Sunday, April 14, 2019

On Writing Fiction and the Nonexistent Magic Wand

I am slowly working on my work of fiction, which is not yet epic or compelling or any other of those words found on the backs of novels. Basically, I write a chapter every two weeks for our Fictitious Five meetings. I've changed the beginning about four times. I still don't know how the mystery will get solved.

I also don't know how the main character will grow as a person and resolve her personal issues. I've often pondered what exactly it is that makes some people change and grow while others stay in the same patterns and habits for years on end. I've often wished for a magic wand that I could wave to instantly turn manipulators into honest, healthy people, freeloaders into humble repentant helpers, and shy wallflowers into freespirited friends.

Even with twenty-four years of pastor's wifing, I still haven't discovered a magic wand, not even for myself. All change in my own heart and habits has come from painful consequences, terribly hard work, and the slow dawning of truth.

It would seem that a fiction writer has the magic wand at her fingertips, and she can make the characters do anything she wants.

Carol pulled the heavy envelope out of her church mail slot. What in the world? Cautiously she opened it and pulled out a copy of Created to be His Helpmeet. What? How had anyone caught on how badly things were going with her and Phil? And whose bright idea was this book that she had already read twice? The shame of it--first, people finding out about their rocky marriage and then to be given this last-ditch-effort book. She looked at the floor, fighting tears.
Frieda Yoder came bustling by, fresh from telling the teen girls their skirts were too short and the pastor that his sermons were too long. "Oh Carol! I hope you aren't offended, but I just heard from Wilma how you and Phil had a big argument at Taco Bell the other day when you locked the keys in the car and I had such a concern for you. I thought that book might help!"
Flushing crimson with the agony of it all, Carol looked around for a way to escape and caught Dorcas Smucker's eye.
Dorcas came over, pulling her magic wand out of her purse.  "What's going on?"
Carol explained. Frieda kept interrupting.
Dorcas glared at Frieda. "Are you kidding me? How about you quit trying to run everyone else's life and work on your own for a little while! And your own marriage, while you're at it. Funny how you never talk about that."
Then Dorcas turned to Carol. "And you need to figure out that this shame and secrecy stuff is crazy. How about you be honest about things but also realize you're completely normal and it's ok to ask for help!"

Dorcas flicked the magic wand between the two women. A strange blue light flickered on their surprised faces.
Frieda started crying. "I'm so sorry. I've been so cruel, and it's all to cover up the fact that I don't feel God really loves me, ever since I lied about Pauline when I was 19 so John would date me and not her! And now we're married and he's miserable!"
Carol was smiling. "What? You mean I'm all forgiven and there's no more condemnation? And it's ok if people find out Phil is a jerk? And it's not all my fault? And I don't have to do everything people tell me I should??"
Frieda and Carol hugged each other and made plans to get together for coffee while Dorcas telescoped the wand back together, dropped it into her purse, and marched out the door, into the pleasant rain.

But if people change instantly, with no struggle, then there's no real story! Apparently that was God's idea, right from the start, and all our storytelling reflects that truth.

In between fiction deadlines I'm working on a few talks, organizing a one-day first-ever Western Anabaptist Writing Conference in August, sending advice to fledgling writers and also working on a how-to book for them, and planning another collection of articles.

In addition to all the normal tasks of living.

So that's why progress is slow. I tell myself it's a throwaway novel, the same way you [ought to] make a throwaway muslin when you try out a complicated new dress pattern.

One thing that surprises me is how many things you have to verify when you write fiction. In all my years of writing for the newspaper, I'd verify dates and details and quotes with the family, or ask Paul if it was organic oats or barley that he was bagging that week.

But fiction is different. Even though I'm writing about a family in Oregon, I can't pull all the content from my own life.

So I had a character recall how she worked on her dad's farm in Wisconsin back in the 1970s, and she was disking a soybean field with a John Deere 4020. If I worked only from my own life, it would be Minnesota, a cornfield, and a Farmall M. But that's for a memoir, not a novel, because I'm pretty sure nobody else in the Midwest used a Farmall in the 1970s.

But did they disk soybean fields? And was a 4020 typical for a mid-sized Mennonite farm?

It gets complicated. But sometimes the information you need arrives in unexpected ways, almost like you waved a magic wand and there it was.

Another part of the plot is that the 16-year-old is planning to serve at the Gospel Echoes banquet. Now I recall from our own children's experiences that serving at that banquet is a very big deal, and who you serve with is even bigger. But it's been a long time since my kids were part of that and I don't remember much except for the time Kevin K. offered Matt $100 if he would ask Erin on a date. Erin went home before Matt worked up the courage, so the story ended right there.

So how was I going to work some concrete details into a story?

My friend Ila invited the women at church to join her on Friday evening to crochet hats for charity. That sounded like fun, so I went.

My crocheting skills are rusty so I used a plastic "knitting" hoop with pegs instead. I sat at a table with Aunt Susie and a few other grandmas, and also four teenagers--Ila's two daughters and the two Mishler girls. Suddenly I realized the girls were talking about...serving at the Gospel Echoes banquet! And all the drama involved!

I whipped out my notebook. What a bonanza I had just lucked into.

Of course I explained my curiosity, and they were happy to oblige. "It's all about who you serve with," they said. "That's where alllll the drama is." They then told stories and described people in such delicious detail that I went home with sufficient material for the next chapter.

What a delightful surprise that was.

So, for everyone who's been asking:
Yes, I'm writing fiction.
Little by little.
Only for practice, at this point.
With a growth mindset.
You are not in my story.
But you might be, at the end of this week, if you served at the banquet.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Writing People Off

Sometimes I write people off.

One thing tips the scales and that's IT, I'm DONE. No more. Deal BREAKER.

This seldom happens with people I actually know. I know humans are nuanced, complicated, and full of contradictions. Much as I'd like people to be all good or all bad, I know they're not. For instance, my mom was funny, creative, brave, and generous, but the truth is she passed on some unhealthy and sinful patterns that I'm still trying to overcome. I recognize her humanity and the complicated factors in her life. I wouldn't think of writing her off. She was a treasure.


When it comes to authors and such, I try to be tolerant and then one thing tips the scales and ka-whishk, [sound of sword slicing the air] that's IT.

Many Christian women have read Debbie Pearl's book, Created to Be His Helpmeet, which seems to be the book of choice that well-meaning and cruel people give to women in struggling marriages. 

I had heard of it, so I decided to read it. 

And I got to the garbage episode.

As I recall, Mr. Pearl, whom Mrs. Pearl holds up as a hunky, wise, amazing man of God, is taking out a bag of garbage. Mrs. Pearl is watching from an upstairs window as he winds up in very macho fashion and pitches that bag of garbage...on the edge of the dumpster, where it spills all over.

Mr. Pearl looks miffed and walks off, leaving the mess.

Mrs. Pearl laughs and laughs at her funny husband, then goes downstairs and happily picks up all the spilled garbage.

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

As my hunky, wise, amazing man of God husband said, "What in the world? You wouldn't even tolerate that behavior in a 15-year-old."

So I wrote off Debbie Pearl right there, although my sister says, and I grudgingly have to agree, that her description later on of the three types of husbands is spot-on.

[Later: full disclosure: I recalled today (Thank you, Holy Spirit) that one time years ago I gave a copy of Created to be His Helpmeet to a woman because I thought she deserved a dose of Debbie Pearl. I regret this. It was cruel.]

We had to read lots of Larry Crabb's books for the counseling course we took. I am trying to think of a diplomatic way to write that I hated his writing style. Even so, I plowed on, making up hashtags to describe his message--#yourenotactuallyhappy #orniceeither #youhavewrongmotives #13layersdown.

But then on about page 65 of I think it was Bold Love we read how he got frustrated with the little plastic band holding a packet of new socks together--and we have all endured this little frustration if we are lucky enough to have new socks--but he interpreted it as proof that deep inside, he hated God.

DONE. That's IT. I can't even hear anything else you say. Who has time to think like this?

"Bear with me here," he pleaded. "Keep reading."

Nope. I'm done. I kept reading only for the assignment's sake, but he had left me far behind.

[Oops. I just went to verify my sources here and realized it's NOT a Larry Crabb book after all. The author is Dan Allender, with some help from Tremper Longman. Well, Larry and Dan are definitely cut from the same cloth in terms of writing style and making life awfully complicated, so I had a similar reaction to both.]

Then there was the preacher from Pennsylvania who came to our church. How this subject came up in a revival meeting sermon I'll never know, but he insisted that women's ski suits were immodest.

All my interest in his talk screeched to a halt right there. Ski suits? Those bulky inch-thick full-coverage garments worn over layers of other garments?

After the service, my intrepid daughter asked him to clarify. Had he really said that? Did he really mean it?

Yes and yes. He said disrespectfully, like how dare she ask?

I wrote him off then and there, and also determined that no daughter of mine would come within ten yards of him, ever again. CA.REE.PY. 

I also wrote off Stan Dale. I feel bad about this, because my husband admires the man and has often had his students read his biography.

Stan Dale was a flamboyant missionary to a tribe in the mountains of Irian Jaya. However, he wasn't the first missionary there. He and his family were preceded by a Dutch family. The Dutchman had tried to make their house warmer in the damp mountainous chill by cutting vents above the doorways between the rooms so the warm air could circulate better.

Well. Stan Dale was all about being a tough soldier for Jesus, so when he and his wife and little children moved into the house the Dutch family vacated, he plugged up the vent holes, lest they all get too comfortable.

He lost me right there.

I know he did amazing things for the Gospel, was courageous and committed, and ended up being martyred, and as a result many of the tribe came to faith.

But I am stuck on those vent holes and his miserable little children and his poor patient wife, stuck in the wilds of Irian Jaya in a cold house with such a husband and no way to escape.

I am quite sure he could have been just as heroic if he had been considerate of his family.

I know the risk of sharing all this, because I also write and speak. Do I want people to trip over one thing and immediately write off me and everything I have to say?

Actually, I happen to know that that's already happened, judging from a few letters I've gotten. I think Paul taking me to a college football game was a dealbreaker for some readers who don't believe in attending sporting events.

I see a big difference between readers and real people. I expect my family to give and receive grace as we all work life out together. We know each other's faults but we are stuck, so we're going to love and enjoy each other despite our differences.

But readers have the privilege of writing me off. I think that's part of the package, and writers have to acknowledge that. I stand by my use of the word "kids" for "children," posting a "lie" on April Fools Day one year, Paul taking me to a game, and joining Facebook.

But if those were dealbreakers for you, and you can't hear anything else I say, that's your right and privilege. Although if that's the case, I guess you won't be reading this.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Poem--The Counseling Course

In the last 5 months, Paul and I flew to Pennsylvania three times to take classes at Life Ministries. On the last day, we were all supposed to talk for a minute or two about our experience. I read this, which I am reprinting here by special request of one attendee who wanted to read it to her husband.

The Counseling Course

I thought I would be a dutiful wife
And come with my husband to classes at Life.
I knew all about feelings and stories and such
But Paul was in need of a counselor’s touch.
So we read Larry Crabb and we packed and prepared
And headed to Portland as late as we dared.
Paul on his phone would tell all of gate ten
That six tons of oats should be bagged by his men.
Then we took off for Denver or Phoenix or Midway
Arriving in Baltimore at the end of the day.
Our marriage endured much testing and stress
From rental car lines and baggage claim  mess
We took a wrong exit and had more dissension
When Google said turn and I didn’t pay attention.
It’s good we were headed for three days at Life,
Where they know how to remedy marital strife.
Daily we studied and listened and turned
In papers we wrote, and gradually learned
Of passions and longings, volitional beings
Structures and stories and new ways of seeing.
We listened to others and then in return
We told them our stories and were happy to learn
That here with these folks was a safe place to be
I could even be honest with sad parts of me.
Of course all this time I was trying to see
How the practical husband was faring, for he
Has very few feelings and might be confused
By longings, emotions, and other words used.
But to my astonishment, he was just fine
With classes and small groups and then down to dine.
Meanwhile his wife who knows all about feeling
Was disrupted, confuzzled, and quietly dealing
With things down inside that she couldn’t quite name
How could this be, and who could she blame?
So Paul used his newfangled counseling skills
To calm her emotional upsets and ills.
Then back on the airplane went Paul and his wife
Grateful for all their new training from Life.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

How to Write and Publish--15--Your Experiences

Here are some of your experiences:

I needed to hear this. I've had a story nudging me for many years. I started writing it and it made me realize I need therapy. I am back at it, but verrry slowly, with therapy sessions in between. I hadn't expected writing to be a healing journey as well.
--Monica Krampien

I have learned (the hard way) to read through my editor's suggested changes and then put the manuscript away for a couple days before I look at it again. Invariably, I begin by being upset by how much red there is, and then after a couple days I look at it again and it isn't nearly as bad as my first impression. Then I can start to go through my work and acknowledge that that changes are actually really good things. :) One creative payment method I've used, and this only works is if the friend/editor has a market for your books, is to pay in books that they can resell. I've done this on piano books where my editor was a piano teacher and could sell the books to her students. I'm paying for books at cost, and she makes a lot more than I could have paid her by selling them at retail prices.
--Donna McFarland

I learned that one should always have the contract signed BEFORE the editing begins. I didn't do that and after all the work was done and I felt obligated to the publisher, the contract offered me requested complete control of my family story forever and ever. Fortunately we were able to come to a fair agreement with a time limit and I think we were both happy. But I came SO CLOSE to signing it because we tend to treat publishers like God -- their word is final.
--Catherine Beachy Yoder

Could I add a detail that Ervin R. Stutzman told me when collecting historical material? He said taking photographs of items like grandma’s quilt or great grandpa’s Bible are good ways to document stuff that you might not even own but exist and you would like your descendants to know about.
Let’s all do our offspring a favor and leave them with more information than just our name, birthdate and death date!
--Sharon Nisly

I made a digital Heirloom Catalog of my stuff. I went through each room taking pictures of everything that came from previous generations and then put it in a file on my computer with descriptions for each picture of what it is and where it came from. I put a copy on a flash drive and gave it to my daughter so she will know what things are. She said she was glad to have it. "I was always afraid we'd get rid of something we should keep and treasure something Dad salvaged from the dumpster."
And while you're at it, recommend they write full names on the back of pictures to identify the people. We get lots of pictures at the historical society that are almost worthless because the people are not identified. Your posterity will not know who Aunt Lena or Grandma's brother was. My brother-in-law's mother had a photo marked "all of us last Sunday." Very enlightening! 
--Romaine Stauffer

Our recent discussion about the pro’s and con’s of self-publishing and being published by an established house reflects the changing landscape that authors should consider today in a crowded field that emerged during the self-publishing era.
More than two decades ago, I sold a home school writing textbook to a Christian publishing house. My manuscript was evaluated in detail by an editor, but I was granted the choice of making suggested changes in the manuscript. I helped promote the book during a series of workshops throughout Central Oregon, and the book appeared in a catalog of Christian educational materials. Several years ago, my offer to revise and to repackage an updated second edition was declined.
I began attending writing conventions a decade ago as I considered writing memoir and fiction. It appeared that the speakers were established writers and that the delegates were wanna-be published authors looking for the “secrets” of success.
It was relatively easy to write memoir and to package a group of essays into book form. Because I was uninterested in making profitable book sales, I turned to self-publishing through CreateSpace.
Then, I toyed with writing books of fiction. The first one, a teen Christian book of fiction, was published by a firm that charged a fee for layout, design, etc., but didn’t market the book aggressively. However, one copy was sold. I now have regained the property rights to the book.
Five years ago, I talked with a Eugene agent, who suggested he might be interested in an advice book. I wrote “Touch All Your Bases, Advice for my Great-Grandchildren,” which the agent returned.  I then turned to Luminaire Press in Eugene for help. Patricia Marshall, a former student of mine, is publisher of the publishing company that contracts with the authors to edit, layout and market books. This is an excellent firm for writers who wish to retain control of a book’s content. It is, however, an expensive enterprise.
A decade ago I decided to give fiction a try. Sent inquiries and manuscripts to a series of agents. Didn’t hear from any of them. 
Five years ago during a writing convention, I paid to have an “expert,” not an agent, read a couple of chapters of my first book of fiction in a series. He suggested that as an 80-year-old I might consider self-publishing, which I did.
I turned to CreateSpace again, which landed my books on Amazon and Kindle. Sold a couple of copies but received such a cut-rate price for self-purchase that I began the practice of giving away copies to friends and family members. 
Five years ago, I started writing “Appleton Annie,” the third book in the series, then put the manuscript on the shelf until being invited to join the Fictitious Five last year. That novel is now completed and is being self-published on Amazon Kindle Direct, the former CreateSpace site.
The process in setting up an account, choosing cover and layout designs, etc. is relatively simple and can be followed by most anyone. It is a no-cost operation for the author. You can purchase marketing help, but that is another story, one with which I am unacquainted.
So, what would I do now if I were two or three decades younger?
I would begin writing a novel, join a critiquing group, take the manuscript to conventions for potential editors/publishers to read. I also would seek an agent, which may require a couple of years or so to accomplish. 
Otherwise, I’m not a fan of conventions for several reasons: primarily because I don’t recall learning much about writing and/or marketing and because of the cost/benefit ratio. For example: I never once heard that you should write in the past tense or that romance yarns require at least two protagonists.
So, what about the future? 
I’m hammering out another romance novel set in a retirement home, and I’m writing in past tense, which is fitting in view of the subject matter.
Do I plan to self-publish? Probably, if I survive.
--Dean Rea

I can only speak to my experience with a publisher but friends have shared bits and pieces of their stories with me. 
A royalty paying house usually:
provides an editor, or two,
three proofreaders (important!)
a cover designer ( some take your pictures and ideas and submits them, then gives you final say --not all publishers do this)
sets up the ISBN
the account with Amazon,
provides a publicist and some a marketing specialist (I have a friend who has a marketing team promoting her books)
promotes from their house website
Adds you to all (trust me) the online reader groups
Includes you in their newsletters
My publisher was very easy to work with, plus I believe they improved the original story. We can get too close to our work to see its flaws. 
My friend who self-published
Did not use an editor ( it shows)
Did not have it proofread (it shows)
Her cover was good, but it was professionally contracted
She was experienced at setting up book signings and had a huge following on FB and a good support system to provide reviews--judging from the glowing reports they were also loyal ( i.e. they lied)
Her story could have been phenomenal but the errors were so glaring it ruined the story for me. So I made my review very general which is also like lying. But she was my friend.
Self-publishing has become an accepted and creditable way to go, but the author MUST do his/her homework.
--Anonymous friend

Saturday, March 02, 2019

How to Write and Publish--14--Eating the Elephant; Getting from Here to There

I was digging in some old files the other day and found a handwritten list. It was well over 20 years old, and it listed everything I had published up to that point. Two articles in Keepers at Home. Three stories in Companions. Two letters to the editor. A story in a Pathway magazine. And so on.

It wasn’t a long list, and every item was of great import and carefully noted. I’m sure I didn’t forget anything.

Most writers want to accumulate a body of work. It’s not enough to publish an article and then move on to hiking or furnace repair. We want to have created something of substance, a large pile of words, a collection. We want to have improved our skills over time. We want to have influenced the world.

A few days ago, I got a reminder on Facebook that five years ago, an article I wrote about my mom was reprinted in the Budget. I had totally forgotten.

The last time I spread out my books on a table at an authors’ event, someone came by, looked at the array, and exclaimed, “Wow! When did this happen?”

How did I get from hoarding every little success to actually forgetting that someone was reprinting an article, and from zero books, to one, to more than half a dozen?

One word at a time. One sentence, one paragraph, little by little, over and over.
Writers never have a sense of being finished. Even with my variety of books, I seem to end up sitting near Bob Welch or Jane Kirkpatrick at library fundraisers, and their stash of published works makes mine look sparse and a bit desperate.

Good writers also keep learning. You never learn everything about the craft, I’m told. In fact, Carrie Stuart Parks, the author/speaker I mentioned previously, told us that she was at a writers’ conference and there was Frank Peretti in the front row, taking notes, still learning how to write. Frank Peretti!

When we went to Kenya to revisit where Steven had come from, and then on to Poland to visit Paul’s brother John and his family, my friend Anita in Poland asked if I’d consider bringing her a little carved elephant from Kenya. She wanted to set it where she could see it often, and it would remind her of this adage: How do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time.

As I recall, her elephant was the task of learning the Polish language.

Now, I have an elephant in my Sparrow Nest to remind me of the same principle.  

On another scrap of paper around here is another list, carefully and thoroughly compiled. It’s a list of all the fiction I’ve written, and it’s a short and a bit pathetic. Everything I complete goes on that list, and believe me, I don’t forget anything. The only stories that have been published are two flip-books designed for vacation Bible schools that I wrote for Northern Youth Programs while we served in Canada a long time ago.

I know that if my body of fiction work is to accumulate into published stories and a table spread with books, it will do so like my nonfiction did: a word at a time, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a book.

It looks like a huge elephant. It will take lots of bites.

When I remember all the early mornings in front of the computer the last 18 years, writing my articles, and all the words squeezed reluctantly from my brain on down to my fingertips and the keyboard, it’s overwhelming. So I don’t dare think in such large terms.

I can set the timer for fifteen minutes and scoop words onto the page like sand into a pile. Drink some tea, change position, write for another fifteen. An early morning here, an afternoon there, notes scribbled while I’m cooking.

I hope to be a better writer in ten years, but I won’t get from here to there if I don’t read, practice, learn, and keep writing.

Little by little, a bite at a time. A word, a sentence, a paragraph, a story.

Thus is a body of work created.

Tomorrow: a few of your stories.

Friday, March 01, 2019

How to Write and Publish--13--Decisions About Your Book

Note to email subscribers who are getting tired of all these posts in your feed: we're almost done!

Publishing a book involves decisions and lots of steps, and this list doesn't cover every situation.

You can do it, though. Step by step.

1. Royalty publisher or self-publishing? We discussed this before. The following information is for you if you decided to self-publish.
2. Do I want to hire a publishing helper to oversee the process or do it myself, either as a general contractor or learning to design covers and pages myself?
3. If I’m the general contractor, where do I get it printed?
4. How will I pay for it?
5. Editing. You’ll need someone to review the content in a general way and someone to look for the tiny details. This can be the same person, if they’re willing. Don’t try to DIY the editing.
6. The title of the book.
7. What type of book should it be, with what sort of binding? Hardcover, paperback, stapled booklet, spiral binding? 8 ½ x 11 workbook? 8 ½ x 6 ½ paperback?
8. What kind of paper—weight, texture, and color (white or cream)
9. The cover—
a) Design it yourself or hire someone (often, printers have someone on staff who can do this) Mine were done by a graphic designer, with Adobe InDesign.
b) Cover font, colors, design
c) The spine
d) The back cover—includes a description of the book, your photo and bio, and a bar code and ISBN, which you can buy online.
e) Extras such as embossing or glossy accents
10. Dedication and/or acknowledgments
11. Copyright page. This will include disclaimers such as the standard fiction paragraph that no one believes—"Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental,” and, if needed, a line about Scripture references for each Bible version you quote in your book. Also get and include permission for quoting other works such as books, articles, and song lyrics.
12. Information on how to order books. This is often on or near the copyright page, or on the last page.
13. Foreword or preface
14. Table of contents
15. Index—needed for genealogies, textbooks, how-to’s, and such
16. Illustrations and photography. Printing a picture book for children is a very different process from printing a novel. Your printer will know more about the specifics than I do.
17. Interior graphics—fancy swirls at each chapter heading, that sort of thing.
18. Font and type size. Size of margins. Books are printed in 16-page groupings called signatures, so the printer might tweak your margins and such so you don’t end up with 15 blank pages at the end of the book. 
19. Number of books to order. With print-on-demand, you can start with ten, 300, whatever you want. With other printers, the price drops per book with every 500 or 1000 you order. If no one has heard of you, start with 50 books. Romaine Stauffer ordered 5000 and sold them in a short time. I was somewhere between with mine.
20. Setting your price. This will appear on the back cover near the bar code. You can also have the price printed elsewhere on the cover, if you like. Remember that bookstores normally get a 50% discount, Amazon and other book distributors get a 60% discount, and Choice Books requires something like a 75% discount.
21. Publicity, advertising, and marketing. If you want to sell your book, plan ahead how people will find out about it.

Yes, it's a big job, but I've discovered a few things. It's ok to ask lots of questions, even when you know so little you hardly know what questions to ask. Book people are helpful people. You might surprise yourself with the skills you pick up in the publishing process.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

How to Write and Publish--12--Agents and Contracts and Platforms, Oh My!

Let’s talk about more of the scary beasts in the publishing swamp: agents, contracts, and platforms.

In the process, we’ll note some of the differences between Mennonite and other publishers and conferences.

One conservative Mennonite publisher is Christian Light Publications. They also host a yearly conference that I’ve attended a few times. There’s no expectation that you’ll be writing for CLP if you attend. The stuff you learn is applicable anywhere.

I’ve also attended numerous one-day conferences and one week-long summer conference through Oregon Christian Writers. Their focus is writing for Christian book publishers such as Tyndale, Harvest House, and Moody, and also Christian magazines such as Guideposts and church take-home papers such as Live.


An agent is a go-between. He or she takes an author’s work and submits it to publishers. Most big publishers such as Tyndale or Penguin don’t accept work coming straight from the author. They insist you use an agent.

Agents are paid a portion of royalties—usually 10%--that an author earns, so they are motivated to get the author the best deal possible. Any agent who asks for payment up front is probably fraudulent.

An agent is also good at looking over your work and telling you if it’s publishable or not, and they are really good at deciphering all the fine print in your contract.

I don’t have an agent yet, but I’ve actually talked to a few of those scary creatures.

Last summer I attended the Oregon Christian Writers summer conference in Portland. They have an efficient system where you can sign up to talk to editors and agents one on one, in 15-minute slots.

One agent turned out to be Nick Harrison from right here in Eugene, whom I knew because he used to work at Harvest House and I ran into him now and then. Also his wife was a Yoder, once upon a time, so we have that in common, and her parents do machine quilting for a retirement hobby.

I signed up to talk to an agent whose list of preferred projects looked like a good fit for me, and she turned out to be Sherry Gore’s agent. Sherry is a Beachy-Amish writer from Florida, so that felt serendipitous. I wouldn’t have to explain what Mennonites are all about if I worked with her.

Then someone snagged me and said another agent would like to talk to me. That one was Bob Hostetler, who works for the Steve Laube agency and wanted to see if we were freindschaft and if I was interested in working on a book idea he had about the Amish.

So the agents turned out to be nice approachable people. I haven’t asked any of them to represent me, but it’s nice to know I have options.

And they are not as terrifying as I had feared.

At the OCW summer conference, I heard agents mentioned often, especially from the panel of book acquisition editors who answered questions about how to get our eager feet in the door. 

Not so at the CLP conference. I don’t think I heard the word once, which confirms that they are open to proposals directly from authors. 

In my experience, the same is true for other Mennonite publishers. Herald Press had contacted me about doing a book for their Plainspoken series, and I didn’t have time, but I sent a few other names their way. One of them was my daughter Amy’s friend Lori, who is an Amish missionary in Thailand and who writes beautiful stories and poetry. “Tell her to send me her idea for a book,” said the editor at Herald Press. No agent required.


If you’re writing a book for a Christian publisher, especially if it’s a Mennonite publisher, you might assume that contracts are not a big deal. If they offer you one, fine. If not, you’ll work it out with a verbal agreement because both you and they are honest, trustworthy, and Menno-nice.


Here’s my advice: Insist on a contract, on paper, no matter how Christian the publisher is. It should cover the types of rights they're purchasing, and for how long. Royalties, author discounts, what happens if they go bankrupt, and many more things you wouldn't have thought of including.

Take the contract they offer and have an experienced author, at the very least, look it over. An agent or a copyright lawyer would be even better. If the terms are questionable or outright unfair, negotiate or leave.

Carrie Stuart Parks, the speaker at a recent OCW conference, told how she published three how-to-draw books for a Christian publisher. Yes, there was that little line in her contract that said the publisher could pull from her books to add them to a compilation, and she wouldn’t receive royalties for that, only a set fee. But that seemed fair enough.

The publisher proceeded to take most of the content of her three books and put it into a compilation, for which she was paid a lump sum of $4000. That stopped the sales of the original books, and the compilation was a bestseller. She estimates that she lost $10,000 a year by agreeing to that little clause.

Two of my friends were ill-used by a now-defunct Mennonite publisher who changed remuneration on one author and also hedged and delayed about offering a contract. They held the other’s manuscript for a full year without making a decision, during which she couldn’t shop it around anywhere else, and then decided not to publish it because it was a bit too controversial.

Insist on professionalism. Don’t let them Menno-guilt you into a verbal agreement, vague terms, or royalties far below the industry standard. They are running a business, not a non-profit ministry, and they shouldn’t tell you otherwise. You may be a beginning writer, but if your work is worth printing, then you are worth being taken seriously.


This is your reach, influence, and readership. It would include blog readers, your email list, your newsletter list, Twitter and Facebook followers, groups who ask you to speak, and people who buy your books or read your magazine articles.

At the OCW summer conference, I heard about platform everywhere I turned. It seemed to be the terrifying qualification that every decision-maker insisted upon and every writer was desperately trying to build. I met far too many grandmas who finally had time to write their book and were hoping to have an acquisitions editor look at it, only to be stymied by that elusive platform qualification and the online and technological know-how it required.

I was told, numerous times, that in the old days you could sit in your attic and write, and the publisher took care of publicizing your work to readers. But today, the author is expected to fire up that train and keep it going, full steam ahead.

My nephew Jason has written a book on suffering, and I pitched it to a few agents, editors, and authors, because I think it is that good. They all evaluated its quality, but they seemed more interested in my nephew’s ability to keep cranking out books and, of course, his platform. Is he on Twitter? Does he have a podcast? Well then. . .

It seemed so wrong.

These are the tactics that “worldly” publishers have adopted, due to competition, ebooks, bookstores closing, focusing on a few big-name authors, and a host of other reasons. Christian publishers have followed precisely in their footsteps.

Another angle of the platform emphasis, which I have heard from a number of writers, is that, similarly to what Good Books did to me, publishers consider your blog “theirs," even if this wasn't specified in the contract. Suddenly they dictate what you post. You’re supposed to make lots of noise about your new book, and everything in your posts is supposed to fit the theme of the book. So if they published your book on cooking with turmeric, you’re in trouble if you post about caring for your grandma, unless you added turmeric to her soup.

I also sensed that the emphasis on platform is a big reason why writers are saying, “I go to the Gentiles.” If you have to do all that publicity either way, you might as well publish your own books. So self-publishing is making a neat end run around the big publishers, who are wringing their hands but not changing their techniques.

However. It was not so with the Mennonite publishers. Again, the word wasn’t mentioned at the CLP conference. Maybe, with the vast interconnectedness of the Mennonite world, it simply isn’t necessary. One mention in the catalog and everyone is informed.

Or maybe CLP and others know that promoting your own work goes against long-held and ingrained Mennonite tradition, and they are wise enough to work with the tradition instead of against it.

I wish I could send all the confused grandmas at the OCW conference to a Mennonite publisher.

Tomorrow: self-publishing books, and a list of decisions you need to make.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How to Write and Publish--11--Royalty Publishing: My Story and A Few How-To's

My one self-published book was doing well, considering, so I wanted to offer it to publishers.

But where to begin?

I did what you should do: looked carefully at books. Which ones were kind of like mine in content and tone? And who published them?

One day I read Dorcas Hoover’s book House Calls and Hitching Posts. “That’s it!” Folksy, human interest, connected to the Amish. I looked inside for information about the publisher: Good Books, in Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

I copied the address. I knew very well this wasn’t the “right” way to approach a publisher, but I wanted to act before I lost my nerve. I put a copy of Ordinary Days in an envelope and added a letter saying who I was and the story behind the book. Would they be interested in re-publishing it?

Yes, said the Goods. They would. 

They also let me know that they very seldom did reprints of this nature. I duly considered myself lucky.

They sent a contract, and I signed it in spite of the fact that it contained “options” which meant that Goods would get dibs on my next book, something my writing group adamantly advised me against.

Goods had said they see this as a long-term investment in me and my work, with other books down the road. I thought it made sense to do a series of similar books. Also, they promised to keep them in print even if the sales weren’t amazing, which is different from most publishers. So I signed. I still feel like it was fair.

Good Books eventually published three books.  The covers were done by Wendell Minor, a top-notch cover artist. The editor who made corrections was careful and respectful. If I planned to travel anywhere, Goods set up a book signing, if I asked.

With time, though, their tone changed. My books of family stories were fine, but what they really wanted was for me to write fiction, specifically and only for them. Amish fiction was popular and, I assume, they wanted to ride that wave as far as it would go, and I was obligated to them, you know?

Well, why not? I didn’t have a clue how to write fiction, but I was willing to try. For practice and fun I wrote a short story and posted it on my blog.

Very soon, I heard from Goods. We need to talk, they said, like your dad says We need to talk, after Stephanie’s mom tells your mom how you were driving last Monday, taking the girls to Aunt Rosie’s. Mr. Good let me know in no uncertain terms that if I wrote any fiction at all, it belonged to them. I was not ever to post any more fiction on my blog.*

I tried to explain, feebly, that this was my blog. Mine! What I put there was none of their business. And the silly story I wrote wasn’t meant to ever appear in a book.

My reasoning was firmly squelched, and so was my eagerness to write fiction. Whatever creative door had begun to swing open in my mind immediately closed with a loud clang and stayed shut. 

Some time after this, I sent the manuscript for a fourth book of essays, and Good Books decided not to produce it. That freed me from all “options” obligations, and I happily proceeded with self-publishing.

A few years ago, Aunt Susie called me. “You need to go online and look up Lancaster Online.” So I did, and there was the news that Good Books had just gone bankrupt.

What is it with my publishers going down in flames?

The next year was full of frustration, as I couldn’t order any more inventory and I needed books for sales and retreats, and also letters from lawyers and scrounging for news from other authors about what was actually going on.

Finally, Skyhorse Publishing bought out what was left of Good Books, paid our back royalties, and let us order books again. They have been wonderful ever since and recently put my three books together into a new book called Sunlight Through Dusty Windows, but first they let me buy the remaining stock of my three books for a low price.

I’m glad I’ve experienced both having a publisher and self-publishing. It’s taught me the advantages and disadvantages of both. Neither is risk-free, entirely pleasant, or necessarily lucrative.

How to submit your work to a royalty publisher.

The following is borrowed from Carrie Stuart Parks, the main speaker at the Oregon Christian Writers conference I attended recently. This is the standard process for working with Christian and secular publishers.

Steps to publishing nonfiction:
A. Query
B. Proposal
C. Contract
D. Write the book

Steps to publishing fiction:

A. Write the book.
B. Query
C. Synopsis and partial
D. Full manuscript
E. Find an agent
F. Contract

The truth is, I am as inexperienced at this process as you are. So I was sitting here Googling “Query” and “Synopsis,” when it occurred to me that you also know how to Google.

Here’s my own how-to list. 
1. Study what’s out there. Notice who published the books you enjoy. Go to the library or bookstore and look for books in your genre (category or type). Read book catalogs. Think about what sort of publisher you want—secular, Christian, Mennonite. Large, small. Local or anywhere. General or specific.

2. Learn about the process. Read how-to-write magazines. Take the plunge and go to conferences, where you will learn more in a day than you would in a month of self-study.

Writers tend to be introverts, and we think we can learn it all on our own from books and then seclude ourselves in our attics and type out manuscripts of flaming excellence. Trust me, you will be mingling with hundreds of other introverts, and you will learn so much, plus you’ll meet people who can put in a good word for you.

3. Learn from mentors and your writing group. Two women in my writing group landed 3-book deals, one in the last month and another in the last couple of years. I know that when I’m ready, they’ll be happy to walk me through the process. 

Tomorrow: the scary monsters: agents, platforms, and contracts

*Publishers like to commandeer your blog for themselves. It's unethical. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, February 25, 2019

How to Write and Publish--10--What is Book Publishing/Making the Decision

Should you self-publish a book?

We talked about Grandma’s life story. That definitely works best as a self-published book.

But what about your book of poetry, your novel, your parenting how-to, or your family’s cookbook?

First, let’s talk about “regular” or “royalty” publishers. These are companies like HarperCollins, Penguin, and Random House in the secular world, Revell, Bethany House, Thomas Nelson in the Christian world, and Carlisle Press, Herald Press, and Rod & Staff Publishers in the Anabaptist world.

This is how it works, vastly simplified:

You offer them your book manuscript.

If they decide to publish it, they buy it from you.

You both sign a contract.

They edit, design, print, advertise, and sell the book. You do not bear any of these costs.

You will get paid through royalties, which is a small percentage of the money that they get. Usually, you’ll get some money before the book sells. This is called an “advance” because it’s an advance on the royalties they hope you eventually earn. You won’t get any more royalties until this advance is paid off in their books. For example, if your advance is $1000 and your royalties are 50 cents per book, you won’t see any more checks until they’ve sold 2000 books.

You sell your work and all the rights to it. You can’t reprint any of it without the publisher’s permission, nor can anyone else. You can’t put it on Kindle or make an audio book.

Usually you can buy copies of your book for about half of the retail price and resell them to other people. You can’t buy copies and then stock them at your local bookstores. 

Advantages of having a publisher:

You don’t have to invest any money.

They do all the hard work to get it in print.

They have a much wider potential readership than you do.

They put the book in catalogs and make it available online. If you’re lucky, they arrange radio interviews and book signings.

Bookstores will consider your book if it’s from a reputable publisher.

Disadvantages of a publisher:

You’re selling your projects and all the rights to it.

You have no control over anything.

It can take years to find a publisher who will accept your work.

Increasingly, big publishers focus their energies on the big-name books and authors, and the less famous authors don’t get much attention. This is less true for the smaller publishers.

Also, increasingly, publishers insist on authors doing a lot of their own publicity. They look for new authors who already have a platform—speaking, article writing, or an online presence—and expect them to vigorously promote their own book. They also expect you to produce at least three books for them and aren’t interested in one-hit wonders. An exception is conservative Mennonite publishers.
It can be a tough decision. Generally, the experts in the field recommend that fiction should go to a publisher. But recently a woman in my fiction writing group, who is nearing the end of a very marketable (I think) novel, expressed her misgivings at signing away all the rights and ownership to her own work.

I don’t blame her.

And yet. The work and expense of producing and selling a novel are potentially enormous.

Other works such as children’s picture books, how-tos, poetry, devotionals, textbooks, and cookbooks are a tough call. If you have something polished and ready, but you’re not used to the process, I would recommend offering it to publishers first.

If they accept, you’ll learn a lot without any financial outlay.

If not, that might be your sign to pursue publishing it yourself.

As explained in the post about my self-publishing story, the swamp is full of people who would love to help you with the publishing process. Some of these call themselves publishers but they’re actually not really, as they never buy the rights to your book. They only help you get it in print.

Some of these are reputable, such as the long-standing church-cookbook producers.

Others are not. We note that WinePress went down in flames after they printed my first book. [Coincidence, I hope.] I just now did a quick search for a church-cookbook publisher and found one that explained the process and said, “Now that you know how simple it is, click here to get started!” That should be a warning right there, I would think, judging by Aunt Vina, who gave me her church cookbook and said emphatically that that is the first and last book she will ever be in charge of publishing.

With publishers, publishing helpers, and everyone else in the field, do your research before you commit. Ask around, read reviews, talk to authors, editors, and printers. A publisher with integrity will encourage you to talk to their authors about the experience.

To repeat what Sally Stuart told me, you’re a good candidate for self-publishing if:
a) You write non-fiction
b) You already have an audience
c) You don’t mind storing a thousand books in your garage
I would add:
d) You have money on hand to invest in the process.

Sometimes, it’s a tough call, and some books are unusual and ambiguous, like my friend Donna's piano-music books for children.

Pray about it, ask around, don’t take huge financial risks, and go with what seems wisest.

*     *     *
One Person's Story: Dorcas Stutzman and her new book, Dear Daughter

   I did self publishing.  It just makes sense for me because we have a pretty broad platform of reach and also because I really love to have my fingers in the process.  I have my own editor and proofreaders who know me well and who I trust tremendously not to take away from the meaning of what I am trying to communicate. That is a direct answer to prayer and I am so grateful.

     I have used Schlabach Printers for each of the books I have written largely because I liked what I saw them produce for others and I personally like the colors and styles of what they create so it seemed to be a perfect fit for me.  It has been an incredibly happy and creative relationship between them and myself.  I literally have no complaints.  They have successfully designed  each of my book covers to match what I saw in my mind.  They have given life to interior artwork ideas I had and brought creative  polish to them.  They have worked up pull quotes for me.  They have been helpful on every level and I would highly recommend them to anyone. 

     I know self publishing is not for everyone.  It can be a lot of money to put up front for five thousand or so books at a time and the storage space needed even if you have a market for them.  It can also feel a bit lonely at times and can produce massive amounts of self doubt! 

     In the end though, when you hold the finished product and you run your hand over the embossed cover (that you agonized over adding) you can’t help but smile with a genuine heart level happiness.  

     I may never write a best seller or be known for my writings, but yet I have been beyond privileged to have had the opportunity to share from my heart in written word. I don’t take that for granted.