The Word from Texas (Part One)

by Karen Ball

As many of you know, we at the agency were in Dallas, Texas this last week at the American Christian Fiction Writers’ conference. Folks told me it was too bad we had to go this time of year, that it was unbelievably hot and humid.

I wouldn’t know.

From the time I got to the hotel until I checked out, I never stepped a foot outside. Why, you may ask? Well, let’s see…

I taught a Continuing Education track on “Writing that Sings,” as well as an afternoon workshop (with fellow SLA agent Tamela Hancock Murray) on “Overcoming Fiction Foibles. In between, I met with editors, conferees, and a number of my delightful clients. I also accompanied several of said delightful clients to their meetings with editors. Every meal was a meeting, every meeting was fast-paced and full of information. And I took part in the My Book Therapy production of a musical, based on Oklahoma (I was Ado Annie, the agent who cain’t say no—don’t get excited, folks, Ado may not be able to, but I’m good at it <gg>).

All of which is to say by the time I checked out on Sunday, my brain was full to overflowing. So here are a few of the tidbits I picked up in all those gatherings and meetings:

From Editors

  • The tried and true isn’t so tried or true nowadays, so some editors are taking a look at things that haven’t been seen in CBA for awhile, such as biblical fiction, foreign settings, and young adult.
  • Authors that sign on for a project have been known to drop out at the last minute, leaving editors with a hole they need to fill…NOW. So guess who editors come to asking if any of our clients happen to have a completed manuscript on hand that isn’t contracted? Yup, the agents. One publisher came specifically to our agency, and only our agency, because they trust us to meet the need. That meant a lot to all of us.
  • In-house staff continues to suffer cutbacks, so there are ever-decreasing numbers of people to do the work. Which means more piled on to already overworked folks. And that means they need folks like Steve, Tamela, and me more than ever to help out. I had one agent say to me, “Thanks for being my filter and weeding out the proposals that aren’t ready for me.”
  • The overall feel out there is surprisingly positive. Publishers are feeling their way in the new landscape, sure, but they’re excited about doing so. And some feel it’s giving them—and writers–new opportunities.

From Writers

  • While branding still matters, more and more writers who have been published are recognizing that they themselves are the brand, rather than a specific genre or category. (This is something that Sally Stuart, Janet Kobobel Grant, Wendy Lawton, and I—who make up the leadership team of the Mount Hermon Career Track—have been saying in that track for years. So I’m especially happy to see writers embrace the idea.)
  • The plethora of social media and marketing ideas out there just keep growing, and writers seem to be in two camps: those who LOVE social media, those who DESPISE it. I spoke with one author who was almost dancing in the hallway at all the opportunities to get in touch with readers. Another told me she wanted to crawl under the table at the idea.
  • Publishers are cutting midlisters loose more quickly, so writers have less time to “make it” before they find themselves “free agents,” so to speak. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “This isn’t how I expected my career to go.” Writers find themselves wondering what’s next—or if there is a next.

Next week I’ll talk about what I heard from fellow agents, but I wanted to stop here for now, in part because there’s just too much to put in one blog. But mostly because I want to say to any of you who have struggled with that last bullet point, yes, there is a next. But here’s the thing, understanding what exactly that is means being focused on the now. On the One who has given the task of writing. On what He is seeking to accomplish in you through the journey you’re on.

With God, there’s always a next step. And the beauty is that we don’t need to worry what it is. We just need to keep our eyes on Him, keep our ears trained to His voice, and rest in the truth that He’s got this.

He’s got it, friends.

He’s got you covered in every way. And He’s at work to bring about His will in you and your life. I know it’s easy to brush that aside in the face of career or financial woes, but none of that changes the truth of the matter. God is in control.

My prayer for each of us today is that we can take a deep breath and, even if only for a moment, rest in that truth. And maybe, just for awhile, let the worry and striving go. And walk for awhile in the sure knowledge that we’re not on our own.

He’s there.

I promise.


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To Conference We Shall Go!

The American Christian Fiction Writers’ conference ( is just around the corner (Sept. 18-23 in Dallas, TX), and I’m seeing increasing buzz online about all the fun attendees are going to have. It’s true, too. Writers’ conferences are a lot of fun, especially those focused on the Christian market. In fact, I’ve equated them to church camp because the feel is very much the same. It’s a delight to be with folks you haven’t seen face-to-face for months, even years. And there’s just no joy to compare with being surrounded by folks who love words and writing and reading as much as you do. So it’s little wonder that people are excited. Heck, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to copious amounts of hugs and laughter and coffee shared with those of like mind and heart.

And yet, for all the great fellowship and teaching we’ll find at ACFW and other writer’s conferences, allow me to give two cautions.

First, be strategic. If you wanted to, you could do things from dawn to…well, dawn! Between workshops and teaching tracks, general sessions and panels, spotlight sessions and late-night events, author and editor meetings, brainstorming and marketing sessions…you can find something to fill every moment of every day. I know that’s the temptation, especially considering that conferences aren’t cheap. After all, you want to get your money’s worth, right? As true as that is, you also need to make sure you’re not overdoing it. (Consider reading some of the related posts linked at the bottom of the page.)

Writers’ conferences are among the most exhausting thing I do, and I’m an off-the-scale extrovert! For most of you folks, who tend to tip the chart at introvert with a capital I, writers’ conferences can pretty much do you in. Not only can you end up physically exhausted, but your emotions can run the gamut as well. Hopes rise and fall, dreams come true and crash and burn, and egos are inflated, bruised, and decimated.

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The Writers Conference Decision

The Right Conference?

As you pursue a writing career, one big question is how much time and money to devote to writers conferences. Conferences have many benefits, including the chance to meet face to face with editors and fellowship with writers. Some writers have plenty of time and money and love to attend conferences because the events get them out of the house and they enjoy meeting other writers. There is nothing wrong with attending conferences for these intangible benefits, and just for fun. But writers with more modest resources may want to ask themselves questions before choosing a conference.

Do I need to attend writers conferences to sell books? 

No. Many successful writers have never attended a conference. Some aren’t able to break away because of family and day job commitments. Others can’t spare the money. Most agents accept submissions from writers they’ve never met, and editors often buy books from writers they’ve never met. And it’s possible to meet through other ways than conferences. So if attending a writers conference isn’t possible for you right now, don’t despair. Just keep writing and submitting your best work. The time and money to travel will come at the right point in your career.

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Do You Have Perfect Pitch?

Thanks so much for all the ideas for my mini-conferences. I’ll put those together soon.

Speaking of conferences, while I was at a writer’s retreat awhile back, I was struck, as I always am when in the company of writers, by the power of the right word used in the right way. On the first day of the conference, I had group meetings with the writers. This is where a group of writers come in, sit at a table together, and each takes a turn pitching his/her book to me to see if I would be interested in representing the author. I had six groups, each lasting a half hour, made up of anywhere from 5-7 people each. So folks had a total of 3-5 minutes to engage me in their project.

It’s the writer’s conference version of speed dating!

The cool thing is, a good number of those who came had such a strong understanding of their project and of the market that they were able to hook me in the first few words. Now that’s doing your homework! For example, one woman told me right off the bat her book was romantic suspense, what the main story line was (in a sentence), and what the conflict and spiritual takeaway were. That took about 45 seconds of her 4 minutes, so from there I asked questions about the story and focus and she was able to relax and just talk. I ended up asking her to send me the proposal. Don’t know if we’ll pursue it–the writing is what tips the scales, of course. But I was impressed with her well chosen descriptions. And if I’m considering two manuscripts and all things are basically equal, I’ll always go with an author who is, first and foremost, teachable, and then able to communicate the heart and soul of her story quickly and effectively.

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Writers’ Conference Spotlight: Mount Hermon

One of the best-loved conferences is the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. This year the conference will be held from March 30th to April 3rd. I first went to this conference in the late 90s, and have returned every year since. I love the heart of this conference, which is all about uplifting and encouraging, and about honoring the One who has called us to this amazing task. So, as promised last week, I’m delighted to have conference director Rachel Williams join me today to talk about this year’s conference.

KB: Welcome, Rachel! In only a little over a month hundreds of writers of all abilities, shapes, and sizes will descend on the campus of Mount Hermon Christian Conference in the Santa Cruz Mountains of northern California! Are you going totally crazy?

RW:  Actually, this IS the time of hundreds of details for the conference!  But it’s what I love doing, so it’s fun for me.  I’m eager for everyone to get here and to have the conference in full swing.  It energizes me like nothing else.

KB: Tell us about the conference. How long have you guys been helping writers?

RW: We’ve been “doing” writers conference for 43 years! It’s been such an honor to encourage, motivate, and grow hundreds of writers, many of whom are now professional authors because of the training they received here.  There are many you’d recognize including, Jerry Jenkins, Sarah Sundin, Ginny Yttrup, Mary DeMuth, to name only a few.

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A Gathering of Twitches

This blog is from one twitch to another. Let me explain…

My husband loves that I’m a writer. He loves my creativity and passion. And he loves how happy I am when I’m writing. He knows when I’m writing because I get “twitchy.” Translation: Distracted. Otherwise occupied. Caught up in scenes and conversations no one but I—and that multitude in my mind–can see or hear. He knows that when the twitchies hit, he’s only wasting breath to ask me things like, “Did you pick up milk today?” or, more true-to-life, “Why is the milk in the oven?” He knows when I’m lost in twitchiness that I don’t realize what’s happening in the here and now. And so he just sighs, checks to see if the milk is still cold, then puts it away. Or goes to the store for a new gallon.

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Conference Proposal Requests

The recent ACFW conference (attended by nearly 700 writers and industry professionals) has writers, agents, and editors in overdrive as we all attempt to follow up on conference proposal requests. Writers are working feverishly to get proposals to editors. Some are thinking, “Surely the editor who seemed so excited about my proposal is checking email at least once or twice a day looking for it. I must, must, must get the proposal out today!”

Not so fast

Our word is our bond, and we feel responsible when we promise to submit a proposal as soon as we can. Accountability is to be commended. Editors and agents appreciate conscientious writers. However, most of us are looking for a writer’s proposal under certain conditions, and those conditions are usually quite urgent in the careers of writers already established with us. From my perspective, conference requests are different. Here are a few examples:

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ACFW 2011 Report

This past weekend nearly 700 novelists, editors, agents, and industry professionals gathers in St. Louis for the 10th annual American Christian Fiction Writers conference.

It is always invigorating to be with so many highly creative people and to be a part of the discovery and development of tomorrow’s bestselling authors.

I had over 30 one-on-one appointments and editor meetings, taught three classes, and had dozens of “hallway” meetings of all kinds. Our agency had 47 clients in attendance too. This was the first time Karen Ball, Tamela Hancock Murray, and I were together at the same event since they joined the agency. What a blast! It is so great to have them as a part of our agency.

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ICRS / CBA Bookseller’s Convention

Today is the official opening of the convention in Denver. This year will be my 28th consecutive ICRS (International Christian Retail Show) or CBA as we veterans still call it (Christian Booksellers Association Convention). I absolutely love the experience. I’ve attended as a retailer, as an exhibitor, and now as an “industry professional.” I find it amusing that each name badge is color-coded to help exhibitors know whether the person in their booth is a bookseller (and thereby a potential customer) or a browser, like me. What makes it particularly fun is that the “agent” color is black….the color of an agent’s soul.

PRO: There is nothing like the experience of walking the floor of the world’s largest Christian bookstore. Everything is there, the good, the bad, and the outrageous (like the balloon art crucifix or the painting of a junkie shooting heroin into the arm of Jesus). The spirit is electric. It can be overwhelming, but ultimately it is a picture of God at work. As a writer you can meet key people, network with fellow writers, collect catalogs (those that aren’t digital), and simply increase knowledge of what the industry is all about.

CON: Unrealized expectations. Too many writers think the convention should be all about them. It isn’t. Disappointment is palatable with some folks at the end of the experience. Their publisher didn’t pay enough attention to them; not enough people came to their signing; no editor was available for an appointment…etc. Go to the convention with modest expectations and the chance of disappointment with be minimized.

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