Tag Archives: career

18 Feb

What Next? 15 Questions to Help you Decide Your Next Writing Project

I was lucky enough to get an Advanced Reader Copy of Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, DECISIVE: How to make better choices in Life and Work. You may know the Heath brothers from their previous books, SWITCH: How to Change Things When Change is Hard and MADE TO STICK: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. They are adept at taking massive amounts of research on topics with widespread appeal and distilling the information into something that can be used in daily life. In DECISIVE, they discuss decision-making and make it practical. Here, I have applied many of their ideas in a simple checklist: What manuscript should you write next?

Courtesy of the Heath Brothers amazing insights into the applicability of much research, these are practical ideas to help you make the best decision possible. If you want to know more, DECISIVE will be released on March 26, available now for pre-order.



You just wrote, “The End.” And you hit the SEND button. The manuscript is off to the editor.

What now? How do you decide on the next project?

Build a Career

An agent once asked this question: What is the next logical book for you in terms of building an audience that will support your career?

Do you see the criteria embedded in that question:

  • Build an audience
  • Support your career

Is that what you want? A career with a growing audience? Then, you probably need to stick with the genre of your first book, and turn out a second book that will appeal to the same audience. If you wrote a mystery and it sold well, write another mystery—different, better, but definitely appealing to the same audience.

But it may not be that easy. Maybe several genres interest you and you want to try something new. But that might risk your career, because you aren’t building a consistent following. How do you sort out all your ideas and commit to the next project? Here are 15 questions to ask yourself.

15 What Next Questions

  1. Don’t Get Trapped in Too Small a Framework. The decision is rarely one like this: Should I do Mss A or not? Instead, try to look at a range of options. Here are ideas that I have, A, B, C, D, and E. Which of these would appeal to the same audience as my first success?
  2. What else you could write in the same time period. If it takes you six months to write a novel, what else could you get written in that time period? What project deserves that time commitment?
  3. What if you couldn’t write the Mss you had planned to write next? What would you write then? For example, if you were planning a picture book biography of Shirley Temple and one was just published to great acclaim, maybe it’s not the best time for this story. So, pretend something similar just happened to your pet idea. What would you do then?

  4. Could you write the openings of several different manuscripts and THEN decide which one excites you the most? Multi-tracking sometimes allows the cream to rise.
  5. Look at the career of someone you admire and want to emulate. At a similar point in his/her career what was the next book published? Or, look at a musician or actor/actress and find parallels in their careers. For example, Sean Connery could have gotten stuck in the 007 role and never found his way to new projects. Instead, he has regularly “reinvented” himself by taking risky roles that led to an expanded career. Is it time for you to write that “breakout” book you’ve been planning?


  6. Looking over all the possible manuscripts and ideas—what has you the most excited? Which one are you scared to write—and therefore, will push you to write your best?
  7. Ask the opposite question: if you have been writing mysteries, what if your next novel was a romance? Is this the time to make a switch or not? Can you carry any of your audience over to a new genre? Is there a way to work more romance into your next mystery, so the transition isn’t total, but pulls in readers from both genres?
  8. Could you test new waters with a short story or a short ebook? Is there a way to TRY something new, without doing damage to your current audience? Once you decide on a new mss, you’ll have to commit wholeheartedly to write the best possible. But maybe you can take a couple weeks and try out a new market.
  9. Are you too attached to the status-quo? Your publisher wants more and more of this one type story and you get paid. But somehow, you feel your passions are lessened. At what point do you need to shake up the status quo?
  10. What would you tell your best writer friend to do in this situation?
  11. What are you passionate about? What are your core values? Does Mss A or B or C or D allow you to express that passion better?
  12. If you write this book and a year from now it fails(either not published or published to poor reviews), can you think why it would have failed to reach your audience?
  13. If you write this book and it succeeds, can you discuss why it would make your readers excited about your work?
  14. Do you set goals for your books? If this mystery doesn’t sell 10,000 copies, then I’ll try a different genre for my next project. Would a goal like that help you make the next career move?
  15. Are there deadlines for this project, or can you create a deadline? You’ll devote six months to this fantasy story, and then, you must write your next mystery.

You have a choice to make and the choice will affect your future and your career as a writer. What will you write next? There are no right or wrong answers, only answers that please you. You’re in control. I know–that’s scary! But that’s another post.

Hey, Chip and Dan–What will YOU write next?

13 Nov

Through Your Lens: 4 Strengths of Your Writing

Reading would be boring, except for the person behind the writing. YOU make it interesting. Your voice.

Even the federal government recognizes the importance of YOU: ideas can’t be copyrighted, rather, the particular expression of an idea. What you copyright is your voice. You.

This means several things:
Voice. As you write, be aware of your particular ways of thinking, of what you notice, of how you express what you notice. Try to foster those interests and expressions. Of course, this isn’t a call to be sloppy in grammar or word usage or sentence structure. Just as a jazz player plays a riff on a song, so you must experiment in your writing, while still making sure the song is recognizable.

Match voice to genre. Your voice–who you are–will also determine the types of writing at which you can excel. Nonfiction or fiction, horror or romance–you need to find a place where your voice fits naturally and allows you to exploit your voice. Experiment with genre, style, length, and venue (online v. print, for example), to find the “highest and best use” of your strengths.

Editors. We all need feedback and early editors. Be careful, though, of line editors, those people who think something must be said their way. Unless they are extremely skilled, line editors mess with voice. And you must not allow that.

Stick with a genre, character, series. If and when you find that sweet spot, stick with it. Careers are built on returning readers, who become fans, who faithfully buy everything you write and furthermore, they tell friends to buy them and they give your books as gifts. Early in your career, don’t worry about bouncing around and writing everything you might want to write. If you are lucky enough to find success in one area, stay there long enough to build a readership that you will take with you to the next step.

You. Your lens, the way you see the world, the way you express what you see–that is what keeps reading from being boring. Let me see the world the way YOU see it. And I’ll keep reading you.

Click on the image to read the photographer's description of the difference in lenses used.



13 Oct

Advice for Younger Writers

Guest post from Dori Butler

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Always. But wanting to be a writer is probably a lot like wanting to be a baseball player. Or a movie star. A lot of people want it, but most will settle for something else.

One thing that sets me apart from other people is I’m determined. Some might say stubborn. I’m also relatively patient. When I want something, I go after it. And I don’t give up until I get it.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. I’ve had a lot of doubts about my writing through the years. There have been times I wondered if I was wasting my time…times I considered giving up…times I wished I could look into a crystal ball and see whether I was ever going to get anywhere. Would I ever get published? Would I ever publish a book? Would I ever publish a book with my name on it rather than someone else’s? Would I ever publish a series? That’s what I really wanted to do…publish a series of my own.

Now that I’m more than twenty years into my writing career, I know the answers to those questions. If I could actually talk to a younger version of myself at various points my life, and offer some advice, this is what I would say:


Dear 21-year-old Dori,

Dori at 21

Dori at 21


You’re just starting your adult life. You’re married, but you don’t have any kids yet. You’ve just made the decision not to go on to graduate school. Instead you’re going to be a children’s book author! Part of you is wondering if you’re making the right decision. Don’t worry…you are. But you won’t really know that for a while yet. And even when you do know it, some of the reasons why it was a good decision will surprise you.

So what are you working on? An eight-book picture book series called Plato Goes to Obedience School. Wow. Eight books, huh? All about a cocker spaniel who goes to obedience school. You don’t realize this yet, but you don’t have enough story there to sustain one book, much less eight. You’ve got the start of a character, but no plot. No. I’m sorry, you really don’t.

Let me ask you this: What does Plato want? What is he willing to do to get it? What is he going to DO in each of these eight books to move the story forward? Where’s the conflict? Where’s the adventure? Where are the high stakes? You need to read A LOT more picture books if you think you want to write picture books. You need to learn the elements of a good story. In fact, maybe you should think about writing just one good story at this point. It’s too early to be thinking about a series.

I know you really want to write a series. But trust me, you’re not ready. And Plato Goes to Obedience School is NOT series material. By the way, six-year-olds don’t even know who Plato was, so you might consider changing the name of that dog. Yeah, I know…that’s really your dog’s name, but nobody cares. Please, do me a favor. Don’t send that series proposal out. Just keep reading, keep writing, keep learning. One day you will publish a series of your own. It’ll even be a series about dogs! But it’s not going to be Plato Goes to Obedience School. It’s just not. Put this away and don’t ever show it to ANYONE! You still have so much to learn…

–Middle-Aged Dori


Dear 29-year-old Dori,

IowasignI know…you never saw yourself living in Iowa, of all places, and yet here you are. Let me tell you this: you’re going to come to love Iowa and your life there. Really, you are. And your new friend, Carol? She’s going to change your life because she’s going to tell you about book packagers. She’s going to show you how to approach them, she’s going to read your Sweet Valley Twins audition piece, she’s going to be your biggest cheerleader next to your husband, and you’re going to get hired as a writer for the Sweet Valley Twins series. You’ve already published a bunch of magazine stories, but these are going to be your first published books. They may not be “your” books, but you’ll find subtle ways of making each one your own while remaining true to the series. This is going to be a great experience for you. You’ll get a 10-page outline for each book you’re contracted to write and then you’ll have 4-6 weeks to write each one. I know that doesn’t sound like much time, but don’t worry. You’ll make every deadline. You’ll learn how to structure a novel, match a series voice, maintain a character over several books, work with an editor, meet a deadline, revise, and you’ll actually get paid to learn all this.

SweetValley93Caution: you’re going to get so good at this that the assignments are going to come one after the other. And you have two little kids now. You’re going to actually make some money as a writer, but you’re not going to have time to write anything of your own. And one day you’re going to wake up and realize that everything you write sounds like a Sweet Valley Twins book. So here’s a piece of advice: slow down a little. I know it feels good when someone calls you up and offers you a contract, but learn to say no once in a while. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I’d like to, but I just can’t do another book this month. Could I do one next month instead?” And then use that month off to recapture your own voice.

–Middle-Aged Dori


Dear 32-year-old Dori,

SlidingSo you think you’re ready to try again. You think you’re ready to propose your own middle grade series. You’ve learned all you’re going to learn from writing Sweet Valley Twins books. You’ve continued to publish magazine stories. You’ve even published a few picture books with regional publishers. But what you really want is your own middle grade series. You’ve read a bunch of other people’s series. You understand what makes a series. You even have an idea: you want to write about a girls’ baseball league. That’s not a bad idea.

You understand now that series are all about character. You’ve created nine different girls, each with her own story. You’ve got action. You’ve got adventure. You’ve got friendship. You’ve got conflict. You’ve got characters who are doing things. And at the heart of it all, you’ve got baseball.

It would help if you were a little more passionate about baseball. Sure, you know how the game is played. You know a lot about the history of women in baseball. And A League of their Own is your favorite movie. But let’s be honest. You’re not really passionate about baseball. Not really. So why do you want to write about it?

What’s that? You say you’re writing about middle school girls…middle school girls who happen to play baseball. You’re not really writing about baseball.

Yeah, okay…I’ll buy that. Temporarily. Because, after all, you’re going to get really close with this series proposal. You’re going to send Harper Collins your list of characters, a synopsis of book one, ideas for the next three books, and two sample chapters (the only ones you’ve actually written) from book one. And they’re going to get back to you after a couple of months and ask you for the rest of book one.

That single phone call will inspire some passion for baseball. You’ll read a bunch of books about baseball; you’ll even start reading the sports section of the newspaper now and then. You’ll spend the next couple of months frantically writing the rest of book one and then you’ll send it off. And you’ll wait…and you’ll wait…and you’ll wait…

But guess what? HarperCollins will NEVER give you an answer. You’ll call them and ask about the status of your manuscript after six months and again after nine months. You’ll get some encouraging news both times, but they will never offer a contract, nor will they ever tell you they’re not interested. They’re just going to hold that proposal FOREVER.

Eventually you’ll find out that Peachtree is looking for girls’ series ideas. So you’ll send your series proposal to them. This time when somebody asks about the rest of book one, you’ll be able to send it right away because you’ve actually finished it. And guess what? They’re going to tell you it’s got “too much depth” for a paperback series (which is going to blow you away because you are the queen of the “your story lacks depth” rejection letter). But they’re going to offer you a contract for it as a stand-alone hardcover novel “with sequel possibilities,” and in 2003 Sliding Into Home will be one of your first published middle grade novels.

Don’t give up!

Sincerely,
Middle Aged Dori


Dear 43-year-old Dori,

Mouse and Dori

Mouse and Dori

I know you just found out your oldest son is going to be moving halfway across the country, but really, get a grip! He’s not moving for another ten months. And he’s just moving to Seattle; he’s not moving to Mars. He’s going to be fine; you’re going to be fine; and you’re about to sell your own series!

You’ve been working with Albert Whitman & Co. for seven years now. You’ve written Boxcar Children books for them (which is a very different experience from writing Sweet Valley Twins books. You don’t get any outlines for Boxcar; you get to come up with the mysteries yourself. Too bad we can’t tell 7-year-old Dori, who LOVED the Boxcar Children series, that she would one day grow up to write them!). You’ve published five books of your own with Albert Whitman. And your editors there know you well enough to know that you’ve always wanted your own series. You’ve even discussed a series idea with them. All you need to do is write a couple of sample chapters and a synopsis of the first book, some character notes, and ideas for future books.

buddyfilesallWhat’s that? You’re not all that excited about the series idea you’ve already discussed with them? You’ve got a new dog that you’re training to be a therapy dog, and really, you’re all about the dog right now (and the kid who’s moving out in 10 months). In fact, the dog is actually taking precedence over the writing. But…it might be fun to write a beginning chapter book series from the perspective of a dog. Maybe from the perspective of a school therapy dog who solves mysteries. I know, that’s not what you and your editor discussed. And you’re worried this idea is a little too close to Plato Goes to Obedience School, which you understand now was a really BAD idea.

But keep going! You know so much more about writing and constructing a series now than you did when you wrote Plato Goes to Obedience School. And most important, you’ve got PASSION for this project! Don’t worry…Albert Whitman & Co. is going to love it!

–Middle-Aged Dori

P.S. Your dog is going to be an awesome therapy dog!


I feel very fortunate. I’m doing exactly what I set out to do. I’m living the life I always wanted to lead. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions about my writing future. For starters, I’d like to know: How long will the Buddy Files series continue? Do I have another series in me? Will I ever publish a YA murder mystery? Will I ever be nominated for an Edgar award? Is straddling genres and age groups a good idea or a bad idea? Will I stay with the same publishers or will I one day work with someone else? What other books are inside me? What if I never publish another book?

If I was given an opportunity to look into a crystal ball and see answers to those questions, I don’t think I’d look. I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing and discover the answers to those questions as they happen. After all, it’s the questions that keep life interesting. I wonder if 75-year-old Dori would agree?

I wonder what advice 75-year-old Dori might have for Middle Aged Dori?

02 Apr

Between Projects

I am between projects.
I don’t have a WIP. No work in progress and not sure what to do next?

One novel is being read by friends and it may have a major flaw that will mean gutting part of it. We’ll see. Another novel is making its way into the publishing world. We’ll have to wait and see if it will fly.

Waiting. Between projects.

What now?

5 Things to Do When Between Writing Projects

  • Read. I’m planning to catch up on some reading, go on a reading binge. Yes, that sounds heavenly. But part of my plan is to read far and wide, outside my normal reading interests to see how other genres for other audiences read. Expand. Learn. Fill my tanks with words, characters, ideas, story.
  • Publicize other work. Well, there’s always things to do on a website. Always letters to send out, calls to make, brochures to create, and so on and so forth. For example, I will be attending the Arkansas Literary Festival in two weeks and I will work on details for that today. Reaching out to others who love literature.
  • Smell the roses. What I’d really love to do is go camping. That probably won’t happen because it’s my son’s senior year and he’s deep in activities. But maybe we’ll ride our bikes on the River Trail. Or take a walk and wonder at Arkansas’ incredible beauty in the spring when everything is in bloom: forsythia, tulips, daffodils, dogwoods, redbuds, azaleas, (weeds with beautiful carpets of flowers). Filling my heart with beauty.
  • Free Write. I’m also just doodling in a notebook, free associating, not really writing long passages, just playing, and yes, maybe a long passage of text here and there, if I want. Just playing with words, allowing myself to experiment. Filling my writer’s soul with joy.
  • Go Fishing for Ideas. Ideas for a new novel? I’m looking. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard about the “next book” is to look at the previous. Then ask, what is the next logical book for you to write and publish? Building on this base, what should come next? What could build a loyal readership for your work? Given that the first book was embraced by a certain reader, how can you interest that same reader and pull in even more? Building a loyal readership is a concept worth working for! Searching for that something that grabs me and won’t let me go.
12 Feb

First Contract Advice

Last weekend, I was in Chandler, Oklahoma, a sleepy little town on the old Route 66. I didn’t get much sleep, though, because I was there to teach a Picture Book Retreat. Here are reports from Sara,
Susan Meyers, and Leeth. Also, check out the Okie Book Woman, who added lots of photos of the retreat.

For Your First Book Contract, Practice These Words

One of the last sessions focused on issues relating to a career in writing for children. We don’t just want to be a flash-in-the-pan, one-book-wonder. We want a long-lasting career. One thing this means is that we must put on the business hat at certain key moments: especially when we get a contract.

So, one of the discussions was about that wonderful moment when the editor calls to offer a contract on your first book.

WOW! What a moment! First contract! After all the work, after all the hope, after all the pain, after all the revisions! A contract!

For that magical, unforgettable moment, practice saying these words: Yes! I want to work with you! But I’m too excited to make a business decision right now. May I call you back tomorrow?

When that call comes in the editor will want you to consider several key issues: the amount of the advance and the royalty rate. Please, don’t agree to anything in the excitement of the moment!

A verbal agreement at this point is considered solid. Give yourself time. Time? To do what? I’ve written about what typical contract offers look like. You’ll want to study contract clauses, best case scenario for each clause, and reasonable fall-back positions for each clause. But for the verbal agreement, you’ll probably concentrate on the advance — you should ask for more. It’s a negotiation thing, you should always ask for more. How much more?

You need to take a look at Barbara Kanninen’s Children’s Book Author Advances Survey. This survey has run for over five years and has information from a variety of authors working with a variety of houses. It’s only available to published authors — but if you have an offer from a trade house, you qualify.

The other issue is the royalty rate. While most royalty rates are consistent across the industry (10% royalty, split 50-50 with the illustrator), you might be able to get an escalation clause. This clause says that if the book sells a certain amount, the royalty rate will increase. Some companies will absolutely not do this; others are OK with it. Ask. Usually, they’ll have numbers in mind: At 25,000 sales, the royalty will go to 11 %, for example. For many companies, this must be negotiated when you accept the original offer.

Of course, later, when you get the complete contract, there are many issues to discuss and ask for changes. But when you get that first phone call, practice these words: Yes! I want to work with you! But I’m too excited to make a business decision right now. May I call you back tomorrow?

Tie your hand behind your back, disable the phone, do NOT call back an hour later. (You have too many friends to call, anyway, and tell them the good news.) Take the time to check out typical advances and then the next day, take a deep breath, call the editor back and ASK for what you think is reasonable. Will you get it? Maybe not. But at least you’ve started your career with a business-like attitude. Yes, your career.

06 Feb

Career in Writing

What does a career in writing look like?

Take these examples:

  • Author A: Has served in a leadership role for a writing organization for many years and is an inspiration to many people. She has published three picture books with major publishers. But in the end, she hates the sales and marketing part of writing, the need to constantly push for attention. She now uses her hard-won skills to be a writing coach and is excited that she’s found a comfortable place to use her skills and help people, her real passion.
  • Author B: Has written thirty non-fiction books for educational publishers and stays steadily busy with the education work. She supports herself with her work and while she hopes to break into bigger publishers, she’s happy with her steady stream of books.
  • Author C: Has written about a dozen series work-for-hire books, has now moved on to writing her own novels for smaller publishers and is working to break into a major publisher. She hopes for a breakout novel sometime in the near future.
  • Author D: Writes for local newspapers, company newsletters, and any other freelance work she can find. In her spare time (Ha! What spare time?), she has written a humorous YA novel and found an agent who sold it to a major publisher. She is trying to work on a second novel, but her family needs the income from the freelance work, so it’s hard to work in the time for fiction.
  • Author E: Has sold four picturebooks to major publishers and they’ve done well. But her heart is in novels–she sold one which didn’t do well and now, she can’t sell to another to anyone. She spends lots of time writing novels which don’t sell and a little time writing picturebooks which do sell.
  • Author F: Has two nonfiction books out with a major publisher and hopes to do more with them. She dabbles with picturebooks, but can’t get the voice right.
  • Author G: Worked eight years for a major publisher as an editor. She has now sold two YA novels and quit work to spend more time with her growing family and on future novels.
  • Author H: Has sold some non-fiction and a couple novels to a small publisher and, while she still submits to larger publishers now and then, she is happy to stay with the smaller publisher because they give her more attention.
  • Author I: Has sold over 250 magazine articles to children’s magazines, taught writing, and worked with local authors. But she can’t sell that first book.
  • Author JK: Her first book, about a boy wizard, hit big time and has become a world wide phenomenon, and many other books in the series. JK is a millionaire.

Well, as you probably can see, these are descriptions of people I know. Which career would you rather have? It may be easy to put down on paper what you want your career to look like, but the everyday pressures of family and other jobs may hamper how easily you can fulfill those dreams.
Add to that the realities of a crowded marketplace, where your writing has to shine. What is realistic?

How do you plan a career?

First, it is reasonable to write down your career goals. Don’t be shy about dreaming big or about being content with a smaller, slower career path. Then, decide what needs to happen for that career dream to become true? For example, let’s say you want to have a novel out in five years. Then, you’re on the One-Page-a-Day plan. For this plan, you write one page a day, five days a week (Saturday and Sunday off), fifty weeks a year (two-weeks vacation). At the end of a year, you should have 240 pages written, or a nice sized novel. Then another year for revisions and eighteen months to two years for marketing. What Plan will help you meet your goals?

Decide what help you need and plan ways to attend workshops or conferences where you can get help with characterization, plotting, setting a scene, etc. If a favorite editor will be at the conference and you can get a manuscript critique with them, do it. Find ways to do what it takes to make your dream-career come true.

Plan for success. But along the way, honor EVERY success: honor every decision of what direction to go next; honor every honest effort to write; honor each writer for finding a way to use their talents, whether in encouragement, teaching, writing work-for-hire, writing educational nonficiton, writing trade nonfiction, writing for magazines, writing fiction for any size publisher.
No two careers will ever look alike, of course. What will your career look like?

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