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Today I continue answering some questions you’ve asked. Roxanne Henke, a wonderful author I’ve had the pleasure of editing, asked three good questions.

1. How can a writer stay motivated when discouraged?  

Rejection is always hard. You pour your best efforts into your manuscript and hope for a positive response and instead you get a dull rejection letter or e-mail, often MONTHS after you submitted it.

Here’s what I suggest.  First, just know that virtually all writers have faced rejection. You can’t take it personally. Second, if you know that God has called you to write, you must take your confidence from that calling and not allow rejection to rob you of your destiny as a writer. Third, always have more than one project out to an editor.  If one comes back rejected, you can still have hope for the others that are still under consideration.  Finally, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. Instant success isn’t going to happen. Pay your dues, be patient, keep writing, and look for God’s opportunities.

2. How do you decide which (of many) ideas to work on first?

This is a hard one for me. I have so many ideas and proposals in the preparation stage I sometimes don’t really know which ones to work on.  Usually, it’s a combination of several factors.  One factor is which project generates the most creative excitement in me?  Is that also the one that’s most marketable?  If so, I’ll work on that one.  If you have several good ideas and are still unsure, I’d write a one-sheet (or longer if necessary) for each one and see if simply writing about the projects brings clarity. You might even discover that one or more of your ideas can be rejected.   Finally, if you have a good agent, ask him or her for advice.  Agents often list career planning as one of their advantages.  Tell your agent you want to have a brainstorming session and discuss several ideas with him or her.  An agent that used to represent me once gave me some good advice that I discounted…and I later realized I was wrong. I should have followed her advice.

3. How important is a title to catch an editor’s eye?

For me as an editor, a title isn’t as important as the concept and the writing. If I like the proposal, I know we can always come up with a better title. That said, I do know that when I see a dazzler of a title, it makes me sit up and take notice. For instance, who could resist a title like Kevin Lehman’s Have a New Kid By Friday. Or perhaps his follow-up book, How to Have a New Husband By Friday?

4. When can you ‘legitimately’ call yourself a writer? (I once had someone tell me–rather snootily–that I had to have something published that was more than 100 words long.)

I think the answer is purely subjective and depends on how YOU define being a writer. I know I would have legitimately called myself a writer before I was published.  It’s like asking when can you call yourself a Christian? Is it after you’ve become mature or entered into a ministry or joined a church? No, of course not. The minute a person believes in Christ to be saved, they are from then on a Christian. The decision to follow Christ is the moment the Christian identity begins. Likewise the minute a person knows deep within that they’re a writer, they ARE a writer, in my opinion. The rest of it is just an unfolding of that decision.

Now, everyone please go read After Anne, Roxanne Henke’s first delightful book. You will thank me.

I thought about making this blog entry about my time at Mount Hermon this past week. But there was just so much, I don’t know where to begin. Parts of that experience will no doubt surface in upcoming blogs. Suffice to say you need to be there next year or at some other conference later this year. It’s important to your writing career. (By the way, the keynoter next year at Mount Hermon will be Liz Curtis Higgs. You won’t want to miss her!).

Instead of recounting Mount Hermon, I see that the time before last I said: “next time I’ll offer a couple of reasons proposals never get past my desk to make it to the committee level.” Easy enough. Here we go…

1. The easiest rejections are those that are not even close to being what we want. Usually these are unsolicited and very amateurish. Letters written in pen on binder paper yanked from a three-hole binder or a notebook do not get much attention. And, of course, the author will never know because there was no SASE. I get submissions almost every day without an SASE or that in some other way shouts “Reject me!”

2. Personal experience proposals are pretty quickly rejected. Not because I want to, necessarily, but because we have not found them to sell well. I do know there are some books in this genre that succeed, but not for us. We stick to what works for us. So in this case, the take-away message for you is to be sure you’re sending your proposal or query to a publisher that publishes what you write.

3. Similarly, we get other types of non-fiction proposals that are not viable, topic-wise. Easy rejects, sorry to say.

4. Platform issues. If I find a proposal on a topic that interests me, I will look at the writing ability and the author’s ability to promote the book (the platform). If the writing ability is good but the platform isn’t there, I will either try to help the author overcome this obstacle or decide if a platform is really necessary for this book. It will surprise some of you to learn that not all non-fiction books need a platform. Some books are impulse items and the author’s credibility isn’t as important. An example of that is the book my friend Steve Miller and I did: The Best-Ever Christian Baby Name Book. Because of my limited platform, I often prepare proposals for books that I perceive as impulse items and then send them to an appropriate publisher.

5. If the topic is of interest and the author has a platform, but the writing is poor, I may determine to help the writer bring the writing up a few notches. If he or she is willing, I’ll schedule the proposal for the committee. If the writing is poor and I don’t think it’s fixable or if the author seems unwilling, that’s a rejection.

The above five reasons apply mostly to non-fiction. Let’s continue by looking at some reasons (a few of which are the same as for non-fiction) that are more likely to cause a fiction manuscript to be rejected.

6. The novel is in a genre that doesn’t sell for us: this includes fantasy, contemporary suspense, Biblical novels, etc.

7. Bad writing. This is often due to a violation of the “show, don’t tell” principle.

8. Lack of characterization skills. Simply put, the characters do not interest me, and I conclude they will not interest readers either.

9. A slow beginning. You have a page or less to capture my interest (and the interest of book browsers in Barnes and Noble). If I’m not pulled in almost immediately, the book is rejected. Slow beginnings are often (not always) indicated by a description of the weather or the landscape on the first page. That’s a personal no-no in my book. Sure, it can be done effectively and no I won’t reject a book for that reason alone. It’s just a red flag to me. Whatever follows has to be all the stronger to keep my interest.

10. Another pet irritant of mine is when an author of a historical novel uses descriptions or phrases (usually in dialogue) that are too contemporary for the time the novel is set. One such novel had two women driving a covered wagon across the mid-nineteenth century prairie. One of the women turned to the other and said something about thinking she was “pregnant.” Women back then did not use that word to describe their condition. Again, this is a case where I would not reject a novel on that basis alone, but it’s another red flag that screams “amateur.” If you’re going to write a historical novel, know how the people spoke back then.

11. The novel lacks what Henry James called “felt life.” I think of it in terms of the animation of the characters. Are these characters real to me as a reader who is willing to suspend his disbelief? Or are they simply characters the author has called down from central casting to carry out a prearranged plot? Learn how to animate those lifeless characters!

12. Then, as with my earlier blog about why the committee says no, sometimes there is no logical explanation for my rejection. I may not feel right about the proposal for some unexplainable reason or it may have landed on my desk on an off day. Yes, that does happen from time to time. I think it happens to all of us. We simply aren’t prepared at that particular time to reach the same conclusion we might reach under different circumstances.

Finally, it must be added that ALL editors misjudge proposals and manuscripts from time to time. I’ve said yes to some proposals that did not turn out well as books. I’ve said no to some obviously excellent proposals whose excellence was not apparent to me, but was to another editor. Naturally, that’s one reason I tell authors who have been rejected a few times to keep trying elsewhere. And, too, it’s why I keep submitting my own proposals that have been rejected by editors who can’t fathom the excellence before them. 🙂

Hope this helps.

By the way, I couldn’t find the previous suggestions for blog topics that I thought I had. If you have a suggestion, try again in the comments section.

Well, I’m back in the saddle…briefly. The OCW conference is past, but next week is church family camp. I’m the director, so I’ll be focused on that all next week.

The conference was fine, as expected. I reconnected with several old friends, made a few new ones, and missed the several who weren’t there this year.

My debate with James Scott Bell (plot versus character) went well. I won, of course. (Just don’t ask Jim who he thought won).

The big news, though, is something that happened apart from the conference. The publishing committee at a large Christian publisher met on Wednesday to consider a proposal of mine. Although I was expecting a “yes,” I got a “no.” And yet I wasn’t horribly disappointed. The reason is that although the proposal was on a topic dear to my heart, it was also one I was a bit hesitant to pursue. So I left it in God’s hands….and He, working through the decision of the committee, obviously closed that door. The result is that I’ve asked my agent not to submit that proposal nor the two others that were on the same general topic to any other publishers. It’s somewhat painful to close the door on that topic, but I think it’s for the best. This all goes back to the first step in becoming a Christian writer—trusting God to open and close doors as He chooses. I now feel free in a way. And, hey, this now means there are only 52 projects (instead of 55) on my list of books I want to write. I’m being narrowed as a writer and that’s a good thing. I expect there will more narrowing ahead too. I know I certainly will never live long enough to write all the projects on my list. But having a vision for each of those books is important, even though it means a season of pain when some of these envisioned projects must be put away for good. As someone as once said, the delete button is a writer’s best friend.

The hardest part, really, is that once I knew the proposal was under consideration, my mind kicked into high gear in preparation for that particular project. Everything I saw, read, or thought somehow got sifted for material to use in the eventual book. Even now, hours after hearing the negative verdict, I’m having trouble shutting down that part of my mind that was becoming consumed with gathering material for the book. I imagine this will last at least another full week. Maybe longer.

Perhaps the week at family camp will quiet my mind a bit. We’ll see. In the meantime, if I don’t get the fifth and final step in how to succeed as a Christian writer posted before family camp, rest assured I’ll do it as soon as I’m home again.

Meanwhile, I want you to consider how God might need to narrow or expand your vision as a writer. Is it time to hit the delete button on some projects….or perhaps time to refresh your vision with something new and exciting?