Building Your Own Cage

by Ron Estrada

Recently I received a phone call from my agent. Yes, it was “the” call. A big 5 publisher read my entire middle-grade manuscript and likes what she sees. However, if I don’t mind, please re-write the entire thing and here’s a better idea for the series.

Now, I’ve been at this for a long, long time. I’m way past pride. I have arrived at the “whatever you want I’ll do it because I’m going to die soon” phase of my career.

So the re-writing, as of this post, is almost complete. The first quarter of the book has been slashed and about a dozen chapters added to please aforementioned publisher. As much as I hate to admit it, the story is much better. I have yet to resubmit and sign a contract, but even if it doesn’t work out with this publisher, I feel my odds of success are greatly improved thanks to her input.

Same with the series suggestions.

If you’re like me, you have a tendency to box yourself in with your series idea. I had so completely sold myself on the concept of my Navy Brats series that I left no room for better ideas. I had intended to write about a different Navy Brat in the years spanning 1968 through 1984 because, you know, I lived it.

The publisher said (and I’m paraphrasing), “boooooooriiiiiing.”

Know what kids want to read about? War. The stuff in their history books. She loved my idea of using military families in my stories, but suggesting I use some recognizable historical incidents as my setting. She blasted my original Navy Brat series, even hated the name. So where does that leave me?


Suddenly, I’m not caged in by my own narrow scope for my book and series. To be honest, I was absolutely hung up with book two of my original idea. And not willing to change directions. Sure, I knew that a military brat in the middle of the attack on Pearl Harbor would be somewhat more interesting than the same brat in 1972 Hawaii, but I couldn’t see past my own self-imposed restrictions.

Now I’m already planning book two of the new series (still don’t have a good name) and reading up on the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. And this is exciting stuff! My middle-grade readers will eat it up.

So the moral of my story today is thus: when you get “the” phone call with a long list of suggestions, there’s a good chance the publisher knows what she’s talking about. And there’s also a good chance that your story and series will be much improved whether you get this deal or not.

What about you? Has a suggestion from a publisher or agent drastically changed the direction of your writing? Or are you, right now, stuck in a series you’re no longer excited about?


Ron Estrada has multiple published magazine articles, including a regular column in the bi-monthly Women2Women Michigan. He also freelances as a technical writer, specializing in white papers for manufacturing and consumer products. He writes spec fiction, hovering somewhere between post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction (he prefers the term pre-Last Days), but has also dabbled in Mystery and Suspense. Turn-ons include long walks to Frosty Boy and dinner by Kindle light. His real-writer’s blog can be found at  You can e-mail him at or catch him (at pretty much any time) on Facebook. Twitter handle is @RonEstrada. CB handle is God’s Gift.

What a Writer Can Learn from an Editor

SANDRA D. BRICKER was an entertainment publicist in Los Angeles for 15+ years where she attended school to learn screenwriting and eventually taught the craft for several semesters. When she put Hollywood in the rearview mirror and headed across the country to take care of her mom until she passed away, she traded her scripts for books, and a best-selling, award-winning author of LIVE-OUT-LOUD fiction for the inspirational market was born. Sandie is best known for her Another Emma Rae Creation and Jessie Stanton series for Abingdon Press, and her 2015 novel Moments of Truth has been nominated for a 2016 Inspy Award. Sandie took home ACFW’s Editor of the Year award last year for her work as managing editor of Bling!, an edgy romance imprint for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. As an ovarian cancer survivor, she also gears time and effort toward raising awareness and funds for research, diagnostics and a cure.
What a Writer Can Learn from an
I’m often
asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, and my reply is often the same: “At
birth.” The answer is only partially tongue-in-cheek because I truly can’t
remember a time when I didn’t know writing was part of my DNA. I wrote my first
short story in the 6th grade; I was published for the first time as
a high school senior; I submitted my first novel before the age of 23; and I’d
optioned four screenplays before my 30th birthday. Since finding my
Christian faith, I’ve taken great comfort in the idea that, at time of
creation, my Father already knew who I was going to be. I’ve often imagined Him
whispering “Writer” into my ear before I even emerged from my mother’s womb.
That calling was never really in question, and I’ve spent most of my adult life
chasing it. First through screenwriting, and then through publishing as well.
For the
last two years, I’ve floated a little. Frustrated by the many challenges and
conundrums in my own writing career, I turned my focus to the careers of
others. After corporate and freelance editorial work over the years, I accepted
a position with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas to start a new imprint
of romantic fiction for them called Bling Romance. I’ve always been excited
about the opportunity to mentor and assist aspiring authors when the chance
arose, so playing a part in someone’s road to publication was almost too
appealing to resist. But the problem with taking a side trip from our calling
is that, when you’re knee-deep in the new adventure, losing sight of your
purpose is a very real possibility.
I’ve come
to firmly believe that everything that happens in life is part of God’s plan
for that person. He certainly doesn’t inflict the terrible things – like sickness,
the death of a loved one, or even a traffic accident – but in His ultimate
wisdom and omnipotence, I know He can and does use those situations to shape
and teach us. Case in point: When I look back on my experience with ovarian
cancer, I know for certain that everything I went through at that time changed
me for the better. Strange but true.
Once I
came up for air and started to hear the whispering in my ear again – “Writer” –
I spent some significant time in prayer to figure out why I had turned away from what I knew to be my purpose … which led
to the inevitable questions: What should
I do next?
and What have I learned
from this time?  
The first
one was easy. What do I do next? Write
That’s what writers do. They write. With the third and final
installment of my Jessie Stanton
series – From Bags to Riches – due out in
March, I’m now free to concentrate on several exciting new writing projects … and
I’ve already started. The experience is exhilarating and I’m reminded why I’ve
always loved it so much.
What have
I learned from the experience that will help me in following my calling? That
one’s not quite as simple, but I’ve come up with three primary things that I’ll
be keeping in mind as a writer, things I might not have been quite so
“enlightened” about two years ago. Want me to share?
1.  Taking on the role of managing
editor has given me a perspective that a submitting writer can never fully gain
without stepping into someone else’s shoes. Writers – especially fiction
writers! – are prone to creating scenarios in their own minds to explain
delays, incomplete communications, and rejections from editors at the houses
they’re chasing. Very often, an editor’s delays and distractions have far less
to do with that writer than about simply managing their own workload.
2. Not every writer is also gifted
with the ability to edit and, if not, they shouldn’t be afraid to get some help
… and those of us who are natural editors need to make the most of it. Spelling
mistakes, typographical errors, lack of punctuation – If we take the time to pay
special attention to these issues before submitting to an agent or an editor,
they’re going to appreciate the effort. And yes, they will notice! 
3.  There is so much more to the
publishing process than writing a great story. There are production schedules,
editorial mishaps, cover design challenges, even political hiccups within the
publishing house, all of which have the potential to make the road to
publication a bumpy one. My editorial experience has spoken to the writer in
me, and I think I’ve learned to be far more understanding, to keep my
expectations in check, and to allow for U-turns when they’re thrust upon me.
So there
you have it. The next time you come across a reference to Romans 8:28, I hope
you’ll read it with the fresh perspective of a writer. “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good
of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”
If you
have the talent and the drive to write, I believe it’s probably because God put
it into your heart to do it. In fact, quite possibly if you really think about
it, you can recall a surreal moment when you’re almost certain you heard a
soft, distinct whisper from a familiar voice: “Writer.”

From Bags to Riches
Jessie Hart worked so hard to put her
Louisiana roots in the rearview mirror and her Adornments boutique on the map.
So when renegade “husband” Jack turns up again, the new and improved Jessie
catches his attention. As he fights through his residual legal battles, he
makes every effort to win her back and marry her for real this time… before
Danny gets the chance.
When a celebrity stylist with her own
reality show makes Adornments a hot spot, Jessie’s hard work is finally paying
off. But amid award shows and photo shoots, Jessie’s beloved grandfather is
diagnosed with cancer and she’s nudged back to the Louisiana roots she worked
so hard to escape. Now, in her quest to find the success, true love, and faith
that has always eluded her, will God really lead her right back home?

I Declare Today Critique Partners Day!

The other day, my hubs was
working on his “honey do” list and put together something—I have no idea what
it was. The point is he set down a little bag of screws and suddenly couldn’t
find it. But the bag was right beside him in plain sight. I had to point it out
to him. His laugh was forced, being frustrated with himself for not seeing it.
As writers, don’t we do
the same thing—not see what is in front of our eyes? That’s the reason I love
my critique partners (CPs) and my editor. They see the “screws” in my prose.
Those weasel words I miss, or when I forget to include the senses. They rush to
my rescue and help me see the problems to fix.
Sometimes, when a writer
is new at this gig, they … okay let me rephrase that.

Artwork by Ken Raney

When I was a new writer,
I was so sure I’d never be able to write another sentence as beautiful as the
one my CPs told me to delete. I knew they’d realize the error of their
suggestion and tell me to put it back. So I created a file for those stellar
sentences and paragraphs.

I kept it for a long time.
Then one day, I realized my writerly muscles had developed. I had “guns” and I
finally deleted the whole file. Somewhere along the way, my CPs had gained some
knowledge and knew what they were talking about. Oops. My tongue got stuck in
my cheek on that one. I trust my CPs and do
99.9% of every suggestion they make.
When I published and got
an editor, I was filled with more gratitude for my CPs. After they got through
with me, my editor didn’t have as much to change as she might have.
If you have good critique
partners, treat them well. Love them and return the favor of tough critiques.
We’ve been together for ten plus years and trust each other completely. I wish
every author had CPs like mine. They know my voice and make suggestions that
fit, not change it. I try to do the same for them. That’s a rare commodity and
I value them highly.
I think I’ll declare this
the official Critique Partners Day. So jump in and share. Tell me about your CPs.
While a floppy straw hat is her
favorite, novelist Ane Mulligan has worn many including pro-family lobbyist,
drama director, playwright, humor columnist, and novelist. She firmly believes
coffee and chocolate are two of the four major food groups. Ane writes her
Southern-fried fiction in Sugar Hill, GA, where she resides with her artist
husband, chef so, and a dog of Biblical proportion.. You can find Ane on her Southern-fried Fiction website, Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, and Pinterest.

It Came From Under The Stall: How Not To Impress Editors, Agents and Other Writing Professionals

by Thomas Smith

Gather ‘round children, I’m going to tell you a little story.

Once upon a time there was a very nice agent. She devoted a good bit of her time to attending conferences in order to help fledgling writers and scout potential new talent. After one particularly long day of teaching workshops, sitting on panels, taking fifteen-minute appointments and generally “doing the agent thing,” nature called. As she settled in for the first private moment she’d had to herself all day, she heard a voice from the next stall.

“I sure am glad I finally found you. Your appointment list was full, and I’ve got this novel I want you to take a look at.” Not two seconds later, a large manila envelope came skidding across the tile and came to rest on her brand new Franco Sarto slingback.

Sad but True

This tale would be hilarious if it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, there are agents reading this column right now shaking their heads and reliving a similar moment from their own past. And while such a “marketing ploy” is sure to make an impression, it’s probably not the impression you are hoping for.
It’s not uncommon for writers to make the leap from friendly conference attendee to goggle-eyed lunatic at the mention of the words agent or acquisitions editor. From outlandish claims about their writing projects (“This will be the next Left Behind”) to downright bribery (Yes, there have been $5, $10, and $20 bills clipped to query letters … and no, they weren’t mine), there is something about an encounter with an editor or agent that brings the oddball gene out of its dormant state in even the most level headed people.
Equally frightening are the writers who run headlong into reality and don’t know how to deal with it. These are the folks who meet an editor or agent for the first time and expect a line edit and an in-depth discussion about the manuscript they brought with them or they come in with a piece of uncommonly bad writing and find out (though generally in a kind way) that their masterpiece may need a little more work. Such an encounter has been known to make said writer a little cranky. Sometimes cranky enough to tell the offending writing professional exactly what they can do with their red pen. 
And while such an attitude certainly makes a lasting impression, it is probably not the one you want to make. Publishing is a small universe, and if you tick off an editor at one publishing house, and he/she moves to another house, you now have a bad reputation at TWO houses.
God Told Me…
Also, be warned: A one-on-one meeting is not the only way to breach the boundaries of good agent/editor etiquette. A less than well-placed query letter or proposal can do the same thing. Take for example a classic letter that opens something like this:
“Dear editor, God told me to write this story and He also said I should send it to you and you should publish it…” OK, with a show of hands, how many of you out there have a similar letter in your files? Um-hum, I thought so.

There is a response to this letter floating around out there, and I imagine there are many people who wish they had used it. The editor, having seen the story from God letter one too many times, evidentially said:

“Dear Writer: While I thank you for thinking of our publishing company we will not be able to use your story. Since God wrote the best selling book of all time, I can only assume He can spell better than what was evident in you manuscript…”

Now let’s have a show of hands from those of you who have ever written such a letter. (Wait, you there in the green socks … get that hand up). Not many, but a few.

The Road to Professionalism
So … how does the average writer
get in an editor or agent’s good graces? It’s not as difficult as you may

First, be respectful. Remember the magic words, please and thank you. And don’t forget the advice given by every card-carrying mother on the planet: mind your manners.

Don’t call editors and agents by their first name unless invited to do so. For example, “Mr. Laube, may I speak with you for a minute or two about the project I’m working on?” will probably make a more favorable impression than, “Hey Stevie-Boy, hang on a minute and take a look at this proposal while I go get some lunch.” 

Here’s another tip: Don’t carry a full book-length manuscript with you to your meeting. Most
agents and editors don’t want to have to carry a stack of manuscripts with them
on the plane. If they are interested in your project, they ask you to mail or
e-mail the manuscript to them.A proposal and first three chapters is sufficient.

In short, act like a professional, even if you aren’t one … yet.

When communicating via mail or e-mail, keep the letterhead simple, professional, and as error-free as possible. No garish colors of fancy fonts.

When dealing with these nice folks in person, bring a clean, well-edited manuscript, proposal, one-sheet, or whatever is requested. Make sure it is formatted properly and meets their criteria (number of pages, etc.).

Think about what you want to say even before you arrive at the conference, or before you write that query letter. Have a clear image of the heart of your story in mind before you actually make the pitch. Then practice your pitch. A lot. Doing otherwise could very well scuttle your project in a matter of seconds. A seasoned editor or agent will know in less than a minute how much thought you have put into your idea.

When dealing with writing professionals, having a polite, professional bearing can carry you a long way. Accept criticism graciously, and always thank the other person for her/his time.If an agent or editor sees the potential in you and your work (you are, after all, a package deal), they will work with you to make the project the best it can be, and to help you become the best writer you can be.

You see, bad writing can be fixed, but a bad first impression is much harder to overcome.

NR: To be entered in a drawing for a copy of SOMETHING STIRS, leave a comment. U.S. residents only, please. The winner will be announced on Novel Rocket’s Facebook page tomorrow. Be sure to like us there!

Thomas Smith is an award winning writer, newspaper reporter, TV news producer, playwright and essayist. His supernatural suspense novel, Something Stirs, is available at a bookstore near you. In addition to writing he enjoys teaching classes for beginning writers at conferences and local writers’ groups. He has been a joke writer for Joan Rivers and his comedy material has been performed on The Tonight Show. Currently in his fifth decade of service, he is considerably younger than most people his age. Find Thomas onTwitter and Facebook