Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher - A Review

The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher follows the path of a real estate agent who is struggling until he realizes the power of marketing himself as a Christian. One thing leads to another and he begins attending church, because that’s what Christians do. But it doesn’t stop there. The real money isn’t in selling real estate as a Christian, but in pastoring a church. It isn’t long before Ryan Fisher goes off and starts his own church, a church that doesn’t offer salvation for free, a church modeled after his own heart, because you see, Ryan Fisher isn’t saved.

I was somewhat disappointed when I began reading this book. The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher has been billed as satire, so I cracked the spine expecting a good satire. The purpose of satire is to point out what is wrong with what people do. It typically shows these actions at an extreme, so that while the story may seem unbelievable, there is no mistaking the real life reference. Rob Stennett does not give us this. In fact, the story is quite believable. Historically, we have seen many lost men go off, start churches without the theological training and attract thousands. In pulpits today, there are preachers who do not believe that God exists. Some even admit this.

Once I wrote the book off as being something less than a good satire, I asked myself, what I thought of it as just a book. This is where the book surprised me. If we look at just the story, The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher is one of the best written Christian novels that I have read in quite a while. No don’t take that to mean that I’m going to go off and start the Rob Stennett fan club, but the simple fact is that he has managed to put together a strong story. The theme for the story is that it is best to be honest. Rob Stennett argues this theme by showing the apparent success of Ryan Fisher through dishonesty, but then contrasting this with his wife’s dishonesty, the reaction of a fanatic and the eventual outcome of his dishonesty.

Some writers will have a problem with Rob Stennett’s writing. He doesn’t follow the rules and hops from one head to the next then back again. The thing I had real trouble with in his writing was that he split sentences across paragraph boundaries and inserted lengthy though sections within those sentences. It makes those sentences very hard to read, which is why most authors don’t do that. Zondervan makes many editing and typesetting mistakes with this book, such as leaving the chapter title off of chapter twenty-six. Mistakes happen, though we hope that experienced editors will weed out those mistakes. The problems not withstanding, The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher is an entertaining book.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Hey! That Was My Idea!

In the summer of 1995, a co-worker told me of an idea he had for a pre-lit Christmas tree. He only told me of the idea after I assured him that I wouldn’t repeat it. His plan was to go invent the thing. True to my word, I kept my silence, but a few years later, practically every artificial tree on the market was pre-lit. To my knowledge, my friend wasn’t responsible for any of them.

A few weeks ago, I was looking through some of the novels that are scheduled for release and I saw one that had the same premise as one I had seen earlier. The characters were different, the setting was different, but it was the same story, told by two separate authors.

Great minds think alike, or so the old saying claims. We come up with these ideas and then discover that someone else has been thinking along the same lines. Some people find this very upsetting. “That was my idea! He stole my idea!” But it might not be a case of someone stealing at all. It could be that we are all exposed to the same global knowledge, the same triggering events and other things. What we think of as a new idea is nothing more than a culmination of some of the things we have seen and experienced. Two people hear about the same event on the news and think, “What if it happened this way?” and they have the same idea.

At times, I think ideas are just ripe. Science fiction loves to look at what might have happened if this person or that person had died before they invented some device. What if Bell hadn’t invented the telephone? Someone else would have. The idea was ripe in his time, and he happened to be they one who plucked it.

In writing, a lot of our idea are ripe. Now it could be that we’ll write a story or a work of non-fiction and be the first out of the gate. If could be that we’ll write something and discover that we can’t sell it because someone else has already cornered the market. That’s just the way it goes. I recently bought a book call The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher by Rob Stennett. The main reason I bought the book was because of the similarity to a story I had considered writing. I probably won’t write that story now. That’s just the way it goes.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How to Write a Tragic Ending

I like happy endings, but no happy ending is ever as affective as a tragic ending. Sometimes a story just needs to come to a tragic conclusion. There’s several ways to do this. One way is to have action to the end, but the heroes just aren’t up to the task. This is somewhat common with the older nuclear weapon movies. Our hero is trying to prevent an explosion, time runs out, there is a flash of white light and we fade to black. Game over. It works, but it doesn’t give the audience time to think about what just happened. A reader puts the novel down and starts thinking about doing laundry instead.

The audience needs a breather between the tragic event and the actual end. Not a long breather, a few pages or so, but enough to respect the reader’s mourning over the loss of a character. Suppose a character decides life isn’t worth it and jumps from a bridge. We know he’s dead, but the story goes on and we find something that indicates he may not be dead. Then they find his body and sure enough, he is dead. That section in which we question his death gives us time to breathe and then finding his body is the nail sealing the coffin. It gives the tragedy an extra punch, making it even darker.

We can also go the other way. You may recall the ending to the movie My Girl. Following the death of a friend, there is a period of mourning, but then we see hope for the future. We see the lead character playing with a new friend. She isn’t over the death of her best friend, but the healing process has begun and there is hope for the future. There’s something about that hope that makes the ending so much more poignant.

With these last two endings, the point is that life goes on. By showing that, we are telling the reader that the surviving characters are going to have to live through the feelings that the reader is having. With an abrupt tragic end, the reader doesn’t see that because there isn’t anyone there to experience the feelings.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Talkable Tales

For some time now, the de facto standards for measuring a novel’s quality has been in terms of whether it is a page turner or the reader couldn’t put it down. The formula for creating such a book is simple. Never satisfy the reader’s curiosity until the final page. But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to walk about how non-page-turner, poorly written books can make it to the top of the bestseller lists.

Several months ago, I visited a forum and someone asked the question, “Has anyone read The Shack? What did you think of it?” I hadn’t heard of it at the time, so I did a little looking around and discovered that it was self-published and yet it had the appearance of a book that was going to do well. At the time, it hadn’t hit the top of any charts yet, but it was on its way up. I bought a copy, just so I would be knowledgeable enough to discuss it. I don’t mean to discuss the ills of The Shack here, other than to say that it is no great surprise that the major Christian publishers didn’t publish it. But there it sits on the bestseller list, high above books with better stories, written by highly skilled authors.

People read books because they fulfill a need. How to books often tell you what need they fill, right there in the title. How to Weave Baskets Underwater, etc. With novels, we might say they fulfill the need for entertainment and we would be right, but there is a need that we tend to overlook and it is the most important need that a novel fulfills. Novels give people something to talk about. It doesn’t matter how well something is written, if it ain’t talkable, it ain’t gonna sell. People want to tell their friends about a book they have read. People want to write reviews.

Someone want to tell me how to write talkable tales? If we are doing our job as writers, we need to give our readers something they can talk about. But it also has to be about the right things. It’s like a preacher. He wants his congregation to talk about his sermon on the way home. He could stand behind the pulpit naked and they would all talk, but it wouldn’t be about his sermon. We want a talkable tale, while staying true to what we believe the story should be. That’s hard.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Where's the Fire in the Fire?

Some days ago, Richard Mabry blogged about Donald Maass' book The Fire In Fiction: Passion, Purpose, And Technique To Make Your Novel Great. I went to and read a portion of the book, saw a few things that made me think I would be interested in reading it and clicked the buy button. It arrived a couple of days later and I put it next to the computer, thinking I would read it later. I currently have bookmarks in two novels, The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher and Inkdeath. Donald Maass’ book kept calling to me. My left hand kept reaching over to pick it up and I kept scolding it, until it refused to obey. I found myself reading the book.

As Richard said, Donald Maass has some good things to say in the introduction. I read that and moved on to Chapter One: Protagonists vs. Heroes. He also had some good things to say there. Even though I have written about how I hate block quotes, I forced myself to read the examples he lifted from various novels. I tried to understand what he was trying to say about what the author had written.

I don’t recall if it was in that first chapter. It was probably later, but at some point I began to think, I’ve seen this stuff before. Much of what Donald Maass wrote in his book is stuff that we’ve seen in other places and I don’t just mean the block quotes. But that’s part of what books do. They remind us of things that we already know and they may say something a different way, leading us to an understanding that we didn’t have before. So, I pressed on.

But, by the end of the second chapter, I was growing tired of reading block quotes. I began skimming them, then reading what Donald Maass had to say. He said some things I agree with and some I do not. But then I got to the point that it was all I could do to press on. I began to skim what he had said about the lengthy block quotes, which at times contain hundreds of words. Then I began to flip through the pages, never reading a word and then I closed the book. I didn’t even make it halfway through the book and I have no desire to read more.

Don’t take this as a review. Your experience with this book could be better than mine. If you’ve never read another book on writing, there is much you can learn from this book. I think my problem with the book is that I have read other books by better writers who present the subject matter in a much more approachable way. Donald Maass’ book gave me the sense that he was telling us what his favorite authors have done, but he never got to the point of telling us how to accomplish the same thing in our own writing. At times, I began to think, Yeah, I know I should do that, but my difficulty is that I don’t always do what I know I should do. How do we fix that problem. But Donald Maass is more of an agent, than a writer and he doesn’t know. This is evidenced by his book. He tells us within his own book that we should use micro-tension to hold the reader, and yet, he has failed to hold my attention. He tells us many things about how to craft a story, and yet he has borrowed so much content from other writers that I lost track of the story. But, as I said, you may have a better experience than I.

What can we take from this? I have something of a user interface background. One of the concepts is that if a user struggles with getting a piece of software to work, it’s the software that needs to be fixed, not the user. Like Donald Maass, we may have some great things to say in our books, but if the reader can’t stick with the book, the book is broken, not the reader.

Are You Aspiring or Only a Wannabe?


to seek to attain a goal


somebody who tries to be like someone else or to belong to a specific group (informal

[source: Encarta Dictionary]

Wannabe is often a derogatory term. “Is he any good?” someone will ask. “No, he’s just a wannabe,” we might respond. Notice the definitions above. A wannabe has the goal of being like someone else while to aspire allows for any kind of goal. In the context that it is often used, a wannabe is someone putting on the appearance of being something, but is not.

One of the marks of a wannabe-author is that he gets his feelings hurt when someone implies that his writing isn’t that great. Why? Because his only goal is to be an author and he is willing to take shortcuts to get there. He is something of a copycat. He mimics authors. When his manuscript has all the elements that he enjoys about the books written by a favored author, he submits his work and is shocked when someone doesn’t agree it is great.

The aspiring author isn’t looking for the same validation that the wannabe author is. No one must tell the aspiring author when she is good enough to call herself an author. Maybe other people don’t think her writing is all that great, but that’s okay because she has already set a goal to improve. At worst, the criticism of someone else is just an indication that her more distant goals are farther away than she hoped. She doesn’t want to write like another author, though she is a student of the work of others. The aspiring author doesn’t expect to reach the point where she has arrived, but sees successes as only milestones with the road stretching out in front of her. The wannabe author is looking for recognition. The aspiring author is looking for progress. Which are you?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Leave It Be

S ome things are best left alone. According to Publishers Weekly, Margaret K. McElderry Books has acquired the rights to publish a book that purports to be the sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, a classic that was published in 1905. That’s more than a hundred years ago and about a year after the ice cream cone was invented.

According to the article, Hilary McKay found the novel’s ending “perfect in all ways but one.” She had questions about what happened to the children Sara left behind when she drove away at the end of the book. Well, she has taken it upon herself to answer those lingering questions. Now, I have no doubt that Hilary McKay is perfectly capable of writing a story about Ermengarde, Lottie, Lavinia and all the rest. But sometimes it does harm to a story try to tie up the loose ends created by secondary characters, besides the fact that Hilary McKay is not Frances Hodgson Burnett. No matter what she might say about the characters, the question will always remain, is this how the author envisioned it? The answer can be nothing but no, because we have to think that if the author thought there was something worth telling about their stories, she would have written the sequel herself.

As you can tell, I don’t really care for authors latching on to a popular book by another author and trying to write its sequel. There are a few franchises, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, that work well with many independent authors, but with most books I don’t like it. As an author, I have some characters who mean a great deal to me. I would hate to think what might happen if someone comes along a hundred years from now, when I am rotting in my grave, and attempts to write the sequel to one of my books. It would be flattery, yes, but I don’t like people messing with my characters. And when we’re talking about a book like A Little Princess. It should be left alone.

A Tiny Box

You have before you, a box. What is it?

One of the requirements of a story is that it must have a setting. In television, there are some very real limits. It can take thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours to build a set, so you don’t go creating totally new sets very often. Also, different locations may require additional actors. They can be expensive too. To balance out the cost of some of the more expensive shows, a television series will do an elevator show. I’m not sure if that’s the proper name, but it is essentially an episode in which two or three of the characters, usually the ones that like each other the least, are locked in a room (a stuck elevator) and they do nothing but talk. It saves the show a ton of money and it lets the actors shine.

In novels, we don’t have to worry about how much it costs to put our characters into a particular box. Our box can be as large as the Universe or as small as an atom and it doesn’t cost us anything. We can write about billions of characters or we can write about a single character and we don’t have to pay them a dime. A novelist is then able to take a more philosophical approach to storytelling and ask, what size of box is the best size?

Since it costs us nothing, space in a novel isn’t defined by the physical dimensions of the space as much as it is defined by the number of characters involved and how confined the space is. We can handcuff two characters to a pole in an empty warehouse and it is essentially the same amount of space as if we put them together in a stuck elevator.

Stories that use a lot of space almost never work well and it turns out that those elevator shows are often some of the best episodes. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a well loved novel. It is essentially a road trip story about two guys on a raft. There are other characters that come into play, but these two guys are stuck on the raft, floating down the Mississippi by the social situation of their day.

In The Red Badge of Courage, the nation is at war, a potentially large stage, but the story isn’t about the name. The story is about one young man who goes from being a coward and a deserter to a being war hero. At it’s largest, the box is as large as the regiment, but even that we only see in part.

Setting our story in a small world—a small box—gives it strength.

Friday, May 22, 2009

True Fiction

July 7, 1947, something happened near Roswell, New Mexico. Aliens? Flying Disc? Weather balloon? Cover-up for something else? It hardly matters. Whatever happened out there, the story of aliens being recovered from a crash captured the imaginations of people around the world. We tend to think that science uses facts and logic to draw conclusions, but more often then not scientists are captivated by a story and that is the basis for their research. How else can we explain SETI?

Stories captivate the mind and incite people to action. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been accused of starting the Civil War and there is some truth to that. It’s high praise to say that a novel helped to end legal slavery in America, but what if they incite the wrong action? When CBS aired the radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938, many listeners panicked, thinking the news bulletins were real. Fiction has just as much power to motivate wrong action as it does right action.

As storytellers, we have a responsibility to tell truthful fiction. By that I mean that while the events and characters may be fictional, the message should be based in fact as well as our portrayal of real people and events. We should not lead people to a belief in a principle that cannot be supported with facts.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beginning With a Hook

And so, we begin. Many people believe that a novel must begin with a strong hook. Think of the hook as a question. Some people confuse the hook and the inciting incident. They are not the same. The inciting incident is an event within the story that incites the protagonist to take action. The hook causes the reader to ask a question.

Where the Red Fern Grows begins with a great hook, “When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.” If Wilson Rawls had stopped here, we would ask, “What was in store for you?” We are “hooked” at this point because we aren’t going to quit reading until we find out what happened to him on this “beautiful spring day.”

Foreshadowing is one way of creating a hook. The narrator has already experienced the events of the story, so he can tell the reader enough about what he is going to say that the reader becomes curious and decides to stick around.

An opening problem is also a way to create a hook. A novel opens with an earthquake, missing car keys or any other ordinary life event and the reader has a question of how the character will handle the situation. Some of these problems work better than others, but how the character handles the situation tells us something about the character and how he normally responds to things.

What would be wrong with starting with a question? In some cases, we might want to ask the question we are going to answer for the reader, rather than hoping they will ask the right question. It won’t work with all novels, but with first person or third person omniscient, there’s nothing to stop us, if we think it works.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why Men Don't Read Fiction: A case study of a male reader.

In general, men don’t read novels. Male readers tend to read non-fiction. There plenty of people with theories about this and some have done studies in an attempt to understand it. I’ll leave that sort of thing to them. I’ll offer instead, a case study of a male reader—that of myself.

I was slow to begin reading. They stuck me in remedial reading in the second grade. It wasn’t long after that I developed a love for reading. I began to read anything I could get my hands on—literally. If someone put a book down, I would probably pick it up and begin reading. Many of those books were romance novels, because that was most of what Mom had around at the time and I quickly read through my books. I read a lot of Agatha Christi. I loved reading fantasy. I read The Owlstone Crown many times. I was interested in the Oz books for a while. School work kept me from reading part of the time, but I spent my summers reading, even when I was in college. But by that time my tastes had turned to Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark. I still read a few of those Christian romance novels or Christian historical novels that I would find lying on the floor in the living room, but only if I had nothing else to read. It was embarrassing at the time and it still is. I tell you—that just ain’t what a man ought to be reading. At about the time I moved away from home, I was reading the Star Trek books.

Even during the time I was at home, I was also reading non-fiction. I would dig books with yellowed pages from the bookcase and read anything that seemed interesting. These days, I don’t read as much as I did. I find myself reading non-fiction more frequently than fiction. It isn’t that I have that much more interest in non-fiction. I think it is that I have an easier time justifying non-fiction. I read non-fiction to learn how to do something or to learn about something. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. The house isn’t getting cleaned, the yard isn’t getting mowed, I’m not out exercising, I’m not writing, I’m not fixing that light switch or any of that, but I’m learning something and that just might be just as important.

I still read fiction and would love to read more, but there are a number of reasons why I don’t. One reason is that there’s so much going on and it’s hard to slow down and just read for the fun of it. It is easier to pop in a DVD because I don’t have to clear as much space in my mind, but when I do sit down and just read I enjoy it immensely. I’m much more selective now. I don’t read books with lace on the cover. I also don’t care for dark fiction. I sometimes read a novel just to know what an author writes, but if I’m looking for a novel to enjoy, I’m all about escapism. Give me a world that I can enjoy hiding out in for a few hours, with a good story to go with it and I’m there.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Revamping the Dark Side

The world is coming to an end, people are trying to kill me and my friend’s seventeen year old daughter just ran off with an older man. I have another friend whose drug addict son is in rehab, but she thinks he may have killed someone. Maybe he’s the one who killed my neighbor’s daughter. I heard about this kid who woke up strapped to a chair. Someone was going to kill him and he didn’t know how he got there. It all makes the problems another friend of mine has seem small. She has this job she likes at a women’s shelter, but her husband doesn’t want her working there. He’s threatening to leave her if she doesn’t quit.

Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? Fortunately, much of this hasn’t happened yet, but it will. This is the world as seen through the eyes of Christian publishing during the next year. It has made me think about the differences between a dark story and one that isn’t.

Dark fiction is short on hope and provides no escape. Mary E. DeMuth’s novel A Slow Burn (Oct. 2009) will be about a woman searching for her daughter’s murderer. As it is a Christian worldview novel, we can assume that the woman must learn to forgive the man, rather than slitting his throat, but where’s the hope? She won’t get her daughter back. The most she can hope for is to find the man and even that seems hopeless. She can quit looking, but that will put her back in another hopeless situation.

If we wanted a similar story that isn’t so dark, we could say that a woman is on a mission. Two years ago, her daughter died. Certain that her daughter’s husband was at fault, the woman has been chasing him. He has eluded her many times. But now she has accepted Christ. Her eyes have been opened. She sees that it wasn’t his fault and she wants him to raise her grandson, but that won’t happen unless she can find him.

Notice the differences. In the first, the murderer has the upper hand and the woman’s motivation to find him is driven by the murder. She has no hope of a better situation. In the second, the woman has the upper hand, with the “murderer” on the run. Her motivation has changed from vengeance to reconciliation. If she quits, it is her son-in-law and grandson who are hurt, not her. If she succeeds, she gets back part of what she lost.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Beginnings define Endings define Beginnings

Imagine that a novel is a roadmap that the characters must follow. Before we know anything about the journey, we must know where we’re starting (point A) and where we’re going (point B). If we were taking a trip, we would already know where A is and we would choose B, but a novelist gets to choose both. Now, on a road trip, your starting point tells you nothing about your destination and vise versa. When writing a novel, your selection of one point significantly narrows the possible selection points for the other. A and B are opposites of each other.

Consider a typical romance plot. At Point A, we see an un-content, single, self-sufficient, businesswoman who sleeps with a cat on her bed. At point B, we see a woman on the verge of happily ever after with a man who has helped her with her business and the cat sleeps outside. Whatever the status quo was at the beginning of the book gets turned on its head by the end.

What about Beauty and the Beast? We begin with Beauty a member of a larger family in a small house, little money and no prospects for marriage. We see that she is primarily concerned with the needs of her family. We end the story with Beauty in love with a prince, in a large house, and with someone to care for her. Once more, the status quo is turned around.

It isn’t that we can’t write a story in which things don’t change drastically or we end up at some other point. We can, but when we reverse Point A from Point B the story is stronger, the conflict is tightened, and the accomplishment is greater.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

And the winner is...

Last week I announced a contest in which the contestants were to modify the title of a novel to create a new title and then write a brief description of a story that goes with the title. The prize for the winner of this contest is a $25 gift certificate from, which the winner can use to purchase anything from books to toys to groceries. I also gave a second chance opportunity to encourage people to tell their friends, but I don't need to repeat the contest rules.

So, without further ado, the winner of the contest, for her entry, The Shock, is Cindy. I will have send her prize to the e-mail address she has listed on her profile page.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ugly E-mail Addresses

We all hate spam and we keep looking for ways to reduce how much reaches our inbox. I filter a lot of it out at the server, but some makes it through anyway, such as those e-mail message that appear to have been sent from my own e-mail address. For those, I have a rule set up that just deletes them, as everyone should. If everyone would delete them without looking at them, spammers would stop wasting their time sending them.

One method of controlling spam that has gotten popular among people in the writing community is to list their e-mail address as something like somename [at] adomain [dot] com. The idea is that the web crawlers won’t realize that it is an e-mail address and thus protect the owner from receiving unwanted e-mails. Some people go ahead and create the mailto link, as I have done above, while others leave it out. In either case, all this method only discourages the people you want to e-mail you from doing so. Mangling the e-mail address like this will not keep the address off a spammer’s list. It may have worked for the first person who tried it, but with so many people using this method, you can be sure that spammers have software searching the web for text that matches the pattern above. The software will remove the blank space, convert the “[at]” into @, convert the “[dot]” into a period and the e-mail address will go into a list of e-mail addresses, untouched by human hands.

We can’t hide from unscrupulous people and still make ourselves accessible to everyone else. There are other methods of allowing people to contact you, but if you want people to be able to contact you via e-mail, I say, stick your e-mail address out there in the way it is supposed to be. Make it easy for people to copy it and paste it into the to field. Use the mailto shortcut if you like, keeping in mind that it may not work for some of your readers. Convenience for the reader should be our aim, even while trying to reduce the influx of spam.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Navigate the Path to Better Authors

Mentor - somebody, usually older and more experienced, who advises and guides a younger, less experienced person (Encarta Dictionary).

Recently, I’ve been noticing an increase in what I would call a misuse of the work mentor. I first noticed this when I our church was going into John C. Maxwell’s Injoy program (which I now consider to be a huge waste of money). I think he may have backed away from this wording some now, but I saw wording that stated that John C. Maxwell had mentored thousands or millions or whatever it was. My first thought was, Wow! How does he have time? and then came to realize that they were talking about how many people had bought his tapes. In my book, that isn’t mentoring at all.

More recently, I’ve noticed people in the publishing industry using the verb mentor as a pseudonym for edit. I was on Rachelle Gardner’s website the other day and saw a list of freelance editors. I was curious to see what they were charging for editing a manuscript. I clicked on one and I didn’t see the word editing anywhere. I saw several mentoring packages, but I wasn’t looking for a mentoring relationship, all I wanted to know was what it would cost for me to send a copy of my manuscript and to get an opinion. After clicking on one of the mentoring packages, I discovered that it was nothing more than editing and not mentoring at all. Sadly, I visited the site of another freelance editor and I wound the same situation. I made me wonder, Why would I pay someone $2,500 to edit a manuscript when she doesn’t even know how to use the word mentor properly?

By now, you may think I’m off my rocker and that this is nothing more than a rant about something that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. If that’s the case, then I suggest we look at what a true mentoring relationship really is.

What is a Mentor?

The definition above gives us some idea of what a mentor is. Most of us have had informal mentoring relationships at one time or another. What mother hasn’t looked to other women for advice in how to care for her children? What person has started a new job and didn’t look to someone to help them learn the ropes? Those are mentors, but I want to focus on the formal mentoring relationship, since that is where the term is so blatantly misused.

Many large companies and some small companies have formal mentoring programs. I have experience this first hand. Companies find these programs particularly beneficial now because they have thousands of people on the verge of retirement and all of that experience will be lost, if it isn’t passed on to younger workers. These programs work by first using some process to match older experienced workers with younger less experienced protégés or mentees (whichever term you prefer). These two individuals get together on a regular basis (once a month or more often if needed) and talk about various things, with the intent that the mentee will benefit from the mentor having already traveled the path he is on. Ideally, we would see a situation in which a new employee is mentored by someone who has been with the company a couple of years, who is mentored by someone who has been with the company ten years, who is mentored by someone who has been with the company twenty years, etc. Even upper level management will sometimes have a mentor.

Companies try to keep the mentee/mentor relationship out of the chain of command. There are a couple reasons for this. One, it might give the appearance of impropriety if a mentee receives a promotion from his mentor. Co-workers who have not had the opportunity to be mentored by the boss might feel this person is promoted unfairly, even if it was only because he had more opportunity to find out what is happening in the department. The other reason is that the people involved need to be free to talk about people and their actions without fear of reprisal or that it will influence evaluations of the people discussed.

Benefits of the Mentoring Relationship

Rather than looking at this in broad terms, let’s look at it from the perspective of authors in the publishing industry. Both the mentee and the mentor benefit from the relationship. Let’s first look at how the less experienced author benefits from formal mentoring.

Benefits to the Mentee

First, she gains awareness of the publishing industry. To most new authors, the publishing industry looks something like a big black box. They know that manuscripts go in and books come out, but they know little of the inner workings of this machine. Authors who are even a little farther along the path can provide insight into this machine and help the new author navigate some of the complexities. Or perhaps the mentee is already a published author, but is a lesser know author. Having a better known author as a mentor might help her understand what she is facing as she moves forward in her career.

A mentor may be able to help a mentee with speaking skills. Suppose an author is out promoting a book and has to speak to a small group. The mentor shows up and observes. Sometime late, they the mentor and mentee get together and they talk about some of the things that the mentee needs to improve. Maybe he doesn’t engage the audience enough. Maybe he has a distracting habit of some kind. Whatever it might be, the mentor can identify these things so that the mentee can improve.

A mentee can improve her work skills. Since the mentor has more experience writing, the mentor may be able to offer some suggestions on how the mentee can improve how she approaches her writing effort.

The mentor can be an impartial sounding board. Don’t like something your agent is doing? Discuss it with your mentor. Have a new idea for a novel? Discuss it with you mentor. He might even be able to help you flesh it out a little better. Can’t figure out how to get a character out of a predicament? Talk to your mentor.

The mentee can also gain confidence and motivation. It’s one thing to have your mother tell you you’re great, but its another to have a more experience author help you improve. The mentee will also gain contacts that the mentor has within the industry.

Benefits to the Mentor

Mentors often find that they benefit as much or more than the persons they are mentoring. Some of these benefits include: Satisfaction in helping another author develop. Improved awareness of his own writing and skills. Improved communication skills. Increased awareness of different points of view. Increased exposure, when the mentee tells others what she has learned from her mentor. A reminder of the joy of writing. And there are certainly many others.

How Mentoring Should Work

Mentee Led

While both people involved benefit from the mentoring relationship, it is very important to remember that the mentee is responsible for managing the partnership. Let me say that again. It is the mentee’s responsibility to manage the partnership. The relationship is to be build in such a way that it fits the needs and goals of the mentee. The mentee benefits when she takes ownership of the relationship.

If I came to you and said, “You need to remember the number 314,” you might remember it, you might not. But if you came to me and asked, “What’s the area code of St. Louis?” and I said, “314,” you would remember. That is the concept behind how the mentee/mentor relationship works. The mentee is asking for information the mentor has. The mentee learns because the mentor is providing information the mentee thinks he needs, at the rate the mentee wants it.

Mentee Initiated

The mentee asks the someone to be his mentor, not the other way around. The potential mentor can always refuse, but it is the mentee’s responsibility to ask, rather than the mentor’s responsibility to offer. This is important. The mentee must have a level of respect for the mentor and a willingness to learn from the mentor. If the mentor initiates the relationship then the mentee may have a tendency to listen without really hearing what the mentor has to say. It is like the difference between receiving an e-mail or searching for information with a search engine. We many delete an e-mail without reading it, but if we find what we’re looking for in a search engine, we got to the website and read the information.

The Mentor Doesn’t Charge

Even in many company sponsored formal mentoring programs, the mentor doesn’t receive financial compensation for the time he invests in his efforts and yet many mentors still take on multiple mentees (probably shouldn’t be more than two or three). Why? Remember what I said before. The mentor receives benefits that are equal to or even exceed those of the mentee.

I believe that it is unethical for a mentor to charge the mentee. Even if you they go have lunch together, it isn’t the mentee’s responsibility to pay for the mentor’s lunch. Split the check or trade of paying the bill from month to month. First, the mentor should not charge because he is benefiting as much from the relationship as the mentee. Second, mentoring is a way to pay forward the help that others have done for him in the past. Third, the mentee may be mentoring others in the future or may be currently mentoring others. Fourth, a fee based system creates a situation in which the “mentor” is helpful only up to the level of which the client has paid.

The Ideal Mentor Isn’t Always a Bestselling Author

There is a tendency for aspiring authors to look to bestselling authors for advice on how to get there. While there are certainly things we can learn from them, they seldom make good mentors. The problem isn’t the knowledge they have, but their availability to invest their time in others. While a bestselling author of ten books may find it beneficial to be the mentor of an author who has just signed a million dollar book deal, she doesn’t have time to mentor the thousands of wannabes out there and is unlikely to find it beneficial to mentor even one such author. Then there is the problem that she may have forgotten much of what it was like to be that aspiring author with no hope for publication. The author who has just gotten a small publishing deal may be better suited as a mentor to authors who are looking for that first deal.

The Mentee Should Look for More Than Publication

We have tunnel vision. We set our eyes on publication and forget that there is so much more. Yes, some mentors can offer advise on getting in print, but the mentee should consider that her goal in the relationship might ought to be something else. As I mentioned before, it could be better speaking, or something else and the selection of a mentor should be based on that goal.

Finding a Mentor

The process of finding a mentor is not unlike the process of finding a literary agent. You find someone you think might be able to help you with what you need, you contact this person to identify your desire and you see if you can work out something that is beneficial to both parties. You may not find someone who is willing to invest their time in mentoring you. Even if it’s only an our a month, it isn’t always easy to fit another person into ones priorities. On the other hand, you might send an e-mail to an author and get the response, “I’m so glad you asked!”


Mentoring and editing are not the same thing. Mentoring is an investment of one person in another that is beneficial to both people. Mentoring is a way to pace experience from one person to another. Mentoring is initiated and led by mentee. The mentor is a person who is a little farther down the path than the mentee and offers guidance to the mentee on how to get from where he is to where the mentor is.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Typing is a Thing of the Past

Can you imagine trying to write a novel with one of these? Then again, with the predictive sentence technology, type the first letter and all you have to do is find the novel already written.

And here's the kind of treatment you can expect if you ever sell so many books that people like Michael Hyatt think you're important.

The Mantle of the Author

Following the Presidential election of 2000 there were what seemed like endless recounts in the State of Florida as the United States tried to figure out who really had won the election. With both eventual President George W. Bush and then Vice-president Al Gore claiming victory, the news media had nothing better to do than sit around discussing how the nation would accept the man who took office. I remember someone saying that once that man put on the mantle of the presidency people would accept him because appeared presidential.

There is a similar principle in writing that we might call the writer’s mantle. Every reader begins with expectations. Suppose a reader believes a writer is humorous, he laughs when the dog dies at the first of the book. He rolls in the floor when the mother dies. He is sixty pages into the book when he realizes it is a serious book. One reader opens a book, expecting it to be good and it is. Another reader opens the same book, expecting it to be bad, and it is. This concept is a big part of why our mothers all believe we are great writers. But a writer can overcome expectations.

Some time ago, I bought a book on Michael Hyatt’s recommendation. I eagerly opened the book. As I read, I kept noticing these profound statements and began to write them down. I was excited because I figured they would give me something to blog about by applying the concept to writing. Near the middle of the book, I began to realize that there wasn’t a practical application to some of the concepts I had recorded and I scratched them off the list. The list grew shorter and shorter. By the end of the book, I concluded that the author hadn’t said anything worthwhile.

If a reader perceives an author to be good, then he is more likely to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, even overlooking bad writing. If a reader perceives an author to be unskilled, his more likely to be critical of everything, even instances of good writing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Stories We Pray For

A manila folder in my filing cabinet has the word ideas written at the top in black ink. Into this folder I put book ideas for a time when I am between books and I don’t know what to write. Many are written on Post-It notes. Others are hand written on larger sheets of paper. Some have even been typed on the computer and printed. Some are written on the little sheets of paper from a notepad I keep in my nightstand. Some of the best ideas come from that strange land between awake and asleep. Some of these ideas are complete scenes, while other are just a single sentence.

On one of the smaller white pieces of paper in that folder, blue ink spells out a story idea involving Tina’s parents reorganizing their church in an attempt to make it more appealing to the people in the community. That idea started back when I was working on How to Become a Bible Character and I was certain that I wanted to include it in the series. I might have written it next, but I had fallen in love with the idea of doing a book based on the life of Hosea from the man’s perspective. But then I had this bright idea that I should write a book outside the scope of the series, so I could send it out to agents. All this time, I was still working on the idea involving Tina’s parents, knowing that I would need a good outline when the time came. But I was also struggling with the idea. Though I had a completed outline and scenes playing out in my head, I had an idea for a science fiction story that I fell in love with. Tina’s parents got brushed aside once more and I told myself that I would come back to them—after I finished this next project. I needed them, or so I thought, but then I had the idea for my current work in progress. I liked it so much, I lost interest in the science fiction story and the story fit so easily into the series. The idea never made it into that manila folder and the story about Tina’s parents is gone, probably never to be told.

Some stories grab an author by the shirttails and refuse to let go. Something special happens. Scenes begin to flow from the fingertips and onto the computer screen. And they aren’t just ordinary scenes. They’re the emotionally charged scenes that bring tears to the author’s eyes, either from sadness or joy. They are the scenes that cause an author to fear the dark shadows and shiver in fear. It is then that the author dares to think that if he can describe the scene well enough then he will elicit the same response from his readers. Those are the kinds of stories we pray we can write.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What's the Best Advice?

What is the best advice you have ever been given about writing? It seems like this question shows up every time someone interviews an author. Sometimes it is reversed as, What it the worst advice you have ever been given about writing? I’ve tried to think, if someone were to ask either of those question, how would I answer? There plenty of tidbits of advice out there. Here are a few I’ve run across:

Write what you know: Some writers call this good advice and others call it bad. Mostly, I think it depends on how you interpret it. If you take it to mean that all you can write about is an author sitting at a computer, pounding out a novel, then yeah, its bad advice. It becomes good advice when we talk about emotions and motives. When writing about an emotion, such as grief or anger, draw on a situation were you felt the same feelings.

Write to the middle: This is a great piece of advise. Do you have a problem with sagging middles? Write to the middle. The reason middles sag is because there is too large of a span between the initial hook and the resolution at the end. We’ve said all we can about the problem, but we aren’t ready to bring the story to a close, so we fill the space with stuff that doesn’t move the story along. Writing to the middle solves that by placing a success or a failure in the middle of the novel. In a romance novel with a love triangle, this is where Carl asks our protagonist to marry him. We’ve been building to that point. Her loneliness is solved, or so it would seem. Then we cross the middle and we begin to see that Carl isn’t what she though he was and Brad is the right one for her, but now we have to find a way to get rid of Carl and move Brad into the picture.

Stick with your brand: This isn’t just a good piece of marketing advice. It is also very freeing. Suppose you write Suspense. You’re out driving one day and you see an old car rusting in a field of yellow flowers. You can’t shake the image and you want to write about it. There are a million stories you could write. As a Suspense writer, you only have to consider those with a Suspense plot. I write about families, so I would focus my attention on a story that involves the relationships within a family.

Learn from your critics: The writer doesn’t exist who can’t improve his writing. People who criticize our work do so for one of two reasons. One reason is that they see something wrong with our work. In that case, we should strive to do better. The other reason is that the person doesn’t like us. I don’t always handle situations like that as I should, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from some of what our hostile critics say.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Making the King Interesting

When we think of a king (or queen), we usually think of a man who has the authority to do pretty much what he pleases. Historically, many kings have had the power and we tend to think that that is the only kind of king there is. Going from that assumption, we might look at the British monarchy, which has little formal authority and what it has is rarely exercised, and wonder why it still exists. We read through the Book of Daniel and see that the law of the Medes and Persians prevented the king from amending his own law. That seems to go against our concept of what a king is, but there it is. The law supersedes the power of the king.

In fiction, kings are often very boring creatures. The problem is that we often ignore the authority of the law over the king. Suppose the law requires the crown prince to marry before his twenty-fifth birthday. We say, “Change the law,” but that doesn’t make for a good story. Consider the real life King Darius from the Book of Daniel. He signed a law stating that anyone who prayed to anyone except him for thirty days would be cast into a den of lions. He becomes interesting because he realizes his mistake and is powerless to correct it. If you have a fictional king who is boring, create a law that he can’t change and watch him squirm.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

How to Get Noticed on Twitter

I remember from when I was a child, sitting the car watching the corn fields fly past and imagining how much fun it would be to walk between the rows of corn. These days, they plant an extra row where I would have walked. A child could hardly make his way through and an adult certainly couldn’t. But for a moment there, weren’t you thinking about what it would be like to wonder off into a corn field? Maybe you were riding along with me in rural Missouri, watching the ten foot tall corn stalks pass outside the window. When we tell a story, the listener shares the moment.

I’ve been giving Twitter a try. I’ve been following a few people. Some of these people are more prolific Tweeters than other. I mostly ignore the most prolific. I figure that if they can tweet every minute then they haven’t taken time to think about what they’re saying. But this week, one person in particular has gotten interesting. Michael Hyatt is in Ethiopia and every so often he tweets about what they are doing. On one hand, what he is saying is nothing new. We’ve all heard stories about people visiting the poor areas of the world before. That’s one of the things that I like about reading The Gleaner. Missionaries write about sharing the gospel as well as providing food and medicine. So, hearing Michael Hyatt tell a similar story is not particularly special, but it is interesting for a different reason. It is interesting because he is telling a story.

As we read the tweets Mike has been sending back, we are there as the children crowd around them. We see the fields where the workers are using old tools to scratch out a meager existence. We are there as they arrive back at their hotel room, hoping for a shower and finding only a bucket of water, since the water isn’t working. We saw the children wearing Obama t-shirts. But we were also there when they were at the airport waiting for a plane. We will be there when they arrive back in the states.

If you want my attention on Twitter, or anywhere else, tell me a story. It doesn’t have to be about a trip to Ethiopia. It could be a trip to the grocery store for all I care, but tell me a story. Let me come with you. Let me see through your eyes. Use your words to paint a picture I haven’t seen before or one that I have, but tell me a story. Then and only then will you get my attention.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Door A or Door B?

One of the most powerful plot devices we can use is a story is the moral dilemma. Suppose that you are standing in front of your mother with a gun in your hand. She had contracted a disease that will soon reach a point that it will spread to the rest of the world, killing millions, but if she dies before it begins to spread, the disease will die and no one else will die. Do you pull the trigger or not? Suppose you sit at your computer with your finger poised over the enter key. You have in your possession a computer program can actively seek out the primary spam senders and terminate their connection to the Internet. With one tap of your finger, you can eliminate all spam from user’s inboxes, but in doing so you would remove the protection on large amounts of data that companies and individuals intend to keep protected. Do you press enter or delete?

The moral dilemma typically consists of a wrong action that produces a right result as compared to a right action that produces a wrong result. Key to the moral dilemma is that there isn’t an easy answer. The characters facing this situation don’t know the right answer. For that matter, we don’t either. The moral dilemma is about a character standing at a fork in the road and not wanting to take either.

We put a moral dilemma in a story to encourage a reader to question what he would do in the same situation. We may want to leave the moral dilemma unresolved, either because we want the reader to consider the situation or because we don’t know the right answer.

Christian fiction has some aspects that give us some predefined answers to some of the moral dilemmas we may encounter. The Bible gives us principles that can guide our lives concerning a great many things. You will recall how Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah stood with many other people looking at a giant statue, ninety feet tall and made of gold along with a multitude of other people who had been called to assemble. At the sound of many kinds of music, they were to fall down and bow to the statue. They must have stood out like sore thumbs when the rest of the people were lying on the ground and these three were standing up looking around. They were given another chance to either bow to the statue or be thrown into a hot furnace. Their answer, our God will deliver us, but if not, we serve him anyway. Many martyrs have probably thought about this passage as they faced their deaths at the hands of their persecutors. When faced with a choice between denouncing their faith and death, they already knew they would choose death. In a similar fashion, Christian fiction is written in a atmosphere where we already know how God would want someone in a given situation to respond. Will our character act that way? Maybe or maybe not, but we already have resolution for the moral dilemma. Still, we can throw one in to make things interesting.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Win $25 Gift Certificate

Win a $25 gift certificate. That’s right. I thought it might be fun to do a contest. I thought about offering a publishing contract to the winner, but I wanted to be as inclusive as possible.

First Chance to Win

Choose any Christian novel. I must be able to find it on Create a new title that is different by one letter. You may change a letter, delete a letter or add a letter, but only one letter. For example, Redeeming Love might become Redeeming Cove. Next, in seventy-five (75) words or less, make me want to go out and buy it. For Redeeming Cove we might say: Shania has gone through life getting what she wants and doing as she pleases. Her grades are low. Her friends are questionable. Can a summer with her grandparents in Shadow Cove turn her away from a destructive path, or is she lost forever? – Redeeming Cove In a subjective selection process, I will select the one that I would most like to read.

Second Chance to Win

Tell your friends. The winner will be given an opportunity to identify one person (presumably the person who told him/her about this contest) to receive a second $25 gift certificate.


If I choose your entry and I see your smiling face in the Followers box for this blog, I will add $10, making it a $35 gift certificate.

How to Enter

Leave your entries in the comments of this blog post. Along with your entry, identify the person who told you about this contest. Enter as many times as you like, but please don’t duplicate entries as that will not increase your chances of winning.

Deadline and Winner Announcement

I will be making a selection no sooner than 12:01 AM Sunday, May 17 CDT. That gives you a little over a week. I will announce the winner via a blog post, sometime after that. At that time, I will ask the two winners for a valid e-mail address for prize delivery.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Fiction Platform: Two Parts Easy, the Third...

We say that publishers don’t care about platform with fiction. In theory, a great story is all that matters, but hey, if you happen to have a loyal following then even better. For a while now, I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain this. At first, I thought that we might look at fiction platform as different from non-fiction platform. You may recall that the non-fiction platform is composed of expertise, recognition and public interest. My thought was that two are these are missing from the fiction platform and then I realized, it isn’t that they are missing, they are non-issues.

Look at expertise and recognition. If a novel were true, we would expect the author to be a recognized authority concerning the events. Since the novel is made up by the author, he is the recognized authority. There is nothing he can do to increase his expertise or the recognition of it (aside from telling more people about the novel). That means that any weakness in the platform is in the public interest component. Meaning that authors with an established readership, those with interesting story ideas and those with a writing style that draws readers into the story will have an advantage. If you hope to succeed in the fiction marketplace, you must work to develop these three things.

Of the three, establishing a readership appears to be the hardest. I’m not sure the evidence bears that out. I have seen a number of authors with an established readership with weak story ideas and a shabby writing style, but don’t assume you can get by with that. Establishing a readership is partly dependent on story ideas and writing style, but it is largely dependent on everything we learned in school about making friends. You know, the stuff we really learned when we were supposed to be learning reading, writing and arithmetic. We call it networking now, but back on the playground we used to call it being nice.

The thing we run into when trying to establish readership and the thing that will make publishing industry professionals question the value of author’s efforts in that area is that to gain a reader we have to make a significant investment in the life of the potential reader. Suppose Jane attends a meeting with one hundred people in attendance, hoping to sell a few books. Let’s say the meeting takes five hours that she could have spent doing something else. While there she gives her speech and talks to several of the people afterward. She does pretty well by selling twenty books. If her time is worth $25 an hour, she spent $125 in time, not to mention the gas money and any other expenses. Let’s say she gets $3.50 for each book she sells, giving her $70 for her trouble and leaving her $55 in the red. It’s even worse when we consider the efforts of an unpublished author, since there is no monetary return on the investment.

What we hope to achieve is somewhat similar to the Bernoulli Principle. Just like we can inflate a bread sack with a single puff of air, because a fast moving stream of air will pull many additional air particles with it, we hope that for each hand we shake there will be many more readers whose hands we haven’t shaken. In practice, it works differently. We can shake the hands of and respond to e-mails from many great people of whom not one person has any interest in our writing. And then we meet that person who not only thinks our writing is great, but thinks everyone else should read it too. Yeah, she could be called Mom, but there are other people as well.

It could be anyone. When we meet people, we don’t know what the result of that meeting will be. We may talk to someone and think, “that didn’t go well” and then a few days later find out that this person has written a rave review for our book or has told a bunch of people how impressed he was after meeting us. Now I would hope I don’t have to tell you that we should treat everyone, even the least influential, as important. But when we’re talking about building a platform and marketing, we must treat everyone as important whether we are sold out on the idea that everyone is important or not. It is impossible to know which person will influence people in our favor.

Be sure not to miss tomorrow's post. It will tell you how you can win up to a $35 gift certificate.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Author's Brand: How to Find It.

After writing yesterday’s post, I began to think more seriously about trying to define what kind of novels I write. Some people refer to this as an author’s brand. I’m not unlike most authors. I looked at various genres and said, “I could write that, if I tried.” While that may be true, I went back and looked at all of my previous novels, the manuscript that’s still buried in a slush pile somewhere, the tale I pulled the pug on because I felt it was too far removed from what I write and my current work in progress (WIP). I asked myself how these are similar to each other and how they are different from what I see from other authors.

The common thread in all of my novel length fiction is that they are all about families. It goes a little farther than that. All have a healthy church family that provides a moral center and a support structure, though some of the characters are hostile toward that. So, if you’re wondering what I write about, I write about families.

Let’s look at the specifics. In Searching for Mom, the family is obvious. Sara never knew her mother and she feels that she is missing something that all the other kids have. She uses the Internet to find a woman who will be a mother for her and a wife for her father. The church is there to some degree because she first looks for someone at church, before turning to the Internet.

With How to Become a Bible Character, the church family is the primary family, while other families make their appearance as well. If you dissect the story, I think what you will discover is that the story is about how God is using the church family to accomplish great things while Neal is trying to be more than he was intended to be.

For the Love of a Devil is based on that great love story we find in the Book of Hosea. I can hardly say that without someone saying, “I read Redeeming Love,” but they are two very different stories. For the Love of a Devil has that same thread I mentioned above in that it is about a man struggling to care for three children while his wife is off looking for something better with other men.

Cowtown Homecoming, which is unpublished, is about a non-traditional family, involving a mother and daughter that aren’t really mother and daughter and a stranger that is actually a family member. And yes, there is a healthy church as well.

Then there is my WIP. In this case, the family is a broken family. The healthy church is still there because the woman in this broken family is the church secretary that you may remember from when Wayne tells about chasing the rat in How to Become a Bible Character.

That’s what I write. I write about families. What about you? What is your chosen genre? What threads do you see running through your work?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Making Baby Steps Toward Publishing Success

Last time, I briefly mentioned the idea of building success rather than having a defining event to catapult us to success. The story is told of a man and his wife entering a hotel on a story night, looking for a room. The night clerk told them that all the rooms were booked, but they could have his room. When the couple departed the next day, the man thanked the clerk, saying he was the kind of person who should be managing a hotel. Months later, the clerk received a letter from the man, inviting him to come manage a hotel the man had built, the Waldorf-Astoria.

I tell that story because that is essentially the model for the publishing industry. Writers tell their success stories. “I received fifty [insert whatever number you like] rejection letters and then I received a call from an agent and the rest is history.” Some bristle when someone calls them an overnight success. “But I spent years perfecting my craft.” Every aspiring and wannabe author is looking for an agent or editor to give her a chance.

As intriguing as the story above sounds, huge jumps in success like that are rare in business. I once had a man offer me a job at a Mailboxes Etc. he owned as a result of some work I had don’t for his, but that was a small step from what I was doing at the time. That is how most business success comes, one step at a time.

I’m reminded of my very first job interview. I had put in an application at a restaurant. The manager and I sat down at one of the tables. He first asked me what position I wanted. I thought it might be fun to be a waiter, so that’s what I told him. “What experience do you have?” Experience? What do I need experience for? It isn’t like this is rocket science. It quickly became clear that about the only thing he would hire me for was to clear tables, and those jobs were already taken. He was looking for people following the path to success, not people looking for a jumpstart on success.

What if the publishing industry were like that? Is there a path that we can follow that will get us to success eventually? As it is, all of the unpublished authors are sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the literary agent bus driver to come pick them up. Yeah, they’re all trying to improve their craft, but they aren’t going anywhere. Is it possible just take off walking instead of waiting for the bus that may never come? Maybe there’s another bus stop where the bus comes more often.

Build That Platform

I know you thought I’d tell you something new. Sorry, there’s no way around it. We have to have a platform. Michael Hyatt tells us that having 500-1000 unique visitors per day to a blog is significant enough to get notice from the publishing industry. Unless you have an inherent following, achieving that many visits doesn’t come easy. Actually, it is probably easier to sell a romance novel to Harlequin than it is for a novelist to achieve that many unique visitors on a blog. With non-fiction, if you have information that people need but no one else is putting on the Internet, you’ll gain readers quickly. Either way, you don’t need to wait for the publishing bus before you start taking steps toward 1000 daily visitors.

Become the Go-To-Guy/Gal

I say Queen of Suspense; you say ___? Just tell me that Mary Higgins Clark didn’t come to mind. Murder Mystery – Agatha Christie. Military fiction – Tom Clancy. As readers, if we want a specific type of story, we know which author will give it to us. Big names, right? Not always so. Here’s one for you: Queen of Edgy Christian Fiction – Michelle Sutton. She has a book out now, but she was the Queen of Edgy Christian Fiction before she had a contract. How is that possible? Essentially, she told everyone that publishers were rejecting her book because it was too edgy. Now, if a publisher wants edgy, Michelle Sutton is the first name that comes to mind. Is it good? How should I know? I haven’t read it, but it must be the best that edgy Christian fiction has to offer.

My point is that you don’t have to be on the publishing bus with contract in hand before you begin building your reputation as the go-to-guy for whatever it is that you want to write. You don’t have to try to be the Queen of Suspense. Maybe you are the Queen of Romances Between Preachers and Nuns or whatever. Find your niche in what you want to write, focus on that and tell people what you write. In time, when a writer attends a conference and hands an agent a manuscript about a preacher and nun falling in love, the agent looks at it and says, “I don’t think you’re ready, but I’ll tell you who you should talk to. She’s the Queen of Romances Between Preachers and Nuns.” When the market demands romances between preachers and nuns, you can be sure that you will be considered for a publishing contract.


If you don’t care if you get on the publishing bus at all, we have to consider self-publishing. It doesn’t provide the quick success that most self-published authors hope it will be, but neither is it as expensive as many people in the publishing industry imply. It’s possible to lose your shirt in self-publishing, but many self-publishing enthusiasts make money at it. How many golfing enthusiasts do you know who can say that? There are pros and cons, but in an industry in which the authors are putting in a lot of work for no pay, it is nice to have something we have to pay taxes on come April 15th.

Team Up With Other Authors

I’ve noticed that several well known authors have teamed up with their children. That’s a great way to give their children a leg up on the publishing industry, but most of us don’t have bestselling novelist parents. Besides, that is just another form of taking the publishing bus. That doesn’t, however, mean that we can’t do something similar while walking the publishing path. Got a critique group of four people? Write a book together, put everyone’s name on the cover and you’ll be able to leverage each other’s fan base.

I have given some thought to trying to hook up with nine aspiring authors and producing a book. If each author brings a fan base of 100 readers, that would mean that every author would have at least 1,000 people reading her work. And if that fan base also translated into 1,000 books sold, each author could expect over $400 in royalties. It wouldn’t make anyone rich, but it could help move the authors involved as few steps down the publishing path. I just haven’t settled on a good selection criteria.

Nothing I have mentioned here is a silver bullet that will guarantee an author publishing success. What I hope you can see is that there are more options available than just putting your work in a slush pile or spending a ton of money on conferences, hoping that some agent will love your work so much that he’ll call every acquisitions editor he knows. There are ways to make progress toward publishing success that don’t require us to be an overnight success.

Related Posts:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Learning From Susan Boyle

Yesterday, Rachelle Gardner had a post about what writers can learn from the Susan Boyle phenomenon. She offered two lessons. One, the impression we make early on is the most important. I remember taking a career development class in junior high. One of the things I remember is something about the first twelve being the most important in an interview. We walk in the door and the first twelve seconds forms the first impression. A decision will likely be made in the first twelve minutes, though the interview may go on longer. The point is that we never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

The second lesson Rachelle mentioned was that it is the work that matters most. That one’s a little bit of a stretch, I think, as you will see in a moment. Yes, Susan Boyle can sing. She can sing very well. The problem is that looking to Susan Boyle for advice on how to succeed is a little like asking financial advice from a lottery winner. There was once a man who had done quite well for himself. He had a nice home, a nice car and plenty of money to give to charities. A television reporter asked him, “how did you get so wealthy?” The man thought for a moment and then said, “When I was young, we didn’t have two pennies to rub together. I decided then that I didn’t want my children to live like that, so I studied hard and I managed to get a scholarship to go to college. I graduated with high marks and I went out into the world to get a job. For years I worked, trying to make money, but I still didn’t have great success. Then one day I saw this lottery ticket on the ground…”

Rachelle is right that good writing is important, but if we can learn that from Susan Boyle, then what are we to learn from William Hung? The thing that these two have in common is that they took us by surprise. As writers, the most important thing we can learn from Susan Boyle is to be different. Based on some of the stuff reaching publication, I would say you don’t even have to write well (though I wish you would). The most important thing is for your work to stand out. Isn’t that the lesson we learned from The Shack?

But, I can’t help but wonder. Do we really want to aim for being the next anomaly? If we hit the mark and get that million dollar advance, it would be great, but that is a rare accomplishment, just like few of the people who try out for American Idol get to see the judges, much less make it into the final rounds of the competition. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I haven’t given up on the idea that a writer (like one of his characters) can build success rather than needing a defining moment that catapults him to success. Then again, I could just be an ideological fool. (More on that Monday.)