Books, Publishing, and the Creative Life

Archive for April, 2014

Rejection — it Hurts!

Rejection is one of the reasons I became a publisher.  As a literary agent, I found myself with half a dozen perfectly fine manuscripts I couldn’t sell to publishers. The authors had strong marketing plans, the topics seemed timely, and the writing was professional.  Yet, these books couldn’t find a home. We organized our own publishing firm (NorLightsPress) to get these books into the marketplace.  We also wanted to publish two novels of my own that were gathering dust.NLP-Short-Logo

Yes, I too have been stung by the barbs of rejection. Several large publishers considered my first novel, but in the end it landed on the rejection pile because it didn’t fit a specific genre. I finally went with an indie publisher, but that turned out to be a rip-off and I had to buy back the rights to my own work.  An expensive lesson.  Becoming a publisher at least ensured I wouldn’t fall into that trap again.

RejectionNow I want to further explore REJECTION.  Why do publishers reject perfectly good books?  Because sometimes rejection isn’t based on the quality of your work—it’s because of publishing issues you can’t control and may not know about:

1. The publisher may already have one or more books on a particular topic. They don’t want to publish another book that will compete with what they’ve already placed on the market. Doing so  wouldn’t be fair to their authors. (To get around this issue, you might offer a book that supports what they already have in print, but doesn’t compete).

2. The publisher had bad luck with books on the same topic and doesn’t want more of them.  Unfortunately there’s no perfect way for you to know which books aren’t doing well for a publisher unless you have access to their sales figures. However, if you have a topic in mind, check a similar book’s Amazon page for sales rankings and customer reviews.

3. A topic was popular, but is no longer hot with the public. Check the bestseller list to see what’s popular, but keep in mind the public’s taste changes often.

4. The competition in a particular genre (especially fiction) is so intense that only a few books can be chosen.  It’s like a Miss USA contest with a thousand contestants instead of fifty-one. The judges are overwhelmed by too much of a good thing.

5. Here’s a big one: The author doesn’t have a strong marketing plan.  Even with fiction, which does not require a book proposal, publishers need to know you can sell books without their help. You need a detailed and comprehensive marketing plan that heavily incorporates social media—book blogs, book sites, and electronic media.

6. Publishers thrive on imprints and genres. If your book is a hybrid (like mine), it will be harder to sell. In years past, booksellers needed to know where they should place a book within the store.  Now, online sellers like organize their lists and marketing around genres.

I could list a dozen more reasons for rejection, but you get the idea.

And here’s the amazing thing: By following the six guidelines above, a publisher may be DEAD WRONG about your book. The truth is, no one really knows what’s going to sell and what isn’t.  Every book is a gamble.  Publishers like us try to even the odds by following best practices, but we’re often wrong.  Joe Biel, the publisher behind Microcosm Publishing says, “Books that sold into the tens of thousands, or more, were books that we were worried wouldn’t sell. Ironically, when we try to make informed decisions to develop titles for commercial success, they always fall flat.”

Joe points out that the books they believed in because of content, not commercial ability, were the ones that immediately took off.  There’s certainly a lesson to be learned here, but larger publishers are less able to take chances because their books are filtered through editorial committees.  Indie publishers are more nimble.Rejection 2

At NorLightsPress, we agree with Joe Biel.  Like his firm, NorLightsPress is more about passion than profit.  We want our books to add value to the world, and we would do this for free if we had to.  We do have to reject many books. But we do it with compassion, because we know rejection hurts.

Do you have any rejection stories to share?  attitude-affects-work




My Life as a Poem

For the first time in 24 years, I’m writing poems.  Back in 1990 when Appalachian Heritage magazine published one of my poems, I thought I’d won the lottery.  But the vein I opened to write those verses dried up when my relationship with another writer went sour. Bitterness does not make good poems, at least for me.

My new verses are not like the ones I used to write. The 2014 poems are raw and extremely personal.  Are they good? I have no idea.  I do know they nudge me awake at four am; they invade my brain while I’m mowing the grass or painting in the studio.  Words and images climb from my gut to my head.  They buzz around inside my brain until I scribble them onto a sheet of paper. You might say I write to get rid of the buzzing.

“Why now?” I asked myself. During the past few weeks several events have come together in synchronicity:  The Color of the Wild

  •  I recently edited a marvelous book by Gin Getz called The Color of the Wild.  Gin’s book includes samples of the amazing poems she writes about her life in the mountains.  She inspires me.
  •  I sent a poem to my 46 year old son and discovered it was one of his favorites, though my choice seemed random at the time. Now I find he’s writing poems again, as he did in high school. I’m going to help him put together a book. He inspires me.
  •  I included a section on dialogue poetry in my new book Dialogue for Writers. Researching poems for the book opened a new line of thought for me. Poems have come a long way since 1990.
  •  I read a poem in the Sunday paper by Andrea Hollander about relationships, and it sounded like me. I said, “I can do this!”

Now I’m studying poetry, thinking poetry, and writing poetry. My favorite reference book is The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser, a U.S. poet laureate. These are nuggets of information I’ve gleaned from his book so far:

  •  “In poetry, the only rules worth thinking about are the standards of perfection you set for yourself.”  What a relief!  This makes writing poetry SO  much more fun.   Poetry Home Repair Manual
  • Poets who use a clear, accessible voice won’t be popular with critics, but they can be of use to everyday readers.  More good news. 
  • Writing something that touches a reader is just about as good as it gets, according to Kooser.
  • “Extensive revision is the key to transforming a mediocre poem into a work that can touch and even alter a reader’s heart.”  I know Kooser is right about this, but at some point editing can squeeze the lifeblood from  a poem.  Knowing when to stop making changes is an art in itself. 

When you write poetry, do you create the poems for yourself only?  Do you write with a sense of “somebody out there” who will read your work?  Kooser says, “Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts.”

When I read poetry, I find some poems don’t interest me, while others hold intellectual value—I admire a perfect turn of phrase, a word placed exactly where it should be, or a tricky rhyme.  But the poems I fall in love with are those that  touch my emotions and make me smile, weep, or laugh.   Those poems make me want to be a poet.

In Dialogue for Writers, you’ll find a section on adding dialogue to poetry.

FRONT cover final

Dialogue for Writers UNLEASHED

I’m excited to announce the debut of my new book Dialogue for Writers : Create Powerful Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction. FRONT cover final

This book explores all the necessary elements of dialogue and is packed with ideas and examples to help writers improve their technique.  To make this book more comprehensive than others on the market, I added information about  writing dialogue for a variety of genres, including screenplays, graphic novels, and children’s books.  Then I looked at more unusual places for dialogue:

  • Family history
  • Journals
  • Memoirs
  • Journalism
  • Poetry
  • Self-help articles and books

Almost any nonfiction book is more attractive to readers if you add dialogue, quotes, or interviews.  The spoken word in compelling; extra white space looks good on the pages; and dialogue enhances your credibility.  You can’t go wrong by adding the human voice to your writing.

One of my favorite chapters in Dialogue for Writers is “Jump Start Your Story with Dialogue.”  In this chapter I show by example how to break through writer’s block by using dialogue to open a story, a new chapter, an article, a journal entry, or even a poem.  If you get your characters talking right away, you’ll find it much easier to fill in the rest of the story with action and details.  Try these three steps:

  1. Write a single line of dialogue—something you’ve overhead, words that pop into your mind, or a catchy statement you read on Twitter.  Anything will do!
  2. List several situations your dialogue might fit.
  3. Choose the most intriguing situation and write an answer to that first line of dialogue.

Now you’re writing! You’ll find the next seven steps on page 86 of Dialogue for Writers.

If you’d like to learn more about this new book for writers, visit the Amazon page at:

But why not get the book free?  For a limited time I will send free copies of Dialogue for Writers to people who’d like to write a review.  You may contact me at  FREE







Here’s what best-selling science fiction author Hugh Howey has to say about my book (I was one of Hugh’s first editors):  “Dialogue provides a window into our character’s souls, and Sammie Justesen’s Dialogue for Writers throws open the curtains. A wonderful resource on how to get our characters talking to one another in a believable manner, and how to make our stories better in the process.”  — Hugh Howey, author of The Silo Saga and SAND

Author, poet, and photographer Gin Getz says:  Dialogue for Writers is more than another how-to text on writing.  After reading this book, my brain is swimming with ideas Sammie Justesen shares from her years of experience in the publishing industry. Sammie shows (not tells) us all about dialogue and much more, writing with style, humor, and an easy, comfortable voice and using examples to bring her points to life. Sammie practices what she preaches in this handy compilation based on experience and insight.”   –Gin Getz, author of The Color of the Wild: An Intimate Look at Life in an Untamed Land



Swimsuit Angst

This week I made the terrible mistake of trying on swimsuits in a department store. This was a classic example of magical thinking. Somehow, I convinced myself I’d find the perfect suit to make me look thinner, younger, and more fit—and it would be comfortable. I know the Universe is laughing at me.


This is how feel sometimes

I spent at least thirty minutes looking for a few suits to try on. Most were not attractive, even on hangers. The larger sizes were especially bad. No style. No pizazz. My internal monologue went like this:

“Here’s one in my size! Oops, it doesn’t have a bottom. It’s only a top, and it costs over $50.00.  Where IS the bottom?” I discovered the bottom halves scattered all over the place, with only a few sizes available. And they cost another $40.00. Plus, who wants to swim laps in a stupid looking SKIRT?

Typical large size swimsuit

Typical large size swimsuit

Eventually I peeled off my baggy jeans, faced away from the mirror, and tried on three suits. The first wouldn’t go past my hips. The other two were also non-starters, which led me to compose a list of questions for the swim suit industry:

  1. Why do I always have to buy a suit two sizes larger than my other clothing? This is demoralizing.
  2. Who designs these things and why are they so ugly?
  3. Horizontal stripes? Really?
  4. Why do they cost so much?
  5. Why do the suits begin to sag after a month of swimming?
  6. Is there no happy medium between size 6 (cute) and size 18 (ugly)?
  7. Must the larger size bras contain wires that double as torture devices?
  8. Why can’t they be comfortable? I understand many women wear swim suits only as fashion accessories, but some of us actually go into the water.
  9. Do you think we can’t figure out you make more money selling separate tops and bottoms, supposedly for OUR convenience?
  10.  Women like me who swim laps have broad shoulders. Why are the straps SO tight?

I tried Speedos and other sport suits for lap swimming, but they aren’t made for middle aged women with curves. Those brands focus on twenty year old swimmers who weigh 100 pounds soaking wet.

But, all is not lost.  I have returned to my default swim suit provider, Swimsuits For All, an online store with great prices and nice suits. (  The Longitude brand is made for women with longer torsos, and the Delta Burke suits are for larger sized women who don’t want to wear ugly skirt-suits. This online store has a great selection.   The suits may be close-out styles from the labels (I don’t know), but they look good, and some are chlorine resistant.  The prices?  Usually under$50.00.

Sometimes I need to remind myself of who I am, why I’m here, and that life isn’t all about appearances. Christiane Northrup, in her book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, writes that women between 49 and 55 experience hormonal balance once again, freeing them to pursue creative interests and social action.  “These are the years when all of a woman’s life experience comes together and can be used for a purpose that suits her and at the same time serves others.”

In spite of the media and pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to depict menopause as a dry wasteland – the end of the road — Northrup points out that during menopause, women discover a “deeper and freer experience of self.”  In Celtic cultures, menopausal women were believed to “retain their wise blood,” ceasing the constant ebb and flow of cycles and thereby becoming more powerful than younger women.  It was only after menopause that a woman could become a shaman.  In Native cultures, menopausal women were “the voice of responsibility towards all children, both human and nonhuman…unafraid to say a strong no to anything that did not serve life.”  These women were looked to by their younger counterparts for education and initiation into this knowledge and responsibility.

So, I’m going to be happy doing laps with my swim suit, my weird fins, and the ugly swim mask I can’t do without.  See you at the pool!     Teeth!


Are You Branded?

I’ve always liked the idea of branding—and I don’t mean the cattle we raised on the farm when I was a kid. Branding in our world refers to how you’re perceived by others.    apples

Every business has a brand, whether we like it or not. For example, a hospital in our town merged with another firm two years ago. Sadly, their brand in the community has become “rundown, second rate hospital with unhappy workers.” The hospital didn’t choose that negative brand; they earned it—and now they’re stuck with it.

I notice many businesses around town work hard to create a friendly, upbeat brand for themselves—often based on the business owner’s personality and strengths.

You may be thinking, “Sure, it’s easy to brand yourself when you can hire marketing experts and have lots of money to spend.”  That isn’t necessarily true. Even if you’re a one-person business, you WILL have a brand.  Your challenge is to mold that brand into something positive.  Maria Ross is a brand strategist, speaker, and author who specializes in helping small businesses grow and thrive.  She says,

BB3_Front Cover.jpg FINAL“Small organizations waste so much time and money on ‘random acts of marketing’ that get them nowhere, so more budget is not the answer.  It’s about creating a clear brand strategy to target the right people with the right message at the right time. “

If you’re interested in building a brand with ten easy steps , I highly recommend the new, updated edition of Maria’s classic book: Branding Basics for Small Business.  Midwest Book Review says, “This book is a wise and recommended read, not to be missed by any small business.”  Here’s a link to the Amazon page:

Personal Branding

People have brands.  Think about your favorite celebrities and how they branded themselves, with help from PR agencies and the media.  Think of all those politicians who work so hard to brand themselves.

Your brand is what comes to mind when people think about you.  Consider a few folks you know:  In your life there may be a “grandmother who bakes cookies and crochets pot holders for the church yard sale,” or “overweight guy who watches TV a lot.” You get the picture.  We humans love to categorize things, and that’s exactly what we do with other people.  Personal branding is a normal, instinctive part of human society.

Personal branding means identifying and communicating what makes you unique and compelling to the world.  If you want to sell yourself as a business owner, promote your artistic endeavors, or advance in the workplace as an employee, then think about your brand.

Perhaps the grandmother I mentioned above makes the world’s best cookies. Those pot holders become part of the brand when she opens a catering business.  As for the overweight guy who watches TV a lot, what if he decides to change his image and become a fitness trainer, complete with before-and-after videos? Remember Jared Fogle, the Subway guy who lost 94 pounds eating their food?  When the Subway brand needs a boost, Jared is still there after 15 years.

If your passion is embodied in a creative talent, such as writing, performing, or art, you definitely need a brand.  Are you the serious literary type, quirky and avant-garde, outdoorsy, or romantic and free spirited?  Lady Gaga or Bill O’Reilly?

These questions will help you focus:

  •  What makes you unique?  How are you different from the people around you?  What’s unusual about your work, experience, and personality?Personal-Branding-Brand
  • What do you have to offer the world?  This is not the time to be humble. You DO have a lot to offer.  I guarantee it.  Keep in mind that even your flaws can be a positive part of the brand.  Look at Governor Chris Christie with his outspoken attitude and overweight physique.  He incorporated those things into his brand.
  • What are your ultimate goals?  What do you want people to say about you?
  • You do have a target market, and this is the time to define it.  Who do you want to notice your talents?
  • How can you begin communicating your brand?  (Think about your personal appearance, your office, business cards, the look of your web page and blog, how you relate to people, and basically everything you do.)

Personal branding is not manipulative, in case that’s what you’re thinking.  Branding is an integral part of society and always has been, since the first men and women walked the earth.  Finding your personal brand will give you more control and power over your own life, your clients, your job, the projects you work on, and how you approach your art.

What do YOU think?



Dialogue for Writers — Coming Soon!

FRONT cover final I’m excited! My new book Dialogue for Writers: Create Powerful Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction will be published by NorLightsPress on April 15.  This is be my first published work in several years, because I’ve been using my creative talent (such as it is) to work on other people’s books.  But a few months ago, my husband Dee goaded me into action. Thank you, Dee!  And now the book is ready.   It’s available for pre-order on at this address:

Why did I choose to focus on dialogue?  Because dialogue seems easy to write, but isn’t.  Yet, it can make or break a book, article, or screenplay.  Dialogue is the ultimate power trip: We put words into the mouths of other people.  We decide what they say and how they say it. The writer is totally in charge—except when our characters come to life and take over, which is even MORE fun.

Many writers haven’t tapped into the power of dialogue for genres such as journalism, family history, journals, poetry, and memoir. Dialogue for Writers will be the only book on the market that explores dialogue for all these genres, plus children’s books, graphic novels, screenplays, and general fiction.

A few tips and tricks from Dialogue for Writers:

Tension, Conflict, and Suspense

If you don’t build at least one of these elements into each scene, you have no story.

  1.  Goals and motivation create tension.  Every character in every scene should have a goal and motivation.  Don’t let them speak without it.
  2. If two characters’ goals and motivation clash—all the better.  Now you have conflict, plus added tension.
  3. What happens next?  Make the readers curious: Then you have suspense.

Show, Don’t Tell       

Don’t use dialogue tags to tell how people speak.  Show it with action.

Telling:  “Come here!” Tom ordered.

Showing: “Come here!” Tom waved me closer.

Telling: “I’m so sorry,” she apologized.

Showing: “I’m sorry, Tom.” She threw back her head and stared at the ceiling.

I’ll be posting more tips and techniques from the book in the coming days.  I hope it will benefit writers in every genre!   If you’d like to review Dialogue for Writers on your blog, on Amazon, or anywhere else, please let me know and I’ll send you a book.  

attitude-affects-work  As always, I enjoy reading your comments!


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