As many of you have likely heard, J.D. Salinger died today.

I have mixed feelings about Salinger. When I was in college in the 1960’s, he was the perfect author for a young angst-filled wanna-be writer. Like many of my generation, I identified somewhat with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. Even more revealing as to just how angst-filled I was (remember this was the 1960’s and being angst-filled was a required rite of passage) I even identified with the protagonist of Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.” If you haven’t read the story, suffice it to say the protagonist kills himself at the end. Reading Salinger as I did and listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” over and over ought to have earned me the angst merit badge. Fortunately, my angst was released considerably when I became a Christian somewhere late in those college years.

Fast forward several years to the day in my 30’s when I tried to read Franny and Zooey again. That book—and all the stories about the Glass family—had been my favorite Salinger books. But to a man who was now married with three thriving kids and a job he loved, well….let’s just say Franny and Zooey no longer satisfied a man who had lost his angst along with his Simon and Garfunkel records (except “Bookends” of course).

And now that I’m past sixty (gasp!), although I haven’t read a Salinger book from cover to cover in a long time, he still does influence me in one very special way. And that is through his writing voice. We often read about an author’s “voice” and how important it is; and justly so. And no author I can think of has a more distinctive voice than Salinger. I’m quite sure I could open up The Catcher in the Rye to any page, read a paragraph, and spend the rest of the day thinking in Holden Caulfield’s cynical voice. In fact, when I work on my YA novels (still unpublished of course—and undeservedly so!), I can detect the Salinger influence in my male teenage protagonists.

I think it’s good to have an author who can influence an aspiring writer’s voice in that way. It sure helps with writer’s block. As I’ve suggested many times, if you’re stuck and need a breakthrough on your work-in-progress, just pick a writer you love and type out a few paragraphs written by that author until you’re writing with his or her rhythms. It should be fairly easy then to transition to your own manuscript.

Salinger was a notorious recluse in his later life. As someone has said, he became famous for not wanting to be famous. I’m sure the question on the minds of most literary scholars is did Salinger leave a roomful of unpublished manuscripts? That would be the hope, since he hasn’t submitted anything for publication in decades. I suspect, though, most fans will hope nothing turns up. If it does, it will likely be lesser work and only diminish his reputation.

I’ll close this brief tribute to Salinger and his lasting influence on me by quoting an apt line from The Catcher in the Rye.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours.”

Amen to that, Mr. Salinger.

The other night my wife and I went out to dinner. After our meal, she announced that she wanted to go the nearby mall for about an hour. No problem for me. Right across the street from the mall is a very delightful Barnes & Noble. An hour in a bookstore is right up there with an hour-long massage. So off we went.

As is my custom, my first task was to look over the new books, envying the editors of some of the books and thanking God I was not the editor of others. Next came the bargain books (and it was easy to see why some once promising frontlist titles were now “bargains”.) Then I checked out the “staff favorites.” As usual, no one working at Barnes & Noble reads the type of books I enjoy (nor do any of them read Christian books, apparently). Then I wandered over to the Christian fiction section and turned all the Harvest House novels face out (and yours too, Angie). I won’t tell you whose books I had to turn spine out in order to accomplish this. Then I took a few minutes to read the first few pages of our next book group selection to see if it’s going to be a good read. (It is). Finally, nearing the end of my hour, I made my way to the magazine racks. Among the writing magazines was the most recent copy of Paris Review. I’ve long admired their book-length collections of interviews with famous authors and skimmed through an interview in this issue with Norman Mailer. Not too far into the interview I had another one of those “aha” moments we writers get when we read something that rings true to our writing experience.

“I usually need a couple of weeks to warm up on a book,” Mailer said. He also said that sometimes he “broods” over his book before and during the writing.

I like that. He “broods.” If I were to name one common problem among much of the fiction I see in my role as an editor, it’s that the author has clearly not brooded long enough over the story either before beginning the book or as it was written.

Brooding, by the way, is not research. I know many novelists put in the necessary research before beginning their book….but I wonder how many put in the necessary brooding time. An unbrooded book is pretty easy to spot. Simply put, it has no life to it. It’s just a story—a lifeless story. Brooding imparts life into a story. Brooding allows an author time to get to know his or her characters. It also allows the writer time to get to know the story not as a set of events unfolding but as fictional history that the author and reader experience as reality.

How does brooding happen? Most authors will say that their books begin with just a single idea. Either a “what if” or a character who appears to them or some other small seed of a story. So the brooding starts when the seed is planted. Brooding continues as the seed idea is watered and given the sunshine of further imaginative thought so that it can grow into full bloom—sometimes (but not always) before the author even types page one.

Some women novelists compare this brooding time to carrying a baby. An expectant mother, no matter how eager, wouldn’t want to deliver her baby after only three, five, or even seven months. No, she wants that baby to wait until full term (even though the final weeks can seem endless), because when the baby is finally delivered, it’s far more likely to be a healthy baby than if delivered prematurely. So too with a book. A successful brooding period results in a healthier book.

What then does an author do while brooding? How does brooding happen? Does an author simply sit on one’s hands or play video games until the brooding process is complete? No, of course not. A good author knows that the time spent brooding brings results during the brooding process, in addition to after its finish.

For that reason, a notebook is indispensable during brooding; because, as an author broods, insight begins to somehow mysteriously happen—and sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most inconvenient places. For some reason, this insight that comes during brooding will come at no other time in the creative process of writing a novel. Other valuable insights may come then, but not brooding insight. That’s why it’s important to capture this valuable insight while it’s fresh. Write it down the moment it occurs to you.

Brooding over the actual manuscript is encouraged too. Brood over the open document on your computer. Type snippets of dialogue that come to you. Revise scenes. If brooding is going well, your characters will speak to you during this time. Listen to them. They may suggest new motivations for their actions….or, if you’re brooding particularly well, one or more might even rebel against your predictable plot and reveal their true story, much to your surprise.

So don’t think of brooding as a passive time. A good writer’s mind is always active, always considering, always tinkering with the work at hand. Stephen King in On Writing refers to this as the “boys in the basement” doing their work.

One might think that this warm-up or “brooding” time becomes easier as a novelist progresses, but interestingly, Mailer says that these days (he’s in his 80’s and has been writing successfully for more than 50 years) his warm-up time for a new novel can take up to six months. Six months! That’s far longer than when he began writing all those decades ago. And I suspect if we were to ask Mr. Mailer, he would tell us that the brooding process cannot be hurried up….rushed. Just like a pregnancy.

Yes, there are successful writers who can churn out a book (maybe more than one) in less time than Mailer broods over his books, but as I read these novels I often wonder how much better they might have been had they been properly brooded over. And if you’re a beginning novelist, you may already know how hard it is to find a publishing home these days, simply because of the intense competition. If brooding will improve your fiction—and I believe it will—then it will give your novel a distinct advantage over the many unbrooded novel manuscripts that come across editors’ desks.

As I set Paris Review back on the rack, my wife arrived to pick me up. She had a great time at the mall, she said. But I had a better time. I had been reminded of an important lesson about writing fiction (I also realized why I had failed so miserably two years ago during National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org/) when aspiring authors are encouraged to “write a novel in thirty days” I need at least that long to brood).

Don’t you?

Like many of you, I read several blogs a day….mostly related to writing. Recently on one of the blogs it was suggested that the best thing an aspiring author should do in order to succeed is to learn to write better.

I have to take issue with that advice. While I agree that all writers—even long published authors—should be improving his or her writing, I don’t think that’s the most important thing one should do to become successful. There are many mediocre writers who succeed wildly….and many excellent writers who never achieve success. (If we’re defining success as publication and strong sales).

In fact, if you were to ask me my greatest regret about publishing, it’s that so many good writers never reach the heights they should. And to be honest, I’m really at a loss as to why that is. I don’t think it’s anything I can change, so I have to learn to adapt to it. And if you’re an aspiring writer, so do you.

So what then IS the most important thing one can do to succeed as a writer? (Given that we’re talking about Christian writers here, I’m going to assume you’ve already determined through prayer that you are called to write. That, I would say, is really number one). I believe it’s immersing oneself in the writing and publishing world. It’s LOVING that world and wanting desperately to be part of it. It means reading publishing trade journals and magazines (and blogs!) about publishing in the same way a 10-year-old boy devours silly joke books. It means learning the different publishing companies and what they publish and who their editors are. It means knowing which books are winning awards and which are topping the best seller lists. It also means knowing which books have failed and having an opinion as to why they might have failed. It means all this and much more. And not because you HAVE to, but because you WANT to. This is YOUR world. Your industry, if you will.

In short, you need a hunger for the world of writing, reading, and publishing that won’t be denied. Hobbyists need not apply. Of course, if you do have that hunger, you will also want to learn to improve your writing. You will understand that just as an aspiring pianist may want to play at Carnegie Hall, he or she will have to do a LOT of practicing to get there. In our industry it’s called collecting rejection slips. The measure used to be that a writer might have to write a million rejected words before seeing some success. Maybe that number has changed, but the process hasn’t.

Yes, there are the occasional success stories of authors who sort of stumbled into success, but they are certainly the minority. Most successful writers have earned their place at Carnegie Hall.

Here’s a personal question for you: Have you ever cried over a rejection? I don’t mean did you ever get misty and tear up? I mean did you ever bawl like a baby over a rejection? And then, after a time of proper grieving, did you get up, dust yourself off and get back to work? If so, that’s good. Ten points for you! (Soon I’ll share my “bawling like a baby” rejection. Ouch. It still hurts!).

That grief shows a hunger. You will not be denied….even if it means waiting, even if it means self-publishing your first book, even if it means skipping a vacation so you can afford to go to a writer’s conference.

When your discouragement is so great that it stifles your hunger to succeed, you’re in trouble. If that happens, re-evaluate. Maybe you WEREN’T called to this writing life. But if you were, then you’ll find that the hunger will soon beat down the discouragement and you’ll be back at your desk writing.

Now, go work on your manuscript. Even if only one page.

More next time.

And if this has been helpful, pass the word to other writers. Twitter for me if you don’t mind. I have yet to enter that world.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the author/editor relationship and today is the day. What has prompted this desire is my awareness of another instance where a good novelist has unwisely chosen to ignore advice from a good editor. (Not me, by the way).

Let me start by saying that good author/editor relationships are very, very important. Woe to either the author or the editor who must work with someone with whom they do not trust or respect. For an editor, editing a writer you love makes the job so easy and fun. And for the writer, having an editor who “gets” what you’re trying to do also makes life so much easier.

And when that happens, both author and editor should listen closely to what the other is saying. In the case I’m talking about, an author had an editor who LOVED the author’s previous work with another publisher, and, in fact, had read the multiple books by this author more than once. The editor, naturally, was delighted to be able to work this successful author.

But then when the manuscript was delivered, the editor noticed that not only was the content of the manuscript completely a surprise, but it was also likely to be harmful to the author’s career if published. It was a total departure from what the author had written previously. It was simply not a good move on the author’s part.

What was the author’s response to this editor’s valid concerns? The author essentially said (angrily and in a huff), “But God told me to write this book!” Yes, the author got mad at an editor who LOVED this author’s work and who was trying to save the author from disaster.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that author might just pause a moment and consider that in Christian publishing, God often chooses to speak to authors through their wise editors. To be honest, I doubt this author ever even considered such a thing. After all, “God told me to write this book!”

That’s hard to argue with, I suppose. But given the histrionics that accompanied this declaration, it’s hard to imagine the author heard from God at all. I’d like to refer that author to Galatians 5, but that would not likely stand against the “God told me to write this book!” argument.

So the author is now off to find a new editor. One who will rubber stamp the author’s insistence that this book is from God. What a sad mistake.

Another recent case almost makes me want to laugh. This example involved an author who insisted to the editor that he be shown every single edit made in the manuscript, including every comma added or deleted. I do not predict long-term success for that author.

This sort of author/editor breakdown happens every so often. It’s too bad when it happens. Editors have a purpose in the life of the author….and it’s not always just to insert or delete commas. Sometimes we editors can see from a different vantage point than the too-close author.

Happily, I can also report that these breakdowns are rare and that they are outweighed by the many times authors and editors sail along in a happy marriage, each respecting the other’s place in their life. Each allowing God to speak through the other.

If you’re an established author, my word to you is be very careful before you dismiss your editor’s advice or warning. If you’re a new author, I hope you find an editor who understands your mission as a writer and can help you get where to you want to go.

Life will be sweet then. God told me so.

Teri asked:

1. What is Harvest House especially looking for now as to genre, writing, etc.

As far as fiction goes, the Amish fiction has shown no signs of waning for us. It’s still strong. Contemporary fiction is not as popular. So we’re looking for well-written historical (largely 19th century) or Amish fiction. Non-fiction that does well for us usually addresses a “felt need” in a large number of readers.

2. What are some of the things in a proposal that make you want to request a full manuscript?

I usually consider the topic or genre, the writing as evidenced in the first few pages and, if non-fiction; what are the author’s credentials for writing this book?

3. What will make you put a manuscript in the rejection pile faster than anything?

A poorly written first page.

Those are all short answers to questions that deserve longer answers. I hope to give better answers as time goes by and I can tackle all sorts of topics individually, including those above.
As I said in my last blog post, your actual writing is only 60% of your success. The other 40% involves researching the publishers, following trends, going to workshops, reading the writing magazines and much more. Every writer should have a short list of the 5-7 publishers that are publishing the kinds of books he or she wants to write. You need to have those publishers’ websites bookmarked and visit them often. You need to learn who the editors are and which editors are most likely to appreciate what you do. And that’s the topic I promised to talk about this time….but which will now have to wait till next time. That topic is the crucial editor/writer relationship.

More next time. Please come back….and also tell your writing friends.

My New Year’s resolution is to blog regularly. It’s been a year since I made an entry here and that’s just too long. It’s not that I’ve nothing to say. I’m chock full of opinions—just ask anyone who knows me well. I’ll try to share some of those thoughts as we make our way through 2010.  Mostly I’ll blog about writing and getting published.  Many of my Facebook friends are writers and I suspect many of my blog readers will be also. But I reserve the right to blog on other topics as it seems appropriate.

 

Probably the best place to start is to help motivate you to success as a writer in 2010. Every writer I know has faced rejection and discouragement about their writing. I certainly have my share of rejection slips (and am collecting more all the time).  If you’re a beginning writer, rejection slips can be very depressing. (Not that they aren’t depressing to seasoned writers—they ARE). But for new writers, it’s especially hard. You wonder, “Am I on the right track? Did God call me to be a writer? If so, why is it so hard to get published?”  

 

I could probably blog all year on those three questions alone, but let me start by making three observations about writing success.

 

1.      Repeated rejection does not necessarily mean you’re not a good writer. In my role as a senior editor at Harvest House Publishers, I reject good writers all the time. I do so with great reluctance, but the truth is that every publishing company has limits to what they can publish.  We know what our company can reasonably publish in any given season and we choose the proposals that we think best fit our goals and are an appropriate fit for us.  Thus, we often have to reject fine proposals that we trust the author will send elsewhere until he or she finds the right publisher.

  

2.      A successful writing career is probably 60% about your writing and 40% about all the non-writing aspects of your career.  So, if you’re a good writer, you’re well on your way. But are you doing the 40% that will give you a leg up?  That 40% consists of things like knowing the current market, personal reading time, going to writer’s conferences (and meeting with editors), building the dreaded “platform,” belonging to a good critique group, and so on.

 

3.      For most successful writers, the path to that success was very incremental.  Patience is mandatory for aspiring writers.  If you love to write and desire to succeed, then write down some incremental goals and keep moving ahead.

 

Certainly prayer is key too. That almost goes without saying. I’ve published nine or so books now and mostly the way they came to be published astonishes me.  At some point in my blogging efforts this year, I’ll tell you how my first non-fiction book came to be published. It was nothing short of a miracle—and that’s often what it takes to get published these days.

 

Now I’m working on a book that is possibly the most exciting I’ve ever undertaken.  It’s still in the proposal stage, but I’m very hopeful about it.  For this writer, it’s a dream come true. But it almost didn’t happen. That too is a story I’ll try to blog about later in the year (after the proposal finds a publisher and I’m at liberty to write about it).

 

I don’t want to keep you here so long as to bore you, so I’ll try to keep my blog entries a reasonable length. 

 

One final thing: I read several blogs myself and I’ve noticed I enjoy it when those bloggers answer questions about writing (or other subjects). So you can help me out by asking questions you think would be of interest to writers and I’ll occasionally use this space to tackle some of those questions.  Email your questions to me at nickbevh@comcast.net and I’ll try to answer the ones that I think will benefit the most readers.

 

If you find what I write useful, please send my blog address to your friends. I’d love to build up my readership.  And if you’re not a writer, I hope to blog some things you too will find of interest in the coming months.

 

Next time I’m going to discuss the editor/author relationship.

 

Now go work on your WIP (work in progress).

 

I composed a Christmas greeting for the few people we know who do not do the internet. It goes out in the mail tomorrow. But for those of our friends who visit the blog or our Facebook wall, here is our holiday greeting. We really do wish everyone of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…..and we hope we see many of you in 2009.

Christmas 2008

 

Dear Friends,

 

Christmas time once more!  This year finds the Harrison household plugging along just fine.  As always, there’s news to report…mostly good.

 

Perhaps the biggest change of the year was Bev deciding to quit her job as a sales rep for a large fabric manufacturer. For the past year she has enjoyed calling on quilt shops from here in Eugene as far south as Yuba City, California and east into Nevada.  Alas, she had no longer taken the job than the price of gas skyrocketed. And now that she’s quit, the price of gas has come back down. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.   The folks at Harvest House are happy though. Bev has come back to them and found work waiting for her. It’s nice to be so wanted!

 

For Nick, he continues happily at Harvest House and is still writing when he has time. Several book proposals are being sent around to various publishers via his agent.   One of the highlights of the year was a chance to work with a popular actress from the 1940’s and 50’s who wanted Nick’s help on a book about her life…..but then changed her mind when she realized that she’d really rather not relive some of what she went through. Nick was disappointed, but understood her feelings. 

 

Rachel and Winston are still in Eureka. Rachel is still writing both fiction and poetry and Winston has a wonderful job at the library with an office overlooking the bay.

 

Rebecca and Mike (and Joshua) welcomed their second son in January (Matthew Harrison Gores) and continue to prosper here in Eugene.  We love our time with the grandkids.

 

Bethany and Sean (and little Emma) will welcome their second daughter (Abigail Marie) in February.  We plan a trip to Nevada as soon as the new one arrives. 

 

Bev’s parents live in a small cottage behind us and keep very busy with their quilting business. It’s great to have them so close. Nick’s parents are still in San Jose, but we still hope for them to join us up here in Oregon soon. 

 

As 2008 concludes, Nick is happy to report that his prostate cancer is a thing of the past. His five year check-up was very positive and his urologist released him with the good news that there’s less than a three percent chance of recurrence.  Praise the Lord for good health!

 

Speaking of which, we pray that all of you will enjoy a healthy and happy 2009 and will stay in touch with us via mail, email, or Facebook. (Isn’t the internet great?  Nick reconnected with a friend he hasn’t heard from in 40 years!).  We also invite you to visit our website…though admittedly Nick doesn’t blog there as much as he’d like. The address is nickharrisonbooks.com and hopefully Bev will have some of her quilts posted there in 2009.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Nick and Bev!

The year was about 1983 or 84. We were living in North Bend, Oregon at that time. The girls’ school was having an auction to raise money. I remember one parent donated a “home” computer to be bid on.  I remembering thinking, “A ‘home’ computer?  Why on earth would anyone want a computer in their home?”

 Ahem.  Boy, did I have a rude awakening over the next several years. And now, twenty plus years later I not only have a computer at home (and work on one at my job 6-8 hours a day), but I spend too much time on it. 

Let me count the ways: I belong to a forum, I sell used books through Amazon, I do email, I have some favorite websites and blogs I visit daily, I play a computer game at least once a day, I get my news from the web….oh and yes, I sometimes blog.

This past week, though, reminded me of one of the very best benefits of my computer and its access to the internet.  I have reconnected with two people from my past.  I’ve always been the kind of person to wonder, “Whatever happened to Dolores…or Susie and Vern”…or any number of other old friends.   And just this week Dolores found me….and so did Susie and Vern.  Dolores is a friend who reaches back possibly longer than any other.  We knew each other from a church we attended when we were six.  I have often told the story that Dolores was the first girl I ever kissed. It was behind the drinking fountain at that Sunday School.  That was in Jackson, Mississippi where I spent my early years.  We later moved to California, and after a few years of correspondence, I lost track of Dolores. And now, after forty years of no contact, we are catching up on the years. 

Susie and Vern were friends from our years in Eureka.  That was a very special time for Bev and me. We were there 16 years and loved it.  Susie and Vern left before we did though. I well remember the day we loaded up their moving truck for their long trek to Illinois.

I’ve joined Facebook and Classmates.com…..but have not reconnected with anyone from those sites yet.  And believe me, there are many people I’d love to find again.  Including Betty Jo and Tom,  Hilda, George Sousa and many of the other friends Bev and I knew from our youthful years in Rainbow and DeMolay.  We also miss friends from churches in the past: Los Gatos Christian Church, Piedmont Hills Baptist Church, Coos Bay Open Bible, Gospel Outreach…..and certainly Clayton House, the Christian communal ministry we were a part of in San Francisco almost forty years ago.

 So, I love the internet for bringing back these special people….and hopefully more to come!

Whoops! I just discovered that email address for ordering books has been wrong all this time. I’m sorry to anyone who ordered a book and thought I was ignoring them.  Thanks to Linore who called my attention to this today.  If you ordered a book and didn’t get it, please try again.

Thanks. And I will have another blog entry by this weekend.

Being a writer, one should get used to rejection. And being an editor who often rejects the writing of others, you’d think I’d get to the place where I take rejections of my writing like water off a duck’s back. But to be honest, sometimes it’s still painful. The water sinks in.

 For the past month I’ve been working with a somewhat famous person on her memoir/autobiography.  This is something I’ve always wanted to do, so I’ve been over the moon about it ever since it came about.  I did quite a bit of work getting the proposal ready for my agent to send out.

Then today the person backed out. 

I had done a sample chapter as part of the proposal and had sent it to her for her approval. She liked the writing, but she hadn’t wanted it to be QUITE so autobiographical.   So, she called it off.

I told my agent I needed a little to wallow over this.  I’m still wallowing now.  I think by sometime tomorrow I’ll be able to move on. 

Naturally, both the person in question and I have prayed over this project, so I know I SHOULD recognize that for some reason God is pulling the plug on this….not the other person.  And actually, that’s how I’ll eventually get past the wallowing stage and stand up straight again.  The hardest thing is knowing how badly I wanted to do this.  

I just hope God has something else coming along for me soon now. I feel the need to write another book…..soon.

Oh, and I have two or three manuscripts that I need to reject tomorrow. You can rest assured those people will get a very gentle and sympathetic rejection from me.  I don’t want them to have to wallow too long.