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When I recently asked for some topics to blog about, Shan Dittemore asked: “Have you ever blogged about why you got into publishing? I’m curious.”

No, I haven’t. Let me give you a recounting of how I became a writer and editor. Some of you who have attended my workshops know the story, so bear with me if you’ve heard this. I’m probably going into more detail than necessary, but so be it.

Although I can’t pinpoint the origin of my love of books, I suspect it started with a gift I received on my eighth birthday.  Yes, it was a Hardy Boy book; The Melted Coins to be exact.  For the next several years I wasn’t a voracious reader, but I probably read more often than many of my peers. I continued with the Hardy Boys and, of course, what Baby Boomer boy didn’t eagerly devour the latest Mad Magazine?

After high school, I entered San Jose State utterly clueless about my future. I majored in English by default. My minor was journalism. In retrospect, I should have majored in journalism.  During these years I developed a wider taste for books than the Hardy Boys and Mad Magazine. I began to thrive on the typical 1960s fare of J.D. Salinger (though The Catcher in the Rye was not my favorite) and some other offbeat authors. Never got into Dickens, Faulkner, or Hemingway though.  Halfway through college I began my first real job. That job was with the Santa Clara County public library system.  I worked at virtually every branch from the small Stanford branch, all the way down to Gilroy.

At about this time I became a Christian as did my future wife, Beverly.  I thought God’s will for me was to go on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ, but that didn’t happen.  So, plan B turned out to be a move into a Christian commune in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury.  When that broke up, Bev moved to Oregon and I returned to San Jose and my job at the library, only this time as a bookmobile driver. I loved that job. Matching people with books was such fun.

Eventually, though, I tired of that and took a job as a manager of a Zondervan Family Bookstore in Aurora, Colorado. By this time Bev and I were married and parents. Our third and final daughter was born in Aurora.  As much as I enjoyed my job, both Bev and I missed the west coast and our families. So what in retrospect seems like a miraculous turn of events, I accepted a job with Bethany House author Michael Phillips managing one of his Christian bookstores.  At this time, I also began freelance writing. After many rejections, I received my first two acceptances the same week.  I continued to write and work in Christian retail and eventually bought one of the stores I had been managing.  I was so happy and had a vision for several more stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, my old stomping ground.  But it was not to be. I grew too quickly and was vastly undercapitalized and eventually lost all of my four stores. That was a very hard time for us.

While working for Mike Phillips, he had started a small publishing company called Sunrise Books.  For one of our first books, I suggested we republish a delightful prairie novel I had first discovered while working on the bookmobile. The original book was Remember the Days by Kenneth Sollitt. We cut the book in two and began the Ann of the Prairie series with This Rough New Land and Our Changing Lives. We had a nice endorsement from Janette Oke (“heartwarming and heart-rending…a reminder of what life was really like”). The books sold very well so I decided to write two sequels since Kenneth Sollitt was no longer interested.  Those books were These Years of Promise and While Yet We Live. Those books also sold well (I MUST get back to writing fiction!!!).

After the loss of my stores, I was pretty depressed for a while.  But at one point, God showed me myself as a man struggling to swim upstream. He told me that if I would let go, the river’s current would wash me up on the shore of His will—exactly where He wanted me.  So I let go. It took a while, but my circumstances began to change. Since I knew I wanted to write but had no idea where I’d be welcome, I did something writers are advised not to do. I picked my six favorite publishers and wrote them a letter basically saying, “Here I am! Need anything written? I’m your man!”).  Unbeknownst to me, a woman I had interviewed a couple of years earlier for a Publisher’s Weekly article was now an editor at HarperSanFrancisco, my number one choice. She called me and said, “There’s this new movement going around called Promise Keepers. Would you like to submit a proposal for a devotional book for this market?”  WOULD I?????

I turned in the proposal in mid-November. The Monday after Thanksgiving I was given the green light for the book. The deadline was to be February 1.  I scrambled to get the book finished and was only a few days late.  To make a long story short, the book Promises to Keep: Daily Devotions for Men Seeking Integrity is still in print nearly twenty years later. Check out the nice Amazon reviews.   A few weeks after the book came out, my same editor at Harper said, “There’s this new thing going around with all the kids wearing these WWJD? bracelets. Would you like to submit a proposal for a devotional for that market?  WOULD I???

That book, 365 WWJD? Daily Answers to “What Would Jesus Do?” has been my best selling book, with more than 75,000 copies sold—and more great reviews on Amazon.

I then did two books for Zondervan—also daily devotionals—His Victorious Indwelling and Magnificent Prayer. (More great reviews on Amazon!). I also helped a friend, Tom Whitney, tell his wonderful story about his walk the length of California. That book is Honk if You Love Jesus.

When I owned my Christian bookstores, one of the sales reps who called on me was Terry Glaspey.  Since those days, he had gone on to become an editor at Harvest House. Remembering my desire to write, he asked if I would help a Harvest House author with a book he was working on.  WOULD I????  🙂

I finished that book and shortly thereafter was offered a job as senior editor at Harvest House. Next month marks my 14-year anniversary at Harvest House. I’ve gone on to write several more books, but I’ve found it just as enjoyable to have the opportunity to edit some truly wonderful authors. I won’t name them, lest I accidentally leave someone out.  I do love my jobs—both editing here at Harvest House and writing on my own. I remember when I worked on bookmobile I thought I love this so much, I would do this for free! I’ve continued to feel that that way for most of my working life.

The best thing is that I’m not finished yet. Hopefully there will be more authors to work with and more books for me to write. My latest book is Power in the Promises, which came out earlier this year.  Later this year one of my previous books, Walking with Wesley, is being re-released by Wesleyan Publishing House.

God has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams. When I started college without a clue as to what my professional life would be, I would have been astonished to know what my future held. Truly magnificent.

Do you ever get confused by the sometimes contradictory advice you hear from successful writers? Some may say “write every day!” while others say “write when you have something to say!” Or you may hear “Write the whole thing before you edit. Just get it on paper.” Then you’ll read about a bestselling author who labors over every page before moving to the next one. And we’ve all heard about “pantsers versus plotters.” Pantsers write as they go without knowing exactly what comes next in their story. Plotters outline and then follow their outline with only minor variations.

So what’s a writer to do? I think the best way to look at it is to consider the various “rules” about writing as tools in a toolbox. Every time you learn a new “trick” to writing that has worked well for someone else, go ahead and toss it in your writer’s toolbox. And then remember that not every tool is used in a building project. Some, like hammers and saws, are used frequently. What carpenter wouldn’t have a hammer and saw in his toolbox? The carpenter will also have a crescent wrench in his toolbox, but may use it far less than his hammer and saw. Some carpenters will have both a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver, though they may use only one, depending on the occasion.

So, too, as a writer, it’s wise to keep a full toolbox of the tools you hear about. But don’t feel you have to use both the flathead and the Phillips screwdrivers. Don’t think you have to always be a pantser. Maybe this new project will require you to be a plotter. So take out the plotter tool from the toolbox and go for it.

Some tools, to be sure, are like the trusty hammer and saw. Tools like “show, don’t tell” and “active, not passive sentences” are always in vogue. You will want to reach for them frequently (though even with those tools, you won’t need them all the time. You CAN write an occasional sentence that tells, not shows. You CAN write a passive sentence when that’s what’s called for).

So, really, becoming a better writer is, like carpentry, a learned trade. You learn which tools in the toolbox are needed for the WIP (work-in-progress). Therefore, when you hear a piece of advice that seems to conflict with what you assume to be true, just stick it in the toolbox and pull it out if and when you need it. If you never seem to need it, just let it sit there. Your toolbox is big enough to hold even the seldom used tools.

The fun part is when you throw a tool in the toolbox that is your own tool—no one gave it to you through a magazine article or a workshop….you found it on your own. It’s yours to share with other writers so they can put it in their toolbox.

Like a skilled carpenter, I’m betting your success as a writer will depend on your ability to discover and artfully wield your favorite tools in your toolbox. And that, my friend, takes practice…and a few bent nails.

A good book is ultimately the result of a happy marriage between story and language. This is true both of fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction, we might sometimes need to substitute the word “information” for “story.” (But not always. Many non-fiction books are also stories).

When a manuscript is rejected, it’s often because the writer has failed on either the story level or the language level…or both.

The story level is simply a matter of: is this really a story? Does it have interesting characters, a good plot, a sympathetic theme, and an appropriate setting?

If we can think of the human body as a metaphor, the story is the skeleton on which the author must hang the flesh of language. Without a firm and reliable skeleton, even the best writing will amount to no more than page after page of words nicely strung together.

At the language level, we’re talking about the author’s ability to use exactly the right words to make the story come alive. Two writers might begin with the same great story idea and if one knows how to bring about a romance between the story and language and the other doesn’t, it will be the former who succeeds.

Two quotes come to mind here. First, it was Mark Twain who said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Really fine writers are always trying to replace the “almost right word” with the exact “right word.” That’s why multiple drafts of any manuscript are so important. On your sixth and seventh drafts, you should still be finding words that need replacing. One way to find those words is to read your manuscript out loud. This step is a must for all good writers. They know the power of the ear to catch glitches that the eye misses in silent reading.

The other quote is one of my favorite writing quotes of all time—and that’s saying a lot, if you could see the massive collection of writing quotes I have. This quote is from the highly prolific writer, the late Isaac Asimov, who said, “It either sounds right or it doesn’t sound right.”

Profound, eh? And yet, that’s what good writing is all about. It simply must sound right (to the inner ear of the reader) in order to succeed. And the skilled writer will persist with a manuscript until he or she is convinced every word is the right word for this story.

If you sense the “language” part of writing is hard for you, you may need to read more. Avid readers develop a keen inner ear for when the author’s use of language is working (or not working) in a given story. As a writer, you need to develop this skill too.

Most of the time I spend editing a manuscript for publication is simply exchanging good words for better words. Near-miss words to direct-hit words. You can do that too. You might have a rejected manuscript you’ve given up on, but still believe in. Bring the thing out into the light again and read it aloud. Does it sound stilted now after being in storage for a while? If the answer is yes, then you need to know that the manuscript was just as stilted when it came fresh out of the printer. You just didn’t see it then. Perhaps because you were less attentive to language and more attentive to story. After all, coming up with your story is the relatively easy part. It’s the constant reworking of the language that marks the professional writer—the published writer.

So how does a writer put “the secret” into action? Trying to teach a person how to do that is even harder than articulating the secret itself. It reminds me of the often-quoted Somerset Maugham line about writing. Maugham said: ““There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

In my years as a writer/editor/bookseller/bookmobile-driver, I’ve seen and heard it all from writers as to how they work. I’ve heard some authors say they write their very final paragraph first. That way they know where they’re going. Others write the middle first. Others can’t get past page one until it’s perfect.

So too with infusing your writing with the words that will help you capture a reader’s heart. I’m going to suggest a few things you might try….but with no guarantees. In short, most writers try one thing and then another until they stumble on what works for them.

But one vital element, it seems to me, is to come to the blank page full. You can’t give out what you don’t have. Come with your own internal passion, and come prepared to spill out that passion on the page. Another Maugham quote occurs to me here. He said, “I’ve always liked to let things simmer in my mind for a long time before setting them down on paper.” Depth doesn’t come in a single sitting. The best writing comes from brewing, stewing, and waiting.

Then as you write, write from the depths, not the shallows of your life. Reflect on your work. Come at it from different angles. Learn to feel your story before and as you write it. To be honest, most manuscripts I see tell a story, but it’s a passionless story. In such cases, I suspect the author has no passion for the story either—or they’ve not yet learned how to tap their passion and make it come out their fingertips and onto the keyboard.

One suggestion I’ve offered to writers who write without passion is to stop writing to a faceless entity you’re calling the reader. Instead, pretend you’re sitting across the table from your target reader at Starbuck’s. This person has come to you either asking advice or for a story that will move them. Envision your reader and warm up to them. Give the person a name, if necessary. And then talk to them on the page as if they’re your dearest friend.

Another way of looking at what I’m calling my secret is to borrow a phrase from Henry James. He talked about the need for “felt life” in good writing. What is “felt life?” Does anyone reading this want to try defining it for us? I know what it means, but I know it intuitively, and it’s hard to explain things one knows intuitively. And yet “felt life” is, to my mind, that very thing that reaches out from your heart to the heart of your reader. It is the secret.

What about you? What has worked in your writing? How do you invest your writing with felt life? How do you choose words that convey more than intellectual meaning? I’d really like to know.

Over the course of the next few blog entries, I want to talk about the factors that go into making a successful Christian writer. Each entry will briefly touch on one of the factors I’ve observed over the years. The first one, chronologically speaking, is:

1. Know your calling as a writer. Why exactly do you write? Are you serious about writing or are you a dabbler? Will you be briefly disappointed if you don’t succeed, and then move on to the next thing in your life? Or are you aware that this endeavor of writing, editing, and publishing is right where God wants you in spite of repeated rejections from publishers? Knowing your calling is from God will anchor you during those long hot days in the desert when nothing seems to be happening with your writing.

How do you know if writing is your calling from God? First, I think you need to look at your own heart and at your own desires. Do you have a seemingly inborn desire to succeed at writing? Many writers can trace such yearnings all the way to their childhood. In my own case, I well remember writing my first short story at age eight. That led to more writing along the way—some of which….no, MOST of which was embarrassingly horrible. And eventually, in college I majored in English and minored in journalism. My first jobs were in the library and then in bookstores. Writing was very much on the back burner then. I didn’t sell my first article until I was in my late 30’s. All the while, though, the knowledge that books and writing were to be the major part of my life was evident to me. When, stupidly, I abandoned it all for a year to try a career in real estate, I failed miserably. Only when I returned to my first vocational love of books (my calling) did I find a return to contentment.

Another way to know is to watch how God leads you. Believe me, to succeed in writing, you really need some divinely opened doors along the way. Even flat-out miracles. I’ve had at least three (and probably more) major door-opening miracles that moved me along the path toward my destination. These were doors I could not have opened myself.

One reason those miracles happened was that I was praying for God to lead me as I went along. I prayed for those open doors. So, in talking about one’s calling as a writer, I’m going to include prayer as a key ingredient to a successful career as a Christian writer. Even today—perhaps more than ever—prayer for my writing is a mainstay of my life. Not just about my present and future projects, but also about the books I’ve already published. I continue to pray for the effect they will have on readers, even long after I’m gone.

I can’t mention prayer without touching briefly on praying for discernment in your career. You may have opportunities that sound good, but are really a distraction. Others may sound less attractive, but are just what God has ordered for you. Knowing the difference is a result of being discerning about your writing career. I’ll return to the topic of discernment later during this series.

Calling and prayer, then, are the first and primary factors in success for a Christian writer.

With each of the entries in this blog series, I’m going to ask you to find a way to apply what I’ve written. Sort of like homework from Nick. Today’s homework, then, is for you to first make sure of your calling as a writer. Spend time with God. Pray clear through on the matter. God may even give you a word about your writing. That’s happened to me. Early on, God specifically told me two things about my writing. One was that I’d write daily devotional books (I’ve written five now) and that I would write at least one book for men. To date, I’ve done two: Promises to Keep: Daily Devotions for Men Seeking Integrity and Survival Guide for New Dads. For a long time after those initial words from God, I had no fresh sense of how my writing would proceed. But I plowed along (as I do now) and then this year the Lord gave me a fresh word about my writing (which I’m not at liberty to share just yet).

So now I’m going to give you a few days to pray and settle this matter in your heart one way or the other. Perhaps the answer will be that God is calling you to some other task. If so, then you really shouldn’t waste any more time writing. You should be about the task to which you’re assigned. God will make you shine there. If God does show you that you’re meant to write, then keep watching this spot for the second factor in success as a Christian writer. (And send this link to friends who might benefit from the series).