Denise wrote to ask, "What's the most important thing I need to know about publishing?"
Well, this morning I opened up my email today, and received a message that began: "If you could give me ten minutes of your undivided attention, the information you're about to view will CHANGE YOUR ENTIRE LIFE."
Well. I certainly could use my entire life changed. (For example, I'd like to be able to dunk a basketball.) But it turns out the author isn't going to make me taller or more athletic, nor is she going to help me glow in the dark or see God. She just wants me to look at her manuscript. And, unfortunately, it's not for a book. It's a play. And, um... we don't handle plays. And it's a "gospel play," though I don't know if that's really a genre. AND the writer is not only looking for an agent, but for "investors."
People wonder why agents and editors sometimes get cynical about projects in their mailbox? This is why. It's like the people who write to tell me about their poetry. I don't represent poetry. There's no way for an agent to make a living selling poetry. Even if I LOVE your poetry, I won't represent it.
So while the details of my answer to Denise's question might change from day to day, the basic answer remains the same: Learn the industry. Every few days I get a proposal from someone that has been sent to a bunch of agents. We'll all be listed in the "to" line, sort of the publishing equivalent of asking for a date to the prom by posting an ad on Craig's List. A ten-minute search on the topic "how to prepare a query letter" would have helped this person understand that it's bad form to cc every literary agent in America. (Unfortunately, it seems whenever I've tried to educate writers about this practice, they're always cranky. I wrote to someone recently and said, "This is the wrong way to go about getting published. Spend a few hours researching how to do this before you send something out." The response: "And you call yourself a Christian!")
Sandi wants to know, "Do you read the comments people make after your blog posts?"
Absolutely. I try to read all of them, and I try to respond back to the person, though I'll admit I don't get to everyone. On my last post (which had to do with a list of great books writers should read), the comments were wonderful. Insightful, strong suggestions for other books, good notes about the books I had listed. I find this to be a conversation, and I learn from others.
It's funny, but I've noticed we've been getting strange spamming stuff as comments in older posts lately. I got this sentence last week: "It's not so simply to make a the best already written essays, preferably if you are busy. I consult you to notice buy essays and to be free from query that your work will be done by custom writing service" (no, there was no punctuation on the end of that crappy sentence). Um... I don't even know what that means, though I suspect the author is trying to sell college essays. But who buys from a person who can't even write a coherent marketing sentence? Yikes.
On a favorite topic, Lisa wrote this: "Are you worried about the direction of religious fiction?"
Concerned? No. I'm excited about the direction of Christian fiction. Lisa, you may want to explore the new directions of religious fiction. Start with some authors like Charles Martin, or Lisa Samson. Take a look at Claudia Burney, or read Susan Meissner. Pick up some books from Elizabeth Musser and Penelope Wilcock. You'll discover contemporary stories that deal with the bigger questions of life, not simplistic views with a slapped-on Bible verse. There are all sorts of new directions CBA fiction is heading -- thrillers, romance, historical novels, literary fiction, you name it.
Some of the discussion regarding recent CBA fiction is that it's moved away from its roots. I don't agree with that -- I think it has expanded, which is exactly what happens to a movement as it grows and develops. That's not a bad thing. I could argue that, at one time, CBA fiction offered a santized and unrealistic perspective of art. I'm not opposed to doing nice, sweet books (in fact, I represent some of those very titles). But think of it this way: If I were a songwriter, would I always have to write a song that had words praising God? Couldn't I write about love or friends or struggles or the beauty of the Oregon coast? If I were a painter, should I feel constrained to only do religious art -- Christ on the cross, the Last Supper, the glory of His return? If I were an actor, is it imperative I only take roles that allow me to be a good guy, a redemptive character? No. This is art, and we're allowed some significant leeway in our artistic calling.
Frankly, I think a lot of the talk about fiction needing to be clean and holy is overblown. Some of the best novels I've ever read have characters struggling with their choices, not always acting redemptively, sometimes making bad decisions. It's the struggle with those choices that offers depth and insight and value to my reading. (And, to be fair, sometimes I read merely to be entertained, so I want action and fun and interesting characters -- and I don't see much in the Bible that condemns that desire.)
In all honesty, I feel there is a certain theological perspective, and accompanying behavioral mores, that are sometimes promoted as "good fiction" in CBA, while things many evangelicals are not comfortable with are being discarded as worldly and evil. And I find that a shallow perspective of literature. Art is about letting go, reaching out, and stretching boundaries. The current fear much of the culture has toward rigid evangelicalism is that it's turning into modern day phariseeism -- i.e., "If you do THIS, you're a Christian; if you do THAT you're not. If you believe THIS, you're a Christian; if you can't check the correct boxes on our theological chart, you're not a Christian." That's not how I view the faith. I especially don't want my faith evaluated by a list of behavior I don't do. (Maturity isn't found simply in refusing certain things, but in actively doing good.) What's odd is that some people are raising this about fiction at a time when the church is growing in new directions, embracing grace, and understanding that the world needs more than behavioral platitudes and bumper-sticker thinking. So here I am (a Talbot Seminary grad and an ordained pastor), struggling with the direction of modern American evangelicalism and the desire to limit artistic expression. I'm pretty conservative in my theology, but I see the art of writing as stretching beyond the safe boundaries of an ultra-conservative American church.
So let's end with something much more fun. My son sent me this link, which is a hoot: http://www.11points.com/News-Politics/11_Most_Painfully_Obvious_Newspaper_Articles_Ever
Take a look at the sort of insightful writing you can find in America's newspapers! (My favorites: "Homicide Victims Rarely Talk to Police" and "Death is Nation's Top Killer.") Take a peek and share a laugh with me.