Reflections on a Winslow Homer Painting

On our living room wall hangs a print of a painting by famed artist Winslow Homer. Before it hung in our house, it adorned the bare, white-painted, concrete block wall of my first office when I was a fledgling editor at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant and was awaiting the arrival of my security clearance. I had to put it on that wall or go stark raving mad. Staring at four blank walls of an office isolated in the catacombs on the third floor of a biological laboratory is enough to drive the sanest person absolutely batty.

But that painting, “Snap the Whip,” was more than a sanity-maintainer for me. It reminded me of three special people: my grandfather, my father, and teacher-author Jesse Stuart.

First, the painting reminds me of my grandfather because my father handcrafted the frame using boards from my grandfather’s old barn, which stood in the pasture between our house and my grandfather’s apple orchard. We kids spent many hours playing in that old barn and more hours playing baseball in the pasture in front of it.

Second, the painting reminds me of my father because he had attended a small, clapboard Fort Sumter School at the corner of Hill Road and Fort Sumter Road, just half a mile from where I grew up and similar (though perhaps not so rustic) to the school shown in the painting. Looking at the students playing in the schoolyard in the painting reminds me of stories my father used to tell us kids about his own school experiences. In fact, one of the boys making up the “whip” in the game looks eerily like my father. (I always thought he looked grown up even in photos taken of him when he was just a kid. Living during the Depression had a way of making kids grow up faster.)

Finally, the painting reminds me of Jesse Stuart, who began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in which he struggled to teach his students not only the daily lessons of the curriculum but also, and more importantly, the life lesson that learning is critical to success in any and all life endeavors. One of the ways he instilled that principle in his students was by using games to make the lessons fun. Even the most tedious work can become tolerable if one can make a game of it.

I cannot think of Jesse Stuart, however, without also recalling his writing life. He had a burning desire not only to learn and teach but also to share his enthusiasm for those activities through writing. His children’s books are especially enjoyable and instructive, including such titles as The Beatinest Boy, A Penny’s Worth of Character, Red Mule, and Huey the Engineer. His short stories are just as interesting, such stories as “Nest Egg,” “Split Cherry Tree,” “Men of the Mountains,” “Sylvania Is Dead,” and “Dawn of Remembered Spring.” Inspired by Stuart’s writing style and subject matter, I’m tempted to follow my book Look Unto the Hills with a sequel titled, like one of Stuart’s novels, Beyond Dark Hills.

All of Stuart’s writing success came as a result of his having a dream and refusing to give up on it. It all began when he took to heart one of his college professor’s advice: “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.” (You can read the full account in my articles “The Beloved Country,” The Writer, April 2016, “Rediscovering the Children’s Books of Jesse Stuart, Christian Library Journal, Winter 2000.)

As writers, we should take our inspiration wherever it comes and continue to mine those depths to the fullest. Homer’s painting is a constant reminder to me of three rich “veins” of inspiration for me: my grandfather, my father, and Jesse Stuart, all exemplars for me.

What is your “mother lode” of inspiration?


Writers Said It

Sometimes great writers have some interesting advice and insights about the craft of writing (and many other topics). Here are a few examples of what some famous writers had to say.

Lewis Carroll: “Begin at the beginning . . . and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” (Turtle Soup, Alice in Wonderland)

Willa Cather: “Art, it seems to me, should simplify. . . . [F]inding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole. . . .” (On the Art of Fiction)

Herman Melville: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” (Moby Dick)

Mark Twain:Classic. A book which people praise and don’t read.” (Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar)

E.B. White: “A writer, writing away, can always fix things up to make himself more presentable, but a man who has written a letter is stuck with it for all time.” (letter to Corona Machemer, June 11, 1975)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime.

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.” (A Psalm of Life, stanzas 7 and 9)

William Strunk, Jr.: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” (The Elements of Style)

Samuel Eliot Morison: “An historian should yield himself to his subject, become immersed in the place and period of his choice, standing apart from it now and then for a fresh view.” (Vistas of History)

Francis Parkman: “The narrator [of history] must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time.” (Pioneers of France in the New World)

And among these quotations, here’s my favorite by an author who is more famous for his having written Robinson Crusoe than for his theology:

Daniel Defoe: 

“Wherever God erects a house of prayer,

The Devil always builds a chapel there;

And ’twill be found, upon examination,

The latter has the largest congregation.”

Navigating versus Drifting

A number of years ago, my wife and I were returning from a trip up north and were cruising along somewhere down I-75 in Ohio. We had a dinner appointment in Tennessee, but we were making good time and would have plenty of time to get there in time to freshen up first.

Suddenly, traffic came to a standstill. As far as we could see, I-75 South looked like a still-life painting. After 45 minutes of creeping forward, we rounded a curve and saw an exit in the distance, and truckers were getting off there. We consulted our atlas, but it was out of date and didn’t even show that exit. (It was in the days before GPS and smartphones were commonly available.) We were flying by the seat of our pants.

We exited, followed the truckers (they always know the shortcuts, don’t they?) through a little town, and then came to a red light. On the other side of the light the road split at a Y. The truckers were all going to the left, but that was away from the interstate. Could that be right? We debated what to do.

Just as the light turned green, I noticed a AAA office on the left. AHA! I jerked the car into the turn lane and darted across oncoming traffic and into the AAA office. They could tell us what to do!

The representatives there explained that an accident involving a chemical truck had occurred about 15 miles farther south on I-75, and traffic would not move for hours until it was cleaned up. They directed us back to the main street and to the right at the Y. We followed their directions and spent an hour or so meandering along a picturesque, bucolic two-lane back road with almost no traffic before finally returning to the interstate. We arrived at our destination just in time for our appointment. Who knows where we might have ended up had we followed the crowd of truckers.

I’ve often thought of that incident when I contemplate our life’s journey. Some people merely drift through life; others navigate.

The drifters have no fixed plan (destination). They never act purposefully because they have no definite purpose; they merely react to whatever happens. That’s how the biblical character Samson lived for most of his life. Only at the end did he act with a definite purpose, but it ended so tragically. What might he have accomplished for good had he navigated rather than drifting?

Those who navigate through life, however, have a plan, a purpose, a calling on which they act. They have a fixed destination and, using the tools available to them, they move steadily toward it. If they happen to get off track occasionally, they get back on track as soon as they realize their error.

We have all the tools needed to navigate this life, if we’ll only avail ourselves of them.

We all have within us a “moral compass,” our conscience, which convicts us when we do what we know is wrong. But the conscience operates only on what has been programmed into it. If we haven’t been taught correctly, the conscience can lead us astray. It can be wrong, deceptive, weak, even seared and useless. So it’s not always wise to “let your conscience by your guide.” Like a GPS, it’s only as good as the “software” we’ve loaded into it.

But believers in Christ also have other tools. The Bible, the Creator’s “user’s manual” or atlas for our journey; the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and is the voice behind us that says, “This is the way, walk in it”; the perfect example in Jesus Christ, who came to earth with the single-minded purpose of dying for the sins of mankind; and other older and wiser advisers. But we must believe that Bible and have such confidence in its truths that we obey them. We must believe and obey the Son. And we must not reject the advice of our elders. After all, “They know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two.”

To be truly successful in life, including in our writing, we must avail ourselves of these tools. Rather than merely drifting along with all the other junk in the stream, we should trust and use our God-given “instruments” to navigate through life.

Fellow writers, do you have a plan, a destination for your writing? Are you working daily toward that goal? Or are you merely drifting?

Think about it!

Books I Recommend to Writer Friends

I recently completed an eight-part series answering the question “How does one go about getting a book published?” Some of my writer friends are now asking, “What books would you recommend to get us started, and keep us moving, toward that goal of book publication?”

I’m glad someone asked, expressing their confidence in my opinion about this question. I often find myself drawn to other writers’ lists of what books they have found helpful. Perhaps the books they found helped them will also help me in some way. Among those many lists, however, I’ve noticed two kinds of books that have been most helpful to me.

First, there are some books that consistently are included in practically every writer’s list. Generally, these are what have become “classics” among writers. My list includes several of those.

Second, every once in a while, a title shows up in a list that I have never seen in any other list. I’m especially interested in those, and I check them out. Sometimes they prove to be duds, helpful only to the person who listed them, speaking to their individual writing need at that moment. But other times they are real keepers for me. My list includes some of those, too.

Following are ten books I would recommend to every writer or wannabe. They have helped me, and I think they might help you, too.

Realize, however, that this list might change tomorrow, because I’m always reading and just might run across a book that deserves to supplant one or two on this list. But I don’t think that’s likely because the following books are evergreens. They’ve proven to be helpful to an awful lot of writers over a long period of time.

First on my list is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (yes, the E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web).

Second, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.  (Spoiler alert: It has absolutely nothing to do with Buddhism.)

Third, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Fourth, Writing With Quiet Hands by Paula Munier.

Fifth, Called to Create by Jordan Raynor. (This is especially applicable to Christian writers.)

Sixth, A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld.

Seventh, The On-Purpose Person by Kevin McCarthy. (This is not technically a book on writing, but it will help writers get, and keep, “on purpose” with their writing.)

Eighth, On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Ninth, Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest Books.  (Just be sure to use the current edition. Editors change positions quickly, and publishers’ needs change over time.)

Tenth, Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press. (I learned on the 14th edition and still prefer it, but they seem to come out with a new edition every year, and I simply can’t afford to upgrade as often as they change.)

Do you have other titles that have helped you as a writer? Share your own list with other readers of this blog in the comments section below.

Successful reading–and writing!


8. You Have a Publisher–Now What?

(Eighth and final in a series)

Having gotten a workable idea, done the necessary research, outlined the manuscript, written the first draft, edited and revised it several times, researched the potential markets, and pitched the book to those publishers, you’ve finally won a contract for your book! Now what?

You begin what is, to me anyway, the hardest part of the whole process. It’s harder for me than coming up with ideas, researching, writing, editing and revising, and pitching all rolled up together. It’s the marketing of the book.

Many people think that once an author writes the book and the publisher prints it, his or her work is done and the publisher takes over from there. I’ve learned that that is the farthest thing from the truth. The brutal fact is that publishers today expect the author to do the bulk of the hard work of marketing his or her book. And I think that stinks! But it is what it is!

The publisher might send out a few review copies of your book to the people you identify as prospective reviewers. The publisher will possibly include a photo of your book’s cover in a catalog (that includes hundreds of other books, of which yours is only one), along with a brief written description of its contents, the text for which you have written. They might even send out a press release to a few select bookstores or libraries, which you have listed for them. But they will not sell your book.

Those were the lessons I learned when my first book was published. The publisher was an academic publisher, and their sole method of “selling” books was to send out to libraries seasonal and subject catalogs several times a year. It is a passive form of selling. Put a tiny photo of the cover and a two- or three-sentence summary before the busy, harried librarian in charge of acquisitions, and let things turn out however they will.

That publisher refused to contact bookstores because they didn’t get good responses from them. I later discovered it was because the publisher did not offer the stores a favorable return policy on unsold books.

Thinking that I would take a proactive approach to get around that problem, I visited the two Barnes & Noble stores in my area, introduced myself as a local author, showed them my newly published book by a traditional publisher (as opposed to an independently published book), and offered to do a book signing and/or reading and Q&A session in return for their carrying my book. Both stores agreed to stock my book and gave me the name and address of the event planner. I contacted that person and offered to do the signing/reading/Q&A session at both stores. And then I waited.

While waiting to hear back from the event planner, I returned to both stores and checked their shelves to see if they had ordered my book as promised. They had. Each store ordered two copies. But they didn’t place it in the “Local Authors” section with other new books by local authors, where one might expect them to feature it. Instead, they buried it, spine out, on the next-to-last shelf from the floor in the Civil War History section. I was tempted to carry them to the front of the store and place them, cover out, on the eye-level shelf of the “Local Authors” shelving. But I didn’t. I settled for turning them cover out in the Civil War section where they were. (Even then, one can see how they are lost among the many other books around them.)

I returned to both stores one week later, and all four copies had sold. But neither store bothered to restock it. One would think that if all copies sold that quickly the store would see the demand for the book and reorder a few copies. Local author. All books they ordered sold. Logical to reorder, right? Especially in an age when brick-and-mortar stores are already struggling in competition with online book sources? But they didn’t. I decided then and there that if they weren’t interested in making money from my books, which had proven to sell, I would not be interested in helping them by buying any of their books. I haven’t bought anything from B&N since that date and doubt if I ever will.

I’ve shared that experience to illustrate the fact that if you expect your book to sell, you can’t depend on either the publisher or the bookstores to do it for you. You, the author, must do your own marketing. And that’s the hardest part for me. I’m not a salesman. When I sold my pickup truck, I found myself pointing out all the things that were wrong with it. (Thankfully, it sold in spite of my poor salesmanship!) I don’t like to talk about or promote myself. It forces me far, far beyond my comfort zone. In addition to not having the personality necessary to sell, I lack the funds to engage in serious marketing. My book would have to get on the NYT Bestsellers list just to pay for a single 1/4-page ad in a trade publication. I know that this (self-marketing) is the area I must work at the hardest if my books are to sell. It’s a rude awakening!

Meanwhile, I returned to doing what my temperament does best. I began working on other projects, following the seven steps we’ve discussed in this series. That led, over time, to three self-published works designed for very limited markets and a contract for a second traditionally published book. I’m not going to sit twiddling my thumbs, waiting on editors and publishers and marketers to do their jobs. I’m getting busy working on other writing projects, and you should too.

I’d be interested in learning of your own experiences in writing, pitching, and marketing your work. Share your thoughts about this series of blog posts, or any one of the posts, in the comments form below. I look forward to hearing from you.

7. Pitching Your Book

(Seventh in a series)

Once you’ve found several potential publishers for your book, it’s time to “pitch” it to them. By “pitch,” I mean submit it to see if any of them are interested in publishing it. But how?

I have found that with my own books, this process involved three ingredients: a query letter (or e-mail), a proposal package, and a completed manuscript. But before you send any of those things to any publisher, study the publisher’s preferred method of approaching them. Some want you to begin with a query. Others want a full proposal package. (Do they want it to be within the body of an e-mail, or are they willing to accept it as an attachment to the e-mail?) A few want to see the whole manuscript right away. Do whatever the publisher wants and how they want you to do it!

For this post, I’m going to assume the publisher you approach wants to proceed through all three steps so you’ll know what you should include for each item.

Query Letter

In the first paragraph of your query letter/e-mail, you want to snag the editor’s attention by giving a little “teaser” about the topic of your book. You might even use a quotation from something in the book. Then, in the next paragraph, say (in so many words), “That’s what I address in the book I’ve written titled [insert your working title].” Include the approximate number of words and pages in your manuscript.

In your third paragraph, state why you are qualified to write on the subject of your book. Cite relevant experience and published credits, whether articles or books, along with the links to any that are available online, and your blog address, if you have one.

Thank the editor in advance for considering your query, state your willingness to send a full proposal package or completed manuscript, and close. Keep the whole query to no more than one page.

Proposal Package

If the publisher is interested in your book based on what you’ve described in your query letter, he or she may ask you to send a full proposal package (or even the whole manuscript). Now it’s really serious, so don’t stint in your efforts to make it shine. Study what the publisher tells you to include, and then deliver it! Typically, the expected elements will be the following.

  • A one-page “sell sheet,” including your tag line (a one-sentence summary of your book), back-cover copy to entice readers further, and a brief statement about who you are
  • A more detailed biographical sketch outlining your writing experience, educational background, achievements, and publishing history, in short, an argument as to why you’re qualified to write your book
  • A description of the book, including details about its length (number of words, manuscript pages, chapters, etc.), purpose, and target audience
  • A chapter outline, an annotated summary of each chapter
  • A market analysis, showing your understanding of the audience and your ability to reach it
  • A competitive analysis, showing what similar books are on the market, how yours is different, and how it will fill a gap or meet a need
  • Three sample chapters. These might be the first three, or you might include the first chapter, a middle chapter, and a third from near the end of the book.

The publisher you submit to might ask for more (e.g., a marketing plan). Whatever they request, supply it!

If your proposal package does it’s job, the editor will then ask to see the completed manuscript. Submit it in precisely the way they ask for it. Most will want it sent as an attachment to an e-mail with a specifically worded subject line. (Adhere to that requirement religiously!) Others still want it sent in hard copy via snail mail. Don’t argue; print and mail it!

I found two books of great help to me in putting together my queries, proposals, and manuscripts: Write the Perfect Book Proposal by Jeff Herman and Deborah Adams and The Writer’s Digest Guide to Manuscript Formats by Dian Dincin Buchman and Seli Groves. They might help you, too.

Your assignment: Even if you’re not quite ready to approach a publisher, practice putting together a query letter and a proposal package. When you finish your manuscript, you can tweak it to make it fit your chosen publishers’ specific guidelines and expectations.

Next time, we’ll discuss the marketing of your book.

6. Researching the Markets

(Sixth in a series)

In the preceding five installments of this series, I’ve been answering the question of how one goes about getting a book published. So far, we’ve covered getting the idea, doing the research, outlining the manuscript, writing the first draft, and editing and revising that draft. Today, we deal with researching the possible markets for the book.

Even before I have completed my research and writing of my draft manuscript, I have been thinking about which publishers might be good prospects to publish the type of book I am writing. The closer I come to finishing the manuscript, the more intense and focused my search becomes.

My search begins with a perusal of the publishers’ names on the spines of books already published that are similar to mine and on either my own personal bookshelves or the shelves of my local library to determine any that focus especially on my topic. For my first book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (McFarland, 2016), I asked myself which publishers were producing nonfiction history, specifically American military and political history. Even more focused, I wanted to know which ones were publishing books about the South during the War Between the States.

Next, I study market listings. My primary source is the current edition of Writer’s Market, an annual market list published by Writer’s Digest Books. For my second book, Combat!, which deals with not only military history but also Christian living, I added a source that lists specifically Christian publishers, The Christian Writer’s Market Guide, edited by Jerry Jenkins (he of Left Behind fame). Both resources tell not only the subjects various publishers cover but also their contact information, how and what to include in a query or proposal, response times, age of the business, and other data that will help writers decide which publishers will be a best fit for the types of books they are writing.

As I peruse those resources, I note not only publishers I tend to like but also those I will eliminate from consideration, including those that deal only with agents and those that publish material that I find objectionable and that go contrary to my personal standards and values. I write down possible publishers’ names and create a table on which I enter the specific information about each publisher that I will need to consider in determining to which publishers I will submit a query. I give each publisher points for such factors as

  • response time on queries, proposals, and completed manuscripts (sooner is better than later);
  • advance paid, if any (any advance is better than no advance, but the higher the better);
  • royalty rates and payment schedules for both the print book and the e-book (the higher the better);
  • publication date after acceptance (sooner is better than later);
  • print run (the higher that number the more confidence the publisher has that it will sell well);
  • desired length of manuscript (the closer to the length of my manuscript the better);
  • geographic location (the closer to my hometown the better); and
  • openness to unagented authors (since I do not yet have an agent, the more open they are the better).

Based on the scores (and the resulting rankings) I give the publishers on that table, I narrow the field to the top five or six and prepare and mail identical query letters to each of them, submitting according to their stated preference, via either e-mail or snail mail.

Then I wait while continuing to polish my manuscript in preparation for submitting it to whichever publisher sends me a request for a proposal package or a completed manuscript. If all of the first-round publishers respond negatively to my initial query, I refuse to despair; I merely go to the second-round publishers on my table and submit query letters to them. Patience and perseverance are the key qualities to be cultivated at this point.

For my first book, I submitted query letters to two publishers on the same day. I received requests for a full proposal package from both of them, one within an hour of my hitting the “Send” button and the other before the close of business the same day. For my second book, however, a few publishers never responded at all, several rejected it outright, two requested the complete manuscript but ultimately rejected it, and one asked to see the completed manuscript and ultimately sent a contract. That publisher was from the third round of publishers on my table rankings.

Your assignment: Begin researching markets and identifying possible publishers for the kind of material you’re writing.

Next time, we’ll discuss pitching your book, or what your query letters and proposal packages should include.

5. Editing and Revising

[The fifth in a series.]

Congratulations! You’ve finished writing your rough draft.

Now what? Ship (or e-mail) it to a publisher?

Whoa! Hold on! Not so fast! You’re nowhere near ready for that momentous step yet. There’s much more to be done. You’re just getting started. This is where the real work begins.

What follows is not necessarily fun (at least not for most writers). In fact, it can be downright tedious. But it is necessary. Critical. Essential.

I’m referring to the editing and revising of that first draft. And I purposely say “first” because there will (or should) be many of them.

There are several types of editing, and you’ll be doing them all at some point. There is substantive editing, which involves checking the content of your subject; analyzing how you present your points; adding bunches of text where information was left out; rewriting text that’s unclear or needs elaboration, explanation, or support; eliminating discrepancies and contradictions; strengthening weak points; and revising the order of your points. It’s sometimes called a “heavy” edit for a reason.

Next comes copy editing, which ensures that everything is done according to the “house style” of the publisher(s) to whom you intend to submit your work. It also includes fact checking as well as catching and correcting grammar, usage, punctuation, and other technical problems.

As you do each edit, the work should get lighter and the volume and number of changes less. Eventually, it should get down to the “nitty-gritty” details: deciding on the precise word to use, making minor corrections in grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, etc.–addressing anything and everything that is wrong with the text. Finally, it will involve (some people contend, although others disagree) the final proofreading of the text.

You’re probably not a trained editor; you’re a writer. You’re a creator, not a corrector. So why can’t you just submit your manuscript as you originally produce it and save yourself a lot of time and hard (to say nothing of boring) work by letting the publisher’s editor do the editing for you? After all, isn’t that his or her job?

Of course it is. But you want to make that editor’s job as easy as you can, thereby moving your manuscript another step closer to publication.

I’ve been on both sides of the editor’s desk, so I know what both sides feel and think.

I know what it’s like to have my darling manuscript ripped to shreds by a callous, overly zealous word maven. “Doesn’t she know that God gave me this article?! How dare she cut that word or reword that sentence?!”

I also know the frustration of the editor whose repeat clients keep repeating the same simple mistakes time after time. “Why can’t this guy learn the rule “i before e, except after c, and as in neighbor and weigh“? “Why can’t these otherwise brilliant scientists learn to use active voice instead of passive voice? Are they afraid to take responsibility for the results of their experiments?”

If you’re unsure what to look for when you’re editing your manuscript, get hold of and study some style guides. The “industry standard” of most of the publishing world is the Chicago Manual of Style. Learn well the sections most relevant to your genre. (For most of my work at the Oak Ridge nuclear facilities, the sections most relevant to my work were especially numbers and formulas. For my own writing, it has been source citations, the end note and bibliographic formats for various types of source materials.)

If Chicago is a bit intimidating (it is, after all, a nearly 1,000-page monstrosity), consider one of the several more concise style guides written for the average writer. Two that I have occasionally used are A Christian Writer’s Manual of Style by Bob Hudson and Shelley Townsend and The Little Style Guide to Great Christian Writing and Publishing by Leonard and Carolyn Goss (I was reared on Chicago, though, so I’m partial to it.)

At some point, on one of the many edits you do, you should read your writing aloud slowly. Do you stumble over any places? Is anything unclear? Does anything not sound right? When in doubt, check it out! Study how it can be clarified, said more precisely, worded more beautifully. (I’m not talking about writing “purple prose” here but rather writing for the ear, making your sentences conversational rather than jargon-filled or academic.)

Does a portion sound wordy? When in doubt, cut it out! Make every word count!

Just when you think you’ve produced a perfect manuscript, ask someone else (ideally, several people) to read it and comment on it. Don’t ask your mother or grandmother; they’ll only tell you it’s wonderful. Ask someone who will honestly assess your writing and tell you what’s wrong with it, which parts don’t read clearly, what needs further support, and where your typos are. Then weigh carefully their comments and suggestions for improvement, and make changes accordingly. (That doesn’t mean you have to do everything they suggest, but at least consider what they have to say.)

Remember, it’s always good to have another set of eyes go over what you’ve written. You alone are insufficient to do the editing. You’re too close to the subject matter. You’ve spent hours, weeks, maybe even years researching the topic, and you naturally assume of readers an understanding of the subject they might not have and therefore leave out things that really should be explained. In writing multiple drafts and reading and rereading so many times, you’re apt to miss little details and typos, your mind filling in missing letters or words.

I’m still amazed by how a tiny, but often enormously important typo or other error can escape so many different sets of eyes. Authors, editors, proofreaders, design and layout people, and even secretaries can all read the same piece of writing without seeing that one error. But, believe me, your readers will see it once it’s in print!

Avoid that embarrassment as much as you can by careful editing and revising. You might not catch every mistake, but you’ll make the editor’s decision about publishing your writing easier.

Your assignment: After you’ve finished writing your rough draft, do the hard part that separates the published authors from the wannabe’s. Edit and revise!

4. Writing the First Draft

[The fourth in a series.]

At some point in our research for our book idea, we must decided that we have gathered enough (or, more likely, more than enough) to start writing. After all, wasn’t that the goal of our research in the first place?

That’s not easy for me. I get deep into the research about a topic I’ve come to love and I’m learning so many amazing things about it that I’ve become obsessed with researching. Each new bit of information sucks me into a host of other interesting things about the topic. I struggle to pull myself away to begin writing. It’s especially hard if, like me, you tend to read many of the sources listed in the bibliographies of your research material.

But let’s say that you succeed in breaking the chains that have bound you in the never-ending research and you’re ready to write. Now what?

The first thing you must decide is how you’ll write that first draft. Will you write it the old-fashioned way, in longhand on a legal pad, as I’m doing now? Or will you compose directly on your computer?

I’ve done it both ways, but longhand seems to work better for me for the simple reason that it seems to enable my thoughts to flow more freely. If my thoughts are organized and well ordered, they flow in a stream. It’s as though the ink in my Pilot Precise V5 extra-fine rolling ball writing instrument contains my thoughts, and they flow from my pen in a steady stream and onto the paper. (The only hindrance seems to be that, if I’m sitting outside in the infamous South Carolina humidity, the paper gets limp with moisture, and the ink tends to spread on the page!) My only goal is to get my initial thoughts and ideas down before I forget them!

If, on the other hand, you prefer to compose directly on your computer, then (as Brisco Darling would say), “More power to ye!” Just get those ideas down!

Remember that this is a first draft, not the final product. You shouldn’t be worried about how it looks, correctness of grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, mixed metaphors, or any other details at this point. (You do, however, want to ensure that you insert source citations–abbreviated, not a full bibliographic entry–for any quotes or statistics that should be credited. Believe me, they’re hard to find once you’ve typed a complete manuscript, and you run the risk of inadvertently committing the dreaded P offense: plagiarism!)

Just get those ideas onto paper. It’s not really a “stream of consciousness” type of writing because you’re not just shooting out random thoughts that occur to you; your thinking is informed by all the research you’ve done, and you’ve outlined how and in what order you want to present those thoughts. You’re just pouring them out onto paper, point by point, breaking it down into manageable parts. You want something to work with, and that something is your first draft. You can go back and take care of those details of correctness later when you type it (assuming you wrote in longhand) or in subsequent drafts. (If I write the first draft in longhand, the task of typing it includes what is essentially an initial edit for me.)

If I’m writing my first draft directly on my computer, however, I tend to focus attention on formatting, correct spelling and punctuation, etc. I find myself checking to see whether the auto-correct feature has assumed that I mean a different word than I’ve typed and changed it without asking my permission. (That’s happened enough to make me leery.) Also, having learned to type pounding on a manual machine, and tending to type faster and faster when I get “on a roll,” I find myself looking up at the screen to ensure that I haven’t failed to space between words. (I’m especially bad about hitting the space bar one keystroke too late and producing such constructions as “andt he” and inserting numb3rs into words. For some odd reason, the auto-correct doesn’t correct those mistakes!) Or I’m constantly looking at the word count in the lower left corner to ensure that I’m staying within any word-count limits. Hence, longhand for me!

The goal of that first draft is simply to get your message onto paper, ensuring that you address all your main points. Once you’ve achieved that goal, and only then, you can take the next step: going back to correct what’s wrong (spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, etc.), insert additional points or supporting information, getting the phraseology just right, etc.

But that’s the topic of our next installment. Come back for the next post to learn more. But first, here’s your homework.

Your assignment: Start writing that first draft. If you’re writing a book, you won’t be finished by the time the next installment is posted, but get started anyway!

3. Outlining the Manuscript

[The third in a series.]

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you know that I’m trying to answer that burning question in the back of many people’s minds: How do you go about writing a book and getting it published?

So far, we’ve discussed getting the idea and doing the research. Now it’s time to tackle the next step. Once you have all the information you’ll need, you begin outlining the manuscript, what you will say and in what order.

Now please don’t stop reading just because you see the word outlining! I know that for some people that word brings back nightmares from junior high, when the teacher made you create formal outlines from long, boring reading assignments. Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, lowercase letters, Arabic numerals and lowercase letters within parentheses, etc.

That was then; this is now. That was (or seemed to be at the time) mere busywork; this is the real deal, a way to organize your thoughts so that your writing reflects what you intend to say logically and clearly.

If the word outlining causes you to tremble, call it planning or categorizing or anything else that removes from your mind the booger-man of outlining. An outline is simply the plan by which you intend to present the information you’ve gathered through your research.

If you skip this step, your writing will be random, haphazard, unorganized, unintelligible, confusing. So put your mind to it, and persevere. The exercise will be well worth it in the end.

For the books I’ve written or have in process, the outlines are generally chronological because the books deal with historical events or subjects, making the order of presentation straightforward. But even with those I generally have to explain the context, or backstory, before proceeding to the chronological steps. I also usually have to make conclusions or evaluations. I often have to offer biographical sketches of individuals that figure prominently in the text and explain how they fit into the overall picture.

So I must wrestle with the question of where best in my narrative to place each of those items or bits of information. In a large sense, my outline at this point became, for all intents and purposes, my table of contents. Granted, it was a working ToC because it sometimes changed as I added or deleted or rearranged the order of various points. But it was my guiding light as I prepared to write and during the writing process.

Then, within each main point, or chapter, I again addressed the same question regarding supporting or illustrative material. These became my subpoints and sub-subpoints.

For example, in Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, before I could discuss the individual offices and the people who filled them, I had to explain how the cabinet came into being (i.e., the secession crisis, the election of a Provisional Congress, the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president, and finally his process of selecting his cabinet). Each of those subtopics became a point in the opening chapter. Only then could I begin to address the individual departments and secretaries.

For the sake of order, consistency, and predictability, I devoted one chapter each to the individual departments of the cabinet, explaining how it was organized, the problems it faced, what it accomplished, etc. I followed those chapters with a chapter each for the men who held the secretaryship of those departments.

With that as my overall game plan, or writing strategy (dare I use the dreaded word outline?), I could begin drafting my text.

The key to effective writing is good organization, and one of the best tools for getting your information and thoughts organized is outlining. Your outline might (or might not!) be a formal outline. It might be a diagram. The longer your manuscript, the more important it will be to make it a formal, written outline.

But the essential thing is to get organized. Only then can you hope to write well. Disorganized information is a sign of disorganized thinking, and that’s no way to start writing. So get your information into logical categories and subcategories, and set those into a logical sequence.

Your assignment: Take the materials and notes you’ve been collecting during your research, and organize it in the most appropriate order for presentation. Then write down that order in outline form. Create a working table of contents. And get ready to write!