Gentle Reality at a Conference

As Heather mentioned in her comment yesterday, at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, there are traditions to follow.

Once again we followed the bagpipe player to the opening session of the conference.  At the opening session, the faculty gives their introduction.  From attending these conferences, I understand the importance of this introduction.  I wasn’t giving a keynote or devotional talk to the conference so it would be my only time to appear in front of everyone. I prepared several short statements.  Many participants use the faculty introductions to plan their time at the conference. I taught the continuing class on the nonfiction book. My introduction went something like, “There is a huge blockbuster film related to a book which released this weekend with a lot of publicity and buzz. I’m here to report the book sales numbers for 2005 are in—and the truth or nonfiction outsold fiction. I’m Terry Whalin, the fiction acquisitions editor at Howard Books and I’m teaching the continuing class on the nonfiction book. Come to my class and see these sales numbers and learn about how you can create a nonfiction book which finds a traditional publisher. I’ve brought an important book related to this topic (I held my book—see a bit of my preparation?) called Book Proposals That Sell and I have a conference special discount. See you at my class.”

I was short, focused and off the stage quickly yet with a solid point to my introduction. You’d be surprised how long some people talked with their self-introduction. At the end of the opening session, the participants could sign up for their 15–minute meetings with various faculty members.  I wasn’t in the room for these sign-ups. The faculty meeting room was in another building and we sat at a series of long tables across from the participant.  My sessions were limited because I taught over eight hours during the four day conference.  Other faculty members didn’t teach much but met throughout the morning and afternoon with participants. 

Tuesday afternoon I did a solid afternoon from 1:30 p.m until 4:45 p.m. with supper scheduled at 5 p.m. (where I hosted a table of others who didn’t get a session). Many conferences send out this schedule ahead of time to the faculty members to allow them to check it and make sure it has some breaks. I must have missed that email (I doubt it was sent for this conference) because my schedule was completely full.

These face to face meetings with individuals are always a challenge.  While it’s still difficult to say no (and as editors we say no a great deal), often we send a form rejection letter. Many years ago, I made a personal promise to use these sessions to help writers have a gentle dose of reality.  It’s easy for the editor to take a completely different stance. I’ve heard of some editors who have every writer send them the manuscript. Then the writer leaves the appointment happy and expectant. The editor is off the hot seat and takes home a bunch of stuff (or has the writer send them stuff), then holds it for a period of time—then rejects everything. Now what does that process accomplish or teach the writer? Almost nothing other than they began to ride the roller coaster of publishing.

Instead I’ve tried to gently tell the person the truth about their manuscript—no matter how hard it may be for me to say it to them face to face. I confess that I’ve received over 200 fiction submissions since January and can only contract six to eight of those books (a year). I attempt to find something encouraging and some recommendation for improvement—either on their manuscript or some resource they can use for other submissions. I hope you can see the challenge from the editor’s view for these meetings.  No one likes to make people cry—but often I find people close to tears because of these honest words.

One pastor eagerly called me before this conference and planned to meet with me. He had received great encouragement on his poetry from the Scriptures and had written something patterned after Calvin Miller’s The Singer Trilogy.  I read the Miller books years ago and was familiar with them—but it wasn’t what I’m charged to acquire or consider for Howard Books. I read the poetry during the session (something I confessed that I know almost zero and have no real skill to evaluate).  I have to admire this pastor. He came prepared with a flow and agenda of information that he wanted to accomplish during his 15 minutes. His plan was to culminate with my taking his manuscript back home and consider publishing.  I tried to bring gentle reality into the situation—yet I could see this man almost in tears of disappointment as the session ended.

Because I was teaching on nonfiction, some people signed up to show me their nonfiction and get my input about it.  One nurse who was taking my class came to her 15–minute session with her editor/ publicist had worked on a personal journey with an extremely ill child. Her book idea had a number of pluses including statistics about the audience, marketing ideas and application for the reader. Yet the pictures of her child were scattered throughout each chapter. This feature would be a costly issue for a publisher to produce and the publisher would have little motivation to actually do it—since this author was unknown. Again my challenge was gentle reality.

Another 15 minute meeting was with an attorney from Virginia who wrote suspense fiction in her limited free time. In the middle of caring for her children and husband as well as working a challenging law career, she was writing stories. I expressed my admiration for her diligence in writing this type of material. I liked her basic plot and she had an agent representing her work. Yet again I had to gently tell this author that I didn’t have any room on my small fiction list for such a project. I encouraged her to keep at it and continue looking for the right connection at the right time and place.

The process is draining for the individual and the editor—but hopefully you get a taste of what happened last week. It’s valuable for each person from my perspective.

5 Responses to “Gentle Reality at a Conference”

  1. Bonnie Calhoun Says:

    Well it sounds like you need some R & R. I hope you have the opportunity to get it before August. I’ve signed to take your continuing session “Book Proposals That Sell” at Phila.

    I don’t know if I’ll get it, but I would like 15 minutes with you for you opinion of my writing.

    But no need to cringe! I’m pretty sure my action/suspense is not the kind that Howard publishes.

  2. Terry Whalin Says:


    It will be fun to meet with you in Philadelphia in a few months. I always love helping writers and enjoy the interaction and seeing whatever you have to show me. I’m taking most of this weekend to regroup and spend time with the family so I can hit it again this coming week.


  3. Richard Mabry Says:

    Thanks for your positive attitude in delivering negative news. Your ethical, caring approach is appreciated.
    Richard Mabry

  4. Terry Whalin Says:


    I will be the first to admit that my approach is time consuming and tricky–and unusual. Communication is important to me (as it is for many editors). Others just give up trying after a while because of time constraints, other pressures and just the “strange” responses you receive in the journey.

    As a writer, I’ve been on the receiving end many times where I send off a manuscript and hear absolutely nothing. I’ve tried to walk to the tune of a different drum as an editor. I appreciate your comment.


  5. Karon Says:

    Thanks, Terry, for being so kind and considerate of writers — we all appreciate an editor who takes the time to couple some teaching with the turning down 🙂

    Many blessings,
    Every Woman’s Travels

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