Archive for March, 2005

Raise Your Stakes for Success

March 21, 2005

In a few hours, a high-profile author is going to call my office phone for an interview.  I’m working on assignment and looking forward to this interview.  You never know how they will go.

Over thirty years ago, I conducted my first interview as a writer.  After hundreds (maybe thousands) of these experiences, I know firsthand about the unpredictable nature of the interview.  I’ve had many things go wrong with an interview. Such as:

  • my tape recorder malfunctioned and I didn’t get a single quotation recorded
  • the person “forgot” about the interview and we never connected in person or on the phone
  • the celebrity didn’t stick to the schedule, called late and shortened my planned interview time so I wasn’t able to gather the story material that I needed to write the article.
  • the personality was completely exhausted and answered my leading questions (not yes / no questions) with a “yes” or a “no.” They had no story content to their interview and it involved a lot of creative work to pull together the eventual article.
  • the personality was so brilliant they were thinking five or six steps ahead of me. One author and I were exploring some fascinating material—and he would interrupt and say, “But why are we talking about this? The reader doesn’t care anything about it.” Well, I cared about it (as the person conducting the interview) but I changed gears to a different topic. It was a situation where the personality took over the control of the interview—and something to guard against.

To improve the possibility for success with an interview, I recommend several steps:

  • gather the greatest amount of background material ahead of the interview and carefully process all of this material. The material may be a new book, a press kit, interviews with other publications and a number of other sources for background information. Go through this material and use it for your preparation.
  • prepare a list of questions and possible directions for the interview. These questions aren’t the firm way the interview will happen—but they give you some possible directions.
  • during the interview always listen intensely and follow-up with a question if you don’t understand something

Interviews involve interaction with another person.  It’s beyond everything that you can control. I’m unsure how today’s interview will go. I’ve prepared for a successful interview and hope this will be the case.

Personally I love the “anything can happen” element in these interviews. Over the years I’ve heard it repeatedly from the people that I’m interviewing, “I’ve never said this _______ to anyone but….” Then they tell me an original insight into their character or personality.

I’m eager to see what happens in this interview.

Pitch Preparation for Conferences

March 20, 2005

Yesterday I spent most of the day at a small writer’s conference in downtown Phoenix. As an acquisitions editor, I was meeting in short appointments with different writers. These types of meetings are often a standard feature at various conferences.

It’s easy for me to recall my early days attending these conferences, I was petrified to speak with the editors but I knew I needed to get to know them. These brief sessions are important because you are making your first impression on the editor. How do you come across? Organized and confident? Disorganized and unsure? Do you ask questions or plunge ahead into your pitch (not knowing whether you are talking with the right editor or not?)?

As I thinking about the series of people, I met yesterday—the contacts were the entire spectrum.  Some people confidently shook hands with me and introduced themselves. They had a concise project to pitch to me. Others were simply coming to explore an idea or a concept.  Others were shy and I had to coax them to tell me their idea.

The best pitches are practiced pitches. These writers have prepared a short statement (usually in writing) and read it several times. (They don’t have to read it to the editor—not usually a good idea.) Also these writers have some familiarity with the editor and what they publish. They are confident in their pitch because they know they are pitching something of interest to this particular publishing house or this particular magazine. Also the writers with the best pitches come prepared to take notes and listen to the editor.  When the editor speaks, they are taking brief notes and they ask relevant follow-up questions. For more insight, take a look at the guidance in this article.

At most conferences, I am listen to these pitches as an editorAt some conferences, I’m a writer who is pitching to other editors. I’m going to take a personal lesson from these experiences. Then next month my own pitches will be more on track as I briefly meet with some editors. Preparation is key.

A Lesson In Persistence

March 19, 2005

In the last few weeks, I stumbled across an article filled with wisdom for writers who want to get published.  Like a lot of things I read online, I run it through my filter and experience. I don’t agree with everything but the words ring with truth and should be read and processed through your own experience.

When someone gets a six-figure advance and that news goes out to the publishing community, it is like they have been “discovered.” J.A. Konrath writes about his First Deal released last May in hardcover. He says, “How did a guy with no publishing record get both an agent and a big book deal? Was I a Cinderella Story, being at the right place at the right time? Did I know some industry big shot who made a few phone calls? Did I use blackmail, bribery, or extortion? No, no, and no-no-no. I’m actually a slush-pile success–a guy who got noticed by writing unsolicited queries. But much as I’d like to say that my very query letter catapulted me to success, that’s not the case. The truth is, I’d written nine previous novels, and garnered over four hundred rejections, before getting my big break. Throughout twelve years of writing and marketing, I’ve made every mistake a writer could make.”

Then he details some of his experience and how he found a literary agent. Here’s the key phrase in this article which caught my attention: “So after twelve years and over a million written words, I’m an overnight success. The turning point in my career can directly be traced to one event: my change in attitude. When I stopped thinking of writing as a dream, and began thinking about it as a business, I landed my agent.”

Persist and learn your craft. Whether it is nonfiction, fiction, children’s writing, magazine articles or anything else.  If you want to get published, you have to treat this business like a business. It will show in your attitude.

 

Multi-Task or One At A Time?

March 18, 2005

People regularly tell me that I’m a great multi-tasker. It’s true that with my natural wiring, I can juggle many things at the same time. I can tell when I get overloaded because I am not as productive and I crawl into bed at an early hour. I had one of those nights last night. Normally I operate on about five to six hours of sleep but last night I got eight and a half. It’s a way I can monitor my own workload.

From my view, this whole multi-tasking thing is over rated. Driving down the freeway, I often will talk on my cell phone or I’ll be reading some email when I’m talking on the phone in my office.  Recent tests in the news have proven the danger of such actions because it divides your concentration and waters down your effectiveness.  Multi-tasking as you drive a car is one of the common ways that accidents happen. It’s made me more cautious about using my phone in the car.

As a writer and editor, I get things done one task at a time. Whether I am reading a stack of fiction submissions or writing a short magazine article, it’s all one task at a time. Yesterday I took a chunk of time and headed over to a major league team’s spring training ball park. I caught up with one of their pitchers and interviewed him. My experience was a good one and I pulled off the interview getting what I needed for my magazine article. While the material was fresh in my mind, I took the time and drafted this magazine piece. I hope to look at it again soon and see if it’s done to the specifications of the editor—then send it off—ahead of the deadline.

Each of us in this writing / publishing world have our own challenges. Whether you are writing a children’s book, a novel, a nonfiction book proposal or a magazine article, write it with excellence. Don’t send off something half baked or incomplete. If you do, it will influence the editor about you—and not in a positive way.

It’s my challenge as an editor and writer—to select the right tasks and complete them with excellence. They will be completed one task at a time. I hope it is your challenge as well.

Phone Calls and Interviews

March 17, 2005

Last night my office phone rang about 7:30 p.m.  Yes, I was in my office—working. I looked at my Caller ID and it said “private.” No information about the caller. I could have let it go to my voice mail but I answered it.

It was a writer who had received a form rejection letter (maybe even that day). I continue to receive a large number of fiction submissions for my part-time acquisitions editor position at Howard Publishing.  Without any secretarial assistance, I processed a number of these submissions in recent days.

This author wasn’t objecting to my decision. He wanted his submission returned. I said, “Returned?”

According to his explanation, he had submitted other paperwork and included postage and only received the rejection letter. I had no idea what he was talking about and almost no recollection of his submission. My office is a small room and any paperwork quickly goes into our recycle bin for the city to haul away.

“I’m a struggling writer and the postage was on my envelope and I need that submission returned,” he explained again. 

Since I didn’t have it, I apologized and explained that it was already recycled. When our call ended, I could feel the perturbed attitude from this writer about his submission. Immediately after the call, I opened my submission log (yes I have one) and looked to find his name and when I returned his submission. He made a definite impression.

As an editor, I value writers and try to carefully handle their submissions. I’m not always perfect in this process but I attempt to handle these issues in a professional manner.  For example, since September 11th, the mail has grown more complex. Manuscripts can be returned, but if they are beyond a certain weight (and most of these 90,000 word manuscripts are heavy), then they have to be hand delivered to the post office. If you don’t hand it to a postal employee, then it is returned to the editor with a green government sticker—and I have to make another attempt to return it. In a word, it’s an extra hassle. If you are sending your entire manuscript to the editor, I recommend you include a standard envelope for the response. If it’s a positive response, you will be receiving a phone call.

Also always make sure you include an email address if you don’t include an SASE. I’ve received several submissions recently with no SASE and no email. Publishers normally don’t respond in these cases—so the writer never knows what happened from the submission. Publishers don’t have budgets for postage to return these manuscripts. Just imagine returning 3,000 to 6,000 unsolicited manuscripts and what that would do to your budget.

As a writer, I understand what it was like to be new in this business. It’s one of the reasons, I’ve invested such energy into creating a place like Right-Writing.com. In these cases, I mark the rejection letter with encouragement to send an SASE in the future or an email address for a response—or they will not be hearing from me a second time. I hope this serves the writer and helps them understand a tiny bit more about this business.

Beyond the phone calls as an editor, I also write. For the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to get credentialed to interview a major league baseball pitcher.  Persistence is one trait that I’ve learned the hard way in this area. I’ve called (almost daily) and faxed (several times) and my assigned magazine has also faxed to this public relations officer. Yesterday it appeared to pay off (I never know until it happens).  This morning, I’m scheduled to interview the pitcher and gather the information for my short magazine assignment.  I should learn a great deal through today’s experiences.

Hopefully as writers and editors, we are constantly learning—and improving. We’re not perfect. We do make mistakes.  And the next time, you feel like calling an editor and verbally beating up on them for not returning something—think twice. You are making a lasting impression with your phone call. 

Ever-Changing Publishing Landscape

March 16, 2005

You’d think after my years in this business that I would get used to the changes. I’m not.  Some times they still hit home to me.

In the early days of my writing, during the 80s, I took a class from the Writer’s Digest School called Writing Fiction to Sell. My instructor was science fiction author Ardath Mayhar.  In light of my present body of work, it might seem like a strange pairing.  One of my cherished autographed books is Carrots and Miggle which Ardath signed to me saying, “To Terry, who will one day have books of his own.”

When I took the course, I had not published any books. The Writer’s Digest School paired you with a personalized instructor who critiqued each lesson and responded with a personalized letter and specific instructions about your lesson. It was a great experience and I enjoyed my interaction with my instructor. Ironically I received a top grade for the course but never published my short story from the course.  Why didn’t it get published? Too busy with other things at that time and I never devoted the marketing energy to get it into the right editor’s hands so it was published.

In the 90s, I taught at the Institute of Children’s Literature as one of their instructors. It was a great experience and I learned a great deal from it and commonly recommend this course to people who want to write children’s booksThe Institute has a quality, first-class set of instructors and instructional materials. I believe their current teaching system is mostly online.

In recent days, I’ve been doing a bit of marketing preparation for my new how-to book—which will be available next month.  Two new excerpts from the book are also available and give you a taste of the book’s contents.

And the change, I mentioned in the opening paragraph? I learned the Writer’s Digest School is not accepting any more students for their printed course.  Everything has shifted to their online course. It means their printed publication for the students will also be ending in another couple of years.

While the publishing world continues to change and shift, I want to encourage you to recommit to learning your craft of writing. Whether you are trying to publish children’s books, magazine article, nonfiction or fiction books or any other type of writing, there is always room for quality writing. It’s my on-going commitment and hopefully yours as well.

Conference Envy

March 15, 2005

It’s the time of year when many are headed to a specific writer’s conference.  Actually some wonderful conferences are held throughout the year and in many different areas of the United States. It’s been my privilege to attend and teach at a number of them.  From each conference, I learn a great deal, meet many new friends and catch up with long-time friends. These conferences are valuable experiences—particularly if you prepare and use your time wisely. I know they are large investments for each person in terms of the time and financial expense.

Later this week, many of my editorial and writing friends are headed to the Mount Hermon Conference. For the first time, the conference didn’t issue a printed brochure but simply have their information on their website.  It’s the oldest Christian writer’s conference in the country and a place where I’ve had some amazing personal experiences over the years.

Walking among the redwoods, a children’s book editor and I connected. At the time, I was with a missions organization and this publisher had world missions as a part of their mandate for their book line. She asked me to pitch some ideas.  I responded with several possibilities. The follow-up conversations resulted in my first book in 1992.

To my shock and surprise in 1989, I received the Writer of the Year Award at the conference. It’s one of my few writing honors and a treasure to me.

I love walking the grounds at this particular conference. Often I take a short hike to see some large redwood trees in a state park.

This year, I’m not going to this conference. I hope my friends have a wonderful experience at the conference. I’ll admit to a bit of conference envy because this one holds such special memories and experiences in my life as a writer and editor. If you are going, I wish you well.

If you are one of the readers who is not attending the conference, here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • Not everyone within Christian publishing is at this conference.
  • Even the people who are at the conference are some times easier to reach in their offices.
  • I’ve been to this and other conferences and as an editor, you don’t fill your schedule only at these conferences. There are many ways to find books and magazine material the publishing houses.
  • Conferences are for much more than selling product. They are for relationship building and personal growth and other aspects. This type of learning happens at conferences—and many other places.

I’m over my momentary conference envy. I’ve got many other things absorbing my attention—including going to a last minute addition to my schedule: The Ice Escape Conference in Phoenix. I’ll be attending on Saturday and look forward to it.

 

Discouraged or Determined?

March 14, 2005

Some times the odds of getting published can be daunting—even for someone like me who has been around this business for some time. Just look at some of these publishing statistics:

2002: The five large New York publishers accounted for 45% of the market (made 45% of the sales.) They grossed $4.1 billion.
  –Publishers Weekly, June 16, 2003. 

2004: 2.8 million books in print.
  –R.R. Bowker as reported in The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2004. 

With the volume of new books being produced, it’s a pure wonder that any one of them are purchased and read.  Also I’ve read that at any given time there are an estimated six million manuscripts and book proposals in circulation in different publishing houses. It’s pretty easy to feel like a small fish in a huge ocean.

Last week, I was talking with one of my author friends who has written for the children’s book market for more than twenty years. This successful author has more than six million books in print.  I’ve never seen this author have her own website. Her books are promoted on her particular publisher’s websites.  On a personal level, I know this author works hours and hours selecting the perfect words for her board books and preschool writing.  She has labored and rewritten her manuscripts over and over. Here’s the news she told me, “I’ve never seen the children’s market so flat. We went through a dry spell several years ago and I thought it was over but it’s back.”

You can look at this information in two ways. It can discourage you to the point that you leave your writing and move on to a different arena. Or you can grow in your determination and become better at your craft. I’d encouraged the second response.

Here’s some ideas how to increase your determination:

  • Join a free writer’s newsletter and read the material and apply it to your craft. I’ve produced 16 issues and they are only available to subscribers.
  • Join a book club like the Writer’s Digest Book Club. Get the books (and read them—brilliant) then apply the material to your writing life.
  • Join a writer’s critique group. It will force you to write and also improve your skills. If you don’t know what I’m talking about or how to start one, then follow this link.
  • Try a different area of the market. If you’ve been working on a long novel, then try writing some shorter magazine articles. It may get you in a different mind set. As Bob Bly writes, “Do something.”
  • Invest in a writer’s conference. There are many good ones out there—but prepare and get ready for it. Follow the links in this bullet for more information.

Finally look at your motivation for writing. Why are you doing it? If it’s to make money or get rich, then you may have a long road ahead. If you are trying to help others, tell a good story and produce quality material, then welcome. May your tribe increase.

Their Questions Are Amazing

March 13, 2005

On my Right-Writing.com website, I have a submission form. People can use this form to ask me any question about writing or editing. I make no guarantees that I will answer them.  As much as possible, I try to send short responses.

Here’s a recent example of what I’ve received, “Where can I get it done at and for a book that only has two pages how much would they pay you?”

From the question, I assume that I’m dealing with an unpublished writer and likely a young person (but it’s hard to tell). The question is valid but shows such a lack of education about the publishing world that I hardly know where to start and could easily write a lengthy answer that no one would read or care about.

Here’s what I sent the author, “A traditional book publisher is going to invest between $50,000 and $100,000 in pure production costs to produce a book and get it into the distribution system (at the bookstores). No one is going to produce a two page book with that sort of investment. As far as what they pay–it varies. The more experience you have the higher the paycheck. It’s negotiated. Hope that helps you understand–publishing a business–a huge one.”

Each day, we are involved in the business of publishing. Because writing is a key part of the education system, it’s something many people feel like they could do—if they were given the right opportunity. Publishing is a business. The more you learn about it, the more you realize you have to learn. I’m constantly learning new aspects and techniques for this business—and I’ve been actively working at it for many years.

Some people may wonder, Why do you bother answering these questions from the new writer?  Each of us have to begin somewhere.  Not too many years ago, I didn’t know anything about the magazine world, then I started writing magazine articles and eventually became a magazine editor.  Years ago, I didn’t know much about writing children’s books, then I had the opportunity to write a number of them and I’ve learned a great deal in the process. My writing moved into the adult area of nonfiction and I gained additional experience. Finally I’ve grown in the area of fiction writing. Have I completed my education in these areas? Not even close. It’s a part of the journey and why I’m committed continuing to answer the most basic of questions.

 

Snappy Comebacks Leave Lasting Impressions

March 12, 2005

In recent weeks, I’ve received a number of fiction submissions for my part-time position as a Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Howard Publishing. These query letters, proposals and sample chapters come from individual authors and literary agents.

As a writer, it’s been fascinating to me because these packages arrive full of hope and in all types of formats and shapes. Each of us as writers have a lot of dreams and ambitions. We want other people to like and enjoy our writing and we are looking for an editor who connect with our material and will champion our book internally within the publishing house. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the writer (or agent) has to convince this editor—but then the editor has to convince another room full of people (some times repeatedly) to take a particular project and get it into print. Sales, marketing, other editors, leaders in the publishing house are a few of these specific people—before a writer will get a publishing contract. There is a long chain to get a book from idea to printed book that gets into the reader’s hands. If any part of it is broken, it creates problems. (another subject some day)

As an editor who also writes, I understand the writer who wants to push on their particular project. It is nerve-racking waiting for a response. Instead of pushing, I encourage writers to begin another project. Get something else in motion while you are waiting—then the waiting will be less tense and you will be more productive as a writer.

When I approach these fiction manuscripts, I’m looking for excellence yet it’s highly selective. Last year, I received over 350 submissions from literary agents and individual authors. Only three or four books were actually contracted from those submissions.

And the rest? They were rejected. I have a gracious rejection letter (at least it is from my view and I’ve tried to craft it in that manner). It’s been an education about how people respond—even agents. One agent didn’t like my form rejection letter that I sent each time for his clients. He said he gets personal responses from secular editors and form rejections from Christian editors. I’ve been sending him one or two personal sentences since that comment.

I wrote a different agent a personal note recounting the volume of submissions and he snapped back, “Yeah but all those other submissions hadn’t sold millions of copies like my author.” Or something with that sort of content. It didn’t change my decision—except to realize this agent didn’t need a personal note. He’s getting no reason—just a form letter from here on out.

As an editor who cares, some times I try and add some extra to the form letter—just to encourage the writer. Unfortunately, it’s often not worth the effort. Here’s a couple of examples from yesterday. One submission had no text in the email. There was only a cover letter—with my name spelled wrong (another pet peeve of mine). The pitch was a nonfiction children’s book. It used an email which labels in the subject line: Re: Fiction Manuscript. Because I’m the fiction acquisitions editor—it’s all I can acquire. I added the personal note that the publisher doesn’t do children’s books. Because of the format for the submission, most editors would have hit the delete button and never opened it. Instead, I opened it, read it and responded. Many submissions never receive a response from the editor.

Here’s the author’s comeback note: “Thank you for your kind consideration, but my book _______________ was neither a child’s book nor fiction…..but thank you for your consideration….I am sure that I can find a publisher that will actually read the book…your loss.”

It made an impression—not the right one.

Or this submission (a Christmas story for children) began: “I am a highly motivated disabled guy from __________, who can either goof off all day, or come up with timely, highly profitable book ideas. Mostly, option two is my choice of the day! ***To the point: I am asking you, who has the uncanny ability to spot a can’t miss/money making project, to take a look/see…”

I sent my standard rejection note with the personal addition that we don’t publish children’s books and that he was better sending it to a place that handles children’s books. Within a few hours, I got this reply, “Terry, I never meant to send this to any rude, snob _________ (insert a curse word) bless you too”

It’s a response I will remember for many years ahead. It’s not the type of impression you want to make as a writer. Without a doubt these writers were disappointed. It’s not my intention to disappoint anyone. It’s not personal, it’s business.

Some writers wonder why the only response they receive is a form rejection letter. There is no explanation or reason or way for improvement. Some times writer will press me for a reason. I’m reluctant because it’s not a part of my job description and there simply isn’t enough hours on the day. Find a critique group or pay for a critique service if you want the details. Or attend a writer’s conference, sit with an editor and get some specific help and insight.

When you receive a rejection note, you can press on to another publisher or send a little note like, “Thanks for taking a look.” or “Thank you for considering it.” Anything snappy only makes the wrong impression. It’s like the old rule your mother may have told you as a child, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” It works for editors too.