"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

My Book Launch Talk—from book process to writer’s country

February 13th, 2018 by

(What follows are the remarks I meant to give at my book launch in January, remarks I decided not to give when fellow author Sarah Adams simply read from her book.)

This is, in brief, the story of my novel. And right up front, I can give the thesis for the story by echoing the late great J.R.R. Tolkien: that is, this, my novel, is a tale that grew in the retelling.

There were four retellings, to be exact. And I should add that as my tale grew, so did my sense of being a writer.

Over six years or so, the novel grew out of collaboration, first in writing groups, and then from contradictory writing advice from different editors and agents who were rejecting it. Obviously, I don’t mean that I engaged in some sort of dialogue with those “Dear Writer, your work does not fit our needs at the present time” letters. With these, I decided to just go back again and again to the drawing board with it, and the story grew through advice from writing groups, who were able to tell me where my main character was too weak, that there was too much thinking going on and not enough action.

Early on, after a second draft, roughly in the spring of 2012, I showed my work at a writing conference where editors with Christian publishers said that they didn’t believe the main character’s motivation—why would an English professor go on a reality show? I listened to these editors, took my story home, and worked on that motivation, brought in Walter’s older sister who watches reality TV and wants to go on one of the shows.

And then came the contradictions: during the following spring, in 2013, some of these same editors said that they believed the character motivation, but they didn’t think that anyone would want to read about a reality show. The summer after getting those responses, I took my novel to a Writers Conference near Lake Tahoe, and the secular editors there said that everyone would want to read about this reality show business. I should turn the volume up on it.

So I took the secular advice and kept on going. At this time, in 2013, I no longer thought to write a Christian novel. But I also didn’t want to write what could be construed as heretical. I was afraid that I had.

I pushed forward anyway.

Entering New Terrain
Writing more revisions, amping it up, I still hoped that I was writing a novel with religious implications that would be okay on the secular market.

After more rejections followed, including one that took over a year and it was clear that the editor only read the first few pages, I gave up on the novel, until one of my students, Mitch Kopitch, asked to read it. I let him, and he suggested that I take my favorite scenes and rethink it.

That summer, I deleted 150 pages from my novel and then rewrote it again. And then I decided to put it away. I began working on something else, a memoir of my sister’s life and death. I proposed to write about grief.

I let the novel lie there, off life support, off everything. I decided that nothing was going to come of it.

I worked on the memoir for a year, and on hitting a dead end with it, I went to Serra Retreat center in June with notes I’d begun taking on my novel. I decided that I was bringing together the last stitches of it into a somewhat coherent narrative. I decided that all the rejection and rewriting was what I had for my schooling as a novelist. So I reread and reworked it. Then, in the fall, I sent it out five beta readers, and they liked it. So I began to send it out again, this time to independent publishers.

After several months of working on other things, I heard from a small publisher named eLectio, a Christian publisher.

The strange thing is that at the same time that I sent my book to eLectio, I had also sent it to four or five secular publishers. I thought I was not a Christian writer, but now my book would be published as a Christian novel.

A Christian Novel After All?
And here is how I now think about how I should write Christian fiction.

I don’t think of it as an omniscient author commenting on how faith is supported by what happens. I don’t think of it as writing Amish tales. I don’t think of it as a story where scripture is often quoted, chapter and verse. And I also don’t think of Christian fiction as being like many works today that are about escape, about some post-apocalyptic scenario, an allegorical fantasy novel, or a book based on eschatology that is largely about escape.

I think that I wanted to write about what was current. I wanted to show myself that my faith was current. So, for me to write a Christian book, Christianity has to enter into the picture through character, just as Buddhism does, just as atheism does, just as alcoholism does. It doesn’t begin with a scripture quoted as an epigraph or an allusion to King Saul in the title. In my epigraph, I’ve quoted not scripture but Jean Baudrillard, a French cultural critic obsessed with what TV has done to the reproduction of the image.

I have decided that Christian fiction can begin when we begin reading about a character in all of his contradictions, all of her struggles, and doubts and desires for what cannot possibly come to pass. From there, the issues come up with a realism that most people can recognize.

As this was what I had to write about, I was encouraged when a small, independent publisher helped me to accept that the country, or field, I have to write about is not going to lead to Amish tales, to post-apocalyptic scenarios, or romances, or fantasy. And the truth is that I had to find my little field by sending my main character across the country on a stupid TV show that claims to be about religious ideas of the end of the world, but is more completely and truly all about ratings and money.

That is the America we are in now. We have many traditional symbols representing different versions of the past and monuments that evoke different meanings for different groups. But we also have layers and layers of hypocrisy over and under many of these symbols. Instead of discussions around these differences, we have clickbait, hashtags, ratings wars, Facebook fake news, back and forth media focus, books sold, fame for being famous, looking confident. And my main character, Walter, just represents all those people unhappy in this kind of world and who are smarter than it.

This is an America once settled by guns, gospel, and slavery, contradictions that once seemed harmonized in Manifest Destiny but today are rightly exposed though often muted and silenced in the suburbs where the news is ignored in favor of the world we each carve out in our jobs and with our families. Some version of self-help Bible reading gets many people by, many people who think that all they need do is make adjustments. We surround ourselves on Twitter with optimistic sayings that encourage people in as much as they are willing to feel things that are affirmed in support groups. There are other forces. There is the larger secular progress taking place, the medical advances no one can afford, and the “other” party that is just as evangelistic as the old guard, seemingly just as intolerant, just as driven by sound bite and background music.

Christianity has to come out, if it is going to come out at all in this place, in the very specific terms of acts of grace on character. It has to come from some kind of desire, and since Walter’s desires were long ago drained, they have to emerge in his doubts and responses.

In writing this novel, I have discovered that I have a second one to write. If I have my way, Apocalypse TV will be followed up by a novel called Radio Eden, this time dealing with some of our concerns with Genesis. The new idea concerns American religious ideas of origins and beginnings–even as my first novel, Apocalypse TV, obviously engages with ideas about the end of things. The main character is a pastor who has a radio show once a week and who can’t quite believe that some members of his congregation would take his words literally, go off in search of the real Eden, and in doing so become hostages to a new Islamic terrorist group.

Tensions find us everywhere. Job threats, threats to marriage, and as we grow older, threats to the life we’ve known. This main character moves from a career in ministry to ministry. And I hope that it is in an America we can all recognize, where there are monuments and parks to the past, while the present moves through a series of denials.

In the midst of changing times, at least we still have reading.

The Value of Individual Difference: Publishing with an Independent Publisher

January 26th, 2018 by

Because I haven’t kept it a secret, most readers of this blog probably know of my story over the last few months. In September, my first novel, Apocalypse TV, was released by a small, independent Christian publisher. Three weeks later, just before I was scheduled to have a book launch/release event for it, my youngest son, who had been depressed for most of the last four years, took his life. He had been struggling for longer than we knew, and though he tried to get help and overcome it, he had finally had enough.

With his loss, my focus changed from being a new author to taking care of my family and myself. Anne Lamott has said that new authors should not expect that publishing a book will change their lives, and she is right. Losing my son, on the other hand, was devastating. I don’t expect to ever be the same again.

Most superficially, losing Michael ended all of my immediate efforts and plans for promoting my novel. It is a given in the current publishing market that promotion for a new book falls mostly on the shoulders of the author. Had I gone with a traditional publisher, they would have expected big sales during those weeks following the loss of my son, when I had withdrawn from the world to mourn. I would have been considered a failure by these standards. I didn’t go that route, however, and over the last month I have realized that this works to my benefit. Publishing my book with an independent publisher might actually fit my story in a positive way and allow me to move forward.

Christian author Ed Cyzewski writes that “a commercial book will typically become successful over the course of its first year if it sells well in the first few weeks” (72). If this is the case, then I should expect to not ever publish again.

But that is not what I have found with my publisher. I might add that my editor has provided encouragement, reminding me of what he said before the book was released: that promoting it is not a sprint but a marathon. He is a runner, and this metaphor is certainly meaningful to him. It has also become more helpful and encouraging to me at this time than it originally was. It certainly supports what Cyzewski has noted is the advantage of working independently, where “authors are removed from the urgent publicity timetable of a commercial author” (73).

This is especially helpful to think about, as my friend and author Joseph Bentz has noted: because my book is a novel, after all, not a quick political tell-all that will be out of date in six months, or a book on a hot, trendy topic that has interest NOW, there is no need to be in a hurry. As a novel, it can have a much longer shelf life to it.

That book launch that was supposed to happen last October and was cancelled has come up again. This coming Wednesday, January 31, I will be getting a second chance to promote my book with fellow author and colleague Sarah Adams, who will be promoting her book, Changeling’s Fall, a work of high fantasy. I hope that some people reading this blog will be able to come to APU to attend it. I am also slowly beginning to seek out other venues where I can read from and talk about my novel. If you have some ideas for me about that, I would welcome them. If you would like to include my novel with your book club or write a review of it, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I should have some questions and group study ideas available soon. I could also be available to come and talk to you, both about my recent story around my novel and the story in it.

I am not done mourning the loss of my son. I expect I never will be. That is the truth. But this sharing of stories is one more way of trying to come to terms with what has happened. I think it is the vocation of many writers.

Work Cited

Cyzewski, Ed. Independent Publishing for Christian Authors. 2017.

Some Reflections on Imagination for the Coming Year

December 29th, 2017 by

As we approach the new year, I will say something about the imagination that may seem bold, but it is merely an observation: Our imaginations are powerful and necessary. They help us to create and process new ways of doing things. They help us, as the proverb puts it, to attempt to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” They help us to project and even sometimes make a better world. At the same time, our imaginations are also sometimes tainted by fear. We can think the best; we can think the worst. And in our imaginations, thinking the worst can be paralyzing. It is usually as wrong as its opposite, those proverbial rose-colored glasses.

Some people claim not to have an imagination, but I don’t think this is true. I suspect that people say this because they are realistic about themselves, but also because they do not engage in some artistic venture. But the truth is, to reflect at all on what has happened to us or what may happen, and to fear what may happen, all of this is to be imaginative. As we think and plan for the new year, we are being imaginative. As we do approach the coming year with expectation and hope, we also perhaps have fears. As my Myer-Briggs scores showed long ago, I am deeply introverted. My fears always kept me from doing something that I long wanted to do–go into teaching. I finally faced those fears. Fear still keeps me from occasionally doing something I think would help someone else. In these cases, fear has always seemed like my imagination turned negative.

As a grieving person who misses a loved one, I have been hearing the following from many people over the last three months: “I can’t even imagine what you are going through. There are no words for me to say.” This has been respectful and supportive. It is one of the ways that many of my friends have allowed me to be with them in ways I need to be. At the same time that they have not wanted to tell me that they “know what I am going through,” they have acknowledged something.

As a tangent, I also think that they have said something about imagination. We can try to imagine what another’s suffering is like, but that may be a projection on another person that is actually not helpful. Some of what we think might be accurate and helpful. But if anyone else is like me, we tend to think the worst possible scenario, and that can become an expectation that can be hurtful to the other person. The truth is that the person who is suffering from loss may not be experiencing it in the way we see it happening in our worst fears. Perhaps nothing ever approaches this worst case scenario.

For the most part, I have little to offer from where I stand. Grief comes and goes in waves. I will be distracted by something, a book, a conversation, an activity. And when that activity ends, I will feel bad again. But this is not a constant. The fact that I cannot keep a constant, 24 hour focus on one idea or image is probably healthy in the long run.

As for those New Years resolutions, probably the best thing we can do is what we should do all year long, and that is to allow reason and imagination to coexist in a meaningful tension. We need to give our full respect to both. We should not allow our reasonableness to break up our imagining some better world. At the same time, we should not allow our fears or hopes to be unreasonable. Constant, realistic, incremental expectation of positive fulfillment is probably a reasonable path. The old quote, from Thoreau, I think, about building a foundation to our castles in the air seems to tie in here.

It should be obvious that imagination is a quality we need for everyday existence. Whether we like it or not, it is one of our main headlights. I think we especially need some imagination for that commandment about loving our neighbor, as we try to put ourselves in the shoes of others. That takes an informed imagination.

But we should remember that there are two headlights, and the one I’ve mainly been talking about–imagination–can go quite dark without the other, perhaps low beam of reason that keeps a light on the road right in front of us. The problem is that many of us would rather be on some other road. I know I certainly would right now. But it is by following the road we are on that we get to those others, wherever they take us.

When Things Don’t Go as Planned

November 30th, 2017 by

This past September, my first novel was released by a small, independent publisher named eLectio Publishers. If you get the chance, please go to their website here and look up my book under mystery. They are quite a good publisher, quite supportive of Christian writers who don’t exactly fit the mainstream. We need more publishers like them, and readers need to be aware of them.

But that is the subject for another blog. This one is concerned with what happened just three short weeks after my novel was released. This was not something I could ever find being addressed in the books, articles, and websites devoted to promoting a book in today’s market. On October 6, my youngest son, a senior in high school, took his life. Since then, promoting my book has become a much lower priority, and yet I still have people asking me how the book is doing.

It is probably not doing well. My sense of the publishing world, which looks seriously at a book’s sales during its first two months on the market, is that it hasn’t sold that well in the first two months.

But when things happen in life, that becomes the main issue. Since I find no chapters in those books on “How to Market Your Book While Mourning a Death in Your Family,” I’ve begun to improvise. Over the next week or two, as my school enters the last week of the semester and then finals, I’m going to start calling around to see if I can set up readings. I have found that I’m able to not break down when I’m focused on something else, though that is not completely healthy.

I’ve noticed that I can teach my classes now and almost forget that I am a parent who has lost his youngest son–until I walk out of the classroom and am suddenly hit with that reality again.

Things will continue as they have. Just before my book was released, my editor, who is a runner, assured me that my book’s status would be determined over a longer period than just two months. “Think of it as a marathon, not a 100 yard dash,” he said.

So I am going to act on this. And I am trying to grieve by dedicating any next book I have to write to Michael, my son, whose presence I miss daily now.

Thank you for reading.

A Poem for Michael

October 29th, 2017 by

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Michael, our youngest son. Just over three weeks ago, he took his own life after struggling with depression. We are in mourning, and we were honored to have Michael’s high school friends share their memories of their friend and all he meant to them. The following is a poem I wrote for Michael, and it was read at the service by Michael’s cousin, Chloe Inman. Thank you for reading.

For Michael–

What is length of days
but the endurance of sorrows
when to go out for your season
was to see the fragrant and flowering and,
though broken among the broken,
to frame jokes and
healing in friendships before
the light was lost and you
slipped away from us.

Though your choice
includes you no more
we will not say you are lost; lost
sounds our words shaped to
blame and loss

not carried away
by wind, by time, by
whatever is and will

We go and mourn now.
In the days to come that will now not be seen
you will not stop being our son
you are held forever
in what remains of this length of days.

–Love, from Dad