Friday, August 14, 2009

Andy Meisenheimer Answers the Big Questions

Say howdy to Andy - he's our guest blogger today!

Andy Meisenheimer is in his seventh year at Zondervan, his tenth year of marriage, his third year of fatherhood, and his first year playing in the band Group Dancing for Dutch People, an accordion duo cover band he co-founded with band member Jim Kast-Keat. While at Zondervan, he has worked with important, influential and talented authors writing in many different impressive genres. One author writes, "Andy is the nerdy yet paternal editor you always wanted," though Andy was quick to edit that sentence down to its essence: "Andy's super cool." However, better than all of that, Andy lives with his best-friend-and-muse Mandy and their three-year-old cutest-little-boy-in-the-world near Grand Rapids, MI. They are the best part of his life.

Q&A with Andy Meisenheimer, the most heavy-handed editor in the business (seriously, my hands weigh a lot. “Banana-hands,” I’ve been called).

When are you inclined to take a chance on something "out of the box" -- away from a proven formula -- and how far are you willing to go with an untried theme, style, etc?

To answer the first part of your question: Thursday afternoons, mostly. Rarely on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon, but often on Tuesday late at night, when no one is around to hear me cry. I think we used proven formula for the first year or so of our son’s life, so if it’s good enough for the kid, it must be perfect for publishing.

The problem with something out of the box, an untried theme or style, is that it requires people to actually immerse themselves in a new experience. It can’t be reduced to sound bytes and flashy ads. It can’t be pitched as “Jaws meets Harry Potter”. Instead, much like an annoying girlfriend, it asks for commitment, and then like marriage demands that you open yourself up to growth and become vulnerable with your weaknesses—and sometimes look up a word in the dictionary. But some people just want something mildly amusing to read during lunch break.

I like to cook meals for my wife and kid. My blessing and my curse is that I rarely have exactly what a recipe calls for, and so I fudge a little. And then sometimes I augment recipes with my own ideas. But I preface each meal with “well, hope this worked!” It might sound scary, but my family’s learned that there’s a decent chance that my cooking is going to taste better than McDonald’s, and might even taste better than a good restaurant. And it’s definitely going to be made with healthier, fresher ingredients and cooked in a healthier way than McDonald’s.

I love that kind of cooking.

In your experience with actually meeting authors who produce what you regard as excellence, what common traits to you see in them as persons?
Brilliant writers, in my experience, are writers who are constantly writing really crappy stuff, and then tossing it or rewriting it eight times. They are the ice skater on the rink late at night, performing the same move over and over and over again; they are the painter at the museum imitating the paintings they see before them; they are the football star watching the replay frame-by-frame; they are the musician sitting around jamming with friends; they are the actor learning Shakespeare; they are the architect drawing plans that are both beautiful and functional. They are constant critics as well as studious observers of good storytelling. They have an appreciation for pulp even as they pursue literary genius. They are confident when they need to be and yet they have their trusted advisors who can say most anything.

Give us a glimpse into an ideal author/editor relationship.
Sometimes this Certain Author calls just to hear my voice. Sometimes he claims that my voice is the one he hears in his head as he writes his characters. His wife is the only one with more power over his stories than me. He’s writing his book in third person because I decided it was time to do some third person writing, and because it’d be best for his story. He couldn’t do it, wrote some first person, and so I rewrote it for him in third person. He sneaks in certain things he knows I’ll cut just so he can feel good accepting that cut. He reads the edited novel with tracked changes hidden just to see how brilliant my editing is. If he has another child I don’t think naming the kid Andrew Robert would be indecorous. We share book recommendations and gab about the craft of writing. I write in the margin exactly what I’m thinking, and he writes back exactly what he’s thinking. We know and respect each other’s style. I’m an editor, and he’s a writer. We both want the book to be a work of the highest order, and the best work he’s ever done. And deep down we know that if the other ever went to jump off a metaphorical cliff, we’d be there to say “hey, maybe don’t do that.”

But each one is different. But I don’t think symbiotic would be so terrible of a one-word answer. Now half my authors are going to think I’m weird—the other half, that is, that doesn’t already think that, and appreciate that about me.

How do you balance art and business?
Very carefully. We don’t all work for a rich anonymous benefactor whose sole concern is excellence in the literary arts. So like any editor who wants to enjoy life, I try to make sure I acquire at least a few people whose work I believe to be of the highest quality, even as I do my job and acquire the potboilers that feed my family. Do I believe it has to be that way? No. Does the company I work for have the same eye for that balance as I see it? Not always. I’m on a journey just like you. But my job is to keep looking, and keep pitching good books to my boss.

I’ll tell you the one thing I do that keeps me sane. When I’m on my own time, I spend it with my wife and kid—talk about quality—and when they’re tired of me, I read good books.

How do you think one should balance art and business as a writer?
Unfortunately, the internet allows aspiring writers to waste way too much time focused on business. Reading blogs about writing, writing blogs about reading, creating a brand and websites and tweeting and facebooking and revising your work according to the latest “rule” of writing. No editor or reader is fooled into thinking that your stuff is gold because someone’s got a great blog or tagline or brand or website or facebook. There is one and only one way to get the kind of loyalty you want from your readers. Good books. No one says “I loved this book but since I can’t follow the author on twitter, oh well. I guess I’ll just never read them again.” And conversely, “this book sucked but they have such a (killer) brand! I’ve got to read more.” Writers should focus on art until they have a business. Which in today’s world, many of you should just realize your dreams and publish your books yourself. Use that internet connection for a better purpose. And if your book’s as brilliant as you’d like it to be, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Thanks for asking questions and letting me answer them. The blank page really scares me. That’s why I’m an editor.


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, Andy, for letting us pick your brain. It's a very interesting place! We appreciate your insights about publishing.

Kathleen Popa said...

Really? You want us to call you just to hear your voice? Can we post your number here, to make it easier for our readers?

I loved the part about brilliant authors, both because I love artists like that, and also because I can do the crappy writing part, no problem.

There's so much wisdom here, Andy. Thank you.

Patti Hill said...

Andy, thanks so much for answering our questions. I love your sense of humor and your wisdom. I'm definitely taking notes.

Unknown said...

Am I the only one who is slightly freaked out by Andy's answer to the last question?

"Just write" SOUNDS so right - but with publishers urging authors to start blogs and get on Facebook and Twitter - with publisher marketing dollars stretched to the max and publicity firms who are more concerned about connecting their company name to authors who are already famous rather than actually helping the new author get out there - the author is left to make a name for herself.

For those of us who want to live the equation writer = eat and pay the bills don't we NEED to get out there and promote, market, and otherwise sell books?

Andy said...

Bonnie, don't worry, I'm slight freaked out by the answer to the last question too.

I guess my question back to you is two-fold. One, how did authors do it before facebook, twitter, and blogging? And two, do any of us have respectable research data that can substantiate the idea that these things actually bring us new readers?

Unknown said...

Andy is focusing on the importance of writing a really great novel in his answer to the last question, but the reality for a writer who wants to eat is that, yes, you better have some nifty ways to tell others about your fab novel. Hence Twitter, Facebook, blogs et al have to be a part of the equation for the writer.

Bonnie Grove said...

I think what authors did before was write a book, fail at sales, and go back to bagging groceries. I think they failed to find niche markets because they couldn't find them on a wide enough scale (you can online today).

Our own Latayne C. Scott has taught us that the best way to use the internet is to use it to find readers - to go where they go, and hang out with them in the virtual world. The time she spends online is time spent with the book buying public who are interested in the subjects she writes about.

I agree, there is no reliable measure to prove social networking improves book sales/readership. Most of the fans who write me do so through my web site - not through the other online hot spots.

One thing I have found helpful about Twitter and Facebook etc. is networking with other writers. It has its limits, but it can be a great way to meet other writers.
No, you can't spend hours yapping with writer friends, but it's great to connect sometimes.

RRigdon said...

funny and keen.

Jennifer AlLee said...

Great answers from Andy (and great questions from Novel Matters). Thanks to all!

Andy, your comparison of brilliant writers to figure skaters, artists, etc. who do the same mundane things over and over, gave me a whole new perspective. I've certainly written a lot of crappy stuff that no one has read... perhaps that means I'm a little closer to brilliance :+}

Janet said...

oh, another Janet...

I keep hearing good things about Andy. I hope I have an opportunity to experience his awesomeness myself some day.

Social media can turn into a time sink. I'm working on a way of handling it more responsibly myself. But I do have to say that I have definitely bought books because of meeting authors online, particularly if they weren't too high and mighty to banter with me. I plan on buying at least one book from everyone on this blog, which simply wouldn't have happened if they hadn't been here. So it's not the be-all-and-the-end-all, but it does make a difference. I've also received book recommendations from people online that have resulted in multiple sales.

heather said...

Are you trying to argue that great authors existed before Twitter?
I'll need proof on the matter.
Also, my husband fears the evening meal. I approach it like cracking a safe. There's always a new combination, and sometimes you might discover a treasure.
Other times, it might be Aunt Hilda's teeth.

Jeanne Damoff said...

Like I always say, you can never have too many accordion duo cover bands.

Speaking of which, I'm pretty sure I know who Certain Author is, and we're hoping to hang out in a few weeks when I go to his city for a wedding. No late-night skates on the agenda, but signs point to yes on sitting around jamming. An accordion or two would be welcome . . .

Entertaining post, Andy. Thanks.

sally said...

"That’s why I’m an editor."

You're also a talented writer. Yikes. Those were some gorgeously posed thoughts.

sally said...

Ha! Just read Jeanne's comment. I was guessing I knew who Certain author was, too. Now I know we're guessing the same fellow.

Latayne C Scott said...

Andy, I'll tell you how we did it before the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and their cousins.

Or how I did it before, starting when my first book was published by Zondervan in 1979.

I prayed, a lot.

I accepted every speaking appointment offered to me. I never asked for a fee and sometimes didn't get one.

Up until just a few years ago I never sold my own books because a local bookstore owner told me it would be better for him to do that. He responded by always keeping my books on hand, and giving me wonderful, well-advertised signing opportunities.

I answered every hand-written letter that came to me via my publishers.

In other words, I tried to balance my sense of obedience to God in not advancing myself with using the resources that were put in front of me.

Now I have new books out (one of them by Z, as you probably know, Andy.) I no longer have little children playing at my feet as I type. I have a new resource I never had before -- more time. With that time, I try to be faithful and balanced with the electronic resources I now have. I answer all my emails. I answer all the questions posed on my blog. I send out newsletters and "audio postcards."

And I try very very hard to remember that I am myself to be a resource on any website or blog or discussion board where I go.

Above all I pray for my books and ask anyone who's willing to do the same.

Today I can't depend on my local Christian booksellers (a new generation). That's sad, but true. I'm sure they have their reasons but they show no interest in promotions or even communication with me (quite to the contrast of, say, our local Barnes and Noble.)

Today I do sell my own books but in my mind that's as much a service to people I meet as it is a transaction. I remind myself of the thick file of heartfelt letters from people who say my books helped them or in some cases changed their lives.

I guess time will tell if my own efforts make any difference in book sales.

But meanwhile, I am deeply grateful to the publishers who put their money where my mouth is; and do all I can to maintain balance between writing and supporting their faith in me.

Latayne C Scott

Unknown said...

Totally agree with the comparison of writing and ice skating. Good writing takes practice. For that matter writing, period, *is* practice, of a sort, since unlike ice skaters, who have to perform at a certain time, writers can always throw out the junk and keep trying.

Andy said...

Ah, 1979, I remember it well!

Bonnie Grove said...

I fear your only memories of 1979, Andy, come from the stories you heard about it.

I can't remember if we established if I actually AM old enough to be your mother or not.

Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience said...

Words scratched out here cower at the thought of the heavy-hands... Thank you for one Thursday afternoon and taking a risk on something that I think had only a brief brush with cardboard...

Turning your good words over and thinking long...

All's grace,

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Hey, Friends! Greetings from overseas! It's a LOONNNNGGG story, but I got stranded in India and never made it to Cambodia.

The discipline of re-writing is so important. I really needed to read Andy's answer to that particular question. Thank you!

Hopefully I'll be able to visit again before I return to the States. Have a great week!

Andy said...

Hey everyone. Clearly the last question threw people, and probably me most of all...

You are right to question my answer there. I think I overstated my case because I am thinking mostly of writers who are trying to promote themselves before they actually have published books, and are grasping at every possible straw that promises results.

However, even for those of you who do have a business (as well as an art), I think I should have said two things: 1) make sure that the time you spend blogging, twittering and facebooking is proportionate to the money you are making as a direct result, and 2) don't forget that those things are tools to connect meaningfully with fans, and to provide meaningful content. It all serves to "sell" your writing. And if it's just there to fill a quota of "technological marketing effort" and doesn't offer something unique, then it's not worth it.

That's why, rightly so, there are some blogs that become books (and bloggers who gets signed as authors)--because their technological marketing was really unique content providing.

Does that sound a little less crazy?

I think what the Novel Matters folks here have done shows awareness of this--they've banded together to create useful content for a specific audience. That way, their online contribution isn't just rote, it's got purpose.

My word verification for this comment was "other". Either that's really boring, or a creepy reference to alien life.

Andy said...

Oh, and Bonnie, I have several pictures of myself alive and well in 1979. I think I was even walking--so there!

Sandy Cathcart said...

I love the part about writing and writing and writing...

And I especially appreciate Latayne's comment here. A lot to take to heart. Thanks!