Archive for November, 2005

Bears of A Lifetime

November 30, 2005

The books were some of my son’s favorites.  Often we would snuggle together on a couch and read about the adventures of Mama and Papa and Son and Daughter Bear. The bears lived in a tree and many of their experiences mirrored our life—like moving or having a new baby or attending the first day of school. If you know anything about children’s books, I’m talking about the Berenstain bears. More than children’s books, the characters also became a television series of cartoons and all sorts of other types of products. The books have sold millions of copies and there are over three hundred different books in print.  Stan and Jan Berenstain began writing children’s books during the early 60s.

Maybe you heard the news about the death of Stan Berenstain. The Today Show reported a memorial service will be held today.

One of the cherished writing books on my shelf is Down A Sunny Dirt Road. It came out several years ago and I purchased one soon after it appeared in print.  It’s a different sort of autobiography because it contains full-color illustrations from the like of the Berenstains. More than writers, they also illustrated each of their books.  You learn about how they met, how they started illustration work and the early days of their children’s writing. While the book is still in print, it looks like one of those products that didn’t really hit the mark. Amazon.com positions the book as a children’s book (and it might have been in terms of language but not the overall content). It’s 208 pages so it’s a fairly untypical children’s book (even in the 9 to 12 year old category). When more than 70 used books available, it doesn’t look to me like this book is a massive bestseller (but I could be wrong).

Y0u may wonder why this children’s book is one of my writing books? From reading the Berenstains story, you learn a great deal about children’s books. Here’s a small glimpse from this book when they were working with Dr. Seuss, who ran the children’s book department at Random House in the 1960s. They had signed their first book contract and were working out the details of The Big Honey Hunt, which was published in 1962. Notice they were not working through email or on the phone, the meeting took place in person at Theodore Geisel’s office:

“But,” said Ted [Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss], “before we get into the internal workings of the story, Phyllis [Cerf and wife of co-founder of Random House] and Helen [Geisel’s wife] and I want to talk a bit about these bears of yours.”

Internal workings? What internal workings? It’s just a funny book about these bears who live in a tree and wear overalls and polka-dot dresses.

“We like your bears. We think they’re fun,” he continued. “We like the idea of a family.”

“And we love your drawings,” said Helen.

Hooray for Helen.

“But we need to know more about them. Who are these bears? What are they about? Why do they live in a tree? What does Papa do for a living? What kind of tobacco does he smoke?’

Ted smoked. We didn’t. There was no way Papa Bear was going to smoke.

“As I said, we like the idea of a family,” Ted went on. “But just what sort of family is it? What roles do they play?”

Roles? What roles can they play? They’re bears.

“I’m concerned about Mama,” said Phyllis. “she doesn’t really have much to do in the story. She just sort of stands around.”

We hadn’t thought about it, but it was true. Mama was there, but Papa and Small Bear were the stars.

“True,” said Ted. “But I really don’t have a problem with that.”

It became clear early on that anything Ted didn’t have a problem with wasn’t going to be a problem. It also became clear as we worked with Ted (we eventually did seventeen books with him) that although he accepted certain broad, general ideas about story construction—that a story needed a beginning, a middle and an end, for example—he wasn’t an editor in any conventional sense of the term. Indeed, he was often dismissive of conventional ideas about story construction. Ted sometimes saw solutions where others saw problems. That was the case with Phyllis’s comment about Mama not having much of a role in our story.

“I don’t have a problem with Mama being a spear carrier,” said Ted. “As a matter of fact, I see the father-and-son relationship as being the heart of your story. Relationships between fathers and sons are one of the great themes of literature.”

What literature? We just wanted to do a funny little book about these crazy bears. But somehow we’d wandered into a symposium on the great themes of literature. It was slowly dawning on us that Ted took these little seventy-two-page, limited-vocabulary, easy-to-read books just as seriously as if he were editing the Great American Novel. (p. 145–146)

 Children’s editors take their work very seriously. While the finish product looks “easy,” behind the scenes there is a huge amount of work in any successful children’s book. It’s our own challenge for the writing life. We can learn from the example and path of the Berenstains.

Changed For Good

November 29, 2005

The name alone makes you turn away: Wicked. Gregory Maquire wrote a story about a different view of the Wizard of Oz story called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It turned into a bestseller (which I have yet to read).  Next came the Tony-award winning musical, Wicked, which I tried to see earlier this month in New York City but the weekend performances are sold out for the next few months.

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical. The story line is about the untold story of the friendship between Glinda, the good witch, and Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west.  One of the final songs in the musical is called For Good.  Toward the final portion, Elphaba sings about her friend:

That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend:
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you:
Because I knew you:
I have been changed for good

Whether we realize it or not, we are changed from our relationships with other people—in person or in print. What are the impact of your relationships and your writing? Are they changing people for good? I hope so. I don’t always do it right but I know in my communication with others I have a choice about how I handle it (or don’t handle it). Like yesterday I got a personalized email from a fellow member of the Evangelical Press Association. It was a pre-announcement to watch for a mailing—but it was really a personal reminder about this person and their skills with a hint that maybe I could use them in some current project. I could have hit the delete button or I could have sent a tart response. Instead I sent a little note saying it was good to hear from them and they should keep up the good effort. Plus I added that I didn’t have any need at the moment but I would keep them in mind in the future. I hit the send button and didn’t think anything else about it—until later in the day.

I was surprised with the response, “You know why I like you so much? You took the time to let me know you didn’t have any immediate needs, and you did it in the nicest way possible. I say that because at the same time I got an e mail from someone in EPA who doesn’t know me, but I know him and some of his contentiousness. Sure enough, he told me to get lost in a not so diplomatic way. I just thought I’d let you know that the testimony of Christ living in you is evident for the world to see. I’ve seen it for years.” I was amazed.

Glinda sings the first verse of the song, For Good:

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you

People are changed around us because of our communication—whether in an email or in a magazine article or in a phone conversation.

Are we changing people for good?

Listen to Your Own Heart

November 28, 2005

A few days ago, I wrote about the publishing beginnings of Dr. James Dobson from Family Man, a new biography by Dale Buss. The book contains a lot of information about how Dr. Dobson perceives of his writing and practices his craft. In the book, Dr. Dobson has just published his first book. I was fascinated with this paragraph: “Dobson also set his own publishing agenda in the wake of the success of Dare to Discipline. The subjects of his books follow the timeline of Dobson’s own experiences as a husband, parent, and ministry leader. “One thing I failed in doing early on,” says [Wendell] Hawley [the former Tyndale executive who first worked with Dobson], who retired in 1995, “was that I’d come to him with some of my own ideas about great books that he could do. It took me a while to realize that he had ideas of his own and that it was whatever was percolating strongest in his own heart that he’d turn for his next book.” (p. 49)

I want to draw several points from this paragraph. First, I’ve met Dr. Hawley and he’s a terrific editor who has worked with some remarkable authors on bestselling books for years. Yet Dr. Hawley freely admits to Dobson’s biographer that he was made mistakes. Writers tend to set their editors on pedestals and the editor does have power to a certain degree (understanding that publishing is a consensus building process).  Because we are human, we make mistakes and some times guide authors in the wrong direction. Instead, Dr. Dobson was wise enough to listen to his own heart and write about issues where he had passion and could see the felt need for the reader. I’m certain Dr. Hawley had great ideas to propose to his author, yet Dr. Dobson went in his own direction for his next book. It was a successful course of action. For other authors, they gain great encouragement listening to their editor and following the editor’s direction and ideas.  Once again as I’ve written about before in these entries, there is no exact formula for the publishing process. There is this strange combination between art and science.

As a writer, you may be getting tons of rejection these days.  I’ve got to send out those rejection letters to a number of authors and literary agents. I’m reluctant to do it because I know the news will not be well-received—yet I do it because at least these authors hear from me. I’ve only got a few spots to fill—and they are mostly filled for several years out. Rather than hang on to a manuscript, it’s better to let the author know and they can look elsewhere.  With the mass of submissions, I can’t even tell the author why I rejected it but simply send the form letter. To tell them (as I did with one author this past weekend) only invites more dialogue (and I have no time to dialogue via email—no editor has time to dialogue with unpublished authors—it’s simply a matter of time management not desire). Keep honing your craft, growing in your storytelling abilities and persist in getting your work into the marketplace.

A Mixed Bag

November 26, 2005

What in the world is a mixed bag? It’s several short things without a singular theme. I thought I’d try it today for a short entry about The Writing Life.

First, I want to make sure you see the World Magazine cover story on Anne Rice from Lynn Vincent. It went online yesterday and is excellent.

Also if you want to do something fun with words, check out this site called The Dialectizer.  It’s been around for years and I don’t believe I’ve pointed it out in a previous entry. If you have a “need” to change your text into a different dialect—say redneck or cockney, use this site to make the transformation. You can convert some text or an entire website. It’s a way to get some attention from your friends—if you need it. Naturally it will probably be negative attention but you can make that choice.

Today I was reminded again of the importance of follow-through with editors about your submissions.  I hope you keep a log of your submissions and the dates you sent something to a publishing house or magazine. Then after a good length of time (usually detailed in the Writer’s Market or the guidelines), you send a note of inquiry about it. The note of inquiry should be brief and to the point. I received one this morning from a writer who submitted her fiction query in late July.  I commend her for following up. Unfortunately she missed my rejection letter of August 15th. I don’t know if she deleted it or if it never arrived or what happened (it could be one of a dozen things). I maintain a log of submissions. I easily searched for her last name and found the entry. I sent her a duplicate rejection letter today along with a bit of explanation on the high volume of submissions that I’ve received this year—for only a few possible books to publish—six to eight novels.  I’m sure on one level, this writer will be glad she followed up. On another level, she will wish she had done it earlier since August 15th was three months ago.  At least I responded—on a Saturday morning of a holiday weekend.

Keep your idea factory in motion and keep a lot of things in the pipeline. For example, I’m working on some magazine work, book proposals and longer projects. It’s the only way to maintain your flow of work in the publishing world.

Start Somewhere

November 25, 2005

All too often would-be writers look at a bestselling author and to imitate them seems impossible.  From my publishing experience, I know it’s a long shot and takes hard work. Yet at the same time, I understand that each of these authors had to begin some place.  Can we learn something from those early steps of authors?

Biographies are a wonderful way to learn about some of these early experiences. I mentioned recently reading a new biography of Dr. James Dobson called Family Man by Dale Buss, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  The writer presents a carefully researched and documented—yet realistic picture of Dr. Dobson, who among his many accomplishments includes bestselling author. Here’s a small paragraph from this large book which illustrates some of Dr. Dobson’s early beginnings in publishing. It relates to his first book, Dare to Discipline, which has sold millions of copies and released in 1970. “Zondervan and Tyndale House each offered Dobson a contract, the latter padded with an advance of five thousand dollars. Word didn’t enter the derby, Dobson recalls, because the company already published the books of another family-advice expert named Charlie Shedd. Dobson couldn’t decided which publisher to favor, but Heatherly [Doc Heatherly who had just retired as the director of marketing for Zondervan] recommended Tyndale House because of the marketing expertise of an executive named Bob Hawkins [who a few years later began another publisher called Harvest House Publishers]. That was the tiebreaker for Dobson. A mere six months later, after a feverish writing effort, Dare to Discipline was published by Tyndale House. Dobson requested 250 copies of his freshly printed treatise to send to friends and colleagues. He autographed them all, then he and Shirley carefully packaged each one of them, addressed the envelopes, stamped them, and wrote fourth-class instructions on the labels. Then they knelt beside the pile of books and laid their hands on the packages as they prayed. They dedicated the work to the cause of Christ, loaded them into the back of their red Volkswagen Beetle, and took them to the post office. It was the last time Dobson would have to do that sort of thing himself.” (p. 42–43) Tyndale House has published the majority of Dr. Dobson’s books over the years. 

I personally found these initial steps fascinating reading.  If you haven’t published anything, where will you begin the process? It is different for everyone. Many writers hone their craft in the magazine area before they write their first book. It’s a wise decision from my view because you can gain publishing experience (something editors value) and learn a great deal from the process.  Others write a book proposal and enter the publishing world in the book area (which is a much harder way to begin from my view). The key for me is to be actively involved in the process at some entry point. Don’t stand on the sidelines but jump into the water and begin this process of building a body of work. I didn’t suddenly wake up and write for over 50 magazines and publish over 60 books. The process happened gradually over time.

It can be the same for you.

Forever Grateful

November 24, 2005

It’s pretty remarkable that America has a national holiday called Thanksgiving Day where we count our blessings and remember people with thankful hearts. When it really comes right down to it, it shouldn’t take a national celebration to turn thankful.

When it comes to my writing life, it doesn’t take long for me to turn to my high school English teacher, David Smith.  I don’t know what Mr. Smith recognized in my writing but he did see something—or maybe he dreamed that he spotted it. Whatever the case, Mr. Smith encouraged me to join the staff of the high school newspaper and do a bit of writing outside of school. I followed his suggestion and it took me on the path of journalism and my own writing career. About ten years ago, I decided to return to Mr. Smith, see if I could track down his address and write a sincere letter of gratitude. Unfortunately my effort was too late. I contacted someone in my old high school and learned that Mr. Smith had died a few years earlier.  Then I asked about another English teacher but I learned that she had also died. Finally I asked about a speech teacher who was an influence on my writing.  Almost every weekend throughout high school, I competed somewhere in the state in a speech meet—with this speech teacher guiding our team efforts. This speech coach had been in an accident but was still living. I managed to contact his wife and send a couple of my published books. I wrote this teacher and expressed my gratitude.  A couple of years later, I learned that he also had died.

Time is passing for each of us and it’s a shame not to express thankfulness throughout the year. Don’t store it up for one single day but be forever grateful. In  Paul’s second letter to Timothy 3:1–5, he writes a list of horrible sins during the last days of the earth. One word is tucked into this list—ungrateful. Ingratitude is rampant in our world. Instead I want to walk to the beat of a different drum—and try and express my gratitude to others. It should be every day—rather than a once a year occasion.

Still Reading and Writing Reviews

November 23, 2005

It sounds completely strange but I’ve had it happen often enough to know my experience is true with a number of would-be writers.  Let’s say they write mystery suspense, as an editor, I will ask them what type of mystery suspense books they like to read. The writer will stand looking dumbfounded and have a long pause before they admit, “I don’t read mysteries. I just like to write them.” You can take the exact same conversation and take out the words “mystery” and “suspense” then substitute your genre of fiction like political thriller or romance or futuristic or horror or spiritual warfare. These would-be writers wonder why their material never hits the mark. They are not reading and studying the material which is getting published and successful.  As I’ve written about in these entries about the Writing Life—someone inside a publishing house (who is thinking about their readership) has thought enough of these published books to invest a lot of their financial resources and bring these books into print. While admirable that a fiction writer is motivated enough to write 60,000 or 100,000 words on their particular story, it’s not enough. These writers also need to be reading in their particular genre of fiction.

Also I find that some writers only read in a certain area—say fiction. Or I’ve heard other well-known journalists say they only read nonfiction. I tend to read fiction but I often will pick up a nonfiction book and read it. The pattern is shown in a few of my recent reviews. I’ve already mentioned one of the books in an earlier entry about the writing life—Behind the Screen. Here’s my review of this book.

Also I enjoyed the latest entry from Oliver North and Joe Musser called The Assassins, which was a complex yet page-turning novel. If you follow my writing life and my reading habits, you will know I enjoy reading biographies.  Recently Family Man, the Biography of Dr. James Dobson by Dale Buss was released. I enjoyed Family Man and have more to say about what I learned about the writing life in a forthcoming entry.

In the meantime, you can follow the links and see that I am continuing to actively read books—not only magazines but books. It’s one of the ways as writers we can continue to grow in our understanding of the world of publishing.

More About Jesus & Vampires

November 22, 2005

Several weeks ago I wrote about Anne Rice and the change of direction in her fiction.  I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of her faith but quoted a Newsweek article related to the release of her novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I hoped the change was real but was waiting for some more information. I’ve learned through the publishing world if you look for something persistently, you can often find the information.

You’ve probably heard of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Game which some college students invented.   I’ve read some great articles such as the cover story of Pages magazine about Anne Rice from the editor John Hogan. But it wasn’t the validation for her faith that I was looking for.  Then I found it.  Since the beginning in September 2001, I’ve been a panelist on a moderated forum called The Writer’s View for Christian professional writers. One of my fellow panelists is the Features Editor at World Magazine, Lynn Vincent. I met Lynn several years ago when I was in San Diego, California for the Billy Graham Mission.  Then Lynn and I were on the faculty this spring for the San Diego Christian Writer’s Guild Fall Conference. A respected journalist, Lynn wrote about her interview with Anne Rice. She wrote, “Last week I was privileged to interview novelist Anne Rice for a WORLD  Magazine profile. Rice, 64, recently returned to her faith in God  after rejecting Catholicism when she was 18. For those of you unfamiliar with  her work, Rice for 30 years wrote stories about vampires, witches, and other  denizens of the spiritual underworld. Her books, though darkly  graphic, were also often “serious novels” rather than “airport  page-turners,” and explored themes of philosophy and morality, with undeniably  evil (but sometimes strangely principled) characters narrowly missing  redemption. Rice recently declared that she would now “write only for the Lord,”  and is now writing a series about the life of Christ, written in the  first-person voice of Jesus.”

Lynn continued, “I had never read a Rice novel. So, in order to compare her current work  (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt) with her past work, I began reading  Interview with the Vampire. I have to say, the quality of her writing  in that book is heartstopping. Original. Soaring. Vivid. Disciplined. A clinic.  There are graphic, horrible scenes that I don’t enjoy reading. (I don’t enjoy  watching the news either.) The writing though…incredible! And such a  blessing that God now has pressed a writer of Rice’s caliber into His service  :-).”

Later this week, Lynn’s full profile of her time with Anne Rice will be available online at World. I’m eager to read it.

Realistic Dreams

November 21, 2005

Many writer’s conferences are filled with first-time participants. These individuals have finally gained the courage (and saved the money) to invest in their writing dreams and come to a conference.  I admire and applaud their attendance and listen to their description about what they want to write and get published. Often they come to the conference with one agenda (often to sell a manuscript and get published) but they leave with a completely different agenda (often to improve their craft and learn about how publishing works). It’s a wonderful transformation process where people take their dreams and sprinkle into them (or readjust them) so they are realistic.

Yesterday I revisited an age-old question and today I’m going to continue that discussion with a different and specific twist—children’s picture books. Subconsciously I believe when I wrote yesterday’s entry, I was thinking about this headline in the November 14th issue of Publisher’s Weekly, “What Happened to Picture Books?” by Judith Rosen, a frequent writer for this publication. If you write these types of books, you are going to want to track down this entire article. Here’s how it begins, “Once an industry staple, in recent years picture book sales have begun to slip, pushed out of the way by a certain boy wizard and teen angst. Gone are the days when parents eagerly await the next Maurice Sendak or Chris Van Allsburg. Although publishing insiders agree that picture books are not dead—or as Mark Twain would have it, “News of their death has been greatly exaggerated”—outside of celebrity books and titles by established authors and illustrators, sales have been slow of late.”  If you write this type of material, you should be concerned about this news—but don’t give up hope, keep reading. The picture book market runs in cycles and the cycle at the moment is not strong.

What the article fails to mention (and many people forget or don’t know) is the high production costs for a full-color picture book.  If you have little children, you go to the public library or the bookstore, and have stacks of these picture books on your shelf.  You snuggle up close to your child and read a bunch of books. After several of these titles, you begin to feel like you could write as well as the author. So you try your hand at a manuscript and because they don’t have many words, in a short amount of time you have something written. That doesn’t mean you should try and send that manuscript into the marketplace. Instead strive for excellence. Every word has to count in a full-color picture book. These books are costly for the publisher to produce—and publishers are going to make limited and wise decisions about which books are worthy of their investment. It’s the only wise way that publishers can continue in business.

Why the downturn in this cycle for picture books? Rosen says that retailers are choosing carefully which books they stock and while the major picture book authors are still in demand, it’s the mid-list books which have been cut (read new authors and authors who haven’t found their audience).  Here’s some more of the reasons, Rosen writes, “Publishers attribute the downturn to factors ranging from demographics to the war, cuts in library funding, the decline in independent bookstores and the death of the whole language movement. “To a certain extent it is cyclical,” says Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Books for Young Readers at Henry Holt. “But it’s partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that sales are soft, publishers tend to pull back.”

Just remember the cycle is down but that doesn’t mean it will always be down. Eventually the demand will return for more picture books—but the key even in the demand cycle will be quality children’s writing. Before I discourage the daylights out of all the picture book writers, there is hope in this article from Rosen. Here’s just one of the quotations of hope, “While not exactly bullish, Random House Children’s Books president and publisher Chip Gibson is committed to the category. “From day one in my time in children’s books,” he says, “I have been generously and consistently regaled with two great ‘truths.’ The first is that the children’s business is cyclical. The second is that the picture book is now mired in the underperforming side of that cycle. Well, regardless of cycling, picture books are a vital part of our work, so we are improving and increasing our program.”

Let’s return to the question of dreams for our writing and finding that dose of realism.  I don’t mean to squash anyone who wants to write picture books. It is still possible. Here’s some suggestions for action: 1) study the craft of writing. Review the various articles about children’s writing on Right-Writing.com. Understand that it takes a lot of work to write a great picture book with few words. You will probably have to rewrite it numerous times to get it into the best possible shape. 2) join a critique group and if you aren’t in one, start one with other like-minded writers. You will gain encouragement and help for your writing. 3) consider writing for children’s magazines at the same age group that you want to eventually publish picture books. The magazine market is much quicker than children’s book publishing plus the opportunity is far greater for writers. Also if you pursue this course of action, you will gain publishing credits and experience which count when the editor looks at your work. My first published book was a picture book for children from ages four to seven.

As writers, each of us have dreams for our work—but we want to balance those dreams with a healthy dose of realism about the marketplace. Then we don’t enter it blindly but we are armed with knowledge and wisdom.

Revisit An Age-Old Question

November 20, 2005

You hear the discussion often in different contexts. Which comes first the idea or the book? Or which comes first, the book or the marketing? Or in the area of publishing, how do you get published—with a book or with a magazine article? Or maybe it’s with a book manuscript—which do you sell first the manuscript or the book proposal? It’s like the question about the chicken or the egg and determining which comes first. There is no right or wrong answer from my perspective. Each of us have a different path in the journey of writing.

Many people are looking for a single answer—and from my experience there is no one path in the writing life. Some people hone their craft in the newspaper field or magazine writing, then finally get their first book published. Others are driven to write a book so they carefully craft their story and get it to the perfect editor—who buys it and with only a tiny bit of experience, they jump into the book market.  Admittedly, it doesn’t happen often but it can happen. Recently I read the beginning of novelist Nicholas Sparks’ career. He sent his query letter to 25 different literary agents and only one responded. This agent had been in business six months and had never sold a single novel. Yet if you read the story, you will learn Sparks’ first manuscript sold for a million dollar advance.   Unfortunately from my experience, his story is rare in this business—possible but rare.

Here’s another age-old question. People wonder if you work on your blog or your book manuscript.  The answer for me is both.  My time for blog writing is limited—intentionally. I know some people who have almost quit blogging or stopped because of the time it was consuming to their schedule. They felt like blogging was taking over their life. It’s true with any aspect of the writing life. It can take over your life—if you allow it to do so. I intentionally limit my blog writing to about 30 minutes a day (often less). Then I press on to other assignments and other parts of the publishing business. It takes discipline—another key trait of a published writer—to handle such changes. The opening article in latest issue of Author’s Guild Bulletin includes this story from the New York Times.  I found the article interesting because it shows how others are using their blog to test their material and gain feedback for their work. 

The key for me is not to permit any of these aspects of the publishing world to consume you and your attention. Instead mix and match the various aspects of publishing and writing into your life. It’s as much art as formula.