Archive for May, 2005

Why Watch the Repeats

May 31, 2005

The summer schedule has finally arrived. For the most part, the television networks are airing repeats of their shows. Usually it’s a good time to rent that DVD or pull out a book (novel idea) and read in the evenings.  A couple of nights ago I watched a repeat show—the first episode of Grey’s Anatomy. After watching the show, I considered what drew me to watch the repeat.

I’ve been fascinated with the characters, their dialogue and interaction and plot. If you boil it down to a key ingredient, it’s the writing which is crisp and fast-paced. Also the characters grow and learn from their experiences—plus they are flawed and imperfect. When I’ve seen some actors from hit television showed interviewed (particularly the cast of Friends), they were asked what makes their show such a success.  Their top of the head first answer was to say something like, “We have great writers.”

As a writer and editor, I wonder what you are doing to improve your craft. Here’s some ideas:

  • Read some excellent fiction. Always a good idea and something that too few writers seem to do. But when I talk with some of the top fiction authors, they are always reading something.
  • Read some how-to-write books. I particularly like the work that Penelope Stokes built into her book, The Complete Guide to Writing & Selling the Christian Novel. It’s an excellent book on craft and many novelists and would-be novelists can learn a great deal from this seasoned editor and novelist.
  • Devote some time to learning about the publishing business. In other entries, I’ve mentioned this audio resource, Become A Bestselling Author. If you are making a driving trip across country. It might be one of your wisest investments in your career—the education you will receive from these audios.
  • Return often to this page and read the various articles. I regularly add new ones where you can learn about the craft of writing a novel. Note it is going through some reorganization and expansion to help you get around on this valuable resource.

I believe I understand a bit better why my wife will watch the sit-coms over and over.  The writing is key.

Worth Remembering

May 29, 2005

Many people are taking this weekend to escape the heat in the desert. It’s been over 100 almost every day during the past week. They are headed to the mountains or to a cool lake where they can float on inner tubes and enjoy time away from work. Others are traveling to see family and spending time together. For some people, this weekend marks the beginnings of summer. While each of these activities are OK, I started to wonder about the origins for Memorial Day.

The closing images of the NBC Nightly News on Friday night were a group of soldiers going through Arlington National Cemetery who were placing flags on the tombstones in preparation for the weekend. This morning I used Google and typed in the words, “Memorial Day” and origin. Quickly I found the beginnings of this holiday.

Memorial Day began after the War Between the States or the Civil War and is a time to remember those men and women who died in the sacrifice for freedom. In 1971, an act of Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and placed it on the last Monday in May. Over the years, this holiday has become a time to recall more than just the Civil War but includes other national wars and is the most important day of recognition for our armed forces.

If you pause to think about it, many people can think of a relative or friend who died in a national war. For me, it happened before I was born. My mother’s oldest brother, James Douglas Estill, was part of the U.S. Army in Germany during the Second World War. While out on patrol, an enemy sniper killed James. I’ve often heard the family stories about the day the news arrived of his death. It’s the uncle I never met yet I’m grateful for his sacrifice for our country and so we can enjoy our freedom.

Hopefully at some point during this holiday, you will take the time to remember—and pray for our troops in harms way. From my perspective, it’s something worth remembering.

Where Are the Sparks?

May 28, 2005

While reading the May 30th issue of The New Yorker, one article caught my eye called “The Stories Behind the Best-selllers” by Meakin Armstrong.  It’s a topic that I’ve addressed several times in these entries about The Writing Life.  The article actually turned to be an advertising section but contains some valuable insight from some mainstream publishing people about books.

New York is gearing up for the Book Expo America or the premier event in the U.S. serving the publishing community which will take place from June 3 to 5th. I’ve been to these events in the past but will not be attending this year. BEA is a closed trade show and not open to the general public. You have to be a retailer, associated with a publishing house, or an author or member of the media to enter the event. Guards stand at each entrance and monitor whether you can get inside or not.

Every publisher is looking for that illusive bestseller in a variety of different genres of books. Chip Gibson, the president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books said in this article, “Publishing companies are engines of enthusiasm. We’re always looking for the little sparks around a projects; those physical manifestations of that overused but perfect word, ‘buzz.’” While the search is constant, publishers are careful not to overpromise because of the fickle public. As Doubleday Broadway president and publisher Stephen Rubin explained in the same article, “Because publishing is such an intuitive business, I never say that a book will be a best-seller. I say it has the potential of becoming one.” Notice the little dance in semantics?

While these major publishing houses are looking for their next big seller, the same search is going on in countless other places—submission piles for large and small publishers and at literary agencies. It’s actually happening in each aspect of the business. Magazine editors are looking at their submissions for the sparks that capture their imagination and fit their particular audience. Children’s book editor are searching for the manuscript which will touch children in a new way.

Our challenge as writers is to learn our craft and learn it well. Not to simply glut the market with our latest unpolished brainstorm. Instead to work day in and day out at producing excellence. Then maybe our submission will set off those sparks.

Beach Reading Yet Educational

May 27, 2005

Some people are planning to escape for the beach this summer. You may be one of them. Or maybe you are traveling to see family. If you are looking for a “different” type of beach book (something light yet educational), I recommend you pick up a copy of Ten Percent of Nothing, The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell by Jim Fisher.  I understand Jim has an attention-getting title.

The book reads like a novel—but it’s a nonfiction story about one of the biggest cases of literary fraud from Dorothy Deering, who presented herself as a literary agent, then bilked thousands of writers from their precious money.  The book shows how anxious writers are to get published—and like a man in the desert looking for water—these would-be writers will gravitate toward anyone who gives them encouragement. If they aren’t careful, they will be taken for a ride, spend a lot of money and have nothing to show for that expense. Fisher is a former FBI agent and now a professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. I wanted to highlight this book because it came out last year and I’ve seen little about it—probably because the publisher is the Southern Illinois University Press.

And if you are looking for an agent, make sure you follow the terrific advice in Victoria Strauss’ article, The Safest Way to Find an Agent. Move with care and caution to make sure you are represented by a solid person in the industry. I find many writers want to get an agent—before they have published anything. It’s premature for most of them to get an agent.  And we are so insecure about our work that if anyone (read even a scam artist) comes along and expresses interest, then it’s natural to gravitate toward that person.

Track down a copy of Jim Fisher’s book. It might be educational besides a good read.

It’s An Unsolvable Mystery

May 26, 2005

Don’t you love to curl up with a good mystery? You turn the pages, jump in the footsteps of a detective and follow the clues.   There is also some mysteries in publishing that may be unsolvable. Why do some books sell and some books fade out of print?

It happens (and has happened) to many authors—you would instantly recognize their names. Their books are out of print.  As the Acquisitions Editor at a publisher, I had access to the list of books which had been put out of print (over a several year period). The decision to take a book out of print was made on the basis of the sales—and seemingly little else such as the author and their rise in the market. This particular list included names like Bill Myers, Luis Palau, Ross Campbell and other best-selling authors. While maybe these particular titles had been in print for some time, the sales were not in enough volume to maintain the book in print. As some people tried to point out in some comments about my post from yesterday. Whether you go the traditional route or the self-publishing route on the books, it will take hard work for your books to be sold, in demand and in print.

As I’ve mentioned in some past posts, an interesting book for writers to read and study is Making the List, A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900–1999 (Barnes & Noble Books, 2001). Korda is the Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster and studies the bestseller lists for the last century. When you read the book, you learn the complete unpredictable nature of what makes the list and what doesn’t make it.

I’ve heard best-selling author Bruce Wilkinson (Prayer of Jabez) talk about how he had decided not to write any more books at one point. He had a successful teaching and seminar ministry and had not found much success (read sales) in the book area.  Then he put together a little book about Jabez and people began to talk about it. Pastors began to buy cases of the book and hand it out to their congregation. It took off. Bruce has been speaking about the prayer of Jabez for many years. I heard him in 1977 speak about it and he had written a manuscript on the topic which was over 200 pages—and never published. It was finally the right time and the right place for that particular book.

Several years ago I acquired a book from the pastor of a mega-church. The publisher worked on a promotional campaign and the author did almost 100 radio interviews when the book released. He also produced a short tract with an excerpt from the book (and the cover of the tract matched the book cover). He and members of his church handed out over 50,000 copies of this tract. Yet when he received his royalty statement with the accounting of the sales, he called me to ask about the numbers. When I investigated I found the numbers were true. A small number of books were sold through the stores and the majority of the books this author had purchased through his ministry. Something broken down somewhere in the sales process. Despite an active and successful publicity campaign, it wasn’t reflected in the book sales.  It is an unsolvable mystery to me.

Within a traditional publishing setting, the decision about keeping a particular book in print will boil down to the sales. There are some solid things that you as a book author can do to help this process:

*Don’t hold back on the author promotion of your book. Jump into it and while you are writing other things, keep marketing your book. Here’s a great article from Lissa Warren about what to do if your book isn’t getting media attention.

*Keep marketing your book even after the first initial months of the release. Some books are slow to take off and become bestsellers. I’ve read that This Present Darkness didn’t sell many copies during the first year but then through word-of-mouth marketing, the book began to take off and gained the best-seller status.

*Understand the importance of the backlist and steady sales to the publisher.  The May 16th issue of Publisher’s Weekly includes an article about business books. Seth Godin’s Purple Cow was published by Portfolio two years ago and now has more than 150,000 copies in print after 23 printings.  Or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000 release) is on the current paperback bestseller (trade) list in Publisher’s Weekly with over a million copies sold.

*Sell through multiple channels. Readers like plenty of choice to purchase their books.  You can see more in this article.

Life is full of unsolvable mysteries. I’ve often heard this quotation about prayer: We are to pray like it depends on us and live like it depends on God.  I believe the same holds true for book marketing. We live with the uncertainty of the market but we continue because we know that books (and magazine articles) change lives. So we keep on even in the midst of something unsolvable.

Some Book Facts

May 25, 2005

Once a year, the book publishing industry learns about their production numbers for the previous year. Bowker, the leading provider of bibliographic information in North America, released these statistics yesterday.  The number of books which were produced broke another record at 195,000 new titles and editions or an increase of 14% from the previous year.

The largest area of growth was fiction which increased by 43.1% to 25,184 new titles and editions or the highest total ever recorded in this category.  You can read the full release and see some other new book numbers.

I’m frankly not surprised to see this increase in fiction. When I attend writer’s conferences, the number of people who are working on novels, seems to only increase. Yet I find much of the fiction needs a great deal of help before it would be successful in the market.

From these production numbers, we learn that it’s never been easier to get a published book. The proliferation of self-publishing, new publishers and Print On Demand publishers make it possible for anyone to get a printed book. Yes, you can write a manuscript, then take it down to one of these places and have a bound book for your shelf or to give your relatives.

One of the hardest things to proofread is something which doesn’t appear on the page. What isn’t said in these production numbers? These facts don’t say anything about books sold or books read or (even rarer) books which make the bestseller list.

iUniverse is one of the major self-publishing operations in the marketplace. The May 16th issue of Publishers Weekly (which I received in the mail yesterday) included an article with these statistics about iUniverse. During 2004, they published a total of 18,108 new books. Fourteen of their books were sold nationally through Barnes & Noble’s bricks-and-mortar stores. It’s a key number. While many people like to rave about their self-published books, where will they be able to sell it? How will they be able to sell it? Then another key statistic from iUniverse in the PW article: Only 83 titles (of the 18,108) sold at least 500 copies.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in writing books which aren’t read and aren’t sold. Certainly I can crank a bunch of words into the computer and go to iUniverse or another self-publisher place and get it bound into a book. If I have no means to sell it, then I only contribute to the problem or the paper proliferation rather than raising the rates of people who are reading. As a July 12, 2004 Publisher’s Weekly article pointed out, “A survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts has confirmed a trend that most book publishing industry members are well aware of: the percentage of Americans who read books has steadily declined over the last 20 years.”  Yes, traditional publishing takes time and energy and patience. The marketing effort for a book takes a lot of energy and effort. But if it is read, then it’s worth this effort.

One of the major reasons, I devoted such energy and effort to create Book Proposals That Sell is because I want to help writers be able to get their material in a format which traditional publishers will seriously consider (as opposed to instantly reject).  While I’ve written nonfiction books, I also have spent a lot of time and energy in the fiction area of the market. Currently I’m a part-time Fiction Acquisitions Editor

It’s been very affirming for me to receive these types of comments about Book Proposals That Sell from someone who lives in the fiction world as a best-selling author.

With years of experience as an author and an editor, Terry Whalin has written a book that can help any writer. Book Proposals That Sell offers great advice on building the nonfiction proposal and also explains the inner workings of the editor’s and publication board’s role in acquiring a new book. Novelists, too, will find this background information very helpful. All authors need to understand the uphill battle they face in selling a book before they can be fully prepared to submit their absolute best proposal or manuscript. Whalin’s book lays out what they’ll face–and then shows them how to win the battle.” — Brandilyn Collins, best-selling novelist.

If you are writing a book manuscript today, you have a choice. You can take the self-publishing route or you can go with a traditional publisher. Neither route will be easy but in the majority of cases—one route has readers and sales while the other is a huge question mark. These are some book facts worthy of consideration as you make your choice.

Encourage Promising Writing

May 24, 2005

The incident stands out to me like it was yesterday when it was many years ago. At the end of a high school English class, Mr. David Smith pulled a sophomore aside for a brief conversation.

“Have you ever thought of writing for the high school newspaper? Your writing shows some promise, Terry, and you might really enjoy it. I’m the advisor for the newspaper and we’re having our next meeting tomorrow afternoon? Think about coming.”

I came to the session and with one of my classmates began writing sports stories—about the only need the paper had at that point in time. Throughout that school year, I learned how to cover different sporting events at the school and wrote sports stories. Eventually I took a part-time job on the local newspaper working after school a few hours a week then I went to Indiana and majored in journalism.  The brief encouragement from a high school English teacher set my life on a path into the publishing world.

Each of us can encourage promising writing when we see it. Maybe you participate in an on-line forum and you see someone has a gift for crafting an appropriate response.  You can reach out and give encouragement. Possibly you see some excellence in your child’s writing or the friend of one of your children. Then you can give a few encouraging words. Or maybe you belong to a critique group where you look over each others writing. Always begin with some words of praise before you work on improvement. Those first few kind words will go a long ways.

My greatest opportunity these days comes through email or face-to-face with an individual at a writer’s conference. At times it’s a challenge to say something positive. It’s impossible for me to know how an individual will develop over the days and years in the future. I want to be one of those people who encourage along the journey—as I’ve been encouraged.

As writers, we have to create our own writing space. Maybe you write on a kitchen table (as I did for many years) or in a spare bedroom. In the current issue of The New Yorker, an artists’ collective called Flux Factory commissioned architects to design three writers’ “habitats.” I found the reading experience of this article called Writers At Work a fun and interesting—and maybe you will as well.

Also as writers, from time to time, the media interviews us—for a new book or some area of expertise that you’ve developed. It’s always a bit awkward for me when the interview tables are reversed. I’m much more comfortable interviewing someone rather than being interviewed.  Seasoned author Robin Lee Hatcher has some great advise when you face such a situation in her article, “What Did You Say?”

After that brief aside, I want to return to my theme for this particular entry.  Each of us need to be on the look out for a way to spread encouragement to others about their writing. Maybe you drop a handwritten note to a writer friend. In a business where we hear “no, thank you” a great deal, it’s important to encourage.

Early Love of Books

May 23, 2005

“Young man,” laughed the farmer, “You’re sort of a fool! You’ll never catch fish in McElligot’s Pool!” It’s the first line of the Dr. Seuss classic, McElligot’s Pool (Random House, 1947) and a book you don’t instantly think about for Dr. Seuss or his full name, Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel. The book marked a return to his career in children’s books following a stint in the army during the Second World War. The book won an honorable mention in the 1946 Caldecott Award winners (given for illustration).

For me, the book sparked an early love of books. My mom talks about reading the book until she almost couldn’t stand to pick it up again. It was my favorite book as a child for several reasons. First, I loved the length of it—and if I was trying to delay going to sleep for a nap, then it gave me the longest possible reading experience.

The story of McElligot’s Pool stirred my child’s imagination. It’s all fine to fish in a spot but what if the spot could take you to unexpected places—it happens in the context of the rhyme and story from a Dr. Seuss children’s book

Now years later, I fish in a different fashion—within publishing. I’m fishing for the next opportunity—with a book project or a magazine article or some other writing project. Fishing can represent a metaphor for opportunity and lots of it is out there—we only have to find it. As this story concludes:

“Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish,

If a fellow is patient, he might get his wish!

And that’s why I think

That I’m not such a fool

When I sit here and fish

In McElligot’s Pool!”

The Old Yellow Book

May 22, 2005

While there are many different styles of music which I enjoy, in particular, I often like the words to the music of Country songs.  A recent hit song from Ken Chesney is called “I Go Back” where he recalls a lot of memories from his high school and younger years.

For a few entries about the Writing Life, I thought I’d go back to my early love of the printed page and books. It would give you a bit of insight about where I’ve been in relation to publishing.

During the last twenty years, many books have passed through my hands. Because I’ve interviewed and profiled more than 150 best-selling authors, their respective publisher sent me the background books to read and prepare for these interviews. I’ve also reviewed books for more than a dozen different magazines. For several magazines, I wrote a book review column and selected the books for each issue (of course taking my editor’s guidance—which was rarely given).  If you do this type of writing, then publishers will add your name and address to their “review copy” list and you will begin to receive many more books than you could possibly read. Some days I would receive multiple boxes with multiple books in a single day.

My bookshelves quickly filled with these books and it begins to take a bit of time to determine what to read next and why you are reading it. My pleasure reading went to almost zero and I wrote about the book or the author for almost every book that I read during this time.  Many of these books, I donated to a church library in Frankfort, Kentucky.  In fact, so many books were given the church petitioned their mayor to declare a “Terry Whalin Day.” Also this church had an elementary school which used these donated books and became accredited in part because of their extensive library. It’s no exaggeration to say that many books have passed through my hands over the last twenty years.

One book remains on my shelf.  Jesus the Revolutionary by H.S. Vigeveno (Regal Books) contains a simple cover with a drawing of the face of Jesus Christ. The pages are yellow in this old book and the cover says, “With forceful, flowing style, this book unmasks preconceived fantasies and presents the Jesus of the Bible in all His power, humility and love.” I purchased the book at a Logos Bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana which was just off the campus of Indiana University.  These printed pages showed me a different side of Jesus Christ than I’d ever seen before.  The book started my search and my personal relationship with Christ. You can learn more about the details of that experience through the article, “Two Words That Changed My Life.” 

I’ve personally been changed through the printed page. I’ve experienced the power of words to change life. It’s one old yellow book which I’ll be keeping as a constant reminder.

One Life At A Time

May 21, 2005

Can your writing make a difference in someone’s life today?

There are many different types of writing. Some magazine articles are known as “service” articles because they highlight a particular service to the reader. Other articles are “how-to” articles and help the reader know how to do a particular task. Personal experience magazine articles are another popular format where you tell your personal experience and the reader gains insight from your own personal journey. Actually there are seven or eight different types of magazine articles (depending on which book you read). Notice how each time I talked about the article I was focused on the reader? It’s a common failure for new writers not to focus on the audience for their article.

The bulk of my writing has been in the spiritual/ religious/ Christian marketplace. It’s my area of expertise and where I’ve found opportunity for my writing. At times I wander out of this arena—with an article in some place like Writer’s Digest or my how-to material in Book Proposals That Sell (which is universal for any type of book writing).  I could write in other areas of the marketplace but I’ve decided to focus on the spiritual aspects and this aspect is where I have the greatest passion for my writing. Passion will often determine where you do your best work.  If you don’t have passion for a particular idea or writing project, it’s difficult to complete it—possible but difficult.

Writing is often a solitary task where we sit with our pen and paper or computer screen and simply pour out our words.  It’s rare that I receive a letter from someone who has read one of my books (at times forwarded from the publisher). It’s even rarer that I receive feedback from a magazine article that I’ve written and how it’s impacted someone’s life.

While the feedback from readers is terrific and appreciated, there is also some joy in the unknown and how that unknown can affect people. Several months ago, I received an email that asked if I was the “Terry Whalin” who went to Indiana University and went into Wycliffe Bible Translators (where I spent 17 years).  I replied to the email because I was that person.  The writer was someone I went to college with over 30 years ago and had lost contact.

Two years ago, this guy was in Rwanda visiting some Wycliffe missionaries and saw a book with my name on it. It stirred him to contact me. Ironically I wrote this book many years ago and is still in print and widely used around the world.  Because of this lost then newfound connection, I met face-to-face with this old friend last month in New York City. We are back in touch from that old writing project.

What’s ahead for you today in your writing life? Whether you write one page or many pages, get it into the market. It affects readers one life at a time.