When Your Brilliant Idea Is Rejected

Part 1 in the series, “Believing in Your Manuscript When No One Else Does

Editors at book publishing houses are always saying, “Show me something new, something different, something special, something unique,” yet when I did, none of them liked it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d had plenty of success as a writer. More than fifty of my books had been published, as well as some three thousand newspaper and magazine articles. Nevertheless, after spending three years creating a new genre I called the fact-vella, I found myself running into stone walls. No one I showed it to “got it,” so no one wanted to publish it. The ordeal was depressing.

Here was my original idea: Everyone seemed to like motivational books that had lots of good content on how to succeed in life, but they also enjoyed stories. That’s why a book such as The One Minute Manager had succeeded as a modern teaching parable (a story), yet The Tipping Point had succeeded as a statistical research book (content heavy material). So, I thought that if I wrote a factual book with a novella embedded within it, I’d have the best of both formats. And, thus, I created the factual-book/novella, or fact-vella, as I began calling it. I thought it was entertaining, insightful, witty, and educational. The editors I showed it to thought differently.

“This is a hodge-podge,” one editor told me after reading the first three chapters and the three inserted vignettes of the novella. “If you want to write a novel, do so. If you want to write a nonfiction motivational book, then keep your focus on that.” This was especially painful for me to hear because I’d had five books published with the company this editor worked for, so I thought that surely my brilliant new idea would be welcomed with open arms. Uh…not so.

Another editor kept the manuscript for a week, then called me and said, “Hey, these fictional inserts are clever. They teach by example without being heavy handed. Why don’t you pull them out, spend the next year expanding all of them, and then send this thing back to me as a completed novel. I’d be glad to consider it again.” I groaned audibly and hung up.

Another editor went the opposite direction. She suggested, “Take out all of these silly little fictional diversions and, instead, add in a whole series of study questions, reading lists, quizzes, and sidebars with statistics, and turn this into a standard textbook. We might be able to market something like that.” I wanted to pull out my hair.

Time and again I would reread my manuscript, and time and again I would tell myself, “This works! It’s a fun way to learn. It’s fast-paced, contemporary, and original. Why doesn’t anyone like it?” Within four months I had racked up rejections from ten publishing houses, both large and small. The editors kept telling me that I had something “in there somewhere,” but they thought that my mishmash-conglomeration of fiction and nonfiction was confusing instead of enlightening.

Next week: “It’s All About the Readers, Folks”

______________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Instilling Magic and Wisdom

Conclusion of the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

The reason grunt work often seems laborious is because it requires a precision that imaginative writing does not demand. It forces writers to get on the other side of the desk and become the readers. They must create clever, informative, exciting ways of explaining what seems to be either incomprehensible or inapplicable to the average person’s life.

It’s hard. It’s challenging. But it’s rewarding. One professor told me she used an article I had written about her research as part of an application for a grant. She laughed and said, “The governing board members said they couldn’t make head or tail of what I’d written in my proposal, but after reading your article about what my research was accomplishing, they saw the value in funding it. I got the money.”

So, keep in mind, it’s only grunt work when you forget to instill the magic and wisdom. Using my system to churn words, I was happy overall. And some days, such as when I saw my photo on the back cover of a new book or one of my pieces was made the cover story of a national magazine or I received a fan letter from someone who “absolutely loved” something I’d written, then I was euphoric.

I don’t think that’s an emotion I would experience as a fast-food worker simply churning out burger orders.

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giving Readers the Takeaway They Look For

Part 4 in the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

Another thing that made grunt writing more palatable was knowing the secret of why people bothered to read articles. They wanted to be entertained or taught something. In short, they desired takeaway value. They wanted to feel that the time they had spent reading an article had been worth it because it had amused them or had enlightened them in some way.

What this meant to me was, if I was assigned to write a profile, I couldn’t prepare it like an obituary: birthday, education, marriage, military service, career, death. Ugh! No, instead, I had to discover, either by research or by interviewing, the insights this person could pass along to others. How did she get rich? How did he train for that Olympic medal? What was the trick for creating so many new patents? This became fun for me, too, because I had to probe, question, and dig. After discovering the gems, the writing part became easy.

Another challenge was to find ways to make any subject comprehensible to lay readers. Imagine, for example, that I had to prepare an article about a mathematics professor who had made a breakthrough in quantum physics or in wind power or in outer-space navigation. Mention math to most people, and they run for the hills.

So, rather than filling my article with a string of numbers towing lots of zeroes, I would dream up comparisons—just like I counseled the community college math professor, whom I mentioned earlier, to do. For instance, instead of saying that a new energy-efficient windmill was 3,627 inches tall, I would say, “After being pieced together and pulled erect, this behemoth was as high as a football field is long.” You don’t have to have a PhD in math in order to picture that dimension in your mind’s eye.

Likewise, in describing new compression elements for an iPad or Nook, I wouldn’t talk about 727 feet of shelf space in a library. I’d say, “A collection of hardbound books that could fill your two-car garage can now be contained within a digital reader that is the size and weight of one book.” That hit home to most folks.

The very nature of a publication’s theme or topic can immediately intimidate certain readers. If I picked up a sports magazine and didn’t understand sports lingo, I’d be wary of my ability to find value in this publication’s articles. Or, if I had never studied to be a pilot, an air-navigation magazine would seem daunting to understand. Such was my challenge in editing a college alumni magazine. Some readers instantly feared that it would contain a collection of mega-brainy articles written from a professorial perspective. In short, they assumed its material would be boring, incomprehensible, and narrow.

Knowing this, I avoided fifty-cent vocabulary and opt for common terms—not “sociological interconnective cognitive interpersonalization” but “showing folks how to relate to others on equal terms.” I’d paraphrase what the professors told me so as to reduce equations and theories and experiments down to amusing anecdotes or illustrative examples. I’d see if I could include drawings or simplified charts or photos that made abstract concepts seem more concrete, more visual, more apparent.

To be able to do this, I’d often have to spend many hours with the professors, making sure I truly understood what in the world they were talking about before I attempted to “translate” it into street talk. When I’d run my article by them a day or two later, many of them would say, “Hey, give me a copy of that. I have to deliver a paper on this next month, and that’ll make it easier for me to explain things to my audience.”

Next week, “Instilling Magic and Wisdom”

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Giving Readers the Takeaway They Look For

Dealing with Grunt Work

Part 3 in the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

I constantly tell my college students that a bad day writing is better than a good day working at a fast-food restaurant. However, that does not mean I love every writing job I am offered. Sometimes we writers have to take whatever assignment comes along. Or perhaps we have a job in which we have to wear a lot of writer’s hats. Such was the case when I was Public Information Officer at a small private college for four years. I was sports information coordinator, alumni magazine editor, student newspaper advisor, campus publicist, and senior public relations liaison.

I’ve learned a few tricks to make grunt work less tedious, and a big part of it begins with attitude. When I had to generate a feature article about the lacrosse team (a sport I hardly understood) or write a profile about a ninety-year-old alumnus who had died and left money to build a new library for our school (but was somebody I’d never even met), I’d tell myself, “Okay, this isn’t as much fun as writing a novel, but it pays the bills and puts food on the table. Do your work, and be happy you have a job as a writer.” I’d dig in and get the piece written.

Next week, “Giving Readers the Takeaway They Look For”

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dealing with Grunt Work

Focusing on the Monumental

Part 2 in the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

Having earned some money and having attended to the day’s correspondence, I would then focus on something monumental. I would stay focused on one writing project and move it as far forward as possible. If I was working on a short story, I’d stay at it for two hours. If it was a novel, I’d concentrate on a single chapter. If it was an interview assignment, I’d transcribe my tapes and start working on the first draft of the profile. To the best of my ability, I would not let anything interrupt me until time for lunch. I’d then be ready for a physical and mental break. Writing is draining, folks.

After a modest lunch, I’d stay away from the office for a couple of hours. I’d go to the basement and exercise on the treadmill or stationary bike and then shower and shave.

Perhaps I would do some pleasure reading. I might make phone calls, maybe watch a little bit of TV, or do yard work. Around 3:45 p.m. my two kids would come home, and I’d help them with homework, run them to the library or sports practices, and we’d all have dinner together.

Later in the evening, I would go back to my office for another three hours. Why, you may ask, did I break the day into two parts? Well, first, because I was brain-fried after four hours of office work. Second, I had to attend to other functions and responsibilities in life. And third, I needed distance from what I’d done that morning.

Once back in the office at night, I would start to edit the work I’d written that morning. I’d read it aloud. I’d copy-edit it. I’d double-check facts and name spellings and statistics and quotations. If fiction, I’d act out scenes, checking the stage movements and listening to the dialogue. Sometimes my work was so brilliant, I’d produce seven pages of print-ready material. Other times it was so horrific, I’d scrap almost all of it. But even the pitched material got me closer to the end product. To sell words, you have to churn words. Continually.

Next week, “Dealing with Grunt Work”

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Focusing on the Monumental

The Freelance Writer’s Checklist to Success

Part 1 in the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

I have a muse. It’s called terror. It was especially motivating when I was a full-time freelancer for fifteen years with a family to support. I’d get up on Monday and say, “The mortgage is due Friday. Churn words.” I’d get up on Tuesday and say, “The kids need new shoes for Easter. Churn words.” I’d get up on Wednesday and say, “We need groceries. Churn words.” I’d get up on Thursday and say, “The heck with this. I’m tired of churning words,” and my wife would say, “Quit clowning around. Go churn words.” So, I would.

But, just how does one go about churning words? For me, it began with prep work. Long before Dr. Atul Gawande wrote his best seller The Checklist Manifesto (Henry Holt, 2009), I had a checklist system that was every bit as rigorous as an airline captain’s. I would go to my office and make sure that I was prepared to work that day: phone answering machine turned on for no disturbances, computer on standby, adequate paper in printer, wastebasket emptied, pencils sharpened, pads of paper on desk, drapes drawn to block out distractions, reference materials at ready reach, mug of coffee handy, and to-do list current and prioritized.

There was a psychological value in “going to work,” even if it was a home office. After going through this checklist, I was ready for takeoff.

Next, I strove for closure on something small. I’d take the first hour to write two short devotions and send them to a publication, or I’d complete my Saturday column for the local newspaper, or I’d write a book review. I needed this, personally. These were small assignments, but they paid something, and starting my day by making money as a writer (any amount) gave my family cash flow and verified that I was a working professional. It also got my mind in gear, warming up for more taxing assignments.

After that, I’d take what I called a “working break.” I’d get a second cup of coffee and spend an hour going through the mail. I’d take each new magazine and rip out the articles I felt would be useful and interesting, and I’d throw the rest away. I’d read a couple of articles, with a highlighter in hand to draw attention to key information, and then I’d either toss each article or file it in a cabinet for future reference. I’d then stack any incoming bills in one pile so my wife could pay them. Any payment checks that might have arrived that day would go with that pile for her to deposit into our bank account. I’d then review rejected manuscripts or accepted queries, assign each a project date and deadline, and place them atop a bookcase in order of pending priority work.

Next week: “Focusing on the Monumental”

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Freelance Writer’s Checklist to Success

Powerful Delivery for Maximum Impact

Conclusion of the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Once the speech is written, it must be rehearsed. Great orators are performers. I audio-record my practice sessions, listening for where I need to slow down, pause for effect, increase volume, and enunciate clearly. If I discover words that slur or echo one another or hit the ear awkwardly, I rewrite those passages. I practice in front of the mirror, testing hand gestures, head tilts, eyebrow lifts, shoulder hunches, sidesteps, and quizzical reactions. Body language speaks as loudly as do actual words.

One particular trick I use is to begin by speaking much too loudly for the first minute. I overpower the audience, and by domination, force everyone into subjection. It becomes obvious that only one person in the room is now the center of attention, and it isn’t anyone in the audience. Once control has been gained, I decrease volume and rely more on tempo, gesticulation, and articulation to hold everyone’s attention. But starting strong is a key factor in successful speechmaking.

Today, when authors are expected to address writers conferences, appear on radio and TV talk shows, and record webinars and audio-blog entries on the Internet , becoming a skilled orator is a professional requirement. Get your start by speaking before attendees of clubs, conventions, retreats, churches, or schools.

What you say, who you say it to, and how you say it determine how effective your platform will be. So, write it like you say it, then say it as though you mean it.

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Powerful Delivery for Maximum Impact

3 Steps to Creating a Dynamic Speech

Part 2 in the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Even introverted writers can create memorable speeches by following these three steps:

  1. It has to have a central theme illustrated by a vibrant metaphor or a graphic story. For example, in my speech titled “Submarine People,” the central theme is that some people sink to depths of despair and failure in life, like a submarine with too much ballast. However, other people can jettison the ballast, rise to the surface, and move forward toward a worthy destination. Throughout that speech I return to the image of the submarine—sinking, resting on the bottom, blowing ballast, rising, cresting the surface, moving forward atop the waves. Listeners can envision the scene. They can relate to the metaphor. They can accept the challenge to get rid of the dead weight in their own lives and to rise to new levels. The image is not abstract; it’s visual.
  2. Great speeches must have one or two phenomenal catchphrases. You remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s line was, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Julius Caesar said, “I came; I saw; I conquered.” John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The challenge is to write a line so pithy, so succinct, so gripping, that it summarizes the entire point of the speech in a memorable, powerful, quotable In one of my speeches back in 1996, I used the apostle Peter as an example of faith, and I said, “If you plan to walk on water, you first have to get out of the boat!” It was a simple statement, but I remember how the audience loved the challenge so much, everyone broke into applause right in the middle of my speech. A few years later, John Ortberg came out with his popular book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
  3. Create a detailed outline. The audience needs to feel that the orator knows exactly where he or she is going with the talk. That means you have to start with a gripping story or statement or challenge (not some lame joke or a quote you borrowed from someone else). You have to have key points that flow systematically, logically, and fluidly, supported by clever anecdotes or insightful illustrations. You have to provide takeaway value so that the listeners don’t dare go out for coffee refills lest they miss vital, crucial insights. Your transitions should be smooth, natural, and well-timed, perhaps by numbers (“…and secondly”) or counterpoint words (“on the other hand…”) or time triggers (“…yet even before this occurred….”). And you must have an ending that is not only conclusive but also clever and motivating. I close my submarine speech with this challenge: “This is your time. You’re breaking free of the heavy waters. You’re at the top. All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” (The audience always loves it.)

Next week, “Powerful Delivery for Maximum Impact”

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 3 Steps to Creating a Dynamic Speech

Professional Speechwriting for Yourself and Others

Part 1 in the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Right before I went on stage to deliver the keynote address at the 2013 Writing for the Soul conference in Colorado Springs, Jerry B. Jenkins stepped to the lectern to introduce me. Jerry smiled, then said, “I’m pleased to welcome my long-time friend, Doc Hensley, to the platform. If you’ve never heard this man speak before, let me give you a word of caution: fasten your seatbelts!” He then stepped back and waved me forward.

That humorous introduction pleased me, for it implied that whenever I give a speech, my listeners can be assured I’ll be fast-paced, content-heavy, and entertaining. Too often, many orators today are one of these three, but not all of the three.

Denzel Washington, quoted in Success magazine (“Ties That Bind” by Mike Zimmerman, Oct. 8, 2012), said, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” What he meant was, he couldn’t be a great performer unless he first had a good script to work from. That’s true. Stand-up comics can be entertaining for an hour, but no one leaves their shows pondering heavy philosophical thoughts or meditating on ways to improve themselves or the world. A good speech must have a message that will impact listeners.

Crafting an impacting speech is a process.

Next week, “3 Steps to Creating a Dynamic Speech”

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Professional Speechwriting for Yourself and Others

When Is Violence Justifiable in a Story?

Conclusion of the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

There are times when avoiding violence in a scene just doesn’t ring true. Even Jesus upset the tables of the moneychangers and gave a vitriolic tongue-lashing to those found in the “den of thieves.” The challenge is to make such scenes align with the nature of the person taking the action and believable within the context of the scene being presented.

A brilliant example of this is found in the 1956 movie Friendly Persuasion. A Quaker farmer in southern Indiana (Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell) is trying to stay neutral during the Civil War and thus keep himself and his sons from having to engage in violence of any kind. However, while Jess Birdwell is out on his land one day, a Confederate soldier shoots at him, and the bullet grazes the farmer’s forehead, knocking him down. He pretends to be dead, hoping the soldier will go away. Instead, the Reb advances on Birdwell to finish him off.

In an act of self-preservation, Birdwell jumps up. Catching the soldier off guard, he grabs the man’s rifle and pins him against a tree with it. The two men lock in mortal combat until Birdwell succeeds in wresting the rifle away from the soldier. He points the barrel directly at the Confederate trooper. The soldier is horrified, thinking surely he will be shot at pointblank range by this civilian he has tried to kill.

For a moment we see the rage in Birdwell’s eyes. The soldier has already shot him in the head and fought him hand to hand. Birdwell has every right, in self-defense, to kill the man. However, Birdwell’s Quaker beliefs slowly begin to resurface, and we see a narrowing of his eyes and the forming of a grim expression. He jerks the barrel of the weapon in sideways motions, signaling for the soldier to go away, to get off his land. The man is dumbfounded, but he staggers away. Then, in a moment of outrage, Birdwell grabs the rifle by the barrel and swings it viciously against the trunk of the tree, over and over, until the weapon cracks, breaks, and shatters.

This scene works. The fistfight is believable, even though it involves a Quaker. The threat with the gun is believable, even though done by a Quaker. And the release of pent-up anger and rage as evidenced by the savage smashing of the rifle against the tree is totally believable because—Quaker or not—Birdwell is a normal human being with fight-or-flight preservation instincts. Personally, if a scene can be labeled “tasteful, appropriate violence,” this scene, in my opinion, certainly qualifies.

What we are left with then is an understanding that although violence is offensive to most readers, they nevertheless understand that all people have the potential to unleash it if sufficiently provoked. And therein lies the secret of making it work in fiction. If a scene of violence makes the reader say, “I can see myself doing that under those circumstances,” then it is not only realistic, but it is also acceptable, honest, and justifiable.

Just don’t go overboard with violence, because if you do, your editor will have to put the ear back on the victim—as Jesus did after Peter went on a sword-slashing spree—and ask for a rewrite. Keep it in bounds.

_________________________________________

DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

Posted in Professional Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on When Is Violence Justifiable in a Story?