Category : Deep Thoughts

  • August 17, 2013

    What is "new adult" (and other questions from a conference)


    I just got back from a writing conference, and I kept track of several interesting questions that writers wanted to ask me…

    “What is New Adult?”

    A number of people asked me about this relatively new term — we’re using it in publishing to talk about books aimed at the 18-to-25 year old audience. These are basically readers who grew up buying “young adult” books (those aimed at the 13-to-18 year old audience), and they’re ready to move to new topics, but perhaps are looking for books that explore the transition from “young adult” issues to standard “adult” themes. So most of the “new adult” (or “NA”) titles focus on that transition — relationships, independence, identity, sexuality, empowerment, moving, career choices, etc. It’s a growing category in publishing, even if you may not have heard the term yet.

    “If a publisher expresses interest in my manuscript at a conference, does that change the way I approach another editor or agent?”

    I doubt it changes the way you approach other editors at a conference (and the words “another editor asked me to send it” tend to mean little, since every experienced conference faculty member can tell you that new writers tend to take ANY encouragement from an editor as “they love my book and are going to publish it!”). Most agents won’t be swayed by the thought that an editor asked to see your proposal, since the agent has to like it personally (I’d never agree to represent someone based on the fact that an editor liked the manuscript). So no, a publisher expressing interest at a conference, while certainly fun and encouraging for you, probably doesn’t mean you should change the way you approach others.

    “If an editor asked me to send my manuscript at a conference, should I mention that in the query letter?”

    If an editor asks you to send your manuscript to him or her, by all

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  • July 24, 2013

    Would great writers get published today?


    A wonderful writer friend sent me a note that read, in part, “Those of us in the industry tend to laud writers like Graham Green and Flannery O’Connor, but would anyone publish them now? No Whiskey Priest or Hazel Motes. It seems that, in both CBA as well as the general market, there’s no place for these characters; they have no appeal.”

    I respectfully disagree, of course. Contemporary publishers would take both authors because they offered great craft. What would be interesting would be to see how religious audiences would respond to these clearly faith-infused stories.

    But don’t misunderstand — commerciality still trumps craft. Good grief — nobody thinks of Left Behind as being great art, but the series sold 70 million copies. No critic seriously believes the Harry Potter series is great literature, but it’s now the best selling fiction series in history. That’s okay. People like commercial stories. And I shamelessly represent commercial stories. I’m happy to work with books that sell — and I also want to be doing books that make a difference in the lives of others. I don’t see life as an either/or decision. We want to create great art, AND we want to see our books sell. That’s the constant tension in working with writers.

    So let me ask readers a question… Who is YOUR favorite writer, and why? Let’s have a conversation in the “comments” section on who you think we should all be reading.

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  • July 16, 2013

    "It's the Power of Words"


    A novelist wants to know, “What keeps you going? You’ve spent years as a writer, editor, publisher, and agent – what fuels your passion?”

    I love books and words. I believe in the power of words. I believe in the ministry of words. There are many movies I love, and several that have had a short-term emotional impact on me, but I’d be hard-pressed to name many movies that actually changed me – I went, saw it, and left a different person. Maybe that’s happened a couple times (“Schindler’s List” comes to mind), but for the most part movies are an enjoyable diversion.

    I love music, and have been moved by songs and arrangements, but I doubt I could tell you my life was ever changed because I attended the symphony. The same is true with paintings, sculpture, and dance. The arts are great for helping us explore the world, feel things, see things in a new way. But their influence is often short-lived. Yet I can point to several books that simply changed my life. After I read Brennan Manning’s RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL, I was simply never the same. When I completed Frederick Buechner’s SACRED JOURNEY or Henri Nouwen’s THE WAY OF THE HEART, I was different than I’d been before I read those books.

    Words can do that. A book can have a life-changing effect on a person. Perhaps that’s why when God came to earth as a man, his closest friend, in trying to describe him, didn’t say, “He was like a Symphony” or “He was the Great Dance.” Instead, the guy who was closest to him wrote, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.”

    So Jesus was described as being the “word” – the very word of God come to life. To me, that not only says something about Christ, but about the importance of words.


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  • July 2, 2013

    The “b” word …



    School is out, summertime is upon us all, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has heard the “b” word from their kids more than once recently. I’ll confess, I used to hate it and get terribly frustrated when my son would utter it. Lately, though, I actually find myself smiling when he uses it. And I’ve been looking for opportunities to use the word myself. 

    I think you should too.

    In our house, the “b” word is spelled B-O-R-E-D.

    I want to challenge you to actually try embracing it and exercising the meaning of the word. As in doing nothing on purpose, and sitting still through the restlessness until you feel like you did the last time you said “there’s nothing to do! I’m bored!” (And … I wonder, how long has THAT been?)

    I also wonder if the reality that being, and staying busy – just for the sake of not being still – is potentially one of the most overrated endeavors humans undertake. To that point, I agree with several of the ideas in this article on the topic of being caught in “The Busy Trap.”

    I’ll admit, not producing is one of the hardest things for me to do, er, not do. Or not, not do.  Ack. You know what I mean.

    Sometimes, after dinner, when my son says, “Mom, just sit down with us,” or my husband suggests we go for a bike ride or walk the dog, I usually have a long list of reasons why I shouldn’t. Emails I should write or answer. Calls I should schedule. Manuscripts I should look at. I’m a hard worker. I naturally gravitate to being productive. It’s just who I am.

    Or is it just what I do?

    Recently, I’ve begun to realize that pursuing a state of boredom/idleness/stillness is the best antidote to the “crazy busy, purpose-driven over-achieving” state of

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  • June 26, 2013

    Message Versus Craft



    Someone wrote and asked a question that is related to my earlier criticism of the movie Fireproof and some of the other religious art I saw at ICRS this year. They noted, “You said that good messages and moral content don’t trump quality… but does quality trump message and moral content?”

    A fascinating question. It’s clear that to some (for example, the people who really enjoyed Fireproof) that a good message trumps bad craft. They’re welcome to that opinion, which is why it doesn’t bother me a bit to have someone join in the discussion and say, “You’re wrong — I loved the movie because it moved me.” I just don’t agree — I couldn’t get past the junior high acting and the high school script. So to me, the great message didn’t overcome the bad art.

    Looked at another way, I really appreciate the redemptive words to the song “Everything Shines” from the band Great Big Sea, and I wouldn’t enjoy seeing an off-key singer and a bad garage band playing that tune, no matter how sincere they were. I wouldn’t want to spend money to see bad paintings, even if the artist was trying to portray something redemptive.

    But the reverse can be tricky. The films of Oliver Stone might be nice to look at and well acted, but the messages range from “angry” to “deeply stupid.” Who needs another anti-American screed from an over-rated hack? Years ago, I thought the movie The English Patient was incredibly well done – great acting, great art, incredible script… and a repulsive message. Life is sacred. Morality does exist. Setting up a scene where two people boink one another while a crowd of people sing in church on the other side of the wall was just  a bit too “in-your-face-you-uptight-religious-people” for me. Similarly, The Cider House Rules was a fairly well-done film, but it’s over-the-top focus on “why

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  • May 28, 2013

    Where does depth in fiction come from?


    Someone wrote to ask, “Put simply, where does depth in fiction come from?”

    Depth is found when multidimensional characters who I can relate to, who I care about, face the timeless questions of life in the midst of complex circumstances, then make decisions that are open to interpretation. Their choices may not be right, but as a reader, I get to go through the experience with the characters. I see people in your story I have come to care about facing big decisions, making choices that I may or may not agree with, and I get to go through that season with them, and see the results of their choices, then measure them against my own life. THAT’S what causes me to learn, helps me to understand myself, and leaves me thinking about your book. And this can’t be faked – any bright reader will figure out when you’re faking depth or artificially trying to gin up emotion. So you can’t write with an agenda. Nothing is more boring than to read a polemic masquerading as a novel.

    One novelist sent me this: “Writers of historical fiction seem to be interested in knowing what time period editors might be looking for. Is there a ‘hot’ time period you would like to see a book set in or any to avoid?”

    Well, it’s changing all the time. Publishing is a tidal business– the tide comes in, the tide goes out. So Amish fiction doesn’t exist, then we’re awash in All Things Amish, then there are considerably fewer of those titles. And there’s nothing wrong with that — the culture embraces some topics or periods for a season. Some have more staying power than others (so “westerns” became their own genre, “Amish fiction” has become it’s own sub-genre in Christian fiction, and Chick Lit disappeared as a relative flash in the pan).Watching the trends can be fun, just to see what publishers

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  • May 21, 2013

    Do I need to be done with an experience to write about it?


    Someone wrote to note, “My critique partner told me I need to put aside my nonfiction manuscript, since he doesn’t think I’m really healed from the incident I’m writing about. Is that good advice?”

    Hmmm… Okay, let me think about how to answer this question politely, but clearly. I don’t know you. You may be a mess. You may need counseling. You may not be ready to write a book. And I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that a nonfiction book is a tool that offers a solution to a question – so maybe if you haven’t worked all the way through it, you don’t have the solutions to offer yet. And that would mean you probably don’t have a book yet. 

    Having said that, I don’t universally agree on the “wait until you understand it before you write about it” theory. The fact is, some of the best writing we have comes from people struggling IN THE MIDST OF pain. Take a look at James Agee’s Death in the Family or Brennan Mannings Ragamuffin Gospel or Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. One of the reasons we like those books, one of the reasons they resonate so well with readers, is because they don’t have all the answers. They are people struggling to find answers and, sometimes, coming up short. We live in a world that has questions and brokenness and pain — one that often doesn’t even believe in the notion of there being an “answer.” Letting others see the process we’re going through can prove helpful. So maybe you don’t really need to have all the answers to do a good book. 

    I hesitate to make that argument, of course, because I’m afraid it will lead to me seeing more reflective poetry, angst-filled books on bad relationships, and screeds against groups who have hurt you. But while it’s always nice to see somebody

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  • May 1, 2013

    What if I'm not happy with my agent?


    Someone wrote to say, “I’ve been thinking of changing agents. I’m not convinced my current agent is a good match for me. What wisdom would you have for me?”

    I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve occasionally had authors approach me to talk about the possibility of dropping their agent. It usually goes something like, “I’m just not happy with my current agent, and I’m thinking of switching…”

    For a long time I struggled with how best to respond to those words. I have a policy against actively poaching other authors, but I have a business to run, so it’s not like I can refuse to answer the phone when a good author calls me to talk about his or her situation. However, I’ve learned to always start the conversation with the same sentence: “Have you talked this through with your current agent?” I mean, it would seem like a reasonable expectation that an author who is unhappy would go to his or her agent, express the dissatisfaction, and try to seek some sort of resolution. If there’s a communication problem, or some unanswered question, it seems like two people who have invested in each other would talk it out. (In other words, we’d all act like adults.) 

    “Lack of communication” is the #1 problem between authors and agents. So having regular communication can alleviate a lot of the problem. But that doesn’t always happen, especially when there’s some disappointment in the job being done. People seem afraid of conflict, and would often prefer to flee the situation than to have a potentially difficult discussion. I can understand that reasoning, but I can’t really respect it. You see, the majority of people will claim they’re leaving an agent because there’s some sort of problem with the work being done. But my experience has taught me the real reason most authors leave an agent is because “the agent hasn’t

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  • April 20, 2013

    The Power of Words (a guest post)


    A guest post by Karen Swallow Prior

    In Charlotte’s Web, the first hint Wilbur the pig receives about the odd spider’s true character comes when she tells him her name, Charlotte A. Cavatica. What an oddly beautiful name for a creature usually associated with ugliness, fear, and death. Upon hearing her name, Wilbur tells Charlotte, “I think you’re beautiful.” And Charlotte, naturally, agrees.

    Names are powerful words. We don’t think about names quite the same way people of old did, and this is our great error. In ancient times, a person’s name often signified an event, a personal quality, or a family relation. In this way, a name offered not only a label for oneself, but even more importantly, a connection to the world one was born into and a part of. The acts of naming and being named were momentous events laden with significance—just as it is significant that the first work God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden was naming the animals. To name something or someone is a gesture that is both creative and powerful. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White bestowed a spider with the name of Charlotte A. Cavatica. And he gave a little girl—one a lot like me—the name of Fern Arable, a name resonant with the pastoral qualities that permeate the pages of the book.

    As for me, my mother chose my middle name, Irene, first because it is my grandmother’s name, and then she picked a first name suitable to accompany it. For most of my life, I thought of Irene as an old, ugly name. But now that I am older, and my grandmother is much more so, and I can better appreciate who she is and the life she has lived, I think it is a pure, strong name. Its origin is Greek; it means peace. I’m thankful for this name, not only because I think it is beautiful

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  • April 15, 2013

    Why do we write?


    I’m sorry to have dropped out of the teleseminar last week. If you stopped by and were expecting me, I apologize for doing a no-show. Knowing I was going to be talking with Michael Hyatt, I went to a Mexican restaurant and ordered fish tacos for lunch (since everyone knows Mike believes fish tacos are the secret to great book publishing). Anyway, lesson for the day: When eating at a sketchy Mexican place at the beach, stay away from fish tacos. I got sick, and ended up in bed. My apologies, but I hear Mike and Amanda rocked it. Thanks for participating, thanks to Michael for being fabulous, and a huge thank you to Amanda for pinch-hitting and taking leadership of the event. 

    If I can go back to writing and publishing questions, I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY I want to become a published author?”

    A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically want to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence. 

    That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for

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