Archive for December, 2005

Clearing the Decks

December 21, 2005

You may wonder about my title for this entry thinking, Clearing the Decks? During this time of the year, he’s supposed to “Deck the Halls.”

While people are stuffed into the malls doing last minute shopping, I’ve been looking at my piles of manuscripts, book proposals and query submissions for Howard Publishing.  If I don’t handle it bit by bit, these submissions seem to pour into my mailbox or office. In a few cases, I picked up some proposals when I taught at different conferences. It’s rare that I will take something home from a conference because of the added weight I usually ask the person to send it later. In the rush of a limited face to face appointment, if I see some glimmer of hope, I will some times take the proposal. Then I still need to respond—either via email or the regular mail. I’ve been cutting down on my stack. I’ve been sending out a number of form rejection letters.

In recent weeks, I’ve heard about another fiction editor who started at a new job. This publisher has been looking for the right fiction editor and saving all of the submissions from literary agents.  When the editor arrived and sorted his stacks, he discovered over 100 proposals from literary agents (which usually means worth serious consideration). This editor had his work cut out for him to cut through that mound of paper.

Here’s something else that is driving my work on this particular area—the U.S. Postal rates will increase on January 8, 2006.  For the regular mail submissions, authors have included their self addressed stamped envelope. The publisher doesn’t want to process additional postage for these submissions just because they were not promptly processed and returned. If you don’t know about the postal rate increase, check out this link for the official information.

If you are one of those people with submissions out to book publishers, don’t be surprised if you suddenly receive a rash of responses.  Some times other factors drive these decisions and the postal rate increase is a case in point. Some writers think their editor will be too busy during the holidays.  Often the reverse situation is true.  Some editors have completed their immediate publication deadlines and the number of meetings inside the publisher is more limited during this season. I suspect other editors are processing their submissions.  Some editors have looked at their forthcoming lists and determined the various possibilities are filled for two years. These editors are returning their pending submissions.

How do you handle these rejections? Do you reject rejection and immediately return it into the system? Or do you set it aside to read it again and see if some improvements can be made before you send it out again? No manuscript can be considered if it is stuck in your drawer.

The "Almost" Forgotten Story

December 20, 2005

In a few days, the film Memoirs of a Geisha will open around the U.S. First, we want to celebrate that another book has been changed into a feature film. It’s a true rarity—especially when you recognize less than 600 feature films are made each year and how many novels were written? Last year alone over 25,000 new novels or editions were released in the fiction category. And those numbers are only the new books. What about the older “backlist” novels?

I wanted to tell the story about the writer, Arthur Golden, which few people remember years later when the movie is finally released. Memoirs of a Geisha climbed on the bestseller list when it was released in 1997. Because of the movie, the book is back on current bestseller lists.  I’m certain Arthur Golden is familiar with this story—because it is his story. I found it in the well-done book from Catherine Wald called The Resilient Writer (released earlier this year). Cathy covers tales of rejection and triumph with over 20 well-known authors. She writes these stories in a question and answer format.  In this style, the reader has to draw the principles or lessons from the answers. I’m going to pull some facts from Arthur Golden’s story for you. Thankfully Cathy has Arthur Golden’s story online at her rejection collection website. First take a look at this story, then come back for my comments. 

Golden worked on his novel for ten years—researching, rewriting and rewriting. He had about 2,300 raw manuscript pages. He made little money from his writing during these ten years. In fact, when the IRS audited Golden because he showed no income from his writing, they didn’t allow him to deduct his research or his trips to Japan.

Also notice how Golden was caught between an editor and a literary agent. The agent thought he had spotted a quick sale and set up a lunch meeting with an editor. Then the editor took a look at the manuscript and backed out of the lunch (because there was nothing to talk about with that manuscript). And what sort of feedback did he receive from this first literary agent? “It’s dry. It could be a bestseller, but not the way it’s written here.” Now what do you do with that sort of feedback?

Many people would have tucked their manuscript into a drawer and left it—but not Arthur Golden. Instead, he returned home and decided that he had written the entire book from the wrong viewpoint. His manuscript was written in the third person and he decided to write the story from the first person, which is a much more intimate view.  When he heard his manuscript was dry, Golden invested the time and energy to understand what that meant and he determined to fix it. As he says, “I decided to rewrite it in a first person, from a child’s perspective instead of an adult’s.” It turned into a winning combination.

Also as he was rewriting his novel, Golden connected with a different literary agent who signed him—and he continues to work with today. That first agent didn’t invest in the project and lost the opportunity for a bestseller. Those types of decisions are made all the time with literary offices and publishing houses. It’s a matter of time and energy. There is only so much of it for each project.

And people wonder how an author born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and living in Brookline, Massachusetts, could get into the head of a Japanese geisha and write a bestselling novel (now a movie).  They don’t know this almost forgotten story.

Get Thick Skinned

December 18, 2005

For more than thirty years, a college assignment from my first journalism class has been tucked into a folder. Occasionally I pull it out and look at it but until today I’ve never shown it to anyone. Why keep it?

As you can see from one page, each page is full of red ink from my college professor and filled with his comments for improvement and change. After pages of marks, I found this final comment, “Terry, you do a very commendable job of assessing Greeley’s [Horace Greeley the journalist from American history] and Hearst’s [William Randolph Hearst] impact on journalism, but say nothing about their effect on society. B”

My grade and the comment deflected a bit of the impact of the red ink but I show the paper so you will understand that writers need to develop a thick skin. Every writer needs to receive (and process) feedback about their writing. Yes, in some ways, a writer is sensitive to find a topic and write about it with excellence. Then the editor takes that writing and improves it, then returns it to the writer for their input. How will you handle this review portion of the process? Admittedly it’s not for the faint hearted.

One of the key places you can learn about this process is in the magazine world. A magazine article is much shorter to write than a full-length adult book. Typically magazines work four or five months away from their publication date. You can write your article and receive feedback from an editor in a short amount of time—especially with computers.

During the editing process, two of my recently published books used the “reviewing” feature of Microsoft Word. If you aren’t familiar with this editing feature, it is not for the thin-skinned writer. The deadlines for these books were fairly short in terms of the time to write each book. I turned in my manuscript to the editor in stages or portions. After I wrote the first portion, and while I was writing the material for my second deadline, my manuscript went through four or five different editors. Each editor used a different color pen for their comments. These comments and edits and questions were inserted directly into my manuscript.

Weeks later when I received my edited manuscript, it was a rainbow of colors and not just in a few places of the manuscript. Almost every sentence included a variety of comments and potential changes. My responsibility as the “author” was to answer any questions and fix any issues raised—again in a short amount of time.

Besides writing magazine articles, another great place to learn about this part of the writing process is in a critique group. The group doesn’t have to be complicated (and I know some critique groups involve a lot of writers). For many years, I belonged to a group of four writers and we met monthly to critique each other’s work. We limited the amount of material to something like 2,000 words or less. Each of us sent our material a week before the meeting date. Our responsibility was to critique the other articles and also to write something new each month. Our format was simple. We met for breakfast in a restaurant, quickly ordered and spent fifteen minutes on each manuscript. Our time together wasn’t for chit chat or talking about new markets or any number of other things. It was focused on improving our writing. Each of us grew and learned from those months together. I’ve got a lot more detail about critique groups in this article.

And what’s the value of showing you my old journalism assignment? It’s a constant reminder to me that I need to keep learning as a writer. I need the input of my editor and others in the publishing process. It’s only as we focus on producing an outstanding final product that we achieve excellent results. I need to develop a thick skin so I can receive and fairly process this type of information. A great deal of my development in this area happened over thirty years ago. Each of us need to develop a thick skin for receiving feedback about our writing.

Just When You Think…

December 17, 2005

Writers never fail to surprise you. Just when you think you’ve almost seen every combination of submission, you spot something different. This past week it happened to me as I processed another stack of fiction submissions for Howard Publishing. Every writer needs to provide the editor with a means to respond—either a self-addressed-stamped-envelope (SASE) or an email address.  I had a couple of people so excited about sending their submission to an editor that they neglected to include a response mechanism. Some people wonder why this necessity—since it’s only a stamp or small expense. Those small expenses add up to thousands of dollars of completely unbudgeted and unplanned expenses for a publishing house.  It’s the writer’s responsibility to give the editor a means to respond through their SASE or email address.

OK, here’s my situation. I have a large stack of paper on my desk of queries, manuscripts and proposals. I maintain a simple submission log of each of these submissions (whether electronic or on paper).  When I type someone’s name into my submission log, if they’ve submitted something earlier, their name will fill into my excel spreadsheet. It instantly clues me in that I’ve heard from this writer—and maybe even seen this same query or pitch. It happened again last week. A writer sent me the exact same query and exact same idea which I rejected months ago. It’s not how to make a good impression on your editor. 

Through this process, you see all sorts of different combinations and pitches from writers about their work.  Then I spotted something new. As I prepared to use the writer’s SASE and tuck in my form rejection letter, I had a problem. The return envelope was sealed.  I imagine the writer created some assembly process to mail her queries—and unknowingly sealed her SASE. I pulled out my pocketknife from my desk and carefully cut open the envelope, tucked the rejection note inside and resealed it with some tape. It was another new experience for me. Writers are a creative bunch.

My Howard Publishing email address is on the website. My phone number used to be on the site. It was removed when I got several unsolicited calls from writers who enthusiastically told me that Howard Publishing would be the perfect place for their children’s book. If you look at the house guidelines, it’s clear that Howard doesn’t publishing children’s books. I’m certainly not the person to receive these pitches since I only handle fiction. After those calls, my phone number was removed from that location.

Some times a writer’s pitch or query letter will come to my editor email address. With my email address, it seems clear to me that it’s my personal Howard Publishing email address. You would be surprised at the queries which begin “Dear Editor” or “To Whom It May Concern.” One of these pitches last week showed their pure confusion by beginning the letter, “Dear Ms. Whalin” and later using, “Mr. Whalin.” These writers are making an impression with their pitch and it’s definitely not the type they want to make with it. Typing my name into any search engine and in a matter of seconds you can learn how to address my salutation. These queries come from writers who are unskilled or hurried.   No matter what salutation or what format, I continue to give these writers a “hearing” to pitch their idea. Within publishing, it’s called a “slush” pile for a reason.

Prepared Yet Flexible

December 16, 2005

When I drive down the street, I occasionally turn on my radio and manage to catch Terry Gross, the host of the National Public Radio program, Fresh Air.  If you’ve never heard Fresh Air, I highly recommend it because Gross has handled over 5,000 interviews with a wide variety of personalities.  Last year, I read her excellent book, All I did Was Ask, Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists, which gathers about three dozen of these radio interviews into a printed book. I learned a lot about the different personalities such as Nicolas Cage, John Updike or Mario Puzo.

I love to listen to a prepared, skilled interviewer like Terry Gross. I recommend it any chance you have because of what can be gained and built into your own writing life.

Yesterday, Terry had much interviewed actor Tommy Lee Jones. She was talking with him about his new movie, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The movie marks Jones’ directorial debut and he’s also acting in this film. The movie has a western setting and Gross was asking Jones about his own work with cattle. You could hear the amusement in his voice as he answered some basic questions about cattle ranching. 

Then the interview took a fascinating turn. Terry Gross said that her favorite Tommy Lee Jones film was a thriller from 1978 called the Eyes of Laura Mars. It was where Jones made his first starring role.  Gross had prepared a short audio clip from a climatic scene in the movie between Jones and Faye Dunaway. As she almost hit the play button, Jones revealed something unexpected for Gross. He said, “I wrote this scene.” It was the perfect interviewer’s clue—and Terry picked up on it immediately. She paused and asked him for more details. It turns out the motivation for the characters wasn’t real clear in the original script and Jones reworked a number of elements in his role—but particularly rewrote this climax scene. I loved how Terry Gross through this process showed she was prepared (had her questions and even an audio clip to play) yet when she discovered something unexpected, she was flexible enough to go with it and dig deeper. 

Through the years, I’ve interviewed many different people. I love the magic when you discover something unexpected.  For example, once when talking with marriage expert Gary Smalley, he told me about a point in his marriage where his snoring had become a problem. He and his wife, Norma, were sleeping in separate bedrooms.  It was a pure disconnect for me. Here’s an author who has staked his reputation on being a marriage expert and he wasn’t sleeping in the same bedroom with his wife? Now before I spread rumors, Gary had a sleep apnea problem which he corrected and returned to the same bedroom.  His story from this interview made a fascinating discovery and the eventual magazine article was called Sleepless in Branson.

If you are reading this entry about the writing life and haven’t done many interviews, I want to encourage you to begin to interview others. Practice makes perfect when it comes to interviewing.  It’s a great source of fresh stories and information and allows you to gain new resources for your writing—whatever type of writing. I’ve got a lot of information about interviewing on this blog so make sure you search for other entries (using the search engine on the side of the blog). If you’ve never done a phone interview, make sure you have this little gadget from Radio Shack called a Smart Phone Recorder. It’s a valuable investment for anyone who does phone interviews. Plus follow the valuable tips in these two articles on Right-Writing.com. One article is here and here is the other article. Finally I’d encourage you to take every opportunity to watch others interview such as on Fresh Air.  Like me, you can be watching for the unexpected.

A Cooperative Spirit

December 15, 2005

When it comes to book publishing, editors are looking for authors who have a cooperative spirit. While I had written a number of books, I’ve not self-published any material—so I had no idea the real cost involved to produce a book until I began working inside a publishing house. I’ve seen the actual financial statements for books so I can validate what Brian DeFiore, literary agent and former Editor-in-chief at Hyperion, said at an ASJA meeting several years ago. He estimated a $100,000 price tag for a publisher to bring a manuscript into the marketplace. That price includes a modest advance to the author but also includes the printing costs, the design costs for the cover and the editorial work on the manuscript (in other words the entire package).

Because of this financial investment, a publisher in their publishing contract has certain rights—and some authors balk at these non-negotiables. The publisher will title the book. I regularly tell authors if they create a great title, then it will stay throughout the publishing process (or so has been my experience).  Your publisher will also edit your manuscript and shape it into the best possible presentation. It’s pretty logical since they want to earn back their investment—and more—if they want to stay in business.  From my perspective, the key idea is for the author to be someone who cooperates with the process and actually jumps into it to help sell books and enthusiastically get the word out about their book.

With this background in mind, I was perturbed with the anecdote which opened the November 2005 Fast company article by Lucas Conley “Getting on the Same Page.” The opening of this article makes it out like traditional publishing is purely adversarial and the wishes of the writer are totally ignored. I’m sure there is some people have those experiences but it hasn’t been my general publishing experience.  In general, the publisher wants the author to love their title and their finished book—so they will show the book at every opportunity and enthusiastically help the publisher sell books. Certainly there are author horror stories but in general, writers and publishers want to work together to sell books.

What I do like about this article (and why I’m writing about it) is the statistical information about the overall picture of book publishing and the average sales of books. If you aren’t familiar with this information, then it will help you have a more realistic picture of what happens with books on the average. Of course, every author believes their book will be beyond average. Yet that optimism has to be tempered with realism which you build into your book proposal and marketing plans about what you can do for your own book if published.

Also notice how they handle their manuscript review process to gain feedback from independent readers before the book is published. I’ve seen these techniques but often on a more limited scale. Lucas Conley writes, “Upon receiving a manuscript, he’ll [the managing editor Jeevan Sivasubramaniam] team the author with a reviewer whom he believes will like the book, one who is bound to be skeptical, and a couple of others, including at least one “wild card” with no specific background in the subject. The reviews—often 15 to 20 pages from complete strangers—can be hard to swallow, especially after months or years of solitary wordsmithing. “Authors are typically horrified,” says Piersanti [Steve Piersanti, Berrett-Koehler’s founder and president]. “For the first three or four days they can’t even see straight.” The ends justify the means, says Sivasubramaniam, who derives a mischievous pleasure from his role as matchmaker and intellectual alchemist. “When four reviewers who’ve never met one another come to the same conclusions, the author pretty much has to stop and listen,” he says.”  What a gift of such valuable feedback—yet many authors resist receiving it—then more importantly doing something proactive about the feedback to change or fix their writing. If you can learn to handle this sort of process, you will be strengthened as a writer and your ability to grow in the craft.

Also note this article doesn’t shy away from the time involved in this feedback and cooperative process. There are some interesting words tucked into this article worth reading—such as “some authors can be difficult” or “the author’s dominatrix-like demands.” It’s now how you want to be portrayed even internally within a publishing house. Yet the results of cooperation in the publishing process are impressive and worth noting. Whether you are a much published author reading these words or a never-been-published-want-to-be, I believe there is something valuable to learn from the process.

Wonder about the Future of Books

December 15, 2005

Are you aware of what’s happening with technology? How is that affecting the traditional book market? Will it affect that market?

If you want some insight into these questions, I recommend you cruise over to Working Smart by Michael S. Hyatt.  Mike is the president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, which is the ninth largest book publisher in the United States.  Over the last couple of days, Mike has provided some keen insight into this question.  Here’s his first post on this topic. I appreciated the clarification in Mike’s second post.  Notice what Mike says about the impact of just a slight change in the balance.

I belong to an online group which has a current thread about book statistics. It’s a challenge for anyone to get a handle on the statistics related to the number of books published and the various categories. It’s rare to get a glimpse into the thinking of someone in Mike’s leadership position within publishing and I appreciate the insight in these posts. Hopefully you will gain from it as well.

Before You Leap (or hit send)

December 13, 2005

In recent days, it’s happened a bit too often. Maybe it’s a continual problem without a solution (yet I’m going to suggest a couple at the end of this entry). It will give you another glimpse into the life of an editor and writer.

I received a fiction submission from an author—yet it was missing a couple of key ingredients. I could have responded with a form rejection (which will usually happen—since editors don’t have time to hold the author’s hand in the submission process). Instead I wrote a short personal note to this author asking for the missing information. A first-time novelist, he neglected to say if his manuscript was complete (almost a universal requirement for first-time, unpublished novelists). Also if his manuscript was complete, he didn’t tell me his word count.

In my brief response, I tried to anticipate his possible response (and it didn’t work since obviously he didn’t read my response carefully). I explained the limited opportunities, the massive amount of submissions, queries and proposals. Then I outlined the specifics of what I was looking for—and the word length of these novels at Howard (full-length 80,000 to 100,000 words). His almost instant response proved he didn’t read my email. His novel was complete and it was almost 150,000 words in length. Because this author failed to look before he leaped off the cliff and submitted his manuscript (or hit the send button), he received the form rejection letter.

Also this week, I received an email from a literary agent. I’ve never worked with this particular agent yet I’m always open to exchanging information and listening to the pitch. Repeatedly in this email, the agent made a homophonic mistake. [Webster’s defines homophone as “one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling (as the words to, too, and two).] This misspelled word appeared numerous times in the email. It made an impression but not the one the agent wanted to make with me. In her rush to send a response, this literary agent should have taken a couple of minutes to recheck the short email before she hit the send button.

I belong to several online writer’s groups and enjoy the opportunity to help new writers. Some times I ignore the questions but if I can find a few minutes, I will often craft a response with some suggestions. Many of these questions have been answered repeatedly over the years. Several of these groups are on Yahoo. There is a rarely used feature of these yahoo groups—but valuable if you know it. Normally all of the messages from the group are stored on Yahoo. Every member of that group when logged on to Yahoo can go to groups and search the old email messages. Use a keyword related to your particular need. You will be surprised how often you will find it—and you will not have to send a message to several hundred people.

Another basic resource for questions is Google. If you are looking for a particular bit of information, type some keywords into Google and see if you can easily find it. It doesn’t always happen but you would be surprised how often the information will be right on your screen. If you find the information on your own, you’ve avoided the necessity of asking a colleague or a friend or an online group. You’ve suddenly gained some independent (and valuable) research ability.

Finally, if your topic relates to writing or publishing, I’d encourage you to use the little search tool on The Writing Life. The tool is in the lower right-hand column and you can scroll down until you reach it. For almost an entire year, I’ve been writing on different aspects of publishing. Put some keywords into that search engine and see if I’ve written on it. Again depending on your topic, you will be surprised at the wealth of available information. If you have a blog, consider adding this free search engine from Technorati to your blog. For a free registration at Technorati, you can add this tool to your blog.

Each of us have many resources at our fingertips. If we will only use them wisely.

Use the Lucky Seven

December 12, 2005

Recently I wrote about a new how-to book, Writers On Writing edited by James N. Watkins. This book is a compilation of publishing insights in different areas of writing from various Christian authors. One of my long-term friends, Karen Ball, wrote an excellent chapter, “Self-Editing Fiction” which may be worth the price of the entire book.  One bookcase in my office holds my writing books and I have over 250 books. Admittedly over the years, I’ve had to clear out some older titles to keep it contained to one bookshelf.  If I find one solid tip inside a book which I can apply repeatedly to my writing, then the book becomes valuable. Often these books contain many more than one tip.

Karen Ball is the executive editor of fiction at Zondervan Publishing House. Besides editing many bestselling novelists, Karen writes her own bestselling fiction. I’ve always enjoyed hearing her speak.  I’m going to highlight what she calls the Lucky Seven or seven self-editing fiction checkpoints. I know you thought editors edit your work after you turn it into the publisher (and they do) but editors also expect their authors to deliver the best possible effort.  Often everyone in the publishing process is facing incredible deadlines and volumes of material to quickly process.  One key for this rush process is for the writer to build time into their schedule for a solid self-edit.  Before she gives her seven points, Karen includes a key caveat, “When you write, just write. Don’t let your internal editor out to play until you’re done writing. If you try to edit and write at the same time, you’ll drive yourself even crazier than normal.”  For any writer, there is a clear distinction between the creative—and the writer. Separate these functions and for this entry, I’m highlighting the self-editing portion.

I’m only going to list the different points where this chapter includes great illustrations (often where the points will make the most sense and greatest application to your own writing life).

Checkpoint One: “Only use speaker attributions when absolutely necessary. When is that? When you have more than one speaker, so the reader may confuse who is saying what, or when you have a run of dialogue that goes more than a few lines.”

Checkpoint Two: “Let your dialogue speak for itself. Make sure your speaker attributions, aren’t telling readers what emotions your characters are experiencing rather than showing them through dialogue or action.”

Checkpoint Three: “Don’t let the dreaded -ly adverbs get your story down! Most adverbs just don’t belong, not in speaker attributions or text.”

Checkpoint Four: “Watch out for words that weaken!…99.9 percent of the time, it’s best to just say no to superlatives and modifiers.”

Checkpoint Five: “Don’t be done unto. Avoid the passive voice.”

Checkpoint Six: “Just the facts, ma’am! Don’t use exposition in either dialogue or narrative if there’s no real reason to share the information.”

Checkpoint Seven: “Strong hooks. Don’t leave home — or a chapter or even a scene — without ‘em. Hooks keep the pages turning; they create a sense of anticipation, dread, excitement, fear, or whatever.”

If you follow this sage advice,  it will not solve every editorial problem in your fiction. Your editor will still have plenty of other things to do with your book.  Your self-editing time will result in stronger storytelling and may gain you a hearing from the editor or a literary agent in the first place. 

Standard Word Length For Novels

December 10, 2005

As a Fiction Acquisitions Editor, I’ve been asked this question a bazillion times (or so it seems).  How long is a particular type of novel? For example, how long is a novella? How long is a short contemporary novel? How long is a long contemporary novel?

Lori Copeland is a bestselling novelist and she’s given an excellent answer (and where I’m going to refer people in the future).

Why is the word length important? Editors are busy people. They receive a massive amount of material and are looking for a reason to say “no thank you.” Last week I sent these words to a number of people through a form rejection letter.  I’ll admit Howard Publishing has limited opportunity—but I continue actively looking for excellent manuscripts.  Yesterday in the mail, I received a submission from a literary agent—who should have known better than to waste his postage. The cover letter pegged the novel as a short one. It was an instant rejection since I’m looking for only full-length manuscripts. If you want your work to be seriously considered, make sure you cover all of the basics. Word length is one of those basics.