Is Your Email Inbox Overflowing?

I recall when my husband and I first got dial-up internet with an email service. Now and then, an email would pop into our inbox. We’d cull through the few emails, respond as needed, and move on.

I also remember when I first established an email address for my writer website. Again, emails trickled in, and I was happy to read each and every word that came my way.

Those days are long gone.

Email inbox showing 179 unread messages

Photo credit: ©adimas

Perhaps they’ve passed for you too. When you start getting a bunch of email, it’s exciting because it means you’re reaching people. Isn’t that what you want your words to do? Don’t you want many readers?

Yes, but that increase in email also means you probably can’t read every word. Or at least you can’t respond personally and extensively to each and every email.

As a person involved in ministry, I feel terrible when someone pours out their heart and soul, telling me their personal story and asking for my help, and I simply can’t answer like I want to. This has been a difficult shift for me. Especially when I know how wonderful it can feel to get a personalized return email from someone you contacted.

But I also know that if I did answer each and every email with the care and attention it deserves, I wouldn’t be able to write more books or even blog posts. I’d spend day after day counseling people one by one through email.

And that’s not the mission God gave me.

Jesus dealt with this same press of needy people. Sometimes He stopped and interacted with them, but sometimes He stepped away so that He could stay focused and pursue His primary mission:

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake” (Matthew 8:18).

And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan” (Matthew 15:39, ESV).

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16).

Do you feel guilty about the emails sitting in your inbox? About the people who desire or demand your time when you just don’t have it to give?

Yes, we need to let God interrupt our work when He wants something done. But all those emails in our inbox aren’t necessarily God’s calling for us. He has given us a mission of writing, whether in fiction or nonfiction, and that is the primary way we reach people for Him.

When I remember my Lord’s calling above all, I can keep my eyes on where He wants me to work. And I can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead those in need to other resources, because I’m definitely not the only one who can help. We exist in a Body of Christ, and I am just a finger.

In the meantime, I send out canned responses to thank people for their emails, explain what my response policy is, and encourage them to seek local help if they need Christian counseling, mentoring, or pastoring. And then, I write more blog posts and more books, praying these resources will answer some of those questions and help the marriages I long to help.

How do you approach your overflowing email inbox? How do you stay on mission?

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Use Less Scripture in Your Manuscript (And…I love Jesus.)

bible-1031288_960_720One of my pet peeves—as an editor, as a writer, as a reader—is when authors use long passages of Scripture in their manuscripts, or pepper it with too many verses.

And, of course, now that it’s out there, I feel like I need to defend myself. So let the record show:

  1. I love Jesus.
  2. I believe that Scripture is God-breathed and has the power to transform lives.
  3. I earned a Master’s of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. (Sorry if that makes me seem like a show-off. It had to be said.)

Also:

  1. I don’t want to see too much Scripture in the manuscript you’ve sent me to edit.

I’m actually delighted to announce this grumpy thing publicly, for the first time, because I finally figured out why it gets under my skin:

Cutting and pasting large portions of Scripture into your manuscript, or peppering way too many verses into it, DOES NOT SERVE READERS.

Overusing Scripture is problematic for two reasons: it’s either too much or too little.

1. It’s too Much: Avoid Including Lengthy Scripture Passages

Problem: When readers—and I mean Christian readers—encounter long passages of Scripture in a manuscript, they tend to skim over them. From the cursory glance at keywords—“Moses,” “praise,” “sanctify,” “Jesus”—the reader determines that she’s already read this before and keeps reading (if you’re lucky) beyond the Scripture-brick to discover what he or she does not yet know.

Solution: Use a shorter passage of Scripture. When you crop the text down to the most salient verse or verses, the reader can better glean what you most want to communicate.

Example: In lieu of including the entire text of Psalm 119, which has 176 verses, give the reader a bite and tell them enough to make them hungry for more…

Every verse of Psalm 119 describes the good way God’s designed us to live. In verses 9-12, notice the words the Psalmist uses to point the reader to the good way:

How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:9-12)

Path, commands, word and decrees all point reader toward the good way God’s designed. And If you read all of Psalm 119, you’ll find lots of other synonyms for this path that leads to life.

2. It’s too Little: Avoid Including Too Many Scripture Passages

Problem: When you pepper too many verses of Scripture into a manuscript, you might assume that lots of Scripture is benefiting the reader. But there actually might be more value in including less! Too many verses of Scripture can feel like being pelted by a rapid-fire Nerf gun. If the reader can’t make a meaningful connection to each passage, the verses will bounce off the reader and fall to the floor.

Solution: When you do weave Scripture into your manuscript, it’s your job to help the reader find fresh spiritual nourishment from the passage by demonstrating the connection to your message. Here are a few ways to help the reader glean as much as possible from the biblical text:

  • Provide historical context, noting time, place, speaker, culture, audience, etc.
  • Provide literary context, helping reader understand why what comes before or after this passage illumines its meaning
  • Offer practical application, demonstrating how this passage was vivified in your life of someone else’s
  • Strengthen the connection between the passage and the reason you’ve shared it

Example: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14)…

When Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” he’s making a radical claim! Did you know that, in the ancient near east, a nation’s king was said to be the “light” who reigned on behalf of a deity?! Jesus is saying something pretty bold, then, about the kingdom of God and about your role in it by announcing that you are the light of the world.

Finally, Scripture was never intended to become a quantity to be used, cropped, leveraged or wielded. I know that and you probably do, too. Being thoughtful about presenting Scripture in a way that it can be tasted and digested, to offer real nourishment, is a gift to your reader.

 

 

Christian Writing

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I originally wrote this at a time when I was heavily involved in fiction writing. Now, as an agent, I am more involved in editing/preparing fiction writing to be sent out to editors. However, I think the discussion is a good one to have within the Christian writing community.

Setting: The 2008 Festival of Faith and Writing. I attended the FFW conference in order to discover answers. With my thesis defense the following weekend and most of my writing within said thesis exploring elements of the Christian faith, I needed to know exactly what it meant to be a Christian writer.

I attempted this discussion within “The Academy”, as I called it then, to little avail. I doubt that I was asking the wrong questions only that other writing believers didn’t have the answers, either.

The keynote speaker at FFW, Mary Gordon, provided her own insights into my queries, “If your primary purpose in life is to be moral, then your primary goal should be to do good works, not to write.” But, isn’t it possible to write moral lessons within one’s stories? Even Henry James would instruct that literature needs to have a “conscious moral purpose”.

Uwem Akpan, the chapel speaker, started his devotional with, “Let us begin as we always do—in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I was lucky to start Sundays that way, let alone my writing. I wanted to be a Christian writer, but did I initiate my writing in prayer?

Mary Karr seconded this sentiment by discussing her prayerful approach to writing poetry. I was beginning to question myself as a Christian, not as a writer!

I left the Festival even more unsure of how to enter a writing career as a Christian. Instead, I began focusing on how I had been trained to write within “The Academy”. And, after gaining some perspective, I started to write.

And I started to publish. In secular journals.

Plot: Dun-dun-dun…

So, I have an MA and an MLIS, my stories are getting published, I’ve begun working for a literary magazine, and I’m teaching as an adjunct faculty at a Christian college. I am living the life.

And then, one of those moments happened where I thought to myself, This will make an excellent blog post later!

One of my students asked me, “So, what do you have to do to be a Christian writer?”

After staring blankly in response and flashing back to a moment in graduate school where I had asked one of my professors a similar question, I stared. I am pretty sure that I responded somewhat intellectually and then quickly went back to the lecture, steering as far away from her question, or the answer to her question, as possible.

Character: So, What is My Answer?

And, am I willing to live with the consequences of my answer?

For example, if I say that being a Christian writer is about only writing Christian or even faith-based stories, am I willing to stop writing the stories at which I excel? My mother would appreciate this; I like to think that the journals to which I am submitting would not.

As I wrote in my own blog post later that day, “And, here is the answer I have (to shamelessly plagiarize Augustine): Love God.”

The answer has absolutely nothing to do with writing or publishing (the people at the Festival knew this). As a Christian, everything I do is spiritual, including my writing.

Everything. I. Do. Is. Spiritual.

Language: These are a Few of my Favorite Things!

As a short story writer, I appreciate the art of crafting each individual word. For me, it’s not about the plot—it’s about making every word count. The language is the story!

Instead of focusing on how many times I use “Jesus” or “God” (and, trust me, some secular novels could probably compete with Christian novels in this aspect!) or even incorporating a redemptive theme, I focus on the playfulness of my words.

I’ve mentioned reading stories aloud. I want someone to be able to read my stories and feel something. I want to move someone with my words. Do I want them to accept Christ after reading my story?

Not necessarily (audible gasp inserted here).

Yes, I care about my readers, but my ultimate goal is to write. In my daily life, with the people I regularly interact—at work, at church, at the grocery store—I strive to emulate the love of Christ however that may look.

Within my writing, I strive to be a darn good writer.

And, occasionally, when I am feeling the need to impress Henry, the purpose of my story is intentionally moral.

What does it mean for you to be a Christian writer?

Do I HAVE to Be a “Christian Writer”?

confused woman--question marks

For my first eight years as a publishing writer, I had a hot New York agent. She hung with me through high times and low—until the day I sent her my new manuscript, which was overtly faith-based. She dropped me like a potato on fire. I knew that would happen. But I had to obey God and offer explicit Scripture-based hope. Most of my subsequent books have done the same.

I never wanted to be a “Christian writer.” I never wanted to be confined to “Christian readers.” I wanted to write for ALL people, and I still do. But I also know my faith can turn people away. Here is our dilemma: how do we write the truth with integrity, yet speak to all people, regardless of faith? Here are some thoughts that guide me through the thorny “Christian Writers” thicket.

We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we thought we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered, paradoxical. Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages: plowing, sowing, watering, reaping. We need never feel that we have to roll out the entire plan of redemption in any one novel or memoir to make it “Christian.” There’s time. Think of your work as a body of work over your lifetime.

old books on shelf

Though I want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known.
Because he is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not only freed but compelled to discover Him and make some aspect of His being known through twig, creek, moonrise, miscarriage, forgiveness, cyclone, salmon, burial, and supper.

Belief in Christ’s truth-claims do not narrow our art. Christians are accused of being “narrow-minded” because they subscribe to Christ’s radical and exclusive truth claims (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.”) Belief in this claim does not confine, exclude, or narrow our art: nothing and no one is more capacious, more inclusive, more imaginative, more original than Christ himself, who created all things, who is before all things, who binds all things together, who can be found in every cell of creation.

Pacing in Writing | Wordserve Water Cooler

I intend to write only out of calling and passion. I seek that from God, not my agent, not the market, not editors, or even my publisher. This guarantees a wobbly path rather than a sure career. But, face it: there is no sure career in writing except the career of writing from faithfulness, obedience, and joy.

God’s truths are not just propositional and communicable by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational. I desire to write from a faith that I am trying to live in and out of, rather than a faith I am simply pronouncing. Without lived-in faith, our words truly are noisy gongs. As Joy Sawyer has so brilliantly written,

“ . . . without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the “clanging symbol” of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. Just as a poem can scarcely exist without images, we most fully express our poet-God by daily allowing ourselves to be crafted into the image of Christ.

I end here. I believe that writing is a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible—-but the writing inexorably, day by night, moves us closer to the city of God. And if we write well and true, we will not be traveling there alone. Others, at first reluctant, will slowly move with us, following our own feet and our words, drawn to the brightness of a city with open gates and lights that never dim.

Open gate--stone wall

The Value of Advisors

The role advisors have in our writing, our ministries, and our spiritual growth is invaluable.

Proverbs 15:22 tells us: Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed. (NIV)

We set ourselves up for success when we surround ourselves with wise people who have our best interests at heart, cheer us on in worthwhile pursuits, and are willing to tell us what we need to hear. But we have to be open to critical input as well as encouragement if we truly want to develop our writing, be effective in ministry, and experience long term spiritual health.

Writing
Are you open to input or do you become defensive when your editor asks you to make changes to your manuscript? Just this past week I talked with my editor about my newest Bible study, Eyewitness to Glory: Moses, scheduled to be released this summer. We have a great working relationship. He said the writing was clean and the content was good. I was thrilled. But he also mentioned one particular lesson that he thought could be worded better and explained his concern about how it might be misinterpreted. I was grateful for his candor and told him I would look at his comments and re-work the lesson. In addition, he also mentioned a punctuation error I consistently made throughout the manuscript. How embarrassing! This will be my forth published book and I should know better. I am anxious to get the edited manuscript to see my error so I don’t make the same mistake next time. I also plan to run my manuscript by another writer next time, prior to turning it in to my publisher.

We are all growing and when we remain open to input from experienced writers and editors, our manuscripts will be richer and we will become better at our craft.

Business Discussion

Ministry
As Christian writers, we are all in ministry. In Michael D. Miller’s Bible study, Keeping Your Heart for Ministry, Miller says:

“You are on dangerous ground when you construct barriers to prevent others from confronting you with truth. The leader who desires to keep his or her heart for ministry will be open to question or challenge, realizing that ‘iron sharpens iron’. God graciously provides good counsel to help us continue growing through our Christian experience.” (Keeping Your Heart for Ministry, Lifeway Press, 2001)

In order to broaden your perspective and reach more people through your ministry, consider creating a group of advisors. It is easy to develop blind spots along your ministry journey. By choosing wise, spiritually mature advisors who are available for questions (and will give you honest answers), you will enhance the effectiveness of your ministry.

Spiritual Health
As Christian writers, it is important to be connected to other believers and, in my opinion, there is no better (or more biblical) place to do so than in your local church. If you are a believer in Jesus, you are part of the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:27 says: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (NIV)

It is in the context of a local church body that we find accountability to “spur us on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). In our local church we learn to encourage one another, to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), practice forgiveness, and learn to love one another deeply, as our Lord loves us. Being connected to a church body is important for our long term spiritual health.

My writing friend, “I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2 ESV).

Let’s ask God to give us teachable spirits and to help us be open to critical input as well as encouragement. Consider creating a group of advisors to give you honest feedback in your writing and your ministry. And if you aren’t currently involved in a local body of believers, ask God to lead you to the right church; a safe place where you can grow, serve, love, and be loved.

What advisors are you thankful for today?

Being a Yahtzee Writer

They say if you want to make money in the writing business you find a niche and go to that place again and again.

In other words, if the crowd loved your trumpet solo don’t come back on stage with a guitar or xylophone.

It wasn't Oprah! but I got to shoot hoops in the Indiana gym used for Hickory High in "Hoosiers."

It wasn’t Oprah! but I got to shoot hoops in the Indiana gym used for Hickory High in “Hoosiers.”

Play that trumpet, baby!

I get that. And I don’t begrudge any writer who subscribes to that theory. To each his or her own.

But here’s to those who’ve gone the other way, who’ve followed their muses, wherever those muses have taken them, even if it’s seldom meant to the bank to deposit another hefty royalty check.

Here’s to those who’ve led with their hearts and not some can’t-lose formula.

Here’s to those who’ve written as if life were a Yahtzee game and part of the fun was seeing if you could score a few points in all 12 categories: perhaps writing a three-of-a kind spiritual trilogy, a full-house family memoir, and a small straight of mysteries.

Here’s to dabblers and chance-takers and you-never-know-unless-you-try writers whose platforms aren’t chiseled precisely in granite but whose success is built of great memories.

I can relate. I am a Yahtzee writer.

World War II biographies? Three. Sports and life books? Two. Children’s? On my second.

Nuggets of wisdom from my favorite movies? Check. Collections of newspaper columns? Check. Hiking the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail? Check.

The price I’ve paid? I’ve never gotten deep traction as an expert in any particular genre. The dividends I’ve received? Being true to who I am as a person.

I’m not touting the likes of Yahtzee writers for any sense of self-grandiosity; follow-their-muse types often find themselves being regularly humbled, my most recent example being a book event at a fire station to which three people showed up — one by accident — and firetruck sirens kept going off while I spoke.

No, this isn’t about chest-beating success. This is about the significance of the writing journey itself.

Too many writers drink the formulaic Kool-Aid suggesting you must trust a system and not your heart. And, turning 60 this week, I’ve been more contemplative than usual about how I’ve spent my life as a writer and whether going my own way has left me a failure.

My conclusion? I wouldn’t have missed the ride for the world.

By following my muse, I’ve gotten to write about the stuff that I’m passionate about — and best-suited to write about. To know an array of fascinating — and generally obscure — people. And to experience a bunch of stuff I never would have otherwise.

Because of my book research and promotion, I’ve put on a barbecue for a town of 600 people, shot hoops in the Indiana gym depicting Hickory High in the movie “Hoosiers,” spent a weekend at the Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, N.Y. and found myself in Normandy, France, on 9-11.

Along the way, I’ve met a few famous people but, ironically, the two most well known “stars” I’ve spent time with were also the only two books subjects I’ve parted ways with — because they were so unwilling to help.

Finding success in book writing is about perspective and appreciating the small victories you experience by being yourself.

About the grist of the journey, not the fruits of whatever material success you experience.

And about being true to your bent as a God-created human being. I think of a line from an old Amy Grant song: “All I ever have to be is what You’ve made me.”

So, sure, if you’re made that way, play another trumpet solo. But if you’re not, don’t be afraid to play Yahtzee.

Writing Effective Blog Posts

freeelance-bloggingI consider myself a Missionary Writer.

I began writing in 2004 with a blog titled, “The Southern Scribe.” Even though I was an early adopter in the Christian blogging world, as time went on, I doubted that blogging was here to stay. Due to my time constraints, I gave up blogging. On occasion I would blog about something that interested me or blog about an issue that excited me or annoyed me. I can stand before you today and say I was wrong, in a big way. Blogs in many circles are just as pertinent as print and network and cable news outlets when it comes to breaking news or editorials.

Anyone can get an account on Blogger or setup a WordPress blog, but how do we write posts that are effective in delivering a message?

1. MAKE YOUR WRITING NEED BASED.
When preparing to write, always start with the key need. Then move to the key thought or concept that has to do with that need. Be sure to research and then exegete your sources and prepare notes on your findings. Examine supplemental writings and books where necessary. A Missionary Writer does not write to be cool or famous; we write to lead people to changed lives. As I research, study, and prepare, I ask God for wisdom and direction.

2. EMPHASIZE SHOWING VERSUS TELLING.
We should use current events and stories to illustrate the point we are trying to make. Remember, showing versus telling can get marred if we are not careful, as we want to tell people “how to” instead of showing them. The only way people really learn and are motivated to change is being shown how to go from point A to point B. People can only get to the next level by having someone who has accomplished what they seek to accomplish show them how.

Make sure you address the WHY behind the WHAT – why do people need to know this? How does it matter to their lives?

3. PROVIDE CLEAR ACTION STEPS.
Effective writing lead to specific applications. In preparation of my writing, I always ask, “What do I want people to DO as a result of reading this?” In many cases, (calling for people to give their shoes off their feet), the action step may be bold. But in other cases, it could be simple (begin reading the Bible this week or go on a date with your spouse).

Just like meetings that do not include action steps tend to waste people’s time, so does writing that does not call people to action. It’s like running back a kickoff and stopping at the 10-yard line.

4. WRITE WITH PASSION AND AUTHENTICITY.
Passionate and authentic writing begins from understanding one’s personality and style. Writers that attempt to write like someone else will never connect as well.

In the 21st century, humor is a common language that conveys authenticity. People appreciate writers who do not look down on them, but engage them. Humor lowers people’s defenses. Funny stories and statements can pepper your writing with spice and make it memorable.

5. BE SIMPLE.
We often write about difficult subjects in an effort to answer people’s questions, but do we use too many words without saying anything? Simple answers are often shorter answers. The attention span of our society is getting collectively shorter. This means that I must develop the skill to match the will.

Great writing should have one memorable point or statement that is repeated several times throughout the piece. There should be one driving idea, a “twitterable” big idea.