Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Let's Talk Dirty

Charlotte Firbank-King

We can whisper about swearing and sex—or we can just say it—SEX!

I’m all about telling it as it is—as your characters experience it—with some consideration for your audience.

First, let’s talk about swearing.

If you’re writing a story about soldiers or cops, you want to make it real, make it come alive. You as a person may not like swearing, but the characters you write about are not you—so keep them in character. I was married to a cop, so I know they swear like troopers and string together sentences with curse words. I don’t suggest that you write exactly the way they speak, but if you want your fiction to appear authentic, you’ll need a good peppering of curses—and I don’t mean limp expletives like, “You miserable so-and-so/cad/villain,” or any other curse fit for a children’s chapter book. For example, if a writer writes about child abuse, the cop investigating the case is not going to call the abuser a “cad” or a “misfit.” The officer will undoubtedly refer to the transgressor by using some very colorful expletives.

However, if we use the amount of profanity used by certain groups of people, it becomes ridiculous and the reader loses interest in the story. Therefore, we need to flavor our fiction with the language our characters use, but not overwhelm it.

Another consideration for the amount of profanity to be used is the intended audience. If we are writing children’s books, then no amount of profanity is allowed. Same with inspirational. However, things change with the Young Adult Genre. We sometimes think YA books—which loosely serves older teens and younger twenties—should meet the approval of the Pope. Think again. This age group, perhaps more than any other, wants to keep it “real.” 

Then there is sex. You as a person may not be promiscuous, but what if your character is? How much sex is enough? How much is too much? Again, the answer depends upon your genre and your audience. In Inspirational Romance, we are never privy to sex scenes, but we may see a baby pop out after our romantic couple are suitably wed. Therefore, if you write Christian fiction, keep it chaste. However, if you write erotica, like Fifty Shades of Grey, turn it loose and lurid. Like with cursing, many writers rip the ring out of it and shove sex in your face in the crudest possible way—but be forewarned, the shock tactic will fail with overuse. Allow sex scenes to flavor the story, not overwhelm it. 

But what if your writing falls somewhere between? There are innumerable ways of writing about sex that is tasteful. This means using grown-up words for body parts and avoiding the use of euphemisms.

Please note: Rape is not sex. Rape is a violent act that is not beautiful and nothing can make it okay, so don’t skirt around it and pretend it isn’t the horror that it is. Do not glorify it. Make it real. 

We live in an age in which almost anything goes, especially where violence, sex, and swearing is concerned. A writer’s job is to make it real whilst not grossing readers out completely. It’s important to “write true and truthfully for your genre.”

Even Shakespeare swore—like, “A pox on you.” A pox, in this case, refers to a venereal disease, so for those days, that was a pretty severe oath. The use of “God” was strictly forbidden, so he said ‘sbloodGod’s blood or ‘sdeathGod’s death and so on. But swear he did—to the extent of what was permitted during his time.

So, first, know your audience and write for that audience. Then, second, keep it real. Like everything in writing, too much is as boring as too little. Don't write violence for violence's sake, but use it truthfully, if it really belongs in a story. The same is true for sex and profanity. As with all the other seasonings of fiction, sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Interview with Literary Agent Chip MacGregor

Sandi Rog and Chip MacGregor

Today we’d like to welcome prolific agent, Chip MacGregor. 

Here’s a little bit about this amazing man. Just a little bit:

When Chip was in first grade, he hurried home one day and announced to his mother, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a book guy!” He clearly could see the future—from high school literary magazine editor to writing bestselling books, from speaking at writing and publishing conferences to representing renowned writers, Chip MacGregor is a book guy. Creating MacGregor Literary was part of a natural progression.

Chip has a comprehensive knowledge of the industry—from book development to writing, acquisition to production, marketing to sales. A former Associate Publisher with the Time-Warner Book Group, he has secured nearly 1,000 book deals for authors with all of the major publishers, including numerous imprints at Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, Thomas & Mercer, Jossey-Bass, Llewellyn, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, Baker, Tyndale, Waterbrook, Howard, B&H, Worthy, Revell, Harvest House, and dozens of others. As an editor, he discovered Phillip Gulley, worked with bestselling authors such as Andy Andrews and Karen Kingsbury, and helped craft books for some of the best names in publishing, including Vince Zandri, Chuck Swindoll, Mindy Clark, and David Jeremiah. He has also written more than two-dozen titles, including two books that hit #1 on the bestseller lists in their category, and he has been the collaborative writer on nearly three-dozen other titles. During his tenure as a publisher at Time Warner, he helped start Center Street, the “heartland publishing” initiative at what is now Hachette, and did books with the likes of Mike Huckabee and John Ashcroft.

As a longtime agent, he has represented Brennan Manning, Vincent Zandri, Rachel Hauck, Mindy Clark, Irene Hannon, Bonnie Gray, Michelle McKinney Hammond, Jill and Stuart Briscoe, Alistair McGrath, Neta Jackson, Vickie McDonough, the MOPS organization, and many others. His work with Lisa Beamer and Ken Abraham led to Let’s Roll hitting #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, eventually becoming the bestselling nonfiction book the year it released. After starting his own agency, he focused on helping bring great fiction to market, representing authors such as Leslie Gould, Les Edgerton, Ann Tatlock, Jim Kraus, and Janice Thompson. Some of his bestselling nonfiction clients include New York Times bestsellers Mike Hingson and Susy Flory, bestselling writers Sheila Wray Gregoire, Shane Stanford, David Thomas, and Ira Wagler. A longtime member of AAR, he has represented dozens of books on all the national bestseller lists, and the authors he represents have won numerous national awards.

A popular writer’s conference speaker, Chip has presented workshops at more than 200 publishing conferences, spoken at colleges and universities, and is frequently invited to speak to writers groups around the country on the topics of writing and publishing. He earned his BS with High Honors at Portland State University, earned an MA with Honors from Biola University, and did his doctoral work at the University of Oregon in Policy and Management, focusing on organizational development. He later did a post-doctoral semester at Oxford University. Chip has been featured in numerous writing and publishing related magazines and newsletters, is frequently asked for his opinions on trends in the publishing industry, and his blog is regularly on the list of Writers Digest’s “101 Best Websites for Writers.”

Chip’s greatest desire is to help authors create great books that make a difference in the world. That’s what every book guy wants most.

Chip, we are honored to have you join us. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to open up and share your knowledge. 

So to begin, how do you define your job as agent?

My job, at its most basic, is to help authors succeed. Sometimes people think there is “one way” to agent. That’s just not true – some agents are very involved in the editing process, others tend to be contract managers, still others may be life coaches. There’s no one right away to agent, and there is certainly no one right author/agent relationship. So my job (and my relationship) can change depending on the needs of the client. One author may need a lot of encouragement, so sometimes my role can be that of encourager or listener. Another may really be shy and need me to step in and handle much of the communications with the editor and publishing house. One author may want to use me to bounce book ideas off of, while another may not care one whit about my responses to her book ideas, and is much more interested in my negotiation abilities. But again, at its core, my job is to help the authors I represent succeed in the publishing marketplace.

How do you spend your day?

On emails or on the phone much of the day. This is a job that requires a lot of reading and a lot of talking. Shadowing me around would not be much fun – I’m standing in front of my computer, or pacing around on my cell phone much of the time.

How do you find new clients?

While that’s a fair question, most people won’t be very satisfied with my answer. The fact is, I’ve done this a long time now (I first started agenting 17 years ago, and I’d been advising writers for several years before that). So most new clients are introduced to me by current clients. Occasionally, I’ll meet a promising new writer at a conference, but that’s not common any more – and the idea of sending me a proposal cold and getting my attention is fairly rare. I bet I don’t represent more than a couple of people who just sent in a proposal hoping to catch my eye. 

What do you like to see in a cover letter?

A strong sales hook. A non-technical explanation of the book or the story. Some writing that intrigues me. An explanation why you are writing the book (if it’s nonfiction) or what writing you’ve done (if it’s fiction). Um… a bag of Starbucks taped to the letter doesn’t hurt, I guess. 

What turns you off in cover letters? Any pet peeves?

Sure. Spelling errors. Not telling me the genre. Having it addressed “dear agent.” Over-spiritualizing everything. Making it apparent you have no idea who I am or what I represent. Telling me that God told you to write this. Hype (you wouldn’t believe the sort of hype I see in some letters – one guy told me the only writers who were close to his level of quality were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, but he admitted neither of them were quite as good as he is). Lots of pet peeves. 

Describe to us what your worst client was like.

High maintenance. 

What was your best client like?

A good writer. Works hard. Meets his or her deadlines. Is friendly. Sells a lot of books. Thinks creatively. Is honest with me. Keeps me informed when something happens I need to know about, but I’m not there to know about it. Asks questions. Understands that I have other clients.

How savvy do you expect authors to be about publishing?

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question, and it’s interesting. You know, the mode number of manuscripts a novelist has created before he or she is published? Six. That is, most published fiction writers have completed six books before they get published. (Some make it on their first try. Others need to write ten books before they get there.) My point is that time in the business makes for a more savvy author. So I suppose I represent a number of very smart, savvy writers, because so many of them have been at this a while. They’ve hung out with other writers, learned from people at workshops, met editors at conferences, maybe have surrounded themselves (either in person or online) with people in the industry. All of that helps. Scottish people have a saying: Time spent sharpening the tool is never wasted. 

How flawless does a manuscript have to be before you will try to place it?

While the previous question was interesting, this question is not. I’m not trying to be rude in saying that, it’s just that… if you’re doing ANYTHING where you’re going to try and sell it to the public, you are going to have to make it as perfect as possible. Because people aren’t stupid (regardless of the fact that they continue watching Dukes of Hazard reruns and voting for another member of the Bush family). They won’t buy crap. So an author needs to make his or her manuscript as good as they can. I won’t send something that’s half-baked. And it’s funny, because you know why most projects sent to us are rejected? Because they aren’t really done. The author may THINK it’s done, but it’s maybe 40% done. It needs more editing. It needs more voice. It needs more clarity – and sending me something that feels half-baked is a sure way to get rejected.

An example in another area: Years ago, I taught swing dance. I was pretty good. If we went to a publisher’s ball together now, you’d see me dance and think, “Hey – he’s great!” I can make you look okay on the dance floor. But the fact is, I’m older and rusty and can’t do most of the moves any more. And I was always pretty good, but never great. So while I’m fine for the occasional wedding celebration or community dance, expecting me to go to Broadway and get cast in a show is foolishness – “pretty good” doesn’t cut it when people are paying money for entertainment. 

What impresses you most about a piece of writing?

Great voice. That is, picking up your writing and seeing a strong, unique personality coming out on the page. It’s rare – most authors tend to sound the same, particularly those who have been through a writing program where they’ve been taught the “correct” way to write. It’s not bad; it’s just flat. Great voice is rare. I’m not sure it can be taught. But I love it when I find it. 

Are first novels a hard sell?

Sure. Any first book is a hard sell, unless the author has a hit TV show. And if you’re writing for CBA, it’s especially hard right now, since so many of the Christian publishers have shrunk their fiction lists or gotten out of fiction entirely.

Are second novels a hard sell?

I’m not sure there is such a thing as an “easy” sell, but a second novel is easier than a first, particularly if the first book did well. 

What do you enjoy most about being an agent?

The best part of the job is finding a great new talent and bringing them to market. That’s so fulfilling, to see this writer you discovered and helped nurture, to find success. But the fact is, I like most everything about this job. I love books and words. I love reading. I love discovering great stories. I love other people who work in this business because they also love books and words. I love talking about the industry to authors who are friends, or going to conferences and seeing a bunch of people who also love great stories and want to talk about them. I love helping someone get their story right, or helping an author map out a plan for their book or their career. I enjoy the job very much. Always have. 

Again, thank you, Chip! We appreciate your honesty and openess to the realities of being an agent.

If you’d like to learn more about Chip and MacGregor Literary, you can find him at his website HERE. You can also follow him on his blog and learn more about the pubishing industry HERE

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

CONTEST WINNER: The Stranger's Gift

Janet Smart

A stranger pushes open the door of the soup kitchen. A harsh wind rushes in. A few flakes of snow rest upon his white hair; he brushes them off with his gloved hands, frowns, and sniffs the air filled with the aroma of fresh baked cornbread.

The homeless whisper among themselves and wonder who this stranger is that has come upon bad luck this Christmas season. He gets his food and sits by himself near the fireplace in the corner of the room.

The regulars know everyone who visits the kitchen each day. There is Larry—tall and thin, who has been out of work for a year and does odd jobs—George, a Vietnam vet down on his luck, and a gray haired man who doesn’t have any family left. The volunteers in the soup kitchen are his family now. 

The next day the old man pushes open the door again, stomps the glistening snow from his black galoshes, and shuffles inside.  

“He’s back,” the regulars whisper between sips of coffee.

He obtains his bowl of hot soup and a buttered square of cornbread. He gazes around the room searching for an empty seat. Flecks of icy snow fall from his bushy eyebrows.

Each day the scene repeats itself. But, one day, one of the regulars sits by him and passes the time. The old man leaves the soup kitchen with more than a full stomach and a warmer body. He doesn’t smile, but he leaves with a small flicker of hope in his weary eyes. 

The stranger continues to come in out of the cold every day at suppertime. A different person sits by him each time. 

The patrons give to the old man. The homeless don’t have much, but each one wants to give him some of what little they have. They share a tattered scarf to put around his neck, one of their extra napkins to wipe the soup from his moustache, or information about the best places on the street to sleep. They give to him, expecting nothing in return.

Every day, when they see him enter, they strain their necks and watch as he brushes the flakes from his white hair and stomps snow from his black galoshes. Someone always sits with him and shares small talk and stories. They yearn to put a smile on his face.

“What should we say to him?” they ask among themselves.

 “How can we make him smile?” asks Larry.

 “Should we tell him jokes and riddles?” asks the gray haired man without a family. “Where is he from? I’ve never seen him on the streets before.”

“I don’t know,” each one answers. “He never speaks of himself. I only know, even though he is sad, he makes me feel better. His spirit slips into me, and I can’t help but smile.”

“I want him to smile, too,” says George.
Each day they look towards the door to observe the old man as he enters. Again one of them chooses to sit beside him, hoping to make him feel at home and bring a sparkle to his eyes.
Christmas Eve arrives and the old man comes again. This time a group of people sit with him. They give small tokens of friendship to him—a portion of their cornbread, a piece of a paper bag to line his shirt to help keep out the cold wind, and a needle and thread to sew up the hole in his red coat.

The old man eats, waves goodbye, and then hurries away. He leaves with a small twinkle in his eyes and a big smile on his face.

The next day the regulars come in for their special meal of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, rolls, and pumpkin pie. A real treat compared to soup and cornbread.

They watch for the old man, but he does not come. On the tables, packages wrapped in gold foil and red ribbons glisten beneath the flickering fluorescent lights.

“What are these?” they ask the volunteers.

“We don’t know. They were there when we arrived this morning.”

They sit at the tables with their tray of holiday food. Lighted candles spread the scent of cinnamon throughout the room. They touch the packages with their cold hands and glide their fingers over the slick foil.

 “I wish the old man was here,” the vet says. “We could share the gifts with him.”

A note engraved on gold paper on top of each box reads, I wondered if there was any good left in this world, until I met all of you. You gave me friendship and gifts when you had little to give. When I was down, you gave the Christmas spirit back to me and brought back my smile. Now I give back to you. You were my first stop on my trip around the world last night. Merry Christmas to all!

With shaky hands, they open the boxes. A feeling of happiness comes out and envelops their bodies. Like children on Christmas day, they exclaim, “Santa?”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tax Deductions for Writers

Rhonda Browning White
(Originally posted November 17, 2009)

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is educational and is not intended to serve as tax advice. Please consult your Certified Public Accountant or the Internal Revenue Service at for tax advice and preparation assistance.

You’re not published yet, so you think this informative article doesn’t apply to you, right? Wrong! If you’re a writer—even a writer at the beginning stages of your career—you may be eligible to claim many of your writing expenses on your taxes. The IRS knows that, as writers (freelance writers, novelists, or otherwise), it may take several years to make a profit. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to report your income, however. In fact, you must report everything you earn, even that ten-dollar check you earned for the article you published in your PTA newsletter.

So, what are some of the tax deductions you might be eligible to take, as a writer? Believe it or not, there are quite a few. First, if you have a
dedicated home office you may claim a portion (based on the square footage of your office in your home) of utilities, rent, home repairs, and so on. Consult IRS Publication 587 for more information and to see if you qualify. Next, you may be able to deduct furniture and equipment costs, such as for your desk, computer, printer and copier, though some of these may (or may not) need to be depreciated, dependent upon your individual situation. Of course, office supplies, such as paper, pens, laptop carrier, and paperclips can be deducted as an office expense on Schedule C.

In addition, professional services such as legal advice, accountant advice, tax preparation, and fees paid to a
professional editor are usually deductible. You may also be able to deduct travel expenses (keep detailed records), writers conference fees, a percentage of related meals and entertainment, as well as advertising (such as business cards, brochures, web domain expenses, etc.).

Did you know you may even be able to deduct work-related magazine subscriptions and books from your taxes? Your subscription to Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and other related magazines, as well as books on the craft of writing, such as grammar references, writing-related books, and The Writer’s Market can be deductible. Usually, any books considered research material for a writing project may be deductible. You may also qualify to deduct professional memberships, such as to your local or state writer’s group, or to a professional writing group such as Romance Writers of America, from your taxes.

The important thing is to make sure your keep receipts and document all expenses, including the date of purchase or travel, for all of these deductions. And remember, anything you claim must be a “necessary business deduction.” Other documentation you’ll want to keep to prove that you’re a dedicated writer (even if not yet a published one), include copies of emails sent to agents and publishers; query letters and a list of individuals to whom you’ve sent them; topics of long-distance phone calls to your editor, agent, or publisher; rejection letters and monthly fees paid to your Internet service provider.

The bottom line is that, while you must maintain documentation of your business-related expenses, you shouldn’t be afraid to claim these IRS-approved deductions on your taxes. After all, you are a writer!