20+ notes from a writing seminar

A lot’s left out here because many of my notes were on a handout. The notes I’ve included are just the ones I added in my journal. Some might be more important than others, but I’ll let you sort that out.

Also, I’m not sure I agree with everything here. It’s just what they said. I’m still open for experimenting with all of it.

Enough caveats though. Here’s what I’ve got:

  1. Write on timeless themes. Big publishers take a year from the point you submit a manuscript to the point they publish it. That can work for you by forcing you to think longterm.
  2. Set aside a specific space just for writing. That way, my mind will get used to jumping into the writing mode when I sit there. It’ll help with writer’s block. Also, if it’s a space dedicated to professional writing, I can write that off in my taxes.
  3. How to find time:
    1. Create a mission statement and don’t do anything that doesn’t align with it.
    2. Delegate. If someone else can do it, they should.
    3. Delay. Work expands to fill the time allocated for its completion.
    4. Just do it.
  4. Research. Keep things super real. Try to only have one point stray from where your reader already is. Use all the other real stuff, the stuff they already believe, to support that one stray point. This is for fiction and non-fiction. In fact, use fiction skills to pull out reality in non-fiction, to give it skin.
    1. Secondary vs. primary: Secondary research is where I learn about the topic from someone else. Primary research is where I’m an eyewitness or where I experience it first-hand. In everything you write, try to include at least some primary research.
    2. Interview people: This is the best way to get secondary research because it’s all a new perspective, not regurgitated from another book or article.
      1. Interview people where they’re comfortable. You’ll pick up on non-verbal cues (office style, type of restaurant they choose, etc.).
      2. Record everything with a hand-held recorder, but often offer to go “off the record.” The physical gesture of turning off the recorder can bring a lot out of people. Many times, they’ll end up allowing it back on the record once they’ve shared it off the record with you first.
    3. Surveys. Ask only a few, general questions but let respondents answer an open ended question on the back of the survey. The back is where it’s at.
    4. Use books, articles, and the Internet as a way to find where to get primary research and interviews. The first two kinds are what you’ll actually include in the book, backed up by all the other research.
    5. You don’t need permission to use quotes under 100-250 words.
  5. Limit your message and audience. Don’t try to please everyone.
  6. Three things to remember:
    1. Intelligence: Keep things real, but don’t talk down to readers
    2. Intensity: Be as direct as possible. Be as amazing as possible.
    3. Integrity: But don’t lie or mislead people.
  7. The challenge from readers: “This has got to be the best way for me to spend my life at this point.”
  8. The first sentence has to sum up the feeling (not necessarily the message) of the rest of the piece.
  9. People (editors, publishers, readers) want humor in their writing… but not necessarily humor pieces.
  10. Let your editor know if you’re a public speaker. You can usually sell something to about 10% of your audience.
  11. Check your piece’s reading level. Most Americans read at a six grade reading level. (By the way, it’s tough to tell because of translation issues, but Jesus seemed to teach at a seventh grade reading level.)
  12. “We like stories because they keep us in suspense and comfort at the same time.” -Marshall
  13. Repeat elements to tie readers together and drive home a point – like signature words.
    1. Use groups of three. For some reason, groups of three are funnier too. So choose wisely (don’t get too cliche if it’s serious.)
    2. Tie the outro back to the intro.
  14. Focus on writing for periodicals, at least to get exposure.
    1. “You want reach, write for periodicals. You want respect, write a book.” -James Watkins
    2. Periodicals are easier to get into but (supposedly) reach more people.
    3. Writer’s trick: put poetry in a non-fiction article. If you can get the article published, you can also say you’ve had your poetry published in whatever periodical you got into. Helps when you go to pitch your poetry to someone else.
  15. Book proposals
    1. Format:
      1. Title (grab attention here)
      2. Subtitle (share what it’s about)
      3. Book summary (one paragraph)
      4. Market audience (one paragraph)
        1. List similar well-selling books
        2. Share how my book will be different
        3. Give a profile of the perfect person who’d buy it
      5. Marketing
        1. What’s your platform? Can you speak? Do you?
        2. Include Twitter, Facebook, and blog numbers
      6. My qualifications (why I should write this, not someone else)
        1. Share primary research I’ve done / yrs. of experience
        2. Share past writing experience
      7. Chapter summaries (one paragraph each)
      8. Chapter samples (publishers/agents will read this before the rest. Make sure they’re amazing. For non-fiction, they don’t necessarily have to be actual chapters… mostly like a Best-Of from the book but in chapter form.)
    2. For non-fiction, include estimate of the total number of pages and time to complete the manuscript
    3. Emailing this in is usually fine, but check a Market Guide or a website for the publishers requirements
  16. Article “Query letter”
    1. Describe article idea: “I’m writing an article about…”
    2. Value to reader
    3. Qualifications of writer
    4. Suggested date of completion (Under promise, over deliver: say within four weeks, send it within two)
    5. Word count (see what the place wants before trying to pitch)
  17. Alternate ideas for getting published
    1. ebook through Amazon.com (free to do but can earn commission)
    2. Websites, blogs, newsletters
    3. Self-publishing
      1. Do it if publishers like the book but don’t see the market
      2. Make sure you get a good cover design
      3. American Christian Writers (self-publishing)
        1. You can usually break even if you sell 200 books
        2. Supposedly has good cover designers
  18. Include endorsements anytime you’re pitching.
  19. The best tip is networking, but don’t take rejection personally.
  20. Journal: “Only common denominator of all serial killers: they all journaled.” -James Watkins 🙂

Suggestions? Comments? Questions?