In honor of our youngest daughter’s birthday this weekend…
She and I have laughed at this audio many times. To the point of being able to quote it. I was excited to find it available on YouTube (our version is a CD).
Listen and then you’ll understand this story: Years ago while in a very crowded elevator after watching a big event, I looked over at her and said, “Macadamia.” She deadpanned in reply, “Galoshes.” To this day we wonder what everyone in the elevator was thinking about us.
I am the world’s worst about abandoning novels I read for leisure. I’ll give a book a fair chance, but as soon as I find I don’t like it, I have no compunction about tossing it aside to pursue a different story. And believe me, as a literary agent, I have many books to consider. In any room we spend time in at home, several books stay within reach. Authors must earn my time and effort. So how does a novelist compete?
I like the characters.
If I can relate to a sympathetic character, I’ll stick with the story. Or if I’m supposed to hate the character and the book will show me his comeuppance, I can deal with that. The main task for you, Dear Writer, is to emote. Why does the character feel this way, why does she act this way, and why should I care? Make me feel emotions, and I’ll stay.
The characters are familiar but not stereotypes.
I don’t mind seeing well-known types for comfort and the sake of shorthand. We all know the helicopter mother, the wise elder, and the prodigal, for example. But don’t make me feel as though I’ve happened upon a terrible “B” film from the forties. If you start with the familiar, add dimension to show why the character fits the stereotype. Unless you’re writing broad comedy, don’t rely on the stereotype alone to carry the story.
I believe the plot.
I’m willing to suspend disbelief, but only to a point. Know your genre so you know how much unreality your audience will endure. For example, fantasy fans will go along with a wild universe much more quickly than romance readers will believe that two addicts spending an afternoon in a shooting gallery is a firm foundation for a happy, long-term marriage. Authors who do want their readers to go along with an improbable plot must display a high level of skill to keep readers invested in the story.
I think about the book.
I’ll stay with a book if I’m thinking about it when I’m not reading it. I’m thinking about the characters as I make dinner and fold laundry. I’m wondering what will happen next.
I can’t wait to get back to the book.
When I’m plotting when I can make time to get back to reading, you’ve won me over. I’ll stick with you until the bitter – or happy – end.
How many pages or chapters do you give a book before you abandon it?
Non-writers try to find time to write; writers make time to write.
A couple lifetimes ago, after having been a pastor for seven years, I took a desk job—the first time in my adult life when my job wasn’t 24/7. But it was also the first time when I had a boss on site, and set office hours. I had written and published a few articles every year during my pastoral tenures, but once I was in a (roughly) 9-to-5 job, I made it a goal to write a book.
In addition to my 9-to-5 job, however, I had a wonderful wife who deserved a fair proportion of my attention and energy. I also participated (loosely) in raising our two children of elementary-school age. So even though my schedule was not as constantly demanding as it had been when I was the pastor of a growing church, time was still at a premium. When would I find time to write?
Our small home at the time had no extra room for a home office, so I set up my desk in the furnace room. No kidding, it was a real sweat shop. So I had a place to work, but I still had to carve out the time to write. I committed (and told my wife and a couple friends) that I would write for a couple hours each workday evening after my two school-age children were in bed. I planned to write a chapter each week, and promised myself and my wife that if a week’s chapter wasn’t written by bedtime on Saturday evening, I would not go to bed until it was done. I first-drafted my first book, two hours at a time, ten hours or more a week, for fourteen weeks…on a manual typewriter.
Another book (the first I published) was written by going to the office at least an hour early (and I am not a morning person!) to write on an actual computer from 7:30-8:30 a.m., before the rest of the staff came in.
Later, having planted a new church, I crammed all my writing time into one morning and afternoon each week, on my “off day,” before a new week of ministry demands clamored for my attention.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote in the car, while his wife drove him to and from butterfly-catching expeditions. William Faulkner found time to write by utterly neglecting his postmaster job. A. J. Jacobs writes on a treadmill. Some people write during the kids’ nap time, others while the kids are in school. Some carry a notepad with them so they can write wherever they are, while others sketch out a particular place or routine.
My point is, it is almost universally futile to try to find time to write. That’s seldom how time—or creativity—works. So get creative. Figure it out. Make time your servant, not your master. And wrestle your calendar and clock into submission to your artistic goals.
One of the more complex aspects of publishing Christian-themed books is the publisher theological position or “grid” which covers whatever products they seek to publish.
Just like all churches are not alike, Christian publishers are definitely not alike. Some may have groups or “imprints” focusing on a specific theological perspective, but for sure, theology is an issue in their decision-making process.
Even though Christians might feel strong about unity in all essential things of the faith and desire to identify ourselves simply as followers of Jesus Christ, agents and publishers will want to know a little more information about authors. Depending on what you are writing (mainly non-fiction), one or more of these might be important for the decision maker to know:
Catholic or Protestant?
Mainline denomination or not?
Reformed or Arminian?
Charismatic or not?
Egalitarian or Complementarian?
Biblical inerrancy important to you?
Young earth or intelligent design?
What’s your view of eschatology?
Aside from the theological perspective, every publisher seeks certain types of books, authors and writing styles, but when the theological element is added back into the equation, it becomes much clearer why this can get complicated.
Every traditional publisher of Christian books has a perspective which informs everything they do. Don’t expect a publisher who disagrees with your position on something to publish your book.
And not just publishers of Christian books.
Maybe you have heard it said, “everyone is a theologian.” This means even an atheist or agnostic has a theology of life, just one which disagrees with Christian truth.
Every editor at every publisher views potential projects through the lens of a certain theological perspective. They might decline your proposal because they disagree with you. (And by the way, agents have theological opinions as well.)
More than a few times, an author contract has been cancelled before publication not because of a moral failing or some other contractual problem, but because the publisher could not resolve a theological disagreement with the author and their manuscript.
And it isn’t just non-fiction where this happens. Fiction can portray a theological perspective which might be deemed off-center as well. Books for children can be theological battlefields.
Christian publishers love creativity, but “creative theology” will raise red flags!
Often, I will smile when reading proposals from aspiring authors who feel led to write a book “correcting” an egregious theological error in the church, such as proving the falsehood of the Trinity or the virgin birth of Jesus, his deity or bodily resurrection.
Those things are deal-breakers for most every publisher of Christian books. There is no interest in publishing something they would disagree with strongly or that would harm their reputation among Christian booksellers. (And by the way, booksellers have a theological filter as well.)
Both authors and publishers are on a mission, but it might be a different mission.
Did you discover the date of Christ’s return? Don’t expect many in Christian publishing to clap their hands with joy over your new “discovery.” The rejection note might contain the words, “false prophet” which would be the tip-off you are not on the same page.
Theologically speaking, there is truly nothing new under the sun. If you find something new, it is either simply new to you or not true at all.
Your theological perspective matters. Not just for life in general, but in your writing as well. Your worldview matters since it will seep out in whatever you write.
After all, the industry in which I primarily work is not a wide “religious” perspective of multiple roads to heaven. Admittedly, the list of factors I mentioned above are mostly non-essentials, but every Christian publisher has a few filters which would preclude publishing a book based on one or more of them.
If you don’t believe this to be true, you might be in for a surprise.
Christian publishing is not a box of chocolates. For those who pay attention to it closely, you know exactly what you are going to get.
There is an important question that needs to be answered in your book proposal in the “Manuscript Status” section. When will your manuscript be ready?
This information is important whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.
When Will Your Book be Done?
Fiction: If you are a first time novelist, never before published, your answer should be “The manuscript is complete and available upon request.” Agents and publishers rarely will take a book from a debut author unless it is already complete.
Why? Because you might have spent 15 years perfecting your opening chapters but the story falls apart on page 200. We have to have confidence in the whole story before we represent it or before a publisher will contract it.
If you are an established author with a track record with major publishers you know to pick a reasonable completion date that you are confident in achieving. A publisher will look at your delivery date and add one year and begin planning for which season your book would release to the market.
Non-Fiction: In non-fiction you can get by without a finished manuscript in most cases. A detailed annotated chapter outline should suffice. In non-fiction the author is usually presenting a case for a topic or writing a biography or a how-to, etc. The concept is already well presented in the proposal. The author’s platform is stellar. And the sample chapters show off the writing skill. Most of the non-fiction we contract is based on an unfinished manuscript.
However, since the book is not finished, you need to give a time frame for its completion.
Delivery Date: If the manuscript is not finished you should give a rock solid estimate as to when you think you can finish the book. This goes into the publisher’s discussion about whether to contract the book. This date could become part of the contract itself.
Be careful in choosing an exact date. Better to use an estimate like “will be complete within six months of contract” or whatever time frame fits your situation.
Avoid something like, “Manuscript will be complete January 1st.” If you commit to that date you will miss Christmas with your family! You’ll be in your writing cave while everyone else is opening presents.
How do you estimate the amount of time it will take to finish the book?
Why do you think established novelists are given a pass on this issue?
What happens if a non-fiction author cannot write the rest of the manuscript very well?
When you’re working to get your book published, you feel you have lots of people to please. First, you have to be satisfied with your book. Then, you need to find an agent to partner with you to present your work to editors, who are her customers. Then the editor must sell your work to the editorial committee. Then it goes to the publishing committee. So along the way, you’ve had lots of people to please. Now you’re ready for the ultimate test: making readers happy. For if you can convince readers your book is worth purchasing, then you’ll have good sales figures to start your successful career.
So what are your obligations to your reader?
Present Them with Your Best
Have you ever read a book and wondered if the author turned in a first draft? This is not how you want your reader to feel, no matter how long you’ve been writing or how rushed you feel during the process. Perhaps you turned in your book, feeling it rocked, only to find your editor disagreed and you’ve got to spend considerable time rewriting. That’s the time to see if your agent can get you an extension. Better to turn in thoughtful revisions than to rush to meet an unrealistic deadline.
Know How Long You Need to Write
Some writers can churn out books faster than Superman can fly. Others need much more time. Realize what works for you and work to write your best. Take the time you need. You can do this by realizing that you now have a career. Make the time to do your work properly.
Value Your Readers’ Time
Your readers are paying for helpful advice, encouragement, a riveting story, or some combination of the three. Cut out all unnecessary words and anything that makes the book drag. You are not writing for yourself. You are writing for your reader.
As an author, you are now required to have an online presence. Make sure it’s uplifting, confident, and in keeping with your brand. Make your readers feel you are friendly and care about them. Because you do.
What author meets these goals for you as a reader?
What other obligations do you think an author has to readers?
A few weeks ago I asked my friends on social media if they had a favorite word that no one seems to use anymore—and the response was fast and furious (I should make a dozen or so movies about it, right?). While there were far too many replies to list them all, here is a list of some of my favorites (and the person(s) who mentioned each), followed by the one word that got the most mentions and “hear, hears.”
assignation (Kristena Mears)
astonish (Nick Harrison)
bamboozle (Sharon Kopf)
brouhaha (Linda Gilden)
cacophony (Molly Jo Realy)
cheroot (Lisa Kibler)
chivalry (Peggy Derr Follrod)
confounded (Gary Fearon)
discombobulated (Diane Viere)
diversion (Sharon Autry)
eschew (Craig Stoker)
flabbergasted (Karen Bender)
flibbertigibbet (Sharon Kopf)
fortnight (Scott Strissel)
frisky (Tez Brooks)
gobsmacked (Dawn Heatwole, Ronie Kendig)
groovy (Pam Zollman, Candy Westbrook, Jerry Eldred)
intuit (Bill Patterson)
jolly (Robin Prince Monroe)
kerfuffle (Sharon Kopf, Lauren Monico-Crews)
lickspittle (Bob Hostetler)
Lilliputian (Julie Patrick-Barnhill)
lollygag (Judy DuCharme, A. E. Schwartz)
meretricious (Craig Stoker)
patootie (Cindy Huff, Daphne Woodall)
penultimate (Sarah Thomas)
persnickety (Marilyn Turk)
pervade (Misty Simco)
plethora (Joshua Masters, Rachel McDaniel)
practicable (Craig von Buseck)
pshaw (Jeanne Gowen Dennis)
recalcitrant (Roberta Brosius)
reckon (Rebekah Dorris)
reprobate (Donna Mumma)
sequester (Chris Storm)
shall (Bob McLaughlin, Don Hostetler)
shan’t (Don Hostetler)
smug (Tez Brooks)
stalwart (Mary Connealy)
verdant (Marilyn Turk)
whilst (Jenn Discher)
yonder (Gail Wofford Cartee)
And the winner, mentioned first by Pam Halter and seconded or repeated by several others: vex.
Thank you to everyone for playing, and join us next time on “Forgotten Words We Ought to Revive.”
Most authors and aspiring authors are open to direction and crave constructive comments to help them advance their craft and career. Hopefully, you have had a chance to be part of a good critique group which provided assistance in a manner you found energizing and helpful.
When a book is rejected by a publisher or agent, sometimes the reasons behind the rejection are not what you might classify as energizing and helpful.
We’ve addressed poor proposal development in this agency blog before and hopefully regular readers will follow the guidelines for any agency to make sure they have all the necessary information to make a decision.
Still, the person doing the rejecting might just be busy and rejects whatever is in front of them at the moment, so they have a reasonable chance of catching up on all the backlog of proposals sometime in this millennium.
You took rejection personally and it was anything but personal.
Let’s face it, every person alive has been in situations where the input exceeds capacity to effectively respond and we find ways to cut corners. People in publishing are finite and human, like everyone else.
It brings to mind a scene from the film Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey, where he thought he could do a better job at being God, than God. He received prayers from people all over the world via email. Overwhelmed, he handled the millions and billions of prayers with a copy/paste “yes.”
There are some less-than-inspiring reasons books have been rejected.
–They don’t particularly like your theological perspective.
–The comparable titles you chose did not work for them.
–They disagree with the premise of the book.
–They have a similar book from someone else.
Some (thankfully, not most) publishing rejection-decisions are made without thoroughly considering all factors in a proposal. The editor or agent has such a backlog of proposals to consider, they simply reject because something didn’t catch their attention within seconds.
If you want someone to “Just read my manuscript and I am sure you will like it,” you are asking someone to invest hours into something when they only have minutes, or seconds to spare.
As an agent, I’ve had a proposal rejected by a publisher because:
–The publisher already had a similar themed book, published twenty years ago. (If applied to every proposal, no new book would ever be published)
–The publisher already had several books with a certain word in their title, also found in the title of the proposed book. (Maybe change the title?)
–A publisher didn’t connect with the twenty-word short description provided in the proposal.
–A publisher didn’t connect with my short email cover note to the proposal. (I guess I shouldn’t have used the phrase, “I hope your weather is nice.”)
Consider this as a possibility:
The answer to every proposal is “no thank you” until the agent or publisher sees something requiring they respond positively. If you start slowly or badly, you will need to get to the good stuff quickly or else.
This is the result of an over-heated “audition” process which requires every decision-maker trust their first impression, jump to conclusions, and make quick decisions.
This is part of the reason just about every best-selling book or author has been rejected by multiple agents or publishers before finding a literary home.
It also reveals the effect of what happens when an agent representing a few dozen clients at a time, gets a few thousand proposals every year, or a publisher looking for 25 new books, but has 2,000 great proposals from agents to consider.
If you insist on getting to the bottom of every rejection, be ready to hear reasons which are neither helpful or inspiring.
More proof publishing is not a scientific venture. It’s a lot more like being a parent than anything else. You can do everything right, teaching right and wrong and encouraging proper behavior, but your little one still flushes your smartphone down the toilet for no good reason.
There is an important question that needs to be answered in your book proposal in the “Manuscript Status” section. What is the length of your book?
This information is important whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.
How Long is Your Book?
Think carefully before you declare a word count in your proposal. I don’t know how often I’ve seen someone propose a 280,000 word manuscript…or on the other end a 28,000 word manuscript. (One zero can make a big difference!)
Your book may be complete and you are just telling the agent or editor its length. But your word count might be a reason it is being rejected!
Here is a simple rule of thumb. Take your word count and divide it by 300. The answer will be the approximate page count of a printed book. Therefore, a 280,000 word manuscript becomes a 900 page doorstop. And a 28,000 word manuscript is more like a booklet or novella of 90 pages.
Please don’t tell us “my book is 150 pages long.” We don’t know if it is single spaced, double spaced, in a teensy sized font, or in giant print. That is why word count is the measure.
You might say, “But with e-books the word count doesn’t matter!” True, to a certain point. But e-books are one format … and not the only one. Major publishers still sell more than 50% of their books in printed form. The longer the book, the more expensive it is to print.
If that is the case then what is the ideal length? It depends.
I can hear the cry, “Steve! That is a singularly unhelpful answer!”
There are exceptions to every example given below. So please take the advice as estimates and generalizations, not rules.
Fiction: It does depend on your genre and whether you are targeting a particular publisher. If you want to write for the Harlequin Love Inspired romance or suspense line your manuscript should be around 55,000-60,000 words. If you are targeting the longer form novel your story should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. There is often room for more than 100,000 words, but don’t go overboard.
If you are writing an epic fantasy and want Enclave Publishing to grab it, the length can go higher, because that genre lends itself to longer stories (hence the word “epic”). The top end for an epic fantasy can be up to 130,000 words in some cases. (But science fiction does not usually hit that length.)
If you send a fiction proposal like the one I received this week with a word count of 19,000 … it will be rejected. That is barely enough for a novella.
Contrast that with the other novel proposal I received this week with a word count of 540,000 words.
Makes the “no thank you” pretty easy to write.
Non-Fiction: Do the math above. A 90,000 word book is going to be about 300 pages. Is that a good length for your reader on this topic? Shorter isn’t necessarily better, but it can be an important consideration.
Recently an author proposed a 30,000 word book to a publisher. The publisher was enthused and willing to offer a contract but wants the book to be 42,000 words. [Yes, the conversation was that specific.] If you think about the “math” it changes from 100 pages to one around 140 pages. That extra length gives the book more heft and can be a “fatter” book on the shelf…thereby having more perceived value.
A “typical” non-fiction book ranges between 55,000 and 80,000 words. (180-260 pages in print form)
There is another “it depends” when it comes to devotionals. They tend to be shorter with some having each chapter/reading being only 300 words. If there are 90 readings then it’s a short book, but with artwork and interior design the page count is higher so the word count is only one factor. Or if its a 365 day devotional the word count is going to be very high.
Yes, I know that with typesetting magic one can make a book short or long using different fonts and leading (the space between the lines). I also know that using right side of the page (recto) chapter beginnings can add space. We are not talking about typesetting, this is a general principle discussion.
What issues are you having with estimating word count?
Why do you think publishers care about word count?