When Beginning a New Book

When it is time to begin a book, when the blank pages are waiting and the fountain pens have been filled, I recommend you make the barest of plans you can, just enough to aim at what you are setting out to do. Too little direction and you might miss Medicine Bow. Too much planning and you can talk yourself out of turning into the little unmarked road that leads to the left, along which may be the moment the whole journey will end up being about.


It helps to make a list of the stories you want to tell and events you want to describe or the things you want to say. I find it is better to make a list rather than an outline. A list makes me feel as though I am writing a book rather than taking a correspondence course.


I think it wise to leave enough room to ramble around between stops to see what is there to be discovered. Or perhaps to sit in a square and watch people go by. It will not hurt to drive down a long road and have to turn around.


I like to have enough of a plan to know when one might be well advised to turn west into the sunset or stop for the night. But I also need to give myself the freedom to add a chapter or throw one away, to add a story or save it for another day.


A writer can dutifully follow a well-reasoned outline and end up missing the point. A writer can complete the assignment she set for herself and still not write the work she meant to write.


– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”



Wikipedia has taught me to believe in the impossible more often. In the past several decades I’ve had to accept other ideas that I formerly thought were impossibilities but that later turned out to be good practical ideas. For instance, I had my doubts about the online flea market called eBay when I first encountered it in 1997. You want me to transfer thousands of dollars to a distant stranger trying to sell me a used car I’ve never seen? Everything I had been taught about human nature suggested this could not work. Yet today, strangers selling automobiles in the major profit center for the very successful eBay corporation.


Twenty years ago I might have been able to believe that in 2016 we’d have maps for the entire world on our personal handheld devices. But I could not have been convinced we’d have them with street views of the buildings for many cities, or apps that showed the locations of public toilets, and that it would give us spoken directions for walking or public transit, and that we’d have all this mapping and more “for free.” It seemed starkly impossible back then. And this free abundance still seems hard to believe in theory. Yet it is on hundreds of millions of phones.


These supposed impossibilities keep happening with increased frequency.


– from “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly



Why Memoirs Fail

Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling. Or there are staunch limits to emotional tone, so it emits a single register. Being too cool or too shrill can ruin the read. The sentences are boring and predictable, or it’s so inconsistent you don’t know who’s speaking or what place they come from. You don’t believe or trust the voice. You’re not curious about the inner or outer lives of the writer. The author’s dead in the water.


– from “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr


Positioning, Packaging, and the Pitch

Today, in order to even have a chance at people’s attention, your project has to seem as good as or better than all the others. Three critical variables determine whether that will happen:

  • Positioning is that your project is and who it is for.
  • Packaging is what it looks like and what it’s called.
  • The Pitch is the sell – how the product is described and what it offers to the audience.


– Ryan Holiday, “Perennial Seller”


Rewrite Time

When the rewrite time comes, you put your gamer on. You jam the gamer down on your head and set yourself to work. The artiste who wears the beret is to be banned from the premises. The work is no longer golden. You are about to try to coax a book from a pile of unruly sentences. Sentences that merely hold some promise is often the best one can say for them.


A chest protector and a set of shin guards turn out to be helpful. Wristbands not untoward. Spikes not out of the question. Some of the so-called golden work must be thrown out altogether, never to be seen again. Other parts must be strengthened and moved and recast and pounded on with great fury until they are right.


A chapter’s worth of pages must be laid out on a table, and sections and paragraphs and lines are moved from one place to another. Chapters themselves get shifted around in search of the order that works the best.


I have a list of words, lovingly referred to as the search-and-destroy list, that I tend to use over and over—weak verbs, lame adjectives, unclear nouns [or “vague nouns”?]. I go through the entire pile of pages with a fine-tooth comb and a decent thesaurus, eliminating weak words and looking for stronger ones.


This is not work for the faint of heart. This work calls for people who do not mind if their gamer gets dirty and sweat stained and faded. What happens in this stretch often results in more words on the floor than on the page.


This is craft, not art. This work will make the book or will break it.


You do not whistle while you do this work. You mutter and scream and growl. You roll up your sleeves and go to work each day prepared to fight with and for each and every line and all that is in between.


I spend a lot more time in my baseball cap than in my beret. Which is one of the reasons I keep two books going almost all the time. I walk to a nearby coffee shop and order a café au lait while wearing the aforementioned beret. I do not like café au lait, but I like being a man who can order one and do so with the accent on the proper syllable. I get to wear my beret for at least six hundred words each day and remember I am an artist.


The rewrite work requires my Yankees cap and my colored pens. I live a part of my day for weeks on end in a literary MASH unit equipped only with colored pens and an X-Acto knife.


– from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” by Robert Benson



What is the Single Best Way to Develop a Relationship with Your Publisher?

– by Jana Burson




Just like in any relationship, be it friendship, business, marriage, etc., in order for a good relationship with your publisher to be healthy and to flourish, there needs to be good communication.


Publishers love authors who communicate with them on a regular basis about what they are doing, what they have planned and what’s changing. It allows them to stay current on their plans for you and your book release and promotion.


Never assume that the team at your publishing house has time to read every blog, or social media post you make. The reality is that they don’t. They have a long list of authors they are working with and are trying to balance all the demands of their job. When you communicate things of importance to them, not only are you making their job less difficult, you are also bringing their focus back to you. And let’s face it: the old adage of the squeaky wheel getting the grease is true.


Communication is key in every step of the process. Starting with your editor, if you are working on your manuscript or through the edits and things are going great let them know. If you are having difficulty and know there’s no possible way of meeting the deadline, communicate that sooner rather than later. When you don’t, you not only cause a breakdown in the relationship, you also cause a log jam in the editor’s schedule of work.


When it comes to marketing and publicity, communication can be the difference between having a positive or negative experience with the launch of your book. More often than not, a marketing and publicity team has more on their plate than they can say grace over, and it takes a lot of effort to keep all the plates spinning. By nature of the workload, when they don’t hear from you, they can easily think that everything is going great. Their attention is focused on the authors who are in regular communication with them. And when an author is in communication with the publishing house, in turn the team is in communication with the author thus making the author feel taken care of.


One last word of advice: always, always communicate your appreciation to your publishing team! A note of gratitude from an appreciative author goes a long way. And speaking from experience, it can often mean going the extra mile for that author.


Your Creative Calling

When you respond to your creative calling, you are doing something that is necessary for the world. It may be necessary in big ways-say a series of newspaper articles that can help shape the consciousness of a generation. Or it may be necessary in small ways-perhaps a charcoal sketch that brings you, the artist, healing. But art is not a luxury. Creative works are called out by cultural and personal needs that are too deep and intuitive to be obvious every time. We know, for instance, that music helps us in ways that we can’t always describe. Poetry and patchwork quilts are also appealing to us at an almost subconscious level. It’s difficult to quantify such quality. It would be impossible to do a spreadsheet analysis of how artistic work helps us.

Any creative work, “artistic” or not, is coming from a deeper place and answering deeper needs that cannot be named easily. In this respect we have to have faith-faith that what we do, whether an arrangement of flowers or a mathematical proof, is worth our best energy.


– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press


If Something is Not Interactive, it is Broken

All devices need to interact. If a thing does not interact it will be considered broken. Over the past few years I’ve been collecting stories of what it is like to grow up in the digital age. As an example, one of my friends had a young daughter under five years old. Like many other families these days, they didn’t have a TV, just computing screens. On a visit to another family who happened to have a TV, his daughter gravitated to the large screen. She went up to the TV, hunted around below it, and the looked behing it. “Where’s the mouse?” she asked. There had to be a way to interact with it. Another acquaintance’s son had access to a computer starting at the age of two. Once, when she and her son were shopping in a grocery store, she paused to decipher the label on a product. “Just click on it,” her son suggested. Of course cereal boxes should be interactive! Another young friend worked at a theme park. Once, a little girl took her picture, and after she did she told the park worker, “But it’s not a real camera – it doesn’t have the picture on the back.” Another friend had a barely speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and easily handle complicated tasks on apps almost before she could walk. One day her dad printed out a high-resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He notices his toddler came up and tried to unpinch the photo to make it larger. She tried unpinching it a few times, without success, and looked at him, perplexed. “Daddy, broken.” Yes, if something is not interactive, it is broken.


– from “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly


Using Fiction to Explore Spiritual Reality


by Steve McCutchan www.smccutchan.com


Have you ever hit your thumb with a hammer? If so, you experienced a critical factor that contributes to many of the problems in the world. When you hit your thumb, at that moment the only reality in your universe is your pain. To get help, you have to step back from your pain and see the bigger picture. Maybe it is to get some ice for your thumb or ask someone for a band-aid, but you can’t do that if you stay focused on the pain.


We are all familiar with the creation story in Genesis where the earth was without form and void (utter chaos) and God spoke a word and order began to emerge out of that chaos. Perhaps the creation story can serve as a parable for how God can work in our society to bring order out of chaos.

In Walter Brueggemann’s Israel’s Praise, he develops the idea that words create worlds. It is not the objective experiences we have but the way we interpret those experiences that constitute the world in which we live. If my mind is filled with medical terms and health statistics, then I see events as relating to the world of health. If I am a chef who continually is reading about new recipes, then I see food in terms of taste. If the words that dominate my life are dollars and debts, then I see food in terms of cost. In lay terms, the words that fill our lives become the spectacles through which we see and interpret the world of experiences around us.

In our confusing and anxious society, people are too close to the pain to get any perspective on their options. They feel helpless–trapped–a victim. Their lives, at that moment, have no order or direction. Like your hurting thumb, they are focused on the pain.

We can use our capacity to write fiction to help people, including ourselves, to step back and see the bigger picture. We regain their power to exercise choice. We are no longer just a victim of the institutions and conditions around us.


Words have the power to both create and destroy. Probably the worst maxim ever devised was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words can hurt people, and frequently once spoken, the damage is difficult to repair. However, words can also help people explore the future, heal our fractures, and resolve crisis. Words can also help us create a future.


The problem with our ideological splits today is that we have lost the capacity to listen to each other with any anticipation that we might learn from the other person.

Jesus told parables to engage people in thinking about issues. When the lawyer asked Jesus who was his neighbor, he could have given a straight definition. Then the issue would have been whether the lawyer agreed or disagreed. Instead, he told a story that engaged the lawyer, and continues today to invite our reflection.


Let me use abortion as an example. Regardless of your position on abortion, if the subject comes up, do you first find yourself looking for clues in the opening comments about which SIDE the person is on? When you are in the discussion, as the other person speaks, do you find yourself only half listening while you try to decide what the best counterargument will be? Do you enter into such conversations assuming that someone will win, and someone will lose the argument? Do such discussions tend to build community or divide people into camps?

You might have more fun, and it might result in a better community, if you approached the subject through fictional stories that engage each other.

There are several ways that you can set up this experience. It can take place in a variety of configurations of small groups–within a congregation, among a group of friends in a home, among several clergy, or even among several congregations some of whom can be either in a different state or country.


For example, five clergy friends, and they have agreed to participate via Internet to write a story. To create an orderly process, each is assigned a number–Participant 1, Participant 2, Participant 3, Participant 4, Participant 5, and Participant 6.

Each of you agrees to participate in jointly composing a fictional story addressing the topic of abortion. You provide an initial story setting. Perhaps it’s a female seminary student who wants the perspective of two experienced pastor friends who hold slightly different perspectives. You provide names and a brief description of the three characters, and the triggering incident that brings them together for a conversation about abortion. Maybe they meet in a coffee house or at a retreat.

Participant # 1 (probably you) will complete the initial prompt that begins their conversation. After that, each participant in the order of his or her number will only be able to offer a one or two sentence response. The short response of each participant can be from one of four possibilities.

The sentence can build on and continue the initial speaker’s comment. The sentence can be spoken by the second character as a response. The sentence can describe an action by one of the characters. For example, “The pastor stood up and removed a book from his bookshelf.” The sentence can introduce a third minor character to the scene. For example, “The secretary entered the office with a tray with cups of coffee.”

Each participant must develop a sentence or two that has integrity with the previous sentences and scene. If the participant thinks the conversation is going in the wrong direction, this person can always have a character give voice to that concern.

There are several advantages to this process. One, it eases people’s discomfort of feeling like they don’t know how to write because anyone can write one or two sentences.

Second, no person or ideological position controls the direction of the story, but all are dependent on the others.

Third, even if they are fictional, the discussion involves live people and not just an abstract theory.

Fourth, it allows the topic to move beyond one person’s strong opinion.

Fifth, it builds anticipation for how the story might develop.

Sixth, as it proceeds, you will build community rather than divide it because all of you are developing the story.

Agree that each person will forward the additional sentences within twenty-four hours. That allows for one complete round within a week, with one day of Sabbath rest. By the end of two months, eight rounds, you will consult with each other as to how long you will continue.

If you agree to compose your story on a service like One Drive, or Google doc, you will be able to keep your story together where all can see it as it develops. After you have completed the first round, you may want to alter the rules and allow each person to add up to a paragraph or two. Always agree that whatever wild turn you take must build on the previous contribution.

My booklet, Using Fiction to Explore Spiritual Reality, http://bit.ly/FictionSpiritual contains a variety of ways to use fiction in engaging people and communities to examine the issues in life. If you are interested, contact me at steve@smccutchan.com


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