Changes in Christian Publication in the Last Forty Years

I’ve been neglecting the writers who follow me for a while, so this one is for my writer friends. This year I’ve been writing for publication for forty years. Things have changed dramatically during that time. One advantage to getting older is understanding the history behind things. Today I want to talk about the changes I’ve witnessed in publication over the last 40 years.

I tend to think of the changes in decades. In the 1980’s I started writing articles for publication on my typewriter. Much of the time I aimed at one article a month. I found a publisher that liked my articles and quickly built a foundation of published articles and stories.

Christian fiction was very limited before 1980, but Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly changed everything. It astonished Christian editors with its unexpected overnight success. Suddenly Christian publishers were hungry for fiction, especially prairie romance. Some were putting out new titles every month. In the rush to publish, quality fiction was mixed with inferior fiction. Readers slowed their buying and some authors got stuck with manuscripts they’d been asked to write, but couldn’t sell. Great opportunities to publish opened up in the early 80’s, but dried up quickly halfway through the decade. Publishers turned to other genres like mysteries and fantasy and writers tried to follow the trends. Manuscripts started flooding the desks of editors.

Moving into the 90’s, most Christian publishers were refusing to consider manuscripts that didn’t come from agents. Now writers were not only concerned about good writing, but marketing their books to agents, who would then try to market them to editors.

I had written a book in the 80’s that I’d had professionally critiqued with favorable comments. I kept revising and submitting the book, without success. Those were the days of printed manuscripts and envelopes and stamps. With each submission I had the long waiting period of sending manuscripts one by one and waiting for replies. In the meantime, I wrote Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World. This kids’ book was easy to write because I was basically living the book on an adult level. Bob Jones University Press bought it and published it in 1994. I only had to worry about the writing of that book. Publishing and marketing were completely out of my hands. The book sold well, better than any of my other books have. It has now had been printed seven times.

By 2000 we had the internet and writing for publication was changing quickly. The tragedy on 9-11-2001, for reasons I don’t understand, really hit Christian publishers hard. Readers quit buying as much Christian fiction and publishers couldn’t take the risks they had taken before. It became harder even to find an agent who would consider your book. At the same time, it became far easier to self-publish. The stigma of self-publication began to fade as some well-known authors turned to self-publication in order to gain higher royalties. Soon writers’ success of a writer started depending less about their writing ability and more about how well they do social media and marketing. Kindle brought ebooks into the equation which dramatically changed the way books where published and marketed.

BJUP published Two Sides of Everything in 2004, and two of my other books in that decade, but I could see they were slowing down, too, in what they would accept, even of my books after they had already published four of them.

Today anyone can publish his own book. Many new authors publish, not because they are ready, but because they can. Vast numbers of writers write one book. Some of these are poorly written, but a few of their friends buy their book and they can say they’re  published authors.

Self-publication can work well, however, because it pays much higher royalties than traditional publishers and gives control over the book’s content completely to the author. With this method, authors don’t have to spend years trying to find agents for their books who then have to market it to publishers. They can publish their books whenever they’re ready. On the other hand, the author may lose the safety net of an editor who helps him hone his work until it becomes good enough to sell. Today’s writers aren’t finished with their job when they finish writing their books. Now they have to market their books. They need their own websites and blogs and need to keep up on several forms of social media so readers can find them.

In December of 2010 I first heard Mary Weaver’s story. (Now published as Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story.) I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I returned to the States in 2011, wrote a book proposal, and attended a writer’s conference to try to find an interested editor or agent. When I told Mary’s story to people in general I sensed huge interest, but every editor and agent refused to even consider it. They all agreed on two things. The story happened too long ago and Mary wasn’t a celebrity. Sensing God leading us forward, I knew it was time to consider self-publication. Now I’ve self-published Mary’s story, a companion Bible study book, and the Art Spotlight Mysteries, a series of cozy mysteries that are light-hearted, but deal with some deeper issues.

Today authors like me are more likely to refer to themselves as “indie authors” instead of self-published ones. Indie authors are independent authors who may hire help for proofreading, editing, and design but keep complete control of their book. I’ve joined the ranks of writers who need to continually grow in social media and marketing skills. Thankfully, with the huge increase in Christian indie authors, the help available has also increased. Many professionals who used to work for publishers now hire their services out to indie authors. These authors also band together in Facebook groups to learn from each other in the ever-changing world of indie publication. I belong to a group called “Christian Indie Authors” that has been a huge help to me.

Right now I’m working on a series of contemporary novels that deal with missionary ministry in New Zealand. As I edge close to retirement, I’m trying to establish a foundation for selling adult novels so that I can continue to write well into retirement.

Changes in Christian Publication

I’ve been writing for Christian publication for about 35 years. Wow, have things changed!  Thirty five years ago “Christian publication” meant you typed out a manuscript for an article or book on your typewriter and sent it to traditional publishers, one at a time, until your manuscript was accepted. Once you had exhausted all reasonable markets in this way, you were done. Without publishers, the gatekeepers to publication, your words would never be printed and distributed to any more than your closest circle of friends.

Today there are many different kinds of publishers and many ways to get your words in print, some that involve no paper. Opportunities are growing exponentially, but the learning curve is great.

Some of us don’t want to change. We want to keep using the writing skills we’ve already learned and forget about websites, blogs, digital publication, platform, and all the rest. We can resist change if we want, but if we do, we will quickly become irrelevant and side-lined from the audience we want to reach.

Two things are true:

1. Today more opportunity exists in publication than ever before.

2. Those opportunities demand growth in skills. As contemporary writers we don’t have to know how to do everything, but we will need to learn to do new things.

Just now I am totally revamping my website and starting a whole new approach to blogging. I feel the Lord leading me to offer hope and help for ministry by writing practical, transparent articles for readers involved in three kinds of ministry: writing, cross-cultural ministry, and general church ministry. This does not mean I embrace change or that I’m confident navigating social media, leaving comments, and linking to all sorts of sites and information. It means I refuse to let fear hold me back from meaningful ministry when I sense the Lord’s clear leading.

In the weeks ahead I’ll talk about writing for Christian publication. Meanwhile check out my writing tips. Besides the information I present there, what other topics would you like to see me cover?

Basic Principles of Writing for Publication #2 – Strong Words

 

            Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”

            How can we choose words that are so strong that they capture the imagination of our readers, move their emotions, and cause them to change? It takes many words to do that, but we choose each word one by one.

 

Familiar Words.

            Writing that is hard to read is often easy to write, while writing that is easy to read is hard to write.

            I am amazed when I read the children’s books by Arnold Lobel called  Frog and Toad Together and Frog and Toad are Friends. Mr. Lobel takes basic principles of life and puts them in their simplest form.

            I admire the genius it takes to make complex things simple. Write to communicate, not to impress. One way to do that is to use familiar words.

            If you are reading something and come to a word that you kind of know what it means but don’t use it a lot, you’ll still get the meaning. The next unfamiliar word makes the idea a little more vague. By the time you read four or five unfamiliar words in a short space, you begin to lose the overall meaning and give up. Perhaps you have a fair idea of the meaning of each word by itself, but put together it makes it hard to read, not enjoyable to read.

            Using familiar words will make your writing clear and more fun to read.

            Avoid unusual words that you may know but your reader may not. Also avoid foreign words. In some cases these words may be necessary, but save unusual words for those times, and make sure the reader knows what you mean

            My pet peeve word is “utilize.” Can you name one time when “utilize” works better than the simpler word “use?” OK, if you want to make a character look pompous, this will work. Otherwise “utilize” is a flowery word when a simple word would work better.

            Be aware of words you typically use that could be better if simplified.  Find suitable synonyms and make them a regular part of your speech and writing.

 

Power Verbs           

            Power verbs create strong writing. Make them your friends.

            What are power verbs? Strong, specific verbs that don’t need adverbs to explain them.

Example:

            Poor: He walked quickly across the room.

            Better: He raced across the room

 

            How did he walk? amble, bounce, creep, leap, stroll, sneak, shuffle, race, stagger? Specific verbs are stronger than vague ones.

            Being verbs are weak. Remember them? Is, are, was, were, am, be, been. They are only existing which doesn’t excite anyone.

Example:

            Poor: There were ten people at the meeting.

            Better: Ten people attended the meeting.

 

            These same verbs are fine when they convey tense. You still have an action verb to carry the sentence.

Example:

He was carrying a big box. I am jumping at conclusions. He will be starting the race at ten.

 

            When I finish writing a section, I go back and examine every verb. Can I make it stronger? If I can, I do.

 

Active and Passive Voice

            Use active voice instead of passive voice wherever possible. Most sentences will be stronger and more direct if they are not in passive voice.

Example:      

            Passive voice: I was hit by a tall man.

            Active voice: A tall man hit me.

 

            An occasional sentence in passive voice may add strength, such as when a soldier grabs his chest and mutters, “I’ve been hit.” Also passive voice may be the best for talking about birth and marriage because the alternative distracts.

Examples:    

            Passive voice: I was born on December 23.

            Active voice: My mother gave birth to me on December 23.

            Passive voice: They were married in First Baptist Church.

            Active voice: The pastor married them in First Baptist Church.

           

            In most cases, however, active voice offers the better alternative.

            You may notice the minutes of proper business meetings are often in passive voice.

Example:

The motion was seconded by John Doe. It was suggested by Mary Smith that we table the discussion.

 

            In this case the secretary is aiming to make things indirect, impersonal, and in sticky situations, less offensive. Unless you want your writing to sound like minutes of the last business meeting, however, leave most of your passive voice with Robert’s Rules of Order.

            While you are checking your verbs for being strong and direct, check them for passive voice too.

 

One Adjective

            Use no more than one adjective at a time. If your noun is strong enough without an adjective, leave it out.

Example:

Poor: The beautiful, clean, blue water fell down the long, narrow cliff onto the hard, pointed rocks below.

            Better: Water roared down the chasm, pelting the sharp rocks below.

 

Words that Weaken

            Avoid words that weaken what you write such as: really, very, rather, sort of, a wee bit, which, there.

            We live in New Zealand where people don’t like emotionalism. They often say, “I sort of think we should do this.” Or “I’m a wee bit worried about her.” These expressions make statements less strong, which is what they are going for, but you want your writing to be direct and strong.

            “Very” is usually not necessary if you use a good adjective.

Example:

            Poor: The dog was very big.

            Better: The huge dog raced across our yard.

 

            “Which” is sometimes necessary, but replace it with “that” or leave it out when you can.

            “There are” or “There were” are very weak ways to begin any sentence. You can almost always rewrite the sentence and make it stronger.

            Using strong words makes for powerful writing.

            Read my next article to find basic things to check for when you revise and polish your writing.

 

Challenge

            Using the principles outlined in this article, rewrite this sentence to make it stronger.

            There are really very many students at that school who have been hurt by   obstreperous children.

Basic Principles of Writing for Publication #1 – More Than Good Grammar

    In school you learned correct grammar—unless you went to certain schools during certain time periods. But you probably learned very little about style. Writing can be grammatically correct, but boring or inappropriate in other ways for publication.

    Writing style is constantly changing. Pick up a book by Charles Dickens and compare it to a book that recently began publication. It won’t take you long to notice that today’s reader demands a different writing style than what was popular one hundred fifty years ago. While some of Dickens’ works are endearing classics, he would write them differently if he were writing today. Yesterday’s readers didn’t travel much and had plenty of time to read. They loved long descriptive passages. Today’s readers, however, want a faster pace. Time changes many things.

    The English language also changes over time. Once grammarians insisted that infinitives never be split, and sentences never begin with conjunctions or end with prepositions. Winston Churchill’s eyes must have twinkled when he said, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

    If you are reading this you are probably interested in writing for publication. You may have mastered spelling and grammar, or at least know how to look things up. But how do you learn what publishers want so that you can work toward publication? Many books, courses, and conferences today teach writing for publication.  I personally have had little formal training, but I have read books, attended conferences, and worked at publication for thirty years. I want to pass along some tips that can get you started down your path to publication.

    The things I say in these articles are not unique. I am trying to gather writing principles that are commonly taught in Christian publication circles.

    The things I say in these articles are not authoritative. Writing style is largely subjective. It is affected by personality, trends, and what sells. What one editor prefers may be different from what the next prefers. I am still learning and plan to keep on learning until I die.

    In these articles I will share with you what I believe to be the current best advice on writing for publication. You may find books, even award-winners, that violate a few of these principles. You may not agree with me on some issues. But don’t dismiss these ideas without giving them a fair hearing. Most of them stem from more than my opinion. Most of the ideas reflect a consensus of opinion commonly taught at professional writers’ conferences. I hope you will find these articles helpful.

***

    Publishers today want writing that grabs the reader’s attention, moves his emotions, even causes him to change. How do you learn to write like that? Here are a few principles to start with:

 

Order.

    Write events in the order they happened when possible. Make sure your reasoning is in logical order and makes sense.

    Many times you may want to start with the end result and then write the article about what happened to produce that result. Flashbacks have their place, especially in fiction, but make it very clear what is happening when. If you jerk the reader back and forth too much, he’ll get confused and set the story aside.

    If you are writing an article, make sure your thought progresses smoothly from one point to the next. You may want to start with a simple outline, or outline the article after it is written to see if the order is logical. When in doubt ask someone else to read it to check the flow of thought.

 

White space.

    Readers and editors like white space. Try it yourself. Thumb quickly through various kinds of books. When you pick up a book that has lots of words on a page with long sentences and paragraphs, what do you think? It looks boring, scholarly, and hard to read. But when you see a book that has lots of white space on every page, lots of dialog, short sentences, and short paragraphs, it looks easy to read.

    After you’ve written something, go back and check your sentence length. Could you divide a long sentence into two shorter ones? Do it. That may occasionally mean that you have to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “but” or “and”). My brother Dave is horrified at this and considers it incorrect English but today this is commonly considered acceptable and may be the only way to break up long sentences. Sometimes you don’t need the conjunction at all.

    Many editors prefer sentences that are not over twenty words long. I try to keep my sentences no longer than twenty words unless absolutely necessary. That doesn’t mean you want so many short sentences that it sounds choppy. Vary your sentence length for interest, but avoid really long ones. An occasional one-word sentence or paragraph can be a great way to emphasize something.

    After I’ve written a section, I scan the computer screen for any sentences that are much longer than a line and a half. Those sentences usually need changed.

 

People

    Write about people, not topics.

    Rudolf Flesch says, “Only stories are really readable. (The Art of Readable Writing, Collier Books) If that’s true, how do you write about issues?

    If it’s a problem, write about someone who overcame that problem or improved the problem. If you have the solution to a problem, show a real or fictional character who struggles with the problem.  Illustrate principles with stories.

    Christ was the Master Storyteller. He often used parables to teach spiritual principles. People could remember His stories when they might have forgotten points to a sermon. Stories personalized Christ’s principles and made them easy to understand. His stories changed lives.

    Look for stories when you watch the news or read the paper. How do they talk about issues by using people?  Can you do the same thing?

    If you don’t know of real people who struggle with an issue, or if you don’t want to embarrass someone by using his name, you can make up names.

Examples:

1.   Gas prices continue to soar. Let’s say you drive a car with a 20-gallon tank. Last year it cost $__ to fill your tank, but today you’ll have to fork over $__.

2.   I know a lady with Spina Bifida. We’ll call her Sue. When Sue…

3.   Copycat Callie writes great essays in record time. What is her secret? The internet.

           

     I once wrote an article that contrasted different mission fields and the variety of results missionaries see on them. I wrote an extended illustration about Max Missionary who went to Lower Slobovia (like in Li’l Abner), learned Slobovese, worked hard, and saw few results. Using a fictional character made this sensitive topic less sensitive. Though I exaggerated the situation, the reader could tell that the situation was not real. However this situation illustrated exactly what I wanted to say.

    When you write in logical order, leave plenty of white space, and personalize your articles by using people, you are beginning to write like a published author. For more about what editors look for, read my next article on strong words.

 

Challenge

    What three sentences in this article are, by my definition, too long?