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Category : Deep Thoughts
All this talk about September 11 caused some people to ask about the books I mentioned in my previous blog post. Both books (Thunder Dog by Mike Hingson and Susy Flory, and Let’s Roll by Lisa Beamer) were big hits, and while I’ve had a long list of books that have hit the various bestseller lists, there’s no question that Let’s Roll was the biggest book I ever represented, and there’s a cool story behind it.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was in a plane, flying to New York when the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was just a couple of nights later, as I was sitting on the couch and watching President George W. Bush address the nation about the terrorist attacks, that the Prez re-told the story of Todd Beamer’s bravery — how he had said “let’s roll!” to the passengers on Flight 93, and how they had tried to take the plane back from the terrorists, resulting in the crash in the Pennsylvania countryside, and the deaths of everyone on board. After telling the story, Bush motioned to the gallery, where Laura Bush was, and he mentioned that seated next to the First Lady was Todd Beamer’s widow, Lisa. That was the first time most Americans had ever seen her, and I was touched at her poise and grace.
“Good lord,” I said to my family as I sat on the couch, watching, “What a brave woman.” I remember being impressed with her ability to represent the families left behind, so soon after having lost her husband. “She could do a great book.” The truth is, my kids prayed with me about the idea of helping her do a book. Really. And, in my view, that’s how the project was born.
Two weeks later, after commercial flights had begun again, I made my way to Chicago, for one of
I wrote this a few years ago, to remind myself of the events of that day. Life has changed since I wrote this, but on the 15th anniversary, I wanted to share it again and remind everyone what happened, and why we need to remember.
On September 11th, 2001, I was flying along at 36,000 feet, in a United jet heading from Denver to Chicago, then on to New York. I was working as a literary agent for Alive Communications in Colorado at the time, and flew out of Denver regularly. There wasn’t anything special about the flight — I was in first class, seat 3B, and directly across the aisle from longtime Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, who had been in Denver to call an NFL game on television.
We’d been in the air about an hour when I said to the guy next to me, “Something’s wrong. We’re going down.” So I motioned to the flight attendant (a tall, young guy who looked all of 20) and asked him. He clearly didn’t know what was going on either, but said he’d check with the pilots. I watched him knock on the cabin door, enter, stay inside 3 or 4 minutes, then come out, white as sheet. He motioned to me that all was fine, but he was obviously upset, and I knew right away something was deeply wrong. I reached for the phone (in olden days, they had phones in the back of the seat, and you could call home five miles up). The phone didn’t work.
The captain came on the speakers and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to remain seated. There have been terrorist attacks against the United States of America, and all planes have been ordered out of US airspace. We’re going to make an unscheduled stop. Please do not leave your seats. There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft.”
I turned to
This week marks the tenth anniversary since I started MacGregor Literary. I’d been working as a publisher with the old Time-Warner Book Group, got the axe not long after the sale to Hachette, and realized I was being given a chance, in my forties, to remake my life.
The fact is, I’m a lifer in publishing. I got my first job in the industry working at Clearing Magazine back in the 70’s as a part-time copy editor (and, um, the fact is, I didn’t really know what a “copy editor” was when I applied). But I stayed at the Mag (a monthly for junior high science teachers, now part of Ranger Rick and the World Wildlife Federation), became a staff writer and eventually the managing editor. I kept my hand in writing and publishing forever — managed the newspaper at my graduate school, wrote hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers, coordinated the print resources for a couple organizations. No matter what job I had (I taught at a college, worked on staff at a church, hosted a syndicated radio show, did some consulting, even spent a year starting a speech team at a high school), I was always writing.
My big break came when I was out of work, waiting for my first book to come out, and wondering when I was going to have to grow up and get a real job. I was in my thirties, had three kids, and was trying to find a way into the system that was traditional book publishing. Out of the blue, a guy by the name of Steve Halliday approached me. We’d gone to the same church, and Steve was building a reputation as an excellent ghostwriter who was connected with important people in publishing. I’m not sure who told him to talk with me, but he gave me an extra project he had that needed some help. I did
We’re doing “Ask the Agent” all this month — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. A lot of the questions have focused on the details of writing and publishing, but one person last week asked a profound question about the big stuff: “How would you define success?”
I have stayed away from talking about this topic on my blog a lot, figuring too many people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section that would make me want to barf (“Success is just doing the right thing” or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I feel like I’m serving God!”). I think it’s easy to give a spiritual-sounding response. My problem is that I’ve been in this business for decades, and I don’t believe that sort of answer is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by book sales. You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure. That’s how most of us feel. Sure, writers are artists, and we want to express our creativity, but so much of the business of writing is based on sales that we tend to default to that answer. No, it may not be the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” or “calling” or “creative freedom” when most of us talk about our writing careers.
So how do I define success as a writer? Let me tell you a story…
Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to
If anyone had told me that shivering at home with two cats for five days with zero heat would land me a weekly newspaper column, I’d have said they were balmy and been envious.
We don’t see much snow or frigid temperatures in Southern Oregon, but one day in December, my boys (cats), Oliver and Cassidy, and I noticed an increasing chill. I checked the thermostat and confirmed my suspicion that the downstairs heating unit had called it quits just when I needed it most. The sustained single digit highs our valley endured, when our normal low for the month was 33, had proved too much. I reassured myself and the boys that we still had the upstairs heater until it dawned like a candle in a cave that the remaining unit might be panting to do double duty. What if . . . As if reading my fear, the bugger followed suit and began spewing cold air.
Many households in the area suffered during the icy snap. The heating/AC people were living fat and calling the shots. The failures happened at the crest of a weekend, so the service guy had time to smoke a cigarette in his truck before landing on my doorstep five minutes after overtime kicked in. The two heat pumps had different issues. One needed a part that had to be ordered from the Ukraine, or maybe it was Utah, I don’t recall, and on and on with the waiting and trials.
I didn’t relish the idea of moving to a hotel with the boys. I’d tried it before. So, as the drama heated up while the cooling trend moved through my house, the meat locker, a grain of Yankee ingenuity took root. I crawled my Honda through a depth of snow a Minnesotan would use for a margarita, and bought four space heaters from the delighted folks at my neighborhood hardware store. I employed
Behold! Our new-look website. We’ve done a complete revamp of the site, with the goal of making things easier to read, easier to research, and to get back to having a cutting-edge blog that tackles the questions authors have about the world of publishing. Glad you are joining us! (And if it’s not quite done, or have all the edges squared up yet… well, we’re working on it.)
Let me start the new year with my The Predictions for Book Publishing in 2016…
- We’re going to see more rights sales. I think both traditional and indie publishers are going to push for more global sales, push for more audio books, and push for more variety projects (like coloring books) in 2016, which is good news for authors. It means there are more opportunities to make some income.
- We’re going to see more of iBooks. While Amazon is the 800-lb gorilla of ebooks, their shopping experience has always left a lot to be desired. I think this is the year Apple figures out how to improve the shopping experience and makes iBooks a destination spot for readers.
- We’re going to see more people reading on mobile devices. I know we keep hearing about the growth of print in 2015, but I think that was tied to the fact that the Big Five simply started charging so much more for ebooks, readers fell back to buying print. I think we’re going to see new technology and new interest from readers who want to go mobile.
- We’re going to see more short works. People who like USA Today like short pieces. And if people are reading on their phone or pad, they want short books. I think the rise of the 40k-to-45k novel is upon us.
- We’re going to see more interest in China. The country is opening up, and publishers are just now starting to figure out how to get books in
In honor of Thanksgiving (and because I haven’t come up with a new series idea yet), I thought I’d take the opportunity today to say thank you to some folks who played a big part in helping me become a person who loves words and stories and commas and gets to work with them every day; namely, my high school English teachers.
Some of you might have seen my post last year about Miss Stinson and the journals we kept for English 9, and how her encouragement and creativity and restraint in not rolling her eyes at every third word I wrote gave me a lasting sense of worth regarding my writing– not that I left English 9 thinking that everything I wrote had worth, but I left knowing that writing was something worth doing, not because of the result, but because of the process, and the freedom, and the way in which finding the right words can bring order out of chaos in the way the right words brought dry land out of the deep in the beginning. If there’s a group in greater need of a little order in the midst of personal chaos than high school freshmen, I’m not sure who they are, and we loved Miss Stinson for giving us that means of bringing some order to our chaos. (She also accidentally cussed once in class– I doubt anything could have earned our loyalty more quickly.)
Mrs. Baldwin’s love of story was more infectious than any teacher I’d ever had– even the slackers read the books for her class just so they wouldn’t be left out of the passionate (and occasionally violent) discussions about whether Our Town was boring or brilliant or whether or not Jay Gatsby was an antihero. She connected the stories we read in American Literature to her own life and her own past, and by doing so gave us sheltered, dumb, narcissistic
One of the things we talk a lot about at conferences and workshops is how to improve the craft of writing. But I believe we’re missing an important layer of what it means to be a writer. As writers, we have to dig deep into our inner being so that we can convey stories that reach our readers. Technique is easily learned, but the essence that goes into what we write, that’s something that can only come from deep within, the core of who we are as people.
Which is why we also need to focus on nurturing our writer’s spirit.
Writing is an incredibly deep and emotional process. Writing is one of the few endeavors where a person lays their soul bare, gets heaping criticism flung at it, then comes back for more. Yes, there is positive feedback, but many writers will agree that there’s far more negative than positive. How do you nurture a soul that faces regular criticism in the face of all the other doubts and fears that come with the job?
Writers, your work has value. The problem is, we’re so busy learning about techniques, markets, trends, social media, and whatever new toy the writing world has come up with, that we forget the absolute core of what we do and why we do it. All of us have different reasons for writing, different stories to tell, and a different impact we will have on the world. Yet sometimes, we lose sight of that because we’re so focused on the business of writing that we forget the soul of our writing.
That’s not to say there’s no place in our writing careers for the business of writing. The last time I checked, writers needed to eat, too. But if we do not take the time to go back and nurture our writing spirits, if we do not care for ourselves at our very core, then
I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…
A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”
The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.
This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”
Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better
I’m shocked at the behavior of authors recently. One story after another features an author responding badly to a review, manipulating numbers or stalking their readers.
I’m baffled at what my response should be to this bad behavior. I find little guidance (this excellent blog notwithstanding) simply because much of contemporary publishing is new or so reformed it’s unrecognizable from a decade ago. I’m new to the writing scene and admittedly impressionable. It’s tempting, even as a Christian, to look what other authors are doing in their self-promotion, their marketing, and their relationship with readers and wonder isn’t all publicity good publicity?
In a free market, none of this should be surprising. There have been slimy salesmen ever since the exchange of goods and services began. But perhaps we writers could unify and deliberately encourage good, ethical behavior within our own groups. Perhaps we can all benefit from some conversations about good behavior. Perhaps, through our communities and our tribes, we could gentle encourage each other, especially the newbies, to choose the path of honor, even if it means fewer sales. We can’t assume, that because a writer calls himself a Christian, and writes from a Christian worldview, and may even have an altar call type conversion ¾ of the way into his family saga, that the way he behaves in public is ethical. I’d like to suggest we need encouragement and wisdom in this area.
I’d like for you to join me for Ethical Author Weeks, February 1-14, 2015. In these two weeks I’m going to start conversations about ethics on my own blog (www.10minutenovelists.com), during my weekly Twitter chats (#10MinNovelists) and on my own Facebook group (10 Minute Novelists). I would be very honored if you joined me in the conversations, not just at my events, but also within your own circles of influence. You have an opportunity here to gently encourage new writers