Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What Is Most Essential to Writing an Excellent Book Proposal?

First, be able to summarize your entire book in no more than four sentences. If you can do that, it shows you know what you want to say and where you're going.

I don't know anyone else who does this, but on page two of my proposals (following the title page), I write what we call a précis statement or the elevator pitch. I put it in a box with a 14-point font.

From reading those three or four sentences, editors can easily decide if they're interested. If not, I've saved them a great deal of time and they can stop.

Second, consider the proposal is a soft sales pitch. Don't claim that it will change lives or it's the best novel written since 1806. Present the book honestly and simply. Editors probably know better than you what the book can do.

By contrast, a self-published writer tried to get me to buy a copy of his book by telling me that "everyone who reads it is instantly changed." That statement also appeared on the back cover. (His best friend told me that the author had sold a total of four copies.)

Let the manuscript sell itself. And the soft-sell pitch is your enthusiasm. I don't write anything unless I'm excited about it. That excitement shows in my writing.

I don't like pitches that all but guarantee I'll become a new person by Friday, permanently lose 20 pounds in 14 days, or find a soul mate in three months.

Finally the essential element of a good book proposal is one that clearly expresses your well-conceived idea.

Friday, October 9, 2015

How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

I asked my literary agent about her clients and her answer was, "About seven to nine months." And she referred to full-time writers. Writing isn't just typing words on a page, but forming words in your head before putting them on the screen, deleting them, revising, searching for exactly the right word or phrase, and going back over everything again.

Dorothy Parker once said she wouldn't write five words without deleting seven. Her hyperbolic statement is where most of the hard work in writing comes—the rewriting.

It's an individual issue. For some writers, like me, the words flow quickly; for others, it comes out a single word at a time. Because I write fast, my time is usually about four months to complete a book. (I also have a lot of energy and enjoy working long hours.)

The first professional writer I ever met said she wrote one sentence and stayed with it until she knew she had it exactly the way she wanted it. Then she went on to the second sentence. She never went back or edited. That system worked for her and it made her a slow, slow writer. As far as I know, she never finished a book on deadline, which causes problems with her publisher, but she was excellent.

How long will it take for you to write? You have to answer that for yourself.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Where Do You Get Ideas for Your Books?

Although I could probably squeeze out a number of responses, here are my three major idea places.

First, I read widely, and I ponder what I've read. That keeps ideas flowing. By widely I mean outside my normal areas of publishing. Other books open up for me a world full of fascinating people and ideas.

When I was in graduate school I promised myself that I would read at least one book a week. I've held to that. When I read, I ask questions, which the author doesn't always answer. I might read a chapter and think I have a better idea or could state the same truths more clearly. (If we're going to write, we have to have a certain amount of ego involved.)

Second, I'm attracted to people who are as bright, or brighter, than I am. When they tell about books they like, I'll look into them. Others' ideas stimulate me. My best friend, David, and I meet every week and open up to each other—and I can think of only one or two times when I haven't grasped a new concept or left with a different approach to an old idea.

Being in the presence of people who think deeply and who process information differently enriches my life and spawns new ideas.

Third, I'm open to new ways to see the world. Some authors say, "I'm curious," and I assume it means they're constantly asking questions and seeking to deepen their lives. That's a compact way to say it for me.

Ideas are out there waiting for me to find them.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"How Do You Find Time to Write?"

I've never found the time to write; I make time. It's a matter of individual priorities because all of us lead lives filled with dozens of daily tasks. In 1971, I decided I wanted to write, so I made the time by giving up a few activities I enjoyed.

For the first few months, I reached my office 30 minutes before my secretary arrived. Before long I arrived an hour earlier. Eventually it was two hours.

Here's something else that helped me. I was a pastor in Atlanta and regularly visited seven major hospitals. During the day while I drove from place to place, I edited inside my head. The next morning I sat at my desk and wrote all the things stored inside my brain. (They didn't come out exactly the same, but I had done a lot of playing with the material and had it mentally outlined.)

In 1983, a year before I began to write full time, I started taking off all day Friday to write. It was an adjustment to be home with no interruptions, but after a few weeks I realized I could adapt to such a life.

Here's my advice: If you keep trying to find time, it will be a constant frustration. If writing becomes your passion, you'll see it as more important than other activities and drop them. That's making time.

And one final word. If you absolutely can't find or make time to write, ask yourself this question: Am I supposed to be a published writer?

If I try to find time to write, it will always elude me;
I can make time to write.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From Amateur to Pro

"At what point in your career did you feel you'd shifted from amateur to professional status?"

When asked, I tell them I don't know the answer, and I assume it's different for each of us. I started my career the old-fashioned way: I wrote articles—many—and learned the craft before I attempted a book. Not only was it excellent training, but the pieces were short. I could write them by devoting myself to one hour during the day and sneak in a little time on Saturday afternoons.

When I started to publish, I was a pastor in the Atlanta area and loved the combination of writing for print on the side. After my twelfth year of being a pastor, I had to decide if I was a preacher who wrote or a writer who preached. It took me more than a year to make that decision and, during my fourteenth year, I opted to become a fulltime writer. By then I had published several books.

Even then I didn't consider myself a professional. Here's why I've given all this lead-up material. The move from amateur to professional is an inside job—something we have to believe about ourselves. Some braggarts call themselves professionals as if they hope it's true, but that's not what I mean.

Call it lack of self-confidence or being focused on feelings of not being quite good enough as a writer. I vividly remember the first time I said, "I'm a professional writer," and that was after someone asked me what I did for a living.

I gulped as I said those words, but, for the first time in my life, I knew they were true.

How do you move from beginner or amateur to the professional status?

Here's my answer. First, you need some kind of proof of your professional status, that is, a record of accomplishment. Second, you have to feel you've moved to the professional status.

Only I can decide when I am a professional.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Shortly after I began publishing books, someone advised me to brand myself. (We didn't use the word brand back then.) She said that those who write in only one area build a reading audience and are more likely to achieve success. It was good advice.

At the time I was writing a number of articles on marriage (and had already sold one book on the topic). I could have made that my focus. But I asked myself, "How much can I say about marriage?"

The problem with branding is that, once established, it's difficult to move out of your little corner of the publishing world. As you build audiences, they choose to read you and stay with you—but they don't move into new genres with you. For example, fiction readers rarely shift when their favorite novelist writes nonfiction. They simply find a new favorite who writes in the areas they like to read.

I understood that, and I took a big risk because I decided that I was going to write whatever touched me, regardless of the results. I'm an anomaly, and I recommend others to take the advice I rejected.

I fell into ghostwriting because an editor read something I wrote and asked me to ghost for his publishing house. (I did 35 books for them.) In one sense, I branded myself, but I also wrote on a variety of topics because I ghosted everything from autobiographies to diet books to business.

I've written fiction (including three cozy mysteries), and even in nonfiction I've moved into a wide variety of genres. Yet my own work hasn't sold as well as books I've done for other people. Years ago I assumed that would be the way, and I was correct.

I write this because some beginning writers think they'll impress agents or editors by saying, "I have a romance, a YA novel, and a self-help for housewives who need easy ways to simplify their lives."

They don't grasp the concept of building a consistent following. Think of any celebrity in any field. A few years ago I was in New York City and got tickets to see Chicago with George Hamilton. He had a nice suntan, but I doubt that he'll ever make it as a singer.

Get the idea? Your fans like what you write because you write what they want to read. It's that simple. My advice, brand yourself. Find your area—the genre—where you write with the greatest passion.

Maybe it's possible to move to a new genre once you're established, but . . . for now, mark your spot in the publishing world, and write the best you can.

You might want to move on later. And that's the significant word: later. Focus on the word now.

I seek to find my genre
and then become the best I can in my chosen area.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Nicely Done?

In 2014, I saw a film called Whiplash. Despite the extremely vulgar language, I resonated with the sadistic tyrant instructor, Fletcher. Here's a two sentence summary of the film: Andrew, a promising young drummer, enrolls at a music conservatory with dreams of greatness. The professor, Fletcher, insults, humiliates, and intimidates him. (The title refers to a piece of music.)

Only at the end does Fletcher explain. He saw immense talent in Andrew, but that greatness would never come out if he had said, "That was nicely done." He felt he had to drive the talented ones; only the great ones survive his relentlessness.

I hope I don't become sadistic in my treatment, but when I work with newer writers, I warn them that I'm tough. For me, good enough is never good enough. As in the film, the gifted ones keep at it, despite rejection and echoes of failure. They not only keep at it, but their writing soars.

And like Fletcher, there's only one way I can recognize the outstanding ones: They keep at it.

I'm committed to remain a writer who is always learning—
and growing.