Debby Giusti

"Finish the book before you submit," editors say over and over again.

When I started out on my writing journey, I thought the same rule applied to contest submissions. I'd complete the manuscript before I submitted to contests only to find the story didn't work -- saggy middle, unrealistic premise, limp conflict -- according to the feedback from the judges. Of course, I'd wasted time trying to perfect something that had started out flawed.

Then I had a Eureka Moment! I heard a multi-published author say she grew weary of writing complete manuscripts and having them rejected by the editors. Being a daringly adventurous person, she decided to write three chapters and a synopsis and submit the partial to publishing houses, hoping she could complete the manuscript in a timely manner if she received a request. Her strategy paid off and got me thinking. Why not use the same approach with contests?

From then on while I was completing one manuscript, I'd pull together the beginning chapters and synopsis for a new story and send it out on the contest circuit. In a relatively short time, I'd have feedback from knowledgeable judges, which helped me gauge whether the beginning hook drew the reader into the story, whether the plot was well-defined and could sustain a full-length manuscript and whether the characters were compelling. Using the judges' comments and suggestions, I eventually shaped the story into a polished manuscript.

Eventually, I submitted to contests where the final round judge was an editor in a house where I felt my story could find a home. I had always written suspense, but when Steeple Hill senior editor Krista Stroever came to my Georgia Romance Writers chapter and talked about expanding the Love Inspired Suspense line, I decided to weave an inspirational thread through a manuscript I had originally targeted for Harlequin Intrigue. Almost immediately after including a faith element, I knew I'd found my niche. But I still had to catch the editor's eye.

Using my Savvy Submission Strategy, I entered three contests judged by three different Steeple Hill editors, including Krista Stroever and executive editor Joan Marlow Golan. I won the contests and received requests from the judges. Not long after that, Krista called to tell me Steeple Hill wanted to publish one of the winning manuscripts. My debut novel, NOWHERE TO HIDE, was released in May 2007, and the other winning story, SCARED TO DEATH, came out in August.

Did contests help me along the road to publication? You bet! The feedback from judges allowed me to identify problems and their suggestions often provided solutions that turned weaknesses into strengths. For me, the road to publication was paved with contests.


Debby Giusti

Does anyone like synopses?  I never did.  In fact, writing a synopsis was the part of contest entries I dreaded most.  Invariably, I'd struggle to create an overview of a story I hadn't developed much beyond the first three chapters. 

Sure I knew how the story would end.  But what about the sagging middle?  Usually I would have a limited vision of the direction of the romance, the escalating conflict and the villain’s role in trying to thwart the hero and heroine from achieving their goals. 

So basically, I could sum up my various synopses in four lines: 
~Stuff happens. 
~The hero and heroine fall in love. 
~The villain causes problems. 
~The hero and heroine overcome the problems, attain their goal/goals and live happily ever after.

Generally, my synopses would start with a description of the main characters, then I’d throw in some back story, type “the story begins” and add the opening.  The middle would be a tap dance with a bunch of general blah, blah, blahs.  Using vague references to “things got worse” and “they started to feel a sense of attraction,” I’d wing my way to the climax and resolution.  Looking back, I seemed more concerned about formatting the synopsis correctly rather than ensuring the contest judge realized I understood what was needed to make the story work.

Thank goodness my synopses writing skills eventually improved, although I still shudder when I'm faced with a blank screen.  For years, I thought the only reason for a synopsis was to explain the story to the judges.  But my opinion has changed.

Now I see the synopsis as a tool I can use to improve the story I’m brainstorming.  Before I dedicate three to four months writing a manuscript that ends up flawed, I can ensure I’ve incorporated the major elements for a satisfying and saleable read.

I start by jotting down the basic outline of the plot.  Then I include the turning points and weave in a bit of emotion.  Internal and external conflict and motivation are stirred into the pot.  Goals, set backs and black moment are clearly defined. 

After listening to Michael Hauge at the 2007 RWA Conference, I now add my hero’s internal wound and misperceived opinion of who is at the beginning of the book.  By the end, I test the strength of my character arc by how the hero has changed and grown.  

What about my hero and heroine’s greatest fear?  Is that mentioned in the synopsis, and do I explain how it will be faced and conquered in the story?  Layer by layer, I add the points that turn a so-so story into one that hopefully engages the reader, whether contest judge or acquiring editor.

Do the pieces always fit?  Of course not.  Often the sequence of the story has to be changed.  Pacing needs to be tightened, characters cut, danger increased.  But by roughing the story out in the synopsis, I can see the whole, make the changes, add the missing elements and end when I’m satisfied the ten or fifteen or twenty page synopsis can be expanded into a full-length novel.

My advice?  Give the dreaded synopsis a second chance.  It may turn out to be an effective tool in your writing chest.


Debby Giusti

The road to publication can be long and difficult.  Contest submissions fail to final.  Manuscripts are rejected.  Editors appear insensitive to writers who pound out page after page of prose often with little or no positive feedback.   Publication seems an unattainable goal, and many wonder if they’ll ever reach the coveted destination of first sale.

If you’re nodding your head and moaning, “Oh, yeah, that’s me,” the time might be right to detour into freelance writing.  Why?  Because a change of scenery can be a welcome relief if the superhighway to publication seems to be leading nowhere. 

Seeing our names in print boosts confidence.  Working with an editor and being paid for our effort validates us as writers.  Freelancing forces us to write tight, stay focused and hook the readers from the first syllable to the last line so an added benefit is that our craft improves.

“Where do I start?” you ask. 

Local newspapers always need articles.  Write a feature on an interesting travel spot, a person in your church who’s making a difference, perhaps a unique hobby that a friend has turned into a cottage industry.  Call or email the editor to see if he’s interested in the piece.  Offer to submit the completed article for his review, and be prepared with a backup story if the first idea doesn’t catch his fancy.  The pay is usually minimal, but once the editor knows you can produce, he’ll be sure to contact you again.

When writing the article, remember an interesting lead—just like the hooks in our books—draws the reader into the story.  Ask the basic questions during the interview, then throw in a surprise or two.  Sometimes an unexpected query produces the perfect opening.  Be sure to take notes (tape recording the interview is a great backup), and season the story with quotes.

Regional magazines are another excellent market for new freelancers.  Most publications provide guidelines upon request, but also read back issues to determine the editorial slant, and pay attention to the ad copy.  Anti-aging products signal senior readers while lip-gloss and sparkling nail polish point to a younger distribution.  Send a written query with an SASE and tell the editor why her readers will enjoy this particular story.  Plan ahead.  Seasonal material should be submitted six to nine months in advance.

Just as with full-length fiction, a good rule of thumb is to write what you know.  Draw from your daily life and family relationships.  “Brat is Beautiful,” a 300-word piece about my nomadic life as a kid raised in a military family, ran as a filler in ARMY magazine.

Humor is a plus.  FAMILY bought “Learning to Love Army Life in Exile,” my tongue-in-cheek piece about living in rural Missouri while my hubby was teaching ROTC.

Human interest stories attract readers and editors alike.  Pick everyday topics with a unique twist.  My son was due to be born on December 19, but the first contraction hit Christmas morn.  “In God’s Time,” was an inspirational piece bought and published by OUR SUNDAY VISITOR.

Years later when that same son had a middle-school assignment to “parent” a stuffed animal for a weekend, I wrote, “Boys Can’t be Moms,” which sold to WOMAN’S WORLD.  

Fast forward to when he was deployed to Kosovo.  Worried about the children in that war-torn country, he asked me to enlist the help of our church to collect outerwear for the children.  “Coats for Kosovo” told the story and ran in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE VOLUNTEER’S SOUL.

Publish a piece, then change the slant and rework the story with a different readership in mind.  “Sisterhood” focused on the common bond between Army wives and sold to a military publication.  Later, I reworked the idea for Air Force wives and titled it “Legacy.”  Both shorts were reprinted in calligraphy on parchment suitable for framing and have been sold to military wives around the world.

A profession or hobby can lead to articles trade journals will be eager to publish.  Are you a subject matter expert?  Have you tackled problems in the work place?  Do you have a hobby or self-learned skill?  When I went back to work part-time as a medical technologist, I noticed many of the employees had varying schedules depending on their personal and family needs.  That realization led to “Flexing the Clock,” which I sold to ADVANCE FOR ADMINISTRATORS OF THE LABORATORY. 

Soon thereafter, the Olympics came to Atlanta, Georgia, where I lived. “Atlanta Hospitals Go For the Glory,” was selected as ADVANCE’S cover article in June of that year.  While interviewing the city’s leading medical personnel, I learned of their concern about the diseases foreign travelers could bring to our country.  “Emerging Infectious Diseases” ran in July and established the direction of future medical articles, such as “The Rash of Latex Allergies” and “What’s Bugging the United States.” 

I served on ADVANCE’s editorial advisory board for twelve years, and frequently covered medical conferences with their press credentials, which provided free continuing education opportunities.  I rely on that experience now as I write my Magnolia Medical series for Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense, drawing on my past research to weave today’s stories.

Writing for a local ladies’ publication opened an unexpected door when the editor recommended me to the staff of a major women’s magazine for which she did ad copy.  Hoping to break in with a unique story, I remembered a woman who collected antique fountain pens.  “Treasured Pens from the Past,” started a long and productive relationship with SOUTHERN LADY. 

Editors at ADVANCE and SOUTHERN LADY often commented on my willingness to focus my stories on their editorial needs, my acceptance of their suggestions for improvement and my timely submissions–traits fiction editors are looking for as well.

Getting my name in print before my books sold provided invaluable experience, helped me hone my craft and allowed me to appreciate the gifts of each editor with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.  My writing improved, and by mentioning my credits in cover letters, New York fiction editors saw me as a professional.

Of course the downside of freelancing was the time involved that took me away from my work-in-progress.  But detours lead back to the main road, and in my case, I did reach my destination.  Now with three books published in one year and two additional stories under contract, I know freelancing paid off. 

Ever feel like you’re spinning your wheels and going nowhere?  Turn off the beaten path and head into the freelancing world.  You might be surprised where it will take you.


Debby Giusti

One of the main reasons for submitting to contests prior to publication is to attract the attention of an editor or agent.  Sure, the awards are nice to receive, and the credits look great in a cover letter, but bottom line, writers want to sell their stories.  To do that, manuscripts need to be requested and read.  So if a particular submission doesn’t make the final round in a contest, what’s Plan B?  Pitch the story at a writing conference!

With the RWA National Conference approaching in July and the ACFW in September, I thought it might be interesting to throw out some ideas about how to pitch. My advice?  Keep is simple.

First impressions are important.  Start with a firm handshake and warm smile as you introduce yourself.  Thank the editor for taking time to meet with you and/or for coming to the conference.  A minute spent exchanging pleasantries—perhaps ask about her flight or if she’s had a chance to see the sights in the local area—can put you both at ease.  Yes, believe it or not, the editors and agents are sometimes as nervous meeting you as you are about meeting them.

Now sell yourself.  The clock is ticking so pick and choose a few facts that will give the editor/agent an idea about your professionalism, your commitment and your expertise.

Be sure to mention your writing credits, such as any magazine or newspaper articles you’ve had published.  Don’t forget web publications or chapter newsletters, especially if you’ve done a series of articles or how-to pieces.  Have you presented workshops at writing conferences?  That would be of interest to the editor as well. 

The editor/agent wants to know if you’re new to writing or established.  Give her some sense of how long you’ve been working on your craft either in years or the number of manuscripts you’ve completed.  (Remember a manuscript is an unpublished story.  The story becomes a book once it’s in print.)

Are you a member of professional writing organizations?  Don’t forget to mention any offices you hold. 

Contest wins?  If you’ve won a number of them, summarize:  “I’ve won ten national writing awards, including . . .”   Then mention some of the more prestigious wins.  Or you could say, “I’ve finaled in a number of contests, and the story I want to talk to you about today won the Maggie Award of Excellence and the Jasmine.” 

If you have expertise or training in an area that plays a part in your story, be sure to include that information, such as if you have a law degree and your story is a legal thriller.  But expertise doesn’t have to be limited to higher education.  If you ran a dude ranch in Colorado and that’s the role you’ve given your heroine, the editor will enjoy hearing that you’re writing what you know.

Now sell the story.  Word count, genre and whether the manuscript is completed are important.  If you’ve targeted a specific line the editor publishes, be sure to mention that as well.

Just as stories should start with a riveting opening, so should the pitch.  Can you come up with a high concept, hook or one-liner she’ll remember? 

What’s high concept?  In his book, WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL, Michael Hauge says, “If that single sentence describing your story idea(s) is enough all by itself to get people to line up or tune in to see the movie, then it has a high concept.”  He goes on to provide the following high concept for WAR GAMES, “A teenager computer genius breaks into the Pentagon computer system and has to prevent World War III.” Hauge is talking about movies and screenplays, but high concepts work for manuscripts as well.

Another possible opening is to throw out a question pertaining to your book that catches the editor/agent by surprise.  “What would you do if TSA found a bomb ready to detonate in your carry-on luggage?” You’ve got her attention, now tell her about how your sassy heroine caused a national stir when she grabbed someone else’s luggage off the airport shuttle and the bag contained an explosive device.

Remember less is sometimes better.  Donald Maass, in his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, says, “All I need to get hooked on a story is to know its category, the setting, the protagonist, and the main problem.  Add to that one unusual detail that makes this story different from any other like it, and you’ve probably got me.”

For my first novel, NOWHERE TO HIDE, my one-liner was, “When the men who killed Lydia Sloan’s husband try to kidnap her six-year-old son, she and Tyler flee to an island community off the coast of Georgia and run headlong into the trouble they were trying to escape.”  I added that, unbeknownst to Lydia, her husband freelanced as the Web master for a gentleman’s club porn site.

For SCARED TO DEATH, my second Love Inspired Suspense, I started my pitch by saying, “Kate Murphy never expects a quick trip to Mercy, Georgia, to retrieve her grandfather’s missing gold cross will land her in the middle of a transplant tourist racket.” 

After you’ve thrown out your hook, reel the editor in with a few comments about the story, especially plot points that drive the protagonist to the climax.  You could mention the hero’s greatest fear or greatest need or how the characters change, what they learn, what they overcome, who they save, etc.  Again, keep it brief.

For my third release, I used the following: In MIA: MISSING IN ATLANTA, a returning war hero’s search for a missing girlfriend leads him through the dark side of inner-city exploitation to a woman of faith who teaches him that memories of the past are not always as they seem and authentic love is grounded in truth.

Be prepared to provide information on another manuscript if the editor asks what else you’ve written.

Pitching to an agent?  She’ll want to know if an editor’s shown interest in the story or requested a submission so include that as well.  

The ending is as important as the beginning.  Know when to stop so the editor/agent can ask questions.  Once you’ve satisfied her curiosity, ask if she would be interested in seeing three chapters and a synopsis or the full manuscript. 

Nothing else you need to discuss?  Then thank her, shake hands and leave the room, even if you haven’t used up your allotted time.  The editor or agent will appreciate having a minute to relax.  Hopefully, she’ll make a note on her tablet about the polite and professional writer with whom she just spoke.

One sheet:  Some Christian houses request a one sheet when you pitch.  Compile some of the personal information mentioned above and add a short blurb about the manuscript.  Place your address, phone and email at the top of the page along with a downloaded photo of yourself.  Even though you hand the one sheet to the editor or agent, be sure to mention a few of your professional accomplishments and credits at the beginning of your meeting. 

Practice makes perfect so start working on your pitch now!  Good luck!


Debby Giusti

What makes the difference between a person who moves forward with their writing despite rejection and those who give up and forsake their dream?


Hymen’s is a restaurant located on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina’s historic district.  It’s a no-frills type of place that specializes in great seafood and quality service.  Everyone employed there—from the Hymen brothers who own the business to the busboys and dishwashers—work hard to uphold the excellent reputation that keeps customers coming back year after year.  Attitude is so important at Hymen’s that the company policy, a piece written by Chuck Swindoll, is given out to every customer who comes through the door. 

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.  Attitude, to me, is more important than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success, than what other people think or say or do.  It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill.  It will make or break a company. . . a church. . . a home.  The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we embrace for that day.  We cannot change our past. . . we cannot change the fact that people act in a certain way.  We cannot change the inevitable.  The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. . .  I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.  And so it is with you . . . we are in charge of our attitudes.  ~Charles Swindoll~

I keep my copy of Swindoll’s words near my computer as a reminder of the importance of having the right mindset in this industry. 

Yes, even published writers worry.  Will the editors like the next story idea?  Will I finish my current work in progress on deadline?  Is my writing improving? 

In her book, THE ARTIST’S WAY, Julia Cameron talks about the negative voices that bubble up when we reach for the stars.  “Why do you think you can write a book?” that voice taunts.  “You’ve written one book, but can you write a second?”

Cameron advises countering the negative by writing positive phrases over and over again on a sheet of notebook paper, just as a child would do who’s been disruptive and has to copy I will not talk in class fifty times.  The repetition arms us with ammunition to shoot down the negative inner rhetoric so positive progress can be made. 

A Nike advertisement provides the following words of encouragement:

All your life you are told the things you cannot do. All your life they will say you're not good enough or strong enough or talented enough; they will say you're the wrong height or the wrong weight or the wrong type to play this or be this or achieve this. They will tell you no, a thousand times no, until all the no's become meaningless. All your life they will tell you no, quite firmly and very quickly.  And you will tell them yes!
~Nike ad~

Frank Soldovere was a great man and good friend who worked hard to make this world a better place.  Those who attended his funeral was given a card with the following passage by Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat." ~Theodore Roosevelt~

Attitude is a choice we make everyday that gives us the courage to move forward with our writing career.  People will tell us we’re crazy.  The inner voice calls us a fool.  Editors may reject our stories, but we remain focused on our dream.  Because we believe in ourselves and in our work, we overcome the odds and succeed.

Attitude—the Write Attitude—makes the difference between someone who wants to write and someone who does.


Debby Giusti

The Christian market is growing and that’s good news for writers.  Sales of Christian books continue to increase with figures ranging from 6% a year presented by the Book Industry Study Group to the more conservative, yet still impressive rate of 2.3% as reported by Ipsos BookTrends.

Twenty years ago the inspirational market was dominated by sweet romances and prairie historicals.  But in 1986, Crossway Books published THIS PRESENT DARKNESS, by Frank Peretti.  His story about a reporter and pastor who uncover a New Age plot to take over the world stayed on the bestseller lists for ten years and sold more than 2.5 million copes in 14 different languages.  Often called the Christian Stephen King, Peretti’s chilling tale of spiritual warfare opened publishers’ eyes to the vast number of readers hungering for a wider selection of Christian titles.

Nearly a decade later, the phenomenal success of the LEFT BEHIND series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, drove home the point that the Christian market was lucrative and could attract cross-over readers from the secular side of publishing, as well.

The 12 volume series has sold over 60 million copies and established publisher Tyndale House as the largest private Christian publisher in the country.  In addition, the success of the series opened distribution of Christian titles to the big box stores such as WalMart and Costco, leading to increased exposure and more sales.

The Christy Awards, which recognizes excellence in Christian fiction, defines the genre as “a category of stories written by novelists whose Christian worldview is woven into the fabric of the plot and character development.”  They add, “ . . . this grouping of novels is as comprehensive and as varied in age, interest, and spiritual depth as its readership.”

Today’s Christian heroes and heroines deal with real life issues.  They’re not goody-goodies but normal people facing sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  They have made and may continue to make mistakes but are trying to work through their problems and change their lives for the better.  Never preachy, the faith element is one of many facets woven into these multi-dimensional characters.  Whether their relationship with the Lord is strong or fledgling or perhaps even unexplored at the beginning of the novel, by the end of the story, the hero and heroine recognize their need for God.

In the Christian romance, sex is kept sacred within marriage and the bedroom door is always closed.  That doesn’t mean the characters lack sensuality or aren’t physically attracted to each other.  The key is to think love instead of lust with the direction of the desire focused on feelings rather than external body parts.

Today more than 20 houses publish Christian fiction for this growing market.  The broad spectrum of titles explores life issues through the eyes of compelling characters caught in gripping conflict.  Whether suspense, romance, mystery, chick lit, women’s fiction or men’s adventure, the Christian market offers a story for every reader--and that’s inspirational. 

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