THE CRAFT OF WRITING – MAY 2020
SITUATIONAL AWARENESS IN THE WORLD OF PUBLISHING
By Kay DiBianca
Did you know the deadliest aviation accident in history happened on the ground? It occurred in 1977 when two 747’s collided in dense fog on a runway in the Canary Islands. Here’s how it happened:
An air traffic controller in the tower had instructed a KLM plane to taxi to the end of the runway in preparation for takeoff. He had also told a PanAm plane to taxi on the same runway and then exit at a certain taxiway. Because of the fog, the crews of the two planes could not see each other, and the air traffic controller could not see the planes. They were relying on accurate communication to guide their movements. If the crews of both planes had obeyed the controller’s instructions, the accident would not have happened.
The tower never gave the KLM flight clearance to take off, but the captain of the KLM plane thought he had been given the okay. Because of his misunderstanding and his inability to see clearly, the giant 747 began barreling down the runway, unaware that the other plane was in its path.
The takeoff plane was traveling at approximately 160 mph when the crew spotted the other plane dead ahead. They were only one hundred meters apart. There was no time to stop or swerve to avoid the other plane. The captain of the takeoff plane pulled the nose up sharply in an effort to “leapfrog” over the other one. He didn’t make it. The lower part of the KLM aircraft struck the PanAm plane and crashed onto the runway, exploding in a huge fireball.
Although the crews of both planes were experienced, five hundred and eighty-three people died in that accident. All the people on the KLM flight perished, and most of the passengers on the PanAm plane also died. And it happened because the captain of the KLM plane lacked “situational awareness”, or the ability to understand his environment clearly. He acted on an assumption that the runway was clear. He was wrong.
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Situational awareness applies to many aspects of life, not just flying. Authors need to have a clear picture of the publishing landscape in order to be successful. Even though an inability to see clearly won’t endanger our lives, it just might endanger our livelihoods!
If you’re a pilot, you depend on the air traffic controller to direct your flight. When you drive, you may use your car’s GPS system to get you to your destination. For those of us who are new to publishing, we rely on experts in the field to lead us. Experts like Terry Whalin.
In his book “10 Publishing Myths,” Terry has identified a list of beliefs that can mislead an author on the path to publication. Terry not only shatters these myths, he provides practical exercises to help us as we continue on our writing journey.
So don’t go wandering in the vast publishing labyrinth unassisted! Be aware of your situation. Pick up a copy of “10 Publishing Myths,” and you’ll see more clearly how to get where you want to go.
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W. Terry Whalin knows and understands both sides of the editorial desk–as an editor and a writer and a literary agent. A former literary agent, now Terry’s an acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 Christian and general market publications plus he’s written more than 60 books for traditional publishers. His personal site is located at: https://terrywhalin.com.
A journalism graduate from Indiana University, Terry writes a wide spectrum of subjects and topics for the magazine and book marketplace. His latest books include Billy Graham, A Biography of America’s Greatest Evangelist (Morgan James) and Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams (Morgan James). He is an active member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Also, Terry is the creator of a popular site for writers: www.right-writing.com. Terry and his wife, Christine, live in Colorado.
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Welcome, Terry Whalin. Thank you for joining us!
Why did you write 10 Publishing Myths?
I’ve worked with hundreds of authors and spoken with many more over the years. Many of them have unrealistic expectations about what will happen with their book. I wrote 10 Publishing Myths to help authors have practical ideas about how to succeed with their book. There is much that can go wrong in the publishing process. Many of these things are outside of the author’s control. My book is focused on practical ideas every author can do to reach their readers.
What would you tell a novice writer is the most important attribute (s)he must have to be a successful author?
It may sound cliché but writers need to learn the craft of writing and telling stories. Storytelling is a skill that can be learned but takes time and practice. I know people want to write books but I recommend writers begin with a magazine article. If they write fiction, then begin with short stories in magazines. Why? In the process of creating such stories, you learn the craft of storytelling. Plus you are working with a shorter form of writing than a lengthy book. In general print magazines have a high standard and you will have to work hard at the craft of writing to get published in magazines.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing? Which method would you recommend for a new author?
Publishing is a complicated business and I don’t know I can capture these in just a few sentences but I will try. Traditional publishing is the path in most people’s minds about publishing. They find a literary agent who shops the book to publishers. These publishers pay an advance and give a royalty contract. There is no cost to the author. The publisher does the editing, the design work, the distribution to bookstores and some marketing. They take over the control of your book too so you as an author have little say on the title, the cover design, the cost and many other factors. The process of getting a literary agent or an editor of a traditional house interested in your book to give you a contract is complex. I wrote a book for writers called Book Proposals That Sell to help in this process. I have all of the remaining copies of this print book and discounted the price. The book has over 130 Five Star Amazon reviews and has helped many writers. Agents and editors in traditional publishing make cautious decisions because the decisions are based on book sales. Thousands of dollars are involved in this process and the authors who get contracts are ones that have a market or the ability to touch their readers and sell books.
Self-publishing is a huge area at the moment with 1.6 million self-published books last year. The author has complete control for their cover design, title, etc. I’ve met self-published authors who have spent $20,000 on their book (a scam). The average self-published book sells about 100 to 200 copies during the lifetime of the book. The reality is there is still a lot of poor books produced in the self-published market.
The best publishing in my view is a collaborative process. I work for Morgan James which is one of the top independent publishers in the U.S. We pay traditional royalties and have a small advance but there is a partnership in this process. Our books have broad distribution and have been on the NY Times list 29 times during the last 18 years. To explore the system is free and something I recommend authors do. Just reach out to me firstname.lastname@example.org is a way to get started.
How important is it to have a professional editor?
Every writer needs an editor—even someone like me who has published a great deal. Each of us have blind spots and our writing can be improved with a professional editor. The key word is “professional.” Often finding the right editor is like trying to find the right spouse. You have to check them out, look at their references, see what it will cost and when they could get it done, etc. There are some terrific professional editors but select the right one is my caution.
Why should an author take 100% responsibility to sell his or her own books? Isn’t that somebody else’s job?
As the author, you have the greatest passion for selling your book—whether you publish traditionally or self-publish or use something in between. Your excitement and energy to market your own book will last longer than anyone else (an editor, a publisher, an agent, a PR person, etc).
How does a new author get connected with others in the publishing industry?
Who you know in publishing is almost as important as what you know. People connections are very important. I encourage authors to join an online group but also to get to a writer’s conference. You can also network with others on LinkedIn. A lot of publishing is about being in the right place at the right time with the right stuff in front of the right person. It takes a lot of persistence to get those rights to line up but it is possible.
There are so many books coming onto the marketplace every day, how can a new author maximize his or her chances to be successful?
One of the most important things any writer can do (new or experienced) is to build their connections to their readers or audience. In publishing we call this building your platform or tribe. Yes people love to tout Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn as where they are building their readers—but there is a caution about these sites many people forget—they are rented space. You don’t control Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn and in fact could be banned from there in an instant. It’s much better for you to build your own website and your own email list because they are under your direct control.
You are both an acquisitions editor and an author. How do you find time to handle both of those demanding roles?
I’ve worked for Morgan James Publishing for eight years and it is my third publisher in an acquisitions role. It is a matter of finding balance between my acquisitions work and my work at an author. Often the two intersect and I promote both of them—like this recent podcast I did with Christine Kloser. Some of my editor friends do not write and only edit. I believe being both an editor and a writer helps me have a greater understanding for my authors.
What are you working on now?
I have a variety of projects in the works—and something I recommend others do as well. It’s called diversity or creating multiple streams of income. I write books for other people and have a couple of those projects in the works. Also I’m a part of a small team helping shape Bible studies for The Passion Translation (Broadstreet Publishing). I worked on the study guide for Isaiah which will come out later this year. Also I’m continuing to devote time to promoting my newest book, 10 Publishing Myths.
Do you have any other guidance for us that I haven’t asked here?
People wonder how I’ve been able to write and publish so much material over the years. Several years ago I stopped and figured it out. It’s not that I’m the best writer in the room. I am one of the more consistent and persistent people you will meet. I go to conferences, listen to editors and meet them and pitch my books like everyone else. After I pitch, sometimes the editor will show interest and ask me to send them something. I immediately make a little note, go home and follow-up and send them what they requested. It doesn’t mean that I get published from it—but I at least give myself a chance to get published. What I realize from going to conferences as an editor, I often will hear a good idea and ask them writer to send it to me. In fact I will email them and at times call them asking for it. But I’ve learned that only about 10% of people that I meet will actually send it to me. My main guidance would be to keep pitching, listening to the editors and their needs, then sending them what they request and what they need. It is that simple. Just look at the Foreword Mark Victor Hanson wrote for my Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams book. Everyone forgets Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected many times.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
My blog, The Writing Life has over 1500 searchable entries. Also my website is located at: https://terrywhalin.com. Others can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Thank you, Terry, for being with us today!
Terry, Thank you again for being my guest on the blog today. It’s wonderful to have you here.
I have another couple of questions:
Have publishers been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?
I understand more books are being sold now since people have more time to read. Do you think that trend will continue?
Will publishing see any lasting effects from the pandemic?
Kay, the pandemic has affected publishers because bookstores have been closed but online sales are up and books continue to move. It has made for lots of internal changes but books continue to sell and will sell far beyond this crisis. I’m unsure of the lasting effects of the crisis. In Many ways it is too early to tell and I’ve never been good at such forecasting.
Good morning, Terry & Kay!
Wow, Kay, what an opening. Thank you for bring back to our remembrance the lesson in situational awareness from that terrible day on Tenerife.
I couldn’t agree more with everything Terry shared, beginning with “writers need to learn the craft of writing and telling stories.” I owe Terry my gratitude for acquiring me for Morgan James Publishing in 2018. (Can you believe it? Two years ago next month!) Terry is so steady, so even-tempered, and so accessible. And so experienced! Thank you, Terry, for giving so generously to the writing community!
Lisa, Thank you for this comment and for your continued effort for your amazing book, All In. I’m glad to help you and others–as so many others have helped me over the years.
Lisa, Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I can understand your gratitude — Terry has been such a pleasure to work with as we put this interview together. He has supplied a ton of knowledge and wisdom to a very few questions!
Morgan James and Terry must be very grateful for you, Lisa, for your book ALL IN. I’m looking forward to your next book STORK BITE. I’m honored that you asked me to read the manuscript, and I’m in awe of the story and your writing! Can’t wait for the rest of the world to read it.
For those of you who may have missed it, I interviewed Lisa about her book ALL IN in a previous blog post at
Thank you for the shout out, Kay! I’m so glad you’re enjoying Stork Bite!
Thank you, Terry and Kay, for this informative interview!
Thank you for the feedback. I hope it helps you.
Thank you, Barbara, for stopping by!
Kay, I must say, you are getting very good at hosting these interviews and asking questions that drive to the core of your guest’s expertise. Some of the things that Terry said sound simplistic at first thought but are actually rather profound. For example:
“Writers need to learn the craft of writing.” One can’t write without both an imagination and a set of life experiences to provide the foundation for story. But that’s only the beginning . . .
“Every writer needs an editor.” Truer words were never spoken. And if you can afford it, get someone who can provide both developmental and copy editing.
“Publishing is a complicated business . . .” Unbelievably complicated. Getting an agent will simplify the process (because the agent finds the publisher for you), but it also takes longer (time to rewrite the book to satisfy the editor, then time to do what the publisher wants). I realize my point about time is probably debatable.
Here’s my question to Terry. If you were passing a budding writer on another train going in the opposite direction, what advice would you yell in three words (doesn’t have to be sentence)?
Congratulations to both of you for an outstanding interview.
To be honest I wouldn’t be able to narrow it to three words to yell to a budding writer. It’s a complex business and an agent doesn’t solve everything. I’ve fired a number of agents during my years in this business–and I’ve been an agent. I guess the three words would be: write, read, write. Hard exercise in my view.
I love imaginative, challenging questions, and yours is a doozy! I also like Terry’s answer: “Write, read, write.” That’s great advice.
I thought about this for a while and here are my three words to shout at that budding writer on the other train: “Never Give Up!”
I’d love to hear others’ opinions on this.
Love both those three-word shouts. I do believe a writer can make it with “Write, read, write,” and “Never give up!”
Good answers! Mine would be “Write for Him”
Frank, that’s a good one too but what do you write for Him? There are many different opportunities–books, magazine articles, radio scripts, videos and many more ways. Each of us have to select a route and master it. In my answers above, I have a link to my Jumpstart Your Publishing Dream free chapter which includes a lengthy list of writing possibilities.
Thank you Kay! As always, my time spent reading what you share is not regretted…although the plane crash story might give me nightmares before my next flight. So much useful wisdom here though, especially the suggestion to start with magazine articles and short stories. I didn’t start that way, but eventually saw the wisdom and paused my novel to write some magazine articles and an award winning short story that was published as part of a compilation last year. I learned a lot doing that and gained the confidence to actually call myself an author. I think y’all pretty much nailed it already in the three words to shout. I’ll just hop on the next train and shout “Learn the craft” and while I’m doing that I’ll hold up a banner for your blog! Thank you Terry for sharing your wisdom and your time!
Lori, thanks for this feedback. Your persistence and consistency is critical in this publishing world–and makes an impression on the editors and others you cross paths with during your joourney.
Lori, Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I agree that Terry’s information was both useful and full of wisdom. Glad to hear you had already done some magazine articles.
And I love your three words! Learn the craft!! Maybe we should have a contest to see who can come up with the best 3-word slogan for authors.
Thanks again. Happy writing!
Great interview, Terry and Kay. (And what an opener, Kay. Have you considered copywriting? 🙂)
I’ll always take time to hear what Terry has to say, as I know he’s got the experience to speak from.
Linore, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. We have all benefited from Terry’s knowledge and experience.
I’m looking forward to you next book.
Linore, thanks for coming by. It is always great to see you and I appreciate the feedback.
Thanks so much, Kay and thank you, Terry. Keep up the great work, both of you!