Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Gift of Reading Time

When I flew across country last week, I joined the others on the plane and strapped into my seat, settling back for a long flight.  It’s always interesting to see how other people spend those five hours.  Cut off from email and the Internet or their telephone, the time to travel amounts to the same gift of time.  Some people sleep while others strike up a conversation with someone nearby. Others pull out a laptop and work on some project while others use their laptop to play a game or watch a DVD.  Another group of people purchase earphones and catch the airline film. There are a variety of choices how to spend the time.

Some of the people on the plane take out a book and read a few pages, then stop.  Usually I begin reading a book before I take the trip. From my years in publishing, I understand that all books are not equal. I want to make sure I’ve got a page-turner when I’ve got an extended period for reading.

Within a few pages, I was lost in the story and characters of my book. It’s an almost magical experience for me to have a lengthy time for reading.  I quickly turned the pages and the hours of travel seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.  There is a lot of things which demand our attention and a recent report shows with the increased use of the Internet, people are spending less time reading magazines, newspapers and listening to the radio.  As the article, Time-wise, Internet is now TV’s Equal by Heidi Dawley, says, “Researchers also asked those surveyed which media they were using less as a result of the increased time on the interned. Books were the big loser, with some 37 percent saying that they spend less time reading books.”

What does such a survey mean for those who love books, dream of writing books and continue to work in book publishing? It means books have to continue to be better in quality.  The reader is less patient with the opening of a novel or the beginning of a nonfiction book.  As the editor watches out for the reader, it means your query has to instantly draw my attention. The drawing sentence can’t be the third one or in the second paragraph. Your book proposal has to instantly capture my attention and move my interest. As writers, we need to continue to grow in our ability to write excellent prose.

And when you find that gift of extended reading time? I’d encourage you to curl up with a book and plunge into the pages.


Monday, February 27, 2006

The Power of Simplicity

The past few days I’ve been on the road and away from email and phone. It’s been a challenge to get my regular email—much less find a second to blog. I’m hopeful the week ahead will allow a bit more consistency on the blogging front.

Last week, I was starting a new project. The experience has reminded me again of a common truth about writing: the power of simplicity. When you are writing a story, does the story make a logical progression? If you jump from the simple to the complex, then you completely lose your audience or your reader.  I was working with a person who loved to mix metaphors. His sentence structure went from talking about his work with an animal to a verse from the Bible to corporate scandals in business—and each subject switched and didn’t contain the connecting information to take the reader to this next level.

I was intensely following his conversation but I couldn’t make the jump from subject to subject without simple transitions. Over and over, I had to push this person to return to the simple story.  There is great power in telling a simple story with dialogue and action which takes the reader to a single point or takeaway. This power is demonstrated in a chapter of a book or the opening of a book proposal or a magazine article. It’s your task as the writer to guide your reader—and not lose them in the process.

John the Baptist prepared the way for the arrival of his cousin Jesus Christ.  His bizarre dress of camel hair with a simple leather belt drew the attention of an audience. His message was steeped in simplicity: Repent for the kingdom of God is near.

As you look at your own writing, make sure with each change or transition, that you take the reader with you. There is great power in simple storytelling.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Remarkable History Lesson

Normally there is no mail on President’s Day—but I got a single package. I had been watching for this book and it finally arrived.  A beautiful hardcover book called Simon & Schuster, The First Seventy-Five Years (follow this link and you will see that you can find a copy).  This short 160–page book covers the years from 1924–1999 and the remarkable past of Simon and Schuster. S-&-S-cover

In a wide sweeping format, the book shows the continual changes in publishing and the surprise publications which become huge hits. Here’s one example in a book loaded with these stories. One of the first three employees of Simon and Schuster was Leon Shimkin who was the office manager, bookkeeper and business manager. “Self-improvement was an integral part of Shimkin’s personal and business philosophy, so he enrolled in a fourteen-week course of [Dale] Carnegie’s inspirational lectures. He was so impressed he suggested to Carnegie that he expand them into a book. Carnegie was hesitant, but Shimkin won him over. The book became the number one bestseller in 1937 and remained on the list at number six in 1938. Still in print today in every country in the world where it has been published, the book has sold more than 30 million copies.”

The name of this little book? How To Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

Notice how reluctant Carnegie was about the idea of a book. He was probably comfortable in his teaching environment but wondered how those ideas would translate into print. Yet Leon Shimkin visualized the book in print and how it could help people. Shimkin made his idea happen and it found it’s audience.

It’s the same opportunity today for you and your book idea. First, you have to gain a hearing. One of the best ways to gain a hearing with a literary agent or an editor is through an excellent book proposal. Over the last few days, I’ve been sorting through the stacks of submissions for Howard Publishing. It continually amazes me at the unskilled pitches from writers. Each of them see the potential in their idea yet that potential will not resonate with the editor unless it is pitched in the right way.

Because I’ve been a writer, some times I do more than send a form letter. It’s harder and takes more time and energy to craft a little postscript to the author. It’s why many editors never bother to do it. It also involves risk. I’ve seen writers snap back at my postscript and cause even more correspondence (not what the editor wants to happen). Or some writers want to use that postscript to start an argument (again not the purpose). 

Other times you get a response of appreciation from the author.  Like today I received a pitch addressed “To Whom It May Concern” yet it was sent to my personal Howard Publishing email address. I wrote the author and gently encouraged him to look at his letter through the eyes of an editor. Was that email sent to thousands or only to me? I recommended a couple of how-to books to help the author. He wrote back a brief note of appreciation. Apparently that submission was his first attempt at a submission.

I commend this writer for being willing to learn the ropes. It’s my hope for each of us—to learn the expected system, then pitch great ideas.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Loss of A Champion

Have you ever faced the death of a dream? I have and it happens many times in the writing life. It’s something I’ve found rarely discussed in the publishing community. As writers and editors, we have more ideas for something to appear in print, than we can ever accomplish in a single lifetime—even a prolific and productive lifetime.

One of my “dreams” was to write a book for a ministry.  The idea came almost three years ago and looked like it was going to move ahead. A New York literary agent was excited about the concept and believed it could be sold for a substantial advance. I had an advocate or champion within the ministry who would be able to guide the idea through the approval process. The finished book looked like something that would have a large ministry and a long shelf-life in print. I was excited about the book concept and anticipated a success.  Over the last few years, I’ve invested a great deal into this project—thought, brainstorming, hours of telephone calls and emails, conference calls, lunch meetings and other things. Yet it never got off the ground. The book proposal was never created—except for several pages of rough material to lay out the concept.  I was persistent (a key quality for any writer) and knew I was working with some busy people. It was slow but still perking along as an idea.  A year ago, a key executive in the ministry left the organization. I should have seen the handwriting on the wall for the death of this project when I lost a key champion. Yet I had other advocates and continued working with them—more calls, more face to face meetings and more effort.  There were other personnel changes in the ministry. Then last week I received the official death rattle for this idea. It was over and will never happen.

While I told this particular story about working with an organization, it happens within book publishing as well. Book publishing is often a long process with months between contact between an editor and the author. For example, you may currently contract a book for fall of 2007 which is due in six months or August 21st. You sign your contract and receive a portion of your advance, then you don’t have much communication with that editor.  The publishing community is constantly changing. Barely a week goes by that I don’t hear from some editor who has moved to a new location or an editor who has become an agent or _______ (you fill in the blank with the change).  Often there has been a single editor who has “carried the flag” for a particular project. This editor has been the champion who has convinced others inside the publisher about the importance of a particular book. What happens when the champion moves to a different publisher? The change surprises many authors. I’ve experienced this change as an author (when my editor changes) and as an editor (when I change and leave behind my authors).

Here’s a few ideas about what you can do when you lose a champion:

1. Plan for things to change. It happens with every project so you might as well plan for it.  Then when something changes, it will not surprise you.

2. Manage your own expectations for yourself and the publisher.

3. When you lose your champion, I suggest you increase your own marketing efforts for the book. It can’t hurt anything for your book promotion and sales—and it may be what tips the energy from the publishing house in your direction. Success breeds success so if you are beginning to get a buzz going related to your new book release, it often gathers greater energy from the publisher.

4. Take some preventative steps before the change happens. Develop and foster your relationships with others in the publishing house beyond your editor or single contact person. If no one changes, it can only help your relationships with the house—and it might be the preventative step which will be critical. After the change happens, increase your relationships with others inside that particular publishing house. Now this increase will be a challenge to actually achieve because other authors will be taking the same steps but it’s worth your attempt.

5. Finally, be aware that change breeds change and what can happen with your book. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

It’s a reality of the business. Between the signing of a book contract and the published book, there are many different possibilities that happen.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Focus on the Words

Over the last few weeks, pages of ink have been written about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces.  I’ve added to this mass of communication myself with a couple of entries (my last one was January 14). Much of the controversy has been about how the publisher (and Frey) called the book a memoir and investigative reporters revealed the book has some fiction sprinkled into the nonfiction (which is an admitted problem).

This morning I spotted a well-written essay from John MacDonald in The Arizona Republic.  He made up some dialogue for Oprah Winfrey that he would have liked for her to have said. Here’s the paragraph that caught my attention, “Does it matter whether the book is fact or fiction? Of course it does, but not enough to throw it in the trash. Had it been properly sold as fiction, I would have felt just as much emotion, cried the same tears and been every bit as happy for the main character's trip back from the gates of hell. So after we all calm down, after we vent our anger, let’s talk about the story. Let's focus on the words, because words matter.”

When we reach the last page of a book, whether you have read fiction or nonfiction, the key is whether you held a great story, well told. As an editor, I’ve seen stacks of submissions from people who want to get their work into print. The great irony is they haven’t learned how to tell a good story. They want their prose to appear in print—but it’s boring and lacks the skills of a storyteller.  Some of this skill can be learned and developed. The first step is to recognize your own need to grow as a writer, then take whatever steps you need to take to improve your skills.  If you need to attend a writer’s conference, then plot a strategy and get to one. If you need to write, then write shorter forms such as short stories or magazine articles and get that work published.  You will be able to hone your skills on a much shorter form of writing than a lengthy novel or nonfiction book. Focus on the words.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Come A Long Way

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of best-selling fiction authors. You’d be surprised how often I hear the story an author repeated recently with her own slight variation.   When it comes to fiction, this author didn’t read “Christian” fiction while growing up. She tried a few of those books and didn’t like them. The stories were too neat and tidy. The characters weren’t like anyone she had ever met and the plots and conclusions were totally predictable.  Yes, she had tried a few and given up reading the “inspirational” genre. End of story. Not really because years later, a friend in Christian retail continually asked her to read it. Finally she agreed and learned inspirational or Christian fiction had come a long way in the area of issues and quality.

I’ve been pouring through a number of fiction proposals for Howard Publishing. I’m often amused when a writer will propose they write “edgy” fiction. What does that mean? Often it means they feel the need to include explicit cursing or detailed sexual scenes into their Christian fiction.  If they have a really bad character that changes, then the transformation makes it edgy? I don’t think so. There aren’t many taboos in the Christian market but one of them relates to explicit language. It is zero tolerance when it comes to this issue. I mean zero. Publishers who have “tried” with some pretty innocent language have been amazed at the returned books from retailers.  If you don’t understand, returned books mean the book has sold into a bookstore, then someone has complained and the book has been returned to the publisher for a full refund. Writers who want to be edgy often fail to understand the risk for their publisher. Who wants to risk returns? No publisher that I know because they want to remain in business to continue another day.

Now if with edgy fiction, you mean the issue that the book and plot tackles, then you are moving in the right direction. The storytelling has to be excellent but you can write about a gamut of issues.  Just to give you a taste, I’m including a list of recent Christian fiction titles. It’s not complete. It’s not my list but came from another author (where I received permission to include it in this post). She didn’t want “credit” because apparently this list has circulated and a number of authors have added to it.  I hope you find it helpful and interesting. Christian fiction has come a long way.


Showers In Season, Beverly Lahaye & Terri Blackstock

Tears In A Bottle, Sylvia Bambola

The Atonement Child, Francine Rivers

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes



Always Jan, Roxanne Henke


Alcoholism/Drug Abuse


An American Anthem Series, B. J. Hoff

An Emerald Ballad Series, B. J. Hoff

Beyond The Shadows, Robin Lee Hatcher

Finding Ruth, Roxanne Henke

Looking For Cassandra Jane, Melody Carlson

Shadow Of Dreams, Eva Marie Everson & G.W. Francis Chadwick

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster


Cancer/Breast Cancer


A Time To Mend, Angela Hunt

After Anne, Roxanne Henke

Coffee Rings, Yvonne Lehman

Healing Quilt, Lauraine Snelling

Loving Feelings, Gail Gaymer Martin

Seaside, Terri Blackstock

Season Of Blessing, Beverly Lahaye & Terri Blackstock




Don't Take Any Wooden Nickels, Mindy Starns Clark


Domestic Violence


A Nest Of Sparrows, Deborah Raney

Cloth Of Heaven & Ashes And Lace, B. J. Hoff

Evidence Of Mercy, Terri Blackstock

Sadie's Song, Linda Hall

Serenity Bay, Bette Nordberg

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes

Blind Dates Can Be Murder, Mindy Starns Clark


Drunk Driving


After The Rains, Deborah Raney

The Living Stone, Jane Orcutt

Waiting For Morning, Karen Kingsbury




A Season Of Grace, Bette Nordberg

Spring Rain, Gayle Roper

Tiger Lillie, Lisa Samson

Riding Through Shadows, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster




Ashes And Lace, B. J. Hoff

Breaker's Reef, Terri Blackstock

Coffee Rings, Yvonne Lehman

In A Heartbeat, Sally John

Lullaby, Jane Orcutt

The Long-Awaited Child, Tracie Peterson




Breach Of Promise, James Scott Bell

Coffee Rings, Yvonne Lehman

Footsteps, Diann Mills

Private Justice, Terri Blackstock

Redeeming Love, Francine Rivers

The Breaking Point, Karen Ball

The Forgiving Hour, Robin Lee Hatcher

The Scarlet Thread, Francine Rivers

Times And Seasons, Beverly Lahaye & Terri Blackstock

Ulterior Motives, Terri Blackstock

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Riding Through Shadows, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes




Little White Lies, Ron & Janet Benrey




Humble Pie, Ron & Janet Benrey


Mental Illness/Depression/Suicide


An American Anthem Series, B. J. Hoff

Becoming Olivia, Roxanne Henke

Cloth Of Heaven & Ashes And Lace, B. J. Hoff

Finding Alice, Melody Carlson

Songbird, Lisa Samson

The Living End, Lisa Samson

The Novelist, Angela Hunt

When Joy Came To Stay, Karen Kingsbury

Riding Through Shadows, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing By Samaria, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes




Last Light, Terri Blackstock

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster




The Second Mile, Ron & Janet Benrey


Unplanned Pregnancy


A Moment Of Weakness, Karen Kingsbury

An Emerald Ballad Series, B. J. Hoff

Child Of Grace, Lori Copeland

Cloth Of Heaven & Ashes And Lace, B. J. Hoff

Firstborn, Robin Lee Hatcher

With Love, Libby, Roxanne Henke

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster


Rape/Incest/Sexual Abuse


A Distant Music, B. J. Hoff

A Nest Of Sparrows, Deborah Raney

Afton Of Margate Castle, Angela Hunt

An Emerald Ballad Series, B. J. Hoff

Antonia's Choice, Nancy Rue

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes

Cloth Of Heaven & Ashes And Lace, B. J. Hoff

In The Still Of Night, Deborah Raney

Justifiable Means, Terri Blackstock

Margaret's Peace, Linda Hall

Mending Places, Denise Hunter

The Atonement Child, Francine Rivers

What She Left For Me, Tracie Peterson

When You Believe, Deborah Bedford

Why The Sky Is Blue, Susan Meissner




The Hidden Heart, Jane Orcutt

A Quarter For A Kiss, Mindy Starns Clark

Passing By Samaria, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Riding Through Shadows, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes




Trial By Fire, Terri Blackstock

All The Way Home, Ann Tatlock

Passing By Samaria, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Riding Through Shadows, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster




Passing By Samaria, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No River, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Mountain, Sharon Ewell Foster

Ain't No Valley, Sharon Ewell Foster

Riding Through Shadows, Sharon Ewell Foster

Passing Into Light, Sharon Ewell Foster

Cover Girls, T.D. Jakes

 What a wide range of relevant issues! Christian fiction has come a long way.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sweet Words

During the last few weeks, I pitched a magazine editor on an idea for their publication. Within a short time, I received a short response that began, “Sold!”  For more than 20 years, I’ve been consistently writing for magazines and it amounts to thousands of articles and assignments. The news of acceptance never gets old and the words continue to have a sweet sound. There is something invigorating about creating the right idea at the right time for the right publication.

Within another couple of exchanges, this editor and I agreed on the specifics such as the deadline and the word length. A few days later in the mail, I received the magazine’s standard contract. Plus the letter included instructions to submit an invoice for payment when the editor tells me they have accepted my submitted article. 

Everything is rolling ahead toward that official acceptance. The editor likes my idea and I’m eager to write something that meets the needs of the editor. Many times I’ve had this relationship grow and develop.  Then with my next pitch to this magazine, the editor reads my query letter a little closer. If it’s not exactly on target (you can’t hit it every time), the editor may come up with an alternative suggestion. She wouldn’t send that suggestion to an unknown writer but we’ve got a working relationship.

There is another aspect to this story which is rarely discussed—but the writer in particular needs to think about in the creation process. What if you don’t meet the editor’s expectations? Then what happens? Do you get the opportunity to fix it with some guidance from the editor then rewrite it? Or do you simply receive a kill fee or a “thanks but no thank you” letter? I have received a kill fee for a magazine assignment.  Depending on the publication, the money can be OK, but the satisfactory feeling of seeing your work in print never happens. I’ve never liked kill fees.

It can also happen in the book world. You pitch a dynamic book idea. Your editor and the entire publishing team loves it. But when you deliver your manuscript (after weeks of work), it’s not what the editor and team expected. Instead the manuscript is froth with problems and things which need to be rewritten and fixed. Some authors push right through this process, fix the concerns and ultimately the book is publish. I’ve had this experience of rewriting to the satisfaction of the publishing team. Other times the contract falls apart and is canceled. The writer feels bad when you cross that bridge and have that experience but yes, it happens.

After experiencing the variety of responses from an editor, I know that I’ve not received all of the possible responses. Each editor is unique and each publishing arrangement is different. Here’s my encouragement to you regarding the sweet words. Celebrate when your words appear in print—however large or small. You’ve succeeded in a way that many people don’t understand and you should celebrate. Many years ago, an editor shook his head at my response to seeing my work in print. Looking back I probably should have been a bit more reserve in that particular setting. He said, “Terry, each time you act like it’s your first time to see your work in print.” He spoke the sentence as a concern but I took it as a compliment. I never want to take for granted the wonder of seeing my work in print.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Simon & Schuster Acquires Howard Publishing

Agreement with Growing Christian Publisher Marks S&S

Entry into Christian Publishing Marketplace



NEW YORK, February 13 — Simon & Schuster has acquired Howard Publishing, a leading Christian and inspirational publishing company based in West Monroe, Louisiana.  The announcement was made by Jack Romanos, President and Chief Executive Officer of Simon & Schuster, Inc., and John Howard, President of Howard Publishing.  Terms of the acquisition were not made public.

            As part of the acquisition, Howard will become an imprint of the Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Division.  John Howard will serve as Executive Vice President and Publisher, reporting to Carolyn Reidy, President of the Division.  Howard’s editorial and publishing staff will continue to be based in Louisiana.  Read the rest of the official news release.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Glimpse at A Different Writer

I’m constantly amazed at how the craft of writing can play into many aspects of our lives. There are a wide variety of writers and each is crafting a unique type of prose for an individual audience.

How often do you hear the details of speechwriting? In my own reading, it is rare. This week’s New Yorker magazine includes a detailed profile of Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s speechwriter.  The article provides a glimpse into this world. Some of you may wonder about the career path of a speechwriter.  Some of Gerson’s path shows up deep inside this article: “Gerson attended Georgetown University for a year, but transferred, in 1983, to Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago. In 1985, he wrote a column for the Wheaton College newspaper in praise of Mother Teresa for her commitment to “the poor and the helpless unborn” and, notably, to AIDS patients. The column was written long before AIDS became an issue of general Christian concern, and it was noticed far from campus. Charles Colson read it and invited Gerson to work for him in Washington at the prison ministry he started after his release from jail, where he served a sentence for his role in the Watergate scandal. After that, Gerson went to work as a writer and adviser to Dan Coats, the U.S. senator from Indiana, who was looking at ways to interest conservatives in issues of poverty. During the 1996 Presidential campaign, Gerson wrote speeches for Forbes and Dole, and then went to work for U.S. News.”

Note the emphasis on prayer and faith in these speeches and the core value for Gerson and how his words show this particular value: “Gerson’s life is built around prayer and faith, and so, too, are his speeches. Bush has been criticized for his regular invocations of God, but in that respect he is part of a long tradition. Bill Clinton often invoked the Deity, even referring, on occasion, to Jesus. (Bush frequently mentions “the Almighty,” and “the Creator,” but a close reading of his speeches shows them to be scrupulous in their nonsectarianism.) “The President can’t imagine that someone who is President of the United States could not have faith, because he derives so much from it,” Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said. ”

I found this article fascinating—and hope you will as well. It reveals again the diversity of writing.  Some of us will write speeches. Others will write children’s books and others will specialize in magazine articles. Another group will write nonfiction books while others will write fiction. Each one involves crafting words for a particular audience.  From my perspective, it’s key to discover which type of writing is your specialty then do it over and over.


Friday, February 10, 2006

A Curious Story about George

As a child and as a parent, I have spent hours reading Curious George books. Today the new movie, Curious George, from producer Ron Howard enters the theaters.  Yesterday I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with Louise Borden, author of The Journey That Saved Curious George. It revealed some interesting insight into the authors, H.A. and Margaret Rey. Journey Saved Curious George cover

In 1940, the German Nazi army was marching toward Paris, France and people were fleeing with the clothes on their back. Two unknown Jewish artists gathered a few belongings and got on bicycles to flee away from the German Army. Among their limited possessions, Hans and Margaret Rey carried their unpublished watercolor drawings. Eventually these drawings became the first Curious George book. Today more than 30 million Curious George books have been sold worldwide.  Here’s the link to download this 10–minute MP3 interview with Louise Borden.

While this background story about the Reys is fascinating, it can only be told in hindsight. It has a storybook, bestselling ending with millions of books in print.  At the time, I’m certain the Reys had dreams for their drawings and their story idea, but no certainty it would happen. They eventually made the right connection so the first book was published. Now Curious George is one of the classics of children’s literature.

What are you doing today to move ahead your writing dreams? Planning to attend a writer’s conference or read a how-to writing book? Or spending time writing on a magazine article or your book proposal? If you keep moving ahead with your dreams and plans, maybe you will be able to look back with wonder at your amazing journey—like Curious George.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Looking for Gold

Tomorrow the 20th Winter Olympics begins in Torino, Italy and a great deal of attention will be focused on athletes who are seeking a Gold Medal. While admittedly, I’m not the most athletic person you will ever meet, since the last Winter Olympics, I’ve learned a bit about this procesRunningOnICEcovers. In a six-week crash course, I learned about the life of Vonetta Flowers. This much decorated collegiate track and field star believed her quest for Olympic Gold was over with the Sacramento trials for the 2000 Sydney Games.  Vonetta’s husband, Johnny, spotted a flyer encouraging the athletes to try out for bobsled.  Living in Birmingham, Alabama, the Flowers only connection to bobsled was the Disney movie, Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team. With little faith that anything would happen, Vonetta tried out for bobsled and discovered her years in track and field paid off. She had the perfect set of skills for bobsledding and has become a top brakeman. Vonetta became the first African American to win Gold in the Winter Olympics.  That first-person story is captured in Running On Ice, which I wrote for Vonetta.  I had the opportunity to actually hold Vonetta’s Gold medal for an unforgettable experience. On television, I’ll be watching Vonetta and her teammate Jean Prahm attempt Gold on February 20th and 21st at the women’s bobsled races.

The search for gold isn’t only in an Olympic setting.  It is actively happening in editorial offices. Editors are actively looking for the next bestseller or at least a book which will find it’s audience. Some books are slow at first and then become bestsellers for the publisher.  These books may or may not appear on a “bestseller list” but their regular sales are a key part of the publisher’s goals.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Michael Korda’s Making the List: A Cultural History of a Bestseller. The Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster examines the bestseller lists from the last century. There are surprising results on the list. Yes, publishers do the best they possibly can do and look for the best projects. They use their experience with past books to create plans and publicity campaigns. Their sales reps present the books to the stores and try and sell them into the stores. The search for gold or bestselling books is long and hard.

This week, I’ve been sorting through recent fiction proposals. Like normal, most of them are going back to the author or the literary agent as rejected. I dislike sending back these proposals but it’s part of the business—and always remember that it’s business and not personal. I understand it’s hard to recall because you get so much of yourself wrapped into your project.

As an editor, I’m constantly gathering information about publishing, books and authors. That information comes into play as I sort through these proposals. Yesterday I read an excellent proposal from an author who has sold over 500,000 novels. This type of sales history catches an editor’s attention combined with an interesting plot premise.  One of the hardest things to see in these proposals is something that isn’t there. It’s the same with proofreading and other parts of this business. Missing elements are glossed over and often ignored. For this fiction author, I recalled her extensive personal marketing efforts for her last novel. This author organized her own author tour with book signings and media events in numerous cities.  None of this effort appeared in her proposal. I picked up the telephone and called her agent who confirmed my memory of this effort. The agent is going to have this author prepare some details about her personal marketing efforts which I will use to supplement her proposal. This supplemental material will be important when I pitch the project to the publication board. It will show some additional information not in the current proposal.  In general, a literary agent simultaneously submits these proposals to different publishers. If I’m able to add something to a presentation or a proposal, it presents the project in a completely different light to my publishing colleagues. It’s one of the ways as an editor, I’m looking for gold.

What can you take away from this story for your own writing life? With your proposals, make sure they are complete. To the best of your ability, make sure each line sizzles and snaps with the irresistible siren that says, “Publish me.” It’s not easy or simple. It involves a lot of work and effort. But it is possible.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Leave No Stone Unturned

If you’re looking for some inspiration and lessons on persistence, then you’ve come to the right place today. While I was reading Putting Your Passion Into Print, I found this inspirational story.  As you read it, notice the energy and effort Bob Nelson poured into the marketing.  First, you have to create a great product which meets a felt need—and Bob Nelson met this criteria and more.Putting-Your-Passion-cover

The Man Who Left No Stone Unturned

“There’s no better poster boy for the benefits of doing your research than Bob Nelson, author of, among other books, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. To learn more about the book business, Bob went so far as to work as a shipping clerk in a bookstore. And that was just the tip of his research iceberg.

After figuring out how bookstores work, Bob researched publishers to suss out who would be best able to package, market, publicize and sell his book. He approached one that had never published a business book because he was impressed by their marketing prowess and their dedication to making every book successful. And once he signed an agreement with the publisher, he didn’t sit back and watch. For example, he drafted a 50-page memorandum on what he was planning to do to help make the book a success. He continued researching throughout the entire publishing process as to how he could augment the publisher’s efforts.

When 1001 Ways to Reward Employees came out, Bob traveled to more than 500 bookstores to see what makes people buy a book and what makes them pass it by. He also wanted to understand how and why bookstores order books and what he, as an author, could do to help influence their decision. In each city he visited, he did a follow-up postcard to all bookstore managers, informing them of the media he had done in their market, groups he had presented to, national promotions, and so on. Sound crazy? Then perhaps selling nearly a million and a half books will sound equally insane. That’s right. Bob sold way over a million copies of a business book about how to reward employees. Considering the incredibly small number of books that sell over a million copies, this is amazing. But, in Bob’s case, it’s not even that surprising.

When he hit the one-million-books-sold mark, his publisher threw a party for him. At that party, the president of the publishing company held up a thick file folder filled with information Bob had accumulated about his book in Indianapolis alone! For most publishers, Indianapolis is just a blip on the map, but Bob had done enough media and marketing in that one city to fill a folder larger than what most authors compile for an entire book!

Bob’s philosophy? “Leave no stone unturned.””

Excerpted from Putting Your Passion Into Print Copyright © 2005 by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry
Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York All Rights Reserved

Each of us are facing different challenges. As you look at what’s ahead for your writing life, are you leaving any stone unturned?


Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Fascinating Glimpse at Gladwell

Writers have a certain amount of mystique around them. No one exactly understands the process of publishing nor how some books become bestsellers. It’s something I’ve discussed in the past in these entries about the Writing Life.  Some times articles will add to our understanding and I wanted to point out an article in today’s New York Times about Malcolm Gladwell.

Possibly you’ve read one or both of Gladwell’s bestselling books, The Tipping Point or Blink. I’ve read a number of Gladwell’s articles in The New Yorker magazine and always gained some interesting insight from those diverse articles. In particular, I was fascinated with Gladwell’s insight into John Grisham’s success in this short article from 1998 on Slate. It will give you a glimpse at his skill as a writer, thinker and communicator. Here’s a key sentence in the article, “So why is Grisham so successful? The answer, I think, is that his books proceed from a perspective radically different from that of his competitors.” If you know anything about John Grisham’s background, you will understand his radically different starting point. Malcolm Gladwell picked up on it and explicitedly told the reader about it.

Rachel Donadio’s article in The New York Times helps us learn a bit more about the writer. I recommend downloading three-minute MP3 file on this article. It gives you a chance to hear Gladwell’s voice but also listen to his philosophy about business books. Frankly he’s surprised that his books are categorized as business books—because they aren’t in the strict sense that a business book helps you with a specific aspect of your business. Yet in another sense, Gladwell’s books are business books because people in business want to glean from his cultural insight about how things work.  Here’s a key paragraph in this profile on Malcolm Gladwell: “And that is because beneath the social science data, Gladwell is selling something for which there’s always a market. “I’m by nature an optimist. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a story which could be described as despairing,” he said. “I don’t believe in character. I believe in the effect of the immediate impact of environment and situation on people’s behavior.”

The article provides a fascinating glimpse into Gladwell and his work.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Set A Word Goal

There is an old saying concerning goals, if you shoot for nothing, then you will be sure to hit it.  It’s surprising the number of authors who determine to write—yet they have no specific production writing goals for their day.

Last week I was interviewing a bestselling fiction author for a forthcoming magazine article. I’m not going to tell you the specific author but it’s fair to say most people would recognize the name and books. She was telling me about her writing habits for her novels. In advance of writing, this author prepares with research on her theme, the characters and an outline of the events in the story. Then she goes into her office, blocks all distractions and pounds out the story. The experience is intense beginning at 9 a.m. with a half hour for lunch and goes until 5 p.m. Occasionally depending on the her writing stretches into the evening. Her word goal is 2,000 words an hour.  While she is writing, this author doesn’t repeatedly count those words or focus on the word goal but this mark is in the back of her mind.  Her overall goal for a single day of writing is 10,000 words. If you are looking for a page count, if you consider about 250 words per page, that accounts for 40 doubles paced typed pages.

OK, I can hear the skeptics out there saying, “Yeah that’s her first draft.  What about all of the hours of rewriting?” For this author, the art of storytelling is a much practiced craft. Yes, she has editors who work over her material but for her last eight books, there hasn’t been a lot of rewrite work. In other words, the manuscript comes out fairly clean from the beginning.  If this author is in her “writing zone,” and her typical novel is 90,000 words, then she can complete it in nine days. Now that’s pretty remarkable or so it seems to me.

Now this author didn’t instantly arrive at this type of storytelling production schedule. It has taken many years of writing experience to arrive at this point in time.  A trained journalist, this author has written stories with a deadline for a long time.   I could understand the training aspects as she talked.  I studied journalism in college and the training was invaluable for my own writing experiences.   There is something about the news room and their necessity for quick writing that teaches invaluable lessons. There is no time to make coffee or sharpen your pencils or do research on the internet.  A tight deadline is present and you have a very limited amount of time to crank out a story for the afternoon newspaper.  In my case, I recall having story meetings at 7 a.m. and picking up our assignments. Our story material had to be turned in at 11 a.m.  Each of us had four hours to interview and create our news stories. That sort of pressure doesn’t allow much time for rewriting, new beginnings or reworked endings.  The story has to be organized in your mind then rapidly proceed to your fingertips and on to the paper. Our stories appeared in the afternoon newspaper which hit the streets at 3 p.m.

As I listened to this author talk about her word goals, it re-emphasized the importance of setting these types of goals.  When I am in the process of writing a book, I have these goals in mind and focus on attempting to reach them. Your goal will probably not be 10,000 words for a day. It might be 200 words a day or 1,000 words a day. Be reasonable with yourself and realistic about what you can actually accomplish. I’d encourage you to keep track and gradually increase the word count. 

It’s something to consider for your own writing life.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Great Agent, Good Agent or Bad Agent

It’s an ongoing discussion within the book publishing community—literary agents.  Various online groups will discuss it. When they get together on the phone or in person, editors will talk about agents. Even this week, I was talking with one long-time literary agent who mentioned a common misconception. Agents do not work for a particular publishing house. An agent may have a lot of dealings with a particular publishing house if the publisher acquires the books from their clients.

I’ve been writing about the book, Putting Your Passion Into Print by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The chapter on “Locating, Luring and Landing the Right Agent” is loaded with insight and wisdom. Why? Arielle is a literary agent with the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency and in fact she runs their Bay Area office.  From that vantage point, this chapter describes the qualities of a good agent, then what makes a great agent and what are some of the characteristics of a bad agent. Also they discuss whether you need an agent in the first place and how to determine the answer to your situation. 

The great agent is a true partner with the author and as Putting Your Passion Into Print says, “Great agents are part wizard, midwife and guide dog. They’ll show you the tricks of the trade, manage your career, introduce you to all the right people, and guide you and your manuscript through the messy maze of the modern book world.”  My experience matches these characteristics and I’ve worked with some great agents who know how to carefully guide me through the various land mines of publishing.  As I’ve mentioned before in these entries, anyone can become a literary agent—whether they have experience in publishing or not. It’s the responsibility of the writer to follow a principle emphasized repeatedly in this book: research, research, research.

I completely understand how writers land bad agents. We are insecure about our writing and the merits of our idea or book proposal. Yes, our family loves it but what about the publishing world? No one enjoys getting rejected but it’s a key part of this world of ideas. Some ideas find a home and others are repeatedly rejected. This chapter includes sound advice about how to find the right agent for you and where you are in your career. It’s different for each person and the relationship is one that the writer has to seek and cultivate. Here’s a principle never to forget: good and great agents work for their authors—not the other way around.  Often a writer is thrilled to snag a top agent and reluctant to evaluate whether that agent is a great agent for them. I’ve seen several authors who stay in a poor agent relationship for this reason.

OK what characterizes a bad agent? According to Eckstut and Sterry, “Bad agents…won’t return your phone calls and sometimes even steal your money. Like bad travel agents, they can send you on some really bad trips, or worse, not even get you off the ground. Naturally, there are many more bad agents than good agents. Sadly, when you meet them, it’s often hard to tell the difference. But once you’ve experienced their incompetence, sloth and/or idiocy firsthand, the distinction becomes painfully obvious.”

One of the best articles about searching for an agent is this one combined with the principle of sound research.  I have no doubt the discussion about different agents will continue through the ages.  I appreciated the counsel and wisdom in this chapter from Putting Your Passion Into Print.