The Trick to Becoming an Author

Pavillion_d'Armide_by_A._Benois_05The other day, a colleague asked me if I thought the burgeoning popularity of memoir-style books of the sort I had published had to do with the fact that the people who read them wanted to write such books themselves.

Reflecting on what he asked, it occurs to me now that—the underlying argument being that my writing’s appeal had nothing to do with my writing itself but only the envy of my readers and that the underlying argument of my readers’ envy being that anyone could write as well as I could—I should have gotten offended. But I didn’t. (Thanks, surely, to the Holy Spirit, who tries to protect me, usually in vain, from bouts of narcissism that make me think I’m a great writer and cause me to take offense at any reminder that I’m not.)

I didn’t get offended, too, because I knew, as anyone who’s ever published a book of any sort does, that what he said was true. We know it from the people who show up in our doorways wanting publishing advice. We know it from acquaintances who know about our good luck as writers and come up to us in the grocery store, or sitting at the vet’s office, or walking to our cars after church, and want to tell us their latest book idea. We know it from the mail we get when our books come out. Fast on the heels of a fan email, if not within the fan email itself, comes a question about how to get the fan’s own work published.

Everyone these days has not just a story in them, as they used to say, but a published book—even though it’s rarely written or even begun. All it takes to write a book, the would-be writer hopes or believes, is an idea and the need to tell it. What happens between that and getting something published is a trick they plan to learn from established writers.

But there is no trick. Just the arduous and time-consuming work of writing and rewriting and sending stuff out and waiting and trying to believe there’s a chance that someone who makes a difference in the world of publishing likes it and finding out there mostly isn’t (or, if you really are lucky, that there might be a chance with some major changes to what you’ve written) and then writing and rewriting again. That’s the part no one wants to hear or even know about. That to be a writer is to write. Period.

They’re like Simon the Magician, that guy in the book of Acts who—though Luke makes clear that he’s a genuine believer—tries to buy from the apostles the trick of touching people and thereby filling them with the Holy Spirit.

“Just teach me the trick of getting published!” EveryWriter begs. Often, as Simon does, they even offer to pay for the trick.

But there is no trick.

Sermons on Simon’s story often go on about how wrong-headed Simon was, thinking to buy the Holy Spirit, and sometimes they posit that Simon wasn’t really a believer at all, even if Luke says he was. But such sermons miss the point, I think—whether it’s the gift of writing we’re talking about or of imparting the Holy Spirit. Being a servant of the word, or the Word, is not a magic trick. You have to get out there and do it.

Hard Work--George Herriman 1907-11-24That said, I remember having had the same response to other writers’ writing—not just to their memoirs but to their novels and even textbooks. I’ve thought to myself, if they can do it, why then so can I. And so began this article and that book. So began my current writing project, a novel–my first. So began, indeed, my entire career as a writer.

If others can do it, so can you, but don’t sit around hoping to discover some trick to make it happen effortlessly. If you want to write, if you want to inspire others, if you want to fill them with good news, with the very spirit of God, you’ll just have to get out there and do it.

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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!

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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?

Shocking You Softly

I was once that kid on the playground telling my little friends every bleeped out word in the universe. To be fair, however, I didn’t really know what I was doing. This is elementary school we’re talking about, and my parents were naïve, or remiss at best, not thinking I was cataloging everything.

I’m sharing this because I find myself in a constant tug-of-war of what I can and cannot say in Christian publishing. To be clear, I am not an advocate of swear words. I am a reformed potty-mouth, and I intend to keep my writing free of curse words. To me, that is one of the many beauties of Christian publishing—untainted prose.

However, I can’t stop thinking that Christian publishing is in some sort of shifting paradigm, where two radically different generations are trying to see the whites of each other’s eyes.

Case in point: A beloved friend and fellow Christian author once urged me to take my work into mainstream publishing because the essence of my voice might upset some. She was speaking directly to my inclusion of certain words such as “sucks” and “stupid.”

I didn’t see the big deal at first. Now, however, I’ve been thoroughly acquainted with the big deal. It even locked me in the closet, took away my dinner, and told me to shape up if I ever wanted to see the light of day again. (Kidding. The edit wasn’t that painful.)

I’m not saying I wish to convert everyone to accept or speak my language, but the truth of the matter is I’m a born and bred Southern California girl, raised on MTV and the gag effect of adverbs. Totally.

I get that my style is too much for some, and that’s OK. One writer can’t please everyone. I’ll definitely have my niche, and I’ll walk away with the coziness of being honest to myself and with what I’m conveying to others.

As an example of the real Heather, consider this snippet of dialogue between my husband and me:

Husband: “Don’t you just love the sunset? All the colors coming together like a symphony God is orchestrating, telling us to enjoy ourselves and gaze at something beautiful.”

Me: “Eh. My back hurts. Are we done here? I feel like tacos. You feel like tacos?”

So yeah, if sunsets bore me, you can probably guess how painful it is to pretend me talk fancy.

I once tried writing an entire book the way I thought others would expect me to write. It sucked. And, it was stupid.

Even if it makes people cringe, I can only write the way I know how. That’s a good enough starting point for me. What else would you expect from a Southern California girl who gives up sunsets for tacos?

Have you had to modify your writing to make it work in Christian publishing? Do you regret it, or are you happy that you will be able to reach your audience more effectively?