Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Firing Your Agent (Part 3 of 6)

Misunderstandings occur, even in the best relationships. By speaking up, you can clear up differences. Unless your current agent is unusual, he has never taken a mind-reading course. That makes you responsible to communicate your concerns and unfulfilled expectations. Your relationship may require only occasional adjustments. If you take the initiative, you might even have a fresh start in your joint business venture.

Be cautious about dropping your agent, but don't be foolish and hold on to an unhappy relationship. Over the years, I've talked with writers who have switched agents. In most cases, they probably did the right thing. In a few instances, the unhappy writer didn't like the second one any better. Or the third or even the ninth.

Here's my advice—which I wish I had followed myself: Ask yourself, "What do I want from an agent?" Do you want someone who emails or phones every day? That's not reasonable, and most writers won't find such a person, unless the writer is getting mega-buck advances.

The agent who fired me didn't have a personality that worked well with mine: I'd call him bluntly aggressive. I wanted an agent whose personality reflected mine—someone I liked personally and assumed editors would as well.

Take time to think through what kind of agent you want. During the period when I knew my relationship would end with my first agent, I seriously looked at the kind of personality I wanted to work with the next time. I needed someone that I could email or phone and bounce off ideas and get a reply such as, "Sounds good" or "I don't think so," and then I could take it to the next step. I didn't need an agent who said, "Send me a proposal, and I'll let you know." I didn't want to invest a large amount of time into a product that wouldn't sell.

There are excellent reasons to fire your agent.
Be sure you choose the right one.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Firing Your Agent (Part 2 of 6)

Before you decide to fire your agent, carefully ponder the reasons you're unhappy. The common complaint is, "She isn't selling anything." It may help if we remind ourselves that agents don't make our books marketable. We may write remarkably well and be a steady seller, but that's no guarantee that everything will sell. Agents don't always sell everything they represent, no matter how persistent and assertive they may be.

My present agent has a manuscript of mine she couldn't sell, and the response we received is that the niche is too small. The fact that your work remains unsold doesn't mean that the agent isn't doing a good job. That agent may actually be doing an excellent job of representing you.

Here are a few questions to ask as you consider switching agents.

1. Are you receiving copies of publisher's rejection emails or letters? Generally, when an editor returns rejections by letter or email within a few weeks it's reasonable to expect copies of these rejection letters either as they come in or regularly—such as once a month. We don't like reading what the editors say about our manuscripts—but at least we can document that our agent is circulating our work. Granted that many writers have fragile egos, but an agent owes us this information, even if it's only to say, "Revell passed on your novel."

2. Does the agent pay royalties on time? Generally, within ten days after a publishing house sends a check, writers should receive the statements and a check from their agents.

3. Is your agent difficult to reach? Is she lax about returning email messages or voice messages? If you speak with your agent and explain your dissatisfaction, that conversation may resolve the issues. You probably won't be able to do it in person (the best way), so telephones are the next-best approach. Emails, faxes, and registered letters seem quite impersonal, but if you have no good communication skills you may have to resort to the impersonal.

If you consider firing your agent,
the first question to ask yourself is, "Why?"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Firing Your Literary Agent (Part 1 of 6)

In 1996, my literary agent fired me and I thanked God. The relationship, although not hostile, hadn't been the best. Had I followed my instincts, I would have terminated our agreement two years earlier.

I held back because, like a lot of other writers, I felt obligated—he had sold more than a dozen books for me. I worried that I might not find another agent. In the back of my mind, I foolishly wondered if he'd blackball me with other agents.

If we face the dilemma of should-I-or-shouldn't-I-end-this? we need to push aside our emotions and act on business principles. I saw this clearly when my friend Marilyn complained for more than an hour about her agent. When I interrupted long enough to suggest she end the contract, shock passed across her face. "He gave me my big chance. I wouldn't be a writer today, if he hadn't sold my books. "

"That's not true," I said. Even though I understood her feelings—I had been there myself—I wanted to do for her what I wished someone had done for me. "Did he receive his commission for the work he sold?" After she said that he had, I pointed out that her agent didn't make her a writer. "He worked for you and sold a product over which you labored."

I can give advice like that because I've grown more confident and I know more about the publishing industry. When a relationship isn't right, I know the quality of the work suffers. Why deplete our creative energies by coping with bad business relationships?

A number of professional writers have since told me, "Having no agent is worse than having a bad agent or being stuck with one you don't like." They may be correct. I disagree, because writers who have reached the level of professionalism are capable of getting a second agent. And if they can't, perhaps they need to market on their own.

Many (maybe most) career writers switch agents at least once. In my next blog post I'll talk about how to terminate the agent-writer relationship.

You may need to fire your agent,
but be sure before you take action.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More Money and Scam Agents (Part 9 of 9)

Scam agents abound and they have a variety of ways of taking money from you and giving you nothing in return.

Here are some of the things to avoid.

Don't pay a reading fee. Agents read manuscripts—many, many manuscripts. If they're interested in looking at yours with a view toward selling it, they take the risk of reading bad manuscripts—and they receive a large number of them. They can also stop reading in the middle of page 1. I've heard that most agents accept less than 2 percent of the manuscripts they read.

Don't pay retainer fees. I don't hear much of that these days, but it was an old method of asking clients to pay a small amount such as thirty dollars a month and it usually went on for a couple of years until the innocent writer figured it out and stopped paying.

Avoid literary agents that put ads in magazines or on the Internet. Good agents don't have to advertise. Most literary agents have more would-be clients clamoring for their services than they want.

The advertising agents seem to accept anyone who offers a manuscript and charge a fee to read, but I've never heard of those agents ever selling anything.

Good agents have websites. One questionable agency signs clients and then charges them $195 for the cost of setting up the writer's personal website with them.

Good agents gladly tell you the names of their clients, the books they've sold, and the names of the publishers. On their Internet site, one agency lists clients by profession and gives you first names only. My advice: Skip that agency because there's no way for you to verify their statements.

Good agents never refer you to a specific editing service. It's illegal for them to do that. They may suggest you get editorial help and come back, but they can't tell you which editor to contact.

If you have any questions about a particular literary agency, Google the name on the Internet. It's difficult for dishonest agents to hide these days from serious writers, but they still pull in money from the ignorant and naïve. Don't be either.

If a literary agency tells you how easy it is to get published
by signing with them,
you don't want to sign with them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Agents and Money (Part 8 of 9)

Agents handle all money matters. Even when an editor contacts me with a book project—and that has happened many times—I don't discuss money. That's the job of my agent.

Only once has an editor brought up the topic. "We'd like to work with you," he said, "but we can't give you the big, upfront royalties you're used to getting."

He didn't explain how he knew how much upfront royalties I received, but I said, "I don't care much about money, but my agent does. Talk to her about the contract."

When you sign with an agent, they take care of your finances, and they charge you nothing but the sales commission of 15 percent. Twenty years ago agents charged for copying and postage because all manuscripts were on hard copy and went through the mail. Long-distance calls cost anywhere from five to ten cents a minute. In those days, many legitimate agents charged for the extras.

In 1997, until my agent sold for me, she charged $35 a month for office expenses. I think I paid for only two months. After that, she absorbed all costs.

There's no reason for those charges today. If an agent wants to add charges for anything beyond the standard commission, don't sign.

Reputable agents work on commission
and only on commission.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Two Agent Questions (Part 7 of 9)

"For how long a time do you sign with an agent?" Cheryl asked in an email.

That depends on the contract the agent offers. And good agents always offer contracts.

If you have limited publishing experience but an agent takes a chance on you, the agreement can be that the agent will represent you for a period of one year or as long as two. The agent may have doubts about whether she can sell your book. If she hasn't sold it within the time limit, you're now free to try another agent.

If the agent sells the book within that time frame and wants to represent you, she will usually become your representative until one of you severs the relationship. (I'll discuss that in a later blog entry.)

"I write fiction and nonfiction," Marty wrote. "Should I seek two agents?"

A few writers have more than one agent, but it's rare. Most agents want exclusive representation, but it's more significant than that.

Previously I wrote about career planning. Becoming a well-known writer or a best-selling one or a famous writer isn't easy and it takes committed dedication. Think of it this way: After you've published your first book, you begin to attract an audience for your type of writing. Each time you publish, in theory anyway, you widen your audience. One agent said, "I expect it to take four books until my authors sell big."

Most readers, however, don't follow authors just because they're authors. They follow them within a specific genre. Fiction readers rarely turn to nonfiction and vice versa. (We writers are strange creatures so we may be an exception.)

It's extremely difficult to build name recognition in any field, but to try to sell both fiction and nonfiction makes it even more difficult. That implies writers work double shifts of writing and promoting. It rarely works.

Agents like an author who works in one genre
and builds an audience.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Before You Sign with an Agent (Part 6 of 9)

Suppose an agent agrees to represent you. What then? Some writers are so desperate for representation, they'll go with anyone. One writer said, "Once you sign with an agent, if it doesn't work, you can fire him." True, and it's often painful. And it doesn't sound like a professional approach. I suggest you hold off until you sense the agent is someone with whom you can work.

I have a number of questions for you to consider asking agents, or go to their websites and look for those answers.

• Are you a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives?

• How long have you been in business as an agent?

• If I want to contact you, how do you prefer I do that?

• If I make contact in your preferred method, how long should I expect to wait until I hear from you? (If I don't hear within that period, what should I do?)

• How do you keep your clients informed of your activities on their behalf? Will you inform me of all responses to my work? Do you do that as they come in or send me a list?

• Do you have specialists at your agency who handle movie and television rights? Foreign rights? Or are you proficient in those areas?

• Do you have subagents or corresponding agents in Hollywood and overseas?

Even though those are good questions, agents may not respond to them. You also risk the possibility that the agent may label you as HMA (High Maintenance Author) and choose not to represent you.

Before you sign with an agent, learn about the agent.
This will be a long-term relationship, so be careful.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Answer to Nan's Agent Question

Nan asked about the willingness of an agent to accept writers who cross genres.

Probably not.

I offer two reasons.

1. Think of those who will read your books. Most fiction readers stay within the lines of fiction and it’s also true with nonfiction readers.

2. When you sign with an agent you want to build your platform/identity. You build it with a focus on one genre and each time you write another book within your identified field, you add loyal readers.

Although I’m an exception in that I cross genres within the nonfiction area, I’m primarily identified with ghostwriting and collaboration. That’s still within the nonfiction area. A couple of years ago I published 3 cozy mysteries and they haven’t done particularly well—certainly not in comparison with nonfiction books under my own name. Readers don’t follow writers when they depart from their identifiable area.

Few writers cross the line successfully with both fiction and nonfiction. If you feel you want to widen your range, build your reputation in one genre. After you’re established you might try to expand. John Grisham and James Patterson have both published a nonfiction book within the past three years. They did well because of name recognition—but nothing like the sales of their novels.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Attracting Agents (Part 5 of 9)

Here's advice I've picked up from agents themselves. Learn about the agent before you make contact. For instance, Jeff Herman or my friend Greg Daniels represent nonfiction. Greg has a few novelists, but that's not his area. Some agents won't take on children's authors. Make sure the agent you want handles your kind of books.

Find out how the agent wants you to make contact. A query letter? Email? Some want you to go to their websites and fill in the information. Those are the usual ways. I don't know any agent who wants phone calls.

Work hard on the query. Don't try to make it sound overly dramatic; make it sound like you. If you've done extensive research for your book, include that information.

Your query is a sales pitch, but make it honest and realistic. "If you take the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird and combine it with Catcher in the Rye, you'll have an idea of the quality of my book." That's bragging and will probably repel agents.

I suggest you work on a précis or summary statement. I'll write about this in a future blog, but it's what we sometimes call the elevator pitch. If you're in an elevator and have 30 seconds to tell an agent about your book, what would you say?

An agent sells for you
but first you have to sell the agents on you as a client.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Signing with a Literary Agent (Part 4 of 9)

I'm a strong advocate for literary agents—and they've become so much a part of publishing that I may not need to say this—they do more than sell books. Good agents care about your career. They rarely seek a one-book author. They want to sign writers who will produce many books that they can sell and continue to sell.

I've been with my current agent since 1997, and from the beginning of our relationship we talked about my career. "Where do you want to go?" was one of the first questions she asked. We talk at least a couple of times a year about my career.

Good agents know the publishing world and are aware of trends or needs long before writers. It's not unusual for editors to contact agents with whom they've worked and say, "We're looking for a book about. . . "

Agents act as buffers. That is, they have the expertise in negotiating, and authors stay out of the situation until they're ready to sign the contract. If authors have problems with the editors, the agents become their advocates. And differences do occur. It's comforting to me to know that when I have a problem with an editor I can appeal to my agent.

Editors move frequently. I read that the average editor stays 2.6 years. One editor may love your work but moves and her replacement may not and will make unreasonable demands—but you have an agent to stand up for you.

Agents work for writers;
agents make things smoother for writers.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Literary Agents (Part 3 of 9)

How do I get an agent? That seems to be the question and it's a good one. But having an agent is no guarantee of sales. It does mean a professional in the publishing business believes in you and your book. That's a great morale booster.

My sources say that agents place 65 to 75 percent of their books. Beware of those who claim higher numbers. Agents receive 15 percent of your royalty. Unless it's negotiated differently, publishers send the royalty check and statements to the agent. The agent is responsible to ensure the accuracy of the accounting figures.

My current agent has challenged those figures several times and won. It wasn't an issue of publisher dishonesty, but lack of understanding or ignorance. Every contract is different and sometimes the details get lost.

So how do you get an agent?

Find out who they are through writers loops; attend writers conferences; check web sites, or see Sally Stuart's The Christian Writers Market Guide, an annual publication. Writer's Digest puts out their Writers Market Guide each year. Most libraries carry the Literary Marketplace (known as LMP) in their reference section. Ask your friends who have agents. The AAR—Association of Authors' Representatives— is a voluntary organization of agents who subscribe to a code of ethics. They have an excellent website: http://aaronline.org/.

Here's another tip. When I read books by authors I like, I read the acknowledgments and they often credit their literary agent. That's another solid lead. It implies that the agent likes that type of book and might be open to authors in the same genre.

Before you start your search for an agent, make sure that your manuscript is the best you can make it. It's worth the money to pay an editor or a proofreader or both. The manuscript may look fine to you, but to a professional, it may not.

Before you seek a literary agent,
be sure you're ready for one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More on Literary Agents (Part 2 of 9)

Some writers don't have agents and often boast about it. That's fine, but most of them could get better royalties and other concessions through an agent.

When I first signed with an agent around 1990, my agent insisted on things I didn't have the courage to ask for or the knowledge to consider. I'll give you a few of them.

The most obvious is the royalty rate. Sometimes agents can negotiate that, but not always. They can, however, find other ways to benefit writers. For example, free copies of books. Most publishers grant 10 to 25 freebies, but an agent might ask for 200. (That's the number of free copies my agent asked for and received for my second book with Dr. Ben Carson, Think Big.) Not a lot of money, but I sold or gave away those books.

Think of the importance of subsidiary rights. For example, I sold Gifted Hands before I had an agent. The original publisher was Review & Herald. They published the book in hardback, and sold the subsidiary rights to Zondervan. The book has remained in print since 1990 in hardback, soft cover, and mass paper. HarperCollins picked up the mass paper edition and sold 90,000 copies.

The downside is that Ben Carson and I receive only 50 percent of the royalties from Zondervan and HarperCollins. Standard contracts give the original publisher 50 percent of the royalties paid by the subsidiary publisher. Despite that, Ben and I have done well, but we would have done better if we had known.

Some publishers won't negotiate on the subsidiary rule and most of our books don't get picked up by another publisher. Even so, a good agent can sometimes get that 50 percent knocked down so the writer receives 70 percent.

Another area involves movie and electronic rights as well as any other medium. When we sold Gifted Hands, Ben Carson insisted on retaining the movie rights. The publisher resisted but gave in and 19 years later, Johnson & Johnson sponsored a made-for-TV version with Cuba Gooding Jr.

Good literary agents know the parts of a contract worth negotiating.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Let's Talk About Literary Agents (Part 1 of 9)

If you want to sell books to a royalty-paying publisher, you probably need a literary agent. But first a few words about royalties.

A publisher contracts with you for your book, edits it, produces it, and distributes it and usually pays you a small percentage based on sales. That part is easy to grasp.

What isn't simple is the way publishers figure royalties. Some base the royalty on the suggested retail price, others on the wholesale price. Publishers grant large discounts to Walmart, Costco, and other nonbookstore outlets. It's not uncommon for them to offer those outlets a 75 percent discount on the retail price. When that happens, the authors' royalty rates are lower. (And it's all in the contract.) Regardless, they pay royalties based on the net sales. That is, the publisher expects returned books, so it's not paid only on books sent to outlets.

Another factor is that sometimes publishers grant escalator clauses. That is, once a book has sold a certain number of copies, such as 50,000 or 100,000 they offer a bonus. (When my agent negotiated the contract for 90 Minutes in Heaven, she, Don Piper, and I believed the book could become a big seller, but the publisher didn't. So with my agent's help we received escalator clauses when the book reached certain sales figures.)

The royalty rates vary on hardcover, soft cover/trade, and mass paper. Some publishers, especially the large ones, pay royalties each quarter, some twice a year, and most of the smaller houses send out annual checks. They also send statements of sales—that's not always easy to follow and agents can decipher and demand clarification. That's another good reason to have an agent represent you.

Serious writers who sell books need literary agents to negotiate royalties.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

That Subjunctive Mood

"If I were you, I'd write a novel."

"No, no, " he scolded. If I was you. I is singular. "

"Yes, but I am not you, " I said. "It is contrary to fact, so you use the subjunctive mood."

"The what?" he asked.

The almost-obsolete subjunctive mood (SM) lurks in our language and careful writers respect it. Please notice, we call it a mood; it is not a tense or voice, such as active or passive.

You don't need to memorize this, but English has three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The indicative mood makes statements and questions; the imperative mood commands or requests; the SM expresses wishes, desires, requirements, or conditions.

Simple? Clear? Most people aren't aware of their using the subjunctive mood. We've all heard people say (and it's correct):

· Whether it be

· Far be it from me

· As it were.

The following sentences use the subjunctive mood correctly.

· If she were rich, would she be kind?

· The defense attorney asks that he testify [not testifies] Monday.

· Unless the weather were to change, we'll have our annual picnic tomorrow.

· He yelled as if the house were on fire.

Here's a hint to help you with the subjunctive mood:
If the clause begins with as if or as though,
you usually need the subjunctive mood.

Friday, November 5, 2010

No Such Grammatical Rule or No Such Rule in Grammar (Part 3 of 3)

Sometimes we get the emphasis by putting the significant words at the beginning of a sentence. That's the other power position. Any element in the sentence, other than the subject, becomes emphatic when placed first. We could say Thelma could never forgive lying. As constructed, the crime or sin receives the emphasis. Suppose, however, we wanted to place never forgive in the power position. We would write: Lying is something Thelma could never forgive.

Here's an illustration that shows how we choose what we wish to emphasize in a sentence.

1. Cecil Murphey received a million-dollar advance from Penguin Books last week [not last year].

2. From Penguin books [not from Doubleday], last week Cecil Murphey received a million-dollar advance.

3. Penguin Books paid a million-dollar advance last week to Cecil Murphey [and not to someone else].

4. Last week, Penguin books gave a million-dollar advance to Cecil Murphey. [Because of word order, last week receives the emphasis.]

It's subtle. Most readers wouldn't get the difference between the four examples. That's all right because they don't have to understand the techniques. What readers grasp is that some people write better than others.

Serious writers are sensitive to the rhythm of a sentence
and know where they want to place the emphasis.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

No Such Grammatical Rule or No Such Rule in Grammar (Part 2 of 3)

In a sentence, we actually have two power positions. In a straight, declarative statement, it's the final word—what we want to emphasize.

Let's see how this works by referring to a piece of advice a professional writer gave me when I was still new in the publishing business. Or I could say this stronger: When I was still new in the publishing business, a professional gave me a piece of advice. Both are correct, but it depends on whether I want to emphasize publishing business or advice.

Here's the advice she gave me, which will make this clearer: (1) If you're going to be a writer, you must be willing to walk naked down the street. (2) If you're going to be a writer, you must be willing to walk down the street naked.

Obviously, the second is stronger. Down the street isn't important and carries no significant meaning, so we sneak such weak words into the middle of the sentence.

Look at the title of this column again. Which is the more emphatic word? Is it Rule or Grammar? I put the titles in my preferred order but either works.

Skilled writers know what they want to emphasize in a sentence.
It's something we can learn.

Friday, October 29, 2010

No Such Grammatical Rule or No Such Rule in Grammar (Part 1 of 3)

Most of us have seen those humorous and cleverly reversed rules of grammar that float across the Internet. "Don't use no double negatives" is one. Another says, "I've told you a million times never to exaggerate."

In every such list I've read, one rule that gets passed around is not a rule: "A preposition is a word not to end a sentence with."

Although it's not a rule of grammar and appears in no reputable textbook, it's still a good rule. The reason isn't because it's a preposition but because prepositions are weak words. The same rule applies to most adverbs. Consider the difference between these two sentences. (1) He knocked over the box. (2) He knocked the box over. Both make sense, but box is stronger than over.

Let's go back to that supposed rule: A preposition is a word not to end a sentence with. What is the most important word in that sentence? Obviously, it's not with. The writer, of course, has to make that determination, but I opt for preposition, so I would say: Don't end your sentence with a preposition. Or I could write: A preposition is not a good word with which to end a sentence. That places emphasis on sentence. If I chose the word end for emphasis, I would have to say, somewhat awkwardly: A preposition is not the word to use for the sentence to end.

Don't avoid ending sentences with prepositions, not because of any rule.
Avoid ending sentences with prepositions because you want strong endings.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Software Programs for Writers

Occasionally someone asks me what software programs to buy to make them better writers. The question often implies that the askers want instantaneous success without effort.

Some programs show you a few shortcuts and a few people insist their writing improved after using a particular type of software. That’s probably true.

Writing is hard work and no matter which software or computer you use, you still have to do the work. Programs can help you with format (which isn’t difficult to learn) or catch your misspelled words (MS Word does that). For several years we’ve had software that will type the words we speak, but they don’t improve the quality of the words.

A few people still write everything in longhand and later type (or have someone else do it) and I know one still-selling writer who does everything on the typewriter and her daughter copies it onto the computer. There are three ways of getting the words out of the brain and on to some permanent form.

Despite that, we humans still need to engage our brains and focus on words. If you want to invest money in programs, do so. I’m not opposed to software programs; I don’t choose to invest money in things I don’t need.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 6 of 6)

If you send your manuscript through the mail, do it the correct way.

Inside the envelope, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) and return postage. (Of course you will keep a copy of the manuscript on your computer and a safety copy on a CD, flash drive, external hard drive, or an off-site storage such as Carbonite.)

After that, you wait.

And you wait.

And wait.

Never call an editor unless you have permission. Their guidelines will tell you how long it normally takes. Give the editor at least one month beyond that time. If you haven't heard after five months, send a letter with SASE and say something like this:

On December 25, 2009, I sent you my article titled, "Beyond the Amateur Look." If you're still interested, please take whatever time you need. If you're not interested, please return my manuscript.

I've enclosed SASE for your convenience.


None of this information guarantees you'll get published. It does assure you that you'll look professional and editors will assume you're not a beginner. That's a good start, isn't it?

Conforming to professional standards is never wrong,
and it may help you get published.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 5 of 6)

"Can I send the manuscript as an attachment?" I hear that question frequently.

My answer: Unless you know the editor or the publishing house accepts email submissions, give them hard copy.

Here's the reason: Some editors don't want to read new submissions from the screen. They want the hard copy so they can read while eating lunch, riding the subway, or whenever they get free minutes—and there aren't many. If they have to pull your copy down on the screen, it ties them to their desk. If they have to print your manuscript, you've added to their daily load.

Assume that editors are overworked (and I don't know any who would say they're not). Make life easier for them.

Some editors and agents download manuscripts to the Kindle or Sony Reader. But stay with hard copy unless you know differently.

If you're not sure how to send a manuscript,
ask.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 4 of 6)

In the three previous blogs, I've focused on the manuscript look for articles or stories. If you're submitting a book-length manuscript, there are a few differences.

1. Use a cover sheet and write your title and by-line half-way down the page. Follow that with the genre, such as: Historical Fiction of 80,000 words; Autobiography of 70,000 words. Most editors and agents tell you to put in the number of words. If you do, round them off. Don't write 78, 349 words but "about 80,000 words." It's an approximation and by the time your manuscript has been accepted and edited, it may run only 70,000 or 85,000.

I don't list the number of words. My reasoning is that if the publisher wants only 50,000 and you have 85,000, that's a good reason to reject you. Or if you have 90,000 words and they want only 50,000. If they turn you down, let it be for a different reason.

2. At the bottom of the cover page, centered or at the far left, list your name, address, phone number, and email address. It would look like this:

Cecil Murphey
Street Address
Email address
Phone number

3. On the next page, start one-third of the way down the page for the first chapter or introduction. Every chapter begins a third of the way down the page. Don't renumber for each chapter.

4. Always address the manuscript to the editor you want to receive your material. Don't send to "Fiction Editor." If you don't know the person's name, go online to the publisher's site or phone the company and ask, "Who is your fiction editor?" Make certain you spell the name correctly and get the proper gender of the editor.

Looking professional
is one important aspect of being professional.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 3 of 6)

When you write an article or short story, there is an established protocol. It's been the standard for many years.

1. In the upper left corner of the first page, single space on separate lines, place your name, address, phone number, and email address. (I'm amazed at the people who don't show editors how to contact them.)

2. Across from your name, in the upper right, give an estimated word count, rounded off to the nearest 50. To write 937 words is not an estimate, but 950 is.

3. On the next line, put the rights you want to sell. This will usually be first rights. (First rights mean that after they have published it once, it's yours to resell.)

4. Once you've put in your information at the top of the page, go down about 1/3 of the page and center the title. (I usually begin at 3.8" or 4" but the exact number isn't important.) That empty space between your personal information and the title of the article is space reserved for the editor. Don't put anything in that space.

5. After you've centered your title, hit "Enter" and start typing. (You don't need to put "by. . . " because it's at the top of the page and your name is in your header on every subsequent page.

6. When you get to the end, just stop. You don't need anything like -30- or "The End." When editors see no more words, they'll assume that you've finished.

It takes little effort to look professional.
But it does take effort.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Special Announcement

Note from Twila:

If you’d like to get to know Cec in a better way (other than just as the man who calls himself Curmudgeon and gives you tips and advice about writing), I invite you to listen to the Cec and Me radio show on Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. CT/8 p.m. ET at Toginet.

The show is billed as a delightful, thoughtful, serious, and not so serious call-in show with Cec Murphey and Twila Belk (the Me part). We offer a blend of fun and a variety of topics, including tough issues such as cancer, caregiving, and sexual abuse, as well as lighter topics such as writing and Christmas miracles. At times we’ll feature special guests who’ve been impacted by Cec in some way, people who in turn impact others: authors, speakers, pastors, ministry leaders, and maybe even a man who spent 90 minutes in heaven.

We’d love to have you listen and join in the dialogue. We encourage you to call in with questions and comments at 877-864-4869. Each week we’ll give away a few books. All shows are archived and available on the Cec and Me website or through iTunes.

For more info, visit www.toginet.com/shows/cecandme.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 2 of 6)

If you've published you probably know this information, but I want to stress the basics.

1. Double-space all manuscripts and leave a one-inch margin on all sides of the page. (This is automatic on most computers.) Don't insert extra blank lines between paragraphs.

2. Use a header on every page. On the left, the header contains your last name, slant or colon, and your title. Put the page number on the right. (I put my header in 9-point font so that it becomes less distracting.)
It's not wrong, but I suggest you avoid putting the header on the first page. It's simple to do. On your tool bar, go to Insert. On the pull-down menu you'll see Page Numbers. Delete the checkmark that says to start on page 1.

3. Indent every paragraph half an inch. (Set your tab key. In Word, you need to hit the space bar 10 times to get half an inch.) Always use 12-point fonts. Many prefer non-serif fonts such as Arial. Don't use italics, or difficult-to-read fonts. Times New Roman (TNR) is the most common. If the publisher's guidelines don't tell you which font, TNR is a safe font.

4. Here's a giveaway of the tyro status: nonprofessionals insert the copyright symbol on the first page and some do it on every page. Editors know (even if writers don't) that the material is under common-law copyright when the piece is in a finished form. Using the symbol is a not-so-subtle way to say to editors, "I'm afraid you'll steal this so this is my warning."

Make your manuscript look professional
so editors can treat you like a professional.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 1 of 6)

Unless you have established a relationship with an editor, you won't send a manuscript without permission.

"We look for a reason to reject manuscripts," an editor-friend said.

I understood what she meant. Editors are overwhelmed and their staffs are smaller these days. More people now try to write, and many of them send multiple submissions for the same article. Instead of getting 300 manuscripts a month as book publishers might have 20 years ago, those same publishers receive 300 a week.

Good editors easily eliminate a high percentage of the manuscripts without reading a word. They need only to look at the layout. "Amateurs won't take time to learn to submit a manuscript properly," another editor complained.

Most publishers provide guidelines on their website. Despite that, a large number of articles and books come to publishers that show the writers haven't looked at the guidelines. Think of it this way: If you send in a manuscript that deviates from the standard look, it's enough to cause an editor to blink. The blink causes the editor to put the pages in the reject basket.

I want to offer a few guidelines to help you get your manuscript read. This will avoid the initial rejection and the editors might actually buy what you've submitted. The guidelines are easy to follow and simple to learn.

Do everything you can to prejudice editors in your favor
by making your manuscript look professional.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Cec Answers Questions Raised

Twila's note: Babushka asked a couple questions after reading a blog entry from several months ago. Here's a bonus post from Cec with his answers.

*****

Babushka raised a question about my statement that my book “will release this month.” I probably could have found a better way to phrase it, but I tried to avoid the use of the passive voice (will be released). But either way, her first question remains: released from what?

In writing, clarity is my major concern. Would anyone misunderstand the intent of my statement? Isn’t it obvious that this month people can buy my book because it will be for sale? It may not be the usual way of saying it (and it’s not), but is it less clear than “will be released?” Neither phrase names nor qualifies the releaser.

The second question is whether “will be released” is a cliché. Probably. We can’t totally eliminate overused expressions from our writing, but we can avoid those that obscure the meaning. My argument against clichés isn’t only that they’ve been overused, but they tend to be generic and meaningless. If we make clarity a primary focus, we’ll delete most of the hackneyed expressions.

One more thought. Good writing isn’t about following strict rules but writing clearly. I say to avoid clichés and I like to avoid passive voice. But there are occasions when they are useful. For instance, above I used the passive voice when I wrote, “they’ve been overused.” I could have said, “…isn’t only that we overuse them…” but I deliberately chose to use the passive voice and probably no one stumbled over it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Query Letter

You can find a plethora of books and articles on how to write a query letter. I suggest you avoid them. I've read some of those supposedly can't-fail queries and I wouldn't accept any of them.

Two rules you need to bear in mind: 1. Keep it simple. 2. Keep it brief.
My basic query idea applies whether you write to agents or editors.

I suggest you write one paragraph that gives them your idea for a book or an article. Call it the elevator pitch, précis statement, or concept (the term I use). Don't give them a sales pitch such as, "This book will revolutionize the way people eat cereal."

In the second paragraph tell them about yourself. Give them your background, education, experience, your work or profession—anything that shows your credentials to write the article or book.

Your next paragraph reads: May I send you my article? If it's a book, you ask to send your book proposal. If you have completed your manuscript, you write: May I send you my proposal or my completed manuscript?

Query letters are simple sales pitches. Make no claims for what your article or book will do. Just tell them what it is.

A query letter is a business letter.
It asks an editor to buy your product.
And the editor probably knows the product better than you do.


**********

A note from Twila: Would you like to spend some time with Cec on a cruise to Mexico? Check out the Sailing Toward Success Christian Writer's Cruise. Cec is the keynote speaker and one of the instructors. The cruise dates are February 27-March 6. If you choose to go, please send me a postcard so I can share in your experience. Because I'm such a faithful, hardworking (and humble) employee, I'll stay behind to keep the empire running. But that's okay--anything for Cec. :-)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 5 of 5)

Here are a few more suggestions.

1. Don't write lengthy, convoluted sentences or long paragraphs. Readers want information—and they want it quickly, so you need to make it easy to grasp. I have a rule about paragraphs. I don't send out anything with more than eight lines to a paragraph (and I usually stay below that).

2. Don't confuse a personal essay with a how-to piece. If your article is about how to teach an adult-education class, don't bog down the material with statements on the importance of teaching. That is implied, because your readers are those who are interested in learning to teach better.

3. Win readers' trust by convincing them you understand their problems. Because you identify with their situation, they feel they can trust you to offer solutions. For example, chapter one of Aging Is an Attitude begins: "Getting older used to scare me—and I suspect I'm not alone."

After that initial statement, I've included readers' concerns. I show that I understand their anxieties because I used to feel that way.

How-to writing understands the perceived needs of readers.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 4 of 5)

Here's more on how to write how-to articles and books.

1. Keep the language simple. That's true with any kind of writing, but it's especially true when we try to explain the way to do something.

2. Close to that is making the instructions easy to follow. You want to keep readers moving, not make them stammer or ask, "What do you mean?" Make each point and move on. How-to pieces aren't to impress readers with your knowledge of Sanskrit or your advanced education. Use bullets and lists if they make the material more quickly absorbed.

3. Write in an informal, friendly style. Don't be afraid to address readers as you (as I do in this blog). In most writing, the I-we approach works better because it implies, "I'm like you." But when you give instructions, you become the expert and this is how you teach.

4. Keep the word practical at the center of your writing. Think of this as explaining something to a neighbor who asks, "How do you. . . ?" Illustrate or clarify points by giving examples, as I do in most of my blogs.

If you write how-to articles,
clearly show readers how to do it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 3 of 5)

1. Pick one theme and focus on that subject. Even if you want to do an entire book, write each chapter as if it were an article. Make each chapter stand on its own, even when it builds on the previous chapters.

Sometimes that's obvious and here's an example. I expressed the topic for my book Aging Is an Attitude by its subtitle: Positive Ways to Look at Getting Older. I wrote the book because I got tired of negative media images and out of my own struggles about getting older. I also realized I couldn't choose to age—God made that decision—but I could decide my attitude during the process.

Every chapter in that book goes back to one point, even if I don't state the words: Here's another positive way to look at getting older.

2. Make your writing straightforward. You're giving information to readers who want to learn something, extend their knowledge, or look at a subject in a different way. Your article could be as straightforward as seven ways to stretch your money in a down economy or how to find thirty minutes (or five or ten) each day for a quiet time with God.

We write how-to articles and books
to give information about how to do something.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 2 of 5)

Here are two more tips about how-to articles (or books):

1. Don't try to cover too much material. Don't tell readers everything you know in one article on how to pray or how to start a successful online business. About 1,200 words make a good how-to piece (although that varies with publishers), and today you don't want to write more than 2,000.

2. Start with a concept statement. When I start any project, I write the heart of the material in no more than 50 words. Here's my concept statement for an article on how to write how-to articles (even though I send it out in small pieces): Ten suggestions on how to write simple information to help others write how-to manuscripts. (I used 14 words.) Simple, right? If you can't put your concept into less than 50 words, you probably haven't narrowed your focus.

In 2004, I wrote a book called Committed But Flawed with the subtitle of Seeking Fresh Ways to Grow Spiritually. It's a how-to book, even though my publisher classified it as a devotional guide. Some church groups have used the book for adult Sunday school classes and one church is using it as a men's study.

Here's the concept statement I wrote for that book (with 36 words):

In his search for spiritual growth, Cecil Murphey studied the committed-but-flawed people in the Bible. Using them as patterns each day in prayer, Murphey envisions himself as the individuals who embody those spiritual qualities he desires.

Write a concept statement for yourself.
Be sure you know exactly what you want to teach.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Write How-to Articles (Part 1 of 5)

Why would you want to write a how-to article or book? The answer is that readers constantly seek for ways to enrich their lives and improve their skills. If you have expertise in any area, you pass it on to eager learners.

What many call self-help articles or books really fit into this category. You tell people how to do something. It may be how to lose weight, marry a millionaire, build a birdhouse, or read the Bible.

Here are suggestions on how to write how-to pieces.

1. Be sure you have the credentials. That doesn't always mean an earned doctoral degree or being CEO of a large corporation. Sometimes experience is the best credential. Years ago, I sold more than thirty articles on making marriage better. My credentials came from the experience of being happily married.

2. Consider these questions:
* What do I know that many others may not?
* What have I learned to do that I can pass on to help readers?
* What am I passionate enough about to make me yearn to tell others?
* Who am I to write on this topic?

That last question may cause you to pull back, but ponder it anyway. Today, publishers want credentials and you'll have to prove you are an expert if you want to write about "Dreams Inspired by God Today." But you might want to write, "Five New Approaches to Being a Better Parent." I once wrote an article on how to listen to sermons. I used simple suggestions and the article was republished 17 times.

You might be surprised how many things you know that others would love to learn. One man, a runner for more than thirty years, wrote a how-to book on what he knew—how to run and not be injured.

If you know how to do something well,
you can write how-to articles or books.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 7 of 7)

"How do you write them?" I get that question often. Or they say, "Only 200 words. I can do that."

I respond with, "That's right, but make them 200 important, necessary words."

Here are three simple things to bear in mind.

1. Look at the requirements of each devotional publisher. Do they take electronic submissions? only hard copy? Some publishers use the Lectionary (and if you don't know what that is, you need to find out). Or they select a biblical book for an entire issue. Some use only the NRSV translation. Follow their guidelines. (You can find guidelines online, by contacting the publisher, or in Sally Stuart's annual Christian Writers' Market Guide.)

2. Make certain your meditation carries a single focus—one idea. Here's the method I use when I'm not sure. I ask myself, "What one noun best describes the material?" Is it forgiveness? compassion? commitment? That word becomes my focus and before it goes to the proofreading stage, I ask, "Have I written anything that detracts from that single theme?" That's when I delete extraneous words.

3. Provide a takeaway value. Every devotional needs to share a lesson you've learned. Again, this sounds like the personal experience articles and it's similar—but briefer. You need to answer this question: "So what?"

As a final word on devotionals, this is an excellent place to make your first sales. It’s an opportunity to polish your writing skills, and this kind of writing also reinforces your commitment to send in material regularly. Small successes such as sales of meditations can encourage you to keep learning.

Follow guidelines.
Make certain you answer the so-what question.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 6 of 7)

Perhaps I don't need to write this, but devotionals are true stories. They stress emotions and human reactions that arise out of actual events.

Too often writers want to preach or demand that people think as they do, but good devotionals carry a sharing tone. Think of two friends talking and one says, "I'd like to tell you an invaluable lesson I learned last week." That's the way you want to write.

Lack of preaching also means you want to avoid words that lay guilt on readers such as should, ought, and must. Steer away from absolutes such as always, ever, and never unless you mean without exception.

Insecure writers tend to write with absolutes.
Resist doing that.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 5 of 7)

"It's a formula," one woman said. "Boring to write."

Yes, it is formula writing—that is, the guidelines are well defined, but you have latitude within those guidelines.

You can choose to write in first person or third. You can build around an anecdote from which to draw a spiritual lesson; you can retell a Bible story, focus on a familiar phrase, motto, or synopsis of a story. You might write about misstatements. I once wrote a series of devotionals about words children heard incorrectly. One of them was the child who prayed to Howard (as in "Howard be thy name").

Another time I wrote a series of seven on the idea of choosing the kind of day we wanted to experience—and started by saying the idea came after the fourth person in an hour had said, "Have a good day."

Devotionals aren't merely clever stories with a Bible verse tacked on. Instead, you write to integrate stories that make the Bible more alive. Choose topics with which readers identify—often small, everyday happenings. One series I wrote was on the small things that irritated me. In the series of seven, I used each reading to show that small irritants pointed to deeper issues.

Above all, make the message relevant. You can write about an experience in World War II or an event from the War of 1812, but they must have meaning for today. A friend wrote a series centered on The Count of Monte Cristo. He showed that although revenge inflames us to action, only love satisfies.

Inspirational writing takes the mundane and shows heavenly meanings.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 4 of 7)

Who reads devotionals? That is, who is your target audience? Think of them as individuals who will spend about five minutes to get their inspirational jolt for the day. Some people criticize such readers for spending so little time. I've responded with, "Be thankful they want to spend any time on spiritual issues."

You have fewer than five minutes to make your point
and to inspire readers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 3 of 7)

With only 200 words (about one page, double-spaced), you can't expect to delve into deep truths. You can, however, suggest ways for readers to examine themselves and live happier lives.

Until you try, you probably won't realize how difficult devotional articles are to write. In the 1980s, I wrote devotionals for a variety of magazines. They don't pay much ($10 to $25) and some don't pay anything, but I loved the discipline. I couldn't use extra words, limp phrases, or repetitions. Every word had to justify itself. My first draft often hit 600 words and I had to delete two-thirds of the text and still retain the heart of the material. I loved the discipline.

Here's the next rule: You're forced to stay with one idea. Any good article does that, but if you write for this market, you become aware of sentences that may be interesting, but aren't germane to the topic you address, and you delete them.

One idea expressed well and succinctly:
That's the secret of writing devotionals.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 2 of 7)

The devotional isn't just for ezines and print magazines. You can also use the principle in books. I've published twenty books that fit into that category, although only eight of them have the word devotions as part of the title—and they were the first ones I wrote of that type. Books, of course, give you an opportunity to expand. When I write a devotional book, my personal rule is that I hover between 750 and 1200 words on each one.

Again, succinct is the rule.

The difference between meditations and personal experience is, of course, length. You can't say as much in 200 words so every word must count. Although devotionals don't have to be personal experiences, they need to be personal. That is, you can write about a verse in the Bible that took on meaning or a simple sentence your child said that gave you insight into life.

Devotionals aren't sermons on paper, lectures, essays, and certainly not authoritarian explanations about how to live. Instead, the short meditations enable readers to connect their lives with God or to find encouragement in their struggles.

Think of meditations as jump-starts for the day (or a way to end the day).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Writing Inspirationals, Devotionals, and Meditations (Part 1 of 7)

“I experience more than I understand," a friend said, attributing that statement to John Calvin. I would add, "And I understand those experiences even more when I reflect on them." One way to reflect on life is to write about it in what we call inspirational, devotions, or meditations.

Because most of you who subscribe write for the Christian market, I'll use the word devotionals, but the words are interchangeable.

Magazines and ezines are the primary buyers of inspirational thoughts. Some magazines devote themselves totally to this. Unity publishes Daily Word; the Methodist Church provides the most well-known, Upper Room; and four denominations produce These Days. I'll discuss books in my next post.

Writing devotionals is more than making sense of what happened. It's also an opportunity to use insightful moments to touch others who can learn and profit from your insights. If that sounds like personal experience, it can be just that. But there are differences.

The devotional format has a strict word limit, usually around 200 words. Personal experience articles can go from 800 to 1800 words, depending on the publisher. For this specialized format, the rule is to "write tight."

In my early career, I wrote many devotions because I considered them an excellent form of self-discipline. I could have no extra words. From writing those limited-word articles I learned more about succinct writing than I did from any other way.

You can write tight.
Practice doing it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 6 of 6)

Final PE Questions We Need to Answer:

As a recap, if you write Personal Experience (PE) stories here are questions to ponder:

• What was an insightful moment? It doesn’t have to be life changing, but it must be significant.

• How can I show this experience to readers?

• What did I learn from this experience?

• What can I teach others from my experience?

Here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Show your emotions as well as your actions. Readers want to identify with you and want to experience your pain and your victory with you.

2. Use dialogue. No one expects the words to be literal, but stay as close to the truth as you can. Dialogue makes stories come alive.

3. Don’t preach. This isn’t a time to lecture; it is a time to share. If you keep everything "I" centered, readers grasp the message through your experience.

4. The lesson or the moral of the story comes out of experience. "This is what I learned."

My bad experiences can become powerful experiences to help readers through their painful experiences.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 5 of 6)

Other Factors in PE:

In personal experience (PE), the story itself becomes the vehicle to relate the message to readers. We are the main character or at least the one who changes. The best PE articles invite readers to identify with our experience and apply the message to themselves.

If we’re going to write PE, everything pivots around our vulnerability. Editors don't want stories of our great triumphs or success. Readers identify with failure and find hope in rising above mistakes.

PE isn't where we confess our sins, but we show that even the most thickheaded individuals (ourselves) can gain insight.

After the insight, we don’t become perfect; we remain human. Years ago, I wrote a PE piece about dealing with my temper. I concluded, "I still struggle with losing my temper, but I’m growing and my volcanic eruptions occur less often."

That's realistic and that's what we want readers to grasp: Not perfection but ongoing victory over struggles.

When I'm transparent about my shortcomings, readers identify with me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 4 of 6)

Every Personal Experience (PE) article needs one more crucial ingredient. Before you end, you have to answer this question: So what?

That leads to the final ingredient for PE accounts. It’s not enough to have a learning experience, even one with universal appeal; we have to answer the implied question: How does my experience help others? What meaning does the story hold for readers?

I concluded my article on forgiveness by sharing that years after I had forgiven the man, we met unexpectedly in the United States. When I stared into his blue eyes, I knew I had forgiven him and that I cared about him. We warmly hugged each other. By describing our meeting, I pointed readers to the healing results in the other person and in me and said that when we ask forgiveness, each of us benefits.

So what? We haven't finished an article or story until we've answered that question.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (part 3 of 6)

To write a successful Personal Experience (PE) story, first you need a unique story. Second, your story must have universal appeal.

As you tell the story, you show that your experience appeals to a wide audience. That is, your learned insights hold meaning for others.

In my HomeLife article about forgiving another missionary, the universal appeal was that all of us struggle with being hurt by others, especially when we feel we’ve done nothing wrong. It took me a long time to want to forgive the man and even longer to admit that I might have had some culpability in the situation.

As I told my story, I showed readers how Cec Murphey learned to forgive someone who had hurt him. I could have said, "I learned four principles from this experience." Instead, I chose to show the four things (not numbered) by relating my progress from wanting to forgive to being free. Either method can work as long as we help readers grasp what we’ve been through.

If my articles don't have universal appeal, I have nothing to share.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Question About Newspaper Columns

Leah sent me a private email and asked about counting newspaper columns with articles. Even though I finished the topic of articles first, and this is out of order, it’s a good question.

Does a newspaper column count as article writing? Yes and no. For eight years I wrote a column for a weekly paper, so I respond from my experience. Yes, it means the discipline of writing a weekly column (twice-weekly for Leah). It shows commitment and sincerity. But no, because they rarely edit columns, especially not the way good magazine and ezine editors do. (Also, some writers syndicate their columns so they must all be the same.) In my eight years of writing for no pay, my editor didn’t change a word. I assume it was because I made no grammatical mistakes and punctuated properly. She probably could have improved my work.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 2 of 6)

Personal Experience (PE) articles need two special qualities. First, you need a unique story. That part is simple. You tell what happened to you—an incident that made a significant impact on you. It can be an answer to prayer, a failure in your job, going through a divorce, or struggling over the death of a child. It may involve a moral issue, an ethical lesson, or the discovery of a religious truth. You can tell how a Bible verse has slammed into your life.

PE accounts don’t have to hit 10 on the Richter scale. They can involve everyday things such as frustration over traffic jams or problems we face with a dishwasher. It’s not the event itself, but the effect the incident had on us that makes it unique.

For example, HomeLife magazine asked me to write a PE piece about forgiveness. I wrote about an experience that involved another missionary who criticized me and gossiped about me. That’s a unique setting; not many people are missionaries.

That has to be coupled with a second major factor. Read my next blog.

My experiences are unique. No one else has encountered exactly what I have.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 1 of 6)

Three types of articles seem the easiest to sell, especially for beginners. They are personal experience (PE), devotions, and how-to articles. In my biased opinion, writers need to master all three before they start with books. I’ll discuss devotions and how-to articles in future blog entries.

PE articles are true stories about something that happened to us (or occasionally to someone else).

Why write PE? I suggest four reasons.

1. It’s a natural place to begin. An experience is something you know and feel and it means you've grown because of working through the problem. (And yes, there must always be a problem.)

2. You use your life experience as the raw data.

3. The story doesn’t involve research (unless you need to check facts).

4. If you’re in touch with yourself, you can write PE because you have felt the moment and you aren’t the same person you were before the event. In some way you have changed. The opportunity to change is what you offer readers.

Why not start with the easy-to-sell article? Personal experience articles usually require no research.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Articles First? (Part 5 of 5)

Three Final Reasons for Writing Articles First

1. Book editors also read magazines. Several friends wrote their first book because an editor read an article, contacted them, and said, "Could you develop that into a book?"

I published well over a hundred articles before I ever wrote a book. In fact, my first book came about because of my published articles. One day, an editor called because a friend told him I was a good writer. He learned that I was writing articles on prayer, and asked about them. I explained the content of two or three and he liked what he called my creative approach. "Could you write 30 of them as a book for us?"

That became my first book.

2. The statistics are against beginners having their first book accepted for publication. Experts say that new writers have about one chance in 500 (or some say 700) in getting a book published. It’s easier to become published in magazines or ezines. Writing articles is an excellent form of on-the-job training as we prepare for books.

3. When we write articles, we attract a larger audience. The experts tell us the average first book sells about 5,000 copies. Small Christian publishers smile when a book sells more than 3,000 copies. By contrast, consider that if a print magazine buys an article, you can assume that at least 100,000 subscribers read or skim your piece.

Finally, do you have to start with articles? No, you don’t, but it’s an easier way to learn the business as well as provide the opportunity to improve your craft.

Sometimes the easy and the wise way are the same.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Articles First? (Part 4 of 5)

Two More Reasons for Publishing Articles First

How do you know you have an idea that interests enough people for a book? A few years ago a publisher turned down my book called When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer's. They didn't think the market was big enough. I contacted another publisher and I pointed out a number of statistics, such as that doctors diagnose five million people each year with Alzheimer's; however, my point was I wanted to reach the friends and family members, not those with Alzheimer's. That expanded my potential audience four or five times. The second publisher bought it and a third publisher asked me to write a gift book for 2011 release, When Someone You Love No Longer Remembers.

That leads me to an important reason for articles first. We can assure ourselves we have an audience for the topics about which we choose to write. If magazine editors buy the articles and if readers respond positively, we know we’re moving in the right direction.

Further, once we start publishing in an area, we link our names with specialized topics and that makes us experts. For example, I wrote five articles about getting, working with, and firing literary agents. Two different compilers of books for writers asked me to write an article on agents. The Christian Writers’ Guild hired me to write a 2,500-word study about agents for one of their on-line courses. Another publisher hired me to write a booklet on the topic. I received invitations to speak at conferences and they frequently asked me to speak about agents. Those same conferences provided opportunities to pitch book ideas to editors.

Why did they ask me to write or speak? Was I the most knowledgeable person around? No, but the editors knew I had published several articles on that topic. In their thinking, that made me an expert.

Become an expert in your field. You can do that by publishing articles on your specialized topic.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Articles First? (Part 3 of 5)

Three Reasons for Writing Articles First

"Few people want to apprentice in this business," one editor said. "They want to jump on the bestseller list. A number of the successful writers in this business began by writing and editing magazines."

With that as background, here are reasons to start with articles before we try books.

1. Once we’ve had short pieces published, we have writing credits. We’ve entered professional status. Prior publishing impresses book editors and implies that we we're ready for the next step.

2. If we focus first on short pieces, the books we finally write will probably be superior to anything we could have written in our earlier days. Perhaps it helps if we think of a book as a series of articles tied together by a common theme.

During my first years of writing, I wrote articles and after they were published, I revised them to fit as chapters in a book. (That’s also good stewardship of time.)

3. Articles take less time to write and we get feedback faster. It's easier to handle a rejected article on which I spent three weeks than a book that took me two years to complete.

A willingness to start at the beginning and learn marks the true professional.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Articles First? (Part 2a of 5)

When do you jump from articles to books? I don’t know the answer, but here are my ideas.

1. You need to establish your expertise in one area. Once you’ve published 10 short stories about romance or espionage or you produce a dozen nonfiction articles on marriage or saving money, you’re probably ready. You are then an expert on the topic, even if you don’t feel like one.

(My career seems to deviate from my advice, but I started by writing on the topic of marriage and published at least 20 articles. I felt I had nothing more to say so I moved on to spiritual growth. After that I became a ghostwriter and for at least a decade I wrote only books for others. I write in a variety of genres, and I’m an anomaly in publishing. It’s easier to stay in one genre.)

2. For magazine articles, you have to do nothing; for books, you have to do everything. That is, you must promote your books. The more connections you have and the more experience you have in publishing, the easier it is to promote.

3. You must convince book editors that you know your area and that you have connections to promote your books. As you publish articles, you’re learning the craft; as you associate with other writers, you widen your circle of influence. Speaking engagements are excellent. Consider joining Toastmasters or a professional speakers group.

4. Thus, I suggest you find one area that intrigues you and write/sell more articles on the topic. (If you sell only first rights, you can always make those articles chapters of a book with little editing.)

Learn the craft and learn how publishing works before you try to get a book published.

Articles First? (Part 2 of 5)

Publishing articles will help you gain credibility in the marketplace. You also show that you have learned the skills required for a magazine piece. That moves you from amateur to professional.

You have already proven that

• You can write to a specific word length.

• You can deliver the article on the deadline.

• You can handle rewriting the article if requested.

• You're committed to writing and you want to grow.

Like many professionals, I started with articles and wrote my first one 18 times before I sent it out. Fourteen of those times the piece went through my editing group, the Scribe Tribe. Within a month after sending the first article, I received a check. As I continued to write, sell articles, and received a few rejections, I also began to understand how publishing works.

It still amazes me that want-to-be-successful writers get an idea for a book, write the entire manuscript, and haven’t learned the craft. Often they don't even know what professionally written manuscripts look like.

Writers want editors to consider them professionals. Professional writers prove their commitment by their knowledge of the craft.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Articles First? (Part 1 of 5)

"Is it necessary to write articles first?" I often hear that question at writers conferences. Necessary isn't the word I'd use; I'd say it's wise to begin a writing career with writing articles (or short stories). No matter how well we write, none of us comes into publishing fully equipped. We need to master techniques and learn skills. Too many writers want to start with a book and become famous. They don't have enough experience to know how badly they write. That is, they haven't proven themselves.

I’ve discussed this with a number of book editors and a few agents. Without exception, they urge writers to learn the craft and usually add, "The best way to learn is to start with shorter pieces."

The first question an acquisitions book editor often asks a prospective new writer is this: "What have you published?"

If you answer, "Nothing," you've already given your material a negative impression. You can overcome it, of course, but it's better to be able to say, "I've published 12 print articles and had 10 stories in ezines."

Start by writing short pieces is good advice.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 9 of 9)

Last words on first words.

One way to learn to write good beginnings is to see how the professionals do it. Although some do it better than others, I learned a great deal about beginnings by reading only first paragraphs of half a dozen books every day for a week.

Why not try my method? As you read, ask yourself these questions:

• What makes the opening strong?

• Does this paragraph fulfill the three purposes?

• Why does this opening hold my attention? (Or why doesn't it?)

• How could I have made the beginning stronger?

Wise writers willingly learn from the best.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 8 of 9)

Don't ruin your beginnings.

Last year I read more than one hundred of the entries for Christmas Miracles, a compilation book. The major flaw in at least a third of them was that they told us the ending before they told us the story.

• "The worst Christmas of my life became the best Christmas ever."

• "I want to tell you about the Christmas where I became aware of my self-centered attitude."

• "I didn't want to put my last five dollars in the Christmas offering but I did and God rewarded me on Christmas Day."

You might be curious enough to read on, but you know the outcome, so why bother?

Good beginnings grab us, take our hands, and lead us to a satisfying ending. The story is even better when we (as readers) don't see the ending until near the end. That's called suspense.

Start with a problem. Unfold it by making us care while the protagonist goes through the struggle. When it appears that the person will lose her job, his wife will leave him, or the bank will foreclose, we bring in the event that changes everything.

In the old westerns, the heroes are fighting outlaws and are down to their last four bullets. They're ready to die (never surrender), but just then, one of them yells, "What's that?" It's the distant blaring of the cavalry trumpet coming to their rescue.

That ending is too clichéd to use today, but the principle still works. Hold the miracle or the turning point until the last possible moment.

Good writing presents a problem and withholds the solution until the last moment.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 7 of 9)

How long should a beginning be? I often hear that question. My answer is: As short as possible. Some experts say not more than 100 words (about half a manuscript page). Instead of focusing on length, concentrate on it being easy to read and quick to absorb.

Give us enough words to pull us into the writing. Hold back nonessential information.

When I browse a book or a magazine I'll give the writer the benefit of one paragraph. If I'm not at least mildly interested, I stop. I always have a stack of reading material at my desk—more than I'll ever read—and so do many writers. I want my reading to be pleasurable and I don't want to work at reading.

For instance, two days ago I started to read a blog entry where the writer tells about an emotional experience while watching a film in a theater. Before she grabs us with the experience, in the first paragraph she writes about the price of the ticket and that she doesn't usually attend action movies.

I shook my head. Those two things may be important to her (spending money and justifying attending a film) but not to readers. I lost interest.

Beginnings contain only essential information to draw readers to the material.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 6 of 9)

Are those purposes also true in fiction? If we’re writing fiction, we need to remember the principles I've mentioned in previous blogs. And there is more.

In fiction, we need to insert other elements close to the beginning. We introduce our major character as early as possible. Unconsciously, readers identify with the protagonist—male or female—because reading is a vicarious experience. For ten minutes or ten hours we become someone else as we turn pages.

Be sure to make the time period clear. Unless you tell us differently, we'll assume it's the present. But don't have people fight with swords or radioactive beams without making readers know the era.

Don't underestimate the importance of place. We're all creatures who occupy space on the earth and we want to know where a story takes place. Place is like an anchor. Once we know we're in Sydney, Australia, or Rye, New York, we can enjoy the story instead of wondering, "Where is this taking place?"

Good novelists know the important elements of a superb beginning—and they include them.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 5 of 9)

On our first page we make a contract with readers. We’re saying, "If you’ll invest your time in reading me, I’ll make it worth your while."

Whatever we promise in the beginning sentence we need to deliver. In my article on health that began with the question, "How long do you choose to live?" I offered 1,200 words on how to make better choices that affect our health and longevity.

The first sentence also shows the tone or style of the material—the voice we’ll use throughout the article or chapter. If it’s humor or a light touch, we need to make it obvious and stay with that tone. If we want to write with a more somber tenor, we need to start that way.

Here are four made-up beginnings that express different styles. Which voice is closest to yours?

• Eight years, 49 diets, and 900 pounds ago I decided to get serious about my weight.

• What should we, as Christians, know about the Bible? What information do we consider essential to make us well-read and informed believers?

• Prayer is either a problem or a source of power. We can view it with doubt or with quietness.

• Who is the addict? I observed behavior patterns of three individuals, all productive, who work in my office. I'll explain their behavior and you decide who is the addict.

I choose the tone I want;
I show the same voice throughout the writing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 4 of 9)

Beginnings serve several purposes. One is to grab readers. But that’s not enough. Good beginnings need to build on at least two other significant matters—and that’s when it becomes difficult. They present or hint at a problem, and they need to make readers care about the story or the person or both.

Instead of focusing exclusively on snagging attention, we need to incorporate all three ideas. Try to make it happen in the first sentence and certainly by the end of the second paragraph. If we don’t, we evoke yawns or rejection slips.

Here are two examples. This is the first sentence of a nonfiction article on health and nutrition I wrote several years ago: "How long do you choose to live?"

In those seven words, I incorporated all three purposes. First, the sentence grabs readers’ attention by causing them to think. Second, it implies a problem. That is, we have to make choices about the quality and length of our lives (and the next two paragraphs reinforce the idea). Third, we assume readers care about how long they live.

Those three principles may not be obvious to readers, but they need to be in the mind of the writer.

In my book, When a Man You Love Was Abused, I open with these sentences:
He was molested—or at least you suspect he was. That means he was victimized by someone older and more powerful than he was. He is someone you care about deeply, and because he hurts, you hurt.

The beginning grabs attention and lays out the problem of male sexual abuse. The final sentence makes readers care about a man who hurts but it also enables readers to face their own pain.

Readers are more interested in themselves and their needs than they are in us and what we want to tell them. Thus, we write to answer questions or explain issues.

Good writers incorporate three principles
each time they begin a writing project.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 3 of 9)

How do I know where to begin a manuscript? No single answer works here. The best advice is to start at a point of tension. Throw me into a story or an article that pulls my emotions or my curiosity and makes me want to know more.

The best way to show this is to mention a book I wrote in the early 1980s called Woman on Death Row. Where should I start? I asked members at a conference and received many answers: At her conversion? At the moment she receives her lethal injection? When she poisons her first victim? When she hears the death sentence? Any of them might have worked.

I opened the book when the sheriff comes to arrest Velma Barfield. The book goes about 80 pages before readers realize she committed murder. I reasoned that if they thought she was innocent, they'd be more interested than if I started with her death or the pronouncement of a sentence.

First rule: Start at a high point of tension. Begin where you can pique readers' interest. You can always go backward or forward once you hook readers.

Second rule: Start with a sympathetic character so readers can identify. (I mentioned this in a previous blog.) We can identify with Velma because we care about her predicament. We like her. Haven't most of us been accused of things we didn't do? I expect many of us have fantasized how we'd respond if someone accused us of a major crime.

There is no one place to start,
but choose to start with drama.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 2 of 9)

What makes a good beginning? I started thinking about the question of beginnings at a writers conference in 2002. For seventy-five minutes I listened to the instructor teach on first paragraphs for a story or an article. I liked much of what he said; however, he didn’t say enough. He emphasized the need for what he called a hook—a grab-me beginning. At thirty minutes into his presentation, he said, "Now you’re going to write a first paragraph." He gave us an idea that worked for fiction or nonfiction. We had ten minutes to complete the assignment. When several read their pieces aloud, the instructor grinned often because they had grasped what he meant.

Most of them wrote provocative beginnings, but a few of them did more than grab readers’ attention.

My biggest objection to his lecture was not what he taught, but what he didn’t explain. He implied that if writers had a powerful hook, that gimmick was all it took to get an editor to buy. Even though the lecturer had published four books, he missed the purpose of good beginnings. They are more than just gimmicks to grab attention. I'll tell you more in my next blog.

Clever beginnings aren't enough to sustain an article/chapter.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 1 of 9)

What’s so important about how we start an article or a book? I can give the answer in one sentence: We must earn the right to be read. It’s that simple; it’s also that difficult.

For me, the most difficult part of any piece is the first sentence. If readers don't like the invitation to read, they'll close the book or click on a different site.

All of us have different methods of writing, but here's my one immutable rule: I don't start writing a manuscript until I know the first sentence. I may edit those words and change the structure of the opening paragraph five times, but I know where I want to start.

If I know where to begin I can plan where I want to go and how I'll get there.
I rewrite those first words more than anything else. For example, I’ve already rewritten the first sentence of this blog entry six times and I may revise it again before I finish.

Good writers earn the right to be read.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 3 of 3)

Make me care. Good fiction presents at least one person that readers care about. They may not like the person very much but if the character intrigues them, that's another way to say they care. Scarlett O'Hara isn't particularly likeable, but she's fascinating and readers care—they want to know what happens to her. Before we send off our magnus opus, we need to ask: Why would anyone want to read this?

Someone once gave me a manuscript and it took eight pages to get the heroine awake and out of bed. Another three pages lapsed before she got out of the shower. She kept remembering past events and thinking of terrible trials she had endured. I don't know what happened after her shower: I put down the manuscript. I didn't care.

If we can't identify in some way, we won't continue to read (unless forced to do so in a literature class). We call it reader identification.

When we read (and this is just as true with watching a film or TV), we become at least one of the characters and that transcends gender and age. The story or the character touches something inside us. We become involved in the story.

When I was fifteen I read The Human Comedy, which none of my friends then or since has liked, but I hooked into every character, especially the teen-aged boy Homer or the drunken Mr. Grogan. Markus was Homer's older brother and away in service. I felt the pain and the heartache of the family when they learned of Marcus's death.

One book won't appeal to everyone, but I've seen too many manuscripts where we have no one with whom to identify or care about.

Good writers make us care;
good writers work hard so readers can identify with their characters.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 2 of 3)

A few years ago a publisher asked me to endorse the first book in an adventure series. I knew the author slightly and was eager to help. I began to read and before I finished the second chapter I knew I had to decline.

He didn't know a major rule of fiction: RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) that I gleaned from Browne and King's Self-editing for Fiction Writers. Hide the back story. Never let what happened in the past stop the action in the present.

As I remember the book, four people appear in chapter one. That was fine and four people aren't too many. The author made the caper clear and connected each of the four men with the proposed heist. That was fine. As he introduced each man, however, the writer spent more than a page explaining the person's past and motivation. That was not fine. I was bored and I didn't care.

Read those last three words again: I didn't care. Worse, the action stopped four times. It's like seeing a car speeding toward you and you ponder whether you want to quit your job, leave your marriage, or go back to your meds. While you ponder, the car should have hit you. If two paragraphs go by and someone hasn't taken evasive action, you are dead. And so is the story.

By contrast, The Good Guy by Dean Koontz does an excellent job of omitting all back story. We learn about the three major characters only from what they tell us. Most writers aren't expert enough to do that. So do it this way: sneak in the back story—a sentence or two at a time. Readers will like you for it, even if they don't know what you're doing.

Good novelists resist explaining everything—
especially in the opening chapter.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 1 of 3)

If you want to sell fiction, know your genre. That's almost too obvious to write, and yet many people don't grasp that every area has its own rules and sometimes fairly rigid formulas. If I read a mystery, I can expect the book to focus on murder, arson, robbery, or some serious crime. The chase—solving the mystery—is the high point.

If romance is your genre, stay within your field. You might include a crime, but (a) make it a subplot and (b) it must contribute to the romance. Again, that seems obvious.

Study the work of others who write in the same area. Make sure you understand and consider their writing as your guidelines. But that's not enough: Don't make your book sound like others in the field. This may be subtle, but the differences distinguish the excellent from the mediocre. For example, I can pick up a Christian romance and by the third page I know what it is. It has what I call a twang. The story is usually predictable, but the writing is, one friend said, "too nice to be real life."

Good fiction means to stay within your genre, but not to sound like the others in your field. Say it differently. Think creatively instead of following the formula laid down by half-a-dozen others.

Good writers know their field;
good writers write distinctively.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Statements I Hate to Hear from Writers (Part 3 of 3)

"If I could just find the right publisher/editor/agent."

In 1997, I taught at the Greater Colorado Christian Writers Conference. One man had a lengthy manuscript and asked me to look at it. I thought he had a few good ideas but nothing particularly original. It wasn't different from anything I'd read many times.

I told him but he didn't listen.

"If I could just find the right editor, I know my book will sell." Those were his final words.

Afterward I walked toward the dining room and a woman came up to me and said she saw me looking at the man's manuscript. Before I could comment, she said, "He comes every year with the same book. He hasn't changed a word. He's convinced that if he keeps trying he'll find the right publisher."

Since then I've met several others like him. Their attitude says they don't want to grow, don't want to work hard to improve the manuscript, and they're satisfied with what they've written. They're usually the ones who cry about publishing being a closed group and "common people like me" can't get inside. It doesn't seem to occur to them that good writing opens many doors.

To find the right publisher become the right writer.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Statements I Hate to Hear from Writers (Part 2 of 3)

"God gave this to me so I know you'll publish it." I've heard variations on that one, but they all say something like this:

• "God gave it to me."

• "God dictated every word."

• "God awakened me in the middle of the night and said, 'Write!' "

My wife has heard all the stories. For several years, she was the acquisitions editor of a devotional magazine. Even though she received a number of such manuscripts, she never found one worthy of publishing.

Here's my suggestion: If God gives you a message to write, don't tell an editor; let an editor tell you. Early in my writing career, I wrote an article called "Grace Builders," and I honestly felt God had given the article to me. I changed exactly one word after my first draft.

I sent it to a publisher and it was accepted. After that, 16 other magazines reprinted it. This is the first time I've ever said God gave me a message and I can do so now because the results provide strong evidence for my claim. (I didn't tell that to the publisher when I sent the article.)

When I hear people declare they have received divine inspiration, I believe it's a defensive statement. It's as if the person says, "God gave it to me and you can't argue with God or reject God." God's words can stand scrutiny.

One editor told me she responds this way: "God may have told you to write it, but God didn't say I would publish it. When I prayed today, God told me to reject your manuscript."

If God inspires your writing, others will know because it will inspire them when they read it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Statements I Hate to Hear from Writers (Part 1 of 3)

"I know there are mistakes, but an editor can fix it. That's what editors do, isn't it?" While I was doing a Q & A on a radio station, a caller said those words.

Yes, that is what editors do—after they accept a manuscript. They expect well written, grammatically correct submissions. Their job is to improve a good manuscript and make it into an excellent one. As a professional, I'd be ashamed to send anything to an editor that was less than my best work.

"I want to write good," one woman said at a writers conference. (She should have said well.) "But if I spent all my time learning to spell and write better English, I wouldn't get any good writing done."

"I wouldn't hire a carpenter who didn't know how to use a hammer," I replied. "Good writers know their craft—that's their box of tools. If you don't know sentence structure, learn before you submit."

She shrugged and walked away.

Professional writers take pride in presenting quality manuscripts;
those who don't care remain amateurs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

About Rejections (Part 9 of 9)

Rather than moaning about rejections, I wanted to offer a few suggestions to beat the odds.

1. Make sure your writing deserves publication. This is an on-the-job training field. You grow as you write and publish more. Join an editing group. Pay a professional critique service to read and assess your material. Some material just isn’t publishable no matter how hard you choose to work at it.

2. Resist the temptation to ask editors for a critique. Most editors don’t have time. If you interrupt their work, they’re likely to remember you—and turn down anything you send. Don’t call editors and demand to know why they rejected your manuscript. (Yes, a few writers do such things, but some drivers text while they're in traffic.)

3. Be patient. Persist. Those who succeed in the writing business are those who keep at it for years, despite rejections and setbacks. Keep writing—and keep trying to improve. Read books about writing. Attend writers’ conferences. I know stories of people who went four years or longer before getting an acceptance. But in the meantime, they learned.

4. If an editor rejects the material but says positive or encouraging things, send that editor something else. If he/she says the piece came close, consider rewriting it and sending in the rewrite.

Rejections are part of the business of writing, but they're only part of the business.