Living By Lists

I list a lot. And I’m not alone. In the course of many kitchen-table conversations, I’ve discovered that we keep lists for a variety of reasons. People make lists to get organized, to plan the day, to set priorities, to clarify “pros” and “cons” as they make decisions, to explore their feelings, to dispel mental fog, to articulate goals, to identify their deepest hopes and purposes.


What I’ve also discovered about lists is that every time I make one, I learn something. Things come up. Sometimes it seems that the less I plan or try to foresee what might belong on a list, the more I find out. So I just start in: “Things to do before the weekend”; “Possible blog topics”; “People to get back to”; “Nagging anxieties”; “Things I’m grateful for.” Even if the heading seems rather ho-hum (“Things to do”) or borders on cliché (“Things to be grateful for”), the process brings surprises.


If I stay with it long enough to get beyond the obvious (buy the groceries, return the phone call, check e mail, get the oil changed . . .), something not so obvious occurs, and the list shifts from “list” to something more: take a walk by the river with no phone; pick up protein bars to keep in the car for homeless people; write to a grandchild about his science project. And I discover not only what I think I need to do, but what I want to do, what I’ve avoided doing, and what I don’t do because I don’t really want to.

– from “Make a List” by Marilyn McEntyre

The Importance of Branding

When Susan Cain published her book about introversion, she had a very specific audience in mind: introverts. This was also a traditionally underserved audience, which is even better from a positioning perspective (when supply is down, demand is high). The result was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a publishing sensation that has not only moved more than two million copies, but also spurred courses, leadership consulting, and a viral TED Talk that has been watched more than fourteen million times.  But imagine if she’d poorly branded or defined that initial product. Imagine if, in an early manuscript, she had not clearly defined what introversion was or provided enough practical tips and strategies – and her editor had allowed her to get away with it. Do you think she would have had the same kind of success?


– from “Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday


What Should be Included in the Platform Section of Your Book Proposal?

– by Christopher Ferebee


Everybody hates talking about platform. We get it. We do too. But the reality of publishing today is you have to be building one. For reasons we’ll tackle in a later post, the ability of a publisher to “make” a bestseller has diminished. The unfortunate reality is that most books are sold to the author’s audience. The platform section is where you describe how you intend to reach an audience with your message.


Your starting place is your own, actual platform. How many Facebook fans and friends do you have? How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Instagram followers do you have? Do you have an e-newsletter, and if so, how many subscribers? Started a podcast? How many downloads are you averaging?  Do you speak? How often? What size crowds? Basically, you want to describe in detail every point of contact you have with your audience.


To take this a little further, you should also drill down into audience engagement. What is the typical ratio of engagement with the things you share? Do some analysis into how engaged your audience is with your content. What’s the open rate on your e-newsletter? What’s the percentage of likes and retweets you receive on average per tweet? How many likes and reposts do you receive on your Instagram posts? A small following with significant engagement is far more valuable than a massive following with no engagement.


Next you want to provide information about the networks of influence you have access to. This is not a place to list every person you wish you could reach, or you hope will lend support. This is supposed to be the list of people you can count on. Provide their name, organization if applicable, and their specific reach.


Finally, where else have you written? Have you published previous books? Which books, what year, what publisher, and how many sales? Have you contributed articles? To what outlets? Have you written a chapter in another book? Which book and chapter. List your prior publishing here.


The tendency here is to be modest, or to downplay your actual reach. Don’t. You want to be as detailed and specific as possible. This is your chance to convince an agent or publisher that you actually can bring an audience to your idea.


A Good Question

What makes a perfect question? Ironically, the best questions are not questions that lead to answers, because answers are on their way to becoming cheap and plentiful. A good question is worth a million good answers.


A good question is like the one Albert Einstein asked himself as a small boy – “What would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?” That question launched the theory of relativity, E=MC2, and the atomic age.


A good question is not concerned with a correct answer.

A good question cannot be answered immediately.

A good question challenges existing answers.

A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

A good question creates new territory of thinking.

A good question reframes its own answers.

A good question is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

A good question is a probe, a what-if scenario.

A good question skirts on the edge of what is known and not know, neither silly nor obvious.

A good question cannot be predicted.

A good question will be the sign of an educated mind.

A good question is one that generates many other good questions.

A good question may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

A good question is what humans are for.


– from “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly



A Whole New Devil

By the time a writer considers rewriting, the work of composing is familiar: a blank page, a tentative start, the splash of gladness when words arrive, the adrenaline rush of stumbling onto new awareness or memories or characters, the disappointment of seeing brilliant thoughts diminished in print, the satisfaction of penning that final period. We know this process. We’re attached to it, for good reason. Drafting is gratifying, fun, and full of revelations. While we may admit the draft is rough, it also sparkles. Often we’re reluctant to diminish that sparkle with the insult of revision. We hover over our first drafts, love and pride and self-consciousness tangling with our material. This is our baby!

Familiarity breeds fondness, along with peril. Sure, we say, the draft has flaws; sure, it’s only one of a dozen ways to approach this subject; sure, in places the language is shoddy. But look at this lovely twist! And this streak of fine prose, and this clever remark! Or (here’s a devilish defense) do you have any idea how much work I’ve invested? I couldn’t possibly change it.

Resistance to rewriting a project is often stronger than resistance to starting it. “This explains,” writes Peter Turchi, “why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision—which is to say, to fully embrace exploration. The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.” A first draft is a thrilling, frightening foray into the wilderness. Once we’ve bushwhacked that path, we don’t want to veer from it.

Attachment mires us. Most of us are committed to and therefore defensive about what we’ve created. Once we’ve taken one risk, we prefer not to take another.

But to foster lively, ongoing creativity, we must let the familiar go. Staying safe—the “better the devil you know” policy—does not serve anyone. We must learn a new way to work, with new material, in a new adventure. Revision is a whole different (and exciting) devil.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House

Books Like These – by Frederick Buechner

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers’ awards:


THE WRITERS WHO get my personal award are the ones who show exceptional promise of looking at their lives in this world as candidly and searchingly and feelingly as they know how and then of telling the rest of us what they have found there most worth finding. We need the eyes of writers like that to see through. We need the blood of writers like that in our veins.


* * *


J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books I read that did it to me, that started me on the long and God knows far from finished journey on the way to becoming a human being—started making thahappen. What I chiefly learned from it was that even the slobs and phonies and morons that Holden Caulfield runs into on his travels are, like Seymour Glass’s Fat Lady, “Christ Himself, buddy,” as Zooey explains it to his sister Franny in the book that bears her name. Even the worst among us are precious. Even the most precious among us bear crosses. That was a word that went straight into my bloodstream and has been there ever since. Along similar lines I think also of Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, George Garrett’s Death of the Fox, some of the early novels of John Updike like The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think of stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” and Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and works of non-fiction, to use that odd term (like calling poetry non-prose) such as Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb or plays like Death of a Salesman or Our Town.


– Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry 

Read Your Work Aloud

I recommend you find places to read your work aloud.


A chance to teach, lecture, lead a retreat, speak at a workshop—all these give writers a chance to write a piece we can read aloud to an audience so we can hone our skills and see if what we are writing is worth the time it takes for someone to read it. There is no better way to see how a longer work is coming along than to read a portion aloud to a crowd of unsuspecting folks.


When you read a work aloud, you can tell if the tone of voice holds up. You can spot the holes in a story more quickly. You can tell when the thing is slowing to a crawl and when it is moving too quickly.


You can tell whether or not people are laughing in the right spots or reaching for their tissues when you hoped they might. You can tell when the work drags and when the work sings.


If you read your work aloud and you cannot tell any of those things, you may want to take up watercolors.


– Robert Benson


What Should Your Book Outline Include in Your Proposal?

by Angela Scheff


As you’re developing your proposal, it’s important to include information about your manuscript, but what exactly should it encompass?


Agents (and publishers) are looking for a book outline, something that will walk them through your book structure. A list of potential chapters is good, but if you’re trying to show movement when writing, having defined sections is important. Even if your book has an informal tone and is written in essay form, don’t discount the journey you as the author will be taking the reader on. Look at each chapter and see if you can identify some larger themes they would fall under and organize it that way.


For example, this is good:


Chapter 1: Title


Chapter 2: Title


Chapter 3: Title


Chapter 4: Title


Chapter 5: Title


Chapter 6: Title


Chapter 7: Title


Chapter 8: Title


Chapter 9: Title


Chapter 10: Title


Chapter 11: Title


Chapter 12: Title


Yet, the following may be better for a nonfiction manuscript (even if it doesn’t end up with parts in the final manuscript) as it clearly spells out the themes and movement for the agent/publisher.


Introduction: Title


Part I: Title


Chapter 1: Title


Chapter 2: Title


Chapter 3: Title


Chapter 4: Title




Part II: Title


Chapter 5: Title


Chapter 6: Title


Chapter 7: Title


Chapter 8: Title




Part III: Title


Chapter 9: Title


Chapter 10: Title


Chapter 11: Title


Chapter 12: Title




Conclusion: Title


Obviously, don’t force it if it doesn’t make sense in your manuscript, but as an agent, I personally appreciate when an author has thought through their manuscript this much and can identify more than their overview. You need to let us know how you’re going to achieve this.


Think of your outline like a map. You know the destination you want the readers to arrive at, but you need to include directions in order for the readers to get there. There could be different ways to do so, but as an author you want to take the readers on a specific journey.


Following the table of contents, proposals usually include chapter summaries. While you don’t have to have your entire manuscript written at the proposal stage, you do need to know what each chapter is about. This can also look differently. Some authors may include a paragraph. You could also highlight themes, stories, etc., something like this:


Part I: Title


This section is going to touch on this theme.


Chapter 1: Title


This is your one-sentence description.


Topics to include: topic 1, topic 2


Stories to include: story 1, story 2


Again, while your entire manuscript doesn’t have to be written, you need to be able to convey to agents/publishers what you’re writing about and the map of how you’re going to get there.


One last piece of advice: While I’m very pro-plan when putting your proposal together, I absolutely understand chapters can take a different direction when you actually sit down to write it. Don’t be a slave to your map as your writing may want to take the scenic route, but do keep your publisher and editor informed if you change directions and you’re under contract.



Whether or Not It Has An Audience

Creative work is also worthy whether or not it has an audience. Much of the work you do will be more for your personal development than for anyone else’s needs. Your task is to engage in the work you are called to do. I’ve written a dozen or more short stories, several of them very meaningful to me. One of them was published several years ago; the rest are in a file that I return to from time to time, but I have no hopes of selling them, and I rarely share them with anyone else. I don’t think those stories are really good enough for an audience, but they were good enough for me when I wrote them. They helped my writing progress, and they satisfied something for me personally, and that’s enough.


– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press


The Greatness Myth

Writers like to hold up the myth of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a paradigm of possibility: He wrote it in three weeks! It was perfect! It’s a great American novel! Kerouac thought so too when he rushed into Robert Giroux’s office in 1955. When Giroux told him the manuscript needed editing, Kerouac insisted it was dictated “by the Holy Ghost” and stormed out. Then he spent six years revising, polishing, and shopping it around before On the Road found a home with Viking.

Why do we have collective amnesia about those six years? We want to slide down a shimmering writing rainbow to the pot of gold. We want to be told we’re a genius; we want to knock an editor’s socks off with a first draft. We’re attached to the idea of Kerouac typing in an ecstatic rush and hitting the writer’s jackpot because that means such ease, inspiration, and recognition are possible for us. Six years of revision tarnish the myth, as do the three years Kerouac spent taking notes and formulating his story before he began composing. Three weeks of fun appeal to us more than nine years of effort.

The myth of On the Road does a disservice to writers everywhere. Good stories rise up from inspiration and labor, over great lengths of time. Your draft, however brilliant, can mature and likely must mature before it engages an audience. That your writing will benefit from more work says nothing about your value as a human being or your skills as a writer.

Every writer needs a healthy, ambitious ego. You need chutzpah to generate an idea and consider it worthy, to get your butt into the chair, to plow through initial and many consequent drafts, and to seek publication. But the desire for greatness to come easily is the ego in hyperdrive. The ego is necessary to write; the ego’s attachments interfere with life-giving creativity. No one can serve two masters.

“The impulse to improve is . . . a sign of humility, of bowing one’s neck before the humbling undertaking of learning how to be worth one’s salt as a writer,” writes Richard Tillingast. In religious traditions, humility is the awareness of oneself as one really is. This direct, honest gaze does not come easily, as any writer who’s experienced the highs of inspiration and the crashing lows of denigration can attest. But an ongoing practice of gazing at what is supports both our stories’ growth and our own. “In humility is the greatest freedom,” Thomas Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation. “As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart.” The greatest potential for our creative work comes when we’ve humbly acknowledged our limitations, stopped feeding the ego, and applied our energy to the story. Only then is growth possible.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House

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