Storyteller with a Great First Impression – interview with Terry Whalin (7 December 2007)

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Introduction

I was surfing the net the came across Terry Whalin’s website, http://www.right-writing.com. The more I read about his work, the more intrigued I became. So, I contacted him and asked if he would like to be interviewed. He agreed and without further ado, here’s Terry Whalin.


Aneeta: Terry, let us begin with a little personal information about you. Where were you born and brought up? What was your youth like? What do you do for a living? And, where do you live?

Terry: You raise an interesting question and something rarely asked. I was born in Huntington, West Virginia in the railroad hospital because it was the cheapest place for my parents—even though we lived across the Ohio River in the small town of Raceland, Kentucky. It’s where I spent my first twelve years then we moved to a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland for a couple of years then to Peru, Indiana for my high school and college years. My family roots go back many generations in Kentucky. Actually one of the counties in Kentucky is named after my five-great grandfather and my mother still lives there.

My youth was fairly normal even with a few moves and I have always loved books and stories about real people or biographies. In the library, I read stacks of stories about Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Booker T. Washington and many others. I’m certain that’s why I’ve written many biographies and also written many books for other people.

I have been in publishing for over twenty years in a number of different roles—magazine editor, book editor, freelance editor, writer, ghostwriter, co-author or collaborator and literary agent. Through this diversity, I make my living.

For over three years, I’ve been in Scottsdale, Arizona or just outside Phoenix, Arizona which is the fifth largest city in the United States.

Aneeta:  Tell me, please, how did you end up in the publishing industry? Have you always wanted to be in this industry or did you chance upon it?

Terry: It was a high school English teacher who encouraged me to join the staff of the high school newspaper. My senior year, I was the editor and it spurred me to study journalism at one of the top journalism schools in the US, Indiana University. I know firsthand the power of a book to change a life. You can read about one of my most life-changing experiences in this magazine article called Two Words That Changed My life: http://snipurl.com/mylife  Notice the key role of the book in this process. The experience changed my life direction and I spent ten years in linguistics and working overseas. Then I returned to my writing and I’ve been involved in some aspect of publishing for over twenty years. I’ve written for more than 50 print magazines and written more than 60 books. My first book was published in 1992.

Aneeta: I am aware that you have three websites: http://www.straighttalkeditor.com/ http://www.right-writing.com/index.html and http://www.whalinagency.com/. Can you please tell me what are the functions of each one of them?

Terry: While I’ve been active in the print aspect of publishing, I’m also an active member of the online community. I own over 25 websites and each one has a different purpose, audience and function.

http://www.straighttalkeditor.com is my free Ebook, Straight Talk From The Editor, 18 Keys To A Rejection-Proof Submission. I combine stories with practical insight from my experience of reviewing thousands of book proposals and pitches from would-be writers. Originally I published this Ebook as an Amazon Short which sells on Amazon.com for 49 cents yet it is only available to a United States customer. I had an exclusive arrangement with Amazon for six months but now that is expired and I’m using the book as a free tool to help writers and also a means to build my newsletter list for Right-Writing.

http://www.right-writing.com has thousands of pages of information for writers about many different aspects of writing. I wrote some of the articles but they come from a wide variety of authors who have given me permission to use their material. I started this site as a way to quickly answer writers questions about different aspects of publishing. Instead of long individual emails, I can often point to an article on Right-Writing. Please note my Right-Writing News (the newsletter) has over 400 pages of how-to write information in the over 28 back issues. This back issue material is only available to subscribers—yet it is free: http://www.terrylinks.com/rwnews I hope your readers will check it out and subscribe.

http://www.whalinagency.com is the website for Whalin Literary Agency, LLC, which is my agency. In the submission guidelines, I give details about the types of projects which I represent and how I want to be approached. It is hard to get a literary agent and one of the best points of advice I can give you is to follow the guidelines because you want to make the right first impression. You would be surprised at the strange things people do to get attention—and most of it is negative attention.

Aneeta: Yes, let’s talk a little more about your role as a literary agent. Please tell me some of the more memorable clients you’ve had and some of your experiences with them.

Terry: My literary agency is a long-term strategy and I represent authors in the general market and the Christian marketplace. I started the agency in early 2007 and have been highly selective about the clients that I sign for the agency. Why?  Many agents have told me it takes at least two years to make a profit in a literary agency. Also I’ve seen a number of agents who have taken way too many first-time authors and gone out of business. I’ve received hundreds of pitches from authors but only taken less than a dozen clients. As an editor and a writer, I’ve worked with a number of literary agents and seen firsthand how they operate. First of all I work on a commission. If I’m not selling for my clients then I’m not making any money for the agency. I don’t have reading fees or anything which raises questions about the business practices. I hope your readers will look at this article from Victoria Strauss and follow the sound advice in it:

http://www.right-writing.com/published-safest.html Unfortunately anyone can hang out an agent shingle and call themselves a literary agent. Some are much better than others in this area. Here’s a good resource when you are looking for an agent and to ask the right questions at the beginning of your relationship:

http://www.aar-online.org/mc/page.do?sitePageId=10336 I’m looking for a long-term successful relationship with each of my clients for Whalin Literary Agency.

As far as my clients, I’m in the early stages with many of them to place their projects. I’m not ignoring your question but I don’t have a lot of memorable agent stories for you. I fully understand the power of the Internet. I’m cautious about the names and information I give because I do not want the information to be harmful to me or any of my clients. To show you the power of the Internet, I’ve written about an article in The New Yorker magazine and later that day the journalist (who I did not know), wrote me to thank me for my words. I’ve had it happen repeatedly. I treat anything that appears online like something I would be proud to have out there in five or fifty years. Many people seem to forget this aspect of the Internet.

I work back and forth with my clients in the agency to perfect their manuscripts and book proposals. I want to make the best possible first impression on the editors where I send something from the agency. I pattern my back and forth process with authors along the lines that I’ve learned from some of the most successful literary agents in the publishing community. I know this truth: You only get one chance to make a good first impression.

Aneeta: I see, also, that you’ve worked as an acquisitions editor for Cook Communications and Howard Books. For those of my subscribers who are new to the publishing industry, can you please explain what an acquisitions editor does?

Terry: An acquisitions editor is the person who champions the author’s material inside the publishing house. I wrote a detailed article about what an editor does in this article:

http://www.right-writing.com/acquisitions.html  I interfaced with literary agents and individual authors who wanted to get published. I worked with the print manager and business manager to put together the financials for each book. The typical book acquisitions editor acquires about 12 to 15 books in a year. The last year that I acquired full-time I contracted over 30 books.  As a writer, you want to meet and get to know as many of these acquisitions editors as you can—because they are the hands-on people who bring books into the publishing houses.


Aneeta: I would like to back-track a little and ask you about those more than 60 non-fiction books you’ve written and published. I understand that your latest is one entitled Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success. Please tell me a little about this book.

Terry:  I wrote Book Proposals That Sell because I had read most of the how-to-write-a-proposal books on the market. None of them were written from the perspective of the acquisitions editor. The book includes endorsements from editorial directors, acquisitions editors, bestselling authors and top literary agents. You can see some of these comments about the book and its value at: http://www.right-writing.com/editors.html  There are more than 75 Five Star reviews for this book on Amazon.com and you can see the various ways to get the book at: http://www.right-writing.com/ways.html If you live overseas or want the book instantly along with an unconditional 60-day guarantee, then consider the ebook version at: http://www.bookproposals.ws. Book Proposals That Sell is a proven product and I know a number of first-time authors who have used the material to land a top literary agent or their first book contract. I wrote the book to help writers.

Aneeta: What about Running On Ice: The Overcoming Faith of Vonetta Flowers?

Terry: I knew very little about track and field or bobsledding before writing Running On Ice. I was the replacement writer for this project and wrote it in six weeks from start to finish. It meant a lot of intense work with Vonetta and others who knew her. Plus I went to Park City, Utah which is outside of Salt Lake City and rode the summer-time version of the bobsled. It was on concrete instead of ice but still gave me the single ride experience of a bobsled to write about it. It’s like a number of the books which I’ve written for other people and about experiences that I’ve never had. I learn a tremendous amount in the telling of a good story. For Running On Ice, it is the story of how a much decorated track and field star from Birmingham, Alabama was competing in the Summer Olympic Trials in Sacramento in 2000 before the Sydney Olympics. She didn’t make the Olympic team and thought her athletic career was over. Vonetta’s husband, Johnny, spotted a note they were trying out women for an Olympic bobsled team. Because of her track and field experience, Vonetta had the perfect skill set to become one of the top bobsledders in the world and the first African American to win a Gold medal in the Winter Olympics. While it involved intense storytelling and long hours of work, I enjoyed this book.

Aneeta: Do you have any works you’d like to share with us?

Terry: While all of my books are nonfiction, I’ve had the opportunity to tell many true stories about people’s lives. For example, Bishop Philip Porter, the chairman emeritus of Promise Keepers was the leading African American in the fastest growing men’s movement in America. For years, Bishop Porter has been at the forefront of racial reconciliation. As a writer, I told his story about integrating an all-white college in the 1950s and many other stories. I wrote the stories of individuals who lost over 100 pounds using a diet program called First Place. These stories appeared in a book called First Place which was published over ten years ago and has sold over 100,000 copies. I want to encourage you to write stories beyond your own stories. There are many of them out there crying out for you to write them in magazine articles and books.

Aneeta: I would imagine that storytelling does feature in your work. Is this true and if so, how much?

Terry: At first glance, many people think storytelling is only fiction. Good storytelling is not just fiction but also in the realm of nonfiction. If your true stories are going to come to life, they need to have many of the same elements as good fiction such as moving dialogue, vivid settings, rich characters woven together in a true story. It takes work and craftsmanship to put together such storytelling—and often years of practice and experience. Take a look at the classic book, In Cold Blood from Truman Capote for an example of what I’m talking about.

Also don’t think that a book is the only place you can practice your storytelling craft. It is equally important in magazine articles and shorter forms of writing.

Aneeta: Terry, as you know, this website caters for storytellers. Do you have any advice for those of my readers who would like to venture into this field?

Terry: Many years ago, bestselling novelist Dean Koontz wrote a book called How To Write Bestselling Fiction. He includes a chapter which gives a key bit of advice for any storyteller: read, read, and read. As an editor and literary agent, you’d be surprised at the people who are trying to write romance or mystery yet when you quiz them about it, you learn they don’t read romance or mystery. If you want to tell good stories, you need to be reading good stories. Second you need to take every opportunity to practice your craft of storytelling. As I’ve mentioned earlier, you can not only tell your own stories, but tell the stories of others. There are many opportunities all around us for storytelling experience.

Aneeta: Terry, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Terry:  I’ve not talked about my blog on The Writing Life. I have over 750 searchable entries at: http://www.thewritinglife.ws  hooked to my right-writing.com and you can get the updates on email at: http://www.feedblitz.com/f/?Sub=66512 There are over 270 people who receive the updates via email. I have over 300 readers a day of this material. I don’t blog every day but several times a week about new how-to books that I’ve read or an interesting magazine article or some experience that I’ve had in publishing. Each entry is targeted to people who want to learn more about writing and publishing. Because the blog is searchable, it has become a rich resource of material for continued learning about the craft of writing.

Aneeta: I so envy you those 750 entries. I’m just hopeless at keeping a blog. I find it so hard to find something to write about each day. Well done! And Terry, thank you.

Terry: Aneeta, it’s been my privilege to touch your readers. My email is attached to most of my websites and I’m easy to reach. I hope your readers will make use of the rich treasure of resources that I’ve been creating online for them and they will recommit themselves to continually growing in their craft.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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