Dodgeball, Publishing, and the Writing Life

One of the great things about having a teenager is that they’re like… people. It is so fun to share common interests with your big old grown up kid. My oldest son and I both like to geek out about writing, and he is making plans for NaNoWriMo this November (National Novel Writing Month, for you writing types.) There is a lot of heart and soul that goes into such a project, though, and I want to steer his heart a little as he invests energy and love into a book. Recently another young woman asked me for writing advice, confessing that she is on her way to writing a book of her own. Here, for what it’s worth, is what I told her—mostly a lot of recycled odds and ends that other people have told me—a life preserver for the admittedly sensitive hearts of aspiring writers.

OK, so first of all, way to go writing a book! That is a big endeavor and a great way to a) encourage others and b) fully engage your own mind. I find that I write as much to myself as to anyone else; certainly God says as much to me through my writing as He does to others. I think you’ll find most writers agree that they write to see and understand the world, they write to learn, and they write because they can’t not write (which is reminiscent of Jeremiah 20:9, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”) 

Write because you love it, because it fills your own heart up. If you write for other reasons, then when you are weary, facing critique and rejection, it will tend to be hard to carry on.

First, read.

If this is your first big writing project, I have a few bits of well-worn advice that have been helpful to me over the years. First, read absolutely as much as you can on the subject before, during, even after your project is complete. Tim Keller, I believe, has said that he felt he could not write a book in his early years of ministry because he needed to put in decades of patient study first. And practically, from the publishing standpoint, you will immediately be asked to clarify why your book varies from all of the other books on that topic, what makes it unique, what makes it necessary. You’ll want to think of those other books as conversation partners; you are entering a room where a lot of excited chatter is already taking place, and it’s a good idea to find out what’s already being said before you chime in.

Second, write.

Second, as much as possible, write every day. Write when you feel like it and when you don’t, when you are in moods ranging from bliss to frustration to utter sorrow. This is important, because it helps you to view the subject from lots of different angles. Happy Kate sees things optimistically, often on a shallow level, and needs Sad Kate to come along with the what-ifs and the buts and the patient endurance to curb her enthusiasm. It makes a better book in the end. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing a book, I try to set the alarm an hour earlier and dive in before my day begins. As Annie Dillard advises, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

Third, study.

Third, study the publishing game, but don’t let it worry you too much. I say “game” because it very much feels like eighth grade dodgeball, if you were one of the uncool kids, a foot short, say, and kind of gimpy, and also afraid of balls. You will shortly learn a million discouraging things. Like the odds of publication. The defeating, impossible Catch-22s of platform/agents/blurbs. And a lot of drivel about building your brand, your SEO, and your social media empire. Most of this advice derives from sensible marketing and business techniques, but it tends towards using people while promoting self, and is altogether a depressing distraction from the calling you set out to pursue in the first place. Still, a little knowledge will help you not to be completely winded by stray dodge balls and help you not to publicly slip on a banana peel in gym class. In the “Christian publishing” world (I’ll spare you my “Christian book” rant), a couple helpful bloggers are Rachelle Gardner and Steve Laube, while Jane Friedman and are good secular industry blogs.

A better use of time, though, is studying the craft of writing, which will actually improve your work in the end while being good for your heart. My favorite two books in this vein are Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but Luci Shaw (Breath for the Bones) and Madeleine L’Engle (Walking on Water) are also inspiring. 

I have now written four and a half full-length books (including two novels), but as you know, only Thirty Thousand Days has been published. No matter. Sounds matter-of-fact, right? But it has taken a lot of years to be able to say that sincerely (and tomorrow I might not be able to.) If you are meant to write, write for God and let that be enough. Write to stretch yourself. It will likely make you wiser, more nuanced, the better able to see and hear God at work in the world, the better equipped to speak the truth in love.

Well, I said a lot, but not much of it may be helpful. All the best to you and your work!

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