Friday, April 27, 2007

A Stirring Place for Ideas

For the last several years (maybe five), the American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference has included a feature called the Idea Marketplace. Different vendors who want to reach writers have a little exhibit and pass out information during the conference. I've always found my interaction with these people stimulating for ideas and research.

Many of these exhibitors try to stir interest with interesting giveaways that make an impression. This year Memorial Hermann Health Care Systems was giving away jump drives or memory sticks which contained their press kit. It was not a hard sell to get me to put one of these little boxes into my bag and then use it. The New York Public Library gave away a beautiful full-color bookmark along with information on their services. Pharmavite was handing out vitamins with their information plus they gave out a DVD that shows how vitamins are manufactured. The American Academy of Osteopathic Surgeons were back with their writing pens that look like a large bone (always a conversation piece and a functioning writing instrument). The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing people were handing out small Teddy Bears along with ornate luggage tags and a reporter's notebook (each item included their website address and contact information). Even the United States Government was exhibiting with their little red, white and blue uncle sam hats (a stress relieving device). The Society of Professional Journalists were handing out plastic mugs which asked the question, "Has your career gone cold?" Then when you add a hot beverage, it changes and shows logo for journalismtraining.org (part of their society).

Ok, I picked up a bunch of different gadgets and stuff. What's the pay off for that exhibitor? They are stirring ideas and resources for writers. Months down the road when I need some bit of copyright information, I can turn to the USA.GOV website and search for it because I have a little uncle sam hat stress relief gizmo. Or if I write about health and need some resources to interview, I can contact Memorial Hermann because their press information is on a memory stick that I carry with me.

The payoff for the writer is stimulation of ideas for magazine articles or books. It was a terrific spot to walk around and collect information and another one of the benefits from attending the American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference. As writers, we have many different ideas. The key will always come in the execution. How can you take one of these ideas and carry it into action?

Labels: , ,


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Learn From the ASJA Award Winners

One of the annual highlights of the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference is the member day meetings. This year for the first time, the information about the member day was included in the public brochure. Only ASJA members can attend the member day, which is held the Friday before the public Saturday and Sunday conference. Because of this restricted access, there is typically a rush of applications to the membership committee in the weeks prior to the conference.

Each year, the number of members attending the annual conference has been increasing. In the last five years, the ASJA has grown from 1,000 members to now over 1,300 members. This year for the Friday awards luncheon, the event was moved from a smaller ballroom into a much larger place so the entire group could comfortably fit into the room.

Over ten years ago, one of our members wrote a book with Roselynn Carter. President and Mrs. Carter were invited to attend the ASJA members-only luncheon and came to the event. I received an incredible opportunity to meet a former President of the United States and I told the full story several years ago.

At the luncheon, the awards committee presents a series of awards to members for their outstanding contributions to nonfiction writing in books and magazines. They announce the winners and normally the articles are available at the end of the session for members to read and study the craft of these writers. This year, the committee tried something different. Instead of massive duplication of these articles, they gave us a press release with links to each of these articles. The press release is available online. I suggest you study these articles as another means to increase your insight into the craft of writing.

Labels: , , ,


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Dose of Encouragement

No matter where you are in the writing world, each of us need it--a solid dose of encouragement. While some people think I make it look easy, it's not. I continually struggle with writing the right things at the right time on the right day. Like every writer, I have screaming thoughts as to whether I've put the right thing down at the right time.

I've returned home from a whirlwind trip of five days at a family wedding in Southern California. We drove back from California to Arizona a little over a week ago. That evening I reorganized my suitcases and took off early the next morning for five nights in New York City. I'm delighted to be home for a few days (very few since I travel again in less than a week). My trip to New York was predominately a part of the annual conference for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which is the leading nonfiction writers group in the nation. I was a bit amused when a fiction writer stopped me in the hall way and said we should have more on our program for novelists. This writer noticed my "board member" ribbon on my name badge. I patiently explained the nonfiction emphasis of the society and how we had intentionally limited our fiction offerings. It didn't help this writer figure out which panel she would attend for her next session (which was her immediate need). I had countless interaction on many different levels during these sessions. It's part of the reason that I attend this conference because I never know what terrific thing can happen from a single conversation. I've seen it happen many times in the past and know it will come from these meetings as well.

While the link to the tapes of these sessions is not yet on the ASJA website, please keep track of this link. If you could only choose one offering (and there were many outstanding sessions), I'd suggest you get Jeannette Walls keynote address on Saturday. Jeannette is the author of the bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle. If you haven’t read her book, I recommend it. If you don’t know the story, Walls is a journalist who writes about celebrities for MSNBC. The Glass Castle is her personal memoir about her growing up years. The book remains on the paperback bestseller list and many reading groups and others are using this book. Her talk was a great encouragement to any writer. I will give you several of her points. First, she underestimated people's reaction to her story. Walls was certain that she would lose her job at MSNBC if people knew her true story. Then she spoke about how each writer needs to determine what is the story and what is their own perspective on the truth? "The truth is whatever you choose to make it. With any story that you tell, you choose how you will tell it and how you will shape it."

"Painful memories are difficult to include but you have to put it in. You need to get the whole story down on paper then choose which parts you will ultimately keep," Walls told us. "Substantial nonfiction writing is sharing the experience. It’s about honesty and being honest with yourself. We all have our fears. Our biggest demon is to face our fears. It can't hurt you. Harness it and use it for good. Don't be afraid to look them in the eye and face them down." Later she told us, "I believe the truth shall set you free and I'm living proof of that." Walls encouraged each of us to chase our dreams as she has done.

There were over 700 writers in the room at this luncheon. I don't know how Jeannette Walls impacted the others but for me, she certainly gained a fan of her work and her writing.

Labels: , , , , ,


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On the Road Again

Occasionally I get a distressed comment on this blog wondering if I'm on  vacation. It happens especially when I haven't posted in a week or so. I'm not on vacation (something I rarely do by the way). I'm usually away from my computer and not able to write any entries about The Writing Life. If you haven't done it, I suggest you check out some of my older entries in this blog because much of the information is still useful to your writing life.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be challenged to write any of these entries. Tomorrow, my wife and I are driving over to Southern California for a family wedding on Saturday, April 14th. It's a five-hour drive each way from Arizona.  I'm still continuing to work on the road even in this family setting. We return on Monday, April 16th and early the next morning, I fly to New York City for six days or until April 22nd. I'll be one of the presenters in a three-hour session on Sunday, April 22nd on nonfiction book proposals at the American Society of Journalists and Author meetings. I hope to see you there. And if you wonder about my schedule, check this link. It covers most of my travel (but not everything). I have to leave a little mystery about my schedule.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Honoring Christ in Cartoons

Editor's Note: I wrote this story at least ten years ago and it appeared in several print magazines. I also used it in the December 2004 issue of Right Writing News, a free ezine. If you aren't a subscriber, please take a couple of seconds to fill out the simple registration form. I have not rewritten this story but I include it today as a tribute to Johnny Hart, who passed away yesterday at his drawing table after a stroke at 76. Our loss was heaven's gain. I hope you will receive some inspiration from his story.

The wires were everywhere but it was the television test pattern--Christian programming--that caught Johnny Hart's attention. For the last 44 years, this renowned cartoonist has drawn the daily comic strips, B.C. and Wizard of Id. Syndicated in over 1200 newspapers nationwide, many people get a boost for their day from Hart's humorous look at life.

Several weeks earlier, a real estate agent called Hart. "I'm not interested," he told the agent. "We're remodeling our home and love it."

"It's a sizable estate of 150 acres and includes a 30 acre lake," the agent said. "A lake stocked with fish?" Hart asked. "I should probably see this place."

Hart and his wife, Bobby, liked this heavily wooded property in upper state New York. They moved to the property several weeks later and were now trying to get the television to work. The reception was terrible.

Each day when Hart works at his drawing table, he likes to have something else going on such as jazz music or television. Hart's carpenter from Endicott, New York encouraged Hart to purchase a satellite dish. The installation process for the satellite hook up wasn't a simple connection from the house to the dish.

Johnny wanted TVs in different places of his home and several places of his studio. His 5,400 square-foot studio was located across an inlet from the lake. In order to properly set up the satellite dish, the installation meant digging underground laying wires and testing the connections.

"Every time I walked into the room, these men had Kenneth Copeland, D. James Kennedy and other Christian preachers on the television," Hart recalls this incident from 1987. As children, Johnny and Bobby had attended church. Then when he married Bobby, he says, "I knocked church out of her."

"Is this all we're gonna get?" Hart grumbled as they set up the satellite connection. When the men offered to change it, Hart permitted them to continue. Before too long, Hart began sneaking into empty rooms and watching sermons. If his wife walked through the room, Johnny changed the channel.

One Sunday morning, Hart asked his wife, "Do you want to go to church?"

"Church? Not really," Bobby responded firmly. Hart accepted the decision and quietly prayed for his wife. Another Sunday, Bobby came bounding into the room and asked Johnny, "Do you want to go to church?" Johnny quickly agreed and they attended the nearest church in Nineveh, New York. This small town has a grocery, a post office and the Nineveh Presbyterian Church.

For the last several years, Johnny teaches the young adult Sunday School class that he calls "the spill over class." Hart explained about these junior and senior high school teens, "They're the kids too old to care about Sunday school anymore. I teach things from the Bible which fascinate them and me."

When it comes to cartooning, Hart is a master at his craft. His fellow cartoonists have often recognized him as the best in the field with awards like Best Humor Strip in America, six times (The National Cartoonist Society) or Best Cartoonist of the Year (France's highest cartooning award). While 98 per cent of the response from readers to his cartoons are positive, sometimes Johnny strikes a blow for Christianity through his humor and stirs some controversy.

"No one had any problem when I was drawing Santa and Easter bunnies," Hart said, "but their attitudes changed when I began giving a Christian message." For Good Friday several years ago, Hart simply drew four black panels, which went from gray to pitch black. Underneath the final panel were the words, "Good Friday." On the pages of the comics, Hart uses almost any occasion for his characters to reflect the Good News about Jesus Christ. Particularly on the holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or even Halloween (for an anti-Halloween cartoon) Johnny slips some Biblical truth to his readers.

The newspapers receive his cartoons several weeks before they are printed. Because of the liberal viewpoints in the newsroom, Hart says that these newspapers reserve the right to "edit" his materials. "Edit" is their code word for omitting the B.C. comics with a spiritual message. Often, Hart doesn't discover about these "edits" until his readers write or call and tell him.

One of the worst culprits is the Los Angeles Times. Several years ago a Christian ministry stirred readers to complain about the issue of Hart's B.C. cartoons around Easter. In cynical fashion, the L.A. Times moved the cartoons from their usual spot to the religion page. According to Hart, they ran the comic strips for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter on the same day--and in "postage stamp size."

Before drawing his Christmas comic, Johnny will often re-read the Christmas story from the Bible for inspiration. Recently for Christmas, Johnny had his cave girl looking at a cross-shaped Christmas star, positioned over a skull-like mountain (Golgatha), saying, "Wow look at that star!" A little further to the right, a snake, lurking behind an apple tree (readers see the Garden of Eden) says, "It's show time."

Whether it's the Christmas season or any other day, Hart is constantly looking for creative ways and humorous ways to challenge his readers with truth from the Bible. Keep an eye out for the subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle message from this master cartoonist. He shows his readers that Jesus is the Reason for the Season.

Labels: , , ,


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Truth Telling at Conferences

Over the years, I've attended many conferences. Each conference has a different personal value in my life and distinction. I've learned to value the little conversations at these conferences and the short bursts of information--either that I am giving to others or they are giving to me. I learn a great deal from the exchanges.

Some elements of a conference are recorded such as most of the workshops. At Mount Hermon, I gave two workshops. Originally I was scheduled for one then at the last minute several members of the faculty couldn't come so I substituted for one of them and taught an additional hour. For my additional hour, I taught Straight Talk From The Editor (or Agent), 18 Keys To A Rejection-Proof Submission. If it sounds familiar to you, much of the content is from my Amazon Short with the same title. I updated many of the examples in it and told some different stories yet the overall outline was the same. I brought some examples of submissions from my "strange but true" file which I keep just for these occasions (naturally not including the name of the writer or any way to identify this person). I had a packed room full of listeners and I thought it was well-received.

While the conference recorded the sessions, the audio people at this conference don't duplicate the talks on the spot and sell them to the participants. Instead, they take orders and mail the product later. I brought my Edirol R-9 digital recorder to the conference and recorded my own sessions. Admittedly it looked a bit strange to have two microphones yet it allowed me to record my own session. Before the end of the day, I had transferred the recorded file to my laptop. Why take that step? Because the Amazon Short contract is an exclusive arrangement for the first six months. I will cross the threshold of this date soon and be positioned to launch another product from my recorded session. It's a much more proactive step than I've taken in the past. Normally I pick up the recording, throw it into a drawer and do nothing with it. I'm learning to use these resources in other formats.

Back to my theme of conversations and truth telling. I asked one popular acquisitions editor at the conference from a large publisher about his work. He told me, "I love to acquire books but it takes such a high threshold to acquire a book. I can rarely find anything here." I followed up asking what sort of threshold he was talking about. In all honesty, he said, "I need a guaranteed sale of at least 60,000 books through the trade channel (bookstores and chain stores)." Yeah, that's a pretty high threshold and it would be rare for someone at the writer's conference to have that sort of idea. Not impossible but rare.

During another conversation, a seasoned author explained her frustration with one of her writing projects. From her experience she knew the book would meet a need, yet she also knew it would be a difficult sell to the traditional publishers. With this author, I encouraged her to try and different course of action. Can she and her co-author tap the Internet market and create a buzz with an Ebook that may or may not become a traditional book product? She felt encouraged about the possibilities and to try it after our conversation.

Several times writers approached me with devotional book projects where they had poured their heart and soul into the proposal and the writing. The writing was built on the anvil of difficult personal experiences. From my view, I told them that it would be challenging to place such a project with a traditional publisher. Why? Because it's rare for a publisher to take this type of book as a single book product. Instead the publishers are turning more to book packagers for these efforts. I encouraged them to look into approaching the packagers or working with the packagers and their idea. These authors were published in magazines but not books. Their book idea had merit but not in the way they were expecting. I hope they will learn from my hard-earned experience in this area. Yet I know each individual has to decide what they will do with the information and how they will apply it to their writing life.

With the millions of ideas and manuscripts in circulation, there are no easy answers for any of us. The key is to keep working on the storytelling and searching for the right place at the right time.

Labels: , , , , ,


Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Continual Search

"What are you looking for these days?" Repeatedly writers asked me this question (or some form of it) during the Mount Hermon conference.

I've got a pretty simple answer which some may think is glib but it has an element of truth in it. I say, "I'm looking for the good stuff."

Usually a sharp writer will follow up and ask, "What is good?"

I'm prepared with, "I'll know it when I see it."

I'm not evading the question but there is no one-size-fits-all response to these questions. The response will be different for each editor and each literary agent at the conference. It's important for you to know that each of us are actively looking for the right project. We will have to endure all sorts of the wrong pitches to find that gem or two in the pile of pitches. Whether the pitch is for a novel or nonfiction book, the writing is important and the idea is important. Each work together in the process. If the writing is bad, then maybe the idea is stellar and I can hook this person with the experience and idea to a writer who can carry out the project. This process may be different from the goals of the writer but are they open to new ways of working? If so, then there is hope. If not, then you press on to the next person with the next idea. At a writer's conference, there are loads of ideas and pitches.

Part of the challenge of the conference is the follow-up. Will the writer carry through and follow-up with my encouragement to send the project? Some will do it and others will not get it done. Still others will select some other path such as working directly with the publisher or they will select a different agent. There are no easy answers but the search is continual.

Labels: , , , ,


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

School of Hard Knocks

Last night I returned from one of the largest and oldest writer's conferences in the country, the Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference. Tucked in between San Jose, California and Santa Cruz, the location is beautiful and our electronic connection almost worthless. Because it's a retreat conference center, they don't want to encourage people to work on the Internet so the wireless connection is in a single spot on the camp and often laboriously slow. With my intense schedule at the conference, time to write any entries was almost nonexistent. From early in the morning until late at night, I was interacting one on one with different writers. In a span of a few days, I had over 50 one-on-one sessions and countless additional interaction with editors, other literary agents and writers. It was a great experience and something I highly recommend you incorporate into your planning for this year. Find a good conference and make time to get there.

If these entries get scarce, check my travel schedule. One of the items which doesn't appear on my schedule is a family wedding on April 14th in Southern California. I'll be out of my office from April 11th through the 22nd with two back to back trips. I hope to continue adding some entries but if not, there are good reasons--and I'm not on vacation (as some reader suggested).

The Mount Hermon Conference marked my second conference as a literary agent. While I've been a book acquisitions editor for the last five years, I'm still behind the learning curve when it comes to being a literary agent. On several panels during the conference with other agents, we were asked to tell about our recent sales or the highest profile client. I had little to say in this realm since I'm just starting to send out proposals and manuscripts for my clients. Something many writers know but need to hear again is the timing for this work. It takes time--and often lots of time for the proposals and manuscripts to be sold (or contracted) to a book publisher. Many of the factors regarding this timing are completely outside of anything that an agent can control. Often as an acquisitions editor, I've felt helpless to control the factors of timing--so you can imagine that as an agent who does not work directly for a publisher, such matters are even more outside of something you can control. Yes, we have active relationships with editors and publishing houses. Yes, we actively send the best possible pitches and proposals to these relationships--then we wait for their response. After an appropriately generous amount of time, we gently inquire about these projects and receive an update. It simply takes time for everyone. Our hurry-up, make-it-happen society does not like to wait or to have patience. I regularly tell writers that if you want a positive response, then it will take time. It's easy to get a "no" response but "yes" takes time. Maybe that's a new thought for some readers.

While we can read about the details of publishing through blogs or books or listen to teaching about it, it is often through the actual process of doing the work that we learn our way as writers and editors and literary agents. It is valuable to learn as much about it as possible but no book or workshop will cover all of the possibilities. For many years, I've been talking with writers in different roles. At this conference, I learned that agents have some taboo areas to talk about with writers who someone else represents. I had no idea there were such taboos but when I received a tongue lashing from another agent, I quickly learned in the school of hard knocks. You may be wondering what in the world I'm talking about so let me be a bit more specific about what I learned--yet I'm not revealing the other agent, the writer or anything that will give you this information.

There is a problem with publishing that I've heard labeled poaching. It's where an agent will talk with a writer and essentially lure the writer away from their current agent. I understand the concept since writers are among some of the world's most insecure people. Yes, we may exude confidence in certain settings but underneath we are insecure (and I include high profile, bestselling authors in this category). As writers we are only as confident as our latest well-crafted sentence or a glowing comment from a reader or better yet--from an editor. Every writer wants to increase their own personal book sales, the amount of money they receive for a book advance and million other things. In particular, I've heard about this matter of agent poaching in the Christian marketplace much more than the broader general marketplace. Maybe it's because the community is smaller but I'm unsure. I know it's a little-discussed problem area. It is true that writers change literary agents (and for many different reasons). It's perfectly understandable and OK when a writer decides on their own initiative to change literary agents. It's NOT OK when one agent stirs up this change and lures the writer away from the first agent. That's called poaching. I'm not interested in poaching anyone else's clients. I figure there is plenty of work for everyone.

With that background, here's how I learned what I could not ask any writer who another agent represents. I met a writer at the conference for the first time that I had corresponded with numerous times via email. I knew another agent represented this writer. I was asking the writer about her projects and just making conversation about her work with the other agent. I asked specifics about what this other agent had out there for this writer (and that was my taboo question for one agent to ask about another agent). Why? Because the question looks at the performance issues about this other agent (and I didn't even think about it). Imagine my surprise when the agent pulled me aside and confronted me about poaching their writer. In a heartbeat, the agent could tell that poaching this client was not my intention or desire. I apologized and learned through the school of hard knocks a valuable lesson. It was probably the first of many lessons I will learn in this area.

If you think you are immune to learning these lessons from the school of hard knocks, I'd encourage you to think again. I've not met anyone immune to such lessons--no matter where you are involved in this publishing world.

Labels: , , ,