Thursday, January 11, 2007

KB: Ask the Editor


Our first Ask-the-Editor question comes from Kristy D.: What are some tips for The True Writer to "find" "herself/himself," meaning, settle into his/her genre/voice/style so s/he becomes The Successful Writer (steadily-contracted)? Keep writing, keep learning, and don't quit, I know, but other pearls of wisdom?

My vote is that it’s not so much about genre or styles as being true to your particular story. Write the story that won’t let you go. Don’t try to write something the market or editors will want. Write the story that’s stirring inside you, burning in your gut, nagging at you until you’re about to explode. And write that story with as much honesty and vulnerability as you can. Think about the authors you love to read. What makes their writing stand out from the rest? One example is Francine’s books. Her “voice” is so clear, regardless of the genre in which she writes. Why? For me, it’s the gut-level honesty of her characters. That always gets to me. Hadassah struggling to be faithful in a world brutal to loyalty and truth. Marcus wrestling with his love for a woman he doesn’t understand, a woman he knows loves him in return, but who won’t give in if it means giving up her true Love. Sierra fighting against herself as she realizes she doesn’t understand love at all. Angel raging against the God who was supposed to love her and abandoned her to the basest of men. Michael Hosea, who loves even when he doesn’t want to, who stands as a man so sold out to God that he breaks—and captures—our hearts. These characters are alive and well, years after I’ve read the books. Because I relate to them, to their struggles, to their journeys. Because they don’t find easy answers or smooth paths, but wrestle with God, even as so many of us do.

But even as I write that, realize I’m not saying anyone else should write like Francine does. It only works for her. You need to write like Kristy, I need to write like Karen. Who we are, what stirs our hearts, needs to come out in our writing. We each have stories God’s give us to tell. We need to do that as ourselves, not as an imitation of some other writer. Don’t worry about sounding as good as someone else. Sound as much like you as you can. I have people tell me all the time they can “hear” me in my books. Whatever you do, make sure your heart is heard.

So how to do that? First, read. Read, read, read to find out what you like. Underline the phrases that capture you—not to steal, but to study, to understand why they hit you as they did. Second, though this is even more important, spend as much time with the One who gave you the call and the story to begin with as you spend reading anything else. Seek His desire for what you’re writing, ask him to use you. He gave you the story, He gave you your voice. All you have to do is open yourself, and He’ll use them. In ways you never imagined.

Karen

Thanks to Richard M. for a thought-provoking Ask-the-Editor question: Now you're writing full-time. Until recently, you were an editor but were also writing. Has your experience as an editor affected your writing? How?

Actually, I’ve always written while doing my day job of editing. Though I haven’t been with a publisher since early ’06, I’ve been working freelance as an editor. Editing is what pays for my writing addiction. (And—news flash—I’m joining a publishing house again. As of Jan. 1, 2007, I’ll be Senior Editor at B&H publishers, helping to head up their fiction line.) But my experience as an editor has affected how I review my writing. Like anyone else, when I write, I just write. Get it on the page. Then, when that’s done, I let the editor come out to play as I go back and read what I’ve done. Though I range from “Wow! I wrote that? That’s really good!” to “WHAT was I smoking?” it’s always a good process. One that shows me both how far I’ve come, and how much I still need to learn.

The other way it’s affected my writing is it’s made me teachable. I have no trouble recognizing I need an editor. And I love the editing process with my books, because my editor knows how to come alongside and encourage even as she’s pointing out places I need to fix. Sure, I have moments when I wonder what my editor was smoking , but I’d say 98% of the time, I agree with her comments and suggestions. Because she knows me as well as my writing. And that’s what makes for a great editor: someone who knows you, knows your writing, and likes both!

Karen


Nicole’s Ask-the-Editor question is one I hear all the time, so I’d delighted she asked it: Why is it that between agents, editors and/or publishing houses, each one seems to want something different? One wants a brief, snappy query, the other wants a specific type of proposal, another wants a 3 paged synopsis.

Because writing and publishing, fiction or nonfiction, is all SUBJECTIVE! Yes, there are some standards by which we measure quality, and a good portion of our decisions rest with what is and isn’t a good fit with our agency or house, but bottom line, it’s all about what we do or don’t like. Editors know the market, know their house, and know writing. And there are times they’ll go with a proposal for something they don’t particularly like, but that they know will do well for the publisher. But when it comes to proposals, what matters most to me as an editor—and to any other editor I know—is what makes my job the easiest. Hey, I told you I’d be honest. So for me, what makes my job in acquisitions easiest is the following:

The writing. No point reading a long synopsis or marketing ideas if the quality of writing isn’t what I want and need. Once I see the writing’s there, then I want to know…
The main storyline. Enter the BRIEF (for me) synopsis.
“But wait!” you wail, “Nick Harrison at Harvest wants long synopses.” You’re absolutely right. So here’s what I’ve started suggesting: write both. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to figure out who wants what kind of synopsis—especially considering that editors do tend to jump around a bit. (Okay, okay, lately they jump around a LOT!) So the proposal you prepared for me at Zondervan, complete with a brief “hit-the-highpoints” synopsis is suddenly not what is needed because I’m now at B&H. And the Zondervan editor who now has your proposal in her hands wants a nice, long synopsis.

How do you avoid this insanity? Simple: just do both. Write a brief, one- to two- page synopsis that gives the salient plot points and reads like a movie trailer, and write a detailed, multi-paged synopsis that gives character names, backgrounds, themes, arcs, and on and on. Put both in the proposal, and you’re covered. Editors can then choose what they want, and your proposal is ahead of the game before it’s even sent out.

From that point, synopsis requirements are pretty much standard. Author bio/background/platform, a list of the marketing the author is willing to do, competition, and so on. One final note: most book editors don’t want queries, they want a proposal with sample chapters because, again, it’s the writing that makes the greatest difference. But either your agent or Sally Stuart’s great reference The Christian Writers’ Market Guide can help you know the basics of which houses prefer what.

Hope that helps!

Karen Ball says she will answer the other ask-the-editor questions whenever she can find a spare moment, which will be . . . whenever.

8 Comments:

At 8:05 AM, Blogger Richard Mabry said...

Karen,
Thanks for the insights and advice--valuable, as always. It's a treat to get an insider's view of the wacky world of Christian publishing. And there's no better guide to wackiness than...well....Anyway, thanks.

 
At 8:59 AM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

Thanks, Karen.

The point I'm struggling with right now is finding that gut level passion. I've written a couple books that had it. One's sold, the other requested. I have two other proposals out there that have that passion, and now I'm praying about the next one. Finding that "thing" that will keep me passionate and excited for the time it takes to write a book is so key ... and hard. Without it, writing is work. With it, writing is an exploration. I may not know everywhere the plot is headed, but I know that I can't wait to find out!

Congratulations on the move to B&H. May God richly bless your endeavors there!

 
At 9:06 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks, thanks, thanks, Karen, for taking my question and for such a great answer. I typed your advice, below, and posted it above my computer where I can see it every day (I CAPPED your confirming, prophetic words near the end):

1. Write the story that’s stirring inside you, burning in your gut, nagging at you until you’re about to explode.
2. Write it with as much honesty and vulnerability as you can. Francine Rivers's characters are alive and well, years after I’ve read her books. Because I relate to them, to their struggles, to their journeys. Because they don’t find easy answers or smooth paths, but wrestle with God, even as so many of us do.
3. You need to write like Kristy, I need to write like Karen. Who we are, what stirs our hearts, needs to come out in our writing. Don’t worry about sounding as good as someone else. Sound as much like you as you can. I have people tell me all the time they can “hear” me in my books. Whatever you do, make sure your heart is heard.
4. Read, read, read to find out what you like. Underline the phrases that capture you—to understand why they hit you as they did.
5. Even more important, spend as much time with the One who gave you the call and the story to begin with as you spend reading anything else. Seek His desire for what you’re writing, ask him to use you. HE GAVE YOU THE STORY, HE GAVE YOU YOUR VOICE. All you have to do is open yourself, and He’ll use them. In ways you never imagined.

Blessings on you, K., in your new position at B&H.

 
At 9:21 AM, Blogger John Robinson said...

Karen, congratulations on your new position! And kudos for your cogent comments. Keep them coming.

 
At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

You're the best, Karen. B&H is blessed to have you.

 
At 1:15 PM, Blogger Domino said...

MOVIE TRAILERS! Ah! Just the words I needed to hear.

I was having a hard time with synopses. Now, I'll just take my cues from what makes me excited to see a movie. Hopefully, that will translate onto paper well enough to make editors interested in my book.

Thanks! Some people just need the visuals.

You are so helpful. I truly love you. How can anyone not?

 
At 8:05 PM, Blogger Karen B. said...

Thanks for all your comments! God's so good to let us do this work together.

Blessings to you all today.

Karen

 
At 7:41 PM, Anonymous Nick said...

Karen, congratulations. For the record, I don't read a synopsis either. I go right to the first page, just as the reader would.

 

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