Hal Zina Bennett

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Writing Spiritual Books

A Bestselling Writer's Guide to Successful Publication
By Hal Zina Bennett, Ph.D

Published by Inner Ocean Publishing
ISBN: 1-930722-37-0

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Areas of Interest

Reviews

ďWriting Spiritual Books is the guide and resource every writer published or unpublished has been waiting foróit is very comprehensive, practical, and inspirational.Ē

~ Angeles Arrien, PhD, Author of The Four-Fold Way and Signs of Life

When I saw the title, "Writing Spiritual Books," my first question was, "Is it a spiritual act to talk about how to successfully publish spiritual texts?" Well, in the hands of Hal Zina Bennett, I can tell you the answer is a mighty "Yes!" The gentle, sensitive, and intuitive way Bennett handles this subject is both calming and inspiring. In addition, the book is overflowing with practical hints and insightful guidelines from one of the great professionals in this field. This is a work I know I will come back to often and one for which I already have a list of people that I plan to bless with a copy.

--Hugh Prather, bestselling author of "Standing on My Head: Life's Lessons in Contradictions," ...Conari Press

As our writing coach and editor for several books, Hal not only spent many hours helping us refine our work but also made it joyful. As a writing coach he has worked with many other authors as well, bringing their projects to publication. Most have been books on personal and spiritual development that have truly made a positive difference in our world. Today we treasure his friendship and feel there is perhaps no-one more qualified to write this book.

Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D. & Diane V. Cirincione, Ph.D.

Bestselling authors of Change Your Mind, Change Your Life; Love Is Letting Go of Fear; and other bestselling books based on A Course In Miracles teachings.

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Excerpts From the Book

Chapter One: Writing In Spirit

      The spiritual journey is the soulís life commingling with ordinary life.

      ~Christina Baldwin

Writing a spiritual book at times presents us with wild contradictions. How can words possibly duplicate the awe, or even ecstasy, that wells up in us as we lift the veils of our everyday world and catch a glimpse of the spiritual aspects of life? We find ourselves reaching, even yearning, for something that cannot be described or named, yet is made no less real by our inability to encompass it with words.

Throughout the millennia, spiritual teachers have avoided words, or used them sparingly, favoring object lessons instead. For example, thereís the traditional story of the Buddhist master who whacks his students on the head with a stick, forcing them to come into the now. As a Buddhist friend once remarked, "The wisdom of that stick outshines the power of thought." What he referred to was the fact that approaching the spiritual only from our intellects, distances us from the present. The pain of that firm but harmless whack on the head brings us back into the now which is exactly where we must be to encounter the spiritual.

Ironically, the more we come to know the spiritual, the more frustrating it can be to express it with words, regardless of our skills with language. We can no more capture the spiritual with words than we can paint or draw the wind. But we can suggest the presence of the wind with flowing lines or swipes of paint on canvas. Similarly, we can suggest the presence of the spiritual by offering anecdotes of other peopleís experiences, or our own. By entering these experiences voyeuristically readers essentially borrow the authorís eyes to view an aspect of their own lives that was invisible until then.

To accomplish these ends, we sometimes borrow the craft of the poet or novelist, conveying to our readers not just factual information but sensory and emotional information as well. For that reason, we might be advised to study how these writers immerse their readers in the authorís experiences, or in the experiences of a person the author wishes to tell us about. Some people call these techniques "creative non-fiction," since they call upon the creative and imaginative powers of the writer.

I am not speaking here of the creation of make-believe worlds so much as the writing techniques these writers use. The key for describing what you sense, that is, what you see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and feel (emotionally) rather than only what you think. There is a strange irony in this, is there not, since logic would tell us that abstraction and the intellect, more than our physical senses, would carry us into the spiritual? But like counting breaths in meditation, these tricks of the pen often reveal to us the truths that reality obscures.

When writing in our journals about the spiritual work weíre doing, or the epiphanies weíve had as a result of that work, itís not unusual to find that we have used physical descriptions and even dialogue to capture those experiences. After all, we understand the world only by first encountering it through our senses. Go back and review your journals. Look for passages where your descriptions were particularly vivid and effective. It just might be that you are already quite adept with this kind of writing. If not, have patience, weíll be exploring many such techniques in the pages ahead.

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The Perennial Philosophy: Key Spiritual Principles

A number of years ago, someone in a seminar remarked that he believed there were universal themes that were part of every spiritual teaching. Though he couldnít define these themes for himself, he was convinced they were there. He thought it important to have some grasp of these themes if we were going to be writing books in this genre. The answer I gave at the time was to explore what Aldous Huxley had written about the "perennial philosophy."

Huxley helped to popularize work that was originally expressed by German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 17th century. Leibniz had stated that there are four fundamental concepts that form the foundation of all philosophies, religions, and spiritual practice, both East and West. These concepts not only reflect what motivates an author to write spiritual books but what motivates our readers to be seekers on the spiritual path. I paraphrase Huxleyís words below (Note that Huxley uses the term Divine Ground to describe the Source of all and everything.) The following are the four principles of the perennial philosophy:

1. The phenomenal world, that is, the entire world we perceive through our five senses, is a manifestation of Divine Ground, the Source of all and everything. No matter how it might seem, that world which we encounter in each moment of our lives cannot exist apart from the Divine Ground, nor can any aspect of the phenomenal world exist apart from it.

2. We humans are able to not only know about the Divine Ground, that is, to be able to grasp it intellectually, but are also able to experience it directly, through direct knowing, or intuition, in this way uniting knower with known. When we experience this unity, or oneness, our dualistic perceptions fade away and we have no sense of separation from spirit.

3. We all possess a double natureĖan ego self, which operates within the physical world of the senses (the phenomenal world) and an eternal self which is identified with Divine Ground. The eternal self (spirit) is in fact inseparable from Divine Ground, and we can choose to identify with this part of our being or with the ego self. If we identify with the latter, we perceive ourselves as only a separate being existing within the phenomenal world.

4. Our ultimate purpose on Earth is to identify with the eternal Self and experience coming into oneness with the Divine Ground.

As you write, remind yourself of these four principles and note how they turn up in your writing. This doesnít mean that you necessarily find yourself quoting or even paraphrasing these statements, but that if you search far enough you will find they are keystones in the foundation of virtually anything we might say about our spirituality. Iíve found that the awareness of these principles helps me to keep whatever I write focused and clear.

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Chapter Nine: Getting Paid To Write Your Book

      If you have a salable idea, prepare a proposal, and sell it, you will no longer be just a writer with an idea. You will be an author, as in authority, with a book to your credit.

      ~Michael Larsen, from How To Write A Book Proposal

According to most publishing experts, approximately 90 percent of all non-fiction books are sold to publishers, prior to the manuscript being finished, on the basis of a selling proposal. On the basis of a good proposal, a publisher will offer you not only a contract to publish your book but, if youíre lucky, an advance against your future royalty earnings to write it. For a first time author of a spiritual book, those advances are usually not large. But it can mean having at least a few weeks of freedom to put the finishing touches on your book without having to worry about paying for groceries and the rent. If youíve got a book that a mainstream publisher canít resist, and they see you as being able to promote and sell your book, the advance can be much more than that....MUCH more.

Many authors find that writing a proposal is as much work as writing the whole book. On the plus side, proposal writing forces you to think through every aspect of your book and to write at least two sample chapters to give yourself and an agent or publisher a good taste of what your book will be about. From that perspective, writing a book proposal can be highly creative because youíll be involved with imagining how all the pieces will go together, and along the way you may even think of better way to write your book.

There are two books on writing book proposals which have become standards in the publishing world. They are Michael Larsenís How To Write A Book Proposal, published by Writers Digest Books, and Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Hermanís Write The Perfect Book Proposal, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Larsenís book is now in a third edition (2004), which I recommend since it contains important updated material. These two books not only go into extensive detail about writing proposals (with samples enclosed in both books), but because they also have excellent information about the inner workings of the publishing business. All three authors are literary agents, the Hermans on the east coast, Larsen on the west.

If you plan to write a proposal, I recommend that you get both these books and use them as reference material. If you use even a tenth of what these authors say in these books, youíll be able to write a successful proposal and be perceived by agents and publishers as an author who knows what youíre doing.

Because the above two books are easily available, I wonít go into great detail here but will describe the core elements that you will need for putting together a selling proposal. The Hermansí and Michael Larsenís books will give you the finer details.

The Basics

Here are the elements of a standard book proposal:

    1. Title Page. Centered on a single page of its own, your title page should contain the title and subtitle and the authorís name.
    2. Table of Contents for the Proposal. This is the table of contents, with proper numbers, telling the reader on which page to find the following: The Introduction to the proposal, including the Overview and About the Author. It should also tell where to find the Chapter Outline of the book. And finally, it should tell where to find your two sample chapters.

Now letís look more closely at the details of what the proposal itself consists of.

The Introduction

The introduction consists of somewhere between 8 and 15 pages of material that gives the publisher a clear picture of what the book contains and who the author is. Hereís how that works:

 

Overview

This section needs to sell the publisher on the idea for the book and why you think that it has a potential readership. The first paragraph needs to grab the readerís attention so that they will want to read the rest of the proposal. You might start with an anecdote that captures the essence of the book. For example, the author of a sample proposal in Michael Larsenís book tells the story of the fifteen-year-old daughter whose father contracts cancer. She is not told that he is ill and lives with a mystery of why he slowly withdrew from her life. The story is emotional and enigmatic, a perfect lead-in for a book to help friends and family members about how to best relate to a critically ill friend or family member.

You might also start the overview with a more objective statement that describes the need for the book. For example, the opening paragraph in a proposal for a book about the retirement years simply tells how many people will be retiring in the next ten years, presumably forming a coterie of seventy five million potential buyers.

What then follows in the overview is further discussion of the proposed book and why you believe it will make a successful book.

Markets for the Book

In this section you think of all the potential niches that might constitute buyers of the book. For example, in their book The Cultural Creatives (Harmony Books, 2000), authors Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, present data showing there are 50 million Americans who hold strong spiritual values that are not necessarily associated with any religious organizations. Sometimes there are several niches of readers to whom you can anticipate selling your book. For example, a spiritual book on relationships might be aimed at marriage and family counselors in addition to regular bookstore sales.

Promotion

Here you will describe to the publisher what you can do to sell the book. What will you do to promote it? Be specific. DO NOT say, "I will do whatever the publisher asks me to do to promote the book." Rather, describe an actual promotional campaign that you might put together. If it looks good to the publisher, they will work with you to develop it in most cases.

Name any media contacts that you already have, if any.

If you are presently doing seminars, name that as a promotional venue.

If you are planning to write articles, based on the book, or even excerpted from the book.

If you have a way of selling your books, such as through a website or back of the room sales in your seminars, mention that and give them an estimate of how many books a year you can sell. (They wonít hold you to a specific number but itís good to give them an estimate.)

Complementary Books

Publishers like to know about any similar books that are already out there in the bookstores. The fact that there are a few out there already help to establish the fact that there is a market for your subject. Publishers also want some assurance that the market for a book like yours isnít already saturated. In this section you should cite (title, author, publisher, date of publication) books that might be seen as complementing your book. They should be books that have been published in the last three years. Look for books that have been quite prominent. I always look for at least one New York Times bestseller to compare my own books with, to show the publisher that there is a big market for the subject. There should be a paragraph or so describing the contents of the competing book and telling how your book is different, that is, how your book offers some added value that wasnít in the other book.

About the Author

Beginning writers often make the mistake of being too chatty and informal in this section. For example, I donít know how many times Iíve read author bios that begin something like this: "Iím Mom to a three year old daughter named Shelly May, a 12 year old, 30 pound Tabby cat named Rainbow, a standard poodle named Vanilla, and a goldfish named Finny. I manage to write a paragraph or two at a stretch before getting interrupted by one of them..." And so on.

The author bio needs to be focused and to the point, providing only information that relates to the book you are writing or your ability to drum up publicity for your book. I suppose there are books where a bio like Shellyís mom wrote above, but be certain that whatever you write is appropriate for your material.

The Outline

List of Chapters

 

Here you will simply list your chapters by their numbers and title, for example, "Chapter 1: A Good Beginning." Ideally this list will fit on a single page. Make your chapter titles as descriptive as possible, each one hinting at the contents of its respective chapter.

Working Chapter Outline

The working chapter outline may be the biggest writing challenge in writing a proposal. For each chapter you should have between 200 and 300 words telling what it will contain. Tell only enough to paint a picture of what each chapter will contain, without going into great details.

Two Sample Chapters

Choose your two most exciting or original chapters to include here. These chapters should be truly representative of your book both in style and the level of information youíll be giving. Length should be at least 8 pages and no more than 25 per chapter.

* * *

Take care in writing your chapter. I recommend getting an editor to go over the final draft, to catch all errors and make certain theyíre corrected. The proposal is largely informational, but donít underestimate the importance of details, such as making certain there are no glaring errors or typos. A polished proposal tells publishers what they can expect from you. Publishers love it when they find a writer who has original ideas, writes well, and pays attention to details. All those qualities mean less work for them, and with the work loads that most in-house editors are carrying these days, thatís got to be a high priority.

The proposal serves several functions, not all of which are obvious to the beginning writer. First, they provide evidence to an agent or acquisitions editor at a publishing house that youíve spent considerable time thinking about your project and you know what you are talking about. Second, if the agent likes the proposal, he or she will use it to sell the idea to a publisher. The agentís main contact with most publishers is the acquisitions editor whose responsibility it is to find books to publish. The proposal builds on whatever working relationships the agent may have with the acquisitions editor. Third, if the agent manages to sell the idea for your book to the acquisitions editor, that person, in turn, will use your proposal to sell the book idea to an editorial board. Fourth, after you receive a publishing contract, the selling proposal provides guidelines for you to follow in writing the book. While most publishers do not insist that you follow the proposal to the T, they do want to make sure that youíll cover the main items that you promised to cover in your book proposal.

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All articles and images in this website are copyrighted by Hal Zina Bennett 2003-2010.  Written permission must be obtained before use of articles and images. Last modified: February 04, 2010