(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)
“You can probably make more money by having a first-class yard sale” is the way Rachel Toor’s essay Things You Should Know Before Publishing a Book opens. If you’ve ever thought about writing your own book, you need to read this article. The author will regale you with publishing myths, how to boost your odds that a publisher will accept your manuscript, and even “What makes for a good author?” I write because I have to. It’s a virus. George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty Four) once wrote an essay called “Why I Write.” Here he laid out his four primary motives for writing, which were:
- Sheer egoism
- Aesthetic enthusiasm
- Historical impulse
- Political purpose
In short, I think he was saying that authors generally feel (1) that they have something important to say and that others should read what they write, (2) that writing is extremely pleasurable, if not for the reader then at least for the writer, (3) that by writing they hope to “set the record straight about some subject,” and (4) they desire to push people’s thinking and attitudes in a certain direction — theirs, of course. “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” added Orwell — and there is no little truth in that statement. I myself have got to be the most un-self-disciplined author in the world. I write when I feel like it. Otherwise, I’m doing other things. What drives me, I guess, is a felt need to get a point across. Thus Orwell again:
When I sit down to write a book I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
Or, as Gao Xingjian puts it, “Writing eases my suffering.”
I am now 63, and yet there are stories I still want to tell, ideas I still want to flame into reality, myths I still want to challenge, and students I still want to motivate. I do not know of a single publisher who would not honor those motives for writing. But your brain must lead, not your ego. For example, a book idea came into my head the other day as I was contemplating my next trip this summer to visit the Antietam and Gettysburg Battlefields and to do some genealogical research on my paternal grandparents (the Millers of Sharpsburg) in Hagerstown. “Why not write a little book on personal valor during the American Civil War with an application to the Christian life?” This crazy idea was only reinforced when I was talking recently to a friend of mine from Pennsylvania who said he had never been to Gettysburg. It’s true: When you live in a certain place, sometimes tourists have seen more of the sights there than you have. The Civil War is one of the most riveting stories in history. At heart, it’s a family tale and one that is worthy of a Shakespeare tragedy. I entered this drama when I was contacted by the 1st Maine Cavalry many years ago in California to ride with them in battle reenactments. I knew little of Civil War history at the time, like so many Americans today. Sure, I had read “picklock biographies” that did little more than set the stage. Today I am more interested in books on the Civil War that amplify my understanding of how ordinary men and women faced the vagaries of those times so that I can better understand how I can face the vagaries of my own. The people of those times faced unflinchingly the vicissitudes of life and in so doing transcended them. Beyond that, the war provides us with endless examples of personal courage and valor. “Duty” was a word that still meant something, and as I face the closing years of my career as a teacher and writer I have come to see the value of that word and all that it means. Jesus said, “Happy are you if you know these things and do them” (John 13:17). One of the main spiritual challenges I’ve faced in my 55 years as a Christian is being strong on knowing and weak on doing. The head and the hand must go along together if we are to be happy. So says Jesus. Since I was 16 the word of God has been my constant delight, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I entered the fray of Christian warfare, at times taking the Gospel to the front lines in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. I am slowly discovering that there is no simpler way to enjoy the Christian life than to translate doctrine into duty. Some of us who have been on life’s road for quite a stretch grow anxious and worry if old age will still find us useful for the kingdom. We need not worry. We can still fight the good fight. We may not mount up with wings as eagles, but we can run and not be weary — or at least we can walk and not faint. Walking along the Bloody Lane at Antietam or the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg or the Clump of Trees at Gettysburg, it feels like you are seeing what those soldiers saw in those bloody battles of 1861-1865. When the war was over, these Americans from North and South came together again and the nation was reborn, this time without the scourge of slavery. Today, buoyed partly by their example of reconciliation, I work together with believers in many nations to preach the Gospel of reconciliation and to expand the only kingdom that, in the end, really matters. But it calls for courage, tireless devotion, and sacrifice. As in Red Badge of Courage. (Oops, that title’s already taken.)
Now you know how a jetlagged brain works. There are many other publishing ideas dangerously percolating in my mind as well — things “that human lips may not speak” (2 Cor. 12:4), at least not yet. Any academic who has achieved a modicum of success in the publishing field knows that dreams often do not become a reality. But every book starts somewhere, and for me, the incubation period usually begins in the intersection of my personal interests at the time and my personal journey — where I find myself in life at any one stage of my earthly existence. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and I suppose I love reading and writing books more than even surfing or horseback riding, which is saying a lot. Let me thank you for supporting my already-published books, and let me thank you in advance for your loyalty in praying for me as I contemplate future writing projects.