Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Choose Your Targets With Care

Some people would write it off to the impulsive nature of youth. I’m talking about some of the personal experience articles I wrote many years ago. I captured these events with snatches of dialogue or a vivid detail. Later I picked out a magazine for a target and wrote the story, worked with the editor and eventually it was published.

Personal experience stories provide a tremendous opportunity for writers and a wide variety of publications are looking for this type of material. Often it will involve writing a great query letter, then if you get the go-ahead from the editor, delivering a well-crafted article with a solid take-away or point for the reader.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned my colleague on the American Society of Journalists and Authors board of directors, Lisa Collier Cool. The heart-wrenching story about when her 16–year old daughter, Rosalie, appeared in two parts in Ladies Home Journal (circulation over four million).  During my last entry, this story was not online—but now it appears in two parts (part one and part two). When I saw Lisa last April, she and her husband John hadn’t decided whether they would use their real names in the article or not. The Ladies Home Journal editor was working with them to make this decision.  Sometimes these personal experience stories are published anonymously for various reasons. This family talked through the decision and each one of them decided to go ahead and use their real names. The results are a powerful example to help others going through similar situations.

From my personal experience as a writer, I know the difficulty of writing these types of stories. It’s hard and challenging. There is an old Chinese proverb which says, “He who writes, taste life twice.” It’s true that you return to these memories and have to relive them in order to get them on paper in an effective manner. 

Everyone that I know has difficult personal experiences. Some times they come through them in triumph and other times they come through them in utter failure. In each of these experiences, hopefully the person grows and learns from the situation. It does not mean that you have to write about it in a personal experience story or even disguise the experience into a novel. If you do write this material, it’s your personal choice and decision.

From my life experiences, I have written about some of them and I will never write about other personal experiences—and that’s OK. I think some times we get into this “reality” mentality where we think every experience is simply fodder for our own writing and has to play ouBookProposalsThatSell-smallt in the public eye. It doesn’t.

Often at a writer’s conference or another setting, I will see people who have invested a lot of energy into writing their personal story into a book manuscript.  The majority of these people have never heard of a book proposal and the necessity of writing this tool instead of a full-length book. They’ve jumped into the writing experience and produced a full-length work.  Last weekend, I met another would-be author. He and his son had teamed to write a book.  I asked, “How far along are you on the project?”

“Oh, I’m writing the final chapter, then I’m going to begin sending it to publishers,” he said with a smile.  Now I’m certain this individual learned a great deal through the writing process but he is going to struggle to find a publisher interested in his manuscript. Why? As I’ve written repeatedly in these entries, publishers are busy people and look at book proposals for nonfiction instead of manuscripts. The proposal contains information necessary for the publisher to make a decision which will never appear in your manuscript.

As you write, choose the potential targets for your writing with care. And give yourself permission not to write about every one of life’s challenges. Some times not writing about something is the right choice for you.

4 Comment:

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Reese Left a note...

I've read that unpublished authors must complete the book, then send a book proposal about the book already written. The reason being that even an excellent proposal could turn out to be no good if the author lacks the ability to pull it of succesfully. Is this not true?

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


As an acquisitions editor, I've contracted numerous books with first-time authors. I'm talking about nonfiction here--90% of those books are contracted on the basis of a book proposal and a sample chapter. The book proposal and the sample chapter have to be in the range of material for the publisher (the type of book they publish) and excellent--but it happens all of the time.

The appendix of Book Proposals That Sell includes one of my actual book proposals which sold for a six-figure advance.

There is a lot of misinformation floating out there among unpublished authors so I hope this helps you (and others).

The Writing Life

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Crystal Left a note...

This is such excellent advice, Terry, about giving yourself permission NOT to have to write or use all of your personal experiences in articles or novels. We make choices about our writing time and efforts. I, for one, needed to hear this. Thanks.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger T. F. Stern Left a note...

"The heart-wrenching story about when her 16–year old daughter, Rosalie, appeared in two parts in Ladies Home Journal"

That had to hurt... were they able to put her back together after the article ran?


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