Monthly Archives: March 2015

Am I In The Publishing Backstretch Yet?- Part V

I labored under the impression that an advantage of a traditional publisher over self-publishing was that marketing and manuscript processing would be done for you. Wrong!!! All publishers these days must suffer from financial pressures as they ask authors to perform as much of this work as they can. Limited budgets and limited staff time are the explanation I have heard.

I was asked to format the accepted manuscript according to Tech Press specifications. This consisted of converting the accepted manuscript into a form that was easier for the publishing process. Secondly, a lengthy marketing questionnaire instantaneously arrived via the internet, but required much longer for my research and completion of it. The standardized questionnaire asked how and where Tech Press should advertise and many other questions related to book promotion (now those were tricky ones and likely my thoughts will not prove very helpful).

Also I was asked to obtain permission for images to appear in the book. This seemed quite reasonable but was a challenge. Researching where the image first appeared and by whom can prove difficult. In my case I mainly sought pictures of Adolf Hitler held by various European museums and the Library of Congress. Gaining permission for using these for my chapter on the impact of his Parkinson’s disease represented new and unfamiliar ground for me to till.

Once this identification phase was completed, I contacted the museums or individuals holding copyright and, in some instances, paid to use them in my book, Carrying the Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales. This proved a time consuming slog.

The Tech Press questionnaire also asked me to pen promotional copy for the back cover and to provide a brief bio and picture. I admit, self-promotion is awkward and hard for me to do. Nevertheless with the help of my publicist and marketing gurus at the publisher, brag I did!

I completed each of the thirty-five queries. As it turned out the process forced me to shrink my conceptualization of my book down into sound bites. I had previously found “the elevator presentation” hard to manage.Every author needs to describe his/her book in simple declarative sentences that weave a strong argument for buying it. To be sure, completing the questionnaire helped me with this effort.

Feeling like this guy?

Feeling like this guy?


Winding my way through the publishing maze has at times made me feel like the mouse in this cartoon. It is doable but at various points in the process-confusing.

I hope my experiences will interest some and help others attempting to publish their books. Who knows what lies ahead? Publishing is not for the faint-hearted!

Agents, Publishers, and Editors, Oh My!– Part IV

Seeking an agent is, of course, optional. Nevertheless, sending your work “over the transom” to publishing houses frequently lands it in their circular files. Publishing houses say they do not have time to review every manuscript they receive. But even finding an agent can be challenging. So what are ink-stained minions to do?

Various books such as Literary Digest exist with the names and locations of agents. These can be sought out and agents identified willing to review material from new authors as well as their expertise in the genre you write.

For me, I found two potential agents at the Harvard Medical Writer’s Conference. The conference had  distilled down the pool of agents to those interested in doctor stories. I submitted to these two and, to my surprise, both wanted to represent me. This represents the only time the time frame of the publishing process was shorter than anticipated. I know my ease in finding an agent is not the norm. Good luck!

I quickly learned from my experienced agent, Don Fehr, at Trident Media in NYC that publishers did not buy books, they only buy well-written and compelling book proposals. While I had labored mightily to complete my book proposal, Don with his knowledge had several suggestions that helped it. I lengthened the proposal to seventy-five pages, bolstered several sections (especially the comparative literature section), and cut off one sample chapter. An agent possesses knowledge about to whom the proposal should be sent. I didn’t have a clue about this and the fifteen percent fee charged by my agent seemed entirely reasonable.

My agent submitted the proposal serially in three lots. I learned from observing these acts of literary commerce that all publishers are not necessarily timely in responding, even from agents whom they know well. Months became years. The waiting time for me crept by like a caterpillar with sore feet.

The initial responses when they finally arrived consisted of “we do not have experience or expertise with this kind of book,” or “we are having to limit ourselves to only a few publications this year, or similar “passes.” “Passes”, hell, each and every one felt like a searing, bald-faced rejection, a real punch in the groin. So what if thirty-three rejections occurred before the final ACCEPTANCE? How sweet the acceptance.

Texas Tech University Press received my proposal with enthusiasm and asked me to submit the full manuscript. Another six months unfortunately slipped by when the then Director of Tech Press unexpectedly retired and failed to pass my book to a colleague or to even download it into their system. When eventually the error was discovered, my submitted book took flight, winging its way to two external reviewers. Both mercifully provided prompt and strongly positive endorsements.

My wonderful editor at Tech Press, Joanna Conrad, made several deft observations and tactful requests. I worked for three months responding to her requests that consisted largely of personalizing the manuscript more. What had been a combination memoir and medical narrative became a stronger physician’s memoir. After addressing her edits, the manuscript was re-submitted and was better for the extra effort.

A final editorial committee (you just knew there would be a committee at a university publishing house somewhere) gave the book a big thumbs up along with a positive recommendation from the Editor at Texas Tech University Press. Voila! I am at last to be published! Praise the Lord and pass the champagne!

At this point I thought my portion of the publishing process was largely completed. Again, my assumption would be proved wrong.


So You Want To Write-Part 3: Benefits and Perils of Critique Groups

Critique Groups offer benefits and perils. Insight, tact, writing ability, and perseverance are all qualities important for a successful critique group. But of course not all members of writing groups possess all of these abilities.

Several purposes exist for a critique group, it seems to me. Writers swing wildly between falling in love with their work and hating it. The critique group can moderate these wild bipolar swings in temperment.

A critique group may act as therapist, encouraging shy writers to take risks and for others mitigate the  urges of out-of-control ink slingers. Nevertheless to offer this insight requires tact.

I have observed writers, clearly in love with their work, become balky when even mildly criticized. In response to criticism I have observed a few stop writing altogether and quit the group in a huff.

I personally think it useful to begin by saying something positive about the work, offer polite suggestions for improvement, and then close by saying something else nice about the piece. The so-called sandwich approach works for Toastmasters International, why wouldn’t it work for critique groups?

I have also observed some writers who are impervious to repeated corrections from multiple members of the group. Sometimes repeated advice acts like rain failing to penetrate a rock. Such people would try the patience of Job.

Having a modicum of ability benefits the overall group. Frankly not everyone can write in an engaging or interesting fashion. Chalk on the blackboard-type writing tests one’s patience, especially if the neophyte writer is closed off to suggestions.

Some people simply want an audience for their work and do not wish to be critiqued. These people should not be in a critique group but instead require patient and loving families and friends who are, ahem, easily entertained.

A desire to improve one’s writing and a willingness (call it thick skin) to endure less than stellar reviews are necessary for improvement.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of hearing the work of scientific writers, romance novelists, action writers, writers for adolescent works, and science fiction writers among others. Surprisingly, all have provided me benefit. If nothing else, I have learned the differing techniques that go into engaging and interesting writing from their perspectives.

I personally think a mixed genre group helps the overall group. Not only does it draw upon different approaches, it also reduces competition. After all aren’t we all a little bit competitive in what we strive to do?

Perseverance may seem an opaque requirement, but in my experience various writing groups have repeatedly broken up and been reconstituted. Fortunately I have for years now been associated with a stable group, the members for which I have great respect. Frankly, to be willing to share one’s innermost thoughts and feelings requires a great deal of trust. Such trust must be developed over time and with nonjudgmental individuals.

Imagine trying to read your first attempt at erotic literature before a group of strangers. It would not work. In a good critique group you will become more comfortable reading your work and discussing sensitive topics than you would be with your family or close friends. Such learned trust is a must for a good critique group.

So You Want To Write-Part 2: The Early Days

I suppose for years I’ve harbored the desire to write for a popular audience. A strange visceral need to be sure, but after it strikes, it’s hard to deny.

While practicing medicine, I would cubbyhole an interesting case file or article to later return to for inspiration. Some dramatic experiences in medicine simply demanded more processing time than my busy medical practice would allow. These records, by the way, helped me develop the stories for my forthcoming book, Carrying the Black Bag: A Doctor’s Story.

Not long after retiring from neurology, I signed up for popular writing classes at the Texas Tech University Higher Education Teaching Site in Fredericksburg, Texas. A retired writing professor who had relocated from a faculty at Houston university taught these courses.

At the time I felt I had a reasonable understanding how to write for a popular audience. After all, I had edited some five medical books and authored over 100 scientific articles and chapters. Wow, was I wrong!

Not only did my scientific writing skills not help, in some ways they impeded my progress toward  writing for a popular audience. I would never have suspected this.

Scientific writing must be concise. The space available in scientific journals is precious indeed and editors are maniacal in their attempts to excise excessive verbiage. This results from more worthy articles being submitted than there is space to print them.

I had also mastered the unfortunate but well ingrained habit of using jargon and passive voice. I had earlier been discouraged by journal editors from using popular writing devices such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration. Colorful description in scientific articles was absolutely verboten.

This painful lesson I learned early on from a irritable editor. (In an earlier draft I used the term dyspeptic editor, resorting again to a term not commonly understand. Over learned writing habits are hard to break as I just proved.) The jargon impedes communication to a popular audience to be sure, although it shortens the description necessary-a cardinal requirement for scientific writing.

When writing for a popular audience, I found having to monitor my word choice closely to avoid this insidious habit of using jargon. Lets face it–scientific writing is dull reading and impenetrable if lacking the professional jargon.

Scientific writing also follows on from studies for which data and methods exist. Popular writing has less rules and demands greater creativity. The guideposts are less obvious for popular writing. Any of you with an MFA in creative writing feel free to differ with me on this point.

I remember one day in class being given a general topic to write on and having a devil of a time being creative enough to write a story about it. The idea seemed to come out of no where and lacked context. There had been no experiments, no case file to review, and no scientific literature from which to begin. Ah, the terror of a blank page reared its ugly head! Needless to say, my class offering was short in the extreme.

Naturally, I became most comfortable writing about topics about which I knew something–experiences from medicine and my new found retirement to a Texas cattle ranch. Nevertheless, i have over the years learned to dabble in fiction and occasionally to venture further afield from my comfort zone. While my fiction is of poorer quality than I desire, my attempts as they have unspooled at least have loosened me up.

At the conclusion of my writing classes, I realized I was having such a good time that I did not want to stop. I suggested to several of my classmates (old friends at this juncture) we form a writer’s critique group. Just because our instructor had decided to stop teaching did not mean that we had to stop meeting. This venture soon proved a helpful exercise about which I shall write next. Critique groups are extremely useful but certain precautions are needed. My opinion springs from having experienced both positive and negative outcomes. More later.