Archive for June, 2005

Some Links Worth Checking

June 30, 2005

Several weeks ago in an entry on The Writing Life, I pointed out an article in the advertising section of The New Yorker magazine by Meakin Armstrong titled, “The Stories Behind the Best-sellers.” This article wasn’t online but only in an advertising section of the magazine. Later that same day, I received a note from Meakin thanking me for the mention. The experience reminded me of the public nature of these entries. It’s a world-wide community that we tap through blogging.

Yesterday I received another email from Meakin, who is in Russia for a project. I learned the complete article is now online. Leaders of major publishing houses talk about what makes a bestseller. It’s an article worth reading.

If you read these entries very often, you will know I love reading the local newspaper. Yesterday on CNN Inside Politics I learned about an online location which shows the front page of newspapers around the world.  To me, it’s a fascinating resource. If you want to see these front pages in a different format, check out this link to see 409 front pages of newspapers from 45 countries.

I live near the northern border of Scottsdale, Arizona. The Cave Creek Complex Fire has burned more than 172,000 acres over the last nine days. Today I can taste and smell the smoke from this fire when I walk outside.  While the fire is 40% contained on the southern edge, it’s not contained at all on the northern edge of it. I found a place online to monitor the firefighters progress on this local (yet internationally covered) event.

You can do a great deal of research for your magazine articles or book proposals sitting down at your computer.  It’s worth investing a bit of time to learn (and continue to learn) how to do this type of research. It will improve your writing skills.

It’s Not All In Fiction

June 29, 2005

Over the last few days, I’ve been going through another stack of manuscript submissions. It’s reminded me again of the massive numbers of people who are trying to write fiction—yet often doing it poorly. I believe at least some of these writers should be working in the nonfiction area to hone their craft. In particular they should be writing shorter magazine articles before they attempt anything like a 80,000 to 100,000 word novel.

At the conference this past weekend, bestselling novelist Debbie Macomber divided the fiction authors into three different groups. She said, “I described what I consider are the three types of people who write.  The first group is the storytellers, the second is the writers who have the craft of writing down pat, and the third group is a combination of both.  Now, it’s the third group that I think hasn’t suffered enough, because they have it too easy, in my opinion.  I fall into the first category.  I love to tell stories.”

From my perspective good storytelling isn’t only in fiction. Good storytelling is in fiction and in nonfiction.  Someone who writes nonfiction is working with facts and weaving those facts into a fascinating story. I believe some people have read boring nonfiction and it’s turned them off from the form—just like there are some boring novels (thankfully most of them don’t get published).

If you haven’t read some great nonfiction, go to your local library and check out Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Then follow the link and read the first page or two of the book.  The book came out in 1966 and as says about the book, “Capote combined painstaking research with a narrative feel to produce one of the most spell-binding stories ever put on the page. Two two-time losers living in a lonely house in western Kansas are out to make the heist of their life, but when things don’t go as planned, the robbery turns ugly.” It is nonfiction at its best and highly recommended.

Another nonfiction example of excellent storytelling would be the recent book from Jack El-Hai, The Lobotomist. Originally I purchased this book to support my friend from the ASJA. When Jack started this project, he assumed that he would be writing about an American Hitler-like person, Dr. Walter J. Freeman, who ranks as one of the most scorned physicians of the twentieth century for initiating the operation called lobotomy.  Through his research, Jack learned about a remarkable man who helped many people in this operation. I found the book compelling and fascinating about a topic that I knew nothing about with excellent writing.

If you haven’t read The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester, make sure you pick up a copy of this book. It’s about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—the most comprehensive dictionary in the English language. Doesn’t this sound like a boring topic? Who would guess that the greatest contributor was an American who was locked up in a mental institution on Great Britain? The storytelling is fabulous and the book was a New York Times bestseller. It’s as worthy of your reading time as any novel.

Finally in the area of nonfiction books, I recommend the new book from Michael Finkel, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. I know it sounds like I read a lot of true crime. I hardly ever read such books but recently in the bookstore I stumbled on this cover, “Just as I was fired from a job I had coveted almost all my life, I learned about the murders. A man named Christian Longo, who was wanted for killing his wife and three young children, had fled to Mexico. He’d been hiding out there, pretending to be a writers for the New York Times—pretending, in fact, to be me.” See why I had to read this title? It’s compelling drama yet nonfiction and excellent storytelling.

You don’t have to turn to books to find excellent nonfiction storytelling. It’s everywhere if you are open to reading it. For example, I was fascinated with the detail, description and vivid storytelling in this piece in the current New Yorker magazine on God and Country, A college that trains young Christians to be politicians by Hanna Rosin. Check it out.

I love fiction but those writers don’t have the corner on good storytelling. It’s necessary for fiction and nonfiction. Just make sure as a writer you think about the various elements of a good story and include them in your writing. It will elevate it from the mundane into something that has to be published.

Every Clip Isn’t Equal

June 28, 2005

In the world of magazine writing, after an article is published, we commonly refer to the article as a “clip.” I have no idea when this practice began. After almost twenty years of writing for various magazines, I’ve got boxes of magazine clips.

Particularly when you are beginning to write for publication, these clips are important. You make a photocopy of it and add it to your query letter to the magazine.  If you’ve been published in a national and easily recognized publication, then it’s easier to use these clips to validate your publishing experience. The editor looks at these clips to learn a bit more about your writing style. Also clips are sent when you write for a new publication.  Other writers will simply point to several of their magazine articles on a website to show their writing.

Thousands of magazines are printed each month in various areas of the marketplace. Some of these magazines are inspirational / religious magazines while others are trade magazines (like for a particular organization). Other magazines are consumer magazines which you can easily find in your local stores.

I enjoy writing for magazines as well as the longer book projects. The magazine articles some times lead to book projects. The assignments get the writer out into the marketplace of ideas, interviewing people and interacting with organizations.  I find many writers focused on longer books—when often they need to begin in the magazine area to build some publishing credits. Magazine writing is shorter in length and also a shorter time frame for publication.  It can often be a year from submission (even a contracted book project) until a book appears in print. Most magazines are working four to six months ahead of their publication schedule. If you turn in the article, it appears several months later.

Several months ago, I took an assignment from a small publication. I’ve not written for this particular magazine for many years but the assignment was short and different. Typically in these smaller publications, the payment isn’t large but some times these opportunities can lead to other things. I didn’t want to ignore these possibilities.

I put together the article, received my payment and haven’t heard anything else from the publication—until this week. This type of practice is fairly typical for these smaller publications with limited staff. In the larger publications (and when I was a magazine editor), we would send the author an edited version of their story. Usually you have a tight deadline and are only checking for accuracy. Often this accuracy check doesn’t happen in the fast-pace for the smaller publications—but it should.

In my weekend mail, I found my contributor copies of this publication. The magazine is impressive and full-color on every page. I eagerly turned to my article.  I knew the information about my background would be brief. I was surprised to learn that I live in Tuscon, Arizona (their spelling since the city is correctly spelled Tucson).  It’s not where I live. I live in Scottsdale, Arizona which is outside of Phoenix. It was a beautiful short article and my only consolation is they correctly spelled my name.

I completely understand how such errors happen in the rush to publication with limited staff—yet I was a bit chagrined with the error.  I walked over to a market guide to check the circulation estimate of this publication.  I was relieved to see it was less than 50,000. Sometimes the circulation numbers are much higher. For example, over a dozen years ago, I was editor at a publication with a monthly circulation of 1.8 million copies. When we made such an error, it was a much bigger mistake.

I’m pleased to have written for this publication. It will likely not be a clip that I will show to many people. Every clip isn’t equal in the magazine business.

Expanded Possibilities

June 27, 2005

During the last few days, I’ve been in Amarillo, Texas at the Frontiers in Writing Conference.  What a great opportunity to escape my computer and my piles of manuscripts to get some one on one time with writers. The conference was one of the best organized that I’ve attended in some time and ran like clockwork with every detail under control.  Because I’ve worked behind the scenes to organize conferences in the past, I appreciate the amount of energy, planning and effort that goes into these conferences. Often the organizers don’t get to attend any of the workshops but they generously give back to the faculty and the attendees to make sure they have the greatest benefit from the gathering.

I enjoyed the opportunity to meet with writers, listen to their dreams and aspirations then explore possibilities. I taught a couple of workshops including understanding and negotiating contracts plus about book proposals that sell. My intention whether interacting with an individual writer or teaching a workshop or leading a critique group is to expand their possibilities and give them the greatest value at the conference. I understand it’s a high expectation and goal but I understand each person has invested time and money to be able to attend the conference. I hate for people to go home feeling like they wasted their effort.

In my workshop about book proposals, I saw several people catch a new idea (really an old idea for those of us in publishing). These writers understood for the first time that if they are writing a nonfiction book, they didn’t need to write the entire manuscript before submitting it to a publisher. Instead, they can write a terrific book proposal plus a couple of sample chapters (to highlight their writing skills) and get a book contract from the proposal and chapters.  Then if a publisher accepts and contracts the proposal, the writer will create the full book manuscript. If not, then they haven’t invested hours and hours of writing into a manuscript which isn’t published.  It’s how nonfiction works within the publishing community. A proposal is needed not a full length manuscript. The proposal contains many elements that never appear in your book manuscript—but these elements are critical for a publisher to make a decision. Several in my workshop caught this idea for the first time.

Also at the conference, I met some people who may expand possibilities for my own writing life. They will only become reality if I follow through with the opportunity.

Writer’s conferences are terrific. They are opportunities for new relationships and instructive teaching and life-long friends.  Some people attend these conferences for the inspiration (a good aspect) and yet never follow up on their opportunities (a negative aspect). You can only expand your possibilities, if you follow up from the conference.

On The Way Out Again

June 22, 2005

Early tomorrow morning I’m on the way to Amarillo, Texas. I’ll be on the faculty of the Frontiers in Writing conference.  I’ve never been to this particular conference but the Panhandler Professional Writers sponsor these meetings, which is one of the oldest writing organization in the nation. It’s been many years since I’ve been to Amarillo so I look forward to the experience.

I’ll be teaching a workshop on Understanding and Negotiating Contracts. Because I’ve been on both sides of the table with these types of negotiations I hope to give writers some insight. It’s hard to do in a single hour on the topic so I try and give other resources in my handouts.  Also I’m teaching another workshop twice on Book Proposals That Sell. I’ve got way too much material to cram into an hour but what I will be saying is different from the content of my book—yet tied to it with lots of other handouts and resources.

I enjoy the opportunity to meet and listen to other writers and editors. It’s one of the benefits to attending these conferences—even if you are an experienced writer or whether you are just beginning. I’ve signed up for several more conferences later this year. If you want to follow my speaking schedule, I try and keep it up-to-date. Check the various links for the specifics about the conference.

Despite years of traveling experiences, I consistently forget something—usually something insignificant. I’ve tried packing lists and all sorts of methods to avoid this matter but it still happens. My biggest challenge when I travel is figuring out which book or books to read. I love the uninterrupted reading time which I get traveling.

If you want to catch some interesting information about speakers—particularly Christian speakers, the current issue of Forbes magazine touts the Celebrity 100–– the top money earners for the past year in different areas.  As I read through the magazine this week, I was fascinated with this short article featuring speaker and author Ken Davis titled “The Messenger.” Apparently the high earnings of some speakers have caught the attention of this widely-circulated publication.

It will be a challenge for me to write any entries about The Writing Life over the next few days. If I can, I will do it.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to return to and scour through the various articles. As I can, I continue to add new material to the site. If you aren’t a newsletter subscriber (free), make sure you check it out and have access through the back issues link to literally hundreds of pages of how-to write material which isn’t accessible through any other means.


Box of Hope

June 21, 2005

Yesterday I received a box of the new releases from a publisher.  Like many houses, each season they have a new series of books to introduce to the retailer. The telemarketing sales staff at the publisher are calling their various accounts to sell the book into the store. Other members of the publishing house are traveling to key accounts to present the books in person—and hopefully collect their orders.  Then when the books are printed, they are automatically shipped to these various places.

I carefully looked at each book in the stack of releases. Some were targeted as gift books. These colorful packages have a lot of graphics inside the pages of the book and a small design size. They are the perfect impulse buy item and ideally will be sold near the cash register for those impulse purchases.  Because I’ve worked inside a publishing house, I know that someone had a vision for these books and guided the design and the finished product. The writer produced an excellent manuscript but someone had to guide the production until it became a real book.

Other books were targeted to mothers of small children. Yet other books were for fathers and other titles were for grandmothers. These books will find their way into the marketplace over the next few weeks. Notice they were each targeted for a particular segment of the marketplace.

I’ve talked with many would-be writers about their potential audience. They proudly tell me, “This book is for everyone.” Internally the editor cringes when you say that sentence. It’s the pure sign of the rookie, unskilled writer. Every book needs a target audience. This target has to be large enough to merit publishing the book and gaining a broad distribution. Yes, there will be people outside the target who purchase the book—but they will only be a few people. The bulk of the sales will be from the target audience. I discuss this principle in Book Proposals That Sell. Each book has a target.

As these books get into the marketplace, some of them will be successful and find their audience. Their sales will climb to an appropriate level. Others will not make it. It’s a reality of the publishing business.  Each year books go out of print. But at this point in time, this stack of new releases represents a box of hope.

Writers are a hopeful bunch of people. We pour our energy and effort into our manuscripts, our query letters, our proposals and our storytelling. Why? We hope some editor will read our material, champion our cause and get it into print and help people.

A few weeks ago, I received an email which thanked me for a series of sticker books I wrote many years ago. Each one represented a key Bible figure.  This person had enjoyed hours of imaginary fun playing with these stickers and learning about these Biblical characters from these books. I responded to the email and one key question was asking the writer’s age. She responded that she was twelve.  I was encouraged to learn my writing had encouraged this young reader. I thanked her for her email and writing. What are you doing in your writing today to bring hope to others? If it wasn’t a part of your plan, maybe it will be now.

Start Writing Early

June 20, 2005

I’ve interviewed a number of writers and often they have a career in one area then stumble into their writing late in life. Others started young and stayed with it. Maybe as a young person, they didn’t publish lots of material but they had an interest in words and reading.

For me, a high school English teacher saw some spark of life in my writing and encouraged me to join the school newspaper. That boost set me on a course to major in journalism in college. Then I made a left hand turn away from my writing into linguistics for ten years—but I wandered back into my writing and I’ve stayed in the field. During those years in linguistics, I did not write anything for publication except a few letters.

This month St. Martin’s Griffin released a book that I wish had been able to read when I was a teenager. I would have gleaned a great deal of information from it. Timothy Harper and his daughter, Elizabeth Harper teamed to write Your Name In Print, A Teen’s Guide to Publishing for Fun, Profit and Academic Success.

This month St. Martin’s Griffin released a book that I wish had been able to read when I was a teenager. I would have gleaned a great deal of information from it. Timothy Harper and his daughter, Elizabeth Harper teamed to write Your Name In Print, A Teen’s Guide to Publishing for Fun, Profit and Academic Success.

The book is excellent and covers a broad range of topics to introduce teens to writing. I loved this quote in the early pages of their book, “Getting published is less important than the process, discipline and goals involved in writing. Even for teenagers who don’t want to be professional writers—even teens who really don’t care whether they ever get published anywhere beyond their school paper—writing is something that can stretch their creativity and help them find their niche, and it’s fun.”

I love the emphasis that teens need to have fun in the process. Otherwise why write? If it’s drudgery then I’d rather the teen head into a different profession. Yes, writing involves craft and many other variables—but it should be something they enjoy doing. You can see my full review of Your Name In Print on the website.

Think of the young people who cross your path today. Maybe they are in your family or extended family or your neighborhood. Could you be that person to drop some encouragement into their life and steer them in a different direction?

Skeptic but Surprised

June 19, 2005

This past week I’ve been seeing and reading reviews and interviews with the various cast members of Batman Begins which potentially is the blockbuster movie for the summer. When my wife offered to go see it, I leaped at the chance.  (She usually not real keen on these action types of films).

We’ve seen the other movies in the Batman series. Several years ago when we saw the last Batman movie, it was so dark and the story so poorly crafted that I almost fell asleep in it. I wondered about Batman Begins and if it would live up to the advance publicity. Last week I watched an interview with Christian Bale who plays the lead of Bruce Wayne (Batman). Hee emphasized the film would have a story and that was one of the keys to his involvement in the film. The skeptic part of me thought, Yeah, right. Story. Like the last Batman film?

After watching the film, my skepticism turned into surprise. The movie has a solid story and the story carries throughout the film—from beginning until the end. Yes, it has a lot of action and comic-book like characters but I was impressed with the final product.

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned how to use I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like standing in theater lines (if there is another choice).  While has a service charge, I’ve discovered (free). If you select one of those theaters (which is near our home), you can purchase your ticket in advance (without a service charge) and avoid the line. When you arrive at the theater, you swipe your credit card in the machine and it says “Print Your Tickets?” and you touch the button and your tickets are instantly printed.  It’s something else to explore in the technology realm—if you haven’t already used it.

I love being skeptical about a movie or a book and being surprised. It was a gift.

The Digit Difference

June 18, 2005

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been working to complete an assignment for Writer’s Digest magazine. It’s an article about Seven Ways Writers Can Profit From Blogging.  My original title may not stick (always the magazine’s right) before the article is published. I poured a lot of effort into the article and interviewed a couple of well-known people who I included their quotations in the article.

I have a contract and a due date for my assignment. It was due June 17th. 

Friday morning I re-read my article and polished a few more sentences then wrote a cover letter to the editor, attached my article and sent it.  Within a matter of minutes, I received an automatic response from the editor. They were at a writer’s conference and wouldn’t return to their office until June 27th.

At first I was fuming. I had raced to complete this article by June 17th and yet the editor wasn’t going to receive it for ten days. Then I thought maybe the editor was leaving tomorrow—and she turned on her automatic message early.  I’ve received such messages in the past—when actually the editor is in their office. The automatic message wasn’t turned off or was turned on early because I get a real message from the editor later in the day. It didn’t happen here.

I dug out my contract and re-read it. My mind had latched on to the wrong date.  My article was due June 27th (the day of her return) not June 17th.  I experienced the digit difference. Laughing at my error, I pressed on to some other editorial responsibilities.

In general, it isn’t a problem if you send in the article early. Most editors appreciate the early manuscript and it helps their own production schedules. Or they acknowledge it and set it aside until the time scheduled to read and edit the article.

Editors face a completely different story when you are going to be late with your manuscript. Whether it is a book manuscript or a short magazine article, the editor has scheduled your material and expects it to arrive at a certain time.  A number of authors are notoriously late with their book manuscripts and it sets off all types of problems for the publisher. When you sign your book contract with a certain due date for the manuscript, behind the scenes the publisher generates a detailed production schedule. The author never sees this production schedule but it tells everyone internally when certain aspects are supposed to take place (cover design, catalog copy on the book, press releases, book goes to press, and many other steps). Editors spend hours in schedule meetings discussing each book and whether it is on schedule or off schedule. If you are late with your book manuscript, your late action could have been why your book didn’t get the proper publicity push. The manuscript wasn’t in the publishing house to send to the trade publications (typically four to six months ahead of the release date). And if no one tells this author, then they never understand the importance of their due date for the manuscript.  It’s one of those “joyful” duties of an editor (not).

I’m glad my magazine article arrived early rather than late. I learned about the difference a digit makes.

A Different Perspective

June 17, 2005

For many years, I’ve been studying how to write a book proposal.  I’ve written more than a few of them plus I’ve received hundreds of them from writers (because of my role as an acquisitions editor). Yet there is always a different perspective on the same topic and more to learn.

This week I posted Ten Factors to Consider When Writing Book Proposals by Dr. Dennis E. Hensley. He includes a different twist on some of the standard elements. For example, consider the element of neatness and Doc Hensley writes, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression, so it had better be your best effort. Dog-eared pages, erasure smudges, strike-overs, faded ribbons and correction fluid smears are sure indications that the manuscript has been passed around. Make sure that the manuscript smacks of professionalism. Use #16 or #20 weight Bond white paper, and be sure to have an ink cartridge in your computer printer that is full and dark.”

You may not think the editor will noticed that dog-eared submission—but we do notice.

I love the opening story in this article (don’t miss it). It points out a common fallacy that writers have about acquisitions editors at a publishing house.  These writers wrongly believe if their proposal isn’t just right on the mark then the editor can “fix it.” Why? They think that is how editors fill their days. Wrong.

As an editor, it doesn’t take much time to learn your day is filled with many different responsibilities from the publishing house. I explore these aspects in-depth in Book Proposals That SellI recommend every writer read this chapter and understand the stress and pressure from their editor. It will spur you to excellence with your submissions.

Some times, I see a glimmer of something that interests me in a proposal. Yet there is no time in my schedule to pull out glimmers and recraft them into a full-blown-gotta-buy-this-one type of idea. If a proposal comes in about 75% to 85% of the way to the target, then it is a wise investment of my time and energy to push it the rest of the journey.  Squeezing this last 15% to 25% often takes a lot of time but if it results in a book contract and an excellent product for my publishing house, then it’s worth the effort.

OK, now go back and think about your proposal and your expectations for what the editor will do. If your idea is anything less than almost perfect for the publisher, I can practically guarantee it will be rejected and returned. The days of an editor working back and forth to help a writer craft their proposal are gone. The volume of submissions and the paper flow is too great to do anything else other than send a form rejection letter.

My encouragement for every writer is to polish your proposal to perfection—before you stuff it in the envelope and send it to the publishing house.