IVP - Behind the Books - Writing Archives

April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert, Writer

If you think of Roger Ebert (who passed away yesterday) as a movie critic or a TV personality first, let me recommend to you his beautiful 2011 memoir, Life Itself.

Continue reading "Roger Ebert, Writer"
Posted by Jon Boyd at 9:34 AM

April 28, 2010

Blogging the John Cougar Way

Greetings from IVP’s friendly online publicist! Recently I offered some advice for authors about how to effectively use the tools that Amazon provides to their best promotional advantage. Today I’d like to talk a bit about good blogging technique, so that if you have a blog or are considering starting one, you can ensure that you’re not inadvertently irritating to your readers. And in an effort to make the advice a bit more memorable, I’ve included approximately ten tips for you in the song below.


I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

(I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy)

I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

Someone who knows the meaning of,

uh Now don’t be lazy


Well I’ve been trolling the blogs in the mornin’

Reading through the many posts at night

I’m so fed up, my mind is all filled up

Hey I’m so tired of people not doin’ it right


Blogging without bein’ analytical

Failing to make any point concisely

And all them pundits tryin’ to be so political

Inflammatory hype that don’t worry ’bout the facts precisely


I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

Someone to teach me and show me the way

I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

Someone who knows the meaning of,

uh Now don’t be lazy


Well I’m hoping that you’ll write something new every day

You’ll stay on topic, provide helpful links, and focus (Keep it up!)

With a solid plan of what you’d really like to say

Instead of rambling on with hocus pocus, Please don’t make it up


I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

Someone who knows the meaning of,

uh Now don’t be lazy


(instrumental interlude)


I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

Someone to teach me and show me the way

I need a blogger that won’t drive me crazy

Someone who knows the meaning of,

uh Now don’t be lazy


You betcha

Posted by Adrianna Wright at 12:25 PM

January 22, 2009

Definite Articles & Unlikely Books

“That sounds like a good article.” That’s how a colleague responded recently to my excited presentation of a book proposal. Ouch.

What determines whether an idea would work better as a book or an article? When a friend asked me recently if I had anything that helps a writer determine the answer to that question, I had to admit I couldn’t really say. I asked around, and in fact none of us remembers seeing anything authoritative on the subject. So I thought I’d make something up.

1. Audience, audience, audience. Are there enough people out there who would drop $15-20 and a couple of weeks’ worth of reading time to digest the idea under consideration? “Enough” is a difficult threshold to measure, of course, but here’s a proto-filter:

Readers (as opposed to non-readers)

Book readers (as opposed to readers who don’t make time for books)

Book readers with a vested interest in the topic

Book readers actively on the hunt for books on the topic

Book readers actively pursuing the topic and not filtered out by other factors.

For example, many people read, but only a percentage of those reading people are Buddhists, and only a percentage of those Buddhists who read give a portion of their reading time to books. Not all Buddhist book readers read books about Buddhism, but undoubtedly some do. Only a few, however, would feel compelled to purchase and read a high-end theological critique of Buddhism from an evangelical Christian perspective. And finally, some of those Buddhist devotees of high-end theological Christian critiques of Buddhism have taken vows of poverty that preclude their spending money on books.

I am undoubtedly missing some layers in my filter, and in the case of my example there may well be a sufficient alternative audience outside of Buddhists (scholars of world religions, for example), but you get the idea. Books are significantly more expensive than articles, and so to earn their keep they depend on a highly committed audience. Is there enough demand to warrant the supply?

So the first category distinction between what constitutes a book and what constitutes an article is the question of adequate audience. The second is like it.

2. Content, content, content. In terms of pure word count, a short book is generally ten to twenty times the length of an average article. So, put simply, does the author have ten to twenty articles’ worth of ideas about the topic under consideration? Are those ideas distinct enough from each other to avoid redundancy when stuck together? Are they integrated enough that they make sense bound together into a book?

Another way of looking at this is by looking at the skeleton of your idea. How many sections does your thesis break out into? If you can’t subdivide it into more than two or three ideas, then perhaps before long you’d run out of steam writing it. If you subdivide into seven to ten “chapters” but can’t imagine yourself writing more than a few paragraphs about any of those subcategories, then maybe this idea can’t sustain a booklength treatment.

Now, just because an idea doesn’t yield a book’s worth of content doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea; it may well be a great idea. A more prudent editor might leave it to a periodical publisher to comment on the positive case for an article, but I’m not especially prudent. Therefore let me offer these preliminary thoughts.

  • Whereas book publishers are often anonymous in the eyes of the reading public, periodicals have a loyal following—people who pay for the privilege of regularly reading a printed magazine, or people who happily archive a website among their “favorites.” As such periodicals have a particularly refined, distinct identity. Articles that fall in comfortably with that identity are good candidates for that publication. Periodicals within a particular category, of course, have overlapping areas of interest even as they have notable distinctions from one another (watch the movie 13 Going on 30 for an example of this—and for a funny re-creation of Michael Jackson’s video “Thriller”). So typically more than one periodical can be a potential home for a good article.

  • No one person can offer the final word on an idea, but one person can offer the first word. So if you have an idea that hasn’t been explored before and might stimulate further conversation, it’s probably worth pursuing as an article. On the flip side, countless people can offer the same word on an idea over and over and over again, so check your take against the question “Is this really, really, really fresh?” If it isn’t rehashing someone else’s stuff, if it actually advances an ongoing conversation, then it’s probably worth pursuing as an article.

“That sounds like a good article” is the kiss of death on a book proposal, but it’s exactly what you want to hear from a periodical publisher. In either case, there’s a lot of work—both introspection and research—that precedes it, and a lot of work—writing and rewriting and supporting and promoting—that follows it. So whatever distinctions there are between articles and books, neither one can be said to be easier. Whatever publishing direction you choose to take an idea, you need to know who you are, what you have to say, and who you’re dealing with.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:38 PM | Comments (1) are closed

December 16, 2008

Losing Your Book

I love to listen to the American Public Media show The Story, where real people talk about their lives with a highly skilled empathetic interviewer. There was a program about writing on December 8 that will tear at the heart of any author. It seems that a young promising writer, Andrew Porter, working on his first book had his entire manuscript of stories stolen in a burglary—his computer was taken and his leather briefcase (with all of the hard copies) was also taken.

He was never able to recreate what he lost. And his anger at the whole situation blocked him from new writing for the next three years.

You can hear the story at theStory.org (click on the calendar for December 8—it’s the second part of the show).

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 1:26 PM | Comments (4) are closed

September 23, 2008

The Life of a Writer

It's not everyday that I receive an email with a YouTube video recommendation from our esteemed publisher Bob Fryling. However, this morning my editorial colleagues and I received the following note: "I thought you would enjoy this rather entertaining YouTube explanation of being an author from a British novelist named Roger N. Morris. There are four parts but the first part is the best."

You may note in this brief message that he kindly previewed all four segments so that his employees would not have to expend their time doing so. However, I must confess that I did venture to segment two. I thought it was very amusing as well, as it points out the very common obssession of writers: checking Amazon frequently (daily, hourly) to see how their book ranks. This is a crazy-making exercise to say the list. (See the recent blog post in Andy Unedited for more on Amazon sales rankings.)

Check out the videos--and let us know if you decide to post your own!

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 10:01 AM | Comments (1) are closed

September 15, 2008

The Best Books Have Four Hs

This summer I got particularly pretentious on my personal blog as I rolled out the “four Hs of the best books.” I hereby digest the series in a slightly less pretentious form here for you. You’re welcome.

The series began with me showing appreciation for Thomas Merton's No Man Is an Island, while also reading a book that might best be described as propaganda--a digest of several people's arguments against a predictable set of contrarian beliefs, presented with a high level of authoritarian conceit and adversarial derision. Both books were provocative, but only one struck me as particularly conducive to constructive conversation and fruitful meditation. That's the Merton book; I'm not going to name the other one.

So H number one is this: The best books are hard to read. By "hard" I don't mean unintelligible; I mean that they leave us unsettled, uncomfortable, moved in such a way that we feel a need to lay them open in front of other people and say, "What must I do with this?" The best books don't send us to our friends to wag our fingers at them but to ask them to read with us, guide us, pray for us.

But there's a vulnerability to conceit on the part of readers and writers of books that are hard to read. So the best books aren't merely hard to read; the best books are also humble (H number two).

Although book-writing still has some of its mystique, in reality if I—some random guy from the suburbs—can get two books published, then really anyone can. Ah, democracy. But with some 200,000 titles in English being published every year, no book can reasonably claim to have the final word. So the best books recognize that the hard things they have to say represent only one voice in a much, much larger conversation, and that the conversation is ongoing, and that the things they say will, in the best world, ultimately be supplanted by better words and better thoughts.

At this point I’d committed myself to four Hs, but I conveniently forgot one of them. Fortunately the H I remembered was thus particularly appropriate: the best books are humorous.

I don't mean that the best books are joke books. In my humble opinion, most joke books are hard to read simply because they are (a) horrible and (b) not funny. Rather, the best books carry within their writing a sense of humor that is born out of the author's humility and extrapolated out into something more universally true. The stories these writers tell aren't necessarily fantastical absurdist escapism, although some of them may well be. But they are funny, because we recognize in them a bit of ourselves, a bit of our parents or our children, a bit of our most favorite and least favorite people. We don't cease to be human in the wake of tragedy or loss or otherwise difficult circumstances; we continue to feel the range of emotions common to the human condition—which includes humor, because even when we're sad some things will strike us as simply laughable. So although the best books are not merely humorous, I'd argue that a humorless book--whether a novel or a book of poems or a book of nonfiction or a book of holy scriptures--is not telling the reader the whole truth.

The fourth and final H emerges out of the first three: The best books are human. That may go without saying in the minds of many, but I'm not talking about the humanness of the author; I'm talking about the humanness of the content.

The best books regard the human condition in a way that causes us to regard the human condition differently. Animal Farm is a human book despite the near-total absence of humans; Charlotte's Web is a human book despite the primacy of the nonhuman characters. The best books don't pummel us with the author's dogmatic assertions of what is really real; the best books crawl into our laps and ring true for us, and then we close them and revisit the human race from a fresh, even more human perspective. In that respect the best books are not only serving their readers, they're serving the communities inhabited by their readers, and in the best-case scenario, they change a generation.

So there you have it: the best books have four Hs in them. Now go write some.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:59 AM | Comments (2) are closed

August 14, 2008

Write-Brained World

I got a panicked e-mail today from an anxious author. You wouldn't recognize the panic by looking at the e-mail--nothing in all-caps, no frazzled smiley faces, internally consistent spelling and punctuation--but I knew that at the other end of the Internet that connects our computers sat an author who was at her wit's end, grasping at whatever straws I might hold out to her. "Can you please help me understand how I can write as an extrovert?"

That's a tricky business, isn't it? There's hardly anything that appears more introverted than writing, particularly when that writing is directed not to an individual (as in a letter or an e-mail) but to a faceless, anonymous mass of readers (as in a book). Making use of common jargon or shared memories is a dubious proposition when there's no immediate or even direct confirmation that the message was received, that the joke was got. So the concept of writing for an as-yet-potential audience is highly abstract and consequently highly ungratifying to many extroverts.

And then there's the discipline of writing, described at least once as "easy . . . all you have to do is open a vein." A compelling percentage of writers who write about writing are notoriously, self-referentially martyrous, delighting in the ironic juxtaposition of being deeply vulnerable from the comfort of their faux-leather office chair. Writing is relished for the pain it causes such people, even as the laptop into which the person is writing is reassuringly warming his or her lap.

Extroverts are not opposed to martyrdom in principle, so long as they have some company. But writing is ultimately a solitary experience. One pencil per hand, one voice per book, one subject per sentence. Writing requires so much mental presence on the part of the author that other people--even people the writer loves--are sometimes reduced by the mere act of writing to either potential readers or potential distractions.

Ah, there's the rub: how does a person who abhors a relational vacuum crank out 50,000, 5,000, 500 or even 50 internally consistent words in a relational vacuum? I'm not being rhetorical, I'm really asking. Where are my extroverted writers at? What advice can you offer?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:35 AM | Comments (3) are closed

July 28, 2008

I Hate Revising

I asked Father Albert Haase, author of Coming Home to Your True Self, if he'd like to blog about writing. Apparently, I asked on a bad day.


I told my editor last night, "You know, I don´t think I will ever want to write another book. This one is going to be my swan song even though I am still pretty much a fledgling."

Knowing how I am prone to exaggerate and also knowing I have a lunch meeting scheduled with another author at the end of the week about possibly collaborating on something, my editor didn´t flinch. It irritated me that she didn´t get on her knees, shed a couple of alligator tears, pull her hair, feign despair and beg me not to say such silly things.

I am so frustrated. Once it was a transition in chapter two. Then there was that goofy paragraph in chapter four. Now I´m told it´s all of chapter 5 that needs to be reconsidered, rethought and rewritten. Well, I have reconsidered it. I have rethought it. I have rewritten it. And they tell me it still ain´t right. And I´m just sick of it. I say: let´s just null and void the contract and call the project off.

I hate writing. I really do. I don´t know why I keep doing it. Well, maybe I do know why: there´s nothing like holding a published book and seeing your own name on the cover. It´s very gratifying even though no one at the local Christian bookstore or at Borders realizes that behind Cindy Kiple´s handsome cover and nicely chosen font and all those polite promotional blurbs (usually written by your friends!), lies hours and hours of sweat, frustration and research into Dante´s Inferno to find out where he placed book editors who are actually paid for doing something unchristian--telling you what you have done is not quite "up to snuff."

Of course, having a few books under my belt and knowing that some editor is going to scrutinize this to see if it´s "appropriate" for a blog, I also know the value of a demanding editor. I really do. My very first editor, who literally used up an entire red felt-tip pen to note required changes, taught me how to write like a writer instead of preach like a preacher. I would never, ever have been able to teach myself that technique without the dreadful task of revising a manuscript. I will be always indebted to Karen Hurley for that. And then there was Lisa who taught me the value and "classy look" of a well-placed semi-colon. "Punctuation can make a sentence sing," she told me - and it´s true! And then there was the "pit bull" (that was my nick-name for her!) who simply refused to let me get away with one throw-away sentence - much less throw-away word. She taught me that it really and truly pays off to agonize over just one word. So I am really grateful for tough editors, as much as their requests make me queasy.

It´s just that being hounded to reconsider, rethink and rewrite chapter five - and knowing it has to be completed in one week - will keep me pondering and fussing . . . when I just wish the manuscript would be completed.

I´ll keep that lunch appointment. And I will in all likelihood, attempt another book. But I won´t like the revising! And I will pray that the good Lord has mercy on my editor´s soul.

Addendum from the editor: This blog was written on Thursday. On Monday I received the revision of chapter five with the following note: "I got an idea for another book . . . I am getting to Mayslake Ministries REAL early tomorrow morning (Monday . . . around 7:30am at the latest) and I hope to steal 30 minutes to start an outline. I feel lots and lots of "energy" around the idea."

Now you know why I "didn't flinch" when the author suggested that he would never write another book. Sometimes if you just stay quiet things work themselves out.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 8:27 PM | Comments (7) are closed

May 13, 2008

Reading Your Own Writing

Do you like to read your own work after the fact? I don't! I usually want to rewrite it, reorganize it or completely revise it. (Do I sound like an editor?)

Some authors tell me they like to read their books. They find it gratifying. One author told me that he read his own book through three times the first week it popped off the press. Another author told me that she doesn't mind rereading her own books, but hates watching video of herself speaking. (Oh, yes, I had to agree that watching myself on video would be a much worse proposition than reading my own writing.)

I've been reading Henri Nouwen's Sabbatical Journal. And I found it interesting to come upon his description of the experience of reading his own book aloud while taping a recording of Life of the Beloved:

Although I wrote Life of the Beloved, I never read it. It is quite an experience to read a book that you yourself wrote more than four years ago. All through I wanted to make changes, rewrite, correct small mistakes, and adapt it to the circumstances of today. But I realized that the best thing would be simply to read it as it was and save my energy for new books. It is amazing how, within a few years, one's ideas and feelings shift. Today I would have written Life of the Beloved quite differently. And still the book continues to be popular.

And so if you, like me, dislike reading yourself, take comfort in the fact that even Henri Nouwen found himself wanting to rewrite his published book. But then he choose to allow himself to move on to new work. I am so glad he did.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 1:39 PM | Comments (1) are closed

April 25, 2008

The Passionate Writer--Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing

I'm the one in editorial who went to the Calvin Festival and left Dave behind. The thing about being an editor there is that you are torn between going to sessions and having meetings with authors and potential authors. I am always determined to go to the sessions, which stimulate my editorial mind and restore my passion for publishing, so what usually happens is that I am forever walking in late, catching only part of the session and not being quite sure what is going on! But even so, it's always delightful because the speakers are writers who love words and use them well.

One session I can comment on effectively, since it was late night and I was able to catch the whole thing, was Rob Bell's late-night talk "Writing as Pure, Undiluted Slog." He wore black clothing and dark glasses (just as writers always do). He spoke while sitting on stage in a chair with a side table full of books and the Mac laptop that he used to run powerpoint on the screen behind him. I took some notes in regard to his thoughts on writing and publishing. Here you go:

"Great writing pulls you in and then drops you a few paragraphs later."

Quoting Gene Fowler: "Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."

"We do the work because there's something inside of us that we have to get out, and if we don't get it out we're going to spontaneously combust." Then he quoted Ray Lamontagne, who expressed a similar sentiment aobut music: "Songs are in there and I've got to get them out before they kill me."

Quoting Frederick Buechner: "I was trying too hard and hadn't let the empty space inside me open up."

"Creation always involves risk--like having children." [You don't know quite how they will come out.]

"Do not beome what the market/audience wants. Do not ask an editor 'What's hot? What do people want?'"

These last statements are very important--and echo my own book publishing philosophy: Authors need to write what they are passionate about. They need to write about the thing that God is pressing on them to offer to the world--whether it's a particular approach to spirituality, biblical commentary, ministry paradigm, counseling resource or literary essays. A book is an enormous commitment, and writing simply in order to be published does not generally work. There are a few exceptions to this rule--being invited to contribute to a pre-set series, writing on a hot media topic, journalistic writing, biography, upcoming movie and so forth--but even there the writer is generally working in their field of interest.

One reason I particularly love this "festival" is that it's not simply a writer's conference. It's a celebration of reading and writing. Writer's conferences (which can be very helpful) tend to focus on the mechanics of how to write a proposal and get published. This conference was all about inspiring writers to develop their craft and offering up gems for readers to read. I always discover a few wonderful new books that I want to read when I'm there.

So for me the Calvin Festival was a good reminder to look for the passionate writer: both as an editor in search of books to acquire and as a reader in search of books to enjoy.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 11:18 AM | Comments (3) are closed

January 24, 2008

A Muse Meant

Please welcome a guest blogger: L. L. Barkat. She is the author of the upcoming InterVarsity Press book Stone Crossings. I asked her to write a blog in response to Dave Zimmerman's "The Sweet Spot." Dave blogged about the long process of editing and then the lovely moment at the end of the road when he was being reminded why he wanted to publish the book in the first place. So here are Barkat's thoughts about what inspires authors. --Cindy Bunch

I remember studying the poets of long ago. For them, a "muse" meant something along the lines of imaginary blonde-haired women who stirred their passions, so they could face impossible tasks like stacking beauty into rhyme and meter. These ethereal blondes seemed to send just the right instructions at just the right time. I’m not sure how they did it. A letter in the poet’s mailbox. Dreams. Or maybe leading their charges, by invisible hand, to the perfect daffodil field on the perfect blue-sky day.

Such muses present challenges to writers who prefer brunettes, who forget to check their mail on a regular basis, and who opt to eat nachos on the couch instead of taking walks. No matter. The Modern Muse Preparatory School is onto this.

At the MMPS (not to be confused with “mumps”), modern writers find exactly who they need to get through the writing process, from soup to nuts. Take me, for instance. Last year, a friend asked if I could tell her about my muse. Up ‘til then, I didn’t even know that the MMPS had assigned me a muse. As it turned out, I was apparently an extra-needy case. Because when I searched through my writing closet, I discovered I had multiple muses—which is sometimes, but not always, as bothersome as having mumps.

Anyway, I told my friend that my muse is the guy who has just now yawned in the middle of a sermon, the young woman who cannot face her abuser, the couple who thinks they should exit their crumbling marriage. I didn’t mention it at the time, but I have other muses too: people who like the clowns that only come out at half-time, anyone who needs an eave to duck under in the rain, maybe even the person who’s forgotten to listen to his dreams.

As it turns out, I also have a blonde-haired muse who sends me mail—of the e-sort—that I check on a regular basis. Being an editor, she has given her life to help writers like me get off the couch and fed me proverbial soup when I was feeling nuts. I’m still trying to decide if this gives her rights to my nachos. But I may just keep them for my personal amusement.

Visit L. L.Barkat's blog Seedlings in Stone.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 2:30 PM | Comments (9) are closed

January 17, 2008

Spiritual Formation for Authors

This post appeared on this blog in August, and it got spammed off the site over the holidays, so here it is again. Seems like a good post for anyone who's doing a January discernment process.

I find that sometimes people hit a point in their ministry and personal life where they need to write. What they have
learned in their vocational and spiritual life is ready to be offered to others. At that point there may be a lot that wants to come out of an author.

I was talking with Keith Meyer of Church of the Open Door about some different book writing ideas that he has. As
he's being pulled in a number of potential writing directions, he has worked with a spiritual director to outline some key questions for himself to use in deciding what to write. I think these are excellent questions for any author to consider. They are

What do I want?
What does the publisher want?
What do people want?
What does God want me to do?

Most likely, the place where all of those questions converge will be an excellent book.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 12:43 PM

January 15, 2008

I Got Nothing

We're closing in on one month since our last Behind the Books post, which anyone will tell you is a cardinal sin of blogging and an outright scandal for a multiple-contributor blog such as this one. But when you have nothing to say, what can you do?

I'll tell you what you can do. You can raid the archives.

InterVarsity Press is a "backlist" publisher, which means that we publish for the ages. Or, if you want to state it in less visionary, more practical terms, we rely on books selling well beyond their first year to keep our program running. That's led to our IVP Classics series and fiftieth-anniversary editions of more than one of our publications, among other things, but it also affects our outlook more generally. We seek input from our forebears as we project forward with our publishing program; we recommend books from decades past to speak truth into contemporary concerns.

In that spirit, I hereby buy us a few more weeks by reposting an entry from our sister blog, Strangely Dim, originally posted in spring of 2004. Enjoy!

***

It was bound to happen. You write five hundred words a week and eventually you’ll run out of things to write. I’ll call it writer’s block, demon oppression, whatever, but I’ve got nothing, and I’ve got 464 more words to go telling you about it.

You come to regard yourself as a deep thinker when you spend as much time as I do putting your thoughts on paper—or more accurately, committing them to digitized memory. (Nice move—eight fewer words I have to write.) And so, when you can’t think of anything, you come to pretty much an identity crisis: If I don’t have this, what do I have? If I can’t do this, what can I do?

When I first toyed with the idea of a weekly column, I was on fire. I kicked out four months’ worth of mini-essays in a couple of weeks. Several months later I started posting them online, and the thrill of that new horizon spurred even more frantic typing on my PC and scribbling of graffiti script on my PDA. But several months after that, I find myself struggling to move beyond a witty headline. Even this confession buys me only a measly seven days—then I’m back to scratching my head and doubting my calling.

They tell you to always write something, to keep writing no matter how frustrating or exhausting or absurd the experience or the end product is. The newness of writing wears off dreadfully quickly, and when your dash becomes a walk, you either keep walking or you get nowhere. Strangely Dim is my exodus, I’m coming to discover. Inevitably, it seems, it has become pretty much a long walk.

I could carry the analogy forward, but I can’t figure out what the golden calf would be. What’s the quick payoff that would make giving up on Strangely Dim when I run short of ideas sound like a reasonable thing to do? Even the golden calf cost something, after all. Gold doesn’t come cheap, and before the Israelites had a calf to worship, they had to throw all their gold in the fire. What could be worth my doing something stupid like that?

I guess it boils down to three possibilities: (1) I’m stroking my ego by maintaining Strangely Dim, and I ought to take advantage of my lapse of imagination to walk away and not look back; (2) I’m trying to protect my fragile ego by using this lapse of imagination as an excuse to quit, and I need to suck it up and keep going; (3) my ego has nothing to do with this, and there’s really little consequence to whether I keep writing Strangely Dim or stop doing it, so I might as well do what I really want—which is to keep writing and keep posting. Strangely Dim, for all the work it’s caused me, has always been a gift, a luxury item I could never have acquired without someone else’s generosity (like the gold the Israelites carried into the desert), and one I can hardly see myself casting aside so frivolously.

Hey, look at that: I made it past the five-hundred-word mark! See you next week.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:18 AM | Comments (1) are closed

December 19, 2007

Writing: The New Spirituality?

I was listening to an audio dialogue between Julia Cameron (author of The Artist's Way) & Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones) called “A Conversation on The Writing Life” when I was arrested by their statement: “Writing is the new spirituality.” For both of them writing is the path to making meaning of the world, knowing yourself, (for Cameron) finding a higher power, and (for Goldberg) reaching a Zen state of understanding. And they both spoke about how writing leads us to truth.

Conversely, they talked about how some writers find that they cannot face the truth that writing demands of them, because it requires such piercing self-awareness. Writers can get sucked into alcoholism and other negative patterns. Some never find their way out.

I agree that writing can be a spiritual act. And we bring our souls into our writing. It is a dangerous act that must be guided by a trustworthy God. But writing as a religion? Sounds scarier than the line outside Target the day after Thanksgiving. What a fickle god writing would be!

Here’s what Vinita Hampton Wright says in IVP's The Soul Tells a Story:

When you’re dealing with something as soulful as your creativity, it’s good to develop some healthy respect for its inherent power. It’s equally important to acknowledge the transcendent character of creativity as well as its tendency to stir up all of life. Creativity emerges from the human soul, and this is a complex entity. Your creative vision resides there—and so do your fears. . . .
Nothing can be more dark and frightening than what the soul discovers when yet another layer of the self is pulled back. (p. 192)
Throughout the book, Wright takes these kind of deep questions that writers like Cameron and Goldberg are asking and uncovers how Christian spirituality can lead us to a safe and healthy place as writers. I highly recommend her book as a wonderful journey into the deep questions of writing and spiritual life.
Posted by Cindy Bunch at 3:58 PM

November 21, 2007

Thesaurus Rex

Recently I caught an episode of Friends in which husband and wife Chandler and Monica were trying to adopt a child. Part of the process was to solicit letters of recommendation for them as parents. They asked their friends™ to write letters—all except Joey.

In case you don’t remember the show, Joey is stupid. He’s also fiercely loyal, and so he demands to write a letter of recommendation. Secretly, however, Joey wants to sound smart.

Fortunately for Joey, Ross (the paleontologist) turns him on to the thesaurus in his computer, and Joey proceeds to pick the smartest-sounding equivalent to every word in the first draft of his letter. His heartfelt sentence “They're warm, nice people with big hearts” thus becomes “They're humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”

Back to the drawing board, Joe. Or should I say, “Recede to the diagram embark, Joe.”

Writers are to a thesaurus like Adam and Eve are to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We happily go through our days communicating clearly, comfortably; all along it’s there on the shelf, minding its own business, just a shift-F7 away. The thesaurus goes virtually unnoticed until that crisis moment when our vocabulary fails us, and our innate capacity to articulate what we’re thinking seems like not quite enough. We don’t just want to communicate, we want to sound clever.

Suddenly we hear a hissy whisper somewhere behind us—“Ssseeeee what’ssss in the thessssaurussss . . .”

Thank God for The Elements of Style, the long-canonized style manual crafted by E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, based on his training under English professor William Strunk Jr. White’s writing is undeniably good yet readable at any age, principally because Strunk prioritizes clarity over cleverness. Acknowledging that writers often see the path to cleverness as becoming deliberately obscure, Strunk and White nevertheless holds the banner high: “Since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. . . . Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!”

Thank God for words plainly spoken. Even Jesus is encouraged toward it; his disciples responded to his Upper Room Discourse with “Finally! You’re giving it to us straight, in plain talk” (John 16:29 The Message). I think they would say to all of us in Christian publishing, “Go and do likewise.”

Joey did just that, abandoning the computer and the thesaurus and writing a new letter by hand, complete with pictures. The adoption agency thought the letter was written by a little boy, but Chandler and Monica got their baby. And they all lived happily ever after.

Or, if you’re still tempted by the thesaurus, “They subsisted favorably interminably subsequent to.”

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:23 AM

October 24, 2007

Spelling, Grammar and the Making of a Book

Each week in my son's third-grade class they have a spelling pretest on Monday. They have to write down the words for the week before they have studied them or seen them in print. This gives a gauge for the amount of studying in the week ahead before the Friday test. Last Monday one of the lines on the sheet my son brought home was "tell a fone." Ah, yes, this one needed some work, as the teacher's list of course said, "telephone."

Being the child of an editor doesn't make a kid a natural-born speller. As a matter of fact, I'm not particularly a spelling or grammar whiz myself. I did well in those areas at school, but nothing remarkable. Does that surprise you? I find that when people find out that I'm an editor they assume that I am all about grammatical correctness. They may even be fearful about sending me email!

Actually, I am much more interested in the overall flow, the big ideas and an inventive turn of phrase. Some frustrated authors will tell you that, if anything, I undo their proper grammar. In particular I am passionate about prepositions. I feel that they need to be freed from the interior of the sentence to which they belong and allow to land naturally at the end of the sentence they belong to.

So if you find yourself living in terror of that third grade spelling test or eighth grade grammar teacher, give yourself a break. Perfect spelling and grammar don't make great books!

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 12:42 PM | Comments (1) are closed

October 22, 2007

Writing, Talking and Best Practices: An Editor's Diatribe

There are at least two principles in writing a book:

1. Write like you talk.
2. Don’t write like you talk.

Most people can get one or the other right. The challenge—and, on the face of it, the impossible task—is to get both right.

Write Like You Talk
Writing is communicating without the benefit of body language, vocal inflections, and the dynamic of call-and-response. So writing a book is communicating at an obvious disadvantage. Some coping mechanisms that authors fall into include
· writing like a teacher
· writing like a preacher
· writing like a dead person
We write like a teacher when we've read too many books because teachers have forced us to. We start to think books have to be dry and authoritarian and the kind of thing that people endure. And so we write that way, stripping all the passion from our voice, using bigger words than we would ever speak, and intentionally avoiding personal engagement with the reader.

We write like a preacher when we have the sense that our book is our bully pulpit. So every sentence includes a direct quotation of Scripture, every point is broken into three, and every paragraph is ornamented with pious language (“Can I get an amen?”). The reader feels preached at rather than written to; the book becomes, for the reader, a pew—an uncomfortable place.

Some of us think that the best books are those that have outlived their authors, so we write as though we were dead. We use language that is outdated, picture an audience that died alongside our favorite authors, and fail to consider the current felt needs of our readers. How people hear what they need to hear, however, changes over time because people change over time, and when authors confine their writing style to a bygone era, they fail to serve their readers.

The solution is to write like you talk. Don’t use language that you wouldn’t normally use in conversation. Don’t pound the pulpit or bang the Bible. Don’t pretend you’re C. S. Lewis or Martin Luther or the apostle Paul. Be yourself: pick a topic, think about what you’d say about that topic if someone asked you, and then write down what you find yourself saying.

Don't Write Like You Talk
The trouble with writing like you talk, however, is that you talk with your mouth, and you write with your hands. There are necessary adaptations you have to make as you transition.

First off, everybody uses filler language. Some people say “Ummm.” Some people say “Like, totally.” Some people say “Praise God.” That’s the brain buying time while forming a more complete thought. Books, however, have all the time in the world. Filler language has no place in a book; it will grate on a reader. Try to identify your filler language, and edit it out of your writing.

Authors breathe; so do readers. Books don’t. The natural rhythm of speaking will include pauses for a breath, pauses as the direction of the conversation shifts, pauses as the speaker sips from a refreshing beverage. Books do no such thing without the help of the author. And if the book doesn’t breathe, the reader will suffer. Write sentences that end in an appropriate amount of time. Mark the shift of direction with paragraphs, new headings and new chapters. Get to the point of what you’re writing, and then stop. These are editorial functions, but they’re the responsibility of the writer.

People who talk to themselves look weird. If you’re talking, someone should be right there listening, and ideally responding. Authors don’t have the luxury of a real-time audience. The temptation is to supply the voice of the audience—to guess at what they’re thinking as they read, to avoid hurting their feelings unnecessarily. These are good practices in conversation, where you can ask if you’ve guessed correctly or apologize straightaway if you’ve hurt your friend. But what comes across as good relational care in a conversation comes across as equivocating wishy-washiness in writing. An author is providing a resource; as such, an author is a servant, and a servant does not know his master’s business (John 15:15). Get to the point, and set the reader free.

The Best Writers and the Best Books
The best writers are rewriters. Writing is a long process, and the first draft of a book or an article ought never to be considered the final draft. The best writers write with great passion and urgency, with a clear idea of what they want to say and who they want to hear it. But then they read what they’ve written, and they strip away all the waffling and apologies and bullying that have gotten in the way of the message.

The best books have zeal and knowledge, power and discipline. The best books carry the passion of their author without carrying the author’s baggage. The best books provide the reader with content and perspectives that they wouldn’t find elsewhere and didn’t know they needed. The best books empower their readers without overpowering them. The best books are written by authors who are leaders and servants and friends to their readers. The best books are hard to write and sometimes hard to read, but they need to be written, and they need to be read.

There: enough said--er, written.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:36 AM | Comments (5) are closed

August 7, 2007

Building Your Creation

While cleaning off my desk at home recently, I came across a wonderful statement about writing from my son, Spencer. He was then six and was eating breakfast before heading off to a morning at kindergarten. We'd been working on building a tower of legos that would reach the ceiling, and a connection clicked for him.

I guess writing books is hard. Cause they are big. It's kind of like building with legos. First, you have to think of a title. Then you have to think of what to write. It's like legos when you build your own creation, not someone else's creation. You have to think of what to make and how to build it. Like, take the tower. You have to think of how to keep it stable so it won't all fall down. But finally one day we built our tower to the ceiling. Like with books one day you have finished a book. And then that day we got to knock it down. But it's not like that with books--you sell them.
Posted by Cindy Bunch at 10:33 AM | Comments (1) are closed

June 20, 2007

All in Decline

Nathan Bierma, who writes the column "On Language" for the Chicago Tribune and serves as communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, recently addressed the decline of the "quotative" use of all, as in "She was all, 'Why don't you publish my book?' and I'm all 'Because it's too colloquial, yo!' "

In a 2005 survey of California high school and college students, . . . a team of researchers at Stanford University found that the quotative use of "all" had plummeted since the early 1990s. In their study, speakers used "all" less than 5 percent of the time they introduced quotations, down from 45 percent in 1994. "All" had even fallen behind the word "said," which was used 12 percent of the time.

So much for my dynamic equivalency translation of Genesis 1:
And God was all, "Let there be light!" And it got all bright for a while. And then God was all, "Get a sky up in here!" And so now there's, like, a sky and stuff. And God was all like, "Gimme some land, will ya?" And so we got land and seas and all that.

That's as far as I've gotten, so I didn't waste a lot of creative energy on the project, but I'm still all sad about it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:55 AM | Comments (1) are closed

June 18, 2007

Serial Comma Killer

For all you scrappy editorial types who want to leap to the defense of the defenseless serial comma, our esteemed editorial director, Andy Le Peau, has thrown down the gauntlet. Here's a taste:

Read books from the 1700s or 1800s and you’ll likely see a comma infestation that puts the frogs of Egypt to shame, with every possible thought and phrase set off by punctuation. Writers tend not to do that anymore.

Read the whole argument here. Comment at your own risk!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:51 PM | Comments (1) are closed

June 8, 2007

Publish/Perish, Kiss Me/Kill Me

Dieter Roelstraete, in issue 12 of the journal Dot Dot Dot, extends Martin Heidegger's description of books as "letters to friends": 

Anyone who has ever "made" a book will immediately grasp the depth of feeling communicated in this admittedly romantic view of the book publishing business. No matter how strained the relationship between writer, editor, translator, designer, publisher, printer and book-seller can become, there is no denying the intimacy that is engendered by poring over the book as a labor of love that has required the "befriending," however formal and economically dictated, of so many different parties. By their very nature, books are collaborative efforts in a cultural space that continues to be dominated by individualism, conflated egos, and conflicts of solitary interests.

I should say lest you think Is Dave taking a class or something? that I didn't find this quotation by myself, nor did I deduce by myself that Heidegger (whoever that is) had anything to do with it. No, this quotation was forwarded to me by my colleague Matt Smith, a designer here at InterVarsity Press. It's a nice lived example of how things work around here, and how things in publishing work in general: insights come from all corners and contribute to the final product. And though there are days when the corners inhabited by designers, marketers, editors and authors seem like the four corners of a boxing ring, on our best days we all kiss and make up something uniquely collaborative, truly insightful, a conversation really worth joining.

Guess I'm feeling sappy today. I heart InterVarsity Press.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:11 AM | Comments (1) are closed

May 30, 2007

New Book Technology Again: Ancient Scribal Blogs Discovered!

On my May 9 post I said I’d give my laptop for a peek at some ancient scribal blogs. Well, I’m going to keep my laptop and have my ancient blogs too. Here are some.

The first is a scribal blog from an ancient Assyrian royal scribe who is having his annual job performance review:

"I have not been treated in accordance with my deeds . . . if it is befitting that first-ranking scholars and their assistants receive mules, surely I should (at least) be given one donkey." (See “Non-Israelite Written Sources: Assyrian,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, p. 725)

Continue reading "New Book Technology Again: Ancient Scribal Blogs Discovered!"
Posted by Dan Reid at 10:25 AM

May 14, 2007

Grammar Was Made for People, Not People for Grammar.

Forget everything you learned about English in grade school. None of it is true.

How many rules of grammar did you have to memorize growing up? Well, there are only two:

Rule #1: There are no rules of grammar.
Rule #2: When in doubt, refer to Rule #1.

Why are there no rules? Because there is no such thing as standard English. It doesn’t exist. English is a language that is constantly in flux--constantly being modified, poked, pulled, distorted, bent, folded and mutilated. Words are constantly being created and lost. Grammar changes almost as easily. Spoken English changes first; eventually written English catches up, at least partway. The good changes tend to stick, and the bad ones tend to fade away. It’s all part of the genius of English.

Sure there are purists who say you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition or write one without both a subject and a predicate. The fact is we do it all the time, and even the great writers do it. All the time. That’s part of what makes them great.

The purpose of grammar is not to torture third-grade boys or even to give editors jobs. Then why do we have grammar? There is one--and only one--purpose: to facilitate clear, effective, powerful, artful communication. Having certain conventions and regular patterns of words helps us do this. We don’t have to laboriously unravel every single sentence we hear or read. So it is helpful to follow the conventions—sometimes.

But at other times, the conventions get in the way. And when they do, we shouldn’t hesitate to throw them out. Look at my sentence fragment a couple paragraphs up. It communicates much more effectively than it would as part of a complete sentence. I admit, of course, that what makes it work is that the rest of my sentences are complete. If I only wrote in sentence fragments, “All the time” would lose its power.

Stiffly following the conventions of grammar all the time can result in stiff writing, which creates boredom, which creates poor communication. If you want to communicate well, yes, learn the rules. But as soon as you do, forget them.

Watch this space in weeks to come to see me wrestle the serial comma into abject submission.

Posted by Andy Le Peau at 7:13 AM | Comments (2) are closed

April 30, 2007

Blogabubble?

I knew I would love IVP editorial director Andy Le Peau like my own dear old dad when I learned that, while I was frittering away my life in the first grade, he was writing an ongoing column for His magazine about "bubbles"--not in the strict, literal sense of the word but as a sort of linguistic exercise. Andy would take a word that ended in able or ible and conflate it with the word bubble. Then he would define the new term. So, for example, the word contemptible would become contemptibubble, and take on the definition "a bubble filled not with air but with hate." The whole concept was, in a word, incredibubble.

As this blog has taken shape, we could very easily revive the bubble game Andy pioneered in days of yore. The question "What is blogable?" has occupied more real estate in our editorial brains lately than is probabubbly appropriate. "Should this blog include jokes?" we've asked. "Should we share with our readers the funny mixed metaphors we run across?" "Should we bare our souls in front of all of our publishing audience?" "Should we edit one another?" "Should we publicly critique one another's posts?" "What, fundamentally, is the point of going Behind the Books?

This internal dilemma plays out to a soundtrack of a ticking clock. We need to continually feed this blogging enterprise with new posts, to keep it interesting both for us and for both of our readers. Editors may never get editor's block--ask our opinion on anything and we'll be quick to give it--but we're as vulnerable to writer's block as anybody. So the pressure is on to individually keep coming up with new ideas that all of us agree are, in a word, blogabubble.

Phillip Johnson, author of several IVP books including Reason in the Balance, once commented on the ongoing rivalry between evolution and intelligent design as legitimate subjects for public education. His advice: "Why not teach the controversy?" He recognized that the value of observing two ideas interacting with one another (like stubble and bubble) is similar to the value of knowing intimately one idea or the other. Evolution as a theory of origins has its intellectual merits; so does intelligent design. Each also has its vulnerabilities. And the exposure of one to another itself yields valuable insights into our understanding of the world and our other intellectual pursuits.

To borrow the concept, it strikes me that the internal dilemma of how to define and grow an editorial blog is exactly the type of question that characterizes any editorial enterprise and, coincidentally enough, the type of question that often characterizes a good, thoughtful blog posting. It makes a certain amount of poetic sense, then, that a bunch of editors would invest as much time and energy as we have into figuring out precisely what they should say, and how they should say it. Any other process would be, in a word, inconceivabubble.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:45 AM | Comments (2) are closed

April 18, 2007

Who Is an Artist?

I am reading what the author (Jo Kadlecek) will want you to know is a still-in-progress draft of her yet-untitled book on discovering passion in life. It's the kind of book that causes you to read and ponder. Or daydream. The kind of reading I save to perk up a grim Chicago winter day. I found her reflections on what it means to be an artist, and who qualifies as an artist, particularly interesting.

I began to question the creative process, what to do with it, how to harness it, why we had it at all. Did it extend beyond a painter’s canvas? Was it more than a chiseled piece of marble with life-like veins? Or was it exclusive and protected by and for a chosen few who could either afford it or comprehend it? . . . Some people told me artist-types were indeed a strange breed who lived on the fringe of acceptability, that they served no useful purpose and lived far from where the rest of us normal folks lived and moved and had our beings. Others called artists nothing short of prophets—in the same league as Isaiah or Paul—a gifted lot who could speak truth at the same time they critiqued the culture and its people with the mere stroke of a brush. It was as if these two had no room for the other. So one morning in New York, I suppose when I saw a child drawing or reading a poem, I peeked at my fear, and the pull in my soul said there was something more. Had to be more. Something I’d experienced even without words, something I needed if I was going to stay awake through this earthly existence. Something I needed in order to breathe and bleed and feel—even if my attempts at understanding or creating were raw and primitive. Even if I had millions of dollars or only one in my bank account, if I lived in a western world or a developing one. This seemed to be my DNA, to be everyone’s, in fact. Creative because we were first created.
Posted by Cindy Bunch at 7:08 AM | Comments (2) are closed

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Behind the Books

Subscribe to Feeds

Got a Book Idea?

Please follow our submissions guidelines. We cannot respond to book proposals or inquiries within the context of this blog.