I met Dave Fessenden at a writer’s conference several years ago. For the past few years, he’s been an editor with one of my favorite publishers, Christian Literature Crusade. Now, Dave is doing new things, including writing more. His new novel comes out later this year, but today I’m asking Dave about the writing of non-fiction, specifically relating to his book Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract.

Nick: Dave, you’ve involved in publishing for how long?

Dave: I had been in writing and editing for about ten years when I landed my first job in Christian publishing in 1991. Since then, I’ve been an editor for several Christian publishers, published five books and contributed to several more, as well as editing dozens and dozens.

Nick: I’m assuming your book Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract came out of your experience as an editor. Tell us more about what prompted you to write this book.

Dave: I published my first book, Father to Nobody’s Children, in 1995, but I started working on it long before I had any experience in book editing. I had run across the fascinating story of Thomas Barardo, who worked with homeless children in the 19th century, and I wanted to write a biography of him, but I had no idea where to start. After a lot of trial and error, I finally completed my manuscript, but I began to think that there had to be a better way to do this, and in later books, I discovered ways of streamlining the writing process. Authors began asking me for advice on bringing an idea to completion, and I started writing a column for a Christian writers newsletter, presenting some of the methods that worked for me. Those columns were the raw material for this book.

Nick: What were some of the most common failings you saw in non-fiction book proposals?

Dave: A book needs to be centered on a clear, concise idea, and a proposal ought to reflect that. One mark of a failing proposal is that it’s all over the place — no central theme to tie it together. Concept to Contract is very idea-oriented: I show how you start with a concept which you hone and focus, bringing it to the point where you can land a publishing contract. (You can probably guess where I got the title from!) Another weakness I see in a lot of proposals is that the author doesn’t tell us enough about herself or himself. Why should I read a book on this topic by you, specifically? What motivated you to write about fear, or love, or patience, or passion? What I’m looking for is the spiritual struggle, the unique experiences that made you the perfect person to write this book? One woman gave me a book on discipling children — but I had to drag out of her the fact that she had used these parenting methods not only on her own children, but over 30 foster children over two decades! Why didn’t she put it in her proposal?

Nick: Most beginning non-fiction writers I know are frustrated by two things: Platform and Branding. Can you address each one briefly? What can an author do who has no platform? And what can author do who wants to avoid branding and write on various topics?

Dave: Many authors are completely unaware that they already have platforms, or at least potential platforms. It relates to what I said about what makes a person uniquely qualified to write on a particular topic. Who has asked you for advice on the topic of your book? Who has told you, “You ought to write a book about that”? Those people — and people like them — make up your platform. Your next step is to see how you can develop and increase your contact with people like that. Branding is actually just looking at platform from a different angle. Instead of asking how you can be in touch with the people who would be interested in the topic of your book, you are trying to be known as the “expert” on that topic, so that interested people will look to you. You don’t want to avoid branding, but you do want to expand your image so that you are known as the “expert” on more than one topic. I’ve written a book on Sunday school teaching and a book on Christian writing. I haven’t had anyone say, “He can’t be an expert on Christian writing; he’s a teacher!” But I have begun to be known as something of a “Christian how-to” author. Now I’m branching out into fiction — a whole new brand for me!

Nick: We notice that in the ABA (general) market that well-written memoirs and personal stories can do well. That seems less likely in our CBA market. Why do you think that is?

Dave: Oh, that’s obvious — the most successful memoirs and personal stories are by or about famous people, and/or intense subject matter — and as you say, they are (usually) well-written. The memoirs that flounder in the CBA are often about not-so-famous people (or even complete unknowns), about not-so-interesting events, and/or are not-so-well-written. Christian authors also tend to do a high percentage of biographies on historical figures (possibly because they are, as a boss of mine once put it, “safely dead” — they will not embarrass us with a scandal in the future). But today’s believers show little concern for, and are ignorant of, history. I once mentioned D.L. Moody to a young leader in my church, and he replied, “Who’s that?”

Nick: Since so many beginning non-fiction writers want to write their personal story, what advice can you give them?

Dave: Go ahead and write it — get it out of your system. It’ll be good practice for you! If it’s book-length, I doubt it will have much of a readership, but if you do an article-length testimony, especially about a particular event in which the Lord did something new in your life, those pieces have great potential in the magazine/ezine/website market. Also, if you have had a great experience with God and want to write a book, consider taking the principles you’ve learned from that experience and writing about the principles. The you can liberally sprinkle your book with personal stories to illustrate those principles. If you include other peoples’ stories as well, and ground it thoroughly in Scripture, it may be a great book. When people tell me, “I just want to tell my story and let the reader learn from it,” I respond, “Oh, I see; you want the reader to do all the hard work!”

Nick: John Van Diest told me a few years ago that he thinks the best Christian books have yet to be written. Do you agree?

Dave: There are so many Christian books being published and self-published today that some of them are bound to be good! Yes, I would agree; but unfortunately, some of the worst Christian books are yet to be written, too. Get my book and maybe you can avoid that (wink, wink).

Nick: Can you recommend a favorite non-fiction book you’ve read lately?

Dave: Who Is This Man? by John Ortberg is a powerful presentation of Jesus, and made me fall in love with Him all over again. My friend Elaine Miller wrote a lighthearted book on marriage, We All Married Idiots, which painlessly teaches some serious truth. And in the secular realm, I am enjoying a book about logic by Stuart Chase, Guides to Straight Thinking, published in the 1950s. You said one; that’s three, isn’t it?

Nick: You have a novel coming out later this year. Can you give us a preview? What’s it about?

Dave: The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy places the son of Dr. Watson and the smarter brother of Sherlock Holmes in 1920s Philadelphia, where they investigate the death of a speakeasy owner and his card-playing buddies. (I am an avid Sherlock Homes fan, and I’m fascinated by the history of the jazz era, so I guess this story was inevitable.) Thomas Watson, a young newspaper reporter, is saddled with the care of crochety old Mycroft Holmes following the death of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. This intended as the first in a series, where Thomas uncovers a mystery, brings it home, and Mycroft solves it — but won’t tell Thomas the solution, because “The young man should be able to figure it out himself.”

Nick: Any other advice for beginning or intermediate non-fiction authors?

Dave: The best way to develop your writing skill is to write. If organizing your material hampers the flow, then forget about orgranizing; no doubt you’ll write yourself into a corner soon enough, and you can start the organizing process then!

A while back I asked you to suggest some topics for my blog. There were several good suggestions and I’ll try to answer them all soon. Today I’m going to take up Ace Collins’ question. BTW, Ace is a very accomplished author. Check out his titles on Amazon. Ace asked: What marketing really works in the information age? What can writers do to get the word out without spending a great deal of money?

I asked two people I trust to respond. Tom Umstattd of Author Media responded briefly but effectively by saying:

To successfully market a book, authors need to be either cash rich or time rich. Often the kind of authors who are unable to spend money on marketing are also unwilling to invest the time needed to learn the craft of marketing. They end up darting from one “silver bullet” to another and never sell many copies of their book. For the author on a tight budget I would recommend that they read Free Marketing: 101 Low and No-Cost Ways to Grow Your Business, Online and Off and Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World. Plan to spend 30-100 hours studying marketing. These books are a great place to start. This is a lot of words to say “there are no shortcuts, marketing is a profession and not something you can learn in a weekend.”

Thanks, Thomas. Next I turned to Christianne Debysingh, at Harvest House Publishers. She reinforces and expands on some of Thomas’s suggestions.

Christianne says:
We all want to discover the next best ‘thing’ that will amaze everyone with our creativity and skills. But, something that I am constantly reminded of is this—there are no substitutions for mastering the basics. Mastering the basics means that you will have an incredibly strong foundation upon which to build. The question at the top of the page is a huge one, and cannot be adequately addressed in one sitting. So for this post I’m choosing to focus on the area of mastering the basics as a starting point.

Whenever I’m working with authors who become frustrated with marketing or seem be to be stuck on where go next, I always take another look at the strength of their foundation. To build a strong foundation you have to do three things very well.

1. Core message. In other words what are you known for? Or in current terminology, what’s your platform or brand? Are you a jack of all trades and master of none? In today’s world that won’t cut it as an author. If you’re a fiction author, what genre are you passionate about—historical, Amish, suspense? If you write non-fiction what’s your focus—marriage and family, depression, apologetics? The point is know what message you’re passionate about and become an expert. Some examples of easily recognizable authors and their messages they are known for are Dr. James Dobson on family; Stormie Omartian on prayer; and Joel Rosenburg on Israel and the Middle East.
2. Engagement. Who are you writing to? Do you know your audience? If you’re a first time author you probably don’t have much of a fan base if any, while an experienced author may be seeking to increase theirs. Whether you are for or against social media I believe it’s one of the best ways to reach and build a fan base if done well. If you already do speaking engagements you have an audience that can be turned into loyal followers. If you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. do you know who is following you? Do you read their comments, know what’s important to them, and what they need? Equally important, does your audience feel as if they know you? I’m not talking about sharing every intimate detail of your life, I’m talking about being real with them. Ann Voskamp, Lysa TerKeurst and Pastor Tony Evans are examples of people who each have large fan bases on social media. It’s not just having thousands of people following you, the question is how active are your fans? Don’t believe me? Check out the social media sites for yourself and see how many people are talking about them at any one time. At the time of writing this post Tony Evans has over 180,000 followers on Facebook with more than 76,000 talking about him.
3. Value. What value do your fans get from you? “Takeaways” have become very important. What practical truths or principles do you provide which they can take and apply for themselves. Does it make them feel as if you really understand and are speaking directly to them? Do they perceive that their life has somehow been enriched by you? Personally, those are the people that I follow. This can also be a good place to incorporate actual giveaways of product or other related items. If all you do on social media is shameless promotion of your book, you will lose your followers.

I believe that if you do these three things with excellence you will develop loyal fans who keep coming back for more and will invite and tell others about you. It’s a grassroots approach.

Thanks to both Thomas and Christianne for their insight. As writer who likes to hop from genre to genre, I realize it’s that much harder for me to succeed in a market that appreciates authors who find a genre and stick to it. That requires some adjustment on my part.

Next time I’ll try to answer two or three questions you posed.

This is going to be a hard blog to write, largely because it’s about how important it is for the writer to capture the uncapturable…and to be honest, I’m not sure I know how to capture that concept clearly.

I’ll just begin and see what happens.

The other day I had an experience of intense joy. We probably all have those from time to time. I don’t even remember what I was doing, but all of a sudden a sense of sheer happiness came over me. And, being a writer, the first thought that occurred to me was: how on earth do I write in such a way as to move people so emotionally that they’re overcome with this kind of joy? Or with any other emotion for that matter, including profound sadness.

And yet shouldn’t the goal of the writer—especially the Christian writer—be to move people emotionally? Of course, there are the many books written simply for entertainment value and they certainly have their place. But surely there’s room in the marketplace for books that push us a bit deeper emotionally…or spiritually. Usually, these are the books that last for longer than one or two bookselling seasons. Sometimes they earn the right to be called “Literature.” Yes, with a capital L.

But how to do that? How do we write so as to move people? How do we write Literature?

As always, I turn to quotes from the masters of the pen for advice. Here are a few relevant observations:

“Literature is recognizable through its capacity to evoke more than it says”….Anthony Burgess

“Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”…George Orwell.

“I feel a need to have a certain experience, to see certain feelings displayed, to see certain ideas pursued, and at one point or another I make the audacious choice of appointing myself as the person who can conceivably do that”…..Scott Spencer

“The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say”…Anais Nin

There it is. The writer’s job description is to say what we are unable to say.

I like that. But again, how?

I’ll offer a few short ideas. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. After all, I’m just thinking out loud here. I don’t really know the answer. I only know that when I feel a strong emotion, I want to translate that feeling into the language of words and I usually fail miserably.

1. The writer who wishes to evoke great emotion must also be a man or woman who experiences great emotion.

2. The writer must be an observer and lover of people. He or she must especially be compassionate.

3. The writer must have the sense of awe of a ten-year-old. It must be hard to be a jaded person and write in such a way as to stir joyous emotions in readers.

4. The writer will likely have suffered some sense of hurt. I’ve always liked this A.W. Tozer quote and I think it applies to Christian writers: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.”

5. Finally, a writer who wishes to evoke emotion must understand the “less is more” principle. This is along the lines of “show, don’t tell,” but even more subtle. One of my artist friends tells me the mark of a great artist is not what he includes on the canvas, but what he leaves out.

What do you think about all this? How do you capture the uncapturable? Can you suggest some writers or books that have succeeded in evoking such strong emotion?

This morning I had an idea for a new book. This will be number 53 on my list of books I’d like to write. It’s a red-hot idea though, so it will likely be bumped up to number three or four. I already have proposals for the top two or three ideas. This one will need a proposal too. I’ll need to work on it while the idea is still “red hot” in my imagination.

I hope you’re all keeping some sort of project list on your desktop with your ideas for books. Since so few books we want to write will ever see the light of day, we need to keep feeding ideas to our “Books I Want to Write” project list.

Writers who allow themselves to become an idea factory have a huge advantage in becoming published over those who have one, two, or three ideas for books. Never mind that you probably won’t get to write all the books on your list. I’ll be happy if I’m able to write and publish 5-10 of my 53 ideas.

If you already have such a list, maybe it’s time to review it. The books near the top of the list should be those that a). you’re most passionate about (i.e. “red hot”) and b). for which you see a need in the marketplace. The combination of a marketable idea and your personal passion is practically unbeatable. Woe to authors who have great ideas about which no one is interested.

That’s why my “project list” as I call it, is a Word document that can easily be adjusted. It’s not at all unusual for me to bump idea number 46 up to number 5 when either my passion for the book intensifies or something happens in the marketplace that gives me hope that now is the time for that book proposal to make the rounds of publishing houses.

There’s one problem with a diverse project list such as mine—and perhaps yours. It’s true that most publishers are into “branding” authors in certain genres. Basically, it seems they want writers to find a niche in the market and continue to write in that niche for the rest of their lives. Some writers like branding. I don’t like it, even though I recognize its value.

Let me give you a peek at my list and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll also see that I allow crazy ideas on my list with the hopes that same day “crazy” may suddenly become popular with readers.

I’ll start by mentioning number five: Moonlight on Broken Glass: Essential Thoughts on Creating Great Fiction. To no one’s surprise, I like writing about…well, writing. The title comes from a Chekov quote “Don’t tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.” The proposal has been complete for a couple of years. No interest from publishers.

Number 8 is a novel about four guys who become accountability partners and the interweaving of their lives that follows. Working title is Iron Sharpens Iron. That will need to change though.

Number 12 is Raising Them Right: 101 Tips for Bringing Up Conservative Kids in a Liberal World. That book is currently on hold as I try to determine if that’s really a direction I want to go.

Number 14 is We’ll Meet in San Francisco. This is a “reunion” novel.

Number 17 is (yes, this is one of the crazy ones) Amish Kittens Run Wild!

Number 27: 101 Things Every Teen Needs to Know for a Happy Life

One title I love, but can find no interest in is God Walks Among the Broken-Hearted. This is a book for broken Christians. (Have I told you that TWO publishers rejected this because they didn’t “see a market for broken Christians.” Yikes).

That, again, makes my point. Finding a publisher for the ideas you consider “red hot” isn’t as easy as you’d think. Most of you know that.

On my project list there are books that are novels, children’s picture books, children’s chapter books, Young Adult books, gift books, “how-to” books, writing books, devotionals, and more….much more.

Obviously this makes me hard to “brand.” But let me hasten to add that if a book of mine takes off wildly (as I always hope they do), I will certainly allow myself to write to that market again and if branding happens to me, I’ll assume that’s the direction God’s leading me.

By the way, I do have a verbal commitment from a publisher for the number one book on my list. Once I have the contract, I’ll let you know so you can advance order a copy. 🙂

Now, how about your own project list? You certainly don’t need to be diverse if your writing interests are narrow. But, say, if you write fiction, I’d think you’d want at least ten possible novels you could write, perhaps (but not necessarily) in different genres.

The point is to have several irons in the fire. Be as versatile as possibe.

I asked my Facebook friends for blog ideas and got some terrific suggestions. Here are a few that I will be tackling over the next few weeks.

Ace Collins asked: What marketing really works in the information age? What can writers do to get the word out without spending a great deal of money? [for this, I may ask a marketing expert I know, probably in the middle of August when I return from a conference]

Jane asked:Should you edit one manuscript while writing a different one?

Pam Farrel asked:

• editors view on common errors in manuscripts
• reliable research (wikapedia not:))
• changing genres (can a trade book author write fiction, children’s books, etc– if so, tips)
• the ups/downs of self publishing– what are reliable self-publishing companies?
• what makes a great gift book? [For this, I may have a guest blogger answer]• writers of the Bible, what can we learn from them?

Trisha asked: I have been struggling with my writing for some time now. I really struggle with creativity after a trauma occured in my life. Things are easier now, but I was wondering what other writers do in similar circumstances when struggles squelch out that creative vibe, and how they get back on a productive path.

Marilyn asked: I’ve often wondered how you feel as a writer yourself who wants to get your books published, and as an editor, making choices about whether someone else gets published. Seems like that your feelings would conflict. You might want to blog about that sometime. I’d be interested in your answer.

I hope to get to most of those soon, but in the meantime, my long-time friend, B.J. Bassett offered to do a guest blog about her experience when she pubilshed her novel Lily.

Take it away, Bunny….

Promote! Promote! Promote!

The buzzword for retailers is location, location, location. For writers it’s promote, promote, promote.

Before my dad became a successful building contractor he was a carpenter seeking a job with a well-known contractor in Beverly Hills, California. Every week Dad knocked on this man’s door seeking employment and each time he was turned away. Dad didn’t give up, but persisted. Finally he was hired. It was a great lesson I learned from my dad and especially helpful as a writer.

While marketing is selling your product, promoting is publicizing or encouraging someone to buy your product and there are countless ways to do it.

When I published my novel, Lily, I discovered that most of my sales generated from friends and family as the result of a book launching and speaking at a women’s retreat where I was known.

Book Launching

I planned my book launching event for Lily as an open house. I designed a flyer with my book cover, date, time and location and included my contact information and website. I invited from mailing lists of family, friends, neighbors, members of organizations I belong to, co-workers, and my church family. I provided light refreshments and had someone else handle the sales, so I could sign books and visit with those who came to celebrate with me. I sold 40 books that day.

When we’re unknown we need to find readers. One way to do that is to contact your local library. My local library placed my novel on the “New Books” shelf. As a result, Lily is consistently checked out at my local library. You can check your library’s website and see how often your book is in circulation. Libraries are a great resource for finding more readers. Recently a library patron asked the librarian if I had any other books in print. Now I wished I’d been more persistent in getting my next novel published.

Promote to Libraries

Search the Internet for county library websites in any state. The contact information is on their websites. Write a cover letter to the Acquisitions Librarian and include a flyer. The flyer needs to include your book cover, the back of the book blurb (book description), a brief excerpt from a book review, a brief author bio, book distributor’s info (where they can purchase your book), and your contact info.

While a book launching event, speaking at a women’s retreat and the library worked the best for me, you may find other promotional ideas are more your forte. Once you find your readers, make them your cheerleaders, influencers.

How can readers find you? Your book? Always be looking for marketing ideas to build awareness of you and your book. If you can’t do it yourself, hire an expert. Realize, however that you are the best person to promote your book, because you’re motivated.

A Marketing Plan

One must-do is to create a marketing plan. My plan consisted of contacts with bookstores, libraries, speaking, teaching, book reviews, book distributors, book signings, social media, radio and TV and thinking outside the box. One example of the latter is that was able to sell books to a restaurant with the same name as the title of my novel, Lily, as well as to gas station/mini-marts, a conference center gift shop, a video store, and an RV resort. I also had a tote bag made with my book cover printed on it as a promotional item.

When we are unknown we need to get known. Another “must” is a website. Hire a professional or do it yourself. I used Intuit; they provide an easy template for me to use. Include brief info about yourself, your book(s), a calendar of events, a counter of visitors, monthly blog, book cover(s), contact info, endorsements, guestbook, and a free giveaway. Visit other authors’ websites for ideas, and update your website often.

Social Media

Check out the following and pick the ones you think will work best for you: Shelfari, Goodreads, Facebook profile, Facebook page for your book, Library Thing, Twitter, and Squidoo. Create a monthly blog on a subject that will interest readers who will keep coming back to your blog.

I’m thankful I inherited my dad’s perseverance, if I hadn’t I’d never be where I am today—enjoying my life as a writer, speaker, teacher and promoter of my book.

Guest Blogger
B J Bassett
bassett106@charter.net
www.bjbassett.com
http://bjbassett.wordpress.com

Last Saturday I was at the gym working out. I was at one of the upper body machines, straining with all my might to make the 16th rep of this particular weight when I noticed the poster on the wall in front of me. This is what it said:

“There is no one giant step that does it. It’s a lot of little steps.”

The wall of the gym is, of course, the perfect place for such a poster. No matter how often I wish to look in the mirror and see Arnold Schwarzenegger, I realize that it’s going to take a LOT of little steps to even look like Arnold’s “before” pictures.

Another good place for this poster is on the door of the refrigerator. The millions of us who are trying to shed a few pounds would love to be able to arrive at the perfect weight with just one giant step, instead of the often agonizing many small steps it takes to fit back into our high school jeans.

Another great place for this poster is on the office wall of every aspiring writer. Those of us pressing towards our writing goals need to look at those words every time we feel discouraged, every time we get a rejection, every time we go over a draft of our writing that reeks of amateurism.

The truth is that the path to success as a writer is usually a lonely, worn, tedious path without a lot of pretty scenery. And it’s a path that we must walk with “a lot of little steps,” not one huge step.

So what are those tedious little steps? And are we indeed taking them? Or are we hoping in vain that some one giant step will bring us writing success? If the latter, then let me remind you that if you harbor that hope very long, you will become even more discouraged, perhaps bitter, and perhaps even begin to blame others (oh those stupid editors!) for your lack of success.

Let me offer you a brief checklist. See how many of these little steps you’re taking. The more you check, the faster you’re moving along the path.

1. Are you writing something every day? Even if you have only five minutes, keep that appointment with Microsoft Word.

2. Are you an active reader? Reading (and enjoying) the works of other writers oils the inner writer’s gears. If you’re not a reader, it will be very hard to develop a voice as a writer.

3. Are you in tune with the sort of books people are buying? You need to keep your antennae up. Always know what’s happening on the bestseller lists.

4. Can you name some steps you’re taking to improve your writing? Do you take a class at the community college? Read the writers’ magazines? Belong to the Christian Writer’s Guild? Every writer should be constantly improving his or her skills.

5. Which writers conference do you go to annually? This is the place where you will meet other writers, connect with agents and editors, and leave motivated to return the following year with a published book.

6. Are you part of a writer’s critique group? If you don’t know of one locally, consider starting one or join an online group.

7. Do you have several proposals or queries being looked at presently? Don’t put all your hopes in one proposal or project. Be able to write on a variety of topics and have something “out” at all times.

8. Are you reading the popular writers’ and agents’ blogs? (Well, of course you are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this). Make sure your daily blog reading includes at least one agent’s blog, one writer’s blog, and one marketing blog.

9. Are you setting goals for your projects? For instance, have you set a goal of, say, September 1 for that present proposal?

10. Finally, but certainly not least, are you seeking God about your writing career? Have you perhaps received some strong assurance from Him that you’re on the right track? I’d encourage you to make sure your writing future is firmly in God’s hands. It’s only then that you can have the patience to walk the many little steps to writing success with an assurance that God will bless your obedience and bring the measure of success He wills for your writing.

Here’s an assignment: Make that poster with the words “There is no one giant step that does it. It’s a lot of little steps” and hang it on the wall of your office.

And if you’re like me, you might make one for the refrigerator door too.

I was reading Wall Street Journal Drama Critic Terry Teachout’s blog* this morning and came across this interesting quote from the late conductor/ composer Leonard Bernstein:

“I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do. I work extremely hard and all the time.”

Terry goes on to say:

“That’s how I feel about myself. Having met a few geniuses, I know quite well that I’m not one: I’m bright enough, and I’ve been blessed with a retentive memory, but that’s as far as it goes. What I do have in hyper abundance is what the Germans, who’ve coined an ugly-sounding word for just about everything, call Sitzfleisch, by which they mean the ability to sit at your desk for long stretches of time.

“Anthony Trollope is supposed to have said that the three pieces of equipment needed by a writer are ‘pen and ink and a piece of sealing wax.’ Asked what the sealing wax was for, he replied, ‘To put on the chair, my dear, to keep you at your work.’ Whether or not this quote is apocryphal–and I have yet to find a primary source for it–I live by it. While I wouldn’t exactly say that genius is overrated, I do think that it’s not much more than the enabling condition for a certain kind of achievement. Without Sitzfleisch, it’s wasted.”

Yikes. Guilty as charged.

I admit that I rarely have the Sitzfleisch necessary to do the work I want to. Instead, I tend to write during snatches of time that happen to coincide with the times I feel “inspired.”

Folks, this is the wrong way to forge a writing career. Fortunately, I have an excuse. After editing the writing of other authors for 5-7 hours a day, I just don’t have the juice to work on my own writing when I get home at night. But also, I don’t have a deadline at present. Deadlines come with contracts. And contracts motivate me like little else. Show me an editor waiting to see my finished product and who is willing to sign on the dotted line and all of a sudden I’m Mr. Sitzfleisch himself. So while I’m waiting for that next contract, I spend most of my writing time working on proposals and sample chapters, not on a book-length manuscript.

The late Belgian mystery author Georges Simenon was quite prolific (he wrote more than 200 novels). But he had a strategy that allowed him to be so productive. When he was finally ready to write, he would have his doctor check him over and verify that he was up to what would follow, and then he would immerse himself in the writing, hopefully finishing within eleven days. He said he couldn’t handle the strain of being in the characters’ skin for more than eleven days. And if he came down sick during the writing and had to miss 48 hours of writing, he would throw the work-in-progress away, never to return to it. And he’d start fresh on a new novel.

Other writers also testify to the need to getting the whole thing down at once. Which, of course, requires a great amount of Sitzfleisch.

How is it with you? Are you able to sit at your computer for hours on end in order to complete your project…even without a contract? If not, how long is your limit before reaching the breaking point?

If, like Leonard Bernstein and Terry Teachout, you have enough Sitzfleisch you’re way ahead of other writers in your pursuit of success.

So now that you’ve read this, go back to your WIP and apply some Sitzfleisch.

* I couldn’t get the link to work above. Here is Terry’s blog site:
http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/

For Christian writers, it’s almost a given that prayer is vital to success. In fact, if one does pray diligently about his or her writing career, there can be no such thing as failure. This doesn’t mean that publication is a result of prayer, only that success as God defines it is assured. Success to God may be simply that you have written something that, though it may never be published, it was still important for you to write.

This surrender through prayer of our writing career can sustain us during the bleak months or years when all we hear is “no” from publishers. Just remember that one “yes” can cancel out about a thousand “no’s.”

If you’re in the bleak times now, then take heart. If God has called you to write and you live daily in that truth, God will do with your writing what He intends to do with it.

You do have to do your part though. You do have to write. You do have to prepare book proposals. You do have to go to writer’s conferences. You do have to meet editors. You do have to study the market. You do have to continually improve your writing skills. Beyond that, you simply must remain surrendered.

The reason I’m writing this is because a few minutes ago I happened to think about a writer I used to edit. This writer was one of the top three authors I’ve ever edited. Truly a wonderful writer whose works deserve to be in print forever. But when this author’s books didn’t sell as well as we all hoped, this author retreated from writing. And not happily so. The author expressed deep disappointment that the books labored over for so long didn’t prove successful. I was, of course, extremely disappointed too. I still am. I can’t think of that author without wanting to shake the book-buying public by their collective shoulders for not buying these well-written novels. To the best of my knowledge, that talented author has not written since. What a waste.

Sometimes I’ve felt the same way about my own books that haven’t sold well. And more than once I’ve been astonished at the lack of response from publishers to some of my best book proposals. (Don’t get me started on that). But whenever I start to feel that way, Someone reminds me of the vow of surrender I made regarding my writing long ago—and which I still work daily to maintain. Oh sure, sometimes my acceptance of that reminder from God is along the lines of “Well, okay, God. It’s all right with me IF YOU DON’T WANT TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE TO BE BLESSED BY THE MESSAGE YOU GAVE ME TO WRITE!!!!!”

Repentance quickly follows.

Perhaps someone reading this is at that place in your career right now. You’re up to here with countless rejections. You’ve not yet published anything—or perhaps you had a book or two published several years but nothing since. No matter, disillusioned beginner or seasoned pro in a slump, just make that surrender today—or renew that vow if it’s one you’ve let slip recently.

Here’s the sequence: Surrender–>Pray daily for your writing–>Keep learning–>Keep writing–>Keep sending stuff out–>STAY surrendered.

A vital part of any author’s tool kit is their personal library of books on the craft of writing. I have probably a hundred such books in my library right now. No, I have not read all of them. Some I’ve skimmed, some I will eventually read, and some I have read with a highlighter in hand.

This week I’ve added a new book to my library. Veteran author and veteran friend to thousands of aspiring and successful writers, Cecil Murphey has just written Unleash the Writer Within: The Essential Writer’s Companion.

I want all of you who wish to take the next step in your writing career to get a copy of Cec’s book. And take note, this is one for which you will indeed need a highlighter.

Cec grabs us in the very first chapter with the vital question “Why do you write?” I laughed in embarrassed agreement at his own answer: “I write because I’m so full of myself, I believe the world is waiting to read my brilliant thoughts.”

C’mon now. Some of you write for the same reason, I know you do! And how about this statement that follows a few paragraphs later: “Writing is one way to compensate for my feelings of inadequacy.”

Uh-oh. How does he know?

Well, he knows because he’s one of us. And in Unleash the Writer Within, Cec shares many of the reasons his books have sold so well and have appeared on the bestseller lists—even the coveted New York Times bestseller list.

What intrigues me about the book is that it’s really more about the interior life of the writer than the nuts and bolts how-to-write book. But that’s good. There are plenty of the latter, but not many that try to get the writer to write from the inside out.

Be warned, however. This book makes you really think through why and what you write. In fact, Cec says at one point: “Do you want to be authentic? If not, close this book. It’s not for you.”

The entire book takes us on a healthy introspective journey of ourselves as writers. We learn how to respond to our inner critic, when to go easy on ourselves and for many writers who are tired of being whipped with the self-discipline rod, Cec lets us off the hook with these words: “I’m not a slave. I love to create, but I have to do it with passion. I can’t force passion; however, if I’m enthusiastic, there’s no need to push myself.”

My guess is that those who do close the book are not going to make much headway in their writing career. Those who finish the book with a sigh of recognition that Cec is a kindred spirit will be that much closer to whatever writing success is to be theirs.

Oh, and in addition to picking up Cec’s book, he really ought to be one of the bloggers you regularly follow. Find him here:

http://www.cecmurpheyswritertowriter.blogspot.com/

Today, I’m going to do an interview with bestselling author BJ Hoff. Her final book in her Riverhaven Years series, River of Mercy, releases this September. I’ll be editing it next month and I’m looking forward to it very much.

In a recent e-mail BJ said this about a future project we’re discussing:

“Before anything else, my anchor character has to show up. That’s how all my books begin. One character, and only one—always male—’appears’ in my imagination and won’t give me a rest. The only exception was my novella, The Penny Whistle. That began with Maggie MacAuley making her first appearance as a young girl.”

I find that fascinating. I know almost every writer has a different way of conceiving their novels. Perhaps I like BJ’s novels so much because they’re so much about character. So with that, I’m going to ask BJ to amplify on her statement above.

Nick: Is there anything that goes on in your mind before this character appears? For instance, do you ever think of an era you’d like to write about and then your anchor character from that era appears?

BJ: I really had to stop and think about this. What occurred to me is that most of my characters come to mind when I’m doing something entirely unrelated to writing. As unprofessional as it may sound, I might be baking a cake or shelving some books or taking a walk when a character makes his first appearance.

For example, Morgan Fitzgerald, the anchor character for The Emerald Ballad, first made himself known while I was walking around the neighborhood. I had long wanted to tell the story of the potato famine of the mid-1800s that brought so many Irish to America—but I wanted to tell it from both sides of the ocean, from Ireland and America. I’d been stalled at the idea for months while I was working on another project, because all I had was just that: an idea and a time frame. Before I ever reached home that day, the character of a renegade Irish warrior-poet dropped in on me, complete with a wandering soul and a small minstrel’s harp … and from that point on I was off and running.

I suppose that was a case of an event needing just the right character to drive the engine through what would become a five-book story. So, yes, apparently an era or a particular event of a certain era can spawn just the right character and characters. Because I write historical fiction, I can always count on the character being from the past.

Nick: Have you ever had an anchor character appear that didn’t result in a book? If so, do these unused characters linger in your mind for perhaps years or do they disappear as quickly as they came?

BJ: All kinds at all times. It seems that some instinct tells me they’re not “workable,” and I suppose my subconscious simply dismisses them, because they never linger but bow out fairly quickly. A couple of exceptions: I carried around the character of a blind musician for years, knowing he had a story, but not knowing what it was. There never seemed to be a place for him. Finally, though, he ended up as Michael Emmanuel, the anchor character in my book American Anthem. Oddly enough, another character (Renny Magee), who danced around in my mind for a long time first showed up while I was listening to a catchy tune sung by a favorite Irish singer. Renny eventually made her appearance as a Dublin street busker and ended up much later as a character in the same book. She was intended to be a minor character but took on a much more significant role than I’d intended.

So not only do some characters come and quickly go, but at times they stay around to play a different part than I’d originally thought they would.

Nick: Several years ago we discussed character interviews. Once your character has presented himself, do you do an interview to get to know him better? Are there also other ways you find out more about your anchor character?

BJ: I often interview my anchor characters. Sometimes on paper, sometimes only in my thoughts. Not the type of interview that addresses physical description so much—I always get a clear fix on their appearance from the beginning, but I like to give readers a fair measure of leeway in visualizing a character as they see him. I’m not concerned about a character’s favorite foods or hobbies and the like. That sort of thing is easily sorted out fairly quickly as the book progresses. Instead I try to get into his or her back story and emotions, reactions to various events, etc. I seldom do this with a minor character. But, then, for me, the only really “minor” characters are walk-ons that might bow out almost as quickly as they appear. Supporting characters, however, are more important, so even though I may not spend time on an interview, I make sure I know them well. I always look for identifying character traits or quirks that sharply define them, for myself and for the reader. Living with one’s characters—thinking about them, studying their interactions as the story progresses, indulging in a few questions about them—all that plays into giving them distinct “voices” and their personal impact on the story.

Nick: Are all your anchor characters readily to your liking….or have some caused you to ask, “MUST I tell your story? I don’t much like you.”

BJ: Your questions are really making me think! This one brought me to a total stop. I believe, though, I’d be safe in saying that I’ve never had this happen. I’ve had supporting characters affect me like this—and I usually shoo them out the door without much delay—but my anchors usually turn out to be just the folks I need for the story. I have had a few who puzzled me, or confused me, or even frustrated me, but I don’t think I’ve ever had one I disliked.

I’m thinking that’s a blessing. An anchor showing up uninvited who also turns out to be unwelcome could really throw up a roadblock in a story!

Nick: Once you have your anchor character firmly in mind, how does his story unfold? What’s the next step?

BJ: Naming the character. That’s crucial for me. Until the name fits the character, the character won’t fit the story. He’ll remain totally static. Occasionally the character shows up already named—both Michael Emmanuel and Morgan Fitzgerald being examples—but that’s the exception. I can’t explain why some names “fit,” and some don’t, but that’s how it is for me.

Next, I give him a problem. That has to happen right at the beginning of the story. To kick off Chapter One in the first book of the Riverhaven Years series, “Captain” Gant almost drowns in the Ohio River with a gunshot wound. In the Mountain Song Legacy, schoolteacher, Jonathan Stuart has a heart condition which could be fatal. Plus, his expensive and highly prized silver flute has been stolen, possibly by one of his students. Maggie MacAuley begins a “movement” with other students to help find the flute and “restore Mr. Stuart’s music.” Morgan Fitzgerald’s (The Emerald Ballad) family and friends are starving and dying in Ireland’s horrendous potato famine, and he’s searching for a way to save them. Michael Emmanuel of American Anthem is blind and isolated while he lives under the suspicion that he somehow might have been implicated in his wife’s death.

After I determine the problem, other characters almost immediately start arriving to help drive the story. Some are love interests, others are friends, a few turn out to be enemies. The engine is conflict—and most of the conflict comes from the characters. Relying on events or circumstances can be treacherous to the conflict in fiction, though to some extent of course, events will thwart the characters. But if too much conflict relies merely on external sources, that can drastically weaken characterization. Conflict that comes directly from the characters themselves, whether it’s internal conflict or conflict from interaction with other characters, is almost always stronger and works best to propel the story.

I try to make sure that the reader will care about the characters. Even an anchor’s enemy needs to be real and human enough that the reader will care what happens to him, if only to want to see him get “justice” for his wrongdoings. As for the anchor, as he develops, I like to see him making a few mistakes along the way because of a flaw or two in his makeup. My heroes are sometimes unlikely ones. I think that’s because they’re not physically perfect or emotionally together or spiritual giants. They’re more like us. I work for that.

Nick: Once the anchor character is known to you, do the supporting characters also present themselves to you or are they often created as foils for the anchor character?

BJ: Characterization is a genuine mystery to me. I wish I could understand—and explain—how it works, but the most honest thing I can say about my writing in general, and about my characters in particular, is that it’s all gift. I have no real process, no strategy, no self-written handbook on characterization or any of the rest of it.

As best as I can remember, I’ve never “built” or “created” a character, either an anchor or a supporting character. They simply come to me, usually full-blown. That doesn’t mean they won’t change during the course of the story. Hopefully, they will. And sometimes my editor (ahem) will point out that “I don’t think he’d do that” or “I don’t think we need that here,” and I have to reconsider or make corrections. I’ve also run up against places in the story where I sense a lack of motivation for a character’s behavior, so I have to figure out the why of his actions. But mostly, my characters walk into my imagination and onto the pages, and I end up following along after them to see what they’re going to do next.

I can’t emphasize enough the “mystery,” the gift, in this process. For me, it just happens. I love it when it works. I grind my teeth when it doesn’t and then try to figure out why. But after all these years of wondering about it and trying to understand it, I’ve simply accepted the reality that I probably never will, this side of heaven, know how I do what I do.

Nick: Has there been a time when you wanted to write about a specific era or locale and no anchor character appeared? If so, did you drop the project or simply work at creating your own anchor character?

BJ: Unfortunately, that’s happened. When it did, I put the project on hold until I sensed the time was right to think more about it and hope that the right character would show up to get things started. I have two of these projects on the back burner right now. A couple of times in my early writing years, I tried to create the right character, but I got nowhere and finally gave it up.

Nick: Are these anchor characters respectful of your schedule, waiting until you finish a current project before they knock on your door asking you to tell their story? Or do they rudely barge into your imagination without warning, even if you’re in the midst of a current project?

BJ: They pay me no respect at all! They’re like uninvited guests who show up when I least expect them and usually don’t have time to deal with them. But they hang around, generally making a nuisance of themselves until I pay attention. I actually have a fellow now who’s shoved his foot in the door so far I can’t slam it on him.

Nick: Creating effective characters is hard for most writers. If an aspiring fiction writer has a weakness for characterization, do you think your method of having anchor characters present themselves is something that can be taught? Is there anything you can recommend for writers who are weak on characterization?

BJ: Well, I’m confident I couldn’t teach it if I tried. As I said earlier, the characterization process is mostly a mystery to me. I might make a couple of suggestions, though. I believe the most important key to any part of the writing process is to commit every facet of it, from the time one begins to sense he might be called to write, to God—seeking his will and guidance, as well as trusting Him to keep it in its proper place in one’s life. Don’t be hesitant to pray about your writing—God cares about every aspect of our lives, so He’s certainly interested in something that requires as much time and work as our writing. If characterization—or any other part of the writing process—is especially difficult for you, bring it to Him and ask for help. You may be surprised how He delivers that help, but I believe you can expect Him to provide it.

I think it also helps to find something that evokes your emotions. In my case, that special “something” has always been music. Music has been a huge part of my life from the time I was a child. I’m a former church music director and teacher, and there’s no way I can explain how greatly music has impacted my life and added emotion and realism to my writing. I know I might be criticized for emphasizing emotion in fiction, but I’m not talking about sentiment or sentimental writing. But writers need to find the key that unlocks their emotions so their characters become as real as possible, and thus their readers will share the feelings of the people on the pages. The genuine emotion of the characters allows the reader to step into their world and live with them, at least for a brief time. So whether it’s music or art or nature—whatever connects with the writer and plumbs his emotions—should be cultivated, because it can help to generate realistic characters.

Finally, if you have a favorite author, or a few, whose characterization you believe to be excellent and realistic—read everything you can by those authors and try to figure out why you’re drawn to their characters. See if you can spot some traits, emotions, actions, that recur in their fiction and ask yourself why their characters work so well. You can also learn about the “wrong way” from books in which the characters seem stilted and stiff and one-dimensional.

Nick: Thanks, BJ! Great interview! Folks, be sure and visit BJ’s website at:

http://www.bjhoffgracenotes.typepad.com/

Or visit her Harvest House page here: http://harvesthousepublishers.com/authors/bj-hoff/

and, if you’ve never read any of her books, do so! You’re in for a treat. She’s among the best fiction writers in CBA.