I wish every writer could see what we see as agents and editors with regard to proposals. I wish they could experience the sheer variety of book ideas presented at writers conferences and through the submission process. It is breathtaking. And sometimes heartbreaking.
I wrote down a selection of the true stories that have recently crossed my desk. This small sampling shows real-life events that inspired a writer to write their book, create a proposal, and approach the agency. The amount of difficulty, pain, and suffering in these lives is astounding. (and remember this is just a small sampling of the non-fiction proposals we received) The list includes:
Deliverance from demons
Struggles of being a single parent
Death of a child (multiple proposals)
Husband announces he is gay
Terminal cancer (Multiple proposals)
Murder of a family member
Marriage book inspired by death of wife with whom writer had been married 60 years
Sexual addiction of husband (more than one book proposal)
Chronic illness (multiple proposals)
Coming out of a lesbian lifestyle
Each one represents a person or a family affected in a significant way. When I spend the better part of a day reading these kind of proposals I become numb, not from lack of feeling but from too much feeling.
And the hardest part? Saying “no thank you” to these amazing people. “Sorry we cannot offer representation to you.” (The why of this answer is found below.)
But the question for today is to everyone who is writing either fiction or non-fiction and drawing from their own experience. What do you do when the book becomes personal? It is your story. Your life. And often it tells how God, in His infinite mercy, has sustained you. So much so that you want to tell others that they are not alone and that God will do the same for them.
Write the Book
Seems like simple advice, but if you have a story, write it. Getting the words on paper is a way to give substance to the experience. It can be a journey fraught with reliving past pain, but it can also be therapeutic. At the very least it helps to memorialize the events.
We often run into people at a conference or in our daily connections who simply need to know how to write a book. Fortunately a writers conference is full of practical instruction, not just about how to publish and sell a book, but how to put one together in the first place.
Communicating the story or the experience is the ultimate goal and to do so with excellence and clarity. A task that takes a lot of work and intentionality.
Determine Commercial Viability
Commercial viability is a fancy way of asking “will it sell if published in the general marketplace?” One must become tough minded when seeking the answer. I wrote a blog a couple years ago asking “Would you buy your own book?” It boils down to the question that publishers have to ask about every project: “Can this book elbow its way into the hearts and minds of readers…and sell enough copies to justify the expense of production and marketing?”
To quote the famous sign-off line from an old TV show, “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” And if that is true, what makes yours the one that will cause a reader to spend $20?
There is no shame with the answer being a “no thank you.” It is an answer based on economics not on the validity or worthiness of the story.
Are there Alternatives?
One of the greatest developments for writers in the past fifteen years has been the reduction in cost to pursue publication independently. A couple decades ago you had to spend $10,000 and have a garage full of books to publish on your own. No longer. With technology like print-on-demand and ebooks, everything has changed. It isn’t “free” to do it right, but the cost can be considerably less.
That is one alternative. Create enough copies for family and friends and to fill the back table if you are asked to speak on the topic somewhere.
But there is another possibility.
Consider re-writing the book. But instead of making it biographical, make it topical. Become an expert on the subject (beyond personal experience) and research/talk with others with similar experiences. Then write a book on the way many people have dealt with this issue. That way the book is not about you. It is about everyone. Your story is one of the ones included.
I’ve seen this approach work over and over again with great success. It doesn’t invalidate your experience, in fact yours is enhanced by others to prove the necessity for material on the topic.
Another idea is to write the book the way you want…and then put it aside. I know of one author who has created at least four books based on materials found in their first unpublished manuscript. It became a well from which the author could draw.
But I Don’t Want to Do it That Way
There is much to be said for passion on a topic. And when the story is yours it can also be a calling to tell it to as many people as possible. We understand and say “go for it.” But that may not change whether or not a major publisher or a literary agent will embrace it as something that will be economically feasible.
Never forget however, commercial viability is only one reason to write and publish a book, not the only reason. However it is likely the strongest reason a major traditional publisher and a literary agent will get involved.
Kay dew Shostak
As a writer, so many people tell me about their personal story book they want to write. Thank you for this article that lays out so well what I try to say to them. I will keep it on hand to share. You do a good job of balancing compassion and business, which is difficult. Thanks again.
Kay, I ditto your comment about the great job of balancing compassion with business. This agency does an outstanding job of presenting the truthful reality of the publishing industry with encouragement to keep writing.
Great article. I was wondering how you determine if a work is economically feasible, if it can sell in the marketplace? Is it just the idea and the writing skill? Or are there other factors involved? I’m about ready to send a fiction proposal to your agency within the week, and after working on it for two and a half years, I think it’s feasible, but that is up to you guys to decide. 🙂 Also, do you automatically turn down new writers if they don’t have an internet presence or any marketing channels, even if the idea seems like a good one? Thanks again for your blog posts. Very enlightening.
A couple of years ago, I came in second place in a contest. I was thrilled and honored.
The story was a romance with a subplot involving the heroine’s pregnant teenage niece.
I was approached by two small presses interested in the story. I didn’t have an agent so I studied the two presses. Neither one had appealing book covers, and one press focused primarily on teen pregnancy. As I studied their website, I felt myself becoming the voice of teenage pregnancy. And that was only the subplot of the story. The other press asked me to include a teenage pregnancy in the heroine’s past. I rewrote the story but never felt comfortable. I still feared the focus was on teen pregnancy and not the romance. And I loved the relationship between the hero and heroine.
In the end, I passed on both offers. Reading your post today affirms I did the right thing for me at the time. Thanks so much for sharing.
Jackie, thanks for sharing your experience. I recently went to a conference and heard a writer (who was presenting) admit she had wanted to be published so badly that she signed a contract in which she only earned royalties on a certain amount of sales. After that, the publisher received all the earnings. And this children’s Christian book is still selling today, years later–and she gets nothing from it. Another writer gave away all rights and can’t even self-publish a book that is now out of print. She thinks it could have a comeback since middle grade fiction is on the upswing. Maybe there’s a way through the law she could buy back her rights? How expensive is that? Or is there even such a thing? Maybe the agency can answer this question.
There is so much to learn about this industry and without people being willing to share, no one would learn. Thank you! I know that wasn’t like your situation, but I so appreciate people like this writer and you sharing so us novices don’t get caught up in the “oh, someone likes my writing” euphoria.
You’re welcome, Melodie.
Somebody else may have made a different decision and been fine, but I felt it wasn’t the right path for me.
We dare not own our own works. The problem though, is that to be able to feel life and comment meaningfully on it, it is essential that we go experience it. David wrote from the depths of his cave and the heart of his struggle, so did Paul and others, but what they wrote about was the God they met in such circumstances. We cannot achieve relevance or empathy until we have been immersed into real struggle.
The man I was at the outset of the last 10 years (exactly today), is very different to the man that is now emerging. The greatest struggle for all of us is with our self-ness, our identity. Even Paul admitted that what he wanted to be, he couldn’t. So a wilderness journey is an essential part of equipping us for a higher purpose, be it to write or to minister or to achieve in some other area of life. I have explored patterns of scripture and found that seasons of deep contradiction and desert-like despair preceded the emergence of all the great biblical characters, but the likes of contemporaries like CS Lewis, Spurgeon, Taylor and Moody, confirm the same.
The only thing worse than writing our own story, is to not have one and to thus write mechanistically, from an intellectual distance. That said, when Abraham walked to Moriah, he had to let go of ‘his boy’, ‘his dream’, ‘his legacy’ – and exchange that with God, for a nation, a people and a Redeemer. At some stage in my writing God led me to rewrite everything in the third person and to relate to the struggles all around me. I let such souls tell their own stories.
I can honestly say, with all humility, that the reason I get positive feedback now, is because people resonate with my experience, a far cry from the aloof, opionated perspective that characterized my past. When Jacob came full circle, his surrender to the God of Bethel marked the inception of his patriarchy of Israel – we must all reach that point before we will count for God. True writing is more art than science – it arises from the depths of a soul that has sat before the blackboard of God and borne the yoke of learning.
This is an excellent topic, Steve, and you have handled it wisely. It must be wrenching to turn down such stories, but the truth is, many of our stories aren’t really ready for publication, or the climate in publishing isn’t right. Also, they may be poorly written. I like to advise writers to write their story after it has distilled in their soul at least five years. During that time, journal what God is teaching you, how He is developing your insights. Then, when you write, you will have real food for another hurting soul. If non-fiction doesn’t work, try fiction. It’s very freeing to write a novel drawing from personal experience but not confined by it. We never lose what we’ve learned. It just takes another form. Hope that helps.
Great post on a very interesting subject.
I’d suggest two supplements to the conversation.
First, in determining commercial viability, another question to ask is “would anyone else WANT to be you?” That is what we’re inviting in a memoir…the chance to live in someone else’s skin for awhile, to experience that which the writer has experienced, knowing that it was true. There were relatively few memoirs of Viet Nam until the late 80s and early 90s, because in the intervening decades, until the Wall was built, people wanted to forget. The stories did not change, but in accepting that war for what it was, and accepting the men and women who served there, this country gave itself a sort of collective permission to open that dusty locker, and look inside. The bogeymen who had inhabited it, the demons of shame and guilt, had passed from the scene.
A second thought is to rewrite your story as a novel, with a definite story arc. That’s something most of us lack…our lives only have context as threads in the warp and woof of the Creator’s tapestry. Vitally important to us in the micro, they do not compel in the macro.
True, there are some stories which create their own context; that of Chris Kyle (“American Sniper”) comes to mind. The full arc of his life was only seen in its ending, as he was killed trying to help another veteran come to terms with PTSD…but Chris could not write that story in real time.
Novelization changes that. It’s not a matter of writing an ending we’d like to see happen, or prefer to avoid; it’s a matter of selecting a context, be it faith-based or secular, and fitting our story into that framework as an example of hope, or a cautionary tale. We still own the story’s heart, but we’ve translated our “prayer language”, so to speak, into the common tongue.
I like your take on warp and weave – makes a nice word play.
I agree to a point. I certainly extended my core non-fiction work to a series of novels, with the express purpose of fleshing out the principles into relevant narratives. However, it was never gratuitous – I always wrote with a purpose, not to merely tell a story or get sold.
A novel runs some risk of trivializing what can be very real and painful issues. More than that, as what happens with many preachers who no longer reference scripture in the pulpit, we run the risk of reproducing an opinion instead of defending biblical models. People don’t need more epithets and morals – the truth sets free.
When the likes of Tyndale simply read scripture from the Greek, with a simple translation, their lecture halls filled to bursting in the deep hunger for biblical truth. There is far too much latitude and license in novelization and that can water down the essence of God’s message for a hungry world. It takes a lot more work and guts to defend a biblically based thesis in a non-fictional work, as it will be tested, but men like Paul or Peter would defend that over novels, any day – and so would I. I don’t think you can ever truly claim credence until you have written serious non-fiction.
Such an informative piece, thank you. Great ideas for people to get their stories out there in other ways–like the anthology idea.
I agree .. very meaningful.
Hi, Peter. While there is a lot of truth in what you say, I will also defend the fact that just because a book is a novel does not mean there are no scriptural truths in the pages, and writing a novel does not make it any less credible. If you read the old testament, it seems to be filled with nothing but stories of great biblical men and women, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophetic books aside. Within those stories, you can glean biblical truths, learn how God wants us to act, even if it doesn’t come out and explicitly say so. The same can be said of a Christian novel, especially if that Christian novel has scripture references at appropriate points. Great points, Peter, but I think it’s unfair to say that if a novel is fiction, it’s less credible than a non-fiction book.
Patrick, don’t get me wrong. I wrote 6 novels because that has its place. However, I was also deeply aware that it was far less challenging and offered significantly more creative latitude. The disciplines of writing an exhaustive, 10 year non-fiction work laid the foundations for every novel but also taught me more than I can describe about the nuances of writing. Most human learning is inductive, starting from specifics and generalizing to applications – students are taught that way and they are given little latitude to integrate their knowledge until they have acquired the pillars and foundations of their mustering. Well, God teaches us the same way, building line upon line and precept upon precept. Jesus was the product of 4,000 years of cumulative understanding that clarified issues like sin and sacrifice to lay the foundation for the application of biblical truth: redemption and victorious life in Jesus. Indeed, it is only through the lens of New Testament out-workings and teachings that old testament stories really come into their own and interpret themselves, failing which they would only have remained moral lessons – which cannot solve the human crisis.
I am so thankful and in awe of the wonderful perfection of my Redeemer. This morning as I read the blog, Steve, I must say this is a wonderful day the Lord has made. Never can I praise HIM enough. I found an answer and GOD served it on a silver plater,(I speak here of the blog).
I know you are gonna wonder how I recieved this answer from the blog. Between the lines GOD delievered the following to me. “The first chapter of your book needs to be redirected to the end of your book.
Struggling with my book last night after church, I began to feel my opening chapter was not fitting. It is a great chapter I was very happy with. I knew I just couldn’t ditch it. It needed to be in the book. When I read the blog this morn. The answer jumped out at me. Now I can’t wait for that part of my day, when I work on my book.
Thank you Jesus
I feel that old time religion, just like Paul and Silas. I feel like a shout is coming on. The prison doors have swang open. Thankful I am home alone. (Don’t worry abt me I will be okay). Just experiencing a lil writer joy. I am one step closer to a proposal!!!!!
Excellent blog, addressing an important misconception. Thank you!
Sandy Faye Mauck
I think the most powerful thing you told them was, “Would you buy your own book?”
People told me I should write my life story. I looked at them like they were crazy and said, “Sure, if you really want to see a new sordid Lifetime movie.” Not me. So I take the little bits of my hard walk and pull out a stepping stone here and there and weave it into fiction. Reliving a nightmare is hard and it would be hard to infuse humor into some of those sad proposals you listed. If they write it out, they can sort it out and then God can show them what He wants to do with it.
My first thought is that some of these things could be small ministry e-books or pamphlets to give when you come across the right ones. Tough issues need real answers but only God can define how and where they need to be shared.
Steve, I am so glad I don’t have your job. A tough one, indeed.
A very compassionate, considerate post. Strong alternatives presented. I think it’s significantly unusual that you care, sincerely care, as deeply as you do.
So well said. Thank you, Steve, for validating everyone’s story.
I have seen time after time in my life people making the same mistake over and over again regarding THEIR experience in any given situation and how they relate it unerringly to others. The mistake is that they assume their experience WILL BE the same for everyone else, nothing could be further from the truth.
I don’t know if this notion is born of arrogance or ignorance, something else or maybe some of each. The more firm they are in their conviction when speaking of what someone else’s experience will be based on their own the more I know to view them with discerning skepticism.
I have seen some of the most beautiful prose rendered inconsequential by some of the most inane blather contained therein. Its truly a shame. It makes me think, “what could have been….”.
To me, writing serious non fiction is not, by a long shot, a requisite qualifier of being a “credible” writer. I find the proposition preposterous. Of course it “may” be a SELF IMPOSED requirement for an individual who feels that to become a credible writer within their own mind but certainly does not extend to all writers.
My Father, Our Lord Jesus Christ, often spoke in parables. These were many times metaphoric teaching stories. They were alive with visually descriptive language evoking experiential memories (that may have differed) in many., they related to everyone. Sometimes dry, factual, scholarly reference works are exceptional (and have their place) but do no have the “reach” to be widely read. Jesus was aware “the choir was saved already”, he fished in deep waters.
The premise that “Jesus was the product of 4,000 years of cumulative understanding that clarified issues like sin and sacrifice ………….” is downright alarming to me. Jesus, the Son of Yahwah IS so very much more than 4000 years of cumulative “”human” understanding. (reread para 2 here).
We all have our own opinions and I will be the first to say that mine may not always be right. They remain open to revision upon additional learning. By sharing mine and my reading of others some benefit may be derived. Iron sharpens iron.
Andrew, I hope you are feeling better. To answer your question I would reply “I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind wanting the ENTIRETY of my life”. They may however enjoy living it vicariously for a temporary spell.
Jackie, your discernment is truly commendable. You go girl!
Steve, still waiting on YOUR book. You have a VERY deep well to draw upon. I do understand you may wish to wait until you retire before releasing it. Millions of writers are waiting with me.
God Bless each and every one!
I just kept a daily journal and I included the everyday stories of people I mt along the way. God turned that into something more. Don’t give up writing altogether Janelle, but actually its all about communication and if one-on-one relationships are working better for you and God is in that, I too am happy to exchange my pen for that.
I read through these comments a couple times and I want to thank everyone for igniting some thought provoking perspectives on the subject. Thank you all!
Two things were confirmed by this post. First, I don’t know if I’m going to try and publish my current WIP (YA fantasy), but I’m going to finish it, take the steps to get it polished up, and then see where the Lord leads it next.
Secondly, while I’m not presently sharing the stories I write with readers, I’m sharing them with people in day to day life. Face to face. Old school style 😉 I don’t write for adults and work mostly with kids, but this school year God has placed a handful of wonderful women I’ve really connected with, and only one knows Jesus. A couple of the women have mentioned some struggles that I’ve faced and only with Jesus have broken the chains. God has opened many doors for me to mention the reason for my freedom and I’ve been so blessed to be a light to these women, again, face to face.
If I’m ever published, neat! If not, I will continue to share my stories with the people in my community and build relationships that way. And since I’m mostly an extrovert, I’m having a blast!
By implication, dismissing personal experience also dismisses the personal stories of the bible. Actually I am as inspired by the personal trials of souls from thousands of years ago as I am by the personal reflections and testimonies of contemporary lives. I doubt if people who have walked aways with God are likely to assume that they have it all. On the contrary, if my own experience is anything to go by, they would have asked a lot of questions of a lot of people, referenced a lot of others in similar circumstances and explored the scriptures in search of answers. That journey is critical to relevance. As a novelist, I am clearly not opposed to novels, but starting from a robust foundation is critical to relevance. It is also a great discipline. Besides, how does a non-fiction differ at an opinion or philosophical level from what you attribute to those who write from personal experience – both are just ideas or subjective perspectives and both need to acquire substance through the cross-referencing of scripture or, in line with Paul’s model of the body, through iron sharpening iron. I don’t think Steve is dismissing personal stories, he is challenging over-personalization, which may be a starting point for many writers but cannot be an end point for anyone wanting to be published – we have to find ways to remove subjectivity.
Sorry Jenelle, I was replying to M.
Peter, great discussion. I, personally, did not draw the conclusion that Steve was dismissing personal stories per se. Even if he was I would not extrapolate that out to personal stories of the bible.
My take on the article is that even though people’s personal stories are compelling they may still, at least roughly, fall into the genre of memoir. SLA (Steve Laube Agency) is far too considerate to further point out “a memoir of somebody who no one has ever heard of”.
Keep in mind that the SLA is first and foremost a commercial enterprise, having a social mission likely comes in somewhere down the line after that. HOWEVER, THEY KNOW WHAT THE BUYERS (PUBLISHERS) WANT, ITS BOOKS THAT SELL.
I hear them loud and clear with the VERY SOUND advice to take a compelling personal story and make it topical. THAT MEANS MAKE THE STORY ABOUT THE “TOPIC” NOT A SPECIFIC INDIVIDUAL. People have a far better chance of recognizing the “topic” and relating to it rather than the specific individual that they have never heard of and that, my friends, may translate into immediate and sustained BOOK SALES. With that you are now speaking in “publisher dialect”.
In my opinion a writer needs to decide what their writing goals are, maybe they need to write them down. Once decided, FOCUS on those specific goals and don’t try to present the entire panoply of the written word in one work. God has already done that via the Bible and no one is going to top it. God has given everyone a gift to remove subjectivity if people would only avail themselves of it, DISCERNMENT.
Wisdom is found on the lips of him who has discernment, but a rod is for the back of him who is void of understanding.
Have a blessed day!
We all HAVE a great gift from God available to us remove subjectivity, the gift of discernment. I agree with you that many works/ideas/thesis/concepts presented as FACTUAL have turned out to be FICTION.
Frankly M, I think the commercial function ensures objectivity. If a book sells it is because it resonates and the only test of that is its market reach. My history is in finance and strategic marketing and I am degreed in both, which is why I regularly argue for bottom-line logic. That said, my experiences of this world have taught me time and again, what Luther found, that there is a deep cry in so many for truth, for understanding, for help, for guidance etc. Where I novelized, I did so to make such truth more accessible, but I never set out merely to tell a story. I set out to convey deeper meaning in a way that is subtle enough to achieve broader appeal, but intense enough to touch deeper needs. However, what informed that all was a personal wilderness where I learnt critical principles and where God saved me from my self-centredness. I am now seeing people in crisis more because of their self-ness than because of external factors, which is interesting as a writer who goes through all that and then makes it personal, probably needs to keep on walking. I really felt God had me keep walking until that was uprooted. Its an aspect of a broader, more intense learning curve, but what I gained in all that became my imprint, my writing personality. The great souls of old found their spiritual identity in their own deserts and that too laid the foundations for how they related to the world or communicated the essence of God.
I’ve decided I’m going to write the books I want to write. Some may be commercially viable and others won’t be. And I’m okay with that.
You could achieve both Peter. In marketing, a firm could measure its overall market penetration based on total volumes sold, but astute marketers never do that. They measure penetration of their target market, else they are not being true to their brand. That then becomes a measure of the specific effectiveness of their communication. So unless you are your own target market and are happy to settle for 100% penetration of that market, talking to and listening to the heartbeat of your culture will help you to resonate with a broader audience – and that could be really useful. To be honest though, I only regard myself as a scribe, the pen of a ready writer. I have loved Jesus and His ways since I awakened to Him at 7, and I only really ever had one life ambition – to tell His story. So I find deep fulfillment in writing about the nuances I glean from my quiet times and other encounters of God, including what He says through others or through life.
Peter M., in my opinion, refinement of personal vision, voice, style and goals, among other things, for one’s own writing is a self indicator of the degree of proficient maturity that has been achieved. Certainly there are many parking places along the road to success and it is incumbent upon each and every writer to determine for themselves their own definition of success and what its final destination is. By doing this they will at least have some idea of where they are going and may be able to tell how far they have come and, hopefully, when they have “arrived”.
“Writing” is so vast it is very easy to become “lost” in the brambles, panic and not see the ripe fruit right in front of one’s eyes. It is so easy to spend what seems a lifetime thrashing about, expending a lot of energy and accomplishing very little other than making a lot of useless or, Lord forbid, excruciatingly painful (to others no less) noise. Self organization, education, focus, goal setting and the like are a compass through that valley of (writers) death.
To me, respectfully, it matters not what my “peers” think, I do not pursue their approval. I always weigh their opinions in search of knowledge. I share any knowledge that I have that might assist them. I keep in mind they are not the arbiters of my destiny. My Father’s is the only opinion I truly value. I think this may be somewhat the essence of what our friend Peter DeHaan commented above. You are so right Peter D.
Pursue great art in your work and it will eventually find a following rather than pursue a following and hope you can then come up with some great art. (just made that up Dan, see, your good example IS rubbing off in an inspirational way)