THE CRAFT OF WRITING — NOVEMBER 2020
One of my favorite quotes is from Sir Francis Bacon:
“Reading maketh a full man;
Conference a ready man;
And writing an exact man.”
Over the course of our lives, we all have thoughts, conversations, and experiences that shape our minds and refine our beliefs, but sharing one’s understanding of this world with the rest of humanity is an awesome undertaking, and one not to be taken lightly. In order to attain that “exact man” (or woman) status, we may need some guidance.
Normally, this blog is dedicated to the craft of novel writing, but as we approach the end of this unusual year, some of you may be thinking of putting your reflections of 2020 in writing. So I think it would be edifying to look at the craft of writing non-fiction today, and I’m happy to welcome David Fessenden to the blog.
Dave’s book, Writing the Christian Non-fiction Book, Concept to Contract, walks the author through the process of getting his/her ideas down on paper and then getting them published. Much of the process is the same for fiction writing, so this will be a chance to cover a lot of ground in one interview.
In addition to being an author of both fiction and non-fiction books, Dave Fessenden is also a literary agent with WordWise Media Services and an independent publishing consultant with degrees in journalism and theology, and over 30 years of experience in writing and editing.
He has served in editorial management positions for Christian book publishers and was regional editor for the largest Protestant weekly newspaper in the country.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in writing?
As I neared the end of high school, it was obvious I had to make some decision about a career. After fumbling around with several ideas, I finally prayed about what God wanted me to be (which is of course the first thing I should have done!). And I sensed God saying, How about a writer? Later, I looked back on my years of school and realized the assignments I most enjoyed and was most successful at involved writing. I went to college and got my BA in journalism.
What made you decide to write Writing the Christian Non-fiction Book?
When I decided to write my first book, Father to Nobody’s Children: The Story of Thomas Barnardo, I looked around for a book on “how to write a book” — and was shocked when I couldn’t really find one! Of course, there were many books on writing, but no place could I find any kind of step-by-step process for a nonfiction book — especially not from a Christian perspective. I figured the Lord was giving me my next writing assignment! But it was quite a few years, a few more books under my belt, before it all came to fruition.
I noticed in your book that you list eight steps in the process of writing. Can you fill us in on what those are?
Sure — but be warned that these steps are often done out of order, and sometimes simultaneously:
- Brainstorming — getting everything down in note form as to what you know about the topic (or, if you’d rather be cynical about it, pooling your ignorance).
- Researching — reading, interviewing, etc. to add to your knowledge, and discover other aspects of the topic that you may have forgotten in your notes — back to brainstorming!
- Outlining — developing a writing plan, a blueprint, a skeleton for the book. Such an exercise often sparks new ideas — back to brainstorming and researching!
- Preparing the Proposal — notice you haven’t necessarily written word one of the book yet? No problem! Prepare a book proposal, while the concept of the book is hot in your mind. The book proposal may force you to answer some tough questions about your book idea, and make you focus and clarify the concept — leading you back to brainstorming, researching, and outlining! (Notice the pattern of cycling back to previous steps? That’s important!)
- Writing the Rough Draft — with an emphasis on rough! You spew out on the page all the material you’ve gathered through the previous steps, and try to put together sort of a caricature of what you want the book to look like. Want to write in the worst way? Here’s your chance!
- Revising — Now you’re going to whip this baby into shape. Here is where the real writing begins. You fill in the holes, clean up the sloppy parts, and generally make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And when you get frustrated, go back to brainstorming, researching, etc. Don’t be surprised if two chapters are merged into one, or some other major change happens — just be sure the changes are reflected in the book proposal.
- Fine-tuning the Manuscript — Prepare the manuscript for submission by doing things like proofreading, checking endnotes, getting permissions, adding appendices (if needed), and other nit-picky details. (It may sound unimportant, but failure to take care with these little things is one major reason for rejection.)
- Getting the Contract — Send that book proposal around to publishers. If you’re feeling like publishing houses are locked and barred to you, I share some methods for storming the gates.
Describe your path to publication. Should new authors consider self-publishing their work? Or is it better to go with a traditional publisher?
I have published seven books with traditional publishers. Each one had a unique path to publication. But each one also had some form of a book proposal — a presentation of what the book is about, why people will want to buy it, and why I (the author) was qualified to write it. Even when Sonfire Media asked me — unsolicited — to write a book (ironically, on how to write a book proposal!), the first thing they wanted me to do was prepare a book proposal. And every book I wrote was a daunting task — I began each one with the feeling that I was in over my head.
A new author probably should not consider self-publishing, in the same way a first-year med student probably should not be asked to do abdominal surgery. At one publishing house I worked for, one of our fledgling editors decided to prepare a list of all the necessary steps involved in publishing a book — she came up with over 50, and it was still incomplete. Can a first-time author be expected to know every step involved in publishing — editorial, legal, marketing, distribution — and accomplish all of them successfully? Of course, you can pay professionals to do all these steps you don’t know how to do, but the entire process is still being coordinated by an amateur.
Many new authors want to write a book — a major journalistic task — as their very first writing project. Maybe they’ve never written an article, a blog post, or a short story before, but now they want to write a book (often it’s their autobiography, the first and last thing they will ever write for publication). Is it any wonder that professional publishers give such projects a quick turn-down? I’m not trying to discourage anyone, I’m trying to encourage new authors to attend conferences, read books on writing and publishing, and to write and publish simpler projects before tackling a book.
What is the current environment for writing Christian Non-fiction?
The Christian nonfiction book environment has always been tough, but not as tough as secular nonfiction, and the opportunities are improving — especially since so many Christian writers, it seems, have abandoned nonfiction for fiction.
The key, however, to attracting a publisher is to provide some real content — you have to speak from a position of expertise. We know this instinctively. If you were shoved in front of a huge audience, what would you talk about? (That’s why autobiography is so common among new authors; they instinctively know that they have to speak from their expertise, and of course they are an expert about themselves.) So of course you would not write a book about evangelism if you’ve never shared the gospel with someone; you’d never write about prayer if you don’t pray. Find your area of expertise and run with it.
What single piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to write Christian Non-fiction?
Pray and solicit others to pray. Not one of my books ever came to fruition without prayer.
What do you do when you want to get away from work?
I take a walk. Since I work from home, about the only way to get away from work is to physically remove myself! And the town I live in has a variety of interesting streets, alleyways, houses and buildings, so it’s never boring.
What are you working on now?
I am writing (or not writing, as the case may be) my second novel, along with several nonfiction book projects. I haven’t made much progress on my writing lately, because of my freelance editing, agenting, and part-time editorial work for CLC Publications. Please pray for me, that I can get the time to write — or maybe I should say, that I would be more disciplined in the way I spend my time.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
I have a website, davefessenden.com, a blog, concept-to-contract.com, and an online bookstore, thebookstore.info. The bookstore is in the midst of a revamping, after which the blog and my personal site will get an overhaul as well. If you don’t like what you see, please be patient! Improvements are imminent.
Thank you, Dave, for sharing your expertise with us!