Wayne Macomber. If you read her blog (on my blogroll) or her books or you have a chance to meet her, you will understand Debbie Macomber is an approachable, kind and regular person—yet with a remarkable story.  After we were together, Debbie keynoted at the Romance Writers of America convention in Reno, Nevada.

If you need some encouragement to persevere with your own writing, let me encourage you to notice a couple of sentences on Debbie’s site: “Debbie Macomber loves to tell the story of how she got published. Of  how she struggled for five years to find a publisher who would buy one of the  manuscripts she wrote in her kitchen on a rented typewriter. Of how the young, dyslexic mother bargained with her four young children to give her the quiet time to write. Of the sacrifices Debbie and her husband, Wayne, made so she could pursue the dream that burned in her heart.”

Now I underlined those phrases in Debbie’s biography.  She continued for five years until she located a publisher and on a “rented” typewriter.  I heard Debbie tell the details of her remarkable story. Today Debbie Macomber has over 60 million books in print. So now you know a tiny bit of the “rest of the story.” As you learn about these winners, let’s celebrate their commitment to the craft of writing and their persistence. It’s an example each of us can follow.


Friday, October 14, 2005

The Impossible List of Books

In about a week and a half, I’m headed to New Mexico for the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference.  I’m teaching three workshops at this conference and I’ve been working on finalizing my handouts then sending them to the conference for duplication. It’s just one of the many details the organizers are facing with this conference.  It’s one of the largest faculties at any conference with a great combination of professional writers and editors. It’s a busy conference but a great chance to see old friends and meet new ones.

From one of the conference leaders, I received an impossible request, “Are there books about writing you wish all authors would read to make your job easier? As an editor, do you often recommend a book, or list of books, to writers? As an author, is there a writing book that has profoundly influenced your work? This is your chance to pass along recommendations for your favorite books on writing--to writers. These books on writing can be general or specific, practical or inspirational, foundational or nuts & bolts. For a Glorieta Christian Writers Conference workshop, I'm putting together a list of the faculty's favorite books on writing to give to attendees.”

I will pull together some titles. I have literally hundreds of how-to write books on my shelf and I’ve read most of them and continue to purchase new ones (and read them). I learn something new inside each one. I’m going to send Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success—just to make sure it gets on the list.  There is nothing like being a bit self-promotional—and I’m certain a few others on the faculty are going to do the same.

I recommend different books for different parts of the process. For example, I love some marketing books while others are simply fair (and not ones that I talk about but I’m familiar with the contents).  New how-to books are constantly introduced into the marketplace and give us another reason such a list is impossible to pull together. I’m going to send in a few titles on this request. It will be fun to see the finished list—and to see how many of those titles I know about and have read.

For many years, I’ve been committed to reading a how-to write book each month. Some months because of other reading, I miss it but normally I’ve managed to pull it off.  Some times I read about children’s writing. Other times I learn more technical such as book contracts or how to write better fiction. Other times I pull up an inspirational book about the writing life.  Watch these entries about the Writing Life and I will continue to recommend books that cross my desk. Now to that impossible list of books… 


Thursday, October 13, 2005

Whatever It Takes

Writers and editors are different. I make no bones about it.  In one sense you have to be a bit thicked-skinned and determined. Otherwise you would send out your carefully written story, get rejected and never try again. Instead, published writers (see the distinction) are determined and understand the subjective nature of this business. One editor loves a story while another editor believes it needs “a lot of work.”

There is an online situation where I’m not participating very often—or even going to read what other people have written. In the Internet world it’s called flaming and from the correspondence I’ve been receiving, it is happening frequently in this location. I don’t have the patience or the time or need or the thick skin to dive into such a situation. So I’m not even reading the information for now. I plan to return when the waters are calmer.

Last week my publisher received an anonymous letter. From the postmark, we could tell it came someone who attended a recent conference.  The writer purchased my Book Proposals That Sell. I love the way this handwritten note began, “At the risk of being thought of as a Miss Know-It-All, I found several typos in Whalin’s book, Book Proposals That Sell, and if I were you, if there’s a second printing, I thought you’d want to know!…The book was great, very helpful, gave good insight into what goes on behind publishing’s doors.”  Then the letter listed some specific corrections. I loved the closing, “I’m not signing my name in case this annoys you. Sorry if it does—just trying to help.”

In some way, I can understand this writer’s reluctance to sign her name. Editors have long memories and we tend to recall the people who complain (so if you do it, do it gently). Yet the writer also understands our desire as editors and writers to get it right. While you have numerous readers and editors for a book before it goes to press, often something will creep into the text like a typographical error. When the book is reprinted, these errors can be fixed. For almost every book, we begin a “correction copy” where this feedback is recorded and used at reprinting.  Now please don’t everyone write me at once, but I’m keeping track for the next printing. I solicited this type of feedback from a reader this week. She caught some of the same typos as the anonymous writer and added a couple of additional ones. My publisher will make the ultimate judgment call about which ones to fix on reprinting (since it will come from his budget to fix it).

Once a book is printed, the publisher pays for each change. The cost isn’t great and the commitment to “get it right” is worth the cost. I don’t get any enjoyment out of such feedback but I’m committed to being open to receive this type of feedback. It helps me grow as a writer and we get it right—whatever it takes.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Lost Files

When I create a new document or download a new file, I try and put it in a logical place in my computer.  Some times it’s a challenge to find a document that I’ve not used in some time. Maybe you've had this problem with lost or misplaced files.

Some time ago I learned about Google Desktop which is an amazing tool in this area—and free. You download the desktop in a few minutes. While your computer is running, in the background, the tool categorizes all of your files and the contents of those files. There are many other features in the preferences so you can individualize it to your needs.

For me, the valuable feature to my computer is the searching capacity. I’m no longer stumbling around trying to find a particular file. I can type a few words from the file into the search engine—and it will give me some Word files. I click on those files and almost instantly find the particular file that I need.  The tool is easy to use and has saved hours of searching.

I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical when someone else tells me about one of these free downloads. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of programs that others thought were terrific and I didn’t use them. It took a couple of times from a literary agent until I realized the potential value. Then I downloaded it myself and was hooked. So…it might not be the best thing since “sliced bread” for your writing life. I suggest you try it and if it works fine. If not, uninstall it and press on to something else. It’s certainly been valuable to me. And the next time this particular agent suggests something, I’m going to be a little more keen to listen—and follow a bit quicker.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Little Book That Could

Before everyone writes me about my title, I familiar with the classic children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. It’s a great little story about a train engine who conquers self-doubt with repeating, “I think I can. I think I can.” If we are honest as writers and editors, each of us have some element of self-doubt. That self-doubt can be easily reinforced in our world filled with rejection. You write something that you believe is brilliant and targeted for a particular audience. You gather your courage and boldly send it out to the editor and it comes back rejected—usually using some kind phrase like “not appropriate for our publishing program.”

At a writer’s conference or when you visit the publishing house (rare but it does happen), you have the opportunity to make a face to face pitch.  As writers and editors, most of us (including me) would prefer to not make these person to person pitches. Yet it’s part of the relationship building process of the publishing business. In a few weeks, I’ll be at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference. Yesterday I received my appointment schedule. They want me to check the schedule, block any additional times if needed and return it. Naturally the conference wants me to leave the maximum appointment times so the conferees can meet with me. As the editor, I’m going to be a bit self-preservational and block a few of these times. I’m teaching three workshops (already blocked). I’ve got over 40 different 15–minute meeting times on that schedule.  You can imagine toward the end of the conference, any editor struggles to listen carefully to a new idea.

I’ve recently discovered a new little book to help in this area. If you want to know more about a pitch, check out What Is A Pitch? (an excerpt from the book). Chris Abbott works in television and you talk about pressure! Imagine walking into a room full of skeptical television producers and executives who are ready to listen to your story pitch. It’s Chris Abbott’s world. Ten Minutes to Pitch, Your last-minute guide and checklist for selling your story contains valuable insight about this area.  The book assumes you are pitching an appropriate quality story to the right audience. With that assumption in mind, Abbott gives detailed tips about how to enter the room with confidence, pitch your idea then gracefully exit. I think it’s the little book that could make a difference in how you succeed in this process.


Sunday, October 09, 2005

What Does It Take

What does it take to get a publisher to say yes to a book idea? There are many different possible answers to this question. If you are searching for a single “right” answer then you will  be frustrated. Like many aspects of the publishing world, it’s a balance between techniques and art. I’ve got some of these answers in Book Proposals That Sell. I’ll be the first to admit there is always more to learn in this area.

Last week I learned about an hour-long telephone interview with Susan Harrow, one of publishing's top consultants and Arielle Ford. While this link has a lengthy sales page. I’m recommending you download the free MP3 file and the several page handout document. I listened to this hour long conversation this weekend and I learned a number of publishing idea.

When you listen to it, pick up on what they say about the five seconds you have to capture an editor’s attention. Now five seconds might seem incredible and cruel—almost like you don’t have any chance. From meeting with writers for years and reviewing their manuscripts, I can tell in about that time if it’s something that interests me or not.

Remember editors have volumes of material headed in their direction from individuals and literary agents. While I try hard to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and read more, each of us have limited time. When the meetings are in person, I can usually tell in a few minutes whether the project captures my attention or not. What does this mean for you when you are pitching? It means you have to hone that first page of your proposal (as well as the rest of it) plus in person you have to have “presence” (another aspect on this interview). The editor is actually looking for a reason to say “no” or reject the project. After all, you only want to carefully read the projects which pass this rejection hurdle. I can think of several manuscripts which came in last week—49,000 word length (no—too short since I only want manuscripts between 80,000 and 100,000) or fantasy or young adult or biblical fiction—reject). See how it works? Certainly these writers were pitching—and I admire and appreciate the effort to do that pitch. But they were pitching to the wrong place and the wrong publisher. 

It’s only a small picture of what it takes to get a “yes” to your pitch. Download this resource and add it to your knowledge about book publishing.


Friday, October 07, 2005

Successful Workshops

I’ve learned from personal experience that successful workshops just don’t happen on their own. They require lots of work from the presenter. I’ve taken plenty of workshops at various conferences (and continue to do so). Also I’ve given a number of these workshops. While I may teach on similar topics at different places, I make a point to rework my handouts (revising and adding new information) plus I rework my presentation and add new bits of publishing news or current events. Each time I have the goal that my workshop will be the best presentation of the conference (whatever conference).

Admittedly it takes effort to pull off such a high goal. In the rush of life, it’s easier to dust off the old notes and teach a new crowd but in my years of putting together workshops, I don’t fall into that trap (if I can avoid it).  It takes a lot of effort—and most of it the participant never sees.  For example, I’ve attended a number of workshops where there are no handouts. I may or may not use all of the content of my handout—but I certainly give someone a document to take home and use to learn more material.

Several weeks ago I was asked to moderate a panel for next year’s American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York City. While the event will not be held until April 29, 2006 and sounds a long ways off, it’s not in terms of the publicity effort.  The conference deadline for organizing the panel and getting the participants is next week.  I proposed a couple of workshops for this conference—but they were not selected. It proves every idea you have as a writer or editor is not taken.  I’m moderating a workshop on contracts. They gave me the title of Contracts 101 but how that hour is shaped, it mostly up to the moderator. The moderator has the opportunity to determine the content and who will be invited to speak. Every conference is different but for this particular conference, it includes a moderator (who is a member of ASJA) along with a participant who is a member of ASJA. There are usually only four speakers because if you try and do more, then no one gets to say much of anything. The math is pretty easy to figure out.  The moderator introduces the topic (five minutes or less), then each speaker gets 10–12 minutes to speak.  As the moderator, I’m going to ask each participant specific questions (more than they can cover in their time) but it will help them focus their time and not conflict or overlap with others on the same panel. You can see there is a bit of creating that goes into organizing and putting together an excellent panel. The remaining time for the hour is consumed fielding questions from the audience.

Because my topic for this workshop is contracts, I turned to my friend and fellow ASJA member Sallie Randolph who has a new book out called Author Law A To Z (which I haven’t seen yet but I know I can recommend). Sallie and I talked about the topic of contracts and how they are often seen from different views. Can this perspective be captured in a panel discussion? I believe it will make for interesting information and insight for the audience. While I haven’t found all four of my participants, I have issued invitations to the four members of the panel.  I’m attempting to get four lawyers who are experts in contract law. I’ve got an agent lawyer. I’m trying to get an attorney who represents publishers in legal matters. Plus I’m attempting to get a high profile copyright attorney. The challenge is getting these panelists to commit to an event next spring. Yes occasionally I’ve had a panelist drop out and I needed to find a last minute replacement.  If the panel is done well, the audience will never think about this behind-the-scenes work that transpires. Yet it does and it’s part of the writing life.

Later this month, I’ll be leading a few workshops at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference including one on understanding and negotiating contracts. I’ll be without my four lawyers for the hour but hopefully will give some solid help. I take the responsibility of teaching these workshops with great seriousness. I’ve been in workshops as a participant/ listener when it feels like the presenter just walked in totally unprepared and rambled for the hour. It’s definitely not the way I will be doing it later this month.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Book Review Help

Occasionally these entries about the writing life spring from a question someone will ask me.  It happened this week. Someone was looking for tips on writing book reviews at Right-Writing.com and they didn’t find anything.  I don’t believe there is anything on the site about that aspect of writing—but the site covers many others aspects.

For almost twenty years, I’ve been reviewing and writing about books. After thousands of reviews, it’s almost second nature to write these reviews—on many different types and genres of books.  For example, I was the original book review columnist for Christian Parenting Today which means I selected and wrote all of the book reviews for the magazine in those early days.  If you love books, it was a great task because publishers poured review copies of books for consideration into my mailbox.

The key from my perspective on writing a book review ties back to something basic about magazine writing. Who is the audience? What are the expectations of the editor (who guards and intimately knows his audience)? How can you meet those expectations? I find each publication has a special need in this area--for example some publications only want to print positive reviews (they don't want to give the space for critical reviews) while other publications want critical reviews. It varies from magazine to magazine and online publication to online publication.

With a quick Google search, I located several articles with detailed teaching about writing book reviews:


I've not fully studied these various links but they look like they have some good tips and advice.

One book that I have on my shelf of writing books about this topic (and I read many years ago) is called Book Reviewing Edited by Sylvia E. Kamerman. It has loads of information and chapters on the different aspects, formats of book reviews.  In the early days of my reviewing, I read this book and learned a great deal. Originally released in 1978, I find the lessons and teaching still applicable to today’s writers. Like any type of magazine article—long or short—it’s a matter of knowing your audience and meeting the needs and expectation for that audience.


Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What Riders Read

About fifteen years ago, I was Associate Editor at Decision and worked in downtown Minneapolis. During the work week, each morning I caught the metro express bus from my home in Eden Prairie.  The bus made one stop then took off for downtown. When it reached the city, I got off at the first stop then walked a few blocks to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters. Day after day I sat on the bus with the same people on the same schedule for work. Inevitably each of us sat down, nodded at the other person and pulled out some reading material. With our books, we crawled into our own little world and the time flew for the ride to and from work. It was a great study to see which books people were reading on their way to work. I loved the experience and got a lot of my own reading done on those bus rides.

The current issue of The New Yorker had a short article that caught my attention called “Lost Property What Riders Read.”  (Follow the link to catch the whole piece). One section in particular caught my attention, “An employee of the M.T.A. named Anant Patel had called and said that the Transit Authority had been collecting books for a year and wondered if Housing Works would like them.

Blum and Moore parked on Eighth Avenue at Thirty-fourth Street, and went down into the subway. At the end of a long hall was a door on which was written “Lost Property Unit.” Beyond it was a cinder-block vestibule with a thick window, like one at a pawnshop. Moore knocked on the window, and a young woman opened the door. Among the people standing around and sitting at metal desks in a room behind it was Anant Patel. He gave Blum his card, which said, “Operations Specialist, Asset Recovery—Rejected Material, Material Division.” Blum and Moore followed him to a room where boxes of books were piled. Around them, on metal shelves lined up against each other like files in a doctor’s office, were rows of purses.

Moore began loading boxes onto a hand truck. “You guys take Bibles?” Patel asked. “We just got rid of Bibles, maybe a week ago. Ten boxes.”

“We’d probably have a hard time with that,” Blum said. She looked at Moore, and he nodded.

Patel shrugged. “We gave them to a Bible society,” he said. “They seemed glad to have them.”

Blum signed some papers on a clipboard.” (p. 45–46)

They found ten boxes of Bibles from people reading (then leaving them) on the subway. You can see how people were readng the Scriptures during their subway rides.

When I’m in New York (about once or twice a year), I love to ride the subway. It’s completely safe and millions of people do it each day (even if it would be hard to convince my wife to do it). I’m normally unsure where I’m going on the subway so I never read—since I hate to miss my stop. Several times I’ve gotten on the wrong side of the track and gone uptown when I was supposed to go downtown (or the reverse). If I lived in New York City, I would probably join the readers on the subway.

Since I don’t live in New York City, as a writer, I’m constantly looking to learn more about people’s reading habits. It’s part of my writing life.


Monday, October 03, 2005

Rarely Discussed But Important

If you read many magazines or write for those magazines, there is a rarely discussed aspect but something critical to the survival of the publication. It’s the advertising.  At my house, we received many of these thick magazines like Vogue or GQ which are loaded with the full-color advertising.

From my years in publishing, I’m aware those ads pay for the magazine—more than any subscription price or cover price for the magazine. The greatest share of revenue comes from these ads. It’s why there are so many magazines—yet the magazine business has a high failure rate. It is unusual if a publication survives more than five years. I can recall a number of outstanding magazines where I’ve had articles published yet they are no longer in print. Their advertising revenue simply wasn’t there.

It’s one of those facts to keep in mind when you are grumbling about the low pay for some magazines. Many publications choose to keep their payment to the writer at a low rate—and look out for their long-term survival. These editors realize they might not get the best writers for that rate but it’s part of doing business. The best writers gravitate toward the highest paying publications.  In a related subject, when you get your book published, don’t expect slick full-color advertising in magazines. You may have never counted the cost but I guarantee the publisher understands the high value (and often low return/ sales) from such advertising. It’s why you only see books from bestselling authors in these publications (if books appear at all).

Last month, I took several days to write about PyroMarketing (here’s the summary of the book and the key points if you missed it and the 12–page download to the introduction). The fourth point of PyroMarketing is to save the coals. Over the weekend, I received the October 10th issue of Forbes magazine or the issue which highlights the 400 Richest People in America. One article called Buckraker caught my attention with the subtitle, “If you’re rich and powerful, Jason Binn will track you down—and send you his magazine.” Binn has learned the power (and success potential) for niche marketing. He “gives away half of the 425,00 combined print run of his seven magazines.” Why? Because he knows the importance of getting his magazines into the right hands to the right audience. As the article says toward the end, “Last year Binn’s magazines averaged 300 pages per issue, 45% ads, with each ad going for $16,000 after agency and distribution discounts.”

As you pitch magazine ideas in query letters and work with the editors on these articles, it’s important to understand something the editor knows as well.  People buy magazines to read the articles and for the information in those publications but often the power of the survival rate of the publication is tied to the advertising department. And if you want to write books, why are you interested in magazine writing? Magazines have high circulations and reach many more people than books. Book editors read magazines and look for new writers.  While many writers want to focus on books, they need to keep magazines clearly in mind for their writing goals.


Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Greatest Game

I’m not a golfer. Ironically my home is in a town with over 200 golf courses in the Scottsdale/ Phoenix area.

My only experience with golf came in junior high school. Our family lived near the Maryland Country Club. I often played with my friends over on the course. We hunted for golf balls in the rough, cleaned them up and even sold a few to some golfers. I remember one golfer proclaiming, “Hey, this ball has my initials on it. It’s mine.” I looked at him straight in the eye and said, “I found that ball in the woods. That one is double the regular price.” I was pretty enterprising for a junior high kid.

Living near a golf course stirred my own interest in the game. I purchased three golf clubs: a five iron, a nine iron and a putter. I would tee off with my five iron and play with that club until I got near the green.  Then I chipped with my nine iron and I putted with the putter.  My golf was reduced to three clubs and about my only experience with the game.

Last night my wife and I watched the new Disney movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played. Based on a true story about the winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, the theater was packed—even if our local newspaper gave the movie a poor review.  I loved the storytelling in this movie. The multiple plot strands combined with great acting to make a movie worth the experience. Some members of the audience even applauded at the end of this film.  We watch o a number of movies but it’s a rare day that I can strongly recommend one to someone else. I can encourage you to see this film without hesitation—whether you are interested in golf or not.

If you see the film, notice the aspect of talent or gifting. Francis, the main character, grew up across the street from the Brookline golf course. While his family didn’t belong to the country club or have a high social status, Francis had a fascination with golf.  When he tried it, he discovered a talent for the game. At one point he tries to walk away from it, deny his talent but ultimately finds that he has to play golf—his talent to his world.

I see this notion of talent in a regular basis in the writing world. It’s the ingredient that no one can teach you. Certainly I can teach a workshop about the skills necessary to become a writer. The storytelling ability and how you construct words on the page—well, that’s simply your talent that you bring to the process. Many people will never discover this talent if they don’t try it. It’s like Francis who lived across the street from a golf course and ultimately tried the game. It won’t fly if you don’t try.