Tag Archives: writing

Where Does Your Loyalty Lie?

Michael Cader of Publisher’s Marketplace reports in the Publishers’ Lunch daily newsletter (he has a great little “free advice” page on getting published, applicable to larger Christian houses as well), "On Blogging Policies and Blogging Casualties"–

Editor Jason Pinter’s recent abrupt dismissal from Crown (imprint of Random) was attributed to a post on his blog (now removed) comparing opening week sales for Chris Bohjalian’s THE DOUBLE BIND (Crown), and Ishmael Beah’s A LONG WAY GONE (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Pinter speculated on the post whether Starbucks was demonstrating more power in the marketplace than Barnes & Noble (which made Bohjalian their second chainwide recommendation).

Crown is not commenting, and Pinter simply says, "I enjoyed my brief tenure at Crown and was fortunate enough to work with some wonderfully talented authors and publishing professionals. I have nothing but respect for the group and the books they publish."

I’ve been asked about WaterBrook’s and Random House’s policies for this blog many times. While it may seem I flaunt my freedom of expression, it’s a concern I share. Random House’s stated policy on employee blogs is the expectation that “every employee apply the same standards of personal and professional responsibility and decorum to your dealings on blogs as you would to any other aspect of your business activities…and to the extent they mention Random House or workplace issues or matters relevant to publishing, you should make it clear that opinions stated are not necessarily those expressed or endorsed by Random House. Please think about the potential consequences of the content of your blog and blog postings. Blogs exist on the Internet – a public space – so we hope you will be as respectful to the company, your colleagues, our customers, our partners and affiliates, and others (including our competitors) as the company itself endeavors to be."

Nelson’s blog policy is a bit more helpful: "Be nice. Avoid attacking other individuals or companies. This includes fellow employees, authors, customers, vendors, competitors, or shareholders. You are welcome to disagree with the company’s leaders, provided your tone is respectful. If in doubt, we suggest that you ‘sleep on it’ and then submit your entry to the Blogging Oversight Committee before posting it on your blog."

I’ve aways wondered what else the members of the Blogging Oversight Committee do to occupy themselves during daylight hours. Sounds like a fun job. Though, knowing they take pains to downplay images of tight corporate control, you’d think they could come up with a better choice of acronym than “BLOC.”

Anyway, in striking that balance between full disclosure and professional restraint, most of you know I prefer the former. I don’t often talk in specifics. Generalizing and alluding to trends is it. It’s tough, of course, and while I don’t mind focusing on bigger overarching issues, I feel responsible to state the truth about the challenges of ministering through the business of Christian publishing. In as much as I can, I share my opinions in hopes of conveying that Christian publishing is not so different from any other business, the same spiritual dangers lurking, same demands of loyalty and same real pitfalls. No matter what the publishing gods will face on judgment day, at the end of the work day, it’s about growing the business.

Such dedication may improve the innovation, quality, and value of the business, but not always the innovation, quality, and value of the product. That’s natural and endemic across any industry. Like public blogs, mass production does carry certain limitations.

So what are you willing to compromise? And what’s nonnegotiable at any price? There may not be a direct correlation between moral compromise and business success, but even in Christian publishing, you’ve got to know where your true loyalties lie. One sort of compromise may make you lose a relationship with a publisher. The other might cost you much more dearly.

If He Is…

“Most Christian books are about two things: helping the readers succeed and making them feel good. They’re both great, and I’m not putting that down, but somehow it’s become all about us and never about what God wants to do in the world.” –Dave Ping, coauthor (w. Steve Sjogren) in Outflow.

“Our postmodern world is pulling each individual into a vacuum of self-centeredness, whispering, ‘It’s all about you.’ It’s all about your own pleasure, peace, prosperity, and comfort. It’s all about what you think. It’s all about your own self-actualization, your individual pursuit. It reminds me of the first lie that mankind heard in the garden: ‘You will be like God!’ It is all about us, isn’t it?” –Del Tacket, TruthProject.com

“Even though much of the [Restore America] conference’s rhetoric is steeped in words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty,’ their agenda is entirely composed of taking freedoms away from you and I. In a lengthy interview, David Crowe told me about an ‘Evangelical Contract with America’ he’s working on. Here’s what’s on that list: criminalizing abortion, ending no-fault divorce, preemptively banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, forcing judges to abide by a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, doing away with ‘the plague of porn that is infesting the nation,’ and keeping illegal immigrants out of America’s borders. There’s not exactly a lot of ‘freedom’ on the list,” Scott Moore, The Portland Mercury News

“Perhaps the greatest challenge for evangelical Christians in the 21st century is the culture war. As a nation our Christian values are under attack as never before,” Larry Lewis, National Facilitator of the Mission America Coalition

“On each of the other 10 topics, ministers feel significantly less informed about the culture surrounding them than do churchgoers. Twenty percent of ministers feel very informed about the Internet compared to 43 percent of laity; 19 percent of ministers feel very informed about what’s on television today compared to 31 percent of laity; 18 percent are very informed about books compared to 27 percent of laity; and 16 percent are very informed about movies today compared to 24 percent of laity.” 2006 Survey by LifeWay Christian Resources

There is an epidemic of self-focused thinking among Christians. It’s even encouraged by some churches. And it isn’t just Me Church.

Will you do something? Will you learn the full truth? And will you write it?

Reality Check #8: Truth Isn’t Always Beautiful

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things," Philippians 4:8, NIV.

How many times have you heard that verse? How many times have you heard it used as a reason not to think "ugly" thoughts? Personally, I’ve heard it a lot and it always makes me wonder how many times the phrase "pretty thoughts" is being transposed onto Paul’s meaning here.

But I’ll get back to that in a sec. First, Mark Moring, Online Managing Editor of Music & Film for Christianity Today wrote about the new film, Little Children (adapted by Tom Perrota from his book) for the Film Forum newsletter today. In prepping readers for Jeffrey Overstreet’s review, he speaks of the higher purposes of facing evil in film. I thought his comments had some relevance for us here.

Little Children is a movie about adults acting like, well, little children—acting on their selfish desires, lusts, and impulses, with little regard for what’s right and what’s wrong. The film clearly and explicitly depicts various sins being acted out. The R rating—for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content—is more than warranted. It is definitely not a film for everyone, and I would argue that it’s not even a film for many. But it depicts not just sin itself, but the wages of sin—and that’s where many other films fall short. Little Children is a well-made film that will certainly be on the Oscar table at Academy Awards time. Some Christian media types might simply write off the film as ‘abhorrent’ and barely give it a thought, blind to any truth that it might depict—even if that truth is difficult to watch. Such observers are right to urge extreme caution and discernment for viewers—and indeed, we do just that in our review—but not to dismiss the film outright merely because of its graphic depiction of sin. If we ignored all films that depicted sin in all of its awful ugliness, we wouldn’t have even seen the horrifically violent Passion of The Christ, because the violence inflicted upon our Savior was certainly sin of the utmost degree. Part of God’s perfect plan, yes, but the scourging and crucifixion were as sinful as it gets.”

Mark goes on to say that in no way is this film (one of the better made of the year so far) being endorsed or recommended. It’s far too explicit and potentially tempting. Still, it can’t be dismissed either. It’s important, even if ugly, though he recognizes many will not approve.

Back to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He begins with an exhortation to humility and the "whatever-is-true" verse falls within the context of how to live in peace. "Practice forebearance and be patient," he says in this book. "Consider what you know to be true. This is the way to be at peace."

So the words he uses to describe the good things we’re to think on were specifically chosen.

Start with things that are "true." Now biblical truth, as we all know, is a bit dicey. Interpretations are necessary, as Rob Bell says in Velvet Elvis. What follows is mine.

"Honorable" Another way of saying this is respect-worthy. In our modern lingo, we might say, "stop thinking of ways to slander people and show some respect." Think respectfully.

"Right": i.e. not wrong. i.e. not sinful. That is, when you encounter sin, don’t dwell on it and risk sinning yourself. Think about what’s right about the nature of sin. And when in doubt, refer to the first word in the verse–"true."

"Pure." Ironically, this word gets sullied with people’s connotations. But it’s really another way of saying what is honorable, right, true, and good. Purity is untarnished by evil. Can writers write about evil without getting tarnished? Yes. Because there’s a bigger goal. Can readers read about evil without getting tarnished? Yes. They can think about the bigger goal. What is true, right, honorable, and pure about an encounter with evil?

"Lovely." My Ryrie commentary says lovely = winsome. Isn’t that great? For writers to be winsome, we have to be good at what we do. We have to stay above the trees to see the forest, and not get dragged down into the emotions or grimy details of the moment. Though good books  require attention to detail, being winsome is about being above our own uncooperative natures when we encounter something we don’t like–such as sin. We put ourselves in the background to serve the larger goal of affecting and engaging the reader.

"Good repute." i.e. other right-thinking people think highly of it.

"Excellence." There’s the pesky word. Paul’s follow up here is "and worthy of praise." Unless things are excellent as well as pure, we’re not to think of them. So what is excellent? Excellence is things that are true, respect-worthy, right, pure, winsome, and praise-worthy. Yet it’s also being humble and seeking after righteousness. It’s being "right minded," filled with the spirit, and at peace with yourself, God, and others. A book is excellent when it’s created to serve these purposes.

As close as I can figure, a biblical definition of high quality may be "whatever serves the purposes of God over self and others." And my contention in this series here has been that in CBA, we have too many books that serve the writers and that serve others, their tastes, their expectations, their whims. If we’re to have high quality books, we have to start serving readers by serving God first. And not in a heavy-handed way, or a "secularized" way, but in a way that’s winsome and lovely. These are books worth dwelling on. These are books worth writing, books worth reading.

Beauty and truth in CBA will not always go hand in hand. But if we can find a better balance of the two, maybe we can start to influence what’s produced in a way others have been reticent to do. And much like the famous Chesterton quote about Christianity being found difficult and remaining untried, we’ll discover that change in our subculture may be difficult, but it must not remain untried.

Toward a Definition of Christian Literature

Chroniccandy Many of you have asked for it, but I’m still waiting on that “wilderness” speech from Wangerin. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get a book out of it, but in the meantime, let me share what I felt was the most powerful aspect (there are interesting correlations here to Eugene Peterson’s speech, “What Are Writers Good For?”): writers call words from the wilderness, ascribing meaning and definition to the world, just as God did in the beginning. There is a direct lineage from that first Word that spoke everything into existence and the first man who was told to name everything. The Word is God. Everything you create is a holy act.

Does that not influence your taste for candy books?

To continue from last time, I believe that as long as our books support separation from the world, we will have nothing like the sort of literature Flannery O’Connor believed in. There is no place for it currently in CBA. Donna Kehoe, director of the Christy awards, has shared the profound idea that the word “Christian” was never intended to be a modifier. And O’Connor believed this so much that she wrote fiction as an incarnational art, trying to provide a direct experience of intrusive grace.

Now I’m not calling for worshiping books or worshiping the holy act of writing them. But this idea of art incarnate, of word become flesh, is an important one. CBA resembles the great Christian culture that has severed the gospel from its intended function of redeption and made it vague and weak through a sanitized, unrealistic creation. Without the truth of the reality God saves us from, there is no glory. Ted Dekker has said that without using the black brush, the white doesn’t stand out as starkly. Cut out the raw and ugly, and grace and redemption are tamed, manageable, moldable into whatever unobtrusive shape we please.

The symbols and metaphors of our stories are not mere clay to be molded—we are the clay. We are molded by the words as we struggle to pin them down, and we’ve forgotten this in our self-first mentality. Authors are merely the turnstile for the wondrous truths passing through. Why are the experiences of our classic literature no longer available? We need to recast an artistic vision that’s compatible with the urgings in scripture to “do all to the glory of God.” Rather than dismissing the instruction, we need books that make it their duty to call us back to it. I believe this is the only way to create “words of art” that become vessels of grace and mercy.

Of course, many disagree. I don’t think we need to make books any longer or shorter, smarter or dumber, commercial or literary. There’s a middle ground I’m pushing for. This middle ground is in pushing for books that respond to the paradoxes of humanity and the world, the books I feel CBA has forgotten by separating from those things.

Too many of our books teach separation. It’s time to reconnect.

In our arts, our churches, our entire philosophy as Christains “in the world but not of it,” we need revolution. There are too few places in modern culture Christians haven’t pulled away. Raised to be separatists—“set apart”—we’ve followed this to other conclusions. We now accept the functions of spirit as separate from the physical. We accept people taking the gospel out of the world. We even do it ourselves. We don’t think of reality as symbols of something greater. Symbols are separate from reality. These divisions reduce our efforts, try to extract the paradoxes, tame the mysteries, and make authentic experiences of grace less available. As Walter Wangerin said, good writers call meaning from the void, create something tangible out of the wilderness. But if the tangible world is too fallen, too evil, too scary for Christians, we can’t see the beauty God created us to enjoy, let alone create something beautiful in response to it.

This spirit of division has permeated more aspects of our faith than we know. The expression of our faith is seen in all parts of our lives, so this is a very real, very destructive problem. The main divisions I’m seeing do the most damage to our books:

  • The artificial division between spiritual and physical.
  • The artificial divison between Christian culture and North American culture.
  • The artificial division between sacred and secular.
  • The artificial division between entertainment and edification.

This last one is where I’ve spent the most time on this blog. I carry the quote before me, “Those who make a distinction between entertainment and education don’t know the first thing about either.” Entertainment educates. Education edifies. Edification inspires and that experience, when seen through a Christian lens, can be worship.

So what entertainment is worshipful? Can I praise God by reading People magazine? Reading about Nick and Jessica should be fine, right?

I’ll let someone else make that case. For us, I think we need to seek unity of those two goals.

These divisions become judgments, rules defining our popular Christian aesthetic. For all the lip service paid to the power of story and the “master storyteller’s” use of it in teaching truth, there is still very little of it actually being used. Truth is reality, but Christian books prefer to create their own reality. Why do we divide entertainment from teaching if Jesus didn’t? His stories were both, just as by nature, all stories are both. There is no perfect balance of entertainment to instruction in a story since it is always, all of it, both. It may be lesser degrees of both at any given time, but they always go together in quality writing. In fact, that’s my definition of quality writing. Making instruction entertaining.

There’s one division I do think is a holy sanction. It’s buried in this post, if you were paying attention…

Life as research: Confessions, Part 1

You know what I love about being a writer? No, besides all the beautiful babes. Seriously! It’s that you’re never wasting time. Any time you spend paying attention is helping you become a better writer. No time spent just observing is time wasted. No time spent reading is wasted. No matter what you’re doing as a writer, you’re doing research. That’s a pretty sweet deal, right?

I think I realized this sometime during college. After graduating, traveling, working, and getting married, in the end, I saw moving to Colorado Springs (of all places!) as little more than an extended research trip for us. That’s the God’s honest truth. The fact that it’s still going on six years later may lead you to some other mistaken conclusion, but my whole goal has always been to gather experience for writing. Which is the central reason for this blog, if you want the whole truth. And that I’m still young (and dumb) enough to be writing far-too-truthful things on this blog about my hare-brained ideas for influencing CBA, and being confidently assured something is going to come of sharing it with you here. Certainly, my experience in Christian publishing so far has been useful for such a lofty goal as being a paid writer, and ten times better than anything I got in college (no hard feelings Westmont). And the fact that there are people like you out there who are entertained by my idle prattle and evasive self-deprecation here convinces me to hope that maybe it hasn’t all been just a big mistake.

One can always hope.

Some of you know that when my wife and I first considered moving here from Seattle, having just been married a few months, it was for a job in the publishing department at Focus on the Family. Uh, yeah. Plenty of people warned us. And yes, it was for a low-level, assistant editor job, lowest you could go without being in the mailroom, but that was all beside the point. It was a job in publishing and the fact was it came with some good benefits and a nice relocation allowance. I wasn’t going anywhere as a house-cleaner/drink-slinger with an English degree. So we decided nothing more than a 2-year trial to get my feet wet and see what we could see. Now almost 6 years later, I’ve acquired some book-editing experience and I’ve worked with a select group of people who’ve taught me some incredible (and unrepeatable) things about making books work. And in the general sense, it’s been a little like reading Left Behind or The Da Vinci Code. Wonderful and horrible at the same time. But above all irreversible.

Along the way, I’ve gotten to spend some significant quality time evaluating what makes good books bomb and what shoots bad ones to the top, some of which I’ve pissed and moaned about here. Overall, the editing gig has been an experience I can’t recommend fully to people until I know why it is they’re asking. Yes, there are a few sad sacks who wonder if they might enjoy my job if I were to get run over by a truck or something, and it just happened that they were next in line for my life of luxury and glamour as a CBA acquisitions editor.

Cue nervous laughter.

Yet since it’s been my good fortune to live this extended research trip into the Christian mecca, I’ve strived to share a few things over the past months and years, particular to my vantage point and deepening education in American Christianity, books, publishing, and the CBA industry. I’ve alienated myself and also made some allies sharing my prejudices and fresh-baked assumptions, figuring my central purpose for writing books could serve for the blog as well: the more me I can share, the less me I have to die alone with. But why-ever you’ve come and whoever you are out there, whether waiting to take my position, or just hoping I’ll publish your book before the truck immortalizes me, make a venture back to this greasy spot on the information superhighway over the next few weeks for some never-before-shared confessions and (potentially useful) revelations, some of which will no doubt come in handy for that future job interview.

So there’s my irresistible set up. More to come…stay tuned.