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.”

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!

2. Doing the Research

[The second in a series.]

Once an idea comes, it must be developed before it can have any prospect of becoming, by and by, a book. This is the stage during which the writer discovers how much information about the subject is available to work with. Not being God, and able to create something from nothing, ex nihilo, the writer must have materials with which to create.

The first step is to identify potential sources of that information. They include personal experience, interviews, books and articles, web sites, etc. It requires a lot of reading and (because of fallible memory) notetaking. And that notetaking and source gathering requires a great degree of both ability to discern categories of information and organizational skills. It requires a high level of ability to see connections and interconnections (or disconnects) between and among all of the bits and bytes of information being gathered. Without these abilities and skills, all that is collected is a meaningless jumble of random thoughts, facts, and opinions.

As the writer does this research, he or she makes value judgments about the sources and the information by asking a series of questions.

  • Is the source reliable and trustworthy? What biases does the source bring to the subject?
  • Is the information accurate?
  • Is the information relevant to my purpose? (It might be interesting but not relevant. This is where it’s easy for the researcher to get sidetracked!)
  • How does this information relate to, corroborate, prove or disprove the other information I’m collecting?
  • Does the information being collected fall naturally into logical categories that will prove or illustrate my thesis?
  • Etc. New questions are always arising!

As the information I’m gathering from my research grows in volume, I must organize it. I get manila file folders and label them (in pencil at first because my categories might change as I learn more about the subject) according to the subtopics within my larger topic.

For example, on one project about missionary activities among the Cherokees prior to their forced removal to the west of the Mississippi, the information I was amassing fell logically along denominational lines. I devoted a file folder each to Congregational/Presbyterian missions, Baptist missions, Moravian missions, etc. Within each of those subareas, I discovered two main areas of ministry, education and evangelization, so each of those subjects got folders under each denominational folder.

My research often began with a quick search of Wikipedia. That is not a very good place for accurate, reliable information because anyone can add or delete content, not all of it accurate, but it often provides some good sources to check, and those often are reliable and helpful. Wikipedia is merely a starting point. I go much deeper from there.

When reading books or articles, I always check out the sources listed in the bibliographies. Those were a great help to me when I was researching the Confederate cabinet departments and secretaries. The best research advice I ever received was from Dr. Carl Abrams, the professor who taught the History of the South class I took: Go to the authors’ bibliographies and read everything they read in preparing their books.

Eventually, all the information and folders can become so voluminous that I need somewhere to put it all to keep from drowning in a sea of paper. I save long documents, dissertations, books, etc., to a flash drive, but shorter pieces I print. (What can I say? I’m an old-school dinosaur!) So I get a banker’s box from Staples to use as my storage vault.

If you’re not careful, however, you can be sucked into a never-ending vortex of research and never find your way out. At some point, I must organize the information into a working outline (the subject of my next post in this series) and begin writing. You’ll never gather all available information about your topic, so you must begin the work of writing your take on what you do have. And even as you write, you’ll find yourself continuing to do research because, inevitably, you’ll run across new sources to be explored. Don’t be frustrated by that. Rather, expect it, and use it to improve your content.

But never forget that the whole object of your research is to enable you to write.

Your assignment: Develop a game plan whereby you will conduct research on your idea. Identify sources of possible information. List subjects that you’ll need to begin researching. Gather file folders and other notetaking essentials in preparation for collecting and organizing the information you gather. And don’t forget to post your thoughts on the following form.


1. Getting the Idea

[The first in a series.]

The first step in the publication of my books was to come up with an idea in which I had a sustained interest, for which sufficient resource material was available, and that would interest enough readers to make it profitable for publishers to risk their money publishing it as a book.

I did not start out with the goal of writing a book. Rather, that became a goal after I had already invested a lot of time, effort, and research in pursuing a nagging interest. After having done all that, collected all that information, surely someone else was interested in learning it, in benefiting from my work. Maybe in the form of a book?

The ideas for both of my traditionally published books came from subjects in which I had (or developed) keen interest. If the subject doesn’t interest you, your writing will reflect your lack of interest and readers will not be as interested as you. If, though you are initially interested, your interest flags over time, then it’s probably not something you will enjoy over the long term (often years) required to do the necessary work. Choose your idea carefully, because by the time you’ve finished your manuscript you’ll probably be sick of it!

My first book arose from a spark of interest that was fanned to flame during a class I was taking in the history of the South. During my reading for the class, I discovered that few books had been written on the civilian government of the Confederacy. A lot has been written on the military engagements and the generals and Jefferson Davis but little on the executive offices in the cabinet. Everyone who had written articles on the civilian government quoted the same few sources, the most recent of which had been published more than 70 years earlier. I saw both the need and the possibility; therefore, I wrote an updated history of the Confederate cabinet departments and the men who served in each post.

The idea for my second book (which is in the publishing process as I write this, rough draft cover design shown) came from both my extensive reading of military history and personal Bible study. As I read about various wars and military engagements, I began to notice parallels between that history and the spiritual conflicts that all Christians experience. I wanted to study the topic primarily for my own edification, but the more I learned the more I realized that I should be sharing those lessons with others for their benefit, too.

Ideas, for not only books but also articles, come from all kinds of stimuli. Something you read. Something you hear in a sermon or overhear in a conversation. An idea may be broad or narrow. Ideas are all over the place, if we would just be observant and act upon the best of them. Even if you later decide that the idea is no good, that you aren’t committed to the idea for the long haul, or that insufficient information is available, no work on it is really lost. Some day, when you least expect it, that idea might blossom.

Famed author Ray Bradbury wrote, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. . . . The first thing a writer should be is–excited” (Zen in the Art of Writing).

Bradbury’s ideas came from his playing word association games with himself and writing down the ideas as short titles: “The Lake,” “The Attic,” “The Fog Horn,” etc. Years (sometimes even decades) later, those seed germs awoke interest within him and became stories and books.

The same can happen to you if you’ll only develop an awareness of the possibilities that lie all around you and wait patiently for the stories to develop in your subconscious. At the right time, they will, and you’ll be off and running, having taken that first step toward publication.

Your assignment: Look for ideas in the things around you. List them. Let them begin to marinate. Ruminate on them. Give them time to germinate. Then pounce on them, and write! It’s from such little acorns that great oaks grow.