Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Danger of A Single Focus

"Focus, focus, focus," one of my friends said when I told her about the diverse efforts in my writing life. And she's right in that to complete anything successfully--and especially something the length of a book project--you will need to have a consistent focus on the project for days on end.

Yet in this entry on The Writing Life, I want to point of the danger of a single focus for your writing. I've met many writers who have only focused on their lengthy fiction project and never considered writing anything smaller like a short story or a nonfiction magazine article. Because of their single-minded focus, they have never experimented with the other writing forms to their own detriment. Why? They have failed one of the key ingredients for any successful writer and not built a body of work.

When someone looks into the volume of writing that I've done over the years, they often approach me wide-eyed and some times even say, "How in the world did you do it?" Yes, I've written for more than 50 printed magazines and published more than 60 books with traditional publishers--and my first book was released in 1992. I compare all of that writing to the way that you eat an elephant. You do it one bite at a time and you write the words one page at a time.

Almost 20 years ago, I was on the faculty of an East Coast writer's conference because of my role as a magazine editor. I flew into the Philadelphia airport. I had a couple hours of riding in a van to reach this facility and I sat in the back with one other faculty member--a literary agent. I had never met this person and we spent the time getting acquainted and talking about long-term goals for our publishing dreams.

During our conversation, this agent pointed out something that has become somewhat of a mantra for my own writing life. He said, "Every writer needs to build a body of work and just look at Jerry B. Jenkins." Both of us knew Jerry personally, the author of the bestselling Left Behind series. At that time, I believe Jerry had written 60 or 70 books or a large volume of material in print. His fiction writing was just getting started in those days. His specialty at that time was writing books for well-known people like Meadowlark Lemon from the Harlem Globe Trotters or the Evangelist Luis Palau. We marveled at the volume of writing which Jerry had in print--and it's much greater today.

"Jerry didn't just wake up one day and decide to write 60 books," the agent explained. "For years, he has been actively building a body of work."

It was a lesson that I've never forgotten and has driven the diversity of my own writing life. While I've written longer projects like books, I've also focused on writing shorter magazine articles and online Ebooks and many other types of writing. Each type of writing builds that body of work.

Throughout the publishing world--whether magazine or book or online--your experience weighs into the consideration process with the editor. The buzz or consistent phrase says, "Writers need to build a platform." Whether you write nonfiction or fiction, the platform or visibility in the marketplace is important because that's how you attract--and keep--readers.

What are you doing today to build your platform or your body of work? Are you balanced in your approach to your writing or have you fallen into the danger of a single focus without looking at the big picture?

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3 Comment:

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Bryan Allain Left a note...


Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I've only been reading your blog for a week or so, but already I've received some great insight from you.

I'm a newbie author who's first proposal was not picked up because of a "small platform". (join the club, right?). I'm working to grow my platform and readership, but sometimes I worry that I'm working hard enough, but not smart enough. What makes the best impression on a publisher? more blog readers? A large mailing list? being published in numerous print and online magazines? or all of the above?

would love to get some specific insight from you for my situation if you had a moment. If not, thanks so much for this blog. keep up the good work!


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


In general, publishers are very old school--so if you use blogs talk about the number of readers you have each day (no one knows what a "hit" means) or something like unique visitors (that makes sense). The larger the number you can get--the better.

Also in general, getting in print magazines would have much stronger appeal than online publications--since anyone can write a blog or an online newsletter. In general, print magazines have a higher standard--and particularly the high paying publications like Woman's Day or Family Circle. While hard to get into these places, if you do, then you can use it as leverage to get up the next rung in the ladder.

I hope that helps in a small way. Thank you for the kind word about my blog.


At 2:48 AM, Blogger Nick Left a note...

Great post, Terry. Focus is important, but I do agree that every writer today needs to have a broad portfolio of work.

Nick - www.mywritingblog.com


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