About Margot Starbuck

Margot Starbuck, an award-winning author and speaker, helps other folks develop and write books and proposals at www.wordmelon.com.

Bad News for Good Writers

audience

Dear Gifted Not-Yet-Published Writer Who Has a Timely Message Audiences Need,

I think your writing is fantastic. You’ve allowed me to peek and I think that you have an important message and that you can deliver it well. I wish that was enough. It should be, right?!

It’s not enough.

In today’s publishing world, publishers who want nothing more than to publish great writing aren’t able to say “yes” to every book with a great message that’s written well if the writer has not worked diligently to build an audience. Some publishers do take that risk on a book they believe in, knowing that it might not pay out for them.

And if you’re like me—with way more confidence than might be merited—you believe that your awesome book will be the rare shining exception. Once the first reader reads it and tells all her friends, you figure, it’ll start selling like…a bestseller. And possibly it will. Much more likely, though, you’ll not find an audience for your writing unless you work to build one.

So—momentarily abandoning my signature irrational optimism—I’m just going to outline the bad news so that you have access to the facts you need.

1. Agents and publishers need to sell books.

Every agent and publisher I know loves great writing. In order to stay in business, though, they must publish and sell books that sell. It would be great if these two were synonymous, and sometimes they are. Not always.

2. Writers with audiences sell books.

Whether you publish with a traditional publisher or decide to self-publish, you must have access to an audience that trusts you in order to sell books.

3. Demonstrating an audience is requisite to securing an agent or publisher.

For an agent or publisher to consider representing you or publishing your work, you need to demonstrate that you’re reaching an audience.

4. Building an audience takes hard work.

Occasionally someone will build an audience with seemingly little effort—because they win an Olympic gold or are elected as President of the United States. (Okay…there was some effort.) The rest of us have to work REALLY HARD to grow an audience. Smarties, like @jeffgoins, with much more experience than I have can teach you how to do this. (Mention other smarties in the comments, below.)

5. Selling books is really hard.

Whether you publish with a traditional publisher or self-publish, selling books takes work.

Now start at the top of the list and read them all again. Congratulations, you now have a handle on the bad news.

The Good News

The good news is that there’s always something you can be doing to build your audience:

  • Pitch article after article to editors.
  • Speak to audiences, for free at first, about your subject.
  • Offer a freebie download at your site to build your mailing list.
  • Guest post on blogs of folks you know.
  • Make friends online by sharing their great stuff. (They will love you for this. And owe you.)

If you were bummed out by all the bad news, do one thing today to build your audience.

Cheering you on,

Margot

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, http://wordmelonblog.blogspot.com/.

Use Less Scripture in Your Manuscript (And…I love Jesus.)

bible-1031288_960_720One of my pet peeves—as an editor, as a writer, as a reader—is when authors use long passages of Scripture in their manuscripts, or pepper it with too many verses.

And, of course, now that it’s out there, I feel like I need to defend myself. So let the record show:

  1. I love Jesus.
  2. I believe that Scripture is God-breathed and has the power to transform lives.
  3. I earned a Master’s of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. (Sorry if that makes me seem like a show-off. It had to be said.)

Also:

  1. I don’t want to see too much Scripture in the manuscript you’ve sent me to edit.

I’m actually delighted to announce this grumpy thing publicly, for the first time, because I finally figured out why it gets under my skin:

Cutting and pasting large portions of Scripture into your manuscript, or peppering way too many verses into it, DOES NOT SERVE READERS.

Overusing Scripture is problematic for two reasons: it’s either too much or too little.

1. It’s too Much: Avoid Including Lengthy Scripture Passages

Problem: When readers—and I mean Christian readers—encounter long passages of Scripture in a manuscript, they tend to skim over them. From the cursory glance at keywords—“Moses,” “praise,” “sanctify,” “Jesus”—the reader determines that she’s already read this before and keeps reading (if you’re lucky) beyond the Scripture-brick to discover what he or she does not yet know.

Solution: Use a shorter passage of Scripture. When you crop the text down to the most salient verse or verses, the reader can better glean what you most want to communicate.

Example: In lieu of including the entire text of Psalm 119, which has 176 verses, give the reader a bite and tell them enough to make them hungry for more…

Every verse of Psalm 119 describes the good way God’s designed us to live. In verses 9-12, notice the words the Psalmist uses to point the reader to the good way:

How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:9-12)

Path, commands, word and decrees all point reader toward the good way God’s designed. And If you read all of Psalm 119, you’ll find lots of other synonyms for this path that leads to life.

2. It’s too Little: Avoid Including Too Many Scripture Passages

Problem: When you pepper too many verses of Scripture into a manuscript, you might assume that lots of Scripture is benefiting the reader. But there actually might be more value in including less! Too many verses of Scripture can feel like being pelted by a rapid-fire Nerf gun. If the reader can’t make a meaningful connection to each passage, the verses will bounce off the reader and fall to the floor.

Solution: When you do weave Scripture into your manuscript, it’s your job to help the reader find fresh spiritual nourishment from the passage by demonstrating the connection to your message. Here are a few ways to help the reader glean as much as possible from the biblical text:

  • Provide historical context, noting time, place, speaker, culture, audience, etc.
  • Provide literary context, helping reader understand why what comes before or after this passage illumines its meaning
  • Offer practical application, demonstrating how this passage was vivified in your life of someone else’s
  • Strengthen the connection between the passage and the reason you’ve shared it

Example: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14)…

When Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” he’s making a radical claim! Did you know that, in the ancient near east, a nation’s king was said to be the “light” who reigned on behalf of a deity?! Jesus is saying something pretty bold, then, about the kingdom of God and about your role in it by announcing that you are the light of the world.

Finally, Scripture was never intended to become a quantity to be used, cropped, leveraged or wielded. I know that and you probably do, too. Being thoughtful about presenting Scripture in a way that it can be tasted and digested, to offer real nourishment, is a gift to your reader.

 

 

“I Want to Write a Book”: Five First Steps For Aspiring Writers

When folks contact me because they want to write a book, especially someone who hasn’t been writing, I’m often pessimistic. I want to be able to encourage them, but I know this:  An agent or publisher needs to see that a communicator is reaching an audience. So what’s a first-time writer to do?

1. WRITE

Write an article. Online magazines usually have writer’s guidelines available at their sites. (Also google-able)

Pitch articles to magazines that are already reaching the audience who will read your book. If you don’t know what publications those are, ask among your friends on social media: “Moms, what blogs do you read?” “Business people, what magazines do you read?”

Your pitch to an editor—explaining what you want to write, how it will serve his/her audience, and why you’re the best person to write it—needs a hook. No editor will respond well to a pitch from you offering to write on “parenting,” but if they might be interested if your hook is, “What I Learned About Parenting During My Time in Prison.” Give your pitch a strong hook.

Having a number of articles that appear in print or online communicates to an agent or publisher that you’re reaching audiences.

2. SPEAK

Drum up speaking gigs. Ask folks you know to help you find venues where you can share the message you’re passionate about. Start by speaking for free to build your resume.

Speaking builds your audience and helps you hone your message.

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3. BUILD

Build a website. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.  Before you pitch one article or seek one speaking gig, build a simple site to let others know who you are and what you’re about. Include experience and endorsements to give editors, agents, organizers, and publishers confidence that you have something to say and that others want to hear it.

A website legitimizes your credibility as a communicator.

4. GROW

Grow your audience. Beyond building your website, be intentional about your online presence. If blogging feels manageable—and it might not!—consider blogging regularly. Guest post on other writers’ blogs. Post quotes or memes on social mediate that relate to your message. Don’t always be self-promoting, though: share relevant content, from other worthwhile sources, with your followers.

Providing valuable content builds your audience.

5. LEARN

Attend a writer’s conference. Even if you’ve never considered it, the chance to grow in your craft and network with other writers and folks in the publishing industry will serve you well.

 

Bottom line: If you’re not willing to start building with one or more of these building blocks, it’s unlikely that an agent or publisher will consider the book you’re holding in your heart.

The exception, of course, is if you are: the President of the United States, the MVP of the NBA, or someone whose face has graced the cover of People magazine. If you are any of these, disregard this post. The rest of us, though, need to be hustling to build an audience.

Your future agent or publisher will thank you.

Reflect: Which one of these 5 made you balk? How willing/unwilling are you to move forward on any of these? What can you learn from your response?

10 Tips For Writing Well

10 writing tips

Some types of communication require writers to string a lot of words together as quickly as possible. (Maybe you have a day job that requires this!) When I’m writing in this way, I don’t pause to weave beautiful phrases or engage the reader with well-crafted sentences. But there are other writing projects in which I want to gift readers with words that shine. For these projects, there are some rules of writing that guide me as I purpose to be as artful and effective as possible.

 1. Be specific.

Use precise language. Not “tool,” but lathe.  Not “hot,” but fiery. Not “fruit,” but mango.

2. Appeal to a reader’s senses.

Appeal to the reader’s senses by including sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures.

3. Avoid flowery speech.

Overusing adjectives and adverbs makes your speech too flowery. Mary DeMuth exhorts, “Use a better noun instead of a weak one that needs an adjective. Use a stronger verb instead of one that leans on an adjective or adverb for help.”

4. Use active voice.

Employ active voice, rather than passive, to create interest and keep readers engaged.

5. Avoid fancy words.

Don’t use a splendiferous fancy word when a plain one will do.

 6. Eliminate unnecessary words.

If any words or sentences can be removed without changing a text’s meaning, your writing will be stronger if you scrap ‘em.

7. Vary sentence length and structure.

Use simple, short sentences. Also use longer and more complex ones.

8. Choose original combinations of words.

Reach beyond clichés and stereotypes to discover fresh expression. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” (Orwell’s 6 rules of writing in “Politics and the English Language,” 1946)

9. Write to one person.

I’ve heard my wise friend Jonathan Merritt say, “If you try to write a book to everybody, you’ll end up writing a book to nobody. If you try to write a book to somebody, you’ll end up writing a book for anybody.” Identify your target reader—sister? neighbor?—and write to that one person.

10. Show, don’t tell.

Allow readers to discover what you have by painting colorful moments, conversations, conflicts, etc. Writing that “tells” simply informs, like recipe ingredients. Writing that “shows” offers reader a taste of yummy cake.

Cheering you on,

Margot

10 Tips For Writing an Effective Query Letter…

10 query tips again

Whether you’re pitching an article or submitting a book proposal, your query letter—or your cover letter—needs to convince a publisher to keep reading. As you’re writing, remember that the reader will be tempted to check out and check Facebook. It’s your job to grab and keep a reader’s attention!

1. An effective query letter is concise.

Demonstrate you’re an effective communicator with the efficient use of words. (1 page!)

2. An effective query letter states your intention.

Be clear, up front, whether you’re pitching an article or looking for a publisher.

3. An effective query letter is personal.

Address your letter to a particular person. Has he or she represented or published something similar to your project? Make a meaningful connection with the recipient.

4. An effective query letter clearly identifies your premise.

What is the one thing this book or article aims to do? Clearly identify the singular unifying thesis.

5. An effective query letter identifies a reader’s felt need.

Why should this be published? What need does it meet? Who has this need? How will reader be helped?

6. An effective query letter captures and holds a reader’s attention.

Hook reader’s attention with colorful anecdote. Then, work to keep it.

7. An effective query letter communicates your competence.

Highlight the elements of your bio or resume most relevant to this project.

8. An effective query letter pulses with your passion.

Demonstrate your enthusiasm for this project.

9. An effective query letter balances confidence with humility.

Thank the reader for her/his time and offer your availability to discuss project further. Demonstrate humility and teachability.

10. An effective query letter is error-free.

It’s one page. Be fastidious.

Cheering you on,
Margot

10 Tips For Crafting Your Book Proposal

10 proposal tips

Every sentence of your book proposal should have one person in mind: the reader. Whether you’re submitting it to an agent or an editor, that “first reader” will be holding the “ultimate reader” in her heart and mind as she reads. Your job is to meet the reader’s needs—both that first reader and the eventual one—by communicating efficiently and effectively.

1. Don’t get visually fancy.

Elaborate fonts, colors and graphics distract. Use Times New Roman 12 pt font in a Microsoft Word doc or PDF. Rule of thumb? Keep it simple.

2. Employ plain language.

High-fallutin’ intellectual language is only appropriate for academic books. More often, communicate using a conversational voice.

3. Write in the third person.

Compose your proposal in the third person, as if your agent or a professional collaborator has prepared it—allowing you to brag a bit.

4. Be clear and concise.

When a reader sets down your proposal, he or she can easily identify the premise of your book. Make the reader’s job easy; don’t use more words than are necessary to communicate effectively.

5. Avoid extremes.

Claiming every person always feels a certain way distracts reader by challenging her to search for an exception. “Most” and “often” are more effective.

6. Communicate value for the reader.

Throughout your proposal, make explicit the takeaway value for the reader who purchases and reads your book.

7. Title effectively.

Your working title suggests the book’s premise and the subtitle its promise. Avoid titles that are either too generic or too clever—both making the premise difficult to identify.

8. Prove you will market your book.

Don’t just say you’ll help with promotion. Offer concrete plans you will put into effect.

9. Practice Humility

Don’t oversell, insisting Oprah will return to daytime TV just to promote this book. And be cautious, even with faith-based publishers, about claiming that God told you to write it. #redflag

10. Offer an error-free proposal.

If you’re not paying for a professional critique, have a word-loving friend scour your final draft for grammatical or typographical errors.

Cheering you on,
Margot

10 Tips For Memoir

10 memoir tips

You have a unique story that only you can tell. And the way you tell it matters. Even the world’s best story—winning the World Cup, walking on the moon, dipping into death and returning to life—needs to be told well. Here are a few ideas to help you write your story in the most compelling way.

1. Show, don’t tell.

Allow reader to discover what you have by painting colorful moments, conversations, conflicts, etc.

2. Ignore your internal critic.

Silence the inner voice that says you’re doing it wrong or should probably just stop and make a sandwich. Write now; edit later.

3. Tell the truth.

Notice your own resistance to truth-telling. Being bullied by an instinct to protect yourself or others deprives readers—and you!—of the surprising gifts truth brings forth.

4. Develop a clear theme.

Are you after adventure? Hunting for healing? Identifying your fundamental theme, or “red thread,” allows you to skim off extraneous material in the editing stage.

5. Exercise chronological creativity.

Sometimes telling your story from conception to the present moment works. Be open, though, to the ways a reordered narrative might serve the story.

6. Employ dialogue.

Dialogue lubricates the flow of the narrative. It gives the reader critical insight into characters without telling the reader about them.

7. Record inspirations.

Keep a small notebook in your pocket or car or purse to jot down ideas, insights and details. The best ones come at the most inconvenient times.

8. Create intrigue.

“Dangling a carrot” keeps the reader reading! When you allude to something ahead, a curious reader keeps reading. Useful at end of chapters. Employ sparingly.

9. Avoid painting yourself as the victim or the hero.

Abigail Thomas writes, “Memoir should never be self-serving, even accidentally.” Avoid “poor little me” and “good little me.” Jeanette Wall’s Glass Castle does this beautifully.

10. Read memoir. But be you.

Notice when memoir makes your heart soar (or sore) and when you want to set the book down to take out the trash. Don’t try to sound like Anne Lamott. Be you. It’s better that way.

Cheering you on,

Margot