A writing friend sent me this question: “Are you a writer because of your distinctive ideas, the volume of material you produce, or because of a call or skill or gift?”
None of the above. I’m a writer because I write. It’s my venue for sharing truth and beauty and all that is important to me. It’s how I express myself. My friend Rebecca is a singer because she puts herself into her songwriting and musical performance. My buddy Brad is a doctor because that’s how he connects to the world and shares himself and his abilities. Maybe that constitutes a calling — it’s certainly a gift. But I’ve always seen books and words as a reflection of who I am. Some of us have to write, the way others have to sing or run or paint or speak or run or lead. With me, words tend to pour out.
The thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the fact that not everybody can be a writer, and few of us can ever be great writers. I’m all for writing conferences, because I often get to meet and encourage diamonds in the rough. And I’m a big supporter of mentor/protégé relationships because they allow an experienced person to share with an inexperienced person. But I’ve come to believe there’s a limit to the talent that can be shared. I believe I can make a writer better, but I’m not convinced I can ever make a writer great — some people just have the gift. Some people can paint, some people can sing, some people can dance – we can write.
Occasionally I come across a writer whose talent is enormous, and it usually leaves me in awe. I love that. At a conference this past weekend, I had a chance to host a salon with one of my favorite writers, Tom Robbins — an author whom many believe
Cameron Bane is the pen-name for an author who has written several thrillers, seen mild success but a bit more failure, and is finally starting to see some movement forward in his career. We wanted to let him have the floor, to speak to those authors who have been trying for years, but have yet to see big success…
A few years ago I wrote a couple inspirational novels that sold well, but don’t really reflect my style now. The split came when I wanted to explore darker, more mature themes than that market would allow, and rather than force the issue, I simply left it. With my newer works, including PITFALL, I was looking for a pen-name that was memorable and a little dangerous-sounding; thus, Cameron Bane.
I’ve been writing professionally for more a couple of decades, with six novels commercially published. I’m also a member of the Authors Guild, and for three years I was on faculty at a nationally ranked writers conference held near Santa Fe. There I taught tracks on plotting, theme, dialogue, and character development. Also, with a background in broadcasting and journalism, I’m very comfortable in dealing with all aspects of the media. I have an active on-line presence, and I’m a member of such diverse sites as AbsoluteWrite, deCompose, and James Lileks’ blog, who’s a popular columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Finally, I’m close friends with my mentor, writer James Scott Bell, author of the popular Plot and Structure, published by Writers Digest Books.
I’ve been at this game for a long time now, and people sometimes ask me how I got started. Glad to oblige. The truth is, I’ve always liked to write, even from my early teen years when as a seventh-grader our English class was challenged by our teacher to write a one-page story each week. “Challenged” is probably the wrong word — a “requirement” is what it was,
A couple of times over the past month, I’ve talked about Christian fiction and its future, since it’s clearly going through a tough time. I haven’t talked at all about Christian non-fiction, but I’ve had a number of questions come in on the topic over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d try to get to several of them…
People seem to talk about CBA and ECPA… can you explain what those organizations are?
CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s an organization for anyone who creates and sells Christian products. The organization allows members who are store owners, publishers, jewelry-makers, fine art providers, greeting card companies, t-shirt purveyors, and the like (including the guys who create Pope-soap-on-a-Rope, John 3:16 Socks, Ash-From-Sodom-and-Gomorrah Necklaces, and every other sort of Jesus Junk). They put on a big annual sales convention each summer. ECPA is the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association, and it’s the non-profit trade association for Christian publishers. Although they often overlap (and people in the industry will frequently use the term “CBA” interchangeably with anything that relates to religious publishing), they are different organizations. ECPA is conservative, evangelical book publishers. CBA is for anyone selling religious stuff.
A few months ago you said there were “fewer” books in CBA coming from pastors. As a pastor who aspires to write, I was intrigued by this observation. How do you understand the fact that pastors seem to be making such a small impact on readers through the written word?
CBA used to be filled with books by pastors, who were seen as the spiritual celebrities in our culture. Think about it — pastors went on speaking tours, led conferences, hosted their own TV and radio shows, and they did a LOT of books. We still see plenty of books from pastors, though they tend to be restricted to pastors of mega-churches, but there are certainly far fewer than there used
To better understand the value of a style sheet, let’s consider first the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript. Compared to an unedited manuscript (or one that has merely been proofed for typos), the following is usually true of an edited manuscript:
- The voice has been refined
- Plot clarity has been improved
- Story universe is more clearly defined
- Pacing is more consistent
- Syntax is tighter/cleaner
- Word choice is more effective
Some of these qualities are dependent on the author’s experience/writing skill– it generally takes a more practiced ear to pick up on and critique things like sentence structure, weak word choice, or inconsistent pacing. Others, however, are virtually entirely dependent on good record-keeping and a disciplined adherence to the established norms– plot and character details are vivid at first because the author wrote them that way, but they stay sharp and clear in the reader’s mind because the author kept track of and stuck to the initial rules he made for that universe/character. An author’s voice is most effective when it is consistent and clear throughout rather than weakened by distractingly inconsistent usage, punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s where a style sheet comes in.
What is a style sheet?
Think of a style sheet as a reference tool written especially for and tailored specifically to your manuscript. Remember the APA or MLA reference books/handouts your teachers in high school or college gave you and expected you to use when writing your papers? If a teacher wanted your paper in APA style, you consulted your APA style manual to determine whether or not to use an oxford comma, how to format a quotation, which spelling of “cancelled” to use, etc. A style sheet (and don’t be
This month I’m going to try and answer a bunch of publishing questions sent in by readers — some of them general, some very specific. If you’ve got a question, I’d love to hear from you. Here are some of the questions that have come in to the blog recently…
Do you think it would be a good career move for an author to have her debut novel published as an ebook only? I’ve been offered an “ebook first” contract with a larger house, and I’m feeling a bit unsure about it.
It could be worthwhile. It can get you in the door, and introduce you to the people at the publishing house. I’d suggest you ask the publisher what they are going to do to help you with your book. Will they edit it? Will they spend money on a good cover? Will they actively sell it? Will they market it at all, or leave all the marketing to the author? If the answer is basically “we’re not going to do much of anything,” then you have to ask yourself if you’d be better off self-publishing and keeping all the money. But if the publisher is going to improve your book, invest in solid editing and a cover, do something on the marketing side, and help you move some copies, it could be a decent introduction to the publishing world. Again, there’s no “one right answer” to these types of questions — it depends on the writer, the publisher, and the story. But what you’re proposing can certainly be a viable option, assuming the publisher is going to do some work. (And, if you’re not great at reading between the lines, that means there are some publishers who don’t edit, don’t spend money on covers, don’t do any marketing, and don’t help you sell copies… which means you’re probably better off indie-publishing.)
I’ve been wondering why an agent who
Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.
- Jump right into the action and then insert background info.
Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.
Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.
What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)
- Show, don’t tell.
Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:
Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.
Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.
Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you
Publishing & Technology: Just Don’t
Brian Tibbetts is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Wednesday, Brian posts about trends in the publishing industry and developments in technology that impact the industry. You can find him on Twitter @BRIANRTIBBETTS
This week in Publishing & Technology, at the risk of offending Erin (whose words of wisdom regarding author marketing and social media are far more informative than anything you will read in this post) or Chip (whose posts regarding how to approach an agent are golden) we’ll be talking about the do’s and don’ts of using social media to find, friend, and pitch to agents and editors who you normally would not have general access to. The general gist of this post is, when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of soliciting agents and editors through social media: “Just don’t do it.” If you understand why, without having it explained to you, feel free to stop reading now.
Believe me I understand the temptation. I spent many years as an author with a day job, searching for a shortcut to the big time. For years I only sent the same handful of literary short stories and novel excerpts to the top five or six magazines in the country. I was encouraged by the personalized rejections I received and redoubled my efforts to make connections with the editors who’d taken the time to scribble a few words of encouragement on their form rejections. (I still have most if not all of these rejections in a file drawer somewhere.) I tried cold calling agencies that represented authors that produced work that I aspired to. I did everything short of moving to New York and physically inserting myself into the literary scene. None of it worked, and in the years since I’ve developed a healthy appreciation for starting with smaller markets and developing my writing as I get published by incrementally larger publishers
I wrote last week about the difference between the up-close-and-personal nature of the writing perspective and the more objective, big-picture mindset needed to be an effective editor. Obviously, it can be difficult to approach your own work objectively, especially if you have strong emotional ties to the material, and as I said last week, time is the best way to gain that emotional and intellectual distance from your work– you’re much more likely to see the weaknesses in your work after letting the initial writer-high die down.
But what if you still struggle with objective, big-picture thinking even after letting your manuscript sit for days/weeks/months? How much time should you let pass, realistically, in the hope that you’ll wake up one day with a completely different perspective on your work? Truth be told, some authors will always struggle with finding the right perspective from which to edit their work, no matter how much time passes, but the good news is that there are other ways to help train yourself to approach your work like an editor rather than a writer.
Cleanse Your Palate.
If you have any experience on the fine dining scene, you’ve probably had meals at which a palate-cleanser was served between courses– a beverage or a sorbet intended to rid your mouth of any lingering flavors from one course before another was served so that the next course wasn’t “tainted” by leftover, clashing flavors. Obviously, if you waited a day between courses, all traces of one course would disappear from your mouth before you tasted the next one, but a palate-cleanser lets you enjoy the flavors of two dissimilar courses to the fullest without having to spread your meal out over three days. In the same way, you can cleanse your editorial “palate” by
I’ve been getting all sorts of follow-up questions to my posts on CBA fiction…
In CBA, what genres do well in fiction and which ones do poorly? Is there a growing movement toward spec fiction and fantasy?
Romance continues to lead the way in CBA fiction, though we’ve seen a bit of a shift from historicals to contemporary stories. Romantic suspense also does well, followed by straight suspense novels. There’s a random sampling of other genres (some women’s fiction, some historical sagas, the occasional apocalyptic thriller), but we’ve seen very little in the way of speculative fiction, fantasy, new adult, YA, horror, or paranormal stories do well in CBA. I keep hearing there’s a growing market for those kinds of titles, and there may be… but to this point, it’s pretty much been limited to indie-published titles and some very small presses who consider it a huge success to move a thousand copies. You may think it makes sense for this to be a growth category, but it hasn’t proven to be true in CBA, at least not yet.
What was it that made the novel The Shack a runaway success after it had been rejected by traditional publishers?
I think The Shack told an intriguing story, had an interesting depiction of God that had some appeal (if you’re not aware, the role of God was pictured as an African-American woman, and the Holy Spirit was portrayed as a rather ethereal elderly Asian woman), and spoke to an audience of people who wanted to feel they were reading something deep about God. (They were not, by the way. The story has major problems, and the writing is weak.) The big picture of the novel is that the lead character had a bunch of crud in his past that needed to be brought out into the light and examined – which is certainly a good message. It was also controversial, which
Some news bits that relate to writers who do books in CBA…
First, Family Christian Stores may, in fact, survive… and thus surprise everyone in Christian publishing. As previously talked about here and here, FCS was in danger of shuttering its 266 stores due to declining revenues, a tough publishing market, changing tastes among people of faith… oh yeah, and an inability to actually run the whole operation as a profitable enterprise. They did $230-million in business last year, but the Richard Jackson-owned chain had wracked up $127-million in debt, owed publishers $14-million, had $20-million in consignment merchandise they hadn’t paid for, and were basically swimming in a sea of ill will. Two companies that specialize in killing businesses, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, were pushing to have the court declare FCS bankrupt, so they could sell the remaining stock for pennies on the dollar and close the stores. Instead, the judge had the company go through a sale, then nixed it when he found out the CEO of the company, Chuck Bengochea, was making secret late-night phone calls to Mr Jackson to apparently map out an insider strategy in violation of the law, then set up a NEW sale, and this time it’s got a buyer.
Second, the buyer of Family Christian Stores is none other than Mr Richard Jackson and his new company, FCS Acquisitions. Um… go ahead and read back over that if you need to. We’ll wait… Okay, you with me? Yes, Mr Jackson, who made a fortune in health care, and who purchased FCS and more or less ran it into the ground, then tried to form a new company to buy his old company but got slapped down by a judge for what was termed “reckless… insider” moves, has formed a NEW company, and that new company is buying the OLD company — and thus allowing it to get out of some