Nuke the Slush Pile

Photo Credit: 02-11-04 © Maartje van Caspel / istockphoto.com

What is a slush pile?

Have you ever read a market listing for a book publisher that reads something like, “Receives 2,000 submissions a year; publishes 20?”

The 1,980 manuscripts that didn’t get published are the slush pile. They are the mountain of unsolicited—and largely unpublishable—manuscripts that land on editors’ desks every day.

The slush pile also represents your competition.

I’ve spoken to more than a few writers who became discouraged at the sheer numbers of manuscripts out there and gave up on ever getting published. That’s unfortunate because it’s possible to move that slush pile out of the way.

Here are three simple practices that will help you stand out from the competition.

1. Learn Your Craft.

Believe it or not, most wannabe writers never take the time to learn how to write well. If you will take the time to study, learn, and develop your craft, you will stand head and shoulders over 90% of the people out there who say they want to be writers. Thus, when you submit a query or manuscript, your writing will stand out as superior.

Trust me. Good writing gets noticed.

2. Be Professional.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to make a living at writing or if you just see writing as something to do on the side. If you want to be taken seriously, then you have to approach your craft as a professional. That means properly formatting your manuscript, proofreading it carefully, and following the publisher’s guidelines to the letter. It also means being courteous, not missing deadlines, accepting editing and critique. It means committing yourself to turning out the best product you can–every time you sit down at the keyboard.

If you adopt a professional approach, you will distinguish yourself from many writers who do not take the time to learn (or practice) the etiquette of the publishing industry.

Do this and you will move more of that slush pile out of the way.

3. Network, Network, Network!

Over the years, I’ve learned that personal networking with editors, agents, and other writers can greatly accelerate your journey to publication (assuming you’ve learned your craft and are acting like a professional). And the best place to network is at a writers conference.  Consider this: If you had the choice between sending a query to an agent or editor (who will probably have a stack of them piled on her desk) or sitting down with her for fifteen minutes and pitching your idea in person, which would you prefer? At a writers conference you can meet that agent or editor face to face. You might not be able to attend a conference every year, but try to make at least one. It’s an investment, but it’s one you won’t regret making.

Learn your craft. Adopt a professional approach. And network, network, network. Keep these three principles in focus—and persevere—and sooner or later you’ll find yourself in print.

Because you’ll not only move the slush pile out of the way, you’ll nuke it.

Lessons from a Lonely Book Signing

Photo of a Man Sleeping on Books
© Vitaly Raduntsev | Dreamstime.com

When I began writing I embraced a fantasy.

It went something like this:

I was going to write a knock-em-dead suspense novel that would rocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Once my novel topped the charts, I would then be besieged by a host of publishers wanting to sign me and offering outrageously large advances. After this, I would ride a huge wave of popularity, turn out a bestseller every few years, and have book signings where people lined up around the block just to have the privilege of meeting me.

As you probably already have figured out, none of that happened.

Oh, I wrote my novel. And a publisher picked it up. But the book signing?

That was another matter.

I arranged with my local Hastings to have a table and display and plenty of books. I didn’t want someone to walk away disappointed because I’d sold out.

When the day arrived, I positioned myself behind my author’s table, a stack of books at my right hand, ready for the hordes of eager readers who would soon rush through the door. Unfortunately, the reality didn’t match my expectations.

A few friends stopped by, but they didn’t buy books. And although some people stopped by my table, most of the other customers went out of their way to avoid me. I was positioned near the front door, and as people came in, they took a circular path away from my table. I began to wonder if they thought I had an infectious disease.

As I recall, I didn’t sell a single book that night. But I did begin to learn an important lesson.

It’s not about me.

Writing isn’t about fame and fortune. It’s not about big advances, awesome reviews, or people lining up at midnight to buy my book. It’s not about feeding my ego or bolstering my pride. It’s not about living at the top of the bestseller lists.

I’ve been writing professionally since 2000. I’ve had nine books published. I’ve never had a big seller. My name’s not on any bookstore marquis.

But over the years, I’ve gotten notes and e-mails from people who have read, and been touched, by my words. I’ve heard from people who were struggling with God’s goodness in personal tragedy. They’ve thanked me for telling a story that helped them in their trials.

Last week, a lady told me that my book, More God (about a young man who overcame a traumatic brain injury) helped her understand what her sister, who has brain cancer, is going through.

A writer’s success cannot be measured in bestseller lists, outrageous advances, and standing-room-only book signings.

There’s nothing wrong with those things.

But true success is measured by how your words impact your readers for good.

I began learning that lesson at a lonely book signing. Ten years and nine books later, I’m still learning it.

And every day I thank God that He’s letting me live my dream. And then I pray that somehow, somewhere, He’ll use my words in someone’s life.

What dreams of yours have been realized through a kind e-mail or note from someone who read your writing? What is your “book signing” desire–has it come to fruition, or have you realized that dream through another avenue? 

Have you ever worn the same outfit on your book jacket that you wore to your first book signing?

The Accidental Collaborator

I never intended to be a collaborator.

For the record, my plan was to be a wildly successful, insanely rich novelist. People were going to mention me in hushed, awestruck tones along with other “last name only” fiction writers. You know: Peretti, Dekker, Grisham, Koontz, King, Pence.

I broke into book publishing in 2001 by writing computer books. In 2003, my dream was fulfilled. I was a published—and soon to be famous—novelist. By 2005, (despite excellent reviews) my “career” had pretty much ground to a halt. In fact, in May of that year I hung up my keyboard and joined the prison ministry staff of a large Dallas mega-church, feeling that my grand experiment in full-time freelance writing was a failure.

God had other plans.

James H. Pence and Terry CaffeyJames H. Pence and Terry Caffey, ministering together in Moss Bluff, Louisiana.

In my last post, (Oct. 1, “You Never Know”), I told the story of how God took a single page from my out-of-print novel Blind Sight and used it to change the life of Terry Caffey, a man whose family was brutally murdered. God not only used that page to change Terry’s life; He also used it to change the entire direction of my writing.

In January of 2009, Terry asked me to help him write a book that would tell his story.

I hadn’t written or published in four years and, as I already mentioned, collaboration was not in my long-term plans. However, because I wanted to encourage Terry, I agreed to help him write a book proposal.

Because of the intense media interest in Terry’s story, Tyndale snapped up the proposal and put the book on an accelerated publication schedule. We signed a contract in March of ’09 and the book was set for a September release.

I had to write it in twelve weeks.

The accelerated writing schedule was probably a good thing because I didn’t have the time to give in to sheer panic. I’d never collaborated before, and I had no earthly idea how to go about it. But it was a door that God had opened, and so I trusted Him for the wisdom.

I dusted off my little digital voice recorder and began interviewing Terry. Then I worked at outlining the book, selecting the stories that would go into it, even using my fiction-writing skills to lay out a plot-line.

As I worked with Terry and wrote what would become Terror by Night, I began to notice something unexpected.

I was enjoying myself immensely.

I love telling stories, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy helping other people tell their stories.

And so now I happily call myself a collaborator. I spent most of 2011 writing a book about Nate Lytle, a young surfer who made a miraculous recovery from a massive traumatic brain injury. I also collaborated on a novella with bestselling author Stephen Arterburn. And I’ve got proposals in the works for two more collaborations, one fiction and the other nonfiction.

I never intended to be a collaborator.

But God led me through an unexpected door and down an unplanned path. And in doing so, He changed the direction of my writing ministry.

Has God placed some unexpected doors or unplanned paths before you? I hope that in 2012 you’ll take a chance and go through them.

You never know what God might do.

“A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps,” (Proverbs 16:9, NET Bible). 

You Never Know…

Are you discouraged? Keep writing.

You never know what God might do with your words.

In the late ‘90s, I wrote Blind Sight a suspense novel about a man who was struggling with God’s goodness in tragedy. Near the end of the book my protagonist, a man who lost his wife and two children in a car accident, understands that God is good even when circumstances are not.

Like all new authors, when Blind Sight was released in 2003 I had dreams of a bestseller. But that wasn’t to be. The book’s sales were mediocre at best and, when my second royalty statement showed massive returns—and a large deficit—I was crushed.

I pouted for a few weeks, but eventually realized that I was being selfish. Finally I prayed, “Lord, I wrote this book for you and I’m giving it back to you. If you’ll use it in even one life, I’ll be happy.”

Time passed and Blind Sight was consigned to the ranks of out-of-print books.

But God wasn’t finished with it.

On March 1, 2008, a terrible tragedy happened not far from where I live. Two men broke into the home of Terry and Penny Caffey. They shot Terry, Penny, and their two sons. Then they set the house on fire. Even though he’d been shot five times at point blank range, Terry survived and managed to escape the burning house. Terry’s wife and sons died. Even worse, his teenage daughter Erin was implicated in the crime.

Although Terry was a Christian, he struggled deeply in the aftermath of the tragedy. He couldn’t understand why God took his family or why He made him go on living.

About six weeks after the murders, Terry went back to his property to “have it out with God.” He stood on the ashes of his house and cried out, “God why did you take my family? I need an answer and I need it today.”

At that moment, he saw a brown, scorched piece of paper leaning against a tree. Terry picked it up.

It was a single page from my novel. But it wasn’t just any page. It was the page where my protagonist—a man who has lost a wife and two children—comes to grips with God’s sovereignty in his loss.

The first words on the page were, “I couldn’t understand why You would take my family and leave me to struggle along without them…but I do believe You’re sovereign. You’re in control.”

God used those words to turn Terry Caffey’s life around, and now he travels all over the country sharing an incredible story of grace and forgiveness. At this very moment, he is in Slovakia, sharing his story.

My novel wasn’t a bestseller, but God took one page from it and changed a life. And now that man is touching thousands.

Don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

You never know what God might do with your words.