When Your Mountain Comes Crashing Down

Do you remember those troubling times when after writing your first book you are faced with the unenviable task of finding an agent and then a publisher? I heard that J. K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 87 times. I don’t know about you, but I think I would have given up long before that.

Do you remember when you suddenly found an agent and they were actually prepared to add you–a mere nobody in the world of literature–to their long list of well-seasoned, published, and successful authors? Oh, what unbelievable joy! And then, by a miracle, it seemed you had a publisher, and not just any publisher but an ‘A’ list one at that.

me and fredYour dreams have become a reality and a bright new world is opening its golden doors to you. Your name in silver lights, your book in all the shop windows of the world. Important people, who before wouldn’t give you the time of day, suddenly are keen to chat. Success is contagious, isn’t it?

Even when standing on the top of the mountain, though, storms may come. The views are fine at first but we should not forget that the mountain is not of our making. We don’t own it. We don’t control what we stand upon.

The decision by my publisher, without warning, to pull out of the fiction market altogether brought my mountain crashing down. I was suddenly cast into the valley of despair and left alone, looking up at a crumpled mass of dreams. My journey to the top, which I had imagined was completely irreversible, was in a moment dashed to pieces.

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Amidst all the confusion and the devastation, in all the pain and grief, a still small voice struggled to be heard. At first I did not want to hear words of consolation, nor of encouragement. Not from my wife. Not from my friends.

Certainly not from God.

I wanted to have my say! I was angry at God and shouted, “What the hell are you doing with my life? Is that the kind of God you really are? To build me up, to set me on the top of the pile, only to tear me down?”

After a while the anger dissipated and, before I let depression seek me out, I heard the still small voice say, “The most important journey in life is not to reach the top of the mountain, but to journey inward and find Me in the depths of your own being.”

This was a truth I knew. I had long, long ago been set free by His truth. I knew that He dwelt in me, deep in my spirit. John 15:15 declares, “If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Whose mountain top was I standing on?

St. Augustine’s commentary on the Christian faith says:

St_%20Augustine%202Enter into yourself. Leave behind all noise and confusion. Look within yourself and see whether there be some sweet hidden place within where you can be free from noise and argument, where you need not be carrying on your disputes, and planning to have your own stubborn way. Hear the word in quietness that you may understand it.

My wife Linda gave me some very good advice once: ‘”Let God be God, in all your life. He knows what He is doing.”

The Great Commission? – Redeeming Mankind through Fiction

Scientists, engineers and technological inventors, and business entrepreneurs say that humanity is on the cusp of a new wave of human creativity.

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Instant communications are now possible via the web bringing literally thousands of minds together from all over the planet at one moment in time, discarding the limitations of geographical locations. Embryonic concepts and ideas, when shared on the global net, can result in brave new inventions with mind-blowing rapidity. Human thought can coalesce in a way that mimics the micro-world of biology by using chip technology. These synaptic pulses, occurring every second of the day and night in the global-brain, produce millions of new ideas and fresh concepts that have never before been thought of.

Laying the disciplines of science and technology aside, the same suppositions can be transferred to literature and writing. The impact of words via the global village has never been more fertile or dynamic in its capability to influence individuals, cultures, and nations. The power of the word is here and now.

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Human endeavor is forging new boundaries, breaking out of the box of tradition and orthodoxy. We are thinking differently now–not just laterally, that’s old hat–in a way that resembles six dimensions. The equivalence of string theory and quantum mechanics is being applied to the arts and humanities, not only to science.
New thinkers are ditching personal labels. I am not just a scientist, not just a physician, not just an explorer of space, but much, much more. Exclusive thinking is out and inclusivity is in.

My own fields of interest are sufficiently broad to give me a big start in this arena. As an engineer with an academic university degree, I thought differently than my colleagues. I was a renaissance man. I brought my philosophic and artistic mind to solve engineering problems and conversely I used my engineer’s mind to help with the practical aspects of my own chosen art, writing.

For human advancement, we normally rely on non-fiction literature, factual manuals, scientific treatises, and political polemics. But consider that works of fiction, although essentially different to non-fiction in targets and goals, can nevertheless have a profound effect on shaping mankind.

When you read good fiction, there is a vital empathy between writer and reader. The reason it works for only one writer and millions of readers is that the empathy can be uniquely strong. It’s like a romance. Hands touch, eyes meet, and hearts converge as one beating heart.

The reader’s intimacy with the fiction tale, with the characters, with the drama, is both private and public. The reader becomes part of the plot. His or her mind is inextricably linked at a very deep level of consciousness. Whether the action is serious or comical, solemn or trivial, life or death, it is the precious human interaction occurring at the core of the exchange process of reading and being read.

The ideas expressed in the story, the emotions felt by the characters and the reader, the human landscapes travelled through are powerful persuaders, albeit whether obvious or subliminal.

My brand phrase ‘Redeeming mankind through fiction’ now makes important sense.

My faith mission as a Christian writer is to carry out the great commission that Jesus gave his disciples to take His message, the Gospel, to every corners of the world.

I was recently given a ‘word’ from the Lord. It was simple yet profound.

“As the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in the writing of your books, so the Holy Spirit will be profoundly involved when someone reads your book. The Holy Spirit will speak to the reader’s heart and truth will be imparted.”

I have already received testimonies from people who have read ‘Light of the Wicked’ and, deeply affected by the story, have gone on to search for God and salvation. For them it has been more than just entertainment; it has been a way of coming to know a God they thought did not exist.

Christian writers have an awesome responsibility not to just create entertaining books but to share the very gospel, not by preaching at the reader but by allowing the quality of the story to bring the reader into the presence of the living God. The reader, by coming into contact with a story that reflects God’s truth and life, is entering into a heart-to-heart conversation with the Lord himself via fiction. There’s a paradoxical truth.

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Craft of Writing

“Craft – an activity involving skill to produce something by hand” says my newly installed Oxford English Dictionary. The origin of the modern word ‘craft’ is to be found in the Old English word ‘craeft’ which combined the concepts of skill and strength together.

If there was companion dictionary, like the expanded translation of the Bible, then we might reach a better understanding of our topic, like this for our opening definition:

“Craft – an activity [worthwhile human endeavour] involving skill [proving one’s dexterity, competent, virtuous, masterful, graceful] to produce [make, invent, fabricate, construct, fashion, create] something [worthy, honest, valuable] by hand.

When we focus on those activities which involve hands, there is also an intrinsic underlying meaning, a deeper meaning.  For instance, if you are a shipwright, a builder of boats, then you surely are using your craft to make something that is fit for purpose.

If you are a fisherman then you need to trust your boat. The boat builder knew that when he designed and built the boat, it would need to have numerous good qualities, you could even say ‘virtues’, that the boat users would need to rely on implicitly. It would need to be watertight, buoyant, stable, robust and strong enough to weather the worst storms and most of all it needed to be safe to protect the lives of the fishermen. When Jesus said to Simon-Peter, ‘Go out into deep water and cast your nets again’, the scriptures record that the nets began to break because they were so full of fish and the boats began to sink under the load. But sink they did not, for the boat-builder had done his job well. He had built a fishing boat that would not just take a big catch, but would stand up to a miracle.

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Is there a craft of writing? I believe there is but it’s not what the textbooks say it is. It’s not the kind of skill you can simply learn and then apply. Not a mere crafting of words to make them sound good when read or spoken aloud. Not just a clever way of stringing sentences together or paraphrasing speech and drama to create an interesting story. Nor is it a means to earn lots of money. You can’t serve two masters.

No, it’s much more than all these things.

The key is in the picture shown above.

Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John were all expert fishermen. They had good solid boats in which to fish on Galilee but Jesus saw something more than just the simple dexterity of their hands. He saw a dormant skill that was in their hearts and souls, a skill that was profound and could be used in the kingdom of God.

As writers, are we satisfied making good catches? Showing off our skills and craftsmanship so that others will applaud our artistry? Or are we like the disciples standing in the boat, willing to listen to Jesus and be obedient to him, and answer the calling of the Kingdom of God?

Our skill and craftsmanship is a God-given gift and as communicators we should always ask if our writing is fit-for-purpose and of great worth and value to the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Don’t settle with being a craftsman of the word, let the word craft you into being a disciple of the Lord

Noli Me Tangere

This painting is entitled ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and was painted by the Russian artist Alexander Ivanov in 1835. It depicts the moment when Mary Magdelene recognises Jesus outside the empty tomb. The Latin inscription translated is ‘Do not touch me!’ Jesus forbids her strongly to lay her hands upon him, but why?

Is there some mysterious process in action going on here, as yet unfinished, whereby Jesus’ body is undergoing change from his former humanity back to his eternal divinity? I do not think that this is the case. I think the answer to understanding this portentous moment is instead to be discovered not in Jesus, but in the state of his beloved disciples at this time.

In the darkness of night the soldiers of the Sanhedrin, with weapons drawn, came to arrest Jesus. Judas’ kiss of betrayal sparked off a violent reaction in the followers of Jesus, encamped with him at the garden of Gethsemane. The grove of olives became suddenly a place of pandemonium, as soldiers took hold of Jesus, as Peter and the other disciples tried to prevent his arrest. Other followers of Jesus, in fear of their own lives, fled. So fearful was one young man’s response that he ran away naked, leaving his clothes in the hands of a surprised soldier.

Later on, during that fateful night of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and flogging, the disciple Peter, Jesus’ most outspoken defender, vehemently denied that he ever knew the Son of God and not once, but thrice, said to his accusers, “I do not know him!”.

The disciples, almost to a man, were scattered abroad. Afraid for their own lives, they hid themselves away, whilst their Lord was brutally being beaten, broken, and finally crucified on the Roman Cross. They were all terrified.

What then happened to them? Between the time when they dispersed so easily, running away like cowards, and the moment after the resurrection, they somehow became men and women victorious in their faith.

Afterwards, they were now profoundly prepared to stand up for Jesus in the face of violent opposition. No longer did they fear for their safety or even for their own lives.

The same adversaries who had only days before crucified Jesus were now persecuting his followers.

A momentous, phenomenal, and very personal transition occurred in their hearts, one which galvanised their faith in Christ. The metamorphosis was not in Jesus, but in the disciples. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Look again at the painting above. Why did Jesus forbid Mary to touch him? It is as Mathew Henry says in his commentary of the Bible. Mary was ready, on encountering the risen Christ, to express her joy by affectionately embracing him. The original Greek translation of the passage in the Gospel of John does not use the word ‘touch’ but instead uses a far more revealing word in the context of this meeting. It is not ‘touch’ but ‘cling’ that is forcefully employed here.

Jesus says to Mary ‘Do not cling to me.’ In other words, she must not be familiar with him as she was in former times. She is not to dote upon his bodily presence, but is now to be in spiritual communion with the risen, resurrected Christ.

Of course, at this time she cannot fully comprehend his meaning, for the Holy Spirit had not yet come.

Mary was trying to cling on to her former joy in her relationship with Jesus. But soon she was going to experience a far more profound and eternal joy.

As Christians we can look upon the cross and be grateful for God’s mercy and know that we can have true salvation and be reconciled with the Father because of the staggering sacrifice that Jesus made for us, by enduring the pain of crucifixion and taking upon himself the sins of the whole world.

We need to move on from the cross and ask ourselves what is the difference between Jesus the Man and Jesus Christ, resurrected? To live the ‘resurrected life,’ we must focus all our attention on the resurrected Jesus and let go of Jesus the man, just as Mary was bidden to do.

The disciples underwent an awesome life-changing alteration when they perceived the resurrected Christ. They came to know that Jesus was not just a godly teacher, not merely the Jewish Messiah, but rather that he was, incontrovertibly…God! A truth they had not understood before when they had walked and talked with him. At Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended to the Father, the disciples all received the Holy Spirit. Their transformation from mere disciples of a Rabbi to believers in the Son Of God was complete.

Everything they had been taught from the lips of Jesus suddenly became mind-blowingly, irrefutably real. All their fears vanished, their confidence in him was made new, and their spirits were fearless.

They had become, by the grace of God, Christians… little Christs. They had been given the responsibility of taking the message to the entire world: that Jesus Christ has risen, is our Lord and Saviour, and is seated beside the Father in Heaven. They were now profoundly ‘in Christ and He in them.’

A Few Christmas Thoughts On Marketing

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Would you trust a Christian?

How about a Puritan?

A Quaker then?

On cold winter mornings before I head out, I love a bowl of hot steaming porridge oats, with a dash of maple syrup.

With this in my belly, I am ready for anything the day may throw at me…well, at least until the mid-morning coffee break.

Look at the image of the Quaker man on the box. He’s adorable, trustworthy, decent, a law-abiding citizen. His smile is certainly reassuring. Admiring his rosy cheeks? Well, he could be Santa Claus.

His face says it all. Buy my products and you’ll feel as good as I look!

a pic of quaker%20oats%20man

I was in my local supermarket recently, when my keen eye spotted a bargain. I saw an offer on the shelves that was just too good to miss. A double-size box of my favourite porridge oats, with twice the usual contents, for a knock-down, give-away price of 30% below normal cost. My hand flashed out quicker than lightning. The big box was in my cart. The next day, ready for breakfast, I broke into my double-sized box of….what? I was shocked, then embarrassed at being so gullible. I trusted the Quaker man to deliver on his promise. What I got was, yes, a double-sized box, but inside it was 60% air! The actual contents came up to the level (take a look at the first picture) of the top of the wooden post.

As we head towards to the Christmas season when billions of dollars change hands, maybe we should all take a step back and reflect upon the potential of marketing and its ability to persuade us to buy products that patently don’t live up to the advertising.

Just for the sheer sake of it, I did a trawl through Bible Gateway to check if the following words and phrases ever appeared in the Bible.

Marketing, Selling, Sales Strategy, Search Engine,

Keywords, Customer Centric, Optimization.

You guessed it. None of them have a place in the Good Book. As writers, of course, we need marketing to get our message out there and reach communities, whether they be local or global. But we need to be discerning and careful to avoid the trap of believing and buying into the same secular trickery that sells anything to everyone. We should not be inveigled by the World, the Flesh and the Devil. Not be seduced to sell our sacred message by secular means.

I have often pondered this: What would I say, if God said these words to me?

”Fred, your book is great, but it will only sell one copy. The person who reads it will be changed and will become my servant and take the Gospel to millions of people all around the world, and all because he read your book. Alternatively, I can have your book sell millions of copies, you will be rich beyond your dreams, but only a few will be saved. My son, it’s your free choice.”

What do we ultimately want from writing books? Fame and fortune? Or to be walking in God’s will?

Of course, the Lord has a strategy to communicate his message to the world. Undeniably, he uses the power of the Word to get the message across to the greatest number in the most effective way. And he uses great orators to reach the lost, but persuasion is not their business. Their business is communicating the truth about the Son. The way God markets his message turns human wisdom and cleverness on its head.

When God wanted to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s tyranny he sent a guilt-ridden, reticent, stuttering, fearful man called Moses to get the job done.

When God wanted to proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ he used an eccentric wild man, dressed in animal skins, eating locusts and honey in the desert.

When God wanted to save the world, he sent his all-powerful and eternal Son to be born naked in a stable for animals. As a human child he was vulnerable, weak, dependent and unable to live without his mother and father’s protection and care.

When God wanted to reconcile us to him, he allowed his Son be crucified, killed on a cross of wood, dying as a common criminal rejected and alone.

I wonder what the top marketing gurus and the best advertising companies would have come up with, if God had asked them to create a package to ‘sell salvation to sinners?’

They might have come up with a great sales strategy and a winning message to achieve customer optimization, perhaps throwing in an unforgettable slogan, an amusing jingle too… yet somehow, like the Quaker box of porridge oats I bought, I think it would fallen short, been so much air and less substance. I think their sales plan would have missed the target, somehow betrayed the truth, don’t you?

The Craft of Writing

The dictionary defines ‘craft’ by making references to skill, dexterity, cunning, and even deceit. Of course, it is normally associated with a deft manual skill to produce a thing of value or beauty. Trying to decide exactly what is the good and acceptable product of a skilled craftsman we then descend rapidly into the shadowy realms of subjectivity.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that.

I have just been reading George Orwell’s little manifesto entitled ‘Why I Write,’ which he published in 1946, the year I was born. Orwell was undoubtedly a craftsman, knew his craft well, and was literate and articulate enough to write succinctly about it. In the early part of the book, he lists what he believes to be the four main reasons, or motives, why a person would want to seriously write.

  1. Egoism
  2. Aesthetic
  3. Historical
  4. Political

The first motive is probably the strongest driver, if we are honest enough to admit to it. It is the desire to be seen to be clever, to be talked about, to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and even to be remembered after our death, though we won’t be around to bask in the glory.

Becoming a writer is an odd desire in many ways. What I mean is, if you want to be a painter, a carpenter, an engineer, a dentist or a doctor, it is assumed you will have to be trained and fully learn your craft before you can produce or do anything really good.

To become a writer is somehow different from all the other professions, in that you can go to university to study English literature and attend creative writing courses run by eminent successful writers. In the UK, I imagine hundreds do just this, and I guess in the USA it probably numbers in the thousands. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out in the same way as for the people who study diligently to become craftsmen in other disciplines. In my doctor’s office, I see on the wall his credentials proudly displayed–the Medical Certificate, which says he can practice as a GP. I look at that and trust him implicitly.

If writers had consulting rooms, like doctors, and I saw on the wall the University degrees in literature, philosophy, history and the like, would I assume that the holder of these prestigious awards was a great writer? We all know the answer to this question. It’s a simple, unvarnished ‘no’.

The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of learning to become a writer can be learnt, but it doesn’t guarantee that the student will be a great or even a good writer. But why doesn’t it?

Returning to George Orwell and his little essay ‘Why I write,’ he says this about considering what makes a good writer: “…it has to do with the writer’s early development; his subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, by his acquired emotional attitudes, his temperament, his maturity and not forgetting the all-important motives, listed above.”

From the point of view given in the paragraphs above it is clear that learning the craft of writing is not enough. We can partition this activity as the objective study of writing. All the rest is established in the subjective department of the writer. This latter realm cannot be taught. It is indeterminate, unique, special, incalculable, complex, mystical, beautiful, tangible yet ephemeral, and at some precious moment even eternal.

It is the human psyche which holds the secret. What pours out onto the ‘tabular rasa’ is a miracle at times. Where does it come from? It comes from the life within. It can be good, bad and ugly, but when it is truly creative and inspired, it shows. And more importantly readers know it too. It becomes a shared experience par excellence. It binds us together in unity. It applauds the human race. It raises us out of the mire and places us firmly on the mountain top. Hallelujah!

PS – For some other writers’ views see :

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
  3. On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss

Learning to Become a Writer Can Be a Very Rocky Road!

Do we modern civilized westerners really know what it is to travel along a rocky road?

I have just finished reading a book called The Friar of Carcassonne. It is a terrible tale of religious persecution and the horrors of the Catholic Church Inquisition in 13th century Languedoc, a region of southern France, and the famed land of the Cathars.

One very common feature of medieval life was that if you wanted to get from Rome to Paris or Paris to Carcassonne, your choices of transport were few. Horse and cart, riding a horse or donkey, or going by Shanks’s pony–in other words, foot-slogging weariness for hundreds of miles. And the highways and byways were either hard, rocky, dusty roads in summer or icy, frozen lanes and quagmires in winter. Both descriptions could be understood to be a rocky road.

Can I seriously liken my journey in becoming a writer to a rocky road experience? Honestly, I don’t think I can. Sitting in a comfortable study, shelves full of reference books to consult with and now in these, our marvelous times, having a window onto everything through the screen of my PC. A good wife to provide cups of coffee and hand-made sandwiches at my request, a safe environment outside should I want a breather, and even a tender mattress to lie upon should I get overworked and need a nap.

What can I say on this subject?

My second thought took me back to a summer morning twenty-five years ago. Slipping out of the English Lakes holiday cottage at five a.m., I was bound for Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. I had planned the trip many months before, pored over the ordnance survey maps to find the best way up to the summit while avoiding any obvious hazards and dangers en-route. I had planned it well. Made a list of all the equipment I needed, and not just needed for the climb, but also in case of emergency, accident, or injury. I wrote a route map and planned to give a copy to a responsible person who knew where I was going and what time I was expected to return and who also would know what to do in the unlikely event I didn’t come back at the appointed time.

The night before my intrepid adventure, I checked my equipment against the list. I made doubly sure that everything was in good order especially my handy fell walkers compass. Triple checked that I had enough food and drink. Had I packed a whistle to raise the alarm and a camera to record the good bits and a pair of binoculars to see what was up ahead?

It was a great day out. All was well. I got to the summit late morning, and there was no one else about. Most importantly, I got back safely and on time, so thankfully the mountain rescue folks weren’t needed.

For sake of argument, disregard the comfortable study and the peripheral luxuries that often accompany the writer’s life. Consider the following circumstances in comparison. If a writer starts out his or her journey in a lackadaisical fashion, then only failure can be the result. If I had started out on the climb up Scafell Pike without proper planning or management or the right equipment then perhaps I might not have returned. I might have encountered many pitfalls on the way for which I had made no contingency plans and thus suffered the consequences.

To avoid the rocky road, the apprentice writer must plan ahead carefully.

A daily timetable is a very good idea. Work out which part of the day is the most creative and productive for you. Don’t fall for the ‘you must get up at dawn to be a serious writer’ jab. If you are a nocturnal creature, write at night. But remember most bad novels were written just after a good lunch.

If you must, put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door, so you can concentrate while you are being productive.

Make sure your ‘climbing’ materials are all in good working condition and you have all of the necessities.

Here’s a last tip. A trio of guys, Dibell, Scott Card, & Turco, wrote a book called How to Write a Million and it has helped me a lot over my years as a writer. Check it out!

How have you overcome ‘rocky road’ experiences as a writer? In life?