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Category : Deep Thoughts
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” all this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. A lot of the questions have focused on the details of writing and publishing, but one person last week asked a profound question about the big stuff: “How would you define success?”
I have stayed away from talking about this topic on my blog a lot, figuring too many people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section that would make me want to barf (“Success is just doing the right thing” or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I feel like I’m serving God!”). I think it’s easy to give a spiritual-sounding response. My problem is that I’ve been in this business for decades, and I don’t believe that sort of answer is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by book sales. You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure. That’s how most of us feel. Sure, writers are artists, and we want to express our creativity, but so much of the business of writing is based on sales that we tend to default to that answer. No, it may not be the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” or “calling” or “creative freedom” when most of us talk about our writing careers.
So how do I define success as a writer? Let me tell you a story…
Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to
If anyone had told me that shivering at home with two cats for five days with zero heat would land me a weekly newspaper column, I’d have said they were balmy and been envious.
We don’t see much snow or frigid temperatures in Southern Oregon, but one day in December, my boys (cats), Oliver and Cassidy, and I noticed an increasing chill. I checked the thermostat and confirmed my suspicion that the downstairs heating unit had called it quits just when I needed it most. The sustained single digit highs our valley endured, when our normal low for the month was 33, had proved too much. I reassured myself and the boys that we still had the upstairs heater until it dawned like a candle in a cave that the remaining unit might be panting to do double duty. What if . . . As if reading my fear, the bugger followed suit and began spewing cold air.
Many households in the area suffered during the icy snap. The heating/AC people were living fat and calling the shots. The failures happened at the crest of a weekend, so the service guy had time to smoke a cigarette in his truck before landing on my doorstep five minutes after overtime kicked in. The two heat pumps had different issues. One needed a part that had to be ordered from the Ukraine, or maybe it was Utah, I don’t recall, and on and on with the waiting and trials.
I didn’t relish the idea of moving to a hotel with the boys. I’d tried it before. So, as the drama heated up while the cooling trend moved through my house, the meat locker, a grain of Yankee ingenuity took root. I crawled my Honda through a depth of snow a Minnesotan would use for a margarita, and bought four space heaters from the delighted folks at my neighborhood hardware store. I employed
Behold! Our new-look website. We’ve done a complete revamp of the site, with the goal of making things easier to read, easier to research, and to get back to having a cutting-edge blog that tackles the questions authors have about the world of publishing. Glad you are joining us! (And if it’s not quite done, or have all the edges squared up yet… well, we’re working on it.)
Let me start the new year with my The Predictions for Book Publishing in 2016…
- We’re going to see more rights sales. I think both traditional and indie publishers are going to push for more global sales, push for more audio books, and push for more variety projects (like coloring books) in 2016, which is good news for authors. It means there are more opportunities to make some income.
- We’re going to see more of iBooks. While Amazon is the 800-lb gorilla of ebooks, their shopping experience has always left a lot to be desired. I think this is the year Apple figures out how to improve the shopping experience and makes iBooks a destination spot for readers.
- We’re going to see more people reading on mobile devices. I know we keep hearing about the growth of print in 2015, but I think that was tied to the fact that the Big Five simply started charging so much more for ebooks, readers fell back to buying print. I think we’re going to see new technology and new interest from readers who want to go mobile.
- We’re going to see more short works. People who like USA Today like short pieces. And if people are reading on their phone or pad, they want short books. I think the rise of the 40k-to-45k novel is upon us.
- We’re going to see more interest in China. The country is opening up, and publishers are just now starting to figure out how to get books in
In honor of Thanksgiving (and because I haven’t come up with a new series idea yet), I thought I’d take the opportunity today to say thank you to some folks who played a big part in helping me become a person who loves words and stories and commas and gets to work with them every day; namely, my high school English teachers.
Some of you might have seen my post last year about Miss Stinson and the journals we kept for English 9, and how her encouragement and creativity and restraint in not rolling her eyes at every third word I wrote gave me a lasting sense of worth regarding my writing– not that I left English 9 thinking that everything I wrote had worth, but I left knowing that writing was something worth doing, not because of the result, but because of the process, and the freedom, and the way in which finding the right words can bring order out of chaos in the way the right words brought dry land out of the deep in the beginning. If there’s a group in greater need of a little order in the midst of personal chaos than high school freshmen, I’m not sure who they are, and we loved Miss Stinson for giving us that means of bringing some order to our chaos. (She also accidentally cussed once in class– I doubt anything could have earned our loyalty more quickly.)
Mrs. Baldwin’s love of story was more infectious than any teacher I’d ever had– even the slackers read the books for her class just so they wouldn’t be left out of the passionate (and occasionally violent) discussions about whether Our Town was boring or brilliant or whether or not Jay Gatsby was an antihero. She connected the stories we read in American Literature to her own life and her own past, and by doing so gave us sheltered, dumb, narcissistic
One of the things we talk a lot about at conferences and workshops is how to improve the craft of writing. But I believe we’re missing an important layer of what it means to be a writer. As writers, we have to dig deep into our inner being so that we can convey stories that reach our readers. Technique is easily learned, but the essence that goes into what we write, that’s something that can only come from deep within, the core of who we are as people.
Which is why we also need to focus on nurturing our writer’s spirit.
Writing is an incredibly deep and emotional process. Writing is one of the few endeavors where a person lays their soul bare, gets heaping criticism flung at it, then comes back for more. Yes, there is positive feedback, but many writers will agree that there’s far more negative than positive. How do you nurture a soul that faces regular criticism in the face of all the other doubts and fears that come with the job?
Writers, your work has value. The problem is, we’re so busy learning about techniques, markets, trends, social media, and whatever new toy the writing world has come up with, that we forget the absolute core of what we do and why we do it. All of us have different reasons for writing, different stories to tell, and a different impact we will have on the world. Yet sometimes, we lose sight of that because we’re so focused on the business of writing that we forget the soul of our writing.
That’s not to say there’s no place in our writing careers for the business of writing. The last time I checked, writers needed to eat, too. But if we do not take the time to go back and nurture our writing spirits, if we do not care for ourselves at our very core, then
I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…
A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”
The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.
This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”
Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better
I’m shocked at the behavior of authors recently. One story after another features an author responding badly to a review, manipulating numbers or stalking their readers.
I’m baffled at what my response should be to this bad behavior. I find little guidance (this excellent blog notwithstanding) simply because much of contemporary publishing is new or so reformed it’s unrecognizable from a decade ago. I’m new to the writing scene and admittedly impressionable. It’s tempting, even as a Christian, to look what other authors are doing in their self-promotion, their marketing, and their relationship with readers and wonder isn’t all publicity good publicity?
In a free market, none of this should be surprising. There have been slimy salesmen ever since the exchange of goods and services began. But perhaps we writers could unify and deliberately encourage good, ethical behavior within our own groups. Perhaps we can all benefit from some conversations about good behavior. Perhaps, through our communities and our tribes, we could gentle encourage each other, especially the newbies, to choose the path of honor, even if it means fewer sales. We can’t assume, that because a writer calls himself a Christian, and writes from a Christian worldview, and may even have an altar call type conversion ¾ of the way into his family saga, that the way he behaves in public is ethical. I’d like to suggest we need encouragement and wisdom in this area.
I’d like for you to join me for Ethical Author Weeks, February 1-14, 2015. In these two weeks I’m going to start conversations about ethics on my own blog (www.10minutenovelists.com), during my weekly Twitter chats (#10MinNovelists) and on my own Facebook group (10 Minute Novelists). I would be very honored if you joined me in the conversations, not just at my events, but also within your own circles of influence. You have an opportunity here to gently encourage new writers
Lagniappe. It’s a French word denoting, “A little extra.” And it’s a common expression in Louisiana’s Cajun culture. In the local Lugandan language along Lake Victoria’s northern shore, the word is enyogeza. It means a little extra at the market. Two small potatoes added to the dozen you purchased. This story is lagniappe (or enyogeza.) A little extra for you to ponder from my personal journey in Africa.
My wife DeDe and I have lived in Africa for two years. Often I look around and am shocked at how far I am from my Louisiana piney woods roots. It’s been an eventful time full of growth, frustration, change, disappointment, and joy. Very similar to life back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. I’d like to share five lessons loom large in what these years has taught me as a writer and person:
It’s always a draft.
2013 and 2014 have been years of constant change:
- Selling our home where we’d raised our family and lived thirty years.
- Leaving the Southern rural culture for the red dirt of east Africa.
- Learning Swahili to work in Democratic Congo, then being switched to South Sudan and Arabic. Hatuna matada for sure!
- Our country, South Sudan, descending into chaos and anarchy as we watched our new friends suffer and doors close. The future is poised with more of the same. It seems change is the only constant.
Due to daily change, I’ve learned to live and journal in pencil. Life requires erasers. Our African journey has been similar to the process of writing a novel: sometimes our characters take over and send us in directions we didn’t choose. But the end result is almost always a better novel as well as a richer life.
In spite of the change and uncertainty, I’ve never been more excited about life, our mission, or my writing than today. I’m confident that God is still in
Welcome to 2015, everyone. I know it’s already the 5th (Twelfthnight, if you’re into the old traditions), so you’ve enjoyed your Twelve Days of Christmas, you’ve opened presents, seen old friends and family, and toasted in the new year. Now it’s time to think hard about what you’re going to accomplish over the next twelve months.
I know what New Year’s resolutions can be like: a weight that you carry around for a few days, then let slip. Everyone who works in a gym will tell you that the first two weeks of a new year are always busy, then things start to get back to normal. You see, most people start the year with an idea that they want to do something different — exercise more, eat less, write more, drink less, contact old friends more, waste time on Facebook less… I’m the same way. I figure the start of a new year is a good time to clean the slate, pick some new goals, and get my life in focus.
The problem is that most of us tend to overestimate what we can do in one year (even if we underestimate what we could do in five, if we were to stay focused on our goals). So instead of setting some huge, life-changing goal for yourself in January, what if you had two or three big goals you wanted to get done over the course of the year? In other words, if you could accomplish just three things in 2015, what would they be? Would you finally complete that novel? Or run it by an good editor? Start that next book? Would you launch your new website? Or maybe you’re not going to start something — maybe this year you’re going to stop some things, in order to free up your time and focus on writing. Maybe this is the year you find a writing space, set aside
A few months ago, my wife and I took a weekend vacation to Ruidoso, New Mexico. At the outskirts of the small town of Roswell, we drove past a plain sign declaring Happy Jack’s, Beads—Books in front of a solitary building a hundred yards from the highway. My pulse quickened, my hands grew sweaty. I blurted, in the cracking voice of a thirteen-year-old, “Hey, is that a used book store?”
My wife gave me one of Those Looks. She knows me well.
“Do we have time to check it out?” I asked.
She sweetly mentioned that it would be nice to reach Ruidoso before twilight. Or midnight. Or Thanksgiving.
“We won’t stay long,” I insisted, turning the car around. “I promise.”
My wife is a trooper, a team player, an accommodating woman whose enjoyment of used book stores dissipates, on the average, about a hour and a half before I’m ready to leave.
I skidded to a stop in front of the building. “You stay here,” I commanded, using my Band of Brothers scout voice. “I’ll check it out. If it doesn’t smell like cat litter, the Dust Bowl, or the inside of a Marlboro, I’ll sound the all-clear.”
Flanking the building commando-style, I slipped through a side-door, eyes alert, nose sniffing.
And found Paradise.
The floors were clean, the aisles well-lighted. The cool breeze from a swamp-cooler wafted through the air. And everywhere stood rows and rows of paperback books, seen through the reflected, prismatic light of thousands of beads on display at the store’s front. Sublime joy suffused me.
I write and read Science Fiction and Fantasy. Unlike some genres, SF has traditionally been a collectors’ market; fans tend to seek out and keep specific volumes. For me, the time spent at Happy Jack’s (only an hour, I swear) was like stepping into the past, finding titles I had never seen before, studying the cover art, looking for