Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Bears of A Lifetime

The books were some of my son’s favorites.  Often we would snuggle together on a couch and read about the adventures of Mama and Papa and Son and Daughter Bear. The bears lived in a tree and many of their experiences mirrored our life—like moving or having a new baby or attending the first day of school. If you know anything about children’s books, I’m talking about the Berenstain bears. More than children’s books, the characters also became a television series of cartoons and all sorts of other types of products. The books have sold millions of copies and there are over three hundred different books in print.  Stan and Jan Berenstain began writing children’s books during the early 60s.

Maybe you heard the news about the death of Stan Berenstain. The Today Show reported a memorial service will be held today.

One of the cherished writing books on my shelf is Down A Sunny Dirt Road. It came out several years ago and I purchased one soon after it appeared in print.  It’s a different sort of autobiography because it contains full-color illustrations from the like of the Berenstains. More than writers, they also illustrated each of their books.  You learn about how they met, how they started illustration work and the early days of their children’s writing. While the book is still in print, it looks like one of those products that didn’t really hit the mark. Amazon.com positions the book as a children’s book (and it might have been in terms of language but not the overall content). It’s 208 pages so it’s a fairly untypical children’s book (even in the 9 to 12 year old category). When more than 70 used books available, it doesn’t look to me like this book is a massive bestseller (but I could be wrong).

Y0u may wonder why this children’s book is one of my writing books? From reading the Berenstains story, you learn a great deal about children’s books. Here’s a small glimpse from this book when they were working with Dr. Seuss, who ran the children’s book department at Random House in the 1960s. They had signed their first book contract and were working out the details of The Big Honey Hunt, which was published in 1962. Notice they were not working through email or on the phone, the meeting took place in person at Theodore Geisel’s office:

“But,” said Ted [Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss], “before we get into the internal workings of the story, Phyllis [Cerf and wife of co-founder of Random House] and Helen [Geisel’s wife] and I want to talk a bit about these bears of yours.”

Internal workings? What internal workings? It’s just a funny book about these bears who live in a tree and wear overalls and polka-dot dresses.

“We like your bears. We think they’re fun,” he continued. “We like the idea of a family.”

“And we love your drawings,” said Helen.

Hooray for Helen.

“But we need to know more about them. Who are these bears? What are they about? Why do they live in a tree? What does Papa do for a living? What kind of tobacco does he smoke?’

Ted smoked. We didn’t. There was no way Papa Bear was going to smoke.

“As I said, we like the idea of a family,” Ted went on. “But just what sort of family is it? What roles do they play?”

Roles? What roles can they play? They’re bears.

“I’m concerned about Mama,” said Phyllis. “she doesn’t really have much to do in the story. She just sort of stands around.”

We hadn’t thought about it, but it was true. Mama was there, but Papa and Small Bear were the stars.

“True,” said Ted. “But I really don’t have a problem with that.”

It became clear early on that anything Ted didn’t have a problem with wasn’t going to be a problem. It also became clear as we worked with Ted (we eventually did seventeen books with him) that although he accepted certain broad, general ideas about story construction—that a story needed a beginning, a middle and an end, for example—he wasn’t an editor in any conventional sense of the term. Indeed, he was often dismissive of conventional ideas about story construction. Ted sometimes saw solutions where others saw problems. That was the case with Phyllis’s comment about Mama not having much of a role in our story.

“I don’t have a problem with Mama being a spear carrier,” said Ted. “As a matter of fact, I see the father-and-son relationship as being the heart of your story. Relationships between fathers and sons are one of the great themes of literature.”

What literature? We just wanted to do a funny little book about these crazy bears. But somehow we’d wandered into a symposium on the great themes of literature. It was slowly dawning on us that Ted took these little seventy-two-page, limited-vocabulary, easy-to-read books just as seriously as if he were editing the Great American Novel. (p. 145–146)

 Children’s editors take their work very seriously. While the finish product looks “easy,” behind the scenes there is a huge amount of work in any successful children’s book. It’s our own challenge for the writing life. We can learn from the example and path of the Berenstains.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Changed For Good

The name alone makes you turn away: Wicked. Gregory Maquire wrote a story about a different view of the Wizard of Oz story called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It turned into a bestseller (which I have yet to read).  Next came the Tony-award winning musical, Wicked, which I tried to see earlier this month in New York City but the weekend performances are sold out for the next few months.

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical. The story line is about the untold story of the friendship between Glinda, the good witch, and Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west.  One of the final songs in the musical is called For Good.  Toward the final portion, Elphaba sings about her friend:

That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend:
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you:
Because I knew you:
I have been changed for good

Whether we realize it or not, we are changed from our relationships with other people—in person or in print. What are the impact of your relationships and your writing? Are they changing people for good? I hope so. I don’t always do it right but I know in my communication with others I have a choice about how I handle it (or don’t handle it). Like yesterday I got a personalized email from a fellow member of the Evangelical Press Association. It was a pre-announcement to watch for a mailing—but it was really a personal reminder about this person and their skills with a hint that maybe I could use them in some current project. I could have hit the delete button or I could have sent a tart response. Instead I sent a little note saying it was good to hear from them and they should keep up the good effort. Plus I added that I didn’t have any need at the moment but I would keep them in mind in the future. I hit the send button and didn’t think anything else about it—until later in the day.

I was surprised with the response, “You know why I like you so much? You took the time to let me know you didn’t have any immediate needs, and you did it in the nicest way possible. I say that because at the same time I got an e mail from someone in EPA who doesn’t know me, but I know him and some of his contentiousness. Sure enough, he told me to get lost in a not so diplomatic way. I just thought I’d let you know that the testimony of Christ living in you is evident for the world to see. I’ve seen it for years.” I was amazed.

Glinda sings the first verse of the song, For Good:

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you

People are changed around us because of our communication—whether in an email or in a magazine article or in a phone conversation.

Are we changing people for good?


Monday, November 28, 2005

Listen to Your Own Heart

A few days ago, I wrote about the publishing beginnings of Dr. James Dobson from Family Man, a new biography by Dale Buss. The book contains a lot of information about how Dr. Dobson perceives of his writing and practices his craft. In the book, Dr. Dobson has just published his first book. I was fascinated with this paragraph: “Dobson also set his own publishing agenda in the wake of the success of Dare to Discipline. The subjects of his books follow the timeline of Dobson’s own experiences as a husband, parent, and ministry leader. “One thing I failed in doing early on,” says [Wendell] Hawley [the former Tyndale executive who first worked with Dobson], who retired in 1995, “was that I’d come to him with some of my own ideas about great books that he could do. It took me a while to realize that he had ideas of his own and that it was whatever was percolating strongest in his own heart that he’d turn for his next book.” (p. 49)

I want to draw several points from this paragraph. First, I’ve met Dr. Hawley and he’s a terrific editor who has worked with some remarkable authors on bestselling books for years. Yet Dr. Hawley freely admits to Dobson’s biographer that he was made mistakes. Writers tend to set their editors on pedestals and the editor does have power to a certain degree (understanding that publishing is a consensus building process).  Because we are human, we make mistakes and some times guide authors in the wrong direction. Instead, Dr. Dobson was wise enough to listen to his own heart and write about issues where he had passion and could see the felt need for the reader. I’m certain Dr. Hawley had great ideas to propose to his author, yet Dr. Dobson went in his own direction for his next book. It was a successful course of action. For other authors, they gain great encouragement listening to their editor and following the editor’s direction and ideas.  Once again as I’ve written about before in these entries, there is no exact formula for the publishing process. There is this strange combination between art and science.

As a writer, you may be getting tons of rejection these days.  I’ve got to send out those rejection letters to a number of authors and literary agents. I’m reluctant to do it because I know the news will not be well-received—yet I do it because at least these authors hear from me. I’ve only got a few spots to fill—and they are mostly filled for several years out. Rather than hang on to a manuscript, it’s better to let the author know and they can look elsewhere.  With the mass of submissions, I can’t even tell the author why I rejected it but simply send the form letter. To tell them (as I did with one author this past weekend) only invites more dialogue (and I have no time to dialogue via email—no editor has time to dialogue with unpublished authors—it’s simply a matter of time management not desire). Keep honing your craft, growing in your storytelling abilities and persist in getting your work into the marketplace.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

A Mixed Bag

What in the world is a mixed bag? It’s several short things without a singular theme. I thought I’d try it today for a short entry about The Writing Life.

First, I want to make sure you see the World Magazine cover story on Anne Rice from Lynn Vincent. It went online yesterday and is excellent.

Also if you want to do something fun with words, check out this site called The Dialectizer.  It’s been around for years and I don’t believe I’ve pointed it out in a previous entry. If you have a “need” to change your text into a different dialect—say redneck or cockney, use this site to make the transformation. You can convert some text or an entire website. It’s a way to get some attention from your friends—if you need it. Naturally it will probably be negative attention but you can make that choice.

Today I was reminded again of the importance of follow-through with editors about your submissions.  I hope you keep a log of your submissions and the dates you sent something to a publishing house or magazine. Then after a good length of time (usually detailed in the Writer’s Market or the guidelines), you send a note of inquiry about it. The note of inquiry should be brief and to the point. I received one this morning from a writer who submitted her fiction query in late July.  I commend her for following up. Unfortunately she missed my rejection letter of August 15th. I don’t know if she deleted it or if it never arrived or what happened (it could be one of a dozen things). I maintain a log of submissions. I easily searched for her last name and found the entry. I sent her a duplicate rejection letter today along with a bit of explanation on the high volume of submissions that I’ve received this year—for only a few possible books to publish—six to eight novels.  I’m sure on one level, this writer will be glad she followed up. On another level, she will wish she had done it earlier since August 15th was three months ago.  At least I responded—on a Saturday morning of a holiday weekend.

Keep your idea factory in motion and keep a lot of things in the pipeline. For example, I’m working on some magazine work, book proposals and longer projects. It’s the only way to maintain your flow of work in the publishing world.


Friday, November 25, 2005

Start Somewhere

All too often would-be writers look at a bestselling author and to imitate them seems impossible.  From my publishing experience, I know it’s a long shot and takes hard work. Yet at the same time, I understand that each of these authors had to begin some place.  Can we learn something from those early steps of authors?

Biographies are a wonderful way to learn about some of these early experiences. I mentioned recently reading a new biography of Dr. James Dobson called Family Man by Dale Buss, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  The writer presents a carefully researched and documented—yet realistic picture of Dr. Dobson, who among his many accomplishments includes bestselling author. Here’s a small paragraph from this large book which illustrates some of Dr. Dobson’s early beginnings in publishing. It relates to his first book, Dare to Discipline, which has sold millions of copies and released in 1970. “Zondervan and Tyndale House each offered Dobson a contract, the latter padded with an advance of five thousand dollars. Word didn’t enter the derby, Dobson recalls, because the company already published the books of another family-advice expert named Charlie Shedd. Dobson couldn’t decided which publisher to favor, but Heatherly [Doc Heatherly who had just retired as the director of marketing for Zondervan] recommended Tyndale House because of the marketing expertise of an executive named Bob Hawkins [who a few years later began another publisher called Harvest House Publishers]. That was the tiebreaker for Dobson. A mere six months later, after a feverish writing effort, Dare to Discipline was published by Tyndale House. Dobson requested 250 copies of his freshly printed treatise to send to friends and colleagues. He autographed them all, then he and Shirley carefully packaged each one of them, addressed the envelopes, stamped them, and wrote fourth-class instructions on the labels. Then they knelt beside the pile of books and laid their hands on the packages as they prayed. They dedicated the work to the cause of Christ, loaded them into the back of their red Volkswagen Beetle, and took them to the post office. It was the last time Dobson would have to do that sort of thing himself.” (p. 42–43) Tyndale House has published the majority of Dr. Dobson’s books over the years. 

I personally found these initial steps fascinating reading.  If you haven’t published anything, where will you begin the process? It is different for everyone. Many writers hone their craft in the magazine area before they write their first book. It’s a wise decision from my view because you can gain publishing experience (something editors value) and learn a great deal from the process.  Others write a book proposal and enter the publishing world in the book area (which is a much harder way to begin from my view). The key for me is to be actively involved in the process at some entry point. Don’t stand on the sidelines but jump into the water and begin this process of building a body of work. I didn’t suddenly wake up and write for over 50 magazines and publish over 60 books. The process happened gradually over time.

It can be the same for you.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

Forever Grateful

It’s pretty remarkable that America has a national holiday called Thanksgiving Day where we count our blessings and remember people with thankful hearts. When it really comes right down to it, it shouldn’t take a national celebration to turn thankful.

When it comes to my writing life, it doesn’t take long for me to turn to my high school English teacher, David Smith.  I don’t know what Mr. Smith recognized in my writing but he did see something—or maybe he dreamed that he spotted it. Whatever the case, Mr. Smith encouraged me to join the staff of the high school newspaper and do a bit of writing outside of school. I followed his suggestion and it took me on the path of journalism and my own writing career. About ten years ago, I decided to return to Mr. Smith, see if I could track down his address and write a sincere letter of gratitude. Unfortunately my effort was too late. I contacted someone in my old high school and learned that Mr. Smith had died a few years earlier.  Then I asked about another English teacher but I learned that she had also died. Finally I asked about a speech teacher who was an influence on my writing.  Almost every weekend throughout high school, I competed somewhere in the state in a speech meet—with this speech teacher guiding our team efforts. This speech coach had been in an accident but was still living. I managed to contact his wife and send a couple of my published books. I wrote this teacher and expressed my gratitude.  A couple of years later, I learned that he also had died.

Time is passing for each of us and it’s a shame not to express thankfulness throughout the year. Don’t store it up for one single day but be forever grateful. In  Paul’s second letter to Timothy 3:1–5, he writes a list of horrible sins during the last days of the earth. One word is tucked into this list—ungrateful. Ingratitude is rampant in our world. Instead I want to walk to the beat of a different drum—and try and express my gratitude to others. It should be every day—rather than a once a year occasion.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Still Reading and Writing Reviews

It sounds completely strange but I’ve had it happen often enough to know my experience is true with a number of would-be writers.  Let’s say they write mystery suspense, as an editor, I will ask them what type of mystery suspense books they like to read. The writer will stand looking dumbfounded and have a long pause before they admit, “I don’t read mysteries. I just like to write them.” You can take the exact same conversation and take out the words “mystery” and “suspense” then substitute your genre of fiction like political thriller or romance or futuristic or horror or spiritual warfare. These would-be writers wonder why their material never hits the mark. They are not reading and studying the material which is getting published and successful.  As I’ve written about in these entries about the Writing Life—someone inside a publishing house (who is thinking about their readership) has thought enough of these published books to invest a lot of their financial resources and bring these books into print. While admirable that a fiction writer is motivated enough to write 60,000 or 100,000 words on their particular story, it’s not enough. These writers also need to be reading in their particular genre of fiction.

Also I find that some writers only read in a certain area—say fiction. Or I’ve heard other well-known journalists say they only read nonfiction. I tend to read fiction but I often will pick up a nonfiction book and read it. The pattern is shown in a few of my recent reviews. I’ve already mentioned one of the books in an earlier entry about the writing life—Behind the Screen. Here’s my review of this book.

Also I enjoyed the latest entry from Oliver North and Joe Musser called The Assassins, which was a complex yet page-turning novel. If you follow my writing life and my reading habits, you will know I enjoy reading biographies.  Recently Family Man, the Biography of Dr. James Dobson by Dale Buss was released. I enjoyed Family Man and have more to say about what I learned about the writing life in a forthcoming entry.

In the meantime, you can follow the links and see that I am continuing to actively read books—not only magazines but books. It’s one of the ways as writers we can continue to grow in our understanding of the world of publishing.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

More About Jesus & Vampires

Several weeks ago I wrote about Anne Rice and the change of direction in her fiction.  I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of her faith but quoted a Newsweek article related to the release of her novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I hoped the change was real but was waiting for some more information. I’ve learned through the publishing world if you look for something persistently, you can often find the information.

You’ve probably heard of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game which some college students invented.   I’ve read some great articles such as the cover story of Pages magazine about Anne Rice from the editor John Hogan. But it wasn’t the validation for her faith that I was looking for.  Then I found it.  Since the beginning in September 2001, I’ve been a panelist on a moderated forum called The Writer’s View for Christian professional writers. One of my fellow panelists is the Features Editor at World Magazine, Lynn Vincent. I met Lynn several years ago when I was in San Diego, California for the Billy Graham Mission.  Then Lynn and I were on the faculty this spring for the San Diego Christian Writer’s Guild Fall Conference. A respected journalist, Lynn wrote about her interview with Anne Rice. She wrote, “Last week I was privileged to interview novelist Anne Rice for a WORLD  Magazine profile. Rice, 64, recently returned to her faith in God  after rejecting Catholicism when she was 18. For those of you unfamiliar with  her work, Rice for 30 years wrote stories about vampires, witches, and other  denizens of the spiritual underworld. Her books, though darkly  graphic, were also often “serious novels” rather than “airport  page-turners,” and explored themes of philosophy and morality, with undeniably  evil (but sometimes strangely principled) characters narrowly missing  redemption. Rice recently declared that she would now “write only for the Lord,”  and is now writing a series about the life of Christ, written in the  first-person voice of Jesus.”

Lynn continued, “I had never read a Rice novel. So, in order to compare her current work  (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt) with her past work, I began reading  Interview with the Vampire. I have to say, the quality of her writing  in that book is heartstopping. Original. Soaring. Vivid. Disciplined. A clinic.  There are graphic, horrible scenes that I don’t enjoy reading. (I don’t enjoy  watching the news either.) The writing though...incredible! And such a  blessing that God now has pressed a writer of Rice’s caliber into His service  :-).”

Later this week, Lynn’s full profile of her time with Anne Rice will be available online at World. I’m eager to read it.


Monday, November 21, 2005

Realistic Dreams

Many writer’s conferences are filled with first-time participants. These individuals have finally gained the courage (and saved the money) to invest in their writing dreams and come to a conference.  I admire and applaud their attendance and listen to their description about what they want to write and get published. Often they come to the conference with one agenda (often to sell a manuscript and get published) but they leave with a completely different agenda (often to improve their craft and learn about how publishing works). It’s a wonderful transformation process where people take their dreams and sprinkle into them (or readjust them) so they are realistic.

Yesterday I revisited an age-old question and today I’m going to continue that discussion with a different and specific twist—children’s picture books. Subconsciously I believe when I wrote yesterday’s entry, I was thinking about this headline in the November 14th issue of Publisher’s Weekly, “What Happened to Picture Books?” by Judith Rosen, a frequent writer for this publication. If you write these types of books, you are going to want to track down this entire article. Here’s how it begins, “Once an industry staple, in recent years picture book sales have begun to slip, pushed out of the way by a certain boy wizard and teen angst. Gone are the days when parents eagerly await the next Maurice Sendak or Chris Van Allsburg. Although publishing insiders agree that picture books are not dead—or as Mark Twain would have it, "News of their death has been greatly exaggerated"—outside of celebrity books and titles by established authors and illustrators, sales have been slow of late.”  If you write this type of material, you should be concerned about this news—but don’t give up hope, keep reading. The picture book market runs in cycles and the cycle at the moment is not strong.

What the article fails to mention (and many people forget or don’t know) is the high production costs for a full-color picture book.  If you have little children, you go to the public library or the bookstore, and have stacks of these picture books on your shelf.  You snuggle up close to your child and read a bunch of books. After several of these titles, you begin to feel like you could write as well as the author. So you try your hand at a manuscript and because they don’t have many words, in a short amount of time you have something written. That doesn’t mean you should try and send that manuscript into the marketplace. Instead strive for excellence. Every word has to count in a full-color picture book. These books are costly for the publisher to produce—and publishers are going to make limited and wise decisions about which books are worthy of their investment. It’s the only wise way that publishers can continue in business.

Why the downturn in this cycle for picture books? Rosen says that retailers are choosing carefully which books they stock and while the major picture book authors are still in demand, it’s the mid-list books which have been cut (read new authors and authors who haven’t found their audience).  Here’s some more of the reasons, Rosen writes, “Publishers attribute the downturn to factors ranging from demographics to the war, cuts in library funding, the decline in independent bookstores and the death of the whole language movement. “To a certain extent it is cyclical,” says Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Books for Young Readers at Henry Holt. “But it’s partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that sales are soft, publishers tend to pull back.”

Just remember the cycle is down but that doesn’t mean it will always be down. Eventually the demand will return for more picture books—but the key even in the demand cycle will be quality children’s writing. Before I discourage the daylights out of all the picture book writers, there is hope in this article from Rosen. Here’s just one of the quotations of hope, “While not exactly bullish, Random House Children’s Books president and publisher Chip Gibson is committed to the category. “From day one in my time in children’s books,” he says, “I have been generously and consistently regaled with two great ‘truths.’ The first is that the children’s business is cyclical. The second is that the picture book is now mired in the underperforming side of that cycle. Well, regardless of cycling, picture books are a vital part of our work, so we are improving and increasing our program.”

Let’s return to the question of dreams for our writing and finding that dose of realism.  I don’t mean to squash anyone who wants to write picture books. It is still possible. Here’s some suggestions for action: 1) study the craft of writing. Review the various articles about children’s writing on Right-Writing.com. Understand that it takes a lot of work to write a great picture book with few words. You will probably have to rewrite it numerous times to get it into the best possible shape. 2) join a critique group and if you aren’t in one, start one with other like-minded writers. You will gain encouragement and help for your writing. 3) consider writing for children’s magazines at the same age group that you want to eventually publish picture books. The magazine market is much quicker than children’s book publishing plus the opportunity is far greater for writers. Also if you pursue this course of action, you will gain publishing credits and experience which count when the editor looks at your work. My first published book was a picture book for children from ages four to seven.

As writers, each of us have dreams for our work—but we want to balance those dreams with a healthy dose of realism about the marketplace. Then we don’t enter it blindly but we are armed with knowledge and wisdom.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Revisit An Age-Old Question

You hear the discussion often in different contexts. Which comes first the idea or the book? Or which comes first, the book or the marketing? Or in the area of publishing, how do you get published—with a book or with a magazine article? Or maybe it’s with a book manuscript—which do you sell first the manuscript or the book proposal? It’s like the question about the chicken or the egg and determining which comes first. There is no right or wrong answer from my perspective. Each of us have a different path in the journey of writing.

Many people are looking for a single answer—and from my experience there is no one path in the writing life. Some people hone their craft in the newspaper field or magazine writing, then finally get their first book published. Others are driven to write a book so they carefully craft their story and get it to the perfect editor—who buys it and with only a tiny bit of experience, they jump into the book market.  Admittedly, it doesn’t happen often but it can happen. Recently I read the beginning of novelist Nicholas Sparks’ career. He sent his query letter to 25 different literary agents and only one responded. This agent had been in business six months and had never sold a single novel. Yet if you read the story, you will learn Sparks’ first manuscript sold for a million dollar advance.   Unfortunately from my experience, his story is rare in this business—possible but rare.

Here’s another age-old question. People wonder if you work on your blog or your book manuscript.  The answer for me is both.  My time for blog writing is limited—intentionally. I know some people who have almost quit blogging or stopped because of the time it was consuming to their schedule. They felt like blogging was taking over their life. It’s true with any aspect of the writing life. It can take over your life—if you allow it to do so. I intentionally limit my blog writing to about 30 minutes a day (often less). Then I press on to other assignments and other parts of the publishing business. It takes discipline—another key trait of a published writer—to handle such changes. The opening article in latest issue of Author’s Guild Bulletin includes this story from the New York Times.  I found the article interesting because it shows how others are using their blog to test their material and gain feedback for their work. 

The key for me is not to permit any of these aspects of the publishing world to consume you and your attention. Instead mix and match the various aspects of publishing and writing into your life. It’s as much art as formula.



Saturday, November 19, 2005

Right Word Puzzle Contest

I’ll admit that in general I’m not much on entering contests or filling out crossword puzzles. I know millions of people love the challenge of a good crossword puzzle.  I’ve often pulled out the airline magazine in the back pocket of the seat in front of me and (particularly if late in the month) I’ve discovered a completed crossword puzzle.

Several weeks ago The New Yorker included several pages of full-color ads for a new contest from The Bantam Dell Publishing Group called Finding the Right Word.  Even the headline drew me into reading, “Great writers are great storytellers: they rarely are at a loss for words. The ability to unravel a yarn, deliver an adventure, and bring a voice alive for readers is what sets the storyteller apart, and what keeps us, the readers, satisfied. But finding the right word is no easy task.”

With three different crossword puzzles, they’ve launched The Right Word Sweepstakes. The first prize is three novels a month from Bantam Dell—for every month in 2006. First, you complete all three crossword puzzles, then send in your submission and enter into this drawing. Follow the link to see a printable version of the puzzles and the contest rules. If you want to take a break from your writing, it might be just what you need.


Friday, November 18, 2005

A Brief Look At the Major Players

A week ago at this time, I was going from appointment to appointment in New York City.  A time or two each year, I get to visit New York and love the feel of this city.   Like I usually do, I purchased an unlimited subway ticket (which also works on the bus system). So for $24 you can ride throughout the city to different meetings. It’s almost as quick as taking a taxi and definitely reduced economics. New Yorkers are helpful to find the right train going the right direction. You have to constantly remember if you want to go uptown (north) or downtown (south) and every now and then you go “across town” or shuttle from east to west or west to east. There is a whole different side of life that you can view in the subway and I find it fascinating.

New York is filled with skyscrapers and tucked into these tall buildings are a lot of offices. It’s the nerve center of the U.S. when it comes to publishing.  Earlier this week, I mentioned reading Bestselling Book ProposalsI arranged one of my appointments with one of the top literary agencies in New York City. Since my last visit several years ago with this agent, he had changed offices. I found my way to his Madison Avenue address and checked in with the security people on the first floor. The security man asked me to stand in a particular place and they took my photo and printed a small visitors badge with my name and photo.  Then I was directed to a particular bank of elevators (different elevators went to a different series of floors) and the security man buzzed a gate to allow me into the elevators.  My ears popped with the express elevator and this particular agency consumes the entire floor of this building.

Walking out of the elevator, you immediately see a wall of books with the cover face out.  These are a few of the titles from the agencies top authors and I recognized many of the titles and authors. Outside of the elevator, I had to ring another bell so the receptionist for the agency could unlock the door into the agency.  Earlier this week I mentioned the statistic in Bestselling Book Proposals about books that fail. This agent had a copy of the same book. He didn’t know where it came from but his copy magically appeared on his desk when he was at lunch. “And you can see the type of security we have in this building, Terry?” The source of the copy was a mystery to the agent.  He was interested in my Book Proposals That Sell since he’s always looking for new insight into the proposal process—especially from my editor perspective.

Here’s a bit of publishing insight from Bestselling Book Proposals in the initial chapter where the authors give insight into how book publishing works. “Six huge, multinational conglomerates dominate the book-publishing business; together , they put out about 80 percent of all books sold. Four of these giants are foreign owned, but all have headquarters in New York City, which is the world book-publishing center. As a result, the big six are considered “New York Publishers,” which carries a certain literary cachet, even though they’re actually owned by corporations based in Munich, London, or Sydney.”

Now these six main publishers have many “imprints” or subsidiary companies inside them. Here are big six:

  • Random House, Inc.
  • The Penguin Group
  • HarperCollins
  • Holzbrinck Publishing Holdings — you might not recognize this one but here’s some of their imprints: Henry Holt, Macmillan and St. Martin’s.
  • Time Warner Book Group, Inc.
  • Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The seventh major publisher is Disney Publishing Worldwide. As Bestselling Book Proposals says, “In addition to the giant publishers, Dan Poynter reports that some 300 to 400 medium-sized publishers exist, along with more than 85,000 small and self-publishers.”

The volume of possibilities for publishing can make your head spin and wonder how you will ever manage to sort through it.  You might not have to sort through these various publishers.  Because of the high volume of inappropriate submissions, many publishers (large and small) have closed their doors to unsolicited manuscripts and book proposals. This fact causes a lot of heartburn and frustration for new writers who want to get a book published. They dream of writing a book but don’t know how to get the editor’s attention. One of the best ways is to attend a large writer’s conference and begin a relationship with an editor from a publisher you are targeting for your proposal. I understand the necessary commitment to attend a conference in terms of financial and time.

The other possibility is to create an excellent book proposal which an agent will want to represent to the various publishers. The literary agent can approach any publisher with a project from their writer/ client. Often someone will ask me to refer them to a literary agent. Here’s a common fact in the publishing world: every agent is looking for the “right” new client.  Yes, they may have a full slate of authors and look incredibly busy and unavailable—but if you present them with an excellent book proposal which they want to champion and sell for you. Then their busy schedule suddenly disappears for you. My charge to you who want to find a literary agent: find one the safe way (follow this link) and write with excellence.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Organizing A Long Magazine Article

A “classic” when it comes to writing books is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. If you haven’t read this title, I highly recommend it.  My copy is something I cherish because Zinsser autographed it in 1990 when he spoke at an Evangelical Press Association convention.  His publisher, Harper & Row, graciously sent a bunch of copies to our convention. As magazine editors, we lined up for his autograph.  Over the years, I’ve read the book several times and valued the contents and the clarion call to excellent writing.

I belong to several online writing groups and attempt to participate when I can. Earlier this week, the moderator quoted from On Writing Well saying, “Organizing a long article is the most unsung and untaught skill in nonfiction writing. But it's just as important as knowing how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don't keep remembering that writing is sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next, and that narrative--good old-fashioned storytelling--is what should pull your readers along without their ever noticing the tug. The only thing they should be aware of is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey and know where you are going.”   I tried to find the quotation in my copy—yet couldn’t locate it. I wrote and learned the quote comes from On Writing Well fifth edition by William Zinsser, Chapter 21, page 253, paragraph 2. Harper Perennial, (c) 1994, NY, NY. My edition only had 246 pages so no wonder I couldn’t find it.  If you follow the link, you will see the latest version of this book from 2001 has 352 pages.  I guess I need to order a new book but it shows the on-going learning and valuable writing teaching from William Zinsser.

For the online group, we were discussing how to organize the long magazine article. I didn’t make a long contribution to the group but here’s what I had to say:

As others in this discussion have says, outlining and understanding the overall flow and structure of your long article is important. Another key for a successful long article is to be reading and analyzing long magazine articles. Many Christian publications are focused on shorter lengths  such as 1,000 to 1,500 words (which are easier to sustain and write).  Many publications have cut back on these longer articles because of the short attention spans of their audience. 

To find these longer magazine articles, I recommend O Magazine. For example, one of my writer friends in the American Society of Journalists and Authors had a lengthy article in the October issue of O Magazine called “All the Wrong Men.” Unfortunately the article isn’t available online. Janine Latus uses subheads and an ever entangling personal experience story to sustain it for six pages in the magazine. Because of the topic (abusive men), Janine worked the longer magazine article into a memoir book proposal which generated a bidding war--and ultimately Simon & Schuster won. The book will appear in 2007 and I’m eager to see the finished book.

Many writers could profit from reading then studying the form of these longer articles--and understanding the variety of their constructions.  Magazines like O Magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly would be good sources for these types of pieces. The key from my perspective is to continue your education and learning to become a better writer.  We can learn from many different sources.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Part of the Problem or the Solution?

Several months ago, I was at the San Diego Christian Writer’s Conference and Barbara Nicolosi was one of the keynote speakers. Barbara is the founder and executive director of Act One, which is a nonprofit group based in Hollywood to train people of faith for careers in mainstream film and television.  An engaging speaker, Barbara uses a lot of movie clips in her talks to illustrate her points. A former nun with an MA in film, she is active in the Hollywood community yet not shy about her faith.

I’ve known about Act One and their excellent work for a number of years.  I find people love to criticize the movies and television programs produced in Hollywood. Yet few of these same folks are willing to roll up their sleeves and become a part of the solution. Instead Christian films and stories continue to be poorly done. Barbara is part of the crowd that is determined to be a part of the solution.  Act One has regular workshops and now they are planning these sessions as weekend seminars in different places of the United States.

In the last few days, I’ve read the new book, which Barbara and Spencer Lewerenz edited, Behind the Screen, Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture. Various instructors from the Act One training program wrote chapters and the result is like a Who’s Who of Hollywood and encouraging to know such sincere Christians are actively involved in the professional aspects of film and television.  Even the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a lengthy article about Act One called Can Jesus Save Hollywood? From this link you can get a brief summary of the article—if you aren’t a subscriber.

Repeatedly in the various portions of Behind the Screen (which I highly recommend if you are interested in this topic), the professionals tell the reader not to come to Hollywood for the wrong motivations. It’s not about message-driven stories. It’s about excellent storytelling. It’s not about getting rich or famous but instead about serving and professionalism and excellence. I loved the chapter Karen and Jim Covell wrote called “The World’s Most Influential Mission Field,” saying, “Only about 2 percent of media professionals go to church of synagogue. Hollywood is an isolated society, ignorant of—and often hostile to—Christianity. Hollywood is not just a mission field, it is the world’s most influential mission field. The media shapes the hearts and minds of people around the world.” Or consider what Jonathan Bock wrote in his chapter, “Love the Cinema, Hate the Sin,” when he said, “Changing Hollywood will require two virtues Christians habitually lack—patience and persistence. We’ll need to set our eyes on the long-term prize of righting the ship of mainstream culture by bailing it out one bucket at a time. But we’ll get there, and one day in our lifetimes, the world will marvel at our great works once more.”

Like in the writing world, Behind the Screen is a call to excellence in our craft. Something every writer can appreciate.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

More on the Startling Statistic

Yesterday I wrote about a startling statistic from a new release called Bestselling Book Proposals which says that 80 percent of the books published will fail. After I wrote the entry, I connected with the author to try and verify the “industry figures.” While I heard from the author, he answered that he wasn’t sure. It places it into question doesn’t it?

Later in the day I was talking with a former editor turned literary agent about this statistic. Here’s someone who has also been inside the publishing houses and seen the actual financials on books (something the author never sees). This agent instantly discounted the validity of the failure figure.  He estimated that in the case of his publishing house, they had about 80 percent success.  His first step was to define failure and success.  For him, failure meant the book failed to earn back it’s advance during the first year of its release. Now how did they achieve such a success?  It boils down to careful choices and careful management of the advances to authors.

I understand as an author that I want to get the largest book advance possible. Why? A large advance is one measure of the commitment of the publisher.  Whenever you receive a book contract from a traditional publisher of any type (a publisher which gives royalties on the book), the publisher has taken a risk. Even with a modest advance (say $5,000 or less) the publisher has committed to spend $50,000 to $100,000 on your project (in the production, design and editorial area) with zero marketing dollars. The larger the book advance, the larger the risk for the publisher and the greater the motivation for the publisher to increase their efforts to market your book. Don’t get me wrong, the publisher has the greatest financial interest in the book—no matter what their advance.

Book advances are typically tied to projected sales for the book. The greater the enthusiasm for the book’s potential, then the greater the sales potential.  From sitting in these publishing meetings, I know sales and marketing are often the most reluctant to give their enthusiasm—because in the long run, they are held accountable for their sales projections. Yes, their jobs are on the line. If the sales and marketing people aren’t enthused about your book proposal, then the decision is going to be a “no thank you.”

When it comes to the success or failure of the book, many of the factors are outside of the control of the individual author. Yet there are several factors you can control from the beginning. (If you are getting depressed about this topic and the long way you have to go to get published—like the comment yesterday—here’s the encouragement so keep reading.) Your first task as a writer is to have a terrific idea that has to appear in print. Then you have to write this idea in such a compelling way that the editor, the sales person, the marketing person, and the publishing leaders will all be enthused about the potential of your book. It takes a lot of work and effort on your part to craft such a sample chapter and book proposal—but it can be done. You’d be shocked at the sloppy material from authors which comes across my desk on a regular basis. Publish it? Not a chance—and they wonder why they receive a form rejection letter. Craft and excellence in your writing is the first challenge for any would-be author. Then you have to make your proposal stand out from the crowd of other proposals. I’m not talking about a distinct color of paper (totally bad idea that people regularly try). I mean in showing that you understand the basic principle of publishing—it’s a business and books need to be sold. Because you understand, you are going to put together a marketing effort which will merge with the publisher’s effort and reach book buyers and readers.

As editors, we seem to reject a bunch of material—but underneath each of us are optimistic. We’re looking for that next bestseller.  Hope springs eternal in publishing—but it involves persistence and perseverance and commitment to craft to find the right writing life.


Monday, November 14, 2005

A Startling Book Statistic

When I was in New York City late last week, I had hopes to write something about the Writing Life but the time wasn’t available.  I’ll have to use those experiences in upcoming entries. It was a quick and busy trip. I had a single day (last Friday) to connect with a few literary agents and editors. It takes a bit of advance planning to set up these sessions but I always find them fascinating and fruitful.

On the airplane, I was reading a new book which is the first of a series of books called “Author 101” called Bestselling Book Proposals, The Insider’s Guide to Selling Your Work by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman with Mark Steisel (Adams Media). Because I’ve written Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success, you may wonder why I keep reading these new titles. There is always more to learn (a key part of my ongoing writing philosophy) plus each one of these books contains different insight into the overall process. My book remains the singular title on this topic written from the perspective of an acquisitions editor.

The first chapter of Bestselling Book Proposals provides a fascinating array of facts about the publishing business. Here’s one detail that made me sit up and take notice, “Publishing a book is a long, complex, arduous, exacting, and expensive process.  According to industry figures, 80 percent of the books published fail. One percent of all books sold account for 5o percent of all publishing company profits.” I emphasized the bold information and it’s not bold in the book.

The number of failures seemed high to me (or maybe it is simply realistic). As a bit of a research project, I set about to ask a couple of insiders on Friday.  I asked one top literary agent who is a former editor at a major New York publisher and he instantly discounted it asking, “What constitutes failure for a book?”  I didn’t have an answer but it could mean a number of different things.

Later that morning, I met with a second leading literary agent. I showed him the same quotation and asked about it.  He also speculated about the word failure and what it means.  “Does it mean the book doesn’t perform as the publisher expected? Or does it mean the book fails to earn back the book advance? Or what?”  Again I had no answers but each agent didn’t want to take much energy to focus on this statistic. It would depress these optimistic hopeful literary agents.  Whether an editor or an agent, each of us believe in books and the potential of each book idea to succeed. We don’t want to focus on the failure aspects or it will be hard to keep putting new ideas into the marketplace.

In the afternoon, I connected with one of our fiction authors from Howard Publishing. In his day job, this author is a top editor at a well-known magazine.  Out of curiosity I pointed out the same statistic to see his reaction. He validated it saying, “It’s definitely true, Terry. Think about all of the books that fail to earn back their advance.” Typically publishers attempt to set the book advance so the author will earn back the advance during the first year of publication. It doesn’t always happen in the first year. It may take several years for the author to earn additional income or it may never happen (one of those books which fail).

From my view, the statistic reveals the cautious way that editors and publishers have to approach the key decisions about which books to publish. It’s a difficult business and to remain in business, wise decisions have to be made.  Often authors don’t understand why their book is rejected. As an editor, I understand the limitations on my own time to tell them (read can’t take the time). Instead you receive a form letter that says it wasn’t right for our publishing program. At least I console myself that the author gets a decision—and a few of them actually get book contracts.

On the way home from the airport, I was listening to another publishing executive on tape talk about the challenge to locate and produce a bestselling book. He put the statistic a slightly different way saying, “Of ten books, six will fail to earn back their advance, two books will break even and two books will make money.”

Our challenge is to work as authors on an idea which will make money (or in another way—find readers) and touch lives. It’s possible but it involves many different factors—and it begins with excellence in your manuscript and book proposals.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

How Not to Contact Your Editor

Keeping track of contact information is one of the simple yet powerful tools for every writer. Yes, create business cards to exchange at conferences--but take those cards and enter the information into Outlook or whatever system you use to keep such data. I use most of the various fields of Outlook--including birthdays and anniversaries. I'm constantly changing, adding and updating this information as it comes across my desk. You never know when it will come in handy to have a phone number or email address. I rarely use the information which I've carefully gathered--but when I need to reach someone, I have the information easily accessible. Also I carefully back up this information and save it--in case I have a weird computer crash or some other event. Information is power.

I carry this point a bit further because I have a business card scanner. If you have a lot of business cards, it's a great timesaver and highly recommended. You can learn more of the details at this link.

Here's a fresh example how NOT to use the information. Typically after a writer's conference as editors we receive a few thank you notes (which as editors we appreciate even if we never acknowledge the notes because of time constraints). This week I received a thank you note from someone who attended the Glorieta Christian Writer's Conference. They sent it to my address--but addressed their note to "Phyllis Boultinghouse, nonfiction editor at Howard Publishing.” That mistake is not something I fix by walking down the hall way or routing it to a different place within the company. I work remote from Howard Publishing, which is located in West Monroe, LA--first key mistake. Note they also misspelled the editor's first name is Philis NOT Phyllis. Also Philis is not the nonfiction editor (a title which doesn't exist within the publishing house) but she's the managing editor. Now what sort of impression will that thank you note make? If you are going to bother to gather the information--gather the correct information. This morning, I tucked that note into an envelope to Philis so it is headed off to the publishing house. I understand this writer had a good heart and great intentions with her thank you note yet she managed to make a completely different impression to me—even though the letter was addressed to someone else in my publishing house. Here’s a bit of additional irony: in small print on every business card, the “right mailing address” for Howard Publishing was there. This writer simply sent her card to the wrong address.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Try Out Your Title

If you’ve ever been to New York City (or any large city) in the downtown area, you’ve seen the afternoon street vendors trying to get your attention.  These vendors have a few seconds to catch your attention and make a possible sale.

This week’s New Yorker magazine reminded me about this quick sales technique.  “Selling the News” by Ben McGrath writes about the challenge of reading either the Times or the Post and the way to cut to the essence of the headlines saying, “For those without a staff, and without the time or the patience to muddle through more than one paper, there is Carlos, a young man of indeterminate origin and background (“I’m from everywhere and nowhere,” he says), who, for the past several months, has stood at the southwest corner of Forty-second and Eighth, by the entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, greeting evening commuters with a simple one-line digest of the latest in world affairs: “Bush nominates a lady with zero experience to the highest court in the land!” or, “Archeologists find proof that Jews existed!” Carlos is one of about two dozen men stationed in the area each afternoon who offer morning newspapers at half price, but he seems to be alone among the venders in his old-fashioned conviction that the news must be sold rather than simply bought. Unlike his forebears, the old barking newsboys with their evening editions, Carlos, who wears a fedora and a neatly trimmed mustache, has no “Extra!” for anyone to read all about. He relies on his ability to cut through the blather, pinpointing essential truths that busy nine-to-fivers may have missed over their morning coffee.”

You can compare headlines in a newspaper to the titles for your book or magazine article.  Each one serves the same function. The title grabs a busy reader and draws them to start reading your article or your book proposal or your manuscript.  As an editor, a title will draw me into reading your manuscript.  Too often a writer will simply include the title as an afterthought or slap something into place. Some times the query or proposal doesn’t even have a title. It’s a key mistake that some writers make with their submissions. You need to actively work on the title for your article or book proposal. Try out your title on a few people—and see if it draws them to your book. It’s a good test. Act like a newspaper hawker who has to sell papers. You are trying to sell your book idea or your magazine article. Does your title have what it takes?

I’ve been thinking about these newspaper salesmen because I’m off to New York City tomorrow for several days. It’s the mid-year board meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (my first one). It should be another great learning experience for me and I’ve got a series of meetings scheduled for Friday. Maybe I can get a new entry about the writing life written on the road.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Five Billion Dollar Publishing Business

Each week I read The New Yorker magazine and always find a great deal of publishing information tucked into the pages of this magazine.  There are articles about writers, editors and other things related to the arts and entertainment which I find fascinating to read.  Tucked into the Talk of the Town section of the November 7th issue, James Surowiecki writes a fascinating article about an aspect of publishing which I’ve rarely seen discussed—textbooks. Check out this quote, “College students now spend more than five billion dollars a year on textbooks, while states spend another four billion on books for elementary and high-school students. And the revenue is not being spread around: five publishers account for eighty per cent of new college-textbook sales in North America.” (my bold emphasis)

I know college textbooks cost more than the average book—and this article explains they average around fifty dollars with books in the sciences running over a hundred dollars. It gives a different perspective to the increased costs of paperbacks and hardcover books.  I recall many years ago when I was a college student purchasing some used textbooks to try and hold down this expense. As the article concludes, “The real losers in this game (the textbook market) are those who buy textbooks and hold on to them: graduate students, bookworms, and lazy people.”  The article provides an interesting peek into this market.

If you ever need a dose of reality in the publishing business (and each of us need it from time to time), I recommend you go to Dan Poytner’s page where he keeps track of some statistics.  Some of this information is frightening but good to keep in mind as you put together new book ideas and book proposals. Here’s a few of these statistics to keep in mind (the entire document is about 26 pages):

One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Many do not even graduate from high school.

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.

42% of college graduates never read another book.

80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

57% of new books are not read to completion.

These statistics are no secret in the publishing business. It’s a reality that each editor and publishing executive faces as they sort through the submissions looking for the next bestseller.  Yes, there is a way to beat these statistics and produce a bestselling product—but it takes way more creativity and energy than most would-be authors are willing to put into it—or even recognize.

Before you get depressed from reading this reality check information, understand that each editor and each literary agent continues actively searching for the next bestseller. Last week  I received an email from a writer looking for a general market literary agent and wanting a referral (something I rarely do—so please don’t ask). Every agent that I know is constantly reading their mail and their in-box. Now they may quickly dismiss material which is not shaped right or have the right opening—but they are searching for the next book which will capture the public’s attention. Our responsibility as writers is to create the best possible proposal  or novel to catch their attention.


Monday, November 07, 2005

A Return to "Normal"

Several days ago, I wrote about the unexpected loops of life. There was such an outpouring of notes and comments about Christine. I wanted to give you an update. She came home this afternoon from the hospital. A ruptured appendix is a major surgery and she could have lost her life with the infection. Thankfully Christine has received excellent care and after six days in the hospital has come home. Her daughter, Kim, has been a terrific help to us along with Mike and Amy, who live nearby. Plus another daughter, Steph, is coming later this week. She continues to make progress as we return to more of a normal life. Her full recovery will take weeks ahead and not just days. In the crack of time, my writing life continues. I’ve got another episode in mind to post soon.


Unexpected High Interest

During the recent Glorieta Christian Writers conference, I taught an hour-long workshop, Understanding and Negotiating Contracts. I’m not a lawyer and don’t give legal advice in this session—and I make that point clear. I teach on this topic because I believe would-be authors should be as informed as possible about what they are signing. It always surprises me when authors sign a contract without reading (and often even trying to understand) the legalese.  Because of my involvement in contracts as an editor and as an author, I make a point to pause when I receive a contract (of any type) and thoroughly read it and attempt to understand it before I sign it. Many authors forget that it’s not their literary agent or anyone else’s name who is at the bottom of these agreements. It’s the author who is ultimately responsible.

I’ve taught this topic at other conferences but not at the Glorieta conference. My workshop covers magazine contracts as well as book contracts and provided a number of resources for each one.  This session was scheduled during the second day of the conference and I didn’t have high expectations in terms of attendance.  Normally you have to be at a certain place in your writing life before you express much interest in this topic.  To my surprise the session was well attended and the audience pelted me with lots of questions.

Part of my workshop involves handing out a simplified book contract then going through the various legal clauses and explaining where the author can negotiate and what types of suggestions can be made. Because of the intense interest in the topic, I was beginning through the details of this book contract when the time for the workshop ran out.  I tried to rush through the remainder of the contract and conclude the workshop—except the audience didn’t allow it.  Instead of using the time between workshops, this group continued to push me through the rest of the contract handout. Instead of an hour, I continued the class right until the moment the technician from the taping company entered the room to remove the tape. I was impressed with the high interest in this topic.

If you weren’t at the session, you can get the tape. While the tape isn’t currently listed, Manna Tapes recorded each session and have it available on tape or CD. Another resource is to carefully read this article from Tim Perrin (who is a lawyer) and gives great advice. The key from my perspective is to get educated as a writer and know what you are signing. It could be an important learning experience for your writing future.


Friday, November 04, 2005

She Was Trembling

Last week I was locked in the appointment room at the Glorieta Christian Writer’s Conference. Actually I had less appointment spots than many of the editors because I taught three workshops. Plus one hour of my fifteen–minute appointments had to be blocked because I was on a national phone conference with the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. While the participants at the conference are focused on attending and getting ready to meet the editors, the editors have a lot of other things in motion beyond the conference (something many participants forget but a reality of the work in publishing).

These fifteen–minute appointments were held in a large room of small tables with two editors at each table. The noise level at times was almost unbearable but it’s about the only place for such sessions at this conference. (BTW, some conferences only have ten-minute meetings so fifteen minutes is great.) During this brief time, I have a chance to meet the writer, exchange business cards and listen to their pitch—then see if I can help them. It’s pretty much of a marathon type experience with ten to twelve of these appointment sessions in a row without standing or anything. I enjoy the variety and the chance to help writers at different levels of experience with their work. It’s the one chance to give honest feedback and assistance. From my years of doing these types of meetings, I know honesty has to be gentle but it has to be present. You do nothing to help the writer if you have each of them send you the manuscript—even if it’s not ready—only to reject it four or five weeks later. Some editors can’t bear to disappoint the writer across the small table from them, so they do a disservice to those writers and give them false hope (in my estimation).  As editors, we talk with each other—and know the editors who take this tactic of having everyone send their manuscript—then reject it later. Also the participants know it and look at you with huge disappointment and say, “Why won’t you take it? _____ (insert the editor’s name) is taking it.” (And they say it like it’s going to pressure me to take it. Right.)

I attempt to give honest yet gentle and specific feedback in the brief time that we are together for these meetings. It’s a challenge and I always encourage writers to practice the “grain of salt rule” You don’t take every last word from the editor as the absolute truth. Remember these meetings happen in a brief time period and the editor doesn’t have all of the information about your nonfiction book or your novel. I don’t care who is speaking to you, they can’t know everything. Yes, we have experience in the marketplace (value) but not the absolute last word.

Here’s what I tend to forget when I’m in these back to back sessions with participants: many people are attending a writer’s conference for their first time. It’s always a high percentage of people who are at their first conference. Some of these people have never met an editor and are worried about it.  I could tell this one woman was nervous from the moment she sat across from me.  She was trembling and her papers shook as she held them.  She explained that she had never attended a writer’s conference nor met with an editor. I gently asked her about her story and as we talked, she began to calm down and feel OK about our exchanges.

If you feel like you are out of your element to have such meetings with editors, welcome to the world of writing. It’s important to begin and form these relationships with editors and others in the field of publishing—yet it’s difficult for many of us. We are much more comfortable behind a computer or at a keyboard alone—than in front of others.  One editor from a well-known company told about all of them taking the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Of the large group of editors at this company—only two of them were extroverts. The rest of them were introverts.  I suspect it’s pretty much the rule of thumb in the marketplace.  People always want to me to be on the social committees and plan the gatherings—when the reality is that I will barely go to the event. I’d rather be tucked in a corner someplace reading a book than to be in the middle of a huge party.

So when you meet editors at conferences, just take a deep breath, stick out your hand in greeting and go for it. I’ve been interviewing strangers since high school for stories—so I’ve learned to rise to these occasions. For many, it’s a new experience—but a valuable one for them.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Dog-Eared Books

Last week, I was on the faculty of the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference which ended on Sunday. I find these conference invigorating yet also draining. Over the next few days I plan to write some incidents from the conference and some of the writing insight I gained from this experience.

Throughout the conference, people asked me to sign their copy of Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Their Success.  I wrote this how-to book to help writers learn how to put together excellent book proposals from my perspective as an acquisitions editor. Several incidents made a deep impression on me. Two different times the person handed me a dog-eared copy of their book. As someone who travels, I know it took extra effort for them to carry that book from home to the conference. Each one had read their book three or four times and marked different sections in pen and highlight. It was fun to flip through their book, see the highlights and their marks in the margin of the book. It’s exactly what I hoped would happen with this book—that readers would study the contents and use it when they create their own book proposals. It’s what the various editors who endorse the book hoped as well—so they will get better book proposals to take through the publishing process.

I’ve written many books but it’s rare for me to see how a reader uses a particular book.  While the book released in the spring, it was gratifying and encouraging for me to see the intense use of the information to create their proposal. While I didn’t do it, each time the thought crossed my mind, Could I purchase this dog-eared book and give them a new one? I would use the dog-eared book for my own encouragement about how these words are being used around the country to improve the quality of book proposals. Instead, I personalized each book, signed it and handed it back to the person.

At the conference, the participants sign up for meetings with various editors, literary agents and professional writers. I had at least forty such meetings during this conference. At one of them, the author pulled out a proposal that he wanted me to review. He had followed my Book Proposals That Sell and I could clearly see it from the way the information was put together.  Through my review, we tweaked a few elements but overall, this proposal looked like it was in good shape. I asked him about the reaction from literary agents and other editors. “Everyone wants to take it back to their publishing house,” he said with a smile. I congratulated this author because he had done the hard work of writing a proposal with the various elements in place—and to increase his possibilities of finding a traditional publisher to bring this proposal into print.

If you are one of those people who have read and used Book Proposals That Sell, I’d appreciate it if you would take the time to write a few lines about what the book has meant to you at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble or Christian Books.com. Repeatedly I find people make buying decisions about books from these reviews. If you’ve written such a review (or plan to do so), my appreciation for your help.

Firsthand, I know it takes a lot of work and energy to write a proper book proposal—whether nonfiction or fiction. It’s not something which you knock out in a few days. The well-done book proposals involve a lot of time to think, research and creatively brainstorm. Yet I know if you take this effort, it will pay in the reaction and reception of your ideas into the marketplace.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Loops of Life

Doesn’t life just seem to throw you off some days? It does for me. I returned a few days ago from the Glorieta conference invigorated with all sorts of ideas and plans to write about the Writing Life.

Whenever I found a few extra minutes to call home (only briefly once a day with our intense schedule at this conference), my wife sounded terrible.  Christine was sleeping lots and believed she had the stomach flu. I felt bad but there was little I could do from a distance other than encourage her to get some rest and get better.

When I returned home, Christine had not improved so I pushed her to get into the doctor on Monday.  Running a temperature and still having flu-like symptoms, the doctor didn’t know exactly what was happening. He ordered a x-ray and CAT scan for tests. The results didn’t come back to him until late Monday and were read early Tuesday.  Yesterday morning we got a call to head to the hospital because the films showed her appendix had ruptured.  For most of the day, I waited with Christine in the pre-op room then spent a bit of time with her after surgery.  They removed her appendix and cleaned out the area of infection but she will be in the hospital several days.  I’m handling some chores here at home, then spending my day at the hospital—away from my computer—again.

The ideas I had for these writing life entries — some lessons that I picked up at the conference—will keep for another day. I’m off to care for my wife. Life has thrown another loop into my schedule for a day or so. It happens—and it happens to all of us.