Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 8 of 10)

We build toward a meaningful climax.

I'm still using my opening sentences from Part 3 of this series about Dad and Christmas. If this were a novel or a short story, I'd set up the tension—slowly—and show the problems and hardships the family suffered—perhaps the loss of his job. Maybe their house burned and they had no insurance. What if someone had broken into their home and stolen all the presents and their money?

The previous sentences build the tension (the problem or conflict). Part of the building in any good story is to start with a problem. Instead of solving it, intensify it.

All the while, we're moving toward the climax. We start resolving the issues. Think of it as a ball of string. We unwind by resolving the last-mentioned problem and move toward the center. The initial problem (no Christmas presents) is the last one to solve.

Thus, once we set up the initial tension, everything else—including more conflict—propels us toward the ending. The solution. The resolution. The answer.

I continue to build a story 
to push readers to the climax.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 7 of 10)

Occasionally I read an illustration that refers to the girl or the man. We go along for two or three pages until the author says, "Her name was Cynthia and this is my story." No one cares about Cynthia and withholding her name doesn't add anything.

By contrast, years ago I read the autobiography of the late actress Frances Farmer. Her 54-word opening stayed with me because of what she revealed and what she withheld:
For eight years I was an inmate in a state asylum for the insane. During those years I passed through such unbearable terror that I deteriorated into a wild, frightened creature intent only on survival.

And I survived.
I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats, and poisoned with tainted food.

And I survived.[1]
Her opening arouses emotions. She puts readers right in the middle of her pain. She didn’t clog the writing with dates or reasons for her incarceration. She saved lesser details for later. That makes good writing.

I focus on reader involvement—
that's the best way to start a writing project.

* * * * *

[1] Will There Really Be a Morning? By Frances Farmer (New York: Dell Publishing, 1982) p. 9.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 6 of 10)

We need to build suspense. Many writers don't get this simple principle about building suspense: It means we withhold significant information to build interest. Recently I read a manuscript and the first three paragraphs told me about a waif who was abandoned by her father and emotionally abandoned by her mother.

Paragraph 4 begins, "I was that child."

My response: Who cares? She told us many facts, but she didn't involve us emotionally in her story. Had she started with herself, she might have made us care.

By building tension, we nudge the reader onward—something that makes them want to know more. What happens next?

In the third blog of this series, I used this opening: "We won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year." With tears in his eyes, Dad turned his face away from us.

Let's build on those two sentences and add suspense.

Dad stared at his hands. "I wanted . . . I wanted to make this a special Christmas . . ." He didn't need to say more, because we understood.

What have I done? I've withheld the detail that you want to read. Why wasn't there going to be presents? Why the teary eyes? I built on that by showing the broken heart of the father. Then I added one more significant detail: "We understood." No presents at Christmas and we understood?

Good stories 
withhold significant information.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 5 of 10)

Our pastor told meaningful, personal stories every Sunday. And they were fine illustrations. But I got tired of them because he was always the hero, the person with exactly the wise word, and he never failed.

Years later, on my fifth Sunday as a pastor, I said, "I was so angry, I lost control" and described my bombastic actions. After the service, Margaret Calloway rushed up to me, embraced me, and said, "Thank God, we have a pastor who gets angry and fails like the rest of us."

Her remark changed my style of preaching and later, my writing. Readers assume we're somewhat successful—or why are we writing? When we tell only of our achievements, we do harm in two ways.

First, we imply we're above failure and therefore better or more mature than they are. Second, we imply that they're inferior because they struggle over issues that don't trouble us.

I fail often—but I keep trying.
That concept tells readers that I'm one of them.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 4 of 10)

Too many writers feel they have to write an overwhelming, cataclysmic statement with powerful verbs. That rarely works.

When we tell a story, think of taking the hand of someone and saying, "Let's walk together." We want to interest them, not overwhelm them. If we can start with a simple statement that presents tension (a problem), that's all we need.

An article I wrote a few years ago began:

I couldn't understand why the Africans didn't remember their kindness toward me. I used twelve, easy-to-grasp words. In that article, I told of my return to Africa 15 years after I had lived there.

We don't want to overwhelm them with big, overstuffed words; we don't write to impress. We want to communicate. We do that by showing respect for our readers and their need to be involved in the story.

I forget the heavy drama when I write; 
I focus on telling a good story that readers grasp.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 3 of 10)

Within the past five years, I've published five compilations. The submissions arrived, and I rewrote them for a consistent tone and voice.

Too many of them started badly. Here are two examples:

1. "It was the saddest Christmas of my childhood with no food and no presents until an angel named Harry Reeves brought us a large box on Christmas Eve."

2. Many patients die during surgery, rush through a dark tunnel, see a brilliant light, then find themselves at the pearly gates. I suffered from cancer, was pronounced brain dead, and found myself in the company of angels.

In both instances, the writers summarized the story in the opening sentence, so why would I want to read them? Good stories grab my attention and emotion with the first words and beguile me with what lies ahead.

"We won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year." With tears in his eyes, Dad turned his face away from us.

That's a good beginning because the opening

* grabs our attention;

* shows tension—a problem;

* makes us care.

I like to think of beginning sentences as earning the right to receive readers' attention. Readers owe me nothing—so my first task is to interest them enough so they'll continue to read.

Good beginnings entice readers to continue reading.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 2 of 10)

"I want to hug readers with my words." That's how my website begins. For some, that statement might sound too subjective.

Think of the act as putting our arms around a friend in a corner of a noisy room, lowering our voice, and speaking directly to that person. Some writers describe that as writing to a specific type of person.

As we write honestly, and with our own voice, we can hug our readers. Not everyone writes warm, loving words. We can write objectively—if that's who we are—as long as we write to draw in our readers (or hug them) with our words.

But regardless of our style, we can embrace our readers. Here's the way I started my monthly newsletter shortly after my wife died: "I can think of nothing more difficult than giving someone permission to die. You may have to do that."

The response told me that my words hugged many readers. And I wasn't trying for sympathy or pity, only to help them when they faced a similar situation.

By reaching out to their needs, I hugged them.

If I write to touch lives,
I embrace my readers.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Telling Stories (Part 1 of 10)

Good writers tell good stories. That's the simplest way to say it. It doesn't matter if we're writing nonfiction or fiction—the principle is the same. A novel is a series of stories collected in one major story. We need to think of each scene as a story.

If we write nonfiction, illustrations make our prose readable. I caught on to the importance of that years ago when I found an old copy of Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. That book, first published in 1952, remained a best seller for decades and a number of older writers referred to him regularly.

Every chapter gave a principle, but he wrote two or more stories to illustrate. That was insightful for me—and that was 40 years ago. Today, a nonfiction writer who can't tell good stories rarely sells.

Without giving a dozen reasons for telling stories, I assume you agree on their importance. The next nine blogs will focus on how to tell good stories. (Did you notice I told a story? It's about Peale.)

Stories convey truth, 
sometimes better than stated principles.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Articles First? (Part 5 of 5)

(an encore post)

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, November 29, 2013

Articles First? (Part 4 of 5)

(an encore post)

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, November 26, 2013

Articles First? (Part 3 of 5)

(an encore post)

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, November 22, 2013

Articles First? (Part 2a of 5)

(an encore post)

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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Articles First? (Part 2 of 5)

(an encore post)

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.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Articles First? (Part 1 of 5)

(an encore post)

"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.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 9 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 8 of 9)

(an encore post)

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 clich├ęd 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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 7 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 6 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 5 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 4 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 3 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 2 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Questions about Beginnings (Part 1 of 9)

(an encore post)

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.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 13 of 13)

So what makes a best seller?

No one knows. If there were a secret formula, everyone would use it.

Some authors attempt to get a number of people to purchase their book online on the day of release. (They can order any time in advance, but the sales figures count only for the day of release.) That shoots the number of sales up.

Sometimes that strategy works; most times, it doesn't.

I've heard of business people who get their own company to buy 5,000 copies of book to artificially inflate sales. They give the books to employees or include them as part of a package when they do presentations.


So what do writers do to get their books on the best-seller charts?

My answer: Figure out what you can do and do well in promoting your book. Decide what you don't do well and have no passion for and don't do it.

After that, it's up to God (or if you prefer The Universe) or just luck.

No one knows.

But we do know some books hit big. Your next book may be one of them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 12 of 13)

What about social media for making a best seller? This is becoming the focus of much self-promoting. Many writers think that if they can get 100,000 followers on Facebook or Twitter, they automatically have a best seller.

No one has proven that to be true. Most reports are what we call anecdotal: "Someone read my post," is a common defense, "and bought five copies." I wouldn't denigrate that statement, but it proves nothing in total sales.

Expert Jonah Berger asks, "What percent of word of mouth do you think happens online? In other words, what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, email, and chatrooms?"[1]

He says the number is 7 percent and cites research by the Keller Fay Group to substantiate the low figure. He points out that although people spend a large amount of time online, that doesn't translate into sales.

Among his college students, he found that fewer than 10 percent of their friends responded to messages they posted. He states, "Most Twitter posts reach even fewer."[2]


[1] Ibid., 10.
[2] Ibid., 12.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 11 of 13)

So what about self-promotion? That's where most authors come into the action. They know that their publishers will do little to promote their books. They have the if-it's-going-to-be-then-it's-up-to-me attitude. That means they figure out what will work for them.

Most experienced authors eschew bookstore book signings unless (1) they're already a celebrity or (2) they offer something besides their books. For example, in early 2013, Twila Belk arranged for me to speak on writing for about 30 minutes in Davenport, Iowa—not a major book-buying city. She promoted it and we followed with a book signing. It was one of the better responses.

I've also had a few experiences where I've sold three books in two hours (and well-known authors have similar experiences).

I don't have a particular form of self-promotion; however, here's my advice: Find out what you do well—and enjoy doing—and make sure it's not what 6,000 other authors do.

Many authors are turning to social media—my next blog post.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 10 of 13)

Publishers spend big, big dollars on certain books—and they're careful about which ones. They often engage outside PR firms, place ads in magazines and occasionally on TV (which is far more expensive). They target the books they believe will sell. Their marketing people set up interviews on the big, prime-time shows.

Until she left her daytime show, almost every author promoted by Oprah hit the best-seller lists. Today, Good Morning America, and a few others still do well—but no one has yet become the doyenne of making best sellers.

Sometimes publishers also cross-promote. If they have a book with a similar theme or within a particular genre, they'll add a page, usually in the back of the book, that says or implies, "If you liked this book, you'll also like . . ."

If you're a newer author, forget about big-budget promotion—unless your publisher says, "This one stands out—way, way out."

Another factor about publisher promotion is that once a book begins to sell big, the publisher gets behind it. Baker Books spent a lot of money promoting 90 Minutes in Heaven—but only after Don Piper went out on the road and made the book into a big seller. That was wise of them. They saw the potential, so why wouldn't they put their money on 90 Minutes in Heaven instead of a book that might sell only 20,000 copies?

Friday, September 27, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 9 of 13)

For numbers 7 and 8, I list simplicity and emotion-packed. Most people won't read deep, complicated books. They want material that's easy to understand and digest.

I'm not a fan of Danielle Steel, but she understands that her fans want simple, straightforward stories. Some have called her novels simplistic—and they probably are—but she tells a good story.

The other is emotion-packed. They're the stories that make readers feel they are actors in the book. When a writer figures out how to how tap into the emotions, readers buy the book.

In April 2013, first-time novelist M. L. Stedman released a book called Light Between Oceans. A book about a lighthouse in Australia in the 1920s doesn't have much to commend it; however, the reviews have been amazingly good.

Several writers have recommended it because of the emotion. One friend, Gail Smith, told me she cried a lot near the end. Last week I read the book. Guess what? Tears filled my eyes. Stedman did it right and tapped into the feeling level of readers.

And because Stedman touches the feeling level of readers, they respond by buying her book.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 8 of 13)

Some best sellers fit into more than one category. More than two decades ago Steven Covey's book, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, spoke to needs in the business world. Even more significant, many buyers considered it a book about values and relationships. Until then, most books were the how-to-make-a-sale type.

Previously I've mentioned 90 Minutes in Heaven, and I believe it expresses a need, and it also spawned dozens of me-too books. People wanted (some would say needed) to know what happens when they die. The various heaven-oriented books provide solace for troubled hearts.

And yet, Don Piper and I have heard from countless readers who resonated with the material about chronic pain. Again, that's what some called a perceived need.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 7 of 13)

Timing is the fifth significant factor in making big sales. Every once in a while a book comes out at exactly the right period and starts a trend.

The first time I was aware of this was when someone gave me a copy of the 1986 book Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, published by the Hazelden Foundation. The subtitle was How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Within months, the book had sold eight million copies internationally.

Not only did codependent become a significant word in English jargon, but dozens of other writers, such as John Bradshaw, followed the trend she set.

Just before the turn of this century, the Left Behind series hit the best-seller lists. The end of the millennium aroused fears and anxieties. The fictional look at the book of Revelation in the Bible spoke to that need.

90 Minutes in Heaven wasn't the first book to come out about dying, going to heaven, and returning, but that one started the trend that has yet to see an end. Because of that trend, a publisher asked Twila Belk and me to write a book called I Believe in Heaven, which has recently been released. We shared at least 100 personal experience stories, surveyed the Bible, history, and mentioned many of the current books on the topic.

The publisher came to me because they felt people needed a book to pull together the dozens of others on the topic of death and heaven. In the months ahead, we'll see if that was good timing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 6 of 13)

Good reviews is my fourth reason. If Publishers Weekly and a dozen other magazines and ezines give your book a big thumbs up, you may be moving toward best-sellerdom.

This includes reviews on Amazon.com, the Barnes and Noble site—any place where people review or critique books. One example was David Wroblewski's debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which Amazon.com championed. The 566-page literary novel came out in 2008 and within a week after publication, it had gone into its seventh printing—a reported total of 90,000 copies.

That's not the only time Amazon.com has "made" a best seller. They listed Wrobleswki's book as their favorite for the month. Their other favorites aren't always that successful.

My all-time amazing example is Tom Clancy. In 1984, the Naval Institute Press published his novel, The Hunt for Red October. It's what I call a techno-thriller and reviewers praised it. The good reviews propelled it forward and it stayed on the New York Times' list for 25 weeks. Ever since, Clancy has been a brand.

Friday, September 13, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 5 of 13)

Reason number 3 for best sellers—and most people would say this is number 1—is what we call word-of-mouth advertising. The Road Less Traveled came out in the mid-1980s and stayed on the New York Times' best-seller lists for 12 years.

Some readers liked the book and told others who bought it. They liked it and passed on the word. The Shack is another word-of-mouth phenomenon, and that one started as a self-published book.

Many people would put Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media sites here as one form of word-of-mouth advertising. To my knowledge, there's no strong evidence to support sales based on posting to 7,000 friends that you read and liked a book.

I buy most of my books from the recommendations of friends whose tastes are somewhat like mine—that's the idea behind word of mouth. If someone whose tastes I respect raves about a book, I check it out. Many times I buy it immediately; other times I read the reviews before deciding.

Jonah Berger's Contagious: Why Things Catch On stresses word of mouth and calls it "the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions."[1] He goes on to say that "A five-star review on Amazon.com leads to approximately twenty more books sold than a one-star review."[2]

I quote Berger because he can back up his data and he makes a significant statement about word of mouth: ". . . is naturally directed toward an interested audience.”[3]

[1] Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger (Simon & Schuster, 2013), p 7. 
[2] Ibid. 
[3] Ibid., 9.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 4 of 13)

Here's a second and obvious reason why some books are best sellers: The author has a recognized name. That's another way to say the person has become a brand. Think of people like John Grisham, Danielle Steel. Dean Koontz, or J. K. Rowling. In the previous blog post, I mentioned Debbie Macomber. It's easy to categorize her as a writer of "sweet romances" (as contrasted with sexually explicit ones).

After those writers hit the top of the best-seller lists a few times, they became brands. Whoever heard of John Grisham until after he wrote The Firm and it was made into a top-grossing film with Tom Cruise?

After that, Grisham books became automatic best sellers and the same is true with the others I've mentioned.

One editor told me bluntly that brand names sell books. "It's not easy to launch a book by a new author. People are comfortable with certain writers—and some of them are very bad writers—but readers like their stories."

Friday, September 6, 2013

What Makes a Book a Best Seller? (Part 3 of 13)

No one knows the answer. It's unexplainable and often happens against the odds. The Shack or the erotic-romance series, 50 Shades of Grey, are two books that defied the odds.

Or think about dyslexic Debbie Macomber, a woman with no college education. She wrote a romance that was publicly critiqued by an editor from Harlequin at a romance writers conference. The editor trashed the novel and told her to throw it away.

Instead, Macomber sent her novel to a rival romance publisher. They bought it, and it was the first romance novel that Publishers Weekly reviewed. Her books now sell in the millions.

Why Debbie Macomber? It's unexplainable—it happens often enough to keep giving writers hope and encouragement.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How Do They Compile Best-seller Lists? (Part 2 of 13)

I can't give an easy answer to the question of compiling best-seller lists. Traditionally, people mean the New York Times' (NYT) list, but there are many of them, such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Costco that have their own list of best sellers.

Differences exist between the lists. The NYT sets up books by category (hardcover, soft cover, fiction, nonfiction). They now mix digital books into those categories. Their purpose is to compare books within their own genre. By contrast, USA Today (USA) lists books by total sales and ignores categories. (I'm more impressed by being on their weekly top 50 list.)

Another factor is that the NYT counts sales in national and independent bookstores that specialize in selling books. They don't include sales at Walmart, Krogers, or Target.

No list maker tracks every book sold in the country. Even the national lists rely on a sample of sales data from specifically selected booksellers.

Here's something else to consider: A book could have steady sales for years, but not appear on any list because week-by-week sales remain relatively low, even though steady.

For example, my book for Dr. Ben Carson, Gifted Hands, has never appeared on any of the national lists, but the total sales in 23 years are somewhere in excess of four million copies. It's what we call evergreen—the sales may not be high at any one point—but the book has been selling faithfully.

Think of the best-seller lists as short-term tools
 to show which books are currently popular. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

What Makes a Best Seller? (Part 1 of 13)

Best seller? What's that? How do we define the term best seller? I see it used constantly along with "award-winning author."

In the latter, if a group of eight people can vote your book is the best of the year for the Deadwood Writers Association, does that make you an award-winning author? Apparently some think so. To use the term loosely, cheapens the meaning and relevancy of the term.

My understanding is that in the early days of advertising and promoting, a book had to see at least 100,000 copies to wear that crown of achievement.

Today, publishers can use the term as they choose. If most of their books sell fewer than 2,000 copies and one of their books soars to 3,000 copies, they call it a best seller. For them, it probably is.

Someone, quoting Dan Poynter (often called the self-publishing guru), says that if a book sells 35,000 copies it's a best seller. I'm not sure where he came up with that figure.

As a general rule, being on the best-seller list of the New York Times, USA Today, or having a high rank on the Amazon.com list seems to be enough to call your book a best seller without counting the copies sold.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Self-Questions Before You Decide to Become a Ghostwriter/Collaborator

If you are serious about wanting to write for others, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I sincerely believe that others have exciting lives or noble ideas and I want to promote them?

2. Do I get along with others and really like people?

3. Am I a self-starter? Am I self-disciplined? Can I meet deadlines? Can I work even if no one is there to encourage me?

4. Can I work alone? Writing is a solitary occupation and not everyone is emotionally suited to work with no one else around.

5. Can I treat this as a business? It is a business, and it means keeping records and receipts.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Is There Anything Else I Need to Know about a Contract to Ghostwrite/Collaborate?

Today we sell most books by proposals, which include two or three sample chapters and a synopsis or outline of the book as well as a marketing plan.

I ask authors to pay me to write the proposal. (My agent has set a price for my work because she said I tend to undercharge. She was correct.)

For writing a proposal, I suggest you ask for 40 percent of what you would expect on a flat-fee project. I write that from my own experience. By the time I've completed a full proposal, I've written at least 40 percent of the book.

So here's how it would work. For instance, if you charged $10,000 for a book—which is a reasonable amount for a first-time ghostwriter—your fee for the proposal would be $4,000.

There's one more decision to make. If I sell the book (and in my case, my agent sells the book), I refund the proposal money, and we split the royalty. Not all writers return the proposal fee.

My agent becomes involved only after I send her the completed proposal. She's not involved with any agreement with the author prior to selling the book. Of course, she doesn't receive a fee from the proposal.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Else Do I Need to Know about a Contract to Ghostwrite/Collaborate?

1. Be clear with the author before you start whether your name will be on the book. Some collaborators charge one fee if their name is on the book, and increase the fee if they get no recognition.

2. If it's a royalty project, who will market the book? Will you sell the book through an agent? If no agent is involved, who is responsible for the sale? (The author usually doesn't know the business and normally that task falls on the writer.)

3. Consider adding an escape clause. If the person isn't happy with you or you're not happy with the author, you need an easy way to break it off.

I usually say that if either party wishes to terminate the contract, a simple letter to that effect is all it takes. You do not return any money. If, for instance, you receive half of the agreed-on price and you do your job, but the author isn't satisfied, let the author stop the proceedings. You will have done what you agreed to do.

One time an author severed the relationship and wanted the money back. I had agreed to write a self-published book for a concentration-camp survivor of World War II from Eastern Europe. I did it on a three-part payment plan. After I completed the initial agreement of sending him sample chapters and a synopsis, he became ill. His lawyer terminated the agreement and asked me to return the initial payment. I sent him a copy of our covenant and I never heard from him again.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Do I Need a Contract to Ghostwrite/Collaborate?

The rule to remember is simple: Never write without a contract. You don't need to incorporate legal language. I call my contracts a covenant agreement and I've never had legal problems.

It's not as much a legal matter as it is stating what you expect of the authors and what they can expect of you, the writer. You list everything you will do (such as when you'll deliver a first draft of the book and when you'll finish the entire manuscript).

You also list the payment plan. Most writers ask for half of the money up-front and the rest when the project is finished and the author is satisfied. (Some ask for a third to start, a third with the delivery of a full rough draft, and the final third when the author is satisfied with the manuscript.)

Here are a few final thoughts:

* Do not write a book on speculation—unless the author is willing to pay for all your work.

* Never write on credit—a promise of future payment. Get the first payment before you start. (I suggest 50 percent of the total fee.)

* Don't agree to write for royalty unless (a) the person already has a contract or (b) you have a strong belief the book will sell to a royalty-paying publisher.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How Much Do You Charge to Ghostwrite/Collaborate? (Part 5 of 5)

Besides work-for-hire agreements, the other method is the royalty contract. That means you agree on a percentage split with the author.

This isn't quite accurate, but it will give you an idea of how royalties work. Think of 10 percent of the retail cost of the book as the royalty—the amount paid to the author/writer. (In the Christian market, the percentage is a little higher, but it's based on the wholesale price of the book, and the writers and authors make less money.)

Experienced ghostwriters usually split the 10 percent royalty per book at 50-50. If an agent is involved, her 15 percent fee comes off first and you split the 85 percent evenly or 42.5 percent each.

Most royalty ghostwriters start at small amounts, such as 30 or 35 percent and work their way up to 50 percent.

Friday, August 9, 2013

How Much Do You Charge to Ghostwrite/Collaborate? (Part 4 of 5)

How do you charge for flat-fee projects?

Some people charge by the hour. I started that way, but I soon learned that authors want to know the total cost for a project. If you must work by the hour, set a ceiling and say, "The total amount will not exceed . . ." It's easier (and I believe more professional) to set a price for the total work (excluding travel).

Today the fees to write a book run anywhere from $2,000 to about $25,000 for experienced ghostwriters. One mid-sized publisher told me they start flat-fee ghostwriters at $7,500. The top-paid ghostwriters earn six figures—and there aren't many in that category.

If you charge a fee, how do you estimate it so that you won't lose money? That's where you consider your experience, and you need to analyze your work habits. Some writers are fast (I'm one of them), and others are slower—neither is superior, only different.

Here's how I approached flat-fee arrangements. I estimated that it takes four months (full time) to write a book. I would say to prospects, "Here's how much money I need to make in one year," and I give them an amount. "I'll sell you one-third of my professional time." Although they always understood, not everyone was willing to pay my fees.

One final thought on setting a one-time fee: If it takes longer than you estimated, you lose. If you do it faster, you gain. I've experienced both—and that was part of my learning.

My responsibility is to decide how much to charge.

That may not be easy to figure out, 
but it's part of being a professional.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How Much Do You Charge to Ghostwrite/Collaborate? (Part 3 of 5)

If you agree to write a book for someone, you have a number of things to consider.

1. You need to agree on whether it is a work-for-hire project or a royalty contract.

2. If the author decides to self-publish, I suggest that you not ask for royalty for two reasons: (a) You'll probably lose money; and (b) It's messy for individuals to keep track of the books they sell. Most self-published books sell less than a thousand copies.

3. A work-for-hire agreement means you receive a fee for your work and no additional money after that. You will have to agree whether your name goes on the cover. Before I discuss how much money to ask for (my next blog post), the only charges beyond the fee that you ask for is travel expenses. They don't pay extra for your ink jets or paper, hours of research, someone to proofread, or anything else. Build those items into your cost.

Friday, August 2, 2013

What About the Money in Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 2b of 5)

Flat-fee Agreement

Because of one bad experience, I adapted this from a contract with a publisher. I haven't had a second such experience.

* * * * *

THIS AGREEMENT made between Cecil Murphey, whose place of business is Omore Taya, 4297 Tucker North Court, Tucker, Georgia 30084-3632 (hereinafter referred to as "Writer") and XXXXXXXXXX (hereinafter referred to as "Author.”

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the parties mutually agree as follows:

1. Writer agrees to write a literary work tentatively titled XXXXX (hereinafter referred to as the "Work").

2. The Work will be completed for Author by Writer on a work-for-hire basis. It is intended by the parties that said Work be incorporated into a collective work or compilation for purchase and distribution by Author. Being a commissioned work-for-hire, Writer understands and acknowledges that he shall own no rights in the Work, including copyright, patent, and trademark rights. Writer further understands that by reason of the foregoing, he shall neither accrue nor receive any royalties from the sale of said Work.

3. Writer will deliver the Work to Author in approximately four months, one final revised copy of the manuscript double-spaced typed pages, and satisfactory in form, style, and content and acceptable to Author.

4. Writer warrants to Author: (a) that Writer's contributions to the Work are original; (b) that he has full power to enter into this Agreement; (c) that his contributions to the Work have not heretofore been published in whole or in part in volume form and that he has not entered into or become subject to any contract, agreement, or understanding with respect thereto other than this Agreement; (d) that Writer's contributions will not infringe upon any proprietary right at common law, or any statutory copyright, or any right whatsoever.

5. Author shall hold Writer harmless against any damage or judgment, including court costs and attorney's fee's, which may be sustained or recovered against Author resulting from the content of the Work. Author shall also reimburse Writer for all expenses, including court costs, attorney fees, and amounts paid in settlement sustained by Writer in resisting any claim, demand, suit, action, or proceeding asserted or instituted against Writer.

6. Author agrees to present to Writer twenty-five (25) free copies of the Work.

7. For all work done by the Writer under the terms of this Agreement, Author shall pay the Writer a total of $xxxxx as follows:

     $xxxxx upon receipt of a fully executed Agreement;

     $xxxxxx upon receipt of a first draft of the manuscript;

     $xxxxxx upon receipt of a manuscript fully acceptable to both parties.

8. The author will pay for all travel expenses for the writer.

9. In the event that either Author or Writer chooses to withdraw from this contract, this agreement will be terminated on written notice. All rights to materials created will belong to Author.

10. All sums due under this Agreement shall be paid to Writer and made payable to Omore Taya, 4297 Tucker North Court, Tucker, GA 30084-3632.

This agreement is made and entered into by and between the parties hereto on this _______ day of _____________, 20__.

AUTHOR                                 WRITER

_______________________     ________________________


_______________________     ________________________

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What About the Money in Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 2a of 5)

Covenants and Agreements

Because some have asked for a sample, this entry will focus on a book which I expect to sell and have believed royalty was the better way to go. My first was Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. I'm still earning royalties.

My next entry will focus on what we refer to as a flat-fee arrangement. That means writers receive a one-time payment. During my first days of collaborating, I did only flat-fee arrangements.

Royalty Covenant

This is a sample agreement I wrote a decade ago. I tried to outline everything the author could expect from me and what I, as the writer, could expect. This agreement is when I propose a shared royalty. (Because of my experience, I ask for 50 percent of the royalty.)


Dear XXX:

When we met for lunch yesterday, I outlined for you the basis for our working together to prepare a book proposal to send to my agent. I want to repeat those items in this letter so that it becomes our covenantal agreement.

1. I will write a book proposal for you, using the general format my agent requires. This includes two sample chapters, an overview of the book, information about you, explanation of the intended market, an annotated bibliography of competitive books, and a marketing plan. I will submit my writing to you in rough-draft form for your changes and approval before it goes into a final form for submission.

2. After you have approved the entire proposal, I will submit it to my literary agent, Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency.

3. From the time I have received adequate material from you for the book until the presentation of the final proposal, I anticipate a period of approximately two months.

4. For the work of this proposal, my fee is $xxxx. If you agree to the terms I’ve laid out in this letter, your check for $xxx will serve as a covenantal agreement. The remaining $xxx will be payable when you are satisfied with the final proposal. Please make check payable to: Omore Taya, Inc.

5. We have agreed that if my agent sells this book, she will take 15 percent commission first. You and I will then split the rest of the royalty 50 percent each. [Note: on foreign rights, if she uses a sub-agent, the commission runs 20-25 percent.]

6. If my agent sells this manuscript on the basis of the proposal, the advance of $xxx will be deducted from my portion of the royalties. If my portion of the advance does not exceed that amount, you will receive the entire advance and that will constitute the end of my repayment.

7. Assuming my agent sells the manuscript, the authorship of the book will read: by xxxx with Cecil Murphey.

8. If at any point you wish to withdraw from this agreement, a letter or verbal statement is sufficient.

Yours sincerely,

Friday, July 26, 2013

What About the Money in Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 2 of 5)

If you move into writing books for others, here are my suggestions:

1. Charge what you think you are worth. This is an issue about your self-confidence. Some people can't bring themselves to ask for a large amount and you may need help with setting your fees.

2. Contact other collaborators and ask them what they charge. Some won't tell you, of course, but most of them are open enough to give you a price range.

3. Base your rates on your experience and background. That may be obvious, but a few first-time ghosts want to charge authors the upper-end rates. A given in the publishing industry is that you start low and as you build your resume, you increase your rates. That's the path I followed.

4. Once you decide on what you will charge, say it upfront and without apology. If you feel the amount you want to charge is fair, don't negotiate for a smaller amount.

5. Provide a contract, even if it's an informal agreement. (If you want a sample of a covenant, you may email me.)

6. When you write an article, you usually do it on speculation. You send a query letter to prospective editors, and if they say, "Send it," you have no guarantee that they'll buy the article. That's what we mean by speculation.

However, if you write books, don't write on speculation. It's too big a job and too much work. Write a book proposal and charge for writing it.

Think of it this way. The client (or author) needs to take as much risk as the writer. If someone wants you to write a book, that person needs to be able to pay you.

Writing for others involves being paid for your work.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What About the Money in Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 1 of 5)

Money is an issue—and for some the issue. Whenever people ask me about going into the field of ghostwriting they may not bring up money at first, but the topic is in their minds and it's important.

Or to say it another way, whenever want-to-be-collaborators contact me, their burning question is usually, "I haven't done this before so how much do I charge?"

"If you write articles," I tell them, "you charge the person nothing. Your profit comes from the sale of the article—and the money is yours. The people about whom they write receive no money. They get the publicity, which is their reward."

I can earn money as a ghostwriter—
if I learn the craft and work hard.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What Kind of Ghostwriter/Collaborator Do You Want to Be?

We all have different interests and some work better in one field than another. Sally Jenkins wrote the two memoirs of Lance Armstrong. I consider her the top ghostwriter in her field—which is sports.

1. Every good ghostwriter has a specialty. It may be business or education or health and fitness. I especially like underdog stories.

Ask yourself this question: What do I care about? Focus on those things about which you are or could become passionate. Never write only for the money. Seek work, but pass up projects about which you're not interested.

2. Don't work for people you don't instantly like. I've learned the hard way not to take on a project if I don't feel an immediate kinship with the prospective author. In some situations, the best day is the first day.

I've made it a policy (after one bad experience) not to sign a contract until I've met the client in person.

3. The last statement leads me to this: When you meet prospective authors, trust your instincts. If you don't get a good feeling about who they are within the first minutes of the meeting, you probably aren't going to make a successful ghostwriter for that person.

One of the qualities of a good ghost is the ability to intuit. You may not always be accurate on the interpretation of your feelings, but you'll know something inside you that whispers no.

I'm the only person who can know my passions and interests.
I listen to my instincts.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How Do I Get Started as a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 2 of 2)

Once you start to produce ghosted or as-told-to pieces, you find out the major areas in which people are interested. (And nobody is interested in everything.) You also discover the topics in which you excel. Both are excellent educational experiences.

Take careful notice of the articles or profiles that get the best responses from readers.

Join organizations in which you have an interest. Read your newspapers or be a news junkie on the Internet. Watch local newscasts and seek out people who interest you.

The opportunities are endless, but nothing will happen unless you think, I could write that story. Then you need to do something about it.

"I think I could do that."
That's an excellent place to start.

Friday, July 12, 2013

How Do I Get Started as a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 1 of 2)

If you've read the previous blogs on ghostwriting/collaborating you may say, "That's something I would like to do. How do I get started?"

First, think small. That is, think locally. I got started as a ghostwriter because a publisher contacted me and asked me to ghostwrite. That probably won't happen to most of you.

The experts say that most people have about 250 people with whom they network. That includes your family, your friends, business acquaintances, and neighbors. If you have 250 people, each of them probably has connections with at least the same number (or more).

Which leads to my second suggestion: Ask your contacts for help. Let them know what you want to do. Think of it as spreading the word that you're seeking a new job.

Most people in your network won't be able to give you practical help, but there are often sources out there that you don't know about. Sometimes it's a friend who has a friend or someone who has a business associate. I've written several books because of a friend of a friend.

Once you start to produce a good product, people will notice. If you start with profiles, those pieces can lead to bigger opportunities. You don't have to seek only the famous or the notorious.

Look for the unusual—a curious hobby, a weird occupation, or an achievement that makes a person stand out.

The first article, of course, is the most difficult and challenging. Try a profile for a weekly throwaway newspaper, a community-oriented magazine, or an ezine to which you subscribe. Where I live, I receive two free print magazines each month that focus on our county. Both publish personal stories and profiles.

One woman got her start with a monthly, freebie magazine that covered a large district of her state (I don't remember which one). She sought out people who did unusual things, such as a couple in their eighties who still competed in ballroom dancing and a woman who had quilted for more than sixty years. Another time, she wrote about a ten-year-old girl who raised almost two thousand dollars for a family. Their rental home had burned and the owner's insurance didn't cover their furniture.

If I want to be a collaborator
I have to take the initiative and seek markets.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What Is the Downside of Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 4 of 4)

As a ghostwriter, we not only don't get publicity, but many have no editorial rights. That depends on the contract.

During my early years, I wrote manuscripts and after the celebrity okayed everything, I mailed them to the publisher. No one consulted me about any editing. I wasn't always pleased when I saw some of the changes, but there was nothing I could do.

Another downside is that a few authors demand endless rewrites. One famous leader insisted I sit in his office with him and his secretary. He read every sentence aloud—which took hours, while I followed on my laptop. The two of them discussed every sentence and decided whether to keep, delete, or change it.

On the spot, I made the changes they wanted. A month later, we went through a second oral reading. And finally a third. He was demanding in other ways, but that was the worst.

Despite such downsides, I've enjoyed a lucrative career as a ghostwriter. And I believe God has given me the temperament to work with others who want their stories or ideas written.

Friday, July 5, 2013

What Is the Downside of Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 3 of 4)

Another negative factor is that celebrities can be extremely demanding. And worse, they seem unaware of their behavior.

Here's one illustration. I had contracted with a publisher to ghostwrite a book on marriage. For almost a month after I signed the contract, I heard nothing. One day, I answered the phone and Big-name Celebrity said, "There is a Delta flight leaving Atlanta in three hours. I'll have someone meet your plane." He never asked about my availability. He expected my compliance.

After I arrived, he worked with me for perhaps an hour and left me to attend a business meeting. That went on for four days. I had a total of about five hours of taped interview time with him.

I decided to return to Atlanta the fifth day. "But I have a free hour tomorrow evening," he said.

He expected me to stay over for twenty-four hours to get one hour of his time. I tried to be diplomatic but firm and I went home. He couldn't understand why I would turn down the opportunity for one more hour with him.

Many celebrities have their small group of friends and those who work for them and shield them. They're used to giving commands and expecting compliance. They seem unable to change when dealing with others outside their intimate circle.

That's a serious downside.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What Is the Downside of Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 2 of 4)

Everything seems to have a downside and that includes ghostwriting. The most obvious is that ghostwriters don't get recognition or appreciation for their work.

First, even if their names are on the cover, most readers don't notice. Immediately, I think of a book signing in Atlanta. I sat on Don Piper's right and people in line came to me first. My name was on the cover of 90 Minutes in Heaven. I held out my hand to take a book from a woman to sign it and then pass it on to Don.

"Who are you?" she asked. "I don't want you to write in my book."

After I pointed to my name on the cover, she said, "I guess you did have something to do with it. Okay, go ahead and sign my book."

That remains one of my favorite stories.

Second, ghostwriters rarely receive opportunities to appear on talk shows, do interviews, or receive any publicity. Early in my ghostwriting career, one celebrity insisted that I sign a contract stating that I would not publicly acknowledge that I had written for him.

That part wasn't a problem for me, but for some writers, it's a deal breaker. "I wrote the book and I want credit," they say.

One ghost demanded that the publisher send him on the New York talk shows with the author and they complied. I watched one of the interviews on the Today Show. Matt Lauer nodded to the writer and said, "And you helped [name] with his book." Lauer turned to the author and the rest of the time the writer sat with a fixed smile on his face and said nothing.

"I was on the Today Show," he boasted.

Friday, June 28, 2013

What Are the Attractions to Ghostwriting/Collaborating? (Part 1 of 4)

Collaborators can make money—sometimes a lot of money. Some writers agree to a one-time payment. Immediately I think of two collaborators, both of whom wrote for lump sums just below 100,000 dollars. Nice pay.

Others charge a specific amount for a page of finished writing or rack up costs according to the hours they work. These are examples of those who do flat-fee projects. That is, once they finish the book and get paid, they receive no more money, even if the book sells 15 million copies.

The other method, and the only one I now accept, is to work on a split- royalty of 50 percent. That means every time someone buys a copy of the book, I earn money.

One other attraction for collaborators is that it makes some writers feel special to be connected with a famous person. It seems to add to their stature as writers. Because we live in such a celebrity-conscious society, that makes sense.

My remarks aren't to condemn or condone that attitude, but only to say that's a big attraction for some.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why Do People Need a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 3 of 3)

5. Some people want to have their book published so they can make money—a lot of money. That doesn't usually happen, but they're convinced they'll sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

More than once, a want-to-be-wealthy author has come to me with a book idea. "I know it will make a million dollars," the person says. "With my brilliant ideas and your writing skills, we can make it happen." He went on to say, "If you write the book, I'll give you half the profit." At least seven times, I've received such offers.

I've never taken on one of those projects.

First, the brilliant idea seems exceptional only to them.

Second, I don't take on writing projects with the attitude of making money. I need to earn a living (and I'll discuss the financial aspects in a later blog), but I've never taken a project only because I expected to make a lot of money.

I have taken several projects and once I got into the book, I knew it would be big. When I wrote Gifted Hands for Dr. Ben Carson, I sensed that it would be a big-selling book. Published in 1990, in hardback, soft cover, and mass paper, the book has never been out of print, and has sold several million copies.

In 2004, Revell Books released 90 Minutes in Heaven. I predicted, "This will become a fantastic seller or a giant flop." That book started the craze for the outpouring of stories about heaven and near-death experiences.

In 2010, the publisher of Gifted Hands issued a 20-year printing; in 2014, there will be a 10-year anniversary edition of 90 Minutes. That means both books are still making money for the publishers—and for the authors and for me.

Money is a factor when I write—
but not a major one.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Why Do People Need a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 2 of 3)

4. Another reason people hire collaborates is vanity. A mystique surrounds our profession. "He's written a book!" they exclaim with amazement and perhaps envy.

I've also discovered that those individuals usually don't want to tell the downside of their lives. They seem to have a compulsive need to emphasize only their triumphs and achievements. We refer to such projects as puff books.

I wrote one such book many years ago—not aware it would be a puff book when the publishing house hired me. The author never made bad decisions, although other people did. Friends betrayed him and associates lied, but he maintained his integrity.

I finally called the editor and she told me that it was a vanity project and assumed I knew it. (I was glad that happened in the days before my name was put on the cover.)

Shortly after that project, I turned down one man, who was willing to pay me well. "I want to have a book," he said, "because I want to be somebody."

He couldn't seem to grasp that he was already somebody. To hold up a published book wouldn't change him inside. (He finally hired someone else and had the book self-published. He still wants to be somebody.)

Even though I can earn money writing for others,
I turn down the people for whom I don't want to write.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why Do People Want a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 1 of 3)

Why do people hire writers to tell their stories or their ideas? That's an easy question to answer.

1. They need writers because they usually can't write the material themselves. Some people hire ghostwriters because they don't have the self-discipline to sit in front of a screen for hours at a time.

2. It's also easier for someone else to write an autobiography because they can write more objectively. The authors are sometimes too close to the subject or may want to include something important to them but not of interest to readers.

3. A few people have approached me to write for them because they are public speakers and they want books to sell at the back of the room. They know their gift is oral presentation; they know they don't have the skills for writing.

That makes sense. Once they've spoken (if they're good), people want to buy their CDs and their books—especially the books.

People need ghostwriters for good reasons.
I want to help them realize their desire for a book.

Friday, June 14, 2013

What Does It Take to Become a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 3 of 3)


I can't overemphasize that word. For collaborators to be effective, authors have to trust them. They don't want their secrets whispered to the media or shouted to their circle of acquaintances.

In my first meeting with authors, I assure them I'll never tell anything without their permission. That's my statement, but it's not enough. My behavior must prove my words.

With almost every book I've ghosted, the author has cried at some point and said, "I've never told anyone before, but . . ."

That's when I know the person trusts me; that's when I feel I'm at my best as a ghostwriter. The author accepts me as a person of integrity and as someone who cares. That's important to me.

When I write for others,
trust is the most important quality involved.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Does It Take to Become a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 2 of 3)

As a collaborator, sometimes I feel as if I'm a therapist. I not only listen, but I probe. I try to get the author to open up and to look inside—not a skill most people have. Many successful people are highly ambitious, goal oriented, and intense about what they do; they don't pause to look deeply inside themselves.

Similar to a therapist, I want to learn about them. I also want to be a gentle voice to help them figure out their issues and gain insight on solving them. That's not part of the job description, but it is a factor of my compassion for them.

As I listen and write what they tell me, I'm frequently amazed to have an author say, "I didn't know that was how I felt until I saw the words you wrote." When I hear such responses, I'm proud to be a ghostwriter.

As a collaborator, I listen, I accept, 
and I also help authors understand themselves.

Friday, June 7, 2013

What Does It Take to Become a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 1 of 3)

I'm amazed at the people who think they can become ghostwriters. "How hard can it be?" one writer asked. "You just take their words and write them."

"If that's all it was," I said, "they'd hire a transcriptionist."

What does it take to write well for other people? Although I've implied this in previous posts, I have two significant things to point out.

1. Good ghostwriting requires a person who can listen—I mean truly listen. It's more than merely absorbing the words, but sensing what isn't said as well as noticing the inflection of the voice, gestures, and attitudes. Someone said, "It's listening with the third ear."

For example, years ago I wrote the story of Velma Barfield, a woman convicted of murdering one man, and she later confessed to killing three others. Every Friday for seven weeks, I visited her while she was on death row. The fifth week, I asked about the death of her second husband.

"He had been a diabetic for years," Velma said. "He died from complications of the disease."

As I listened, something didn't ring true, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I asked her a second time and she said almost the same thing.

After I returned home, I listened to that portion of the tape four or five times.

Then I knew: Velma had murdered him. The only way I know to explain that moment was that God gave me the insight I needed. Not only did I realize that she had killed him, I also knew why she denied it.

Velma had killed the other three by pouring rat poison (which contained arsenic) into their iced tea. She had been trained as a practical nurse. For her second husband, she put the poison into his medicine. Because of her medical training, Velma was too ashamed to admit it.

The following week I asked Velma again about her second husband and she still denied the murder.

"No, you killed him," I said, "and I know the reason you don't talk about it."

Before I finished my explanation, tears flowed down her cheeks. "It is the only sin I haven't confessed." After more crying, she said, "I've been praying that somehow God would help me tell someone about killing him."

Velma hugged me and smiled before she said, "Now I'm ready to die."

2. Good collaboration also requires a person who can listen uncritically. As a ghostwriter, I don't always agree with the author but that doesn't matter: It's the author's book, not mine. It’s not my job to correct them; I am responsible to understand their meaning.

If I want to write for others,
I need to listen intuitively and uncritically.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why Am I a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 5 of 5)

One advantage is that collaborating helps to establish a writer's reputation. After I'd written a few books for others, editors knew the quality of my work. These days, when my agent submits a book proposal, most editors know what kind of book to expect.

Another significant factor about reputation is that editors know they can depend on me to get a finished manuscript to them before the deadline. In the publishing business that dependability factor is important. For example, I did 35 books for one publisher. Years later I learned why they turned to me. Their primary ghostwriter—who was a far better writer than I was—never met her deadlines.

Another factor beyond one publishing house: Most editors know what goes on within the industry. And they sometimes complain to each other about bad relationships. They also rave about the exceptional ones.

Even in those instances where the writer's name doesn't appear on the by-line, people inside the publishing industry know. Whether it's ghosting for Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer, editors and agents know who wrote their books.

I've developed some name recognition and insiders know who actually wrote those books. That's what counts.

Another thing is that even when I didn't get my name on a book's cover, I still listed those titles on my resume, which is one of the things to include when we propose a book to a publisher.

Collaborating builds my reputation as a writer.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Why Am I a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 4 of 5)

As I pointed out in a previous blog, one of the things I like about being a collaborator is that I keep learning. And the source of my information usually comes from or through the author.

For example, the first eight ghosted books I did were autobiographies. Most of the celebrities had such a wealth of experience, I hardly knew where to begin. I figured out one thing that helped me get that answer and be a learner at the same time.

When I met with Dr. Ben Carson, I asked him to give me a copy of the major published article he felt provided the most insight about him. He photocopied a feature article from the Sunday section of the Detroit Free Press newspaper. For his book Rebel with a Cause, Franklin Graham handed me an article from Gentlemen's Quarterly. "That writer caught me better than anyone else," Franklin said.

I also do objective research so I can have a broader perspective. When I wrote With Byrd at the Bottom of the World for Norman Vaughan, the last surviving member of Admiral Byrd's historic trip to the South Pole in 1928–1930, I read Byrd's memoir, Alone, as well as three books on Antarctica. Norman supplied me with the May 1930 issue of National Geographic, which was devoted to the white continent.

I could have written Norman's book without those resources, but they enriched my understanding and improved the content. I felt I had been to Antarctica even though a decade passed before I finally visited the country.

I'm a lifetime learner;
I continue to find ways to stretch my understanding.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why Am I a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 3 of 5)

I have two more reasons for being a ghostwriter.

6. It's fun. I like people and I enjoy writing for others. In fact, for one ten-year period I didn't do any of my own books. I spent those years peeking inside other people's hearts.

7. My final reason for being a ghostwriter is money. I earn more money as a ghostwriter than I do from my own projects. I'm now well known within the publishing industry. That means I attract authors with higher profiles and our books garner bigger sales.

I enjoy the kind of writing I do. 
The more I enjoy my genre, the more I want to write.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Why Am I a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 2 of 5)

Here are three more reasons I'm a collaborator.

3. I love the challenge of writing for another person. Almost anyone can get the information; the real work is to get inside another's heart and mind. Part of being a ghostwriter is to be able to think like the author.

The most difficult task is to see the world through another's eyes. We call that empathy; every writer doesn't have that ability.

Here's an example. In the last chapter of a book I wrote for Philadelphia school principal, Salome Thomas-EL (I Choose to Stay), I told the story of an inner-city student named Otis, who was Salome's first former-pupil to graduate from college. Despite Otis's protests that it was a long way to travel to the university, Salome attended the graduation ceremony. When I wrote that story, I tried to write it from the heart and not merely describing the event.

After he read that portion, Salome said, "It's the best part of the book. You brought out feelings I knew were there, but I didn't know how to express them." That's what I work hard to accomplish.

4. I also collaborate to hone my skills. I've learned more about the proper use of words as a ghostwriter than I could have grasped in writing my own material. Someone said it to me this way: "Your skills as a writer get on-the-job fine tuning, while someone else pays for the tune-up."

5. Ghostwriting provides the opportunity to confront or change my thinking. I can promote causes I advocate. Immediately, I think of a series of books I wrote for a pharmacologist during the 1990s. He studied addiction from the perspective of brain chemicals. I learned many things about the brain and addiction that I would never have studied on my own.

I was then able to present material in nonscientific terms to enlighten others or alter their way of thinking.

As a collaborator I learn about others;
in the process, I improve my writing skills.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why Am I a Ghostwriter/Collaborator? (Part 1 of 5)

I never planned to become a ghostwriter and I had published ten books before I ever ghosted for anyone. My story goes like this. I sent a full manuscript of a novel to the senior editor of a publishing house.

He came to Atlanta (where I live) and took me to lunch. He pitched the manuscript back to me. "I'm not interested in your novel." Before I could react, he said, "But I'd like you to ghostwrite a book for us."

I said yes, even though I didn't know anything about ghostwriting. I decided I could figure it out on my own. And I did.

That's the background and I've ghosted probably 70 books.

So why do I ghostwrite? I can give you several reasons.

1. Ghostwriting is a way to discover more about the world and other people. I'm a curious person and I've learned about a variety of things I would never have investigated on my own. Because of being a ghostwriter, I've written diet books as well as those on the topics of medicine, addiction, physical fitness, and sports.

2. Ghostwriting helps me grow. As I learn about another person, I'm able to understand more about myself. That statement may sound strange, but the more fully I attempt to comprehend how another person feels, the more I figure out my own feelings and my motives. It also seems to help me understand more about God.

As I open myself to other people, 
I also open up to myself.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What Does a Ghostwriter or Collaborator Do?

I want to make one further distinction about being a collaborator. I've written four books for Don Piper. The first one lists Don as the author "with" Cecil Murphey.

The other three are Don Piper and Cecil Murphey. Here's the difference. Collaborating (or ghostwriting) means the author provides the ideas and concepts. The writer does the writing—and meets the requirements of the author.

Starting with book two, I added a great deal of material. Sometimes I'd have Don Piper say, "My co-writer tells a story . . ." or something similar. The word and on the by-line established that I added content to the book.

Thus collaboration can mean simply that the writers' name is on the spine of the book (using with before the writer's name) or it can mean that the writer contributed materials (using and before the writer's name).

Do buyers understand that distinction? Probably not. But I do, and so do most editors. Even if no one else understands, to put my name on the cover of books I write is honorable and honest.

Readers may not know the distinction, but I do. 
Therefore, it's important to me.

* * * * *

Writer to Writer: Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, Cec's new book for writers, is now available through OakTara, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Experience as a Ghostwriter

I became a ghostwriter in 1981 when I wrote the autobiography of a famous country-and-western singer. That was long before our names began to appear with a by-line.

After the editor explained how the system worked, I thought about the project. It was an important question in my growth as a person and as a writer. I finally asked myself, "Can I write a book and not care who gets credit?"

After serious reflection, I decided I could. In retrospect, I believe it was a wise decision. For a decade I wrote a number of books for celebrities without recognition, and I was fine with that.

In 1990, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story was the first book to carry my by-line as the writer. The font for my name was tiny but it was there. The original publisher, Review & Herald, insisted that it was the honorable and honest thing to do and I didn't object.

Even though my name was there—and it's still on editions published by Zondervan and by HarperCollins—readers often don't notice.

My shift in thinking took place in 1996. I had written a book for a celebrity, who wasn't easy to please. We finally finished the book and in the acknowledgments he credited me with writing a "first draft" of the book. (I also wrote four other full drafts before I satisfied him.)

That book won a number of awards. The author claimed credit and received the awards for my words. That's when I reflected a second time. I had written books for others and didn't mind readers not knowing. But this time, the author received credit he didn't deserve and didn't acknowledge me.

Was I participating in deceit by not having my name on his book? I decided I was. I didn't need the recognition, but I did want honesty. For me, the issue became one of integrity.

That was in 1996, and I changed agents shortly after that. Deidre Knight, my new agent, told me at our first meeting, "You will not write another book for anyone without a by-line." We've held to that.

My integrity is more important than money or name recognition.