At Mount Hermon, writers from all over the world gather to learn their craft, network with other writers, and pitch their book ideas to editors, publishers, and agents.
Being a new writer is a frightening experience. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure exactly when the newness wears off. Walking into the lodge for my first meal last year, I was shaking in my cute black shoes. (By the way, cute-black-shoes are DUMB and scream newbie-writer, when you’re at a five-day conference in the mountains.) My first experience meeting an editor/publisher at Mount Hermon, was with my special Blessed Guest today; author, editor and speaker, James Watkins.
He was extremely kind, surrounded by nine other people at our breakfast table trying to compete for his attention. What I enjoyed most about him, what piqued my interest and drew me in, was his wonderful sense of humor. Humor is a must-have with anyone dear to me, so I knew I would enjoy the opportunity to work with this man.
The next morning, while in line for our scrambled-eggs-surprise, he encouraged me to send him in a humor piece he’d seen on my blog the night before. Being the pathetic cynic I am, I really hadn’t expected him to take the time to look at my business card I’d handed him the prior morning. I’d thought he was just being nice when he asked for everyones’.
Later, after speaking with Jim, I remember I’d told the Lord before attending this conference I’d walk through any door He opened. I reluctantly sent him in three humor pieces a few months later.
This Spring, all three pieces will be published in Vista and Light of the Word Sunday School take-home papers.
Some editors are truly good people, with a heart to encourage new writers and inspire all of us to walk closer to the Lord. Some have the gift of humor, the anesthesia that numbs the pain of a hard topic or difficult trial. Many are people of their word. They say what they mean and mean what they say. James Watkins is all of these things and more.
So, without further adieu, would you please give a big round of comments to my special Blessed Guest today, James Watkins.
Welcome to Blessed, it’s such an honor to have you here Jim. There are so many questions I’d love to ask you, most especially, how did you begin your writing journey?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when, as a second-grader, I rewrote the ending of Pinocchio. I could suspend disbelief so that a wooden marionette could come to life–no strings attached. But to believe that the “live” puppet could become a real boy, that was too much for me. So, for a class writing assignment, I rewrote the ending and had the wooden Pinocchio die a painful, prolonged death of Dutch elm disease.
Looking back, I’m surprised my teacher didn’t send me to the psychologist, but I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged my so-called writing talent. By the time I had written plays for the elementary school to perform, journaled my deep, dark, depressed life as a junior-higher, and became the editor of the high school paper, I was hooked on writing!
I dabbled in writing for several years while working as a youth pastor, then became an editor with Wesleyan Publishing House but, no, I’ve not had any formal training in editing although I took journalism classes in college and my graduate work is in communications.
What do you love about being an editor?
Sending out rejection slips. No, really it’s discovering new authors–like you! I feel like a prospector digging through the “slush” pile of manuscripts. When I find a gold nugget, I dance around the office like I struck the mother lode. (Before I do that, though, I make sure I close the curtains.)
What don’t you love about it?
Sending out rejection slips. Seriously!
What has surprised you the most about your job?
The cluelessness of some wannabe writers. The magazine I originally edited at WPH was called In Touch for Christian teens. I was amazed at the number of submissions I received on therapeutic massage–and some in rather un-therapeutic massage! Did’t they read the writers’ guidelines?! I was also surprised to find that some writers think they don’t have to follow the guidelines. When I tried to politely tell one writer that the current magazine I’m editing, Vista, has a word-count of 500-550 words, he sent me a 950-word article and told me it was my job to whittle it down to the desired length. I don’t think so!
When it comes to a new writer, what do you think is most important for them to know when submitting to your magazine/publishing house?
I have mentioned “read the writers’ guidelines,” right? And get several copies of the magazine to get a feel for the style and structure of the articles published. (You can get Vista’s guidelines and download free sample copies at: http://www.wesleyan.org/wph/inside/writers_guidelines/ .)
Are there any red flags an editor sees that will give a writer an immediate rejection?
For Vista, we prefer to have the copy in the body of the email, rather than an attachment. And we haven’t accepted hardcopy submissions for several years, so if the writer violates those two requirements, I know he or she hasn’t read our guidelines and gets rejected without my even reading a sample of the manuscript. The same for sending an article or book proposal addressed to the editor from five years ago. And, of course, sending something that doesn’t fit our guidelines requirements for genre (no poetry) or length (no 950-word pieces).
Is there anything, in your opinion, that writers pay too much/too little attention to?
Most writers don’t realize that editors read only one or two paragraphs to make the initial decision to either reject it or continue reading. So, in my opinion, author’s don’t spend enough time writing an engaging lead (first two or three paragraphs) that is going to first grab the editor’s attention and second grab the reader’s attention.
Second would be simply good writing that show’s rather than tells, is well-organized with good spelling and grammar, has a good “take away” or action step and conveys passion. One of the questions I ask myself is Can I smell the smoke? Jeremiah writes about having a burning message that if he doesn’t get out, there’s going to be a documented case of human spontaneous combustion. I need to sense the burning passion whether it’s an article for Vista, book proposal or devotional.
Anything specific your magazine/publishing house is looking for right now? (Types of books, articles, sidebars, etc.)
Vista is a “take-home” paper that tracks with WPH’s Sunday school curriculum, so would-be authors can email me at email@example.com to be placed on our theme list that goes out to about 350 writers. Every three months, those on the list receive our themes and may submit original and reprint articles for specific Sundays.
As far as books, WPH is looking for books that specifically deal with developing one’s relationship with God.
Who has made the biggest impact on your life?
Other than God, it would have to be Rena Leiter, my high school journalism teacher who taught me to “write tight” and verify sources (“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”). As far as authors, it would have to be Thomas a’ Kempis who wrote Imitation of Christ back in 1550 and William Zinsser who wrote On Writing Well. Those two books IMHO are absolutely essential for Christian writers.
What do you think about blogging? Do you have your own blog?
I think most blogging is a terrible waste of bandwidth–narcissistic and self-centered. To me, good blogging puts the reader first and the writer second. Is what I’m writing going to be helpful and beneficial to my reader? Or is it just online journaling that would be better in a print journal hidden in your underwear drawer.
My blog is called “Hope & Humor” (www.jameswatkins.com) and attempts to provide encouragement for both Christians and nonbelievers. I hope it’s a good use of bandwidth.
Do you have a favorite scripture?
Romans 8:28-29: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose . . . to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. . . .”
One of my last est books, Squeezing Good Out of Bad, is based on those verses. (You wouldn’t respect me as an author if I didn’t shamelessly my books, would’t you? The newest is Writing with Banana Peels on writing humor. You can browse and buy at www.jameswatkins.com.)
What would surprise us about you?
I lived in a girl’s dorm for six years (my wife was resident director at Indiana Wesleyan University).
What’s your favorite flavored potato chip?
Favorite thing to do with your family?
What book is on your nightstand right now?
Randy Alcorn’s If God Is Good and Thomas a’ Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (tenth or twelfth time through it)
Last food you ate?
I’m eating a double fudge brownie as I type this. Mmmm!
When was the last time you played the air guitar?
I don’t remember, but I did play my real Godin solid body electric this morning in leading worship at the church my wife pastors.
Thank you for being a Blessed Guest, and taking the time to share a little bit of your life with all of us Jim.
My pleasure! And it’s been a joy to work with someone like you: a talented, teachable writer who knows how to read writers’ guidelines.
See you at Mount H?
You betcha. I’ll be the one wearing the ugly-but-comfortable tennis shoes this year.