Category Archives: Terms Defined

How to Be Sure You Can Write the Highest Quality Books

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” – T. E. Lawrence

The summer heat already bears down now, scorching all inspiration and melting my brain.

DSC_0057

We closed up the house, draw the blinds and cover the skylights, digging down to keep as much of the cool air in as we can. And I’ve stayed in front of the air conditioner, even though I live in Oregon and every Oregonian knows it’s cool and rainy so houses don’t need air conditioning here.

Yeah. This perspiration would like to challenge that notion.

The sun makes the garden grow. But it also shrivels the plants unless you water them daily. There’s a difference between warm and hot. And it gets me thinking how there’s a whole world of difference in these small distinctions between things.

It’s in such seemingly minor differences that life takes on its wonderful variety and meaning. Our balance between what’s delightful and what’s suffocating is much more slight than we tend to realize. And yet we all know having our balance thrown off often reminds us how small distinctions can make a huge difference.

In the old days of this blog, about 10 years ago now, I tried to define the idea of “quality.” I was a younger man, recently 30, and I took it upon myself to try to describe this difficult distinction between types of books that were high quality and low quality. I eventually had to concede much of the difference was in the eye of the beholder. And after flogging it a while more, I let the subject drop.

DSC_0068

Yet I hadn’t understood the primary distinction between high and low quality–far from a snooty or pretentious ideal, books that are refined have a cultured, time-worn truth and beauty. They may be old or new, but the words themselves are distinctive by the refinement they’ve undergone. Very simple books can be elegant. Even rustic, earthy things can be achingly beautiful and unique.

Doesn’t appreciating distinction involve respecting the refining time and the patience to weather the process?

That’s what “quality” means. Appreciating distinction. A high quality book is set apart and special in specific ways if you look for them and take time to appreciate them. When it’s earned through dedication, sacrifice and training, distinction is the quality such books have. And to those who appreciate it, that difference matters. It’s significant. It’s worth recognizing and remarking about.

How did I get here from talking about the heat? Ah, the difference between warm and hot. When you know there’s a difference, you can’t unlearn it. We can’t go back to not noticing. And what’s fascinating to me about this is that this appreciation is a possession that can’t be taken away. Knowing a distinction between things is a special kind of possession that sets you apart. It makes you special. If no one else could feel the difference between a few degrees, when it got too hot, the person who could tell would be very special.

IMG_5434

It’s the same with books. When you can start to tell the little differences between high and low quality, you’re the owner of a unique, specific blessing. Your awareness may make your delicate balance more fragile and precarious, but you’re also now able to employ that unique insight to improve others. And with greater wisdom, you’ll weather the challenges it brings more easily too.

I guess as the sun is going down now and I’m thinking about days of running through sprinklers and enjoying summer with my girls before they’re grown, I believe this distinctiveness is what my writing craft needs. And it’s obvious God is in the business of blessing those who weather their time well. He invests in those who invest.

So I’d like to do so wisely, carefully, persistently, keeping my eyes open and my senses sharp for the new distinctions that will grow my ability to appreciate this amazing life….

And here’s an exciting question: What previously minor distinctions are waiting for us to discover them and broaden our awareness and writing craft this week? 

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

Mick

Do You Need an Editor? The *Definitive* Post

There’s a misconception I’d like to put to rest.

Freelance editors are not expendable. Freelance content editors are the unsung heroes of publishing.

Though it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, I’m not. And this idea may not make me popular among my industry friends and colleagues. Yet as publishing continues to change, I see too many good writers, mid-listers and professional authors being sold a steaming heap of monkey giblets about how to sell more books. And I think it’s high time we jumped this collection of clunkers with confidence.

images-2
Wheeeeee!!! Craaaap!!!!

The unassailable history proves that word of mouth is what sells books over the long term. And despite publisher and traditional bookseller practices, long-term sales are what authors need in order to survive.

Check. (Thanks, Google.)

But what generates consistent and long-lasting word-of-mouth? Is it promotions, interviews, contests or other savvy marketing? Maybe killer content? Meaningful and enriching stories? Most professionals will mark “a good read at a good price” as the way to sell books best over the long-term–and little else besides.

Okay. So the question eventually comes down to: how do authors develop the most scintillating, wide-reaching material?

Now we’re ready, ladles and gent-lemons. The one way to writing good books (and my nomination for word of the year):

Refinement. 

Show me a “professional” who doesn’t take many drafts to develop their material and I’ll show you an amateur who isn’t creating their most widely-accessible work. (Duck and cover, people! I warned you.) And even after initial rewriting, refinement always requires some outside help, objective opinion, and more specifically, experienced, balanced objective opinion(s).

So is it hyperbole to say that finding these helpers may mean the difference between success and failure for every author?

I do this for the money, prestige and power. Said no writer ever.
I do this for the money, prestige and power. Said no writer ever.

There are many stages in an author’s development, but freelance editing is one I see too often overlooked. In fact, questions and misunderstandings seem to be increasing.

What do they really do? Won’t they ruin my story? Wouldn’t they change my voice? Why would I want someone to mess with my vision and challenge what I’ve worked so hard on?

Real, valid concerns. Actually, if writers weren’t asking questions like this, I’d be worried. There are no guarantees editing will help you (and any editor who offers that is playing you). Step back and recall how many badly written books have made it to the bestseller list without any apparent assistance from an editor’s red pen. Do books really need editing to sell well?

Literary-snobs shut your eyes: “Not really.” (support) (proof)

So if quality control isn’t a valid reason, what’s the point of hiring an editor? And who needs editing beforehand anyway, especially if you’ll be going through the editing during the publication process?

Freelance editors are a dime a dozen and the wrong one could be disastrous. To top it off, they’re crazy expensive. Let’s just get straight-up honest, here:

Do you really need a freelance editor?

First, there are critique groups. Good writers all use them. Beta readers. They can be hugely helpful, harsh and honest, professional friends.

Agents. The good ones do still content-edit quite a bit besides crafting astounding, profitable ideas out of thin air. They are often the first and only line of defense and author advocate before the infamous …

In-house editors. Despite rumors to the contrary, they do still edit. And they do a bang-up job of it too, if not as singularly as editors who aren’t required to handle multiple concurrent book-production schedules, new acquisitions, pub-board presentations, sales conferences, departmental requests for early materials and publicity pieces, and the thousands of other insipid and infuriating things in-house editors are literally bombarded with every day. And if you’re independently published, you’ll have your…

Publishing package editors. And in some cases, they’ll actually fix some words you missed. Just don’t expect them to do much content shaping, let alone character or plot analysis or smoothing. But, then, sometimes you may even have your…

Ghostwriters. These are the most evolved industry folks around. No way any “word shenanigans” are getting past these bad boys and girls of publishing.

So freelance editors. What’s really left for them to do with all these competent folks around?

I can’t speak for all my freelance editor friends, of course. But as an independent business, my goal is not to achieve “high quality,” or improve the story, or even to fulfill the author’s hopes of a completed project. My one purpose is to sell books. To do this, the author must see how they’re authentically surprising and delighting readers. That isn’t crass or unbiblical, it’s simply ambitious: it’s how the most influential authors are publishing today.

images-3

I’m a seasoned editor and some say I’m rather good. So let me challenge you to consider who will help you gain the best perspective on your book. Is it:

Someone who knows you and may be tempted to put friendship first?

Someone with a lot of experience and even objectivity, but 25-100 clients they’re carrying simultaneously?

Someone you’ve been assigned and needs you “processed” as quickly as possible?

Or someone who is free to invest weeks of professional evaluation into suggesting improvements for readability and mass appeal?

Freelance editors exist because they love books. And yes, they love successful books, because time and again they find the core of their author’s message and bring it out more fully to compel readers to proselytize about their books.

A freelance editor is your greatest chance to extend your reach and expand your writing career. With the right freelance editor, you will find a fulfilling sense of empowerment from an insightful supporter who gets you and respects your process. And at the very least, you will find new angles and depths you missed in your own work, which, in the end, will provide more compelling angles to sell your work.

imgres-1imgres

So before you decide your next step, do one thing: run a simple search for experienced freelance editors. Ask them your questions and take a look at how hard they are working to balance author’s visions with reader appeal. And consider carefully the true value of investing in this powerful tool of education and insight you’re endeavoring to begin.

Could you use an unbiased coach and personal trainer in your corner?

Maybe the question isn’t, “Do you need a freelance editor?” Maybe it’s time the savvy authors recognized the better question is,

“Do you want to sell books?”

What Is a Publishable Author?

I get this question a lot. Especially at writer's conferences. At a writer’s conference, there’s always too much information. You need to purge it and sift through it afterwards. And some things need to be debunked, clarified, or given proper context. I hear things some of my colleagues say to new authors and I wonder what they’re smoking. Authors misunderstand some things, but some publishing folks talk out of their—out of turn. As I’ve told many an author, don’t believe everything you hear at a writer’s conference. When the fatigue catches up on some of us, it’s not our fault. We simply don’t know what we’re saying.

 

Yes, sometimes the confusion is entirely an author's fault. Many writer’s conference attendees are wasting money and time to attend their idea of "American Publishing Idol." These natural geniuses are the authors who have no pitch and sit down to read their plot synopsis, while glancing up every few seconds to see if the editor has fallen over themselves to offer up a contract on a silver platter. I imagine I'm Simon Cowell and I want to ask, “What do you think it tells me about you that you think I can make a decision to publish your book on the plot summary?” First, I don’t decide what my house publishes. Second, ten or fifteen minutes isn’t going to tell me your book’s potential appeal, especially from the plot synopsis. Third, and probably most importantly, if you think the plot is what best represents your merit, you’d better go home and do a little research before you come back. You aren’t ready to be pitching, let alone published.

I’d say it in the nicest way possible, of course. But some editors and agents add to the confusion by offering such helpful advice as “keep your eyes open” and “pay your dues.” My favorite is “do your homework.” What the @#$%! does that mean, doing your homework? Is this 3rd grade?

So today, I offer, The Non-Essential “Essential” Quality of a Publishable Author:

Here it is, ready?: Know important people. Have you heard this one? You’re supposed to research authors, agents, publishing houses, editors, and comparable titles on Google, Amazon, and your local bookstore. They want you to find interviews, news reports, trade articles, and scuttlebutt about these people and use this info to impress them. They’ll say things like “books are for people and the industry is made up of people. Do you know them, know what they like, know what appeals to them?” They’ll ask if you read PW and NYT Books and know the bestseller lists. It’s all well-meaning. Editors are swamped, so they want you to follow protocol and formal queries and treat them like professionals with little time to spare for unprepared authors. You’re supposed to convey your advantage of experience, knowledge, and deep passion for your message. And most of all, position yourself as the author not overeager to get one book or one series published, but as someone with too much going on to waste time talking about their book. See, the book doesn’t matter. It’s the vehicle, the means to the end. You should talk about the end instead: the huge media attention and public interest you’re poised to exploit, and never-directly-but-always-covertly alluding to the chance for an editor to be the hero by finding this golden, untapped opportunity.

That is, in short, “doing your homework.” And those who have invested the time, the logic goes, will rise to the top. I’ve said this at conferences myself. You won’t be daunted by the sea of rookies surrounding you because you’ll be better prepared. You’ll know what’s expected. You’ll be able to answer an editor’s 4 questions: 1) Have you read the books like yours? 2) Have you researched your market and the conventions of your genre? 3) What proof have you found that your voice is needed? 4) Are you targeting me specifically because you know what I represent and what I want to publish?

Those are the questions I have asked. Those are the things a publishable author supposedly must have to get published by a top, royalty-paying, high-profile house.

The rest of this post will now debunk that load of crap.

This is what a publishable author should have.

Publishable authors should know what they’re about. They’ll need to know why they write what they write, and not be easily swayed from their purposes by comments from rookies or even pros (though if an editor with 25+ years’ experience tells you it’s not going to work, pay attention and get why). They need to have thought through the decisions about their writing and the reader’s journey through their book, and have good reasons for doing what they did. They should know what their passion is to write and not change to fit an expectation or prejudice about what the market wants or accepts without soliciting second and third opinions by qualified, experienced counterparts in the business. This is not about forming a theory about why the market needs what you’re writing, and then boldly going out to gather the requisite evidence before you attempt to test those theories, i.e. paying more dues. You could still crash and burn, and that would be the end of your publishing career. Better to know how to filter the info, the helpful from the damaging, the “conventional” from the untenable. Better to be willing to be a little unconventional and not market saavy, because you are unique and want to say something new (or at least in a new way).

Know this: the trick to being published is writing well. And the trick to writing well is simply learning what to give away when. Most books could be better (i.e. more satisfying) if the author had told us more, or told us less, at a particular place. There’s no quick way to learning how to read your ideal reader, but authors who study them and how to satisfy them, will find an audience.

That’s your only task in becoming publishable. The “seasoning” and “dues-paying” and “market-studying” will come. Or not. After all, that’s what agents and editors are for.

What’s a Meta-For?

Okay, results of the contract contest are in, and it seems our ubiquitous General Bertrand was favored from the start. Yet what connections between the 2 articles did you find? I’d hoped the stunt would get you to think about the way we work as Christians who write fiction. With Leithart’s article as context, Pamuk showed just how critical our tools of symbol and metaphor really are to high quality stories.

Here’s Mark: “[In lower quality fiction] there’s an over-determined quality to the symbolism, as if it came about cognitively rather than procedurally. It is at once too meditated and not meditated enough. The grace with which Pamuk can write about his ancient calligraphers, knowing what’s underneath it but never pointing directly to the symbolism, simply isn’t possible when Symbol is seen as a technique to be applied rather than a hallmark or byproduct of method…”

Exactly. Quality metaphors are not premeditated. The challenge is to allow them to arise naturally–and then trust readers to connect their own dots. The alternative is to come up with symbols after the fact and insert them. Very few authors are able to make these kind look seamless and end up unintentionally weakening their books. The better idea is to discover those less obvious metaphors after you’ve written the first draft.

This is an incredibly freeing discovery: Metaphors that effortlessly appear for the observer as if all on their own, first appeared for the writer that way.

I like Mark’s word for how symbols arise as a “byproduct.” Deeper meaning is a result of meditation, usually after the story is already out. The work of that second draft is of finding the metaphors and drawing them out without making them too obvious.

We need to trust readers, and not assume stories with implicit truth and beauty can’t also be mindless escapes. It’s not commercial vs. literary; this is a big part of what makes writing quality or not. Simple books and deep books can both offer the commonplace experience of transcendence. Transcendence is a universal experience, isn’t it? No explanation is really necessary.

And in writing metaphor well, there’s this great result that happens in counteracting the widespread commercialization of faith and God. The divine is not reducable into nice, clean parts. We were created to experience incredible, complicated things, and good books provide those experiences that are otherwise unavailable. Reading is an escape from the everyday and if we wanted commercials, there are over 200 channels to choose from. But what I’d like for Christmas is for someone to blog about choosing to develop the natural metaphors in their story and sharing the observations and discoveries they find. (If you do it–or have an archived post–let me know and I’ll provide a link:Meg’s great post, Suzan’s, Michelle’s, Madison’s.)

Can you relate to this part of Pamuk’s speech? “I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences…have not come from my own imagination–that another power has found them and generously presented them to me.” This goes beyond “getting in the moment,” to the deep mystery O’Connor spoke of. The sacramental art that doesn’t separate spirit from body, meaning from method. This is a divine interconnectedness beyond our words, our ideas, our place in space and time. This is why we can’t control what people will take from our books. Ultimately, we don’t control it. And that’s a great thing if you’re looking to die to self.

Pamuk says he “knew only too well that I lived in a country that showed little interest in its artists – be they painters or writers – and that gave them no hope.” Sounds familiar, and yet he takes writing incredibly seriously: “writing and literature are intimately linked to a lack at the centre of our lives, and to our feelings of happiness and guilt.” That lack is the longing to be reunited with the source. Sacramental art involves natural metaphors, as all of life does because it is all metaphor. And God doesn’t make sure we catch it. “My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. …a single humanity, a world without a centre.” When we write, we are not only one; we are all one. We all can have this same experience through books.

And finally, there is Pamuk’s metaphor: his father’s suitcase of words. It stands for something, many somethings in fact. Did you see? A suitcase full of your father’s words is very fitting for us. It’s a weighty thing to carry. Some might think you’re pretty high and mighty to assume you can open this. But we must. It’s our birthright. Our legacy. And we must open it if we want to know what’s inside.

At any rate, I hope all you wonderful writers have a happy, safe, and restful Christmas and an inspired New Year. Let’s make it one to remember.

(As I was writing this, trying to put a certain precocious 3-year-old daughter to bed, she came downstairs with the traditional stall tactic that she was hungry. I gave her the traditional Wheat Thins and milk after reading her another book, and twenty minutes later she tiptoed downstairs to tell us she spilled her milk. After we cleaned up, she said she wanted more. Pushover Dad got her a little more. But no, she said, she wanted it full to the top, pointing out the line on the green cup, the amount she’d had before it spilled. I started to smile, insisting she didn’t need that much milk, that she wasn’t even thirsty, and that she’d have to pee. Three strikes, I win. But she insisted calmly, hands folded, serious as a china doll.

And I stood there as she repeated herself—“I just want it up to the top, Daddy”—and something about it, her persistence, her calm determination about this very serious business of getting a lot of milk struck me funny. I choked down a laugh, told myself I wasn’t necessarily contributing to misbehavior by complying, and went to fill it up. When I got back, she inspected it and took a slow, satisfied sip. I couldn’t hold it back anymore and cracked up–just her seriousness over the whole thing. And she laughed too though not really knowing what was funny. Maybe she was surprised at how this had gone.

As I kissed her goodnight and shut the door, I thought, This is it. This is how metaphor is. You write the little details, the particularity of the green cup with the silly little pepper people on it, that stuff that sticks in your head forever—all of it is significant. It matters because it means something. You don’t always know what it means and that’s the point, the whole reason for all of it, and why getting it right isn’t so important. Everything simple is so remarkably ineffable. You can’t understand it, so you just enjoy it, and you keep living and writing about it anyway.)

Disease by Degrees

Dearest Wormwood,

I smiled for the first time in a long while today. Can you guess what I was thinking? Of the impressive work you’ve done in removing that horrible stain of “good reason and common sense” from the torpid minds of our feeble enemies. That there are no longer any categories with which to define a discussion of high-quality Christian books is certainly cause for celebration, and your accomplishment of highest pride to me. And yet, not only have you convinced them there are no categories, you’ve conclusively proven that there is no one capable of interpreting even basic definitions of good and bad literature, the very thought of which has become ridiculous! Your skill for cunning suggestion seems matched only by your talent for fracturing thought. Any “qualified” monkey who might undertake the task of sorting out the truth of so-called Christian literature would be a mere mortal, and gleefully subject to the same prejudices and unbalancing biases as anyone else. Subjective judgments become completely valueless!

Brilliant! Everything “good” or “bad” is now in the eye of the monkey!

And had you seen me today, whistling Dixie down the scorched streets, you’d have heard me stop and shout, realizing a few of the less obvious extensions of our accomplishment:

  • The further slipping toward irrelevance of biblical sentiments about so-called “absolute truth.”
  • The plunging value of logic and intelligence.
  • Deeper apathy as more people stop working to discern the high quality of an art that isn’t there.
  • Bigger pitfalls of cynicism and potholes of ignorance.
  • The immediate irrelevance of Christian book reviews.
  • The soulful support by those who prefer the safety of uninventive reading material.
  • Cocoons of formula and ritual squelching beauty and meaning.

And the list goes on, my faithful one!

What a rare joy to think of all the work you’ve saved us! No more working to sabotage publishing efforts with prohibitive advance fees and book schedule crunches. No more worrying about undermining an authors’ personal credibility. No more struggling to isolate authors of rogue literary bestsellers from fans, painstakingly chipping away at their self-confidence until they crack. No more need for any of it since "high-quality books" are not an objective measurement, but simply what anyone prefers over other books! Our enemies can gorge themselves to popping on whatever pointless schlock they prefer and we won’t have a single worry about anyone convincing them to read something potentially dangerous. Without a true basis for high literary merit, there’s nothing to warrant a reader’s recommendation other than simple cheap thrills. The imbeciles will keep happy and quiet, knowing only that their books adhere to the standard Christian formula.

And—ho!—I just had a thought. I’ll bet it won’t be long before they won’t even need anything truly useful in their books at all. In fact, we could probably start writing those kind of books ourselves! Just a few a year to make sure there were enough on the shelves to keep them too distracted to notice the unfortunate anomalies. Sounds like fun, actually. What do you think of that idea?

I’ll end here with one last assertion of my deep satisfaction and humble gratitude for your continued service. And I’m sure you’ve already begun, but do prepare to give a full account of your triumph for His Hollowness upon your return.

Yours Forever Scheming,

Screwtripe

—-

(11.20.06) Please note the point being made here is about what happens where there is no standard of quality for Christian books. It is not a statement about Christian fiction in particular, nor is it intended to represent my personal opinions about the quality level of Christian books. It is simply a satirical post about what I believe goes on in the spiritual realm when we accept the lie that there is no standard with which to measure writing quality.