Friday, February 27, 2009

Story Structure

I’m in the mood to talk about story structure. Every story has five elements, theme, plot, point of view, characters and setting. Some people say there are only four, leaving out point of view. If you leave it out, we can roll it up into either the characters, making the narrator a character, or into the setting, since our point of view determines how we perceive our setting. For this discussion, we’ll keep it separate.


In every story, the theme is the most important element. The theme or message is the backbone of the story. It gives the story purpose. This is true with all stories including that of a woman recounting her shopping trip to her husband.

I went to the first store and I found this skirt I liked, but I wasn’t sure about the color. I decided to look in another store. I would the same skirt in another store, but it cost more. I went back to the first store and they had already sold the skirt. I went back to the other store and bought the skirt.

What is the theme of this story? She wants to tell her husband I had a hard day shopping. She could have just said that and her husband would believe her, but he wouldn’t understand. She uses the story to help him understand.

When we tell a story to a friend, we usually know why we are telling the story before the first word comes out of our mouth. The same should be true when we write a novel. Our theme may be a heated religious or political statement may be something less debated, but if we don’t know what it is, we will likely be all over the map with the other elements. When this happens, our writing may appear preachy.

Think of theme as a statement that we must prove. Just the woman used the story of looking for a skirt to prove she had a difficult day shopping, the tale we tell attempts to prove or disprove our theme statement. The Romance genre often has the theme a woman’s life is better with a man. The stories prove this statement by showing the woman’s life before she meets Mr. Right, showing the problems they face coming together, showing that worse problems exist if they separate and then showing that it is possible to resolve the problems and live happily. Though we may not conclude that every woman’s life will be better with a man, we conclude that the theme is true for the woman in the story.


Plot is what happens, but we must go a step farther. Because we have selected the theme already, plot is what happens that helps to prove our theme statement. The woman with the shopping story above didn’t tell her husband that she met her best friend and they had lunch together. That seems like an important event, but it does nothing to prove that she had a hard day shopping. Just as she leaves that out of her story, we must leave out the things that are not related to the theme.

Notice that I didn’t say we must leave out things that do not support the theme. We must be careful that we consider the opposing views. I mentioned the Romance genre above. Often, romance novels begin with the protagonist doing okay. Perhaps she is a successful business woman. Her peers respect her and she lives in an upscale gated community. None of these supports the idea that her life would be better with a man. If anything, it seems to support the idea that she doesn’t need a man, but when she calls her best friend and her friend tells her she doesn’t have time to talk because her husband is taking her out to eat, we start to realize that something is missing. In our plot, we use events that show that even with the arguments against her needing a man, she needs one anyway.

Point of View

Point of view is the eyes through which we see the story unfold. Some people have the idea that third person limited is the only way to tell a story. We see the story through the eyes of the narrator. The narrator can be a part of the story, in which case the point of view will be either first person or third person objective. If the third person narrator knows the thoughts of one or more of the characters it is called third person omniscient. It only the thoughts of one character is known it is third person limited omniscient or third person limited for short.

We can also think of point of view in a more fluid way. An invisible narrator sitting in a corner of the room has a different view than one sitting between the protagonist and antagonist. We can think of point of view as a type of omniscient camera that can move around the room and get into people’s heads. It is up to us as writers to pick the right spot for that camera.

The theme helps us to pick the point of view. In the shopping story above, the first person point of view was necessary for the woman to convey her pain. He wouldn’t have gotten the same picture if the woman’s best friend had told about the woman’s day.


Characters are the people who live out the story. We want to use interesting characters, but we must also be careful that our characters fit with the plot and the theme. The woman telling about her shopping trip could have put a talking horse in her story, but what would be the point. Instead, she told the story with only her in it. The talking horse wouldn’t fit with her plot and theme.


The setting is where the story takes place. It too must fit with our plot and theme. We wouldn’t tell about a bank robbery taking place in the middle of the ocean. But we might have one in outer space, making the story sci-fi. We can do anything in outer space.


Of the five elements of a story, the theme is the most important, so pick a good one. Once the theme is chosen, the other elements begin to fall into place.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Message and the Story

Many moons ago when I was still a young pup, I went to breakfast at church camp and sat at a table with three preachers I knew. I liked stories with a moral, at the time, so I paid special attention when one of them asked, “Do you want to hear a story with a moral?”

I nodded.

“Someone put a block of baloney on a plate and stuck a fork in it. Before long, a fly came along, ate his fill, crawled up the fork and tried fly, but he fell and broke neck. Another fly came along and did the same thing. Then another and another until there were many flies lying dead on the table. Do you know what the moral to that story is?”

“No,” I said.

“Don’t fly off the handle when you’re full of baloney.”

Let’s think about this story. What if we were to change this story and instead of baloney we put cheese on the plate. Instead of a fork, we will put a toothpick in the cheese. The flies eat the cheese and die after flying off the toothpick. It’s essentially the same story, but without the message. Nothing really happens other than a bunch of flies die. Who cares?

I our drive to create stories that are less preachy, it is easy for us to think that the story is more important than the message. We might think, it’s okay to have a message, but it shouldn’t get in the way of the story. That is the wrong attitude. Every good story has a message. The message is the backbone of the story. It defines where we are going with our story. Notice the story I told above. I told a story about a man telling a story. Why? The story I told had to go along with my message, which is that the message is the backbone of the story. I could have told you about when my dog died, but you would wonder what that has to do with anything.

The message controls many decisions we must make about the story. If we want someone to see the importance of keeping their tires properly inflated, we are going to tell about something that happened to us or someone else because someone failed to inflate the tires properly. We aren’t going to tell about the time we went horse back riding. Both may be very interesting stories, but the message dictates which one we tell. The same is true in novels we write, but it is at a much larger scale.

In a novel, we have a central message that controls the direction of the novel. The central message has sub-messages that we see in each of the scenes. Let’s take the romance novel as an example. The central message is likely to be through compromise two people can learn to get along. Within the first few chapters we are likely to see a message like Alice is doing okay, but she is lonely. Then we might see a message like life isn’t lonely with Bill around, but Alice can’t stand him, followed by with Bill gone, Alice is more lonely than before. Finally we see, compromise as brought Bill and Alice together.

What if we take our romance novel and throw in Alice goes to Bible study and it brings her closer to God? It doesn’t fit and our story suddenly becomes preachy. A preachy novel isn’t the result of trying to put a message in the story, rather it a result of moving away from the message and trying to say something else. Every story should have one and only one message. The messages of the scenes and sub-plots must support the central message of our story. If that is not the case, we may just be full of baloney.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Do You Know?

Over the past few years, I have received many questions from people along the lines of “I’ve done some bad things. Does that mean I’m not saved?” Some people will ask, “How can I know that I’m saved?” When I receive a question like this, I try to help the person as much as I can, often providing the like above. I know that many of these people would like for me to tell them, “Yes, you are saved,” but I can’t do that.

The thing that fascinates me about the people who ask this question is that they are church people. These aren’t drug dealers and jail birds coming to us looking for some kind of assurance of their salvation. These people might be one people who sat near you at church last Sunday. It is sad, but there are many people who attend church and don’t know whether they will make it into heaven or not. Even worse, there are pastors and choir members who will not make it into heaven (Matthew 7:22, 23).

I was reading a blog post that talked about how much the Christian novel has changed over the years. It mentioned that there is a much wider variety than there once was and that while some Christian author’s used to have all Christian characters, newer Christian novels have some characters who aren’t Christians. The blogger seemed to see this as a good thing. To some extent I agree, but I thought about these questions I occasionally answer and I thought about Matthew 7:22, 23. Many will say to Me in that Day, `Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name done many wonderful works?' And then will I profess unto them, `I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.' I wondered about how many people will stand before the Lord and say, “Lord, didn’t I write novels in your name?”

It isn’t my intention to pick authors out and say, “I think this one is saved and that one is not.” That is not my place, but one reader was telling me the other day about some Christian novels she has read in which the author stated something along the lines of you’ve got to have faith, but failed to demonstrate that she knew what we are to place our faith in. Faith is worthless without something to back it up. Maybe some of the “improvements” we are seeing in Christian books aren’t true improvements at all.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Once upon a time...

The fire flickered in the fireplace as the children gathered around the old man. They crowded in close, sitting on the floor. One of the smaller children, a girl, climbed into the old man’s lap while still clutching her favorite doll. The adults had been talking about other things, more important things, like the price of corn or the person who should be the next President, but they too grew silent. The old man stroked his beard a couple of times, straightened his suspenders and began, “Once upon a time…”

There’s something about a story that stirs the imagination. Long before there was television, there were stories. After a long day working, people would sit around telling stories. For that matter, people would tell stories while they were working and still do. Some were true. Some were not, but they told stories. Jesus told stories as he went around teaching. One of the best ways to teach something is to tell a story.

We turn to television for entertainment today, but watching an actor act out a story isn’t the same as allowing that story to play in your mind. Actors have been around for a long time, but storytelling lives on. I don’t know what form it will take in the future, but I think we will always have a form of verbal storytelling in which the actors are not on stage but in the mind of the hearer or reader. The pictures that come to the mind are so much more vivid than what we ever see on television, on stage or at a movie.

Some people are worried about what will happen to books. I don’t know if we will always have novels, but we will always have stories in which there is nothing but the words and the reader’s imagination. Stories give us a way to reach an audience like nothing else can. So let us begin, “Once upon a time…”

Monday, February 23, 2009

Publishers Don't Pay Authors

Book A

Book B

Author Marketing Hours



Publisher Marketing Hours



Marketing @ $50/Hour



I had an epiphany the other day and it has caused me to rethink a few things. Publishers don’t pay authors. When a publisher signs an author, the publisher cuts a check for the advance. This looks very much like the publisher paying the author. It is often structured such that the author doesn’t receive the full amount until the book reaches various phases. This makes it look even more like the author is getting paid for completing the revisions. In actual fact, the advance is, exactly what the name implies, a loan. The publisher is loaning the author money, with the belief that they can recoup the loan by not giving the author royalties for the first books off the line.

Let’s suppose the author decides to forego the advance. That’s going to make the author’s agent unhappy, but let’s suppose he does. Now, with each book that sells, the publisher owes the author some amount of money. Let’s say it’s $1. This $1 goes to the intellectual property owner, not the author. In many cases, the author is the intellectual property owner, but the publisher will be paying out $1 per book whether the owner wrote the book himself, paid someone to write it (ghost writer) or inherited it from his great uncle Bob.

Unless the author gives up his intellectual property rights to a work, we can’t reasonably expect a publisher to pay the author for the time he puts into creating the manuscript. Let’s look instead at the work the publisher requires of the author after the contract is signed. Let’s suppose the publisher has two similar books and needs to sell 10,000 copies of each. Book A’s intellectual property owner is the author. Book B’s intellectual property owner is a 102 year old woman in a nursing home. From experience, the publisher knows that 100 man-hours are needed to market a book of this type. That gives us the table above:

This is an oversimplification, but in essence, the more time the author puts into marketing or editing or whatever, the less time the publisher has to put into it. In this example, the publisher realizes a savings of $4,500 on the book written by an active author versus the one written by the practically dead grandma. The good news for the publisher is that he gets to keep that savings. The bad news for the author is that publishers have been relying on this saving for so long that they can’t afford to pay their authors for the work they do.

What can we take from this? The author’s highest priority must be to increase and protect the value of her intellectual property. We do that first and foremost by improving the quality of our writing. We also need to focus our writing on what we write best. Our goal should be to become the go-to-guy for whatever it is we write. Instead of sending a manuscript off to our agent asking if it’s good enough to sell, what we want is for publishers coming to our agent and asking, “What’s your author working on and what will it take for us to get it?”

As much as we would like to tell publishers that we won’t work for nothing, we can’t do that. It turns out that the value of our intellectual property is directly proportional to a publisher’s ability to make a profit from it. The more the author is able to do for the publisher, the more profit the publisher makes and the more valuable the intellectual property will be. If the author has a huge platform, the author doesn’t need a traditional publisher to make lots of money from his intellectual property. Why doesn’t he then self-publish and take the higher percentage on each book? Big platform people are busy doing other things. They don’t want to take time away from their higher prioritites to learn to publish a book when there are experts who are willing to do it for them. For the rest of us nobodies, the value of our intellectual property isn’t high enough yet and we will languish in obscurity until we we find a way to raise it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part V)

Twain simply listed his last seven rules and I think I will also. An author should:

  • Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

  • Use the right word, not its second cousin.

  • Eschew surplusage.

  • Not omit necessary details.

  • Avoid slovenliness of form.

  • Use good grammar.

  • Employ a simple, straightforward style.

These rules are closely related. We can summarize them by saying pay attention to details. We know that Twain advised killing most adjectives and adverbs. That is part of what he mean by Eschew surplusage, though he meant more than that. We have many words and phrases that we use in our spoke language that we don’t really need in conveying our message with written language. These words and phrases find their way into our work.

Some of the rules we don’t see in Twain’s list are things like maintain a consistent point of view, avoid speaker attributes and avoid “be” verbs. Maybe these are the three that Twain didn’t include in his nineteen rules, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. There are plenty of rules out there and how important they are is highly subjective. I don’t care how well you apply rules, someone is going to say you didn’t apply them well enough. Instead of holding up the rules and saying, “Look, I applied all the rules,” go ahead and apply the rules and see if it improves your work. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, fix it. Then forget everything you know about the rules, hand your work to someone and say, “I believe this is worth your consideration.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part IV)

Moving on to Twain’s ninth rule, we see an admonition against dues ex machine.

The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

Twain is telling us that we should obey the rules of the world we have created. Twain used miracles some in his own writing, such as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court, so he isn’t against fantasy as much as he is against things that happen without cause.

I saw an example of a problem in a television show I was watching the other day. The show was portraying the fall of the City of Troy. The show had a villain who moved between the two camps through a door (painted to look like stone) that someone had put in the wall of the city. I can’t help but wonder why anyone would bother building a horse to roll into the city when all they had to do was walk through the hidden door. We also have to wonder about the builder who would put a door like that in a wall built to keep out the enemy. So it seems that we have a bit of magic that exists to give our villain a pathway between the two camps. That is something we should avoid in our own writing.

The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

I’ll call this one, Save the cat. Kill the rabbit. Blake Snyder tells us that if we want people to like our characters we should have introduce the character with a scene in which he does something we expect likeable people to do, such as saving a cat from something. On the other hand, if we want people to dislike our character, we can have him do something despicable, such as killing a red shirt for the fun of it. Maybe we have him boil the pet rabbit.

Whether the character is good or bad, we don’t want people to be unfeeling toward the character. And we don’t want people to hope the good guy loses or that the bad guy wins.

When we write a series the chances are greater that we will fail in this regard. I noticed this when I read Brandilyn Collins’ Amber Morn. If you haven’t read the book, the book is about a man who holds the people at a coffee shop hostage in hopes of getting his son released from prison. Not having read the other three books in the series, I was cheering for the protagonist, but he dies in the end. I didn’t care for the patrons of the coffee shop. It was after I read the book and read other people’s comments that I realized I was looking at it in the “wrong” way. If I had read the series I might have felt some affinity for the patrons, but in Amber Morn they don’t do anything to make me want to like them. I think what that tells us is that we need to fully develop our characters in every book, instead of assuming our readers already know our characters.

The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

This is a rule where I need to improve. When we look at Twain’s characters, they aren’t like real people. They are more like caricatures of real people. Dickens’ characters are the same way. The problem with real characters is that people are so fickle. In real life, if someone were to do something unexpected, we would dismiss it. Maybe she isn’t feeling well. Maybe she misunderstood. When reading a novel we are much more likely to question why a character does something. If we question then we want an explanation.

When the characters are clearly defined we expect a character to react a certain way. Since we are expecting him to do something, we don’t question when he actually does it. Then when the character does something that we aren’t expected, it makes it that much more interesting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part III)

Today, I’m continuing our talk about Mark Twain’s eighteen rules of writing. We begin with his sixth rule, a rule that is very familiar.

When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

Can you see it? This is Twain’s version of the immensely popular show, don’t just tell rule. If we have a character that we have described as a delicate flower and then she comes in cussing like a sailor, we have violated this rule. Perhaps we think it’s funny to have a delicate flower let loose and come out of her shell for no apparent reason, but the reader will not be amused.

I saw a little of this problem with Lori Wick’s The Princess. The book begins with us seeing this sweet girl with a great relationship with her parents and other people. It is for this reason that she is selected to marry the prince. Then later in the book we see her explode when her husband changes her schedule without asking. She goes from being this good natured person to being hot tempered. There is inconsistency in what the author has told us about the character and the way the character acts.

When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.

This rule also deals with consistency in a character, but this deals with the character’s language. If a character says, “y’all” in one place, we don’t want him to say “you” in another and then “ye” somewhere else. All three words have the same meaning and are interchangeable, but our characters will have a preference for one over the other. That preference may be driving by the geographical location or the training of the character. Our character’s choice of words not only say something about him, but they will probably not change during the space of our story.

We can also take this as being a rule to justify changes to the character. If changes are taking place and we aren’t showing the reader why the character is changing then we aren’t telling the most important part of the story.

Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

We might restate this rule as respect the intelligence of the reader. Twain talks about Cooper’s Indians being unable to jump safely onto a boat that would have been about the length of two eighteen wheelers and at most three feet below them. Most of them ended up in the water, after the boat had passed. With that he makes his point as to why we must think through the events we create. Our readers are going to be looking at what we write.

In television we have a classic example. How many times have you watched a television show and the guy with a gun puts it away so he can beat up some guy with his fists. We are left with the question, why not just shoot him?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part II)

Today, I’m continuing our talk about Mark Twain’s eighteen rules of writing. We begin with his third rule.

The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

Have you ever had a character that doesn’t stand out? The character has a name, but we might as well have name her, Woman #5 since no one is going to remember her anyway. Maybe we put her in the story to give another character someone to talk to and all Woman #5 does is say, “I agree.” The other character might as well be talking to a corpse.

We can fix Woman #5. First, let’s give her a name, like Barbara. Next, let’s make her interesting by giving her a peg leg. Lastly, let’s give her some thoughts and motives of her own. Maybe Barbara secretly hopes the other character’s boyfriend will break up with her and ask Barbara out. That’s a lot better than a corpse.

The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

This could be the same as saying to keep characters to a minimum, but there is more to it than that. Maybe a man is walking down the street and he sees a co-worker. The co-worker happens to be with his pastor. The man and co-worker talk about something that is going on at work and they go on their merry way. So why is the pastor there? Unless he plays a role in the story somewhere else, we might as well remove the pastor from the scene or the reader will wonder about him. If he doesn’t have a reason for being there, let’s take him out.

When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

There isn’t much I can say to Twain’s fifth rule. Dialogue should sound like talking rather than writing. But dialogue should also help to move the story along. We don’t want our characters engaged in small talk, unless the use of small talk is an important part of the story.

I like how he says the conversation should “stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.” We like to fill out our scenes and it is easy to try to make conversation extend past what if would naturally extend. Once we get past the relevant stuff, it’s time to bring it to a halt.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part I)

Authors, agents and editors talk much about the rules of writing. Most of us will agree that these rules are more like guidelines than laws set in stone. What we can’t agree on is what the rules are and what they mean. Oh well, such is life.

Mark Twain said there are nineteen rules, though some people say there are twenty-two. He doesn’t say what the nineteenth rule is, though I doubt he knew since he mentions it in a critique of James Fenimore Cooper’s work. I think he chose the number nineteen to bring attention to how poorly written he believed Deerslayer to be. Twain does give us the eighteen he said Jame Fenimore Cooper violated. I see among them some of the same rules we keep spouting today, so I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at Twain’s eighteen rules governing the literary art in the domain of romantic fiction over the next few days. As we do, I will say that knowing the rules and understanding them is a far cry from being able to apply them to our own writing.

A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

We might restate Twain’s first rule by saying that a story is about change. More specifically, our stories should be about how our characters change. Let’s look at the romance plot, for example. We can tell about a man who takes a job at a new company, meets a co-worker with whom he has a lot in common, takes her on a few dates and asks her to marry him. It meets the requirements of a romance, but it isn’t very interesting. Compare that to a man who dislikes children taking a job at a new company, meeting a widow with five children. While he finds her attractive and an enjoyable person to be around, he doesn’t want to get involved. She has to go out of town for a couple of weeks and she asks him if he will take care of the kids while she is gone. He learns to like the kids and now he is willing to get romantically involved with the woman.

At the beginning of any good story, there is at least one character with something wrong with him or her that will prevent us from reaching the desired end of the tale. An event called the inciting incident incites the characters to change. Change never comes easy, but when if it comes our character will be able to accomplish what he could not accomplish before he made the change.

The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

Kurt Vonnegut stated this as Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. This is one of the traps we fall into when we get concerned about word count and start looking for filler, but backstory is also part of this. We have a tendency to think the reader needs to understand why our character is the way he is, so we give backstory that the reader doesn’t need. We also have a tendency to get caught up in the world we create and we want to explore it more than we should. I mean all of us when I say we. Popular books are not exempt from this problem.

We see the backstory problem in Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. This book, which is loosely based on the story of Hosea, has been popular for quite a while. The heart of this book is about the female character learning to accept the love of a man. The problem lies in that the first section of the book is about her early life and the events that led to her becoming a prostitute. It is a huge section of backstory that could have been chopped off.

The problem with the author spending too much time exploring his imaginary world can be seen in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. This book is also popular. It has been made into two movies and had derivative movies made based on the characters in the book. I love this book, but near the center of the book you will find some chapters that didn’t make it into any of the movies. These chapters are sketches showing us what daily life might be like if we lived in Fantasia. Any conflict that exists is localized and there is nothing moving the primary story forward.

Obviously, having a few scenes that aren’t needed isn’t always the death of the work in the eyes of publishers, but our work can only be helped by looking for such instances and removing them.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Rejoice With Those Who Rejoice

One of the most influential men in my life passed away last month. It made me think about some of the other people who have influenced me. I think about some of the people who I look at and think, “I ought to be more like that.” These are the people that make me feel guilty because I don’t live at that high of standard.

The thing I have noticed about these people is that they all love people. It’s easy for us to love some people, like our family and friends, but what about other people? What about people we might see as being in the way of our dreams?

In a blog post announcing the sale of his novel, Richard Mabry writes “there are bound to be some of my readers who are thinking, Why him? Why not me?” Read his post and you’ll see that he has paid his dues, but the simple truth is that, if I had been asked to make a list of the authors I think deserve a publishing contract, I would have put Richard Mabry right at the top of the list. What isn’t so easy is to have that same attitude with some of the other authors I encounter and yet that is the Christian attitude.

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than himself. – Philippians 2:3

Our natural temptation is to cheer others on when we think it will help us. You know, karma and all that stuff. We might pat someone on the back in hope that the person will remember us when they make it big and repay the favor, but that isn’t the right attitude at all. If we pay close attention to what Paul told the Philippians, our goal isn’t to make ourselves better than others or to be seen as more important than others. We are to see others as more important than we are.

We want to think that when one author gets an agent in two years, we ought to get one in a year. If one author gets $100,000 for a book, then we ought to get $200,000. That author is no more important than I am, so why should she get more than me? But the proper attitude is good for her; she deserves it more than I do.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What I Hate About Searching For An Agent

This is the last post about searching for an agent (I think) and then I’ll get back to more interesting stuff.

Originally, I planned to post something about how much I hate searching for an agent. I was going to talk about all of the rules we are supposed to follow to keep from offending an agent. I was going to say something about how some agents treat their potential clients in an unprofessional manner, even calling them kids. I’ve decided instead to talk about metrics.

It sounds boring, doesn’t it? But authors seem to like metrics as much as engineers do. The difference is that engineers keep meaningful metrics. Authors track Amazon Sales Rank (a completely useless metric) and the number of rejection letters they receive (which is almost as useless).

At what point are we supposed to count a rejection? If I send out a query and a literary agent writes back, “I don’t represent fiction,” is that a rejection? I would say not, unless you sent him a memoir. In that case, it isn’t only a rejection, it is outright cruel. So what if an agent sends a note back saying, “I am unable to consider taking on additional clients at this time,” is that a rejection? Once again, no. What if the statement is, “it isn’t right for me?” This is the classic rejection statement, but without knowing why the agent sent this message, it is impossible to know if it is a true rejection. The agent might have written, “It isn’t right for me, but it looks like a good story. Could you send a copy of your manuscript so I can finish reading it?” Rejection? Nope.

The simple answer is that we shouldn’t count responses to query letters in our rejection tallies. Now we move on to proposals. It might be more meaningful to count rejections here, but since we’ve eliminated rejections based on query letters, we don’t have a full picture. If one agent requests a copy of the manuscript and one agent rejects it, that is a lot different from ten agents requesting a copy and one agent rejecting it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Fun Part of Seeking an Agent

As I talked about yesterday, I’ve been sending out query letters. Some literary agents want a synopsis sent with the query letter, while other do not, but it’s a safe bet that an author is going to need one eventually. The nice thing is that writing the synopsis is one of the few fun things we get to do while we’re searching for an agent. The synopsis is like the soul of the story with all of the external packaging torn away.

However long a novel might be, whether it is 80,000 words, 120,000 words or just over 50,000 words, we reach the end and we have all these little details running through our heads. Did I change her eyes from green to blue everywhere? Would he be watching a football game on television at that time of year? Is there enough time to have the whole story take place during summer vacation or do I have to send the kid back to school before it’s over? We lose track of the story and we ask ourselves, if it is any good or if we just wasted twenty dollars by printing off all 328 pages of our manuscript.

Then we sit down to write they synopsis. We pull out our trusty outline and right there at the top we see “Opening Image: Scene One – Fox is mourning the loss of his grandchildren.” This won’t do. Our character is in a bad place. He may have some problems he needs to fix, but we don’t want to see him hurting. So what happens next? We move down a ways and see that the Catalyst is around Scene Eight. “Amber shows up with a girl who may be Fox’s granddaughter.” Things are looking up for our protagonist, but then we realize that things may not be what they seem. Amber is a con-artist and she may be just trying to get money or something else. We have to keep going to find out. Fox talks to his family and the lawyers. He eventually comes to a decision. He intends to prove that Amber is lying, but he’ll have to investigate to find out. We have to know what happens next.

One we go. Each step of the way we find something that makes us want to keep moving through the outline. Then we reach a scene where we see that Fox has changed. His attitude is different and he seems to have solved his problem, though not in the way we thought he would. We no longer feel the need to look for what happens next, but then we realize that we’ve run out of outline. There is no more. The story is done. As we sit there and think about the short page that makes up our synopsis, we realize that all of our doubts about our story not being good have disappeared.

Maybe it isn’t as dark as so much of the stuff Christian publishers are producing these days. Maybe it isn’t a historical romance about Amish vampires. Maybe it isn’t about abortion or gays in the church or spiritual warfare. Maybe it’s about something much more mundane like treating all people will respect, no matter what their social status. Who knows, maybe that will keep it from ever being more than a stack of papers held together by binder clips, but our synopsis has told us it’s a good story and isn’t our goal to create good stories?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Purpose of the Query Letter

I’ve been sending out query letters. The jargon is different, but sending out query letters is equivalent to the government or a business making an announcement that they are looking for a contractor to do a job for them. Government agencies and businesses put announcements on websites and in newspapers. Authors attend conferences and send out query letters.

With both processes, there is the possibility that no one will submit a bid, or in literary agent jargon, offer representation. This is probably more common with literary agents, but there are often government sponsored projects where a bureaucrat dreams up a project that no one knows how to implement. Likewise, publishers are especially reluctant to take a risk on authors without a proven track record and a recognizable name, so agents are reluctant to represent them.

Some agents know they aren’t going to offer representation to unknown author and have published notices saying so on their websites. I am trying to respect that, so the fact that I am not sending a query letter to Chip MacGregor, for example, has nothing to do with my opinion of his skill as a literary agent, but is because of a statement on his website saying:

MacGregor Literary works primarily with established authors. While our clients write in a variety of genres, each writes from a Christian perspective. We occasionally accept new clients at the start of their careers, generally from referrals of current clients. Regretfully, we cannot invest in the staffing needed to handle unsolicited queries or proposals. (

I wish I could say that when I send a query letter it is because I respect the agent for his or her ability. In truth, I have sent letters to literary agents I know nothing about. Some literary agents have websites that say very little. With some, I don’t even know if they have a website. I sent one query letter and within minutes of sending the e-mail I received a reply saying, “I don’t represent fiction.” That’s why we send query letters. This guy’s website didn’t say what he represents, so sending a query letter provided me with additional information, though I will say that I don’t think any agent is under an obligation to respond to a query letter.

Literary agents will sometimes place a statement on their websites indicating what they want in terms of a query letter. Fortunately, most want pretty much the same thing, so they aren’t very hard to accommodate. I’ve heard things that indicate that some agents are picky about various things. If I happen to find a literary agent who is difficult to accommodate, I’m not going to be overly concerned about it. The last thing I would want is an agent with a bad attitude.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My Form Query Letter

This blog has been something of an journal of my writing activities, I thought it appropriate to post my form query letter for my latest novel. This is the letter that I am sending to agents. If you happen to be a literary agent and you haven't gotten your own personal copy with all of the information filled in then there are several possibilities. I may not know about you. I may know about you but I read the statement on your website that says something like "I'm making so much money with my existing clients that I don't want to look for more." Of course it could be that I just don't like you very much. If you want your own copy, you're welcome to ask for one, but for the rest of you, this is all you get.
Timothy Fish
[My Address]
[My City, State Zip]
[My Phone Number]
[My E-mail Address]


[Agent’s Name]
[Agent’s Company]
[Company Address]
[City], [ST] [Zip]

Dear [Agent’s Name],

I am seeking representation for Cowtown Homecoming, an 82,000-word mystery novel aimed at Christian adults.

Fort Worth businessman Fox Jacobs is king of the world around him, but as the book opens he is mourning the death of his four grandchildren. A homeless woman comes to his home with a girl she claims Fox’s daughter-in-law left in her care prior to a fatal accident that occurred twelve years earlier. Torn between a desire to separate himself from people he sees as undesirable and a fear of losing yet another grandchild, Fox takes the woman and child into his home. With the help of others, Fox investigates the events that surrounded the death of his daughter-in-law while trying to keep the admitted con-artist from ingratiating herself to his son and walking away with the family fortune.

I am a resident of Fort Worth and a native of Missouri, which are the two primary locations of the story. This is the fifth book and fourth novel I have written.

Below you will find the first ten pages. At your request, I will send the complete manuscript.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Timothy Fish
[My Address]
[My City, State Zip]
[My Phone Number]
[My E-mail Address]

[Sample Pages]

Friday, February 6, 2009

Literary Agents

Many Literary Agents see themselves as the gatekeepers of the publishing industry. The sad thing is that they say this with pride. “We are the ones who keep out the riff-raff. The quality of books being produced by publishers is better because we only allow good books through.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Too bad it isn’t true.

Talking that way is good for a few people’s egos, but the publishing industry doesn’t work that way. You would think that there is a single point of entry that an author won’t be able to go through until his work is good enough to make it through the quality catches that an agent uses prior to agreeing to represent an author. Going with the gatekeeper analogy, what actually happens when an author approaches an agent and the agent says, “access denied” is that the author goes and finds another agent or looks for an unguarded gate. Instead of one gate, there are many gates. The true gatekeepers are still employed by the publishing companies and they always will be.

A better analogy to describe a literary agent is that of a bridge. The author will have a difficult time swimming across, so she goes and finds a bridge. The agent becomes a champion of the author’s work and in return receives 15% of the deal. At times, this may mean that the agent will attempt to show why an author who crossed at his bridge is better than a superior author who crossed at another bridge. But let’s not focus on that. As I said before, it is the publisher’s job to decide whose work is better. The agent’s job is to help the authors he is working for to convince the publisher that their work is better. That’s what they are supposed to be doing anyway. I shut up before I say what I think many of them are doing with their time.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Traditional Publishing or Will of God

Dear God,

I know you love me and want to bless me. I know you own the cattle on a thousand hills and all that. I know that all the wealth of the world is yours, so it is a small thing for you to do this one thing. To you, it isn’t a very big thing at all. Could you give me a big book contract? I don’t ask for much. I just want enough I can go buy a bigger house and a new car. And I want to enough to be able to quite my job so I can go to speaking engagements all over the country. And I don’t want to have to worry about money again.

I know it’s a small thing for you and I am trying to ask in faith, even though there are thousands of other Christian authors out there who don’t have a publishing contract. Now I know I might be asking with the wrong attitude, but at the very least, won’t you get me a contract so people will see that I’m as great of an author as I think I am?

In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.

Ever pray like that? I’m afraid that I have all too often. That is part of why that as I write this I haven’t sent my latest manuscript to anyone. When I began this journey, I had a clearly defined and attainable goal—self-publish a book. But now I am headed down a different path and the whole atmosphere is different. On this side of the house, it is so easy to get caught up in the pecking order. An author with an agent is deemed to be a better author than those who don’t. An author with a publishing contract is considered a better author than those who just have an agent. Authors who sell a lot of books are considered better authors than all the rest. It is so easy to get caught up in asking God to help us get an agent and then a publishing contract so that people will respect our work. We then fail to ask the important questions.

One of the most important questions we can ask is what direction the Lord wants us to go with our lives. I know of some authors who have multiple houses who spend a lot of time flying from one place to another. It’s an exciting life, that I got a little taste of last year, but I quickly discovered that you can’t teach kids at a church in Fort Worth while you’re in Atlanta.

Then there is the question of what we should accomplish with our writing. Is there something that we can accomplish for the Lord by having our traditionally published that will not be accomplished if we don’t publish or if we self-publish? It may well be that we are hindering the Lord’s work by seeking a publisher rather than providing a means to accomplish the work of the Lord.

I would love to have my work published by a traditional publisher, but if the only reason is for the validation of my work then it may not be in the will of God. If it isn’t then something needs to change.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Rabbits are funny creatures. They can fight and be quite vicious, if they choose to, but most of the time they just run. Or if they are in a cage they will just sit there, though breathing very heavily when they are scared. They are built for sprinting, so in an open field it is possible to chase a rabbit until it can’t go any farther. It will run out of energy and out of breath. It will just lie there catching its breath while its captor approaches.

Do you ever feel that way? You have your eye on the prize. You run and run and run, but then you reach the point that all you can do is just lie there and try to catch your breath. We either want to cry or break something and we know that neither will do any good. If we keep lying there, we’ll die or we’ll fail or live out our lives in a miserable state. Whatever happens, we won’t reach our goal if we don’t change something.

We don’t enjoy being in that position, so why should I bring it up? It isn’t because I have some profound advice on how to get out of that situation. No, I find myself in that position all too often, but as writers we should embrace that awful feeling because that is where our story begins. If I told you that a dog chased a rabbit until the rabbit could run no longer and the dog is approaching, don’t you feel a since of urgency, wondering what’s going to happen next?

If we had begun our story earlier, with the rabbit eating clover and the dog chained to a fence post, would you have the same interest in the story? What about later when the rabbit is safely hidden in a hole and the dog is running toward the voice of his master? No, we don’t care about that. Stories are about change, so we must always begin by telling the reader what the protagonist (or someone) needs to change.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How to Publish a Book/Writer's Burnout

Today, I'm being lazy and posting a video link from the digital marketing group at MacMillan USA. It is obvious that they have too much time on their hands, but it provides for entertaining videos. I can't help but wonder. If digital marketing groups have time to do this kind of stuff, why aren't we seeing more book trailers that might actually sell books?

On second thought, here's the real post for today:

Writer's Burnout

Passion is the spark

That starts the blaze.

Passion is the stone

That ripples the lake.

Passion is the twinkle

Before the smile.

Passion is the luster

Of finest gold.

Passion is the heart

Of every story.

Passion is the hope

When all is lost.

Rachelle Gardner recently asked about passion and training. Her question dealt with how naturally talented authors can learn the craft of writing without losing the passion. A number of people responded. Among those was Brandilyn Collins who stated, “And here's the other side of the coin. Your passion will not always be there.” I thought this post was going to be about how an author needs both passion and skill to produce good work—and it may still be—but I started thinking about the other side of the passion coin. If we pull our passion coin out of our pocket and flip it over, what do we see? That’s right. We see our old friend burnout.

Passion is like the fame of a candle. It will burn out when it has too much wax or not enough. Let’s imagine that publishing contracts are like wax. We unpublished authors are like the wick. We can burn for a while without wax, but if we go long enough without receiving a publishing contract we’ll burn out. Some of us get a publishing contract and we have a renewed excitement. We have received the validation we’ve been looking for. They like me. They really, really like me. Then our agent calls and says, “I’ve got you a two book deal, if you can get the first one done by April.” Sure, we can do that. “And the second one done by May.” That’ll be great. I’m a real author now. Now the wax in our candle is about to smother the flame. Who has time for passion when it’s all you can do to churn out the manuscripts by the deadline? How did we let this happen and how can we fix it?

Burnout is a result of us getting out eyes fixed on the wrong goal. The reason unpublished authors are passionate is because they have something to say. It’s a whole lot easier to focus on the story or message when you really don’t expect a major publisher to look at your work. We have our dreams of what life might be like as a contracted author, but that seems no more real than the world in which we have set our story. But then we set our eyes on the contract or the deadline or book tour or whatever. The result is burnout and our writing suffers.

To avoid burnout we have to realign our goals. Why did we write in the first place? Was it to get published? If it was, we’re just asking for burnout because we didn’t have a worthy goal. Our passion should be to take what we have to say and communicate it to our authence in a way they can understand.

We should schedule our time wisely to reach our goal. Sure, we want to make money. Sure, we want to help a publisher and our agent make money, but we should never let that become our primary goal. There are other authors who would love to have the opportunity to make our publisher and our agent a little money. We should then schedule our time to get the things done we need to get done. As we make up our schedule, we should allocate enough time that we are free to write with passion rather than out of obligation. Let’s not starve ourselves or overwork ourselves to the point where we lose our love to right.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Just the Same Old Story

I watched Get Smart the other day. There are some things that it would have been better if they hadn’t been in the movie, but if we ignore those things and just consider the story it was great. It is one of those stories that you know how it is going to turn out from almost the beginning. As soon as you see the interaction between the two main characters, you know that they are going to argue for a while and eventually fall in love. You can pick out the double agent villain almost as soon as he makes his appearance. Then you sit through the show and think, “I hope I’m not wrong. I hope I’m not wrong.”

We talk about writing unique stories, but people don’t want to read unique stories. People want to read predictable stories. They want the guy and the girl to fall in love. They want the father to defeat the bad guys and carry his wife and children home to safety. They want the monsters from outer space to turn into a smoldering pile of ash. Yeah, it’s predictable, but that’s okay.

While we want predictable, we don’t want the same story every time. Maybe instead of Cinderella getting this prince we want to see what happens if it’s her wicked step-sister who gets him instead. It’s still a love story with a guy and gal getting together in the end, but we take a completely different route getting there.