The Book-Writing Process

•February 11, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Question. An aspiring author wrote this to me today: I was wondering if you could give me some idea of how the book-publishing process usually works after they accept a proposal. I am unsure about what to expect.

I combined all my pre-agent experiences with a number of publishers to produce what follows.

Editorial person really likes it
He or she takes it to the marketing meeting
You wait forever for that meeting to happen
Marketing approves it
You wait for them to agree on an offer
They issue you an offer
You reel from the shock of how low it is
You negotiate
You wait for them to draw up the contract
You receive and sign the contract
You write “author” after your name to check out how it looks
You write the book
You send the book to the publisher
They send the first half of the advance
You spend it all in one place
You wait for them to edit it
You wait a while longer for them to edit it
They send back the manuscript with lots of changes needed immediately
You edit it again
You wait
And wait
They send a galley proof, which they need back immediately
You edit it yet again
You watch helplessly as the release date gets delayed–again
You wait forever for your progeny to arrive in the mail
Finally, you hold your masterpiece in your hands!
You find a typo


Editing Foibles

•July 20, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I spent all day editing recently. First there was a chapter in a book I was writing. Then I plowed through two works of fiction and a screenplay by my students. Add to that segments of novels by three peers in a novel-writing class I was taking and another stack of students’ papers.

All of the folks whose stuff I read are in grad school, and they all write well—some extremely well. Yet I encountered some of the same punctuation errors again and again. Here are a few of the biggies:

Everyday. This word means ordinary, not daily. If you want daily, you have to put a space in there: every day. I served dinner on my everyday dishes, which we use every day.

Simply dashing. A hyphen and an n-dash and an m-dash each have different purposes. A hyphen joins words or portions of words, such as x-ray and re-read. We use n-dashes in numerical situations: See 1 Corinthians 13:1–4. And we use m-dashes for setting off parenthetical remarks: I told him I’d be there—barring any unforeseen circumstances—at 7 o’clock sharp.

Hyphens. Hyphenation problems plague even the most experienced writers. If someone has a minor illness, doctors may classify it as a non-life-threatening disease. The hyphens have to go in there. You can’t have a non-life threatening disease, or a nonlife threatening disease (what sort of non-life form is it and what disease was it threatening to spread?). Go with the hyphens when they’re working as a group to modify. If you are a punctuation-challenged person, the best way I know to laugh your way to proper usage is to read Eats, Shoots and Leaves. You know…it’s the one about the panda that walks into a bar, and then he eats, shoots, and leaves. Yeah, most people think pandas eat shoots and leaves, but not with that comma in there they don’t.

Favorite Writing Quotes

•July 15, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Here are a few favorite writing quotes:
On persuasion. The way to make your case journalistically is not to shout louder but to use narrative, description, and quotation to impress upon the readers the rightness of your case. The readers are like jurors but with one major difference: They are free to walk out of the jury box at any time. Your task is to make your case in a way that keeps them interested. –Marvin Olasky, Telling the Truth

On the influence of narrative. I think it is fair to say that I have been guided in my moral decisions as much by the lessons I acquired from opera as by the preachings of either the Old or the New Testament. –James Michener, The World is My Home

On the point of conflict. The original choice of Adam and the remedy of God … mean that we can now “know evil as an occasion of heavenly love”—provided, and only if, repentance is part of that knowledge. –Charles Williams, He Came Down from Heaven On discretion. You know my dear sister that poets and painters wisely draw a veil over those scenes which surpass the pen of one or the pencil of the other. –Abigail Adams in a letter to Mary Cranch

On the power of story. Postmodern people are as open to the gospel as any have ever been. You don’t even have to prove God. All you have to do is tell His story. –Jim Wilson, “In Synch”

On rewriting. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

On the goal. The journey homewards. Coming home. That’s what it’s all about. The journey to the coming of the kingdom. That’s probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular artist – the purpose of the work, be it story or music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home. –Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

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Self-Publishing Pros and Cons

•March 24, 2007 • Leave a Comment

 On Self-publishing
In my case, despite having authored a stack of traditional books, I have twice engaged in self-publishing.

When might self-publishing work better than a traditional publisher?

. When the product you want to get out there is for a niche market.
. When you need to get product out there more quickly than the typical book production cycle would allow.

A writer got booked to be on a panel for a national Christian radio show with about two months’ notice. For the point of view he was taking there were no books on the market that reflected the latest research. So we drafted one, sent it to a copy editor, wrote back cover copy, had a graphic designer do covers, applied for an ISBN number, priced printing options, and had it printed. We did every step ourselves. Niche market; fast turnaround, great marketing opportunity. We cut a deal with the radio producer so the show would sell our product and mention its availability on the air. We have recouped our costs and then some. A year later, we took the idea to a traditional house, and they bought it.

What are the pros and cons?


Copy editing, book cover design, layout, ISBN number, ISBN bar code production—all the things the publisher would do for you, you must eitherdo for yourself or hire someone else to do.

You must do 100% of your own marketing.

Instead of receiving an advance, you fork over cash.

You have to find a place to store your extras unless you do a print-on-demand piece. Garages = humidity = curled pages. So the storage space needs to be inside.


You have more control over every detail of the final product.

You have a product that probably would not otherwise exist that meets a specific need/demand.

If the product sells, you “cry all the way to the bank.”

Your book never has to go out of print.

Is there prejudice against those who self-publish? How can that be overcome?

Absolutely. But an excellent product that sells is all the vindication necessary. I like to think of “indy” book publishing as being a little like indy movie producing. People didn’t turn up their noses when Independent Artists released “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” They didn’t care who made it because it was so good.

What are the best method/companies/marketing tips/sales outlets? has excellent tutorials online so you can understand the process, even if you don’t publish with them.

I paid a lot to have ISBN labels made the first time around. The second time I found a place online where I could make my own for free, once I had the number: We incorporated the bar code into the back cover design rather than adding stickers to each copy of the book.

One more thing: Even the best writer/editor/copy editor needs an editor. Do not skimp on this step.

From the editor’s POV

•March 21, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Why writers should put their contact info in their attachments as well as their emails: I am waiting for a writer to get around to following up on a manuscript he sent me so I can tell him I want to pay him $350 for it. He didn’t include his name or any contact info on the attachment/manuscript—only on his email message. But my AOL business account long ago deleted his message. I downloaded his attachment, printed it, and stuck it in the slush pile without noticing it had no contact info on it. I didn’t print a copy of the email, so I have no idea who the writer was. I recommend including contact info in the document itself—on every page—via a header in Word. For writers’ groups: Sometimes members of a writing group fall into the trap of dishing out only praise. When that happens, I’ve found a question that helps everybody get back on track: “If you were to offer one suggestion for improving this piece, what would you say?” 

My worst radio interview experience ever: About ten years ago I was promoting When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden—having just experienced a pregnancy loss—and the interviewer solicited live call-ins. A pastor phoned in to say that during his ministry career, nineteen couples had confided in him about their infertility troubles. He said the seventeen who repented of the sin in their lives had conceived; the other two obviously refused to repent and had thus remained childless.  Collecting quotes: For a while I kept 3X5 cards in a little metal box and when I’d hear a good quote, I’d file it in there. Then I changed to using separate manila file folders. From there I created separate electronic Word files. But each time I had a problem: When I went to find something, it took me a while to figure out what heading I had filed it under. Did I file that Twain quote under “anger” or “Twain?” Solution:  Now I save search time by using one huge Word file titled “Quotes and Stats.” Any time I find something I want to keep, I open that file and paste or type the quote or stat at the top of the page. Then when I wonder, “What was that quote by Twain about anger?” I open the lone file and use the “find” option to search. My first try, “anger,” yields nothing. But my second try, “Twain,” takes me right to this: “When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.” –Mark Twain 

Pros and Cons: As a female magazine editor, I find it annoying to open letters with salutations that say “Dear Sir.” How should I answer them? I have one right now I’m waiting to answer. It seems fussy to say, “Read the masthead.” But I wonder if I’m doing them a disservice by letting it slide.   I appreciate it when writers use only one space after a period throughout their manuscripts. That keeps me from having to “find” and “replace” all the extras. 

I wish some writers would stop arguing with me about my decision not to run their pieces. I wish instead they would take that good time and energy they are burning up by calling and writing and arguing with me and go draft an article I can use.  I also appreciate writers who know the difference between hyphens, n-dashes, and m-dashes. They also keep me from having to go through and make changes. This is especially important in the Christian market, because verse references need n-dashes, not hyphens. 

It bugs me when writers with whom I’m barely acquainted but with whom I’ve had brief correspondence by email automatically add me to their newsletter, forwarded joke, and prayer lists. Or worse yet, they attach that book manuscript they’re working on and ask me to take a look and give them some feedback when I “get a chance.” Etiquette: ask before sending someone an attachment.  I used to be annoyed by writers who would send me 4,000-word articles when our writers’ guidelines clearly ask for 1,100-word articles. These writers would often attach little notes saying they wanted me, the experienced editor, to figure out what needed to stay and what needed to be cut. This no longer bothers me, however, as I now give writers a choice—either I can cut their articles down to size and pocket the hefty per-hour fee I will deduct from their pay, or they can cut the articles down to size and make the full amount. Since I started doing this, I’ve never had a writer want me to do the surgery.

Gift Ideas for Writers

•March 20, 2007 • 1 Comment

I’ll assume the writer’s library already includes a copy of Strunk and White’s pocket-sized The Elements of Style, as well as William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. I’ll also assume the aspiring fiction writer already owns Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King) and Techniques of the Selling Writer (Swain). In addition to these I recommend some lesser-known possibilities:

Writing the Natural Way – Gabriele Rico
I’ve used this book with grad-school creative writing students for something like seven years now. (I’ve lost track.) The results have, at times, been phenomenal. Each chapter includes some instruction followed by related writing exercises. Get the 1983 edition, if you can. (You can find used copies online for about a buck.) The newer one has some Zen flavoring that’s refreshingly absent in the earlier one.

To give you a sampling: One of the exercises involves writing about the painting, American Gothic. You know the picture: the daughter stands with her Stoic-looking farmer father, who holds a pitchfork—the picture Grant Wood signed on the Dad’s denim. One student turned in an assignment that started something like this:

10:15 AM
Husband and wife present with problems down on the farm.
Husband wearing Grant Wood designer overalls.
But wife’s dress made from recycled curtains.

Get this one to help you develop your creativity as a writer.

The Poet’s Handbook – Judson Jerome
Centuries ago, people didn’t write prose as an art form. All good writing was metrical: “To be or not to be—that is the question.” Not so today. As a culture, we’re pitiful when it comes to poetry. Case in point: We all know people who shamelessly share their rhymes that include matches of words such as “apples” with “Snapple.” What’s worse is when such people link the almost-but-not-quite rhyme with meter that falls forty yards short of a touchdown:

Roses are red
Violets are like apples.
Angels in heaven
Know I really, really love Snapple.

(Please do not quote me on that. Or, if you feel you must quote me on that, please, please feel no obligation to credit your source.)

For the person wishing to nail metrical writing, Judson Jerome’s the best teacher out there. This book helps aspiring poets know the tools to use and when. But it also provides the fiction writer with tools for crafting more aesthetically pleasing prose.

Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk about Their Vision and Work – W. Dale Brown
Next on my list of recommended resources we find a book of interviews with twelve pretty much fantastic general-market writers who at least loosely associate themselves with Christianity and who seek to write redemptive prose. They include Frederick Buechner and Garrison Keillor, as well as some great-but-lesser-knowns, such as Elizabeth Dewberry.

These writers talk about the myriad ways of manifesting their faith in their work. We learn what Christian writers have influenced them, how they’ve handled crushing reviews, and especially how they’ve communicated their faith without sounding trite.

The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – Frank Conroy
This hard-to-find collection of writings about writing is by those who’ve taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Duh. You read the title.) The “Ralston” essay may be the funniest I’ve ever read. Also, as a teacher, I identify with the observation of essayist Scott Spencer, who notes that his students write too carefully for fear of embarrassing themselves. He warns that a writer who’s afraid to get edgy-honest “is finally no more effective than a firefighter who will not smash in windows.”

Dramatica Pro
Last on the list is the most expensive, but the most fun. It’s for the computer-geek fiction writer, and it costs about two hundred bucks.

Dramatica Pro is like a creative partner who asks you either fifty (short version) or two hundred (long version) questions about your plot, characters, voice, and setting. It’s not that it writes the story for you; it just makes you think and answer so you close gaping holes in the plot, tighten characters, nail themes. And all the while you feel like you’re playing a game.

On this one, be sure to get the latest version.

As twentieth-century writer, William Saroyan, wrote, “Writing is the hardest way of earning a living–with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.” Hopefully with the help of a few well-chosen tools, you or the beloved writer in your life can exchange some of the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” for pure, unadulterated joy.

Voice (writing) Lessons

•March 18, 2007 • Leave a Comment

You’re trying to write the GAM (great American novel), but you can’t concentrate. Why? Someone in an adjacent room sits clicking through Viagra ads. The surfing stops and you hear an announcer say something about a family network. When the commercial ends, you’re pretty sure you recognize the British-accented voice that’s saying, “spit-spot,” and “practically perfect in every way.” It has to be your favorite nanny.

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The clicking resumes.

Now another nanny’s voice grates through the walls with a Jersey “Oh-h-h-h, Mr. Sheffield!” followed by a snorty little snigger.

Next thing you hear, Tony Soprano’s asking, “How you doin’?” before ordering calzone. Capisce?

The time you’ve lost may actually help you write better if you focus on how spoken voice is to TV what written voice is to novel-writing. “Voice” shows up in each character’s use—or non-use—of accent, pet phrases, favorite subjects, metaphor, slang, vocabulary, contractions, sentence structure, and even sheer quantity of words.

Maybe we can’t learn “voice” from books when it comes to music, but we surely can when writing the GAM.

One such “voice teacher” for me is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Adah’s character toys with palindromes and has funky diction peppered with phrases such as, “Walk to learn. I and Path. Long one is Congo.” Ruth-May uses words such as “a-struttin’,” while Leah likes to say “smack.” She might exclaim, “We were smack in the middle” or “He walked smack-dab into that door.” Each character has her own pet subjects and vocabulary words. One daughter obsesses over her appearance. Another focuses on what her father thinks. What each chooses to talk about, or even think about, is as important as how she speaks. The reader knows who’s talking without needing dialogue tags because of the combination of speech factors that identify each character.

In Dickens’s Great Expectations, if someone says, “Something is about to turn up,” we can be fairly certain it’s Mr. Micawber.

How this “voice” info translates to medical thrillers for me: A genius doc who speaks English as a second language rarely uses contractions. And his metaphors? He leaves it to the botanist to say, “She turned pale as a lily,” and chooses for himself, “She turned white as gauze.”

For the doc obsessed with research, words rarely veer far from petri dishes. But the antique-bottle collecting doc weaves eBay-speak into his conversations (“A ‘sniper’ nabbed it at the last minute”).

When I write a character with an unusual voice, I have to restrain myself. Just a hint here and there reminds the reader without turning character into caricature. Here’s overdone:

Y’all, I’m sittin’ in this hea-h Denvah airport fixin’ to catch me an air-o-plane to the northlands of Yankee country. Goin’ to Oregon, dontcha know.

If I were to maintain that voice for an entire book, my Texas readers would say, “That Glahn woman has a big ol’ gap in her mind—bless her heart.” And my British readers? They’d likely reserve “mind the gap” for tube rides and condemn my excess with a one-word pronouncement: “Pity.”