I feel as called to write as I do to pastor, but my writing dream took a lot longer to fulfill. In fact, there were moments when I wished God hadn't even given me the passion to write because the dream was like a pebble in my shoe, a constant source of irritation and frustration. The longer I went without turning that dream into reality, the longer the shadow it cast on the rest of my life.
Then in 2002 I took one small step in the "write" direction. I started turning my weekend messages into an Evotional that I sent out via e-mail to subscribers. That weekly exercise forced the writing habit. And it proved to be an important part of my digital ministry. Exponentially more people read my Evotionals than listen to my messages.
The next step in my writing journey was self-publishing my first book, ID: The True You, with Xulon Press (xulonpress.com). The driving motivation was proving to myself that I could actually write a book. I self-imposed a deadline, invested $1,500 into the project and the book was released in November of 2004.
I wish I could tell you that ID was a New York Times bestseller. It wasn't. In fact, it sold 57 copies its first month in print. My first royalty check was a whopping $110.43.
Let's just say that I didn't start making early retirement plans!
Shortly after ID was listed on Amazon.com, I decided to get a little more proactive in pursuing my writing dream. I started working on another manuscript that I titled In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day. I started praying for favor with publishers. I e-mailed my friend Brian McLaren and asked if we could grab lunch.
Brian is the author of several paradigm-shifting books including A New Kind of Christian. I asked him a thousand questions about publishing, and he was patient enough to answer all of them. Then he went the extra mile and introduced me to an author agent named John Eames. John and I had several conversations. He liked my writing style. I liked his experience and expertise within the publishing industry. And I signed John as my agent.
After helping me craft a book proposal, John began shopping it to seven publishers that he thought would be a good fit. Several publishers expressed interest, but a five-hour meeting with Kevin Marks and David Koop from Multnomah Publishers sealed the deal.
One thing they said impressed me: They said they weren't looking for an author. They were looking for a relationship. I felt like they "got me" and I "got them." And I respected their team of authors that included the likes of Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio and Bruce Wilkinson. After three months of conversational negotiating, I signed a deal to write four books over a two-year span.
As I look in the rearview mirror, I have several observations about my writing journey. I can see the way God answered my prayers for favor. I can see how perseverance eventually pays off. But the thing I marvel at the most are the supernatural synchronicities.
God is in the business of making sure we meet the right people at the right time. My book deal was the byproduct of divine networking and divine timing. And if God has called you to write, then He'll open the right doors at the right time.
I'm not going to lie. Writing, editing and marketing a book is hard work. It involves a lot of early mornings and late nights. And it won't simplify your life. But the last time I checked, the reward for good work in the parable of the talents wasn't an early retirement or extended vacation. The reward for good work was more work.
If you're not called to write then don't write. But if you are called to write, then you need to develop a writing discipline. And pastors have a distinct advantage. You're already writing a sermon every week. And with a little tweaking, you can convert that message into a chapter of a book. For what it's worth, my mentor in ministry, Dick Foth, once told me that the average pastor of a church with three weekly services preaches the equivalent of nine novels every year!
Writing will not only expand your sphere of influence, but the primary beneficiary will be your congregation. Writing books will help you preach better sermons. Your books will become discipleship resources for small groups and sermon series. And I even view my books as 200-page evangelism tracts. They are one way I share my faith with neighbors, unchurched friends and people sitting next to me on airplanes. I have no idea what my writing future holds. I hope In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day sells more than 57 copies its first month, but I can't control how many books I sell. Only God knows what will happen when the book is released on October 2. All I can do is write like it depends on me and pray like it depends on God.
Here are seven writing tips for aspiring authors that I picked up along the way:
Write for intrinsic reasons. If you write for the wrong reasons your dream will short-circuit. I often ask rookie authors if they are willing to write a book even if it doesn't sell one copy. That is the litmus test because it reveals whether they are writing for extrinsic reasons or intrinsic reasons.
Writing for intrinsic reasons is like singing in the shower. You write, first and foremost, because you love to write. In fact, you can't not write because you feel called to write. Every author who believes in what they write wants to sell as many books as possible, but that can't be the driving motivation. Don't write because you want people to read. Write because you've got something you have to say.
Find a writing rhythm. Half of writing is rhyme. The other half is rhythm. My peak writing hours are 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. In fact, I get more accomplished before my official workday starts than I do the rest of the day. I hit a point of diminishing return around noon. My mind is too cluttered to write straight. I also find that sometimes I need to walk away from whatever I'm writing for 24 hours to regain my perspective.
Keep reading. Writers are readers. I read approximately 150 books per year. Granted, I have an unfair advantage as a preacher, because I slot about 25 hours of study time per week. But I've also learned to be a good steward of my time. I have a book with me wherever I go. And the truth is that everybody could read at least one book a month if they simply kept a book in their bathroom.
Find your voice. Writing a book is baring your soul. You feel intellectually and spiritually vulnerable. Writing forces you to come to terms with who you are and who you aren't. Unfortunately, many authors hide behind their words. You don't feel like you know them any better at the end of the book than you did at the beginning. I try to write as if I'm having a conversation with someone over coffee. Keep it real. Keep it personal. Don't just share your thoughts. Share your life.
C.S. Lewis said that every life consists of a few themes. Finding your voice is giving expression to those themes—your core convictions and core passions. Write about the things you're passionate about. And dare to be different. Don't be afraid to express your personality and originality in what you write.
Know your writing strengths. Writers need editors because all of us have blind spots. A good editor understands an author's weakness and complements an author's strengths. I know my strength is saying old things in new ways. I juxtapose truth in creative ways. I'm insatiably interested in everything, so I import knowledge from a variety of disciplines—everything from physics to business to philosophy to neurology—to add density and variety to my writing.
I'm good at conceptualizing truth in creative ways, but my weakness is application. And I recognize that in my own writing and preaching. I'm a 30,000-foot thinker. I tend to fly circles around the airport, so I need editors who help me come in for a practical landing.
Tie off the umbilical cord. I'm a perfectionist by nature. I will keep revising a manuscript 'til kingdom come if I don't have a deadline, but at some point you have to tie off the umbilical cord so a book can take on a life of its own.
According to Parkinson's Law, the amount of time it takes you to complete a project depends on how much time you have allotted. If you have a month, it'll take a month. If you have six months, it'll take six months. One way that I've overcome my perfectionism and procrastination is the 80-percent rule. I send my chapters to my editors when I feel like I'm 80 percent of the way there. It relieves some of the pressure I feel to make sure every chapter is perfect.
Pray like it depends on God. We have a core value at NCC: work like it depends on you, and pray like it depends on God. That is a pretty good modus operandi when it comes to writing. Writing is hard work. There is no way around it. But prayer is what helps a book come to full-term.
I actually had a prayer team that was interceding for me while I was writing In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day. The prayer team prayed for every person who would pick up the book and read it. They prayed for my editors. And they prayed that I would write exactly what God wanted me to say. Those prayers give me a sense of destiny. I can't wait to see the way God answers those prayers in the lives of readers.