Archive for October, 2005

The Impossible List of Books

October 14, 2005

In about a week and a half, I’m headed to New Mexico for the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference.  I’m teaching three workshops at this conference and I’ve been working on finalizing my handouts then sending them to the conference for duplication. It’s just one of the many details the organizers are facing with this conference.  It’s one of the largest faculties at any conference with a great combination of professional writers and editors. It’s a busy conference but a great chance to see old friends and meet new ones.

From one of the conference leaders, I received an impossible request, “Are there books about writing you wish all authors would read to make your job easier? As an editor, do you often recommend a book, or list of books, to writers? As an author, is there a writing book that has profoundly influenced your work? This is your chance to pass along recommendations for your favorite books on writing–to writers. These books on writing can be general or specific, practical or inspirational, foundational or nuts & bolts. For a Glorieta Christian Writers Conference workshop, I’m putting together a list of the faculty’s favorite books on writing to give to attendees.”

I will pull together some titles. I have literally hundreds of how-to write books on my shelf and I’ve read most of them and continue to purchase new ones (and read them). I learn something new inside each one. I’m going to send Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success—just to make sure it gets on the list.  There is nothing like being a bit self-promotional—and I’m certain a few others on the faculty are going to do the same.

I recommend different books for different parts of the process. For example, I love some marketing books while others are simply fair (and not ones that I talk about but I’m familiar with the contents).  New how-to books are constantly introduced into the marketplace and give us another reason such a list is impossible to pull together. I’m going to send in a few titles on this request. It will be fun to see the finished list—and to see how many of those titles I know about and have read.

For many years, I’ve been committed to reading a how-to write book each month. Some months because of other reading, I miss it but normally I’ve managed to pull it off.  Some times I read about children’s writing. Other times I learn more technical such as book contracts or how to write better fiction. Other times I pull up an inspirational book about the writing life.  Watch these entries about the Writing Life and I will continue to recommend books that cross my desk. Now to that impossible list of books… 

Whatever It Takes

October 13, 2005

Writers and editors are different. I make no bones about it.  In one sense you have to be a bit thicked-skinned and determined. Otherwise you would send out your carefully written story, get rejected and never try again. Instead, published writers (see the distinction) are determined and understand the subjective nature of this business. One editor loves a story while another editor believes it needs “a lot of work.”

There is an online situation where I’m not participating very often—or even going to read what other people have written. In the Internet world it’s called flaming and from the correspondence I’ve been receiving, it is happening frequently in this location. I don’t have the patience or the time or need or the thick skin to dive into such a situation. So I’m not even reading the information for now. I plan to return when the waters are calmer.

Last week my publisher received an anonymous letter. From the postmark, we could tell it came someone who attended a recent conference.  The writer purchased my Book Proposals That Sell. I love the way this handwritten note began, “At the risk of being thought of as a Miss Know-It-All, I found several typos in Whalin’s book, Book Proposals That Sell, and if I were you, if there’s a second printing, I thought you’d want to know!…The book was great, very helpful, gave good insight into what goes on behind publishing’s doors.”  Then the letter listed some specific corrections. I loved the closing, “I’m not signing my name in case this annoys you. Sorry if it does—just trying to help.”

In some way, I can understand this writer’s reluctance to sign her name. Editors have long memories and we tend to recall the people who complain (so if you do it, do it gently). Yet the writer also understands our desire as editors and writers to get it right. While you have numerous readers and editors for a book before it goes to press, often something will creep into the text like a typographical error. When the book is reprinted, these errors can be fixed. For almost every book, we begin a “correction copy” where this feedback is recorded and used at reprinting.  Now please don’t everyone write me at once, but I’m keeping track for the next printing. I solicited this type of feedback from a reader this week. She caught some of the same typos as the anonymous writer and added a couple of additional ones. My publisher will make the ultimate judgment call about which ones to fix on reprinting (since it will come from his budget to fix it).

Once a book is printed, the publisher pays for each change. The cost isn’t great and the commitment to “get it right” is worth the cost. I don’t get any enjoyment out of such feedback but I’m committed to being open to receive this type of feedback. It helps me grow as a writer and we get it right—whatever it takes.

Lost Files

October 12, 2005

When I create a new document or download a new file, I try and put it in a logical place in my computer.  Some times it’s a challenge to find a document that I’ve not used in some time. Maybe you’ve had this problem with lost or misplaced files.

Some time ago I learned about Google Desktop which is an amazing tool in this area—and free. You download the desktop in a few minutes. While your computer is running, in the background, the tool categorizes all of your files and the contents of those files. There are many other features in the preferences so you can individualize it to your needs.

For me, the valuable feature to my computer is the searching capacity. I’m no longer stumbling around trying to find a particular file. I can type a few words from the file into the search engine—and it will give me some Word files. I click on those files and almost instantly find the particular file that I need.  The tool is easy to use and has saved hours of searching.

I’ll admit to being a bit skeptical when someone else tells me about one of these free downloads. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of programs that others thought were terrific and I didn’t use them. It took a couple of times from a literary agent until I realized the potential value. Then I downloaded it myself and was hooked. So…it might not be the best thing since “sliced bread” for your writing life. I suggest you try it and if it works fine. If not, uninstall it and press on to something else. It’s certainly been valuable to me. And the next time this particular agent suggests something, I’m going to be a little more keen to listen—and follow a bit quicker.

Little Book That Could

October 11, 2005

Before everyone writes me about my title, I familiar with the classic children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. It’s a great little story about a train engine who conquers self-doubt with repeating, “I think I can. I think I can.” If we are honest as writers and editors, each of us have some element of self-doubt. That self-doubt can be easily reinforced in our world filled with rejection. You write something that you believe is brilliant and targeted for a particular audience. You gather your courage and boldly send it out to the editor and it comes back rejected—usually using some kind phrase like “not appropriate for our publishing program.”

At a writer’s conference or when you visit the publishing house (rare but it does happen), you have the opportunity to make a face to face pitch.  As writers and editors, most of us (including me) would prefer to not make these person to person pitches. Yet it’s part of the relationship building process of the publishing business. In a few weeks, I’ll be at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference. Yesterday I received my appointment schedule. They want me to check the schedule, block any additional times if needed and return it. Naturally the conference wants me to leave the maximum appointment times so the conferees can meet with me. As the editor, I’m going to be a bit self-preservational and block a few of these times. I’m teaching three workshops (already blocked). I’ve got over 40 different 15–minute meeting times on that schedule.  You can imagine toward the end of the conference, any editor struggles to listen carefully to a new idea.

I’ve recently discovered a new little book to help in this area. If you want to know more about a pitch, check out What Is A Pitch? (an excerpt from the book). Chris Abbott works in television and you talk about pressure! Imagine walking into a room full of skeptical television producers and executives who are ready to listen to your story pitch. It’s Chris Abbott’s world. Ten Minutes to Pitch, Your last-minute guide and checklist for selling your story contains valuable insight about this area.  The book assumes you are pitching an appropriate quality story to the right audience. With that assumption in mind, Abbott gives detailed tips about how to enter the room with confidence, pitch your idea then gracefully exit. I think it’s the little book that could make a difference in how you succeed in this process.

What Does It Take

October 9, 2005

What does it take to get a publisher to say yes to a book idea? There are many different possible answers to this question. If you are searching for a single “right” answer then you will  be frustrated. Like many aspects of the publishing world, it’s a balance between techniques and art. I’ve got some of these answers in Book Proposals That Sell. I’ll be the first to admit there is always more to learn in this area.

Last week I learned about an hour-long telephone interview with Susan Harrow, one of publishing’s top consultants and Arielle Ford. While this link has a lengthy sales page. I’m recommending you download the free MP3 file and the several page handout document. I listened to this hour long conversation this weekend and I learned a number of publishing idea.

When you listen to it, pick up on what they say about the five seconds you have to capture an editor’s attention. Now five seconds might seem incredible and cruel—almost like you don’t have any chance. From meeting with writers for years and reviewing their manuscripts, I can tell in about that time if it’s something that interests me or not.

Remember editors have volumes of material headed in their direction from individuals and literary agents. While I try hard to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and read more, each of us have limited time. When the meetings are in person, I can usually tell in a few minutes whether the project captures my attention or not. What does this mean for you when you are pitching? It means you have to hone that first page of your proposal (as well as the rest of it) plus in person you have to have “presence” (another aspect on this interview). The editor is actually looking for a reason to say “no” or reject the project. After all, you only want to carefully read the projects which pass this rejection hurdle. I can think of several manuscripts which came in last week—49,000 word length (no—too short since I only want manuscripts between 80,000 and 100,000) or fantasy or young adult or biblical fiction—reject). See how it works? Certainly these writers were pitching—and I admire and appreciate the effort to do that pitch. But they were pitching to the wrong place and the wrong publisher. 

It’s only a small picture of what it takes to get a “yes” to your pitch. Download this resource and add it to your knowledge about book publishing.

Successful Workshops

October 7, 2005

I’ve learned from personal experience that successful workshops just don’t happen on their own. They require lots of work from the presenter. I’ve taken plenty of workshops at various conferences (and continue to do so). Also I’ve given a number of these workshops. While I may teach on similar topics at different places, I make a point to rework my handouts (revising and adding new information) plus I rework my presentation and add new bits of publishing news or current events. Each time I have the goal that my workshop will be the best presentation of the conference (whatever conference).

Admittedly it takes effort to pull off such a high goal. In the rush of life, it’s easier to dust off the old notes and teach a new crowd but in my years of putting together workshops, I don’t fall into that trap (if I can avoid it).  It takes a lot of effort—and most of it the participant never sees.  For example, I’ve attended a number of workshops where there are no handouts. I may or may not use all of the content of my handout—but I certainly give someone a document to take home and use to learn more material.

Several weeks ago I was asked to moderate a panel for next year’s American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York City. While the event will not be held until April 29, 2006 and sounds a long ways off, it’s not in terms of the publicity effort.  The conference deadline for organizing the panel and getting the participants is next week.  I proposed a couple of workshops for this conference—but they were not selected. It proves every idea you have as a writer or editor is not taken.  I’m moderating a workshop on contracts. They gave me the title of Contracts 101 but how that hour is shaped, it mostly up to the moderator. The moderator has the opportunity to determine the content and who will be invited to speak. Every conference is different but for this particular conference, it includes a moderator (who is a member of ASJA) along with a participant who is a member of ASJA. There are usually only four speakers because if you try and do more, then no one gets to say much of anything. The math is pretty easy to figure out.  The moderator introduces the topic (five minutes or less), then each speaker gets 10–12 minutes to speak.  As the moderator, I’m going to ask each participant specific questions (more than they can cover in their time) but it will help them focus their time and not conflict or overlap with others on the same panel. You can see there is a bit of creating that goes into organizing and putting together an excellent panel. The remaining time for the hour is consumed fielding questions from the audience.

Because my topic for this workshop is contracts, I turned to my friend and fellow ASJA member Sallie Randolph who has a new book out called Author Law A To Z (which I haven’t seen yet but I know I can recommend). Sallie and I talked about the topic of contracts and how they are often seen from different views. Can this perspective be captured in a panel discussion? I believe it will make for interesting information and insight for the audience. While I haven’t found all four of my participants, I have issued invitations to the four members of the panel.  I’m attempting to get four lawyers who are experts in contract law. I’ve got an agent lawyer. I’m trying to get an attorney who represents publishers in legal matters. Plus I’m attempting to get a high profile copyright attorney. The challenge is getting these panelists to commit to an event next spring. Yes occasionally I’ve had a panelist drop out and I needed to find a last minute replacement.  If the panel is done well, the audience will never think about this behind-the-scenes work that transpires. Yet it does and it’s part of the writing life.

Later this month, I’ll be leading a few workshops at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference including one on understanding and negotiating contracts. I’ll be without my four lawyers for the hour but hopefully will give some solid help. I take the responsibility of teaching these workshops with great seriousness. I’ve been in workshops as a participant/ listener when it feels like the presenter just walked in totally unprepared and rambled for the hour. It’s definitely not the way I will be doing it later this month.

Book Review Help

October 5, 2005

Occasionally these entries about the writing life spring from a question someone will ask me.  It happened this week. Someone was looking for tips on writing book reviews at Right-Writing.com and they didn’t find anything.  I don’t believe there is anything on the site about that aspect of writing—but the site covers many others aspects.

For almost twenty years, I’ve been reviewing and writing about books. After thousands of reviews, it’s almost second nature to write these reviews—on many different types and genres of books.  For example, I was the original book review columnist for Christian Parenting Today which means I selected and wrote all of the book reviews for the magazine in those early days.  If you love books, it was a great task because publishers poured review copies of books for consideration into my mailbox.

The key from my perspective on writing a book review ties back to something basic about magazine writing. Who is the audience? What are the expectations of the editor (who guards and intimately knows his audience)? How can you meet those expectations? I find each publication has a special need in this area–for example some publications only want to print positive reviews (they don’t want to give the space for critical reviews) while other publications want critical reviews. It varies from magazine to magazine and online publication to online publication.

With a quick Google search, I located several articles with detailed teaching about writing book reviews:

http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/book_reviews.shtml
http://www.wcu.edu/WritingCenter/isource.asp?page=wbreviews.html
http://www.laurentian.ca/library/book_e.php

I’ve not fully studied these various links but they look like they have some good tips and advice.

One book that I have on my shelf of writing books about this topic (and I read many years ago) is called Book Reviewing Edited by Sylvia E. Kamerman. It has loads of information and chapters on the different aspects, formats of book reviews.  In the early days of my reviewing, I read this book and learned a great deal. Originally released in 1978, I find the lessons and teaching still applicable to today’s writers. Like any type of magazine article—long or short—it’s a matter of knowing your audience and meeting the needs and expectation for that audience.

What Riders Read

October 4, 2005

About fifteen years ago, I was Associate Editor at Decision and worked in downtown Minneapolis. During the work week, each morning I caught the metro express bus from my home in Eden Prairie.  The bus made one stop then took off for downtown. When it reached the city, I got off at the first stop then walked a few blocks to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters. Day after day I sat on the bus with the same people on the same schedule for work. Inevitably each of us sat down, nodded at the other person and pulled out some reading material. With our books, we crawled into our own little world and the time flew for the ride to and from work. It was a great study to see which books people were reading on their way to work. I loved the experience and got a lot of my own reading done on those bus rides.

The current issue of The New Yorker had a short article that caught my attention called “Lost Property What Riders Read.”  (Follow the link to catch the whole piece). One section in particular caught my attention, “An employee of the M.T.A. named Anant Patel had called and said that the Transit Authority had been collecting books for a year and wondered if Housing Works would like them.

Blum and Moore parked on Eighth Avenue at Thirty-fourth Street, and went down into the subway. At the end of a long hall was a door on which was written “Lost Property Unit.” Beyond it was a cinder-block vestibule with a thick window, like one at a pawnshop. Moore knocked on the window, and a young woman opened the door. Among the people standing around and sitting at metal desks in a room behind it was Anant Patel. He gave Blum his card, which said, “Operations Specialist, Asset Recovery—Rejected Material, Material Division.” Blum and Moore followed him to a room where boxes of books were piled. Around them, on metal shelves lined up against each other like files in a doctor’s office, were rows of purses.

Moore began loading boxes onto a hand truck. “You guys take Bibles?” Patel asked. “We just got rid of Bibles, maybe a week ago. Ten boxes.”

“We’d probably have a hard time with that,” Blum said. She looked at Moore, and he nodded.

Patel shrugged. “We gave them to a Bible society,” he said. “They seemed glad to have them.”

Blum signed some papers on a clipboard.” (p. 45–46)

They found ten boxes of Bibles from people reading (then leaving them) on the subway. You can see how people were readng the Scriptures during their subway rides.

When I’m in New York (about once or twice a year), I love to ride the subway. It’s completely safe and millions of people do it each day (even if it would be hard to convince my wife to do it). I’m normally unsure where I’m going on the subway so I never read—since I hate to miss my stop. Several times I’ve gotten on the wrong side of the track and gone uptown when I was supposed to go downtown (or the reverse). If I lived in New York City, I would probably join the readers on the subway.

Since I don’t live in New York City, as a writer, I’m constantly looking to learn more about people’s reading habits. It’s part of my writing life.

Rarely Discussed But Important

October 3, 2005

If you read many magazines or write for those magazines, there is a rarely discussed aspect but something critical to the survival of the publication. It’s the advertising.  At my house, we received many of these thick magazines like Vogue or GQ which are loaded with the full-color advertising.

From my years in publishing, I’m aware those ads pay for the magazine—more than any subscription price or cover price for the magazine. The greatest share of revenue comes from these ads. It’s why there are so many magazines—yet the magazine business has a high failure rate. It is unusual if a publication survives more than five years. I can recall a number of outstanding magazines where I’ve had articles published yet they are no longer in print. Their advertising revenue simply wasn’t there.

It’s one of those facts to keep in mind when you are grumbling about the low pay for some magazines. Many publications choose to keep their payment to the writer at a low rate—and look out for their long-term survival. These editors realize they might not get the best writers for that rate but it’s part of doing business. The best writers gravitate toward the highest paying publications.  In a related subject, when you get your book published, don’t expect slick full-color advertising in magazines. You may have never counted the cost but I guarantee the publisher understands the high value (and often low return/ sales) from such advertising. It’s why you only see books from bestselling authors in these publications (if books appear at all).

Last month, I took several days to write about PyroMarketing (here’s the summary of the book and the key points if you missed it and the 12–page download to the introduction). The fourth point of PyroMarketing is to save the coals. Over the weekend, I received the October 10th issue of Forbes magazine or the issue which highlights the 400 Richest People in America. One article called Buckraker caught my attention with the subtitle, “If you’re rich and powerful, Jason Binn will track you down—and send you his magazine.” Binn has learned the power (and success potential) for niche marketing. He “gives away half of the 425,00 combined print run of his seven magazines.” Why? Because he knows the importance of getting his magazines into the right hands to the right audience. As the article says toward the end, “Last year Binn’s magazines averaged 300 pages per issue, 45% ads, with each ad going for $16,000 after agency and distribution discounts.”

As you pitch magazine ideas in query letters and work with the editors on these articles, it’s important to understand something the editor knows as well.  People buy magazines to read the articles and for the information in those publications but often the power of the survival rate of the publication is tied to the advertising department. And if you want to write books, why are you interested in magazine writing? Magazines have high circulations and reach many more people than books. Book editors read magazines and look for new writers.  While many writers want to focus on books, they need to keep magazines clearly in mind for their writing goals.

The Greatest Game

October 1, 2005

I’m not a golfer. Ironically my home is in a town with over 200 golf courses in the Scottsdale/ Phoenix area.

My only experience with golf came in junior high school. Our family lived near the Maryland Country Club. I often played with my friends over on the course. We hunted for golf balls in the rough, cleaned them up and even sold a few to some golfers. I remember one golfer proclaiming, “Hey, this ball has my initials on it. It’s mine.” I looked at him straight in the eye and said, “I found that ball in the woods. That one is double the regular price.” I was pretty enterprising for a junior high kid.

Living near a golf course stirred my own interest in the game. I purchased three golf clubs: a five iron, a nine iron and a putter. I would tee off with my five iron and play with that club until I got near the green.  Then I chipped with my nine iron and I putted with the putter.  My golf was reduced to three clubs and about my only experience with the game.

Last night my wife and I watched the new Disney movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played. Based on a true story about the winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, the theater was packed—even if our local newspaper gave the movie a poor review.  I loved the storytelling in this movie. The multiple plot strands combined with great acting to make a movie worth the experience. Some members of the audience even applauded at the end of this film.  We watch o a number of movies but it’s a rare day that I can strongly recommend one to someone else. I can encourage you to see this film without hesitation—whether you are interested in golf or not.

If you see the film, notice the aspect of talent or gifting. Francis, the main character, grew up across the street from the Brookline golf course. While his family didn’t belong to the country club or have a high social status, Francis had a fascination with golf.  When he tried it, he discovered a talent for the game. At one point he tries to walk away from it, deny his talent but ultimately finds that he has to play golf—his talent to his world.

I see this notion of talent in a regular basis in the writing world. It’s the ingredient that no one can teach you. Certainly I can teach a workshop about the skills necessary to become a writer. The storytelling ability and how you construct words on the page—well, that’s simply your talent that you bring to the process. Many people will never discover this talent if they don’t try it. It’s like Francis who lived across the street from a golf course and ultimately tried the game. It won’t fly if you don’t try.