Writing for Money

Motives in life—and the publishing industry–can be squishy.

Keep a secretBut life is all about the motive. The heart of the matter is what we’ll likely be judged by.

I started writing for money. That was my motive. It was 1988 and I was toward the end of a decade-long youth ministry gig. Loved about 8 years of it, but the last year was the worst. Support was low, two small kids, so I had to find more income. Consulting. Singles Pastor. Youth leader. And “writer.” Four “jobs.”

I got $35 each to write the “I Wonder” notes in the Life Application Bible for Students. Sixty-six of them. Big money at a time when I really needed it. (Thank you, Dave Veerman.)

Hmmmm, I thought, maybe someone will pay me to write something else. So I started writing a Bible study; a magazine article or three (thank you, Steve Strang, for publishing my first magazine article); training manuals. (Not a lot of money in training manuals…for me, none.)

But because I needed money and wrote “I Wonder” notes, I got a call from Focus on the Family in the summer of 1989. They were looking for a magazine editor. Someone who knew teen boys. “We’ll teach you commas and periods,” I was told. They did. (Thank you, Dean Merrill.) I soon had a “youth group” of 100,000 teen boys. Um, that was a bit larger than the one I had in Campus Life.

And those 66 “I Wonder” notes became my first book, If I Could Ask God One Question (Tyndale 1990). That led to more books written and co-written…21 of them over the next 12 years. (Thank you, Susie Shellenberger, Mike Yorkey, and Michael Ross.) I also made extra dough on the side writing magazine articles (200 of them). But what I discovered I loved was the idea portion of books; the fleshing out of proposals, and then the selling of those ideas where a publisher wrote me checks I wanted to take pictures of.

Oh, and writing the books once they sent the first half of the advance. That was okay, too.

But leaving my family to get on planes on weekends to speak, constant radio interviews…I didn’t like so much. Even though there were only four others I knew of at the time, maybe I could become a literary agent. That way I could work close to home, still be involved with ideas and proposals and books…and maybe someone would still send me checks for that. (Thank you, Rick Christian.)

Eighteen years later, I’ve been privileged to represent about 2,200 books. I’ve met some of the best hearted people in the world—creative types who write on eternal subjects, tell stories that move the soul, stay up late and get up early to pound out words on their computer, get on planes to speak to the few and to masses…why do they do it? Why did they start? How do they keep going?

I wonder if C.S. Lewis would have written ”The Chronicles of Narnia” if someone hadn’t written him a check of some sort to spend hours at his Royal typewriter; if they hadn’t promised to pay him odd-sounding British coins and pounds for each book sold.

And this takes us back to money. Is it okay to write for money? I ponder sometimes what my life would have been like if someone hadn’t asked me to write…for money. No small percentage of wonderfully inspired prose would have been created (nor a much larger percentage of really mediocre content, unlike seo services), no introductions to talented wordsmiths who could help me know where commas and periods go and who were patient with me as I learned the difference between its and it’s. No lifetime friends in an industry of people dedicated to making their lives count. No involvement with authors and books and stories that are shaping the life and faith of millions of readers.

And maybe no bills paid when I needed them paid.

This is why motives are squishy. Writing only for money isn’t always the best idea, but sometimes it takes you to a place that certain Someone may want you to go; perhaps to a life where your words will outlive you and still make an impact for eternity well after you’re gone.

Nothing wrong with that motive.

Question: How do you feel about writing for money, as well as other motives as it relates to writing?

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Greg Johnson is President of WordServe Literary Group, a literary agency based near Denver, Colo.

What a Good Book!

A real page turner by carterse

As a writer, I find the Bible such an inspiring book. Truly it is The Book, which is, incidentally, the actual meaning of the word Bible. Not just the Good Book, as many call it, but the Best Book: an anthology of diverse writings by diverse authors, each unique, yet all identical in their devotion to the Book’s Author and Subject.

Okay. I’m done capitalizing.

All this to say I consider the Good Book a model for all good books.

First off, it’s always interesting. Because, as I preach to the would-be writers who are my students, it’s always concrete.

Manna, for example, is not just some vague nourishment left to our imagination. Rather, it looked like “thin flakes like frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:15), “like resin” (Numbers 11:7), and “tasted like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31) and “like coriander seed” and “like something made with olive oil” (Numbers 11:7-8). I get hungry whenever I read these passages.

Gathered the next day—in disobedience to God’s instruction—these delicious-sounding coriander honey wafers got “full of maggots and began to smell” (Exodus 16:20).

Ew! It’s no wonder that, prone as the Israelites were (as we all are) to disobedience, they disdained the gift of manna, yearning instead for the “fish…cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” they had eaten “in Egypt at no cost” (Numbers 11:5). They preferred, that is, the foods they’d enjoyed back when they were slaves and likely had to content themselves with refuse leftover from such culinary delights enjoyed by their masters, as slaves have had to do throughout history. Old fish. Yellow overripe cucumbers. Melons and onions and other vegetables long past their prime. Given such details, the story of those Israelites’ appetites and hungers is so convincing and real, so relevant millennia later.

Unlike many lesser books, the Bible constrains itself neither to one genre— its generous pages embrace poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—nor even to one approach to any genre. Take my own field of nonfiction, for example, which appears throughout both Testaments as histories, arguments, reflections, topical essays, genealogies, lists. The Bible blends these nonfiction subgenres and others, weaving them in and out of prose into poetry, in and out of actuality into invention. In addition to the Bible’s many strictly factual chronicles of otherwise forgotten times, it offers gripping retellings of the same events from new, startlingly intimate perspectives, a narrative strategy (called fictionalization) that effectively topples even the most fact-addicted readers’ unwillingness to suspend disbelief. The only people I know who question the Bible’s trustworthiness are those who’ve never actually read it. Read it, cover to cover, and you’re a goner.

And the Bible never sanitizes. In its pages, women have their periods, men spill their semen on the dirt, matters openly discussed only rarely, even in the least particular public venues, all but never among Christians. A woman sneaks up on Jesus hoping to steal his power to cure her embarrassing bloody flux, and Jesus talks about it before the whole town.

When my daughter Charlotte got her first “real Bible”—the ICB, written at a third grade reading-level but with chapters and verses so she could follow along in church—she was so engrossed she read far past the passages the preacher cited, which I confess I’m prone to do as well, and soon turned to the beginning to read it as one would any other book. By mid-service, she was so shocked by what she found there—the story of Noah, sprawled drunk and naked in front of his sons—that she thrust it across the pew at me and, forgetting her church voice, announced to me and the whole congregation, “I can’t believe they put that in a children’s Bible!”

I know of no book that sucks in a reader—and such a vast assortment of readers, young, old, devout, dismissive—so immediately, so completely, so irrevocably. I never read long in it without thinking, I wish I’d written that!

Making Eye Contact

I survived the hottest recorded day in Phoenix—122 degrees, June of 1990.

Slogan tee-shirts celebrated our feat of endurance and brought camaraderie to Phoenicians. Strangers on the street—If we were crazy enough to be outside that particular June—shook heads and bonded without muttering a word. Normally in metropolitan Phoenix, people don’t make eye contact with strangers. But survivors bond.

 On writing island, the heat’s rising and the competition’s growing.

Passivity kills. We must seize all survival tools to inhabit, flourish, and keep our cool. There’s a handy item in the writer’s backpack that can catch the eye of tribal leaders.

A Killer Book Proposal!

I hear your groans. I groaned when the mercury hit 122.

But book proposals create eye contact with your agent or editor.

If you need a format, here’s a simplified version of the one from my backpack.

Title Page  – Title, author’s name, and literary agent’s contact information.

Proposal Overview  – This vital area creates initial eye contact. It’s the premise for a book or series. Be precise. 1-2 sentences for each book.

Synopsis – Deepen interest. About three pages of story summary (My most recent included a twist and a takeaway) After that, do a ¾ page synopsis for each sequel. Note how the books tie together. (For nonfiction proposals, this area contains chapter outline and short summaries)

Manuscript Details – Word count and date when the finished manuscripts can be available (First time authors need to have the manuscript completed)

Author’s Uniqueness – One page. Includes education, credentials, awards, and personal experiences which relate to your book, your writing style as compared to others, and genre. If you’re published, bring in quotes and snippets of reviews to describe your writing.

Marketing – Bullet style, brainstorm what will sell the book. If you write romance, are there some romantic elements that will appeal to readers? Mention them. Tell what you’re already doing to promote your platform or books. Explain what you’re willing to do. List your website and blog links. Talk about your social media outreach. List memberships and organizations.

Affinity Groups – Research what specific groups of people will read your book. If you have previous works, this is easier. You can even use Facebook or website tracking to pinpoint the age of followers. Being specific helps editors promote your idea to an acquisitions committee.

Books Under Contract (or) Previous Works– Before I had books published, I listed magazine articles and plays. In my last proposal, I only listed a series under contract because it gave a fresh representation of my readership. Include sales in units and earnings. You can get this from your agent or royalty statements.

Author Bio – Mine is about 1/2 page, with professional credentials and some personal information.

First Three ChaptersThese significant chapters allow your person of interest to look deep into your writing soul. Shine and represent your style.

On each page, a header contains the book’s title and author’s name. Single space the proposal and use 1½ spacing for sample chapters and between headings. My numbered pages usually run about 35 pages total, including sample chapters. Also, write a short summary, about 1-3 paragraphs, to accompany the cover letter or your agent’s email to publishers.

To survive writers’ island, proposals can’t be rushed. Make the most of the opportunity to create eye-contact. My format contains years of personal tweaking, but you’ll want to embellish whatever format you use with your own creativity and style.

Unlike television’s Survivor cast, the Watercooler’s a safe place for interaction.

What’s your spin on book proposals?

And just for fun . . . what’s the temp at your place?

Cast Your Line to Hook Agents, Editors, and Readers

CatfishWe writers talk about luring and hooking readers. Makes writing sound a little like a field-and-stream exercise, doesn’t it? In some ways, writing is like fishing. In both cases, you have to step out of your comfort zone, bait your hook, and make your cast. Then you wait for results you can’t see.

In writing, as in fishing, it’s important to know the denizens inhabiting the particular “pond” where you’ve cast your line. It does no good to fish for something that isn’t there. This is why studying publishing trends is important to your survival. Good starting points to catch industry news are at Publisher’s Weekly and the ECPA community site.

In fishing, you bait your hook with delicacies enjoyed by the kind of fish you want. Just because a particular fish exists doesn’t mean you should catch it, though. You might not care for the taste of catfish, for example, but you love trout. Writers who follow every trend in the hope of landing a book contract often leave their interests out of the equation. When it comes to deciding what to offer, don’t pursue soulless commercialism. That may appear attractive, but it’s not sustainable.

For a chance to catch a fish, a fisherman has to ready and throw a line into the water. Similarly, a writer needs to prepare a line, bait a hook, and give a great pitch to ever hope to snag an agent, land a contract, and net readers.

Once that line is in the water, any fisherman watches the pole. If you leave it unattended, when you return you’ll most likely find your hook stripped. That’s because fish nibble at bait without swallowing the hook. A good fisherman knows it’s important to set the hook at just the right moment. It’s one thing to lure a reader into the first chapter of your book. It’s another to have that reader go on to chapter two. Ending each chapter with a new hook will string your reader happily along.

A complaint made by editors is that beyond the first 50 pages, manuscripts often fall apart. Readers want the same thing that editors do—a story that sustains interest throughout its pages. Once you have that, it’s time to go fishing.

Remember Your Passion

So much of being a writer is weathering rejection. We often hear the advice, “You need to develop a thick skin to survive in this business.”

This is partially true. We can’t let every no beat us down or we’ll spend all of our time getting back up instead of moving forward.

But those rejections do hurt. The more often you experience, the easier it becomes. It’s taken me over ten years to reach the point I can say this honestly.

However, I still don’t like them. I don’t think there’s a writer out there who does. If you do, please share in the comments!

There are a few valuable things rejections teach us. They make us examine why we’re doing what we’re doing. When I feel beat up by the no’s, I have to remind myself why I want to be writer.

It’s not for the fame. Of all the truly awesome writers out there, how many are famous? Not many.

It’s not for the money. Most authors still keep their day jobs or spouses who help supplement their incomes.

I write because I’m passionate about my stories. I have a message God has put on my heart. I write because I don’t feel whole when I stop. I write because God created me to be a writer.

So when you’re faced with a rejection, no matter what step of the publishing ladder you’re on, remember your passion for writing.

When you feel like giving up, ask yourself these questions:

* Why did I start writing in the first place?

* What kept me typing my first story before I even thought about sending it out?

* What message do I want my words to convey?

Write them down on a card, so the next time you receive a rejection letter or a pass on your work you can pull it out to remind yourself. And then start writing your next masterpiece.

Also, feel free to check out these rejections by other writers. Knowing that other writers really are going through the same thing can be helpful.

Advising New Writers Lovingly

Today I received an email from a freshly graduated student about a blog he’d been writing for the past two years that he wants to get published as a book. It was about being an only child—a topic I recommended he consider transforming into a memoir after he turned in a wonderful English 101 essay about growing up alone. Ever since, he said, he’d been writing. He included a link to the blog, clearly hoping—despite assurances to the contrary—that I would read it and somehow singlehandedly applaud it onto bookstore shelves.

This is the first of several such emails that I’ll likely receive this summer, in addition to similar requests I get from faraway former students, colleagues, and even total strangers during the school year. Would be writers email me. They show up in my office door, boxed manuscript in hand. They bribe me with lunch. But something about graduating—commencing Real Life, I guess—translates especially as the supreme opportunity to magically turn what have thus far only been vague dreams—of writing their memoir, of publishing a collection of devotions, of becoming a children’s author—into reality.

For me, though, summer is my big work-time as a writer. As soon as I get my grades in, I’m frantically writing away toward midsummer deadlines. In a little over a week, my college daughters will be coming home, and I’m embarrassed to say—though I love them both dreadfully and have been missing them ever since they returned to school after Christmas break—I’m dreading their return. The summer seems, for me, already used up, with all the things I need to get done during it, and I resent everything—even things I love best, like daughters and gardening—that takes me away from the computer.

So, I’m faced, as most writers are, with a difficult task I’ll probably never get exactly right: How to convey the reality of my summer (indeed, of my life as a writer)—that I have neither the time to read a single post, not to mention four years’ worth of blogging or a manuscript two reams thick, nor the power to circumvent for them or myself the arduous tasks of revising to make a book readable and securing an agent to get the thing sold—while simultaneously heartening and supporting those who, inspired by my own modest successes as a writer, want to follow in my footsteps?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke models my ideal response in his Letters to a Young Poet. I would like to embody his kind voice and take time away from my own writing to compose letter upon letter of encouragement and advice to those who approach me for writerly advice. But Rilke was writing back before the internet made it possible for would be writers to readily locate and assault him with salvos of manuscripts and queries. And Rilke didn’t seem to have to do any other work in his life besides write poems. And poets write, after all, poems. Short pieces—shorter, quite often, than a single blog post.

I was also much impressed when, after a reading from her memoir, Ellen Gilchrist took on question after question from the would be memoirists in her audience, somehow validating every asker as a writer and spurring each one to keep at it, keep writing, keep sending things out, keep doing—or start doing—the hard, often fruitless but always rewarding work of getting one’s thoughts and stories onto the page and into others’ hands.

My advice, finally, is canned, as were perhaps Gilchrist’s comments at readings and maybe even Rilke’s advice—which was, after all, published in book-form for every wannabe poet to read. I have an email in which I detail the steps I myself took in seeking publication for the first time, and I send it out, slightly personalized, to each asker. I have a spoken version for office door and phone conversations. It’s easier to be kind and encouraging, I find, when I plan it out.

“No breakfast?”

Now, if I could just figure out a loving way to tell Lulu and Charlotte I’m too busy to make them the fantasy breakfast they’ve been dreaming of all semester…

What do you tell aspiring writers who come across your path or your email in box?