How Opinionated Should a Novelist Be?

If you’re a novelist, there’s good reason to keep your opinions to yourself. Which can be difficult for people who are often sought for their opinions.

I recently read a Time magazine interview with John Grisham in which the author was asked, “Do you try to put Christian sentiments into your books?” He responded,

I’m a Christian, and those beliefs occasionally come out in the books. One thing you really have to watch as a writer is getting on a soapbox or pulpit about anything. You don’t want to alienate readers.

It’s a very diplomatic answer. Grisham doesn’t plead the fifth; he admits his religious persuasion. But he also admits that his Christian faith, if wrongly handled, can “alienate readers.”

This is the tightrope that novelists walk. In our age of electronic super-connectivity, there is no shortage of opinions and outlets for voicing them. But if you’re an author, that “connectivity” can have a downside. The more opinionated you are, the more chance you will alienate readers and potential readers.

Not long ago, in a post entitled To Blog or Not to Blog? Rachelle Gardner discussed the pros and cons of authors maintaining a blog site. Among the cons she offered, was this:

If you’re trying to be honest and authentic on your blog, and you spout off about religious views, politics, your views on parenting or any other controversial topic, you risk alienating potential buyers of your books simply because they disagree with one of your personal viewpoints.

There it is again — “alienating” readers. Your views about politics, religion, and controversial topics, no matter how “honest and authentic,” can negatively impact your professional influence or perception.

At the time, I hedged. “This notion that you shouldn’t express opinions,” I wrote, “bothers me.” However, at the time, I also did not have a novel published.

Call it political correctness, call it spinelessness, call it selling out, but I’m beginning to think that backing off from controversial opinions may be the smart thing for a novelist to do. Let me tell you why.

I recently perused my posts for the last year. Of my ten most commented upon posts, only two of them are NOT writing / publishing related. What should I make of this? It’s pretty simple: My visitors DO NOT visit my site for political commentary, parenting tips, sports takes, film reviews, recipes, social critique, or vacationing on a shoestring budget.

What people want from us writers is… writing-related stuff.

Please note: This does not mean we shouldn’t have opinions. Most of us have lots to say about politics, parenting, sports, film, social issues, etc. It also does not mean we should never blog about them. It means that whatever your brand is, it probably doesn’t have a lot to do with your controversial opinions.

Am I inferring that novelists should refrain from all controversial topics? Nowadays, I don’t think that’s possible. Between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, investigative bloggers, and the 24 hour news cycle, what one believes can eventually be found out. Furthermore, the possibility remains that being opinionated may in fact win you supporters. After all, it is your OPINIONS about writing, the publishing industry, a specific genre, or the arts, that attract some readers.

The point is, whenever you voice a controversial opinion, it will have a plus / minus effect. Some people will like you more, others will like you less.

If someone asks me my position on __________ (fill in the blank), I will probably tell them. But the bottom line is this: Good stories have little to do with a storyteller’s politics or religion.

I don’t know what Cormac McCarthy’s politics are, but I loved The Road. I don’t know what Dean Koontz believes about climate change, but I like the Odd Thomas series. I’m not sure who Tosca Lee voted for, but I really enjoyed Demon: A Memoir. I’m not sure what Leif Enger believes about gay rights, but Peace Like a River is a wonderful book.

I don’t know the opinions of a lot of my favorite authors. And I’m better off if they don’t tell me.

Breaking News!!

Otherwise-Sensible Mother Sleeps with Strangers, Endangers Young Family
Columbus, OH (AP) August 4

If sources are to be believed, Columbus resident Marla Taviano and her family have accomplished a feat that, to our knowledge, has never even been attempted by another human being (for obvious reasons).

From August 1 last to August 1 three days ago, this adventurous five-some visited 52 Zoos in 52 Weeks. (No, this is not a misprint.) Over the course of a year, world-traveler-wanna-be Taviano, her husband and their three young daughters drove from New York to Florida to Texas to California and 27 states in between—a whopping 22,000 miles—to “visit animals that hail from all corners of the globe.”

But folks, that’s not the half of it. Instead of taking the conventional (read: normal, rational, reasonable, safe) hotel route, they stayed in the homes of 31 different families. And here’s the clincher: 17 of those families were complete strangers that Taviano met online.

Why in tarnation this seemingly-normal, law-abiding wife and mother compromised her family’s safety and well-being by entering the homes/eating the food/sleeping in the beds of random persons she met through her “blog,” we may never know.

When asked this very question by the Times’ own Harper Hooper, Taviano tempered her response with what can only be described as a smirk, “I didn’t fear for my family’s lives for a minute. Quite the contrary. We met some of the most incredible people, and I’m totally convinced that God himself orchestrated every last bit of it. I could write a book about the amazing, gorgeous, generous, fabulous people we’ve met in the past year. Were our tactics a bit unconventional? Sure. Would we have had the guts to attempt something like this five years ago? Heavens, no. Call us crazy, but we’re not certifiable.”

Most would beg to differ. When asked if she’s been hiding under a rock, oblivious to recent reports of internet stalkers and pedophiles, Taviano replied (with her customary smirk), “Oh, I’m not discounting all of that horror. Not for a minute. Those stories are sickening and heart-wrenching. The internet gets a bad rap for that very reason, but there’s this huge positive side to the world wide web as well. Communities of people sharing their lives with each other, offering advice and encouragement, living out their faith together, becoming a part of each other’s stories…”

But surely she can’t insist with a clear conscience that there was no risk involved in what she dragged her poor, helpless family into.

“Well, of course there’s risk,” Taviano smirked. “There’s always risk when you step out into the unknown. But what kind of life is a life without risks? And I was confident that I knew the hearts of these families and that their motives were pure, even if we’d only ever met online. I’ve found the internet to be a beautiful place. The friendships I’ve formed through this medium are ones I’ll treasure for a lifetime.”

Despite the absolute absurdity of her claims, Taviano spoke with uncanny conviction. Could there possibly be some inkling of truth to what she’s saying? The Times has its top reporters on the case even now. Is Taviano just an out-of-the-box thinker? Or, as we suspect, another nutcase off her ever-lovin’ rocker?

To be continued…

Marla here. I’m supposed to be blogging today about “something non-fiction.” So I decided to show instead of tell. The newspaper article above is made up. Except it’s not fiction. Because the whole 52 Zoos in 52 Weeks thing is true. So whatever that’s called. Creative non-fiction perhaps? Memoir-with-liberties? Anyway. The rest of the story coming soon to an e-book near you.

The Moral of the Tale? The best way to keep your non-fiction as interesting as fiction = live a story worth writing about.

I’m dying to know: what adventures have you lived that you’re hoping to put into words?

Post Author: Marla Taviano

 Marla Taviano—a lover of words, Scrabble tiles, and giraffes—dreams of traveling the globe with her web-guru husband and their three young daughters. The author of six books, Marla writes and speaks on enticing topics like sex, loving the poor, and how to visit 52 zoos in 52 weeks on a shoestring. Her heart breaks for those in poverty/slavery around the world, and she wants to use her platform to ease their suffering. Marla lives in Columbus, Ohio and met her Wonder Agent, Rachelle Gardner, at a Starbucks by the Denver Zoo in 2009.

Can You See Your Lion?

Recently I read that antelopes in captivity are not only healthier, but more reproductive when they can see and smell lions, their primary predator. I found such an observation fascinating. Does that mean a bit of stress makes an antelope’s life better?

Which of course led me to consider what a completely stress-free life would look like. Heaven? Or . . . boring? Evidently the antelopes are in the second camp. So boring, in fact, they find little reason to live a productive life without a reminder of some of life’s challenges.

As an author, I took some odd comfort in that. What writer, at any stage in their career, lives without stress? Maybe stress, at least in a manageable dose, isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Let’s face it, if getting published—or staying published—was stress-free then everyone would be doing it. But it’s neither easy nor stress-free. While the self-esteem movement wants everyone to be a winner (and undoubtedly there is something good about reminding us of our value) the bottom line is all of us do lose at one time or another. What accomplishment can we celebrate if every time we set out to do something we succeeded? Either our bar is too low or we’re fooling ourselves, because grown ups face disappointment all the time. In fact, overcoming stress and the accompanying feeling of failure make our successes all the sweeter.

All of this has me considering stress in a new light. I’m not saying all stress is good, or too much stress is good. Maybe there’s a difference between good stress and bad stress, although to an antelope I can’t figure out what’s good about having a lion in the neighborhood. Maybe if we don’t have some lions to look at in our distance—a reminder of the challenges that are out there—we might not have a reason to grow and improve. Maybe without those lions looming we might not even want to get up in the morning.

So next time you’re rushing to meet a deadline, or you receive a rejection, a disappointing contest result or a bad review, remind yourself without these lions in your life, living would be too dull to matter. At least that’s what the antelopes think.

What about you? Is there a fine line between good stress and bad? At what point do the lions in your life make you want to try harder, grow and improve before feeling there are too many lions in your life?

Note: Lion Photo compliments of Amanda Neilson, Neilson House Photography

Peace in the Process

Memo from the Desk of Learning Things The Hard Way

Do you ever feel like you write and study and query and revise but aren’t getting any nearer to publication? That the skill level, body of work or following you aim to achieve is a distant speck on your horizon?

A few years ago, I was at my writing desk and cracked open the book Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. The book was a beautiful blend of captivating writing, spectacular voice, charming wit, depth and heart. After about an hour, I stopped reading. Part of me couldn’t put it down; part of me couldn’t read any more. It was a beautifully crafted, engrossing reminder that my own writing sucked. I nearly broke the mouse punching the exit button on my always-open novel document. Then I took a deep breath and heard a little voice saying NO ONE expects my first novel to be as good as Sara Gruen’s NYT bestseller.

No one except Camille.

Brilliant, captivating writing sets the bar high, and I like that. In fact, I like a bar set so high my nose bleeds just squinting to see it. I love an impossible challenge when it comes to writing well. Do you? But somewhere in all that bleeding and straining to reach higher, dissatisfaction with my skills became a debilitating road block, a discouraging heckler from the sidelines.

You’re delusionial.

You’re never going to be good enough to break in.

You’re mediocre and always will be.

Quite frankly, you suck.

Every author was once a newbie, every graduate an underclassman, every craftsman an apprentice. Guess what? You’re allowed to stare off into the distance at your desired destination—as long as looking ahead doesn’t trip you up where you’re at today. When the writer/editor/artist you want to be eludes you, maybe you’re looking too far ahead. Maybe watching the horizon is slowly crippling you from ever reaching that place. Ask yourself this: Are you better at your craft than you were last month? Last year? A decade ago? I bet you are.

Content But Not Complacent

Eventually, I found out I wasn’t Sara Gruen. Imagine my surprise. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be Sara Gruen. I also discovered that after all that straining and reaching higher, I had grown as a writer. For me, staggering genius is still a speck on the horizon, a glint on the high bar. And I still aim for it, nose bleeds and all. I, like my current novel, am a work in progress. You may be aiming for your own speck on the horizon, your own dream of success or accomplishment, and while you should never stop aiming, you need to give yourself permission to be here, today, right now. To be content in the midst of reaching, content but not complacent, right where you are.

Genius begins great works; labor alone finishes them.  -Joseph Joubert

No one is born a best-selling author. The only writers certain to fail at publication are those who quit. The truth is it takes a lot of patience to wait for the day when your natural talent pans out and proves to be sheer genius, especially if that day is still a distant gleam on the horizon. The trick is to wait patiently but actively. Pursuing excellence by writing, studying, reading, querying, listening, collecting rejections, receiving instruction and advice, honing, querying again, and working every day toward that high bar. You may never be Sara Gruen. (What?!?!) But you will become a far better writer in the process as you stretch out and reach beyond you.

Regardless how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go, I keep reminding myself that it’s okay to be where I am right now (while pinching my nostrils and pressing an ice pack to my forehead). So please don’t quit! Aim for excellence but also graciously give yourself permission to be right where you are today.

 Peace to you, wherever you are! ~Camille

Q: Are you easily discouraged by the better art, better work, better performance of another? Or do you allow dissatisfaction to motivate you to keep working on your craft? Are you content with where you are, but not complacent? It’s a tough balance. Have you found it?

A Time for Every Purpose

Perhaps an author of bygone days was permitted the leisure of penning a work and leaving all else to publishing people. Today’s author must also be given to social media engagement, marketing, writers conferences, blogging—where is the time to write?

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven …
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NKJV)

My time-management skills are far from perfected. But as a homeschooling mom and lay minister with precious few hours to write, I’m motivated to faithfully put into practice three things I’ve learned so far.

Time needs to be ORDERED. A no-brainer, right? Ordering time begins with a calendar and then goes on to account for the items without an entry. Household chores, down time, and fitness for both soul (Bible-reading & prayer) and body (exercise) can get pushed aside if time is not allotted for them. Omitting them on occasion is unavoidable. Missing them regularly may overtake us with a vengeance.

Time needs to be RESPONSIVE. You can only call it flexible if you’ve ordered your time and then have something to flex from. Responsive time allows me to be sensitive to the needs of others and cultivate healthy relationships. (Some of the most important conversations I have shift something else.) Perhaps most importantly, responsive time helps me accept God making a change to the schedule He owns anyway.

Time needs to be PURPOSEFUL. Urgency and deadlines do motivate a person to focus on the task at hand. But unless I’ve defined with God what His purpose for my life is, and I keep my eye on that goal, my less-focused hours are easily wasted on activities which undermine my true purpose. Like money and seo services, time impulsively spent on the wrong thing makes it unavailable for the right thing.

The writer’s soul longs to produce something bigger than itself. Our art is transformation of ideas from abstract to concrete, leaving our stamp upon the world. Words are our medium—words of purpose purchased with time.

… What profit has the worker from that in which he labors?
I have seen the God-given task
with which the sons of men are to be occupied.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Also He has put eternity in their hearts …
~ Ecclesiastes (3:9-11)

The rest of us are dying to know! What’s your own best time-management tip?

Up The Creek Without A Paddle – But Not Really

To an unpublished author, thoughts of marketing your book once it’s published might not be front and center of your mind. You’re more focused on finishing that manuscript, acquiring an agent, polishing your proposal. That’s as it should be. But what if you’re agented, and have several editors showing interest in your completed project?

Now is the time to start your engines and put some wheels on your marketing strategies. Sure, your book may not sell right away, but you’ll want to be prepared when it does. And even if you’re still in the early stages of your writing journey, it’s never too early to start thinking about it.

Last week on my blog I shared a few of the things I’ve been doing since my book, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, released in March. The prospect of marketing can seem daunting to a new author. At first I felt as though someone had pushed me upstream with no paddle, no compass, no directions at all. I soon learned the world of marketing has many places to explore. Today I’m going to focus on one.


Your network is where you hang out; it’s who you talk to, share life with. It’s your community. At this point, published or not, you should be working hard to establish an online presence through blogging, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+, etc…the Internet is by far the cheapest and fastest marketing tool at your disposal. Learn to use it wisely.

Then there’s your real-life community. We all have family, friends, co-workers, right? These are the folks you want in your network, people who know you, love you and have supported your writing efforts over the past few years. They’re going to want to tell everyone they know about your book, this is great! Make sure they’re kept up to date in the process and send them a copy or two when your book comes out. The more people you can get saying wonderful things about your writing, the easier your job gets. And don’t forget to thank them for their efforts.

But what if you don’t have a supportive family? What if the people in your immediate circles just don’t get it or just don’t care? All is not lost here. While I’d like to advise you to have a good heart-to-heart with these folks, I’m no family therapist. Focus your networking efforts elsewhere.

Do you belong to a writer’s group? If you don’t, you should. This is the next best thing to having all your cousins in Nebraska hauling boxes of books around in the back of their trucks and selling them at every pit stop.

I’ve recently finished reading an excellent book on social networking by Kristen Lamb, We Are Not Alone  – The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, (Who Dares Wins Publishing, 2010). I highly recommend this book and I know quite a few of my fellow WordServers do too. One thing Kristen said that I love is this: “Fish where the fish are.”  Your writer’s group will not only provide support and encouragement in your writing journey, but when your baby is finally born, they’ll be the first to send flowers and start handing out the chocolate cigars. Most writers have a blog. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t like to read. Combine the two, and you have instant reviewers, influencers and endorsers.

Don’t ever be afraid to ask for an interview or to ask someone to review your novel. Yes, you may have to send a few copies here and there, but if it’s going to help get the word out about your book, it’s a great investment. And always offer to reciprocate by featuring fellow authors on your own blog and helping them spread the word about their new baby when the time comes.

Networking has been the most fun for me so far in this gig as a newly published author. I’ve expanded my network considerably, met a lot of wonderful people who have been more than gracious with their words, time and endeavors to get my book ‘out there’,  and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again when my next novel comes out!

What about you? Have you started networking? If you’re already published, tell us about your experiences.

Becoming a Nationally Syndicated Columnist

I am fortunate enough to be both a national columnist on politics and world events through Cagle Cartoons, Inc. and a blogger at on writing, faith, and whatever wild adventure is going on in my life. This weekend that means a 5K followed by a second jump out of a plane. Don’t tell my agent. I’m celebrating learning to walk, and then run again after a whopper of a bout with cancer.

However, there has to be a question in everyone’s mind these days whether it’s worthwhile for writers to still strive to become nationally syndicated columnists. The decline of newspapers and the rise of blogs (like this fabulous one) must make people wonder if there’s a place for the journalist who provides content through a clearing house.

Both a column and a blog can become a source of income and it takes time for that to be true in both instances. There’s really no shortcuts, so that’s the same.

But despite all of the advantages to having a blog, and there are many, there are still some pretty big benefits to writing for others for a living.

  • Accountability – there’s a constant weekly deadline with a required word count. No longer and no shorter than 700 to 750 words. The grammar has to be correct, which means AP Style and the facts have to be checked and sourced. An occasional mistake is okay – it’s bound to happen – like the time I mistakenly wrote interred instead of interned. Just one letter off and I accidentally buried two people.
  • Editor – my column appears in about a thousand small town newspapers and some pretty big websites such as MSNBC, Politicus and Moderate Voice and so that means about a thousand editors are combing through the piece to make sure I’m not going to make them look bad. There’s also an editor at Cagle Cartoons that is reading the piece as well. Occasionally that means a conversation about a statement I’ve made, to make sure it’s correct and can I back it up with facts. That’s always in the back of my mind and keeps me rigorously honest. It also means I’m not going to reprint something I heard from friends, saw on the internet or even read in another publication if I can’t find original, reliable sources. Great training for every other kind of writing as well, including fiction. As writers, we want to get it right but knowing when to even ask a question or where to go takes practice.
  • Size of the Audience – These days a lot of syndicates, like Cagle, are going to a subscriber format instead of making their customers, the newspapers and websites, pay for each piece individually. They pay one flat fee and can use as much of the content as they want on any given day. That means I’m under someone else’s established banner and it immediately translated to a million new readers for me when I started three years ago, and now translates to four million readers a month in four different countries. I’m very big in India. Also at the bottom of every column, every week there sits my web address, an email address and the name of any recent book. It’s even better than a paid ad because all of these people already know me.
  • More Profitable Book Tour – Unlike a blog, my audiences are concentrated in large numbers in specific towns and I can design a book tour around that information. I choose to speak as fundraisers for nonprofits such as United Way and sell books afterward in partnership with a local bookstore as a way to raise funds. That also gives the newspaper that runs my column an opportunity to promote it for free, for me, and do some good work for their community as well.

If you are interested in getting started as a columnist, start by going local. That’s how I got started, at the Brunswick Times-Gazette, home of the world famous Brunswick Stew in Virginia. I still get the paper here in Chicago. They need your content and you in turn, can learn how to tell a concise story on a wide variety of topics while getting used to a constant deadline. Then after a year or more, take all of those clippings and start shopping larger newspapers individually and at the same time the big syndicates. Those clippings will tell them you can handle the basics and that you have a few things to say that are worth reading. If you want to know more on the topic, send me your questions at and let’s talk.

Q: Do you still read newspapers? If so, do you read a print copy or view the paper online?
Have you ever considered writing for your local paper? If so, what topics might you cover?

How to Find the Perfect Publisher

When I was getting ready to attend my first writer’s conference, I had a difficult time trying to figure out which publisher to pick for my editor appointment. I was absolutely overwhelmed. I didn’t know who would be the best match for my book, much less who would provide the type of professional working relationship that I needed.

I’ve learned a lot since then about what goes into finding the perfect publisher. In fact, the first thing I’ve come to understand is that there is no perfect publisher. Publishing houses are staffed with regular people like you and me. They’re not perfect. And as we all know, traditional publication is in flux. Changes are never easy on writers or publishing house staff.

All that to say, we have to go into the publishing experience with realistic expectations. We won’t find one perfect publisher. But we can work at finding the best match possible. And here are three ways we can do that:

1. Get an agent’s help.

Yes, you might be thinking. This is a no-brainer. Many writers want to hook up with an agent because an agent is usually the expert on the various publishing houses and what types of books they’re looking for.

However, there are times when an unagented writer catches the attention of a publisher or editor. In such cases, if a writer seeks out an agent before making any decisions with the publisher, the agent can offer advice, send the manuscript to other houses, and work at getting the best deal.

Agents are often more willing to consider writers who are garnering publisher interest. Let the agent know and follow up with them if they already have your manuscript. If you’re not getting through to the agent, enlist the help of a current client.

2. Research, research, research.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning about various publishers you’re planning to target. And if you’re planning to publish without the help of an agent, then the research is even more crucial. I’ve talked with too many writers who’ve gone with small or subsidy presses and have had disappointing experiences.

There’s no shortcut to immersing yourself in the industry and learning all you can about publishers. Here are several ways to research:

  • Read books by the publisher(s) you hope to target.
  • Study different publishers and look at what most of their books have in common.
  • Check with authors who work with that publisher. Save this step until you’ve garnered interest from a specific publisher. Then you can email the author(s) to ask a few questions like: Were you satisfied with the editing? How much marketing do they offer? How well do they communicate?
  • Investigate the Preditors & Editors list. Google the publisher. Ask other writers on twitter or facebook their opinions.

3. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Some publishers are coveted more than others.Without naming names, we all know which publishers are bigger, more prestigious, and can do more for their authors in terms of advances, editing, marketing, and sales.

However, we can’t automatically assume that we should target the biggest houses. And we shouldn’t resort to smaller house only if the big deals don’t pan out. Our books are individuals and need personalized plans of action. There is no one-size-fits-all for publishing. We need to find the “hole” that matches our book.

What do you think? What are some other ways writers can find the best possible publisher for them? If you’re a published author, is your publisher a good fit? And if so, what did you do make sure you were a good match?

Post Author: Jody Hedlund

Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher’s Bride, a Carol Award finalist. She received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. Her latest book, The Doctor’s Lady, released in September 2011.

Preparing for an Interview

Writers pursuing publication should learn how to speak well.

I know what some of you are thinking.

Hey lady, I’m a writer. Not a speaker. 

Here’s the thing. If you are pursuing publication and your goal is to be a successful author, chances are, at some point, you’ll need to use your voice. And I mean your actual voice, not your writing one.

Radio interviews. Workshop presentations. Speaking to your platform. Pitching to editors and agents. I’m sure the list doesn’t end there.

My debut novel will release in May, 2012 with Waterbrook Multnomah (a division of Random House) and although it’s still ten months away, the marketing department is already discussing ways to promote my book.

Recently, I did an audio recording, or an interview conducted over the phone which will be shared with sales reps and retailers. It also might be used for promotional purposes later down the road.

The questions were deep. And I was nervous. I’d never done anything like this before and usually, when I get nervous, my voice gets shaky. And the shakier my voice gets, the more nervous I get. It turns into this whole vicious cycle.

But you know what?

It ended up being a really cool experience.

Here are some tips that helped me prepare, relax, and have fun:

  • Find out what you have to talk about and let the topic soak. I had to answer some pretty deep questions. Questions I didn’t know how to answer at first. Letting them percolate for a while helped when it came time to brainstorm.
  • Type your answers in a bullet point format instead of paragraph format. I wanted to sound conversational, not like I was reading. But the idea of answering from memory terrified me. I needed something to help me stay focused and avoid rabbit trails. So for each answer, I had a short list of bullets to reference.
  • Practice. This is key. Practice alone. But even more important, practice with an actual person. My husband was kind enough to ask me the questions, listen and offer feedback.
  • Time yourself. Attention spans only last for so long. The more concise we can be, the better.
  • The day of the interview, don’t obsess about it. Practice one more time. Then do something to distract yourself. For me, playing some good old-fashioned spider solitaire helped keep the nerves at bay.
  • When the time comes, take a deep breath, smile, and do your best! 
You can use these same tips for almost any speaking engagement. I know I went through a similar process when I prepared to pitch to Rachelle, my agent, and Shannon, my editor, at the 2009 ACFW conference.
• • •

How do you feel about this kind of stuff? Do you enjoy speaking, doing interviews, pitching to agents and editors? Have you ever had to do it? If so, how did you prepare? 

Tips for Landing an Agent

Why hello, there. Welcome to the official launch of our blog, The WordServe Water Cooler. A place where WordServe clients gather to build community and help writers move forward in their careers.

Let’s get this party started, shall we?

For our first post, we wanted to offer some tangible tips for anyone searching for an agent. Here’s what helped us. We hope it helps you!

Seek professional feedback on your work before submitting.

Rosslyn Elliott – After I finished my first novel, I had a funny feeling there might be a technical flaw in the novel’s opening. Instead of wondering, I hired a pro editor to look over my first three chapters. Sure enough, the queasy feeling was justified. I fixed the problem, and Rachelle signed me that summer.

Jordyn Redwood – I met Greg during an agent appointment at ACFW in 2009. I had a polished one sheet and the first three chapters of my novel. Next step, he wanted a book proposal. I asked for examples from other authors and paid to have it freelance edited. Keeping my word and presenting professional work tipped the scales in my favor. Greg might say it was my use of dialogue but everything you do counts.

A pass on one project doesn’t mean you can’t try again with others.

Olivia Newport – Years ago I was invited to join a brand new book group. When the dust settled, a group of freelance writers and editors were the core. A couple years later, one of them invited Rachelle to join. We got to know each other long before she became an agent. Three other agents took a pass on what I was pitching. So did Rachelle! But we had a good basis for deciding we wanted to work together and just needed the right project.

The road to representation and publication isn’t usually a fast one.

Anne Lang Bundy – 25 years of composing documents, lessons, and essays developed my writing gift. A passion for all things Bible turned my pen to biblical fiction. After several months of connecting with Rachelle via “Rants and Ramblings” comments, I crafted individual queries for just two agents and obtained representation from WordServe. Three years’ study of fiction craft, five conferences, Rachelle’s encouragement, and the Lord’s grace now bring me to publication’s threshold.

Persevere through rejections.

Deborah Vogts – After a year of representation, my first agent dropped me as a client. Months later, I found the courage to submit my proposal to three more agents. Two doors closed, and Rachelle was Door #3. She liked my work and signed me as a client. Two months after that, we had an offer from Zondervan on my Seasons of the Tallgrass series. I like to think perseverance paid off, but it was also God’s timing.

If you mess up, all is not lost. But even so, learning how to query is good.

Lucille Zimmerman – I wanted to send my book idea to an agent but I didn’t know where to start. I Googled a writer’s conference and found a list of agents to contact. Greg Johnson wrote back and said he passed my email on to Rachelle. I did everything the wrong way, but she still wrote back and told me how to do a real query. Months later we met in person and she agreed to represent me.

Erin MacPherson – If there were an award for the worst query letter ever, I’d win it. When I decided to query, I had no clue what I was doing and no knowledge of the publishing world and it showed. Even worse, when Rachelle wrote me back and asked for a proposal, my response was “What’s a proposal?” Yikes. The good news? God is bigger than my stupidity. After some (okay, a lot of) coaching, Rachelle was nice enough to overlook my terrible first impression and sign me as a client anyway.

When it comes to representation, the right fit is of utmost importance.

Sandie Bricker – All the lunch tables in all the world, and she had to sit down at mine! I’ve had some awesome agents in the past, but I never seemed to find that right fit. Sitting down with Rachelle over lunch at the ACFW conference in Denver cemented the idea that it’s so important to have that “right fit” with your agent. Before they poured the coffee, I knew she and I were on the same page.

Erica Vetsch – At a workshop I attended, Rachelle presented her take on agent-author relationships and described exactly what I was looking for. At that time, I wrote only category romance, something Rachelle didn’t represent, but only a few weeks after that workshop she opened her client list to category romance authors looking to grow their careers. I contacted her, we agreed to work together, and since then we’ve sold several projects.

Marla Taviano – I already had four books traditionally published, then hit a wall. I reached out to Rachelle, and bless her wonderful heart, she threw me a lifeline. I can’t wait to be worth her while! Soon!

Attend a conference when you’re ready and when you’re stuck.

Maureen Lang – Conferences are helpful to writers at all levels, but if finances are an issue it’s wise to attend after you have a fully developed project. I met Greg at an ACFW conference, where we talked about my writing aspirations, our faith, and which publishers would be a good fit for me. It was quickly obvious he knew so much about the industry and that I could trust him.

Katie Ganshert – After devouring every craft book known to man, I reached a point where I couldn’t go any further on my own. I needed an agent. The query system wasn’t working for me, so I saved the money and went to the ACFW conference in 2009 where I pitched to Rachelle, garnered her interest, promptly submitted my manuscript, and received The Call two months later.

Amy K. Sorrells – Oozing with self-confidence after receiving 30+ rejection letters, I hopped on a plane and traveled the farthest I’d ever gone from home on my own, to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in 2009. After learning volumes from my “Leave it to Chance” roomate and WordServe client, Sherri Sand, as well as spending a week under the tutelage of Mary DeMuth, it’s no accident I came home, revised my manuscript (again), submitted three more proposals, and received “The Call” from Rachelle in January, 2010.

Enter contests. Finals are a great way to get an agent’s attention.

Keli Gwyn – Rachelle served as a final-round judge in a Romance Writers of America® chapter-level contest and requested my full. After completing my self-edit two weeks later, I sent the manuscript. The following day she emailed saying she wanted to “discuss the possibility of representation.” Four days later I was her client.

Jody Hedlund – While we don’t want to be obnoxious, we should be savvy in staying connected to agents who have our manuscripts. Rachelle had my full in her slush pile. After I finaled in a contest, I contacted her to update her. That email spurred her to pull my manuscript out and read it. She offered me representation a couple days later.

Richard Mabry – A door isn’t closed until God closes it. I’d given up writing when, on a whim, I entered a contest on Rachelle’s blog. I won a critique of the first chapter of my book, and when I sent my chapter, she emailed back, “Send me something that needs editing.” That led to a query, representation, and eventually a publishing contract. I thought I was through. God didn’t.

Take advantage of requests from editors.

Karen Witemeyer – At the 2007 ACFW conference, I met with a Bethany House editor who invited me to submit. That manuscript was rejected, but I was encouraged to submit another project. At ACFW in 2008, I visited with editors from Bethany House again, and they showed interest. I also met with Rachelle. Being able to say I had a nibble from a publisher was huge. Rachelle offered representation following that conference and negotiated my deal with Bethany House three months later.

Lisa Jordan – When I met Rachelle at ACFW, I wanted her as an agent. I pitched, but didn’t follow through on her invite to submit. After finaling in the Genesis and receiving a full request from an editor, I pitched to Rachelle again. She asked to see the full first. Once I submitted, she offered representation a week later. Don’t give up on pitching to a specific agent, even if you pitched to him or her in the past.

Ramp it up and embrace the 3 C’s – Conferences, Contacts, and Contests

Camille Eide – Conferences, Contacts and Contests all contributed to landing my agent. At a writing conference, I was encouraged to seek representation. I asked a writing mentor (contact) for a referral. She sent an intro letter and my query to Rachelle, who requested the full. While I waited, I entered a novel contest. The book placed as a finalist, sending it to the top of Rachelle’s pile. She read the full and called to offer representation.

Dineen Miller – I knew of Rachelle by her amazing reputation as an editor, so when I heard she’d become an agent, I put her on my list as one of two top picks. I made an appointment with her at the 2008 ACFW Conference and showed her my work. We clicked. Later I found out that two colleagues had recommended me too. The week after the conference, I happily signed on and am so glad I did!

Network. Participate in the publishing community. Relationships matter.

Alexis Grant – I connected over Twitter with a writer who, unbeknownst to me, was friends with Rachelle. My Twitter friend knew I was working on a travel memoir about backpacking solo through Africa, and she happened to hear Rachelle say she wanted to rep a book about Africa. That Twitter friend — who had by then become an email-and-phone friend — called me and asked, “Have you thought about querying Rachelle Gardner?”

Katy McKenna – For several years, while writing my first novel, I got to know many wonderful authors (and soon-to-be authors) through blogging. We’d exchange comments on each other’s sites and I happily hosted many author interviews on my blog. When one dear friend learned my novel was complete, she forwarded my proposal (without me asking) to Rachelle with a note of recommendation. That was on a Friday. Four days later, I had an agent.

Megan DiMaria – It’s important to participate in the publishing community and attend gatherings of writers, agents, and publishers. In July of 2009 the ICRS was in Denver, where I live. My publisher got me a pass to attend, but there was a problem at the front desk. Rachelle saw my dilemma and kindly escorted me to the publisher’s office. We struck up a conversation and decided to meet to discuss representation. Obviously, it worked out!

Catherine West – I first ‘met’ Rachelle in 2008. She was a blogging mom who loved books and dogs. She became one of my ‘blogging buddies’ and I enjoyed her posts. I then learned she was a freelance editor. I had a new story idea brewing, asked for her opinion, and when the manuscript was finished, she asked to read it. Around that time she became a literary agent, and a few months afterward, I became her client.

Michelle DeRusha – I connected with writers online, not simply to attract more blog readers but to create mutually beneficial online friendships. One author read my book proposal and then graciously offered to refer me to her agent, Rachelle, who emailed me within a day to request my manuscript. I hope to be able to pass on the favor to another new writer someday.

Martha Carr – I was working on a true story about a possessed house in Pittsburgh and a mutual writer friend, who was represented by Greg, introduced me to Rachelle. I sent her a sample of my work and in less than a day I got a return email asking if I wanted to talk about representation.

Krista Phillips – I’m very new to the Wordserve Group. I signed with Rachelle about a month ago! And really, it came down to the fruits of networking. When an editor was potentially interested in my book (from my networking)  I contacted two friends I’d networked with (clients of Rachelle’s) and one of them e-mailed Rachelle a referral. Spoke with Rachelle, who noted she was familiar with me because of my networking on Twitter, and she offered representation!

Beth Vogt – My first book about late-in-life motherhood partly resulted from my established relationships at MOPS International. I was not represented by an agent at that time. I’d connected with Beth Jusino, first as the editor of MomSense, and then as friends when she was an agent at Alive Communications. She gave me invaluable advice as I wrote my book. When Beth suggested I contact Rachelle, I knew I could trust her judgment and endorsement.

Joanne Kraft – Sharing my contract news with a writer-friend, she said, “Now you need an agent. And I know just the perfect fit for you…Rachelle Gardner!”

“Oh yeah? There’s just one problem, I don’t know Rachelle Gardner.”

“No, but I do.” She laughed.

Within minutes, three chapters of my manuscript launched into cyberspace. My girlfriend, who I’d originally met through blogging, became mine and Rachelle’s matchmaker.

Never underestimate the power of girlfriends, blogging, or networking!

Above all else, write well.

In the wise words of Camille Eide, you can do all these things we offer plus stand on your head and gargle, but if you aren’t writing well, following these tips won’t get you agented. So make sure to give attention where attention is due. Good writing must come first.

Do you have an agent? If so, what advice do you have for those who are looking? If not, where are you in the process? Please join in the conversation! Introduce yourself. We’d love to get to know you. 

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