The Common Good

More on the Beautiful Stupidity of Writing (Part 2)

Yesterday I wrote the first article in this series of posts on why it is that I write. Today I’ll jump ahead to the so-called more “successful” period of my writing work.

I got my first book deal back in 2006, and it came, like everything else, by way of rejection.

I had this great idea to publish a collection of my spoken word poetry in book form in a way that helped worship leaders and preachers incorporate them liturgically into worship services. Little did I know at the time that the word “poetry” is pretty much a four-letter word in publishing, particularly when you narrow your market down to mainline worship leaders to begin with. Top it off with the fact that people kind of have to have a natural sense of how to read the pieces aloud to make them work and … well, it was a stupid idea.

Fortunately for me, the proposal ended up in the hands of an editor who liked my writing style, even if my proposal was crap. They happened to be looking for someone to write a book on the theology of the show LOST, and they asked me if I’d be interested. I agreed to take it on, perhaps more eagerly than would be smart for anyone actually trying to negotiate, and promptly turned to my wife, Amy.

“We have to go to the store,” I said. “I have to buy all of the back-seasons of LOST and watch them in about a week.”

That’s right; I had never seen the show, but I’d be damned if I’d let a book deal slip between my fingers because of some minor technicality like having no knowledge of the material. A professional writer was supposed to be able to write about anything, any time in any style, so why not put that to the test?

The experiment paid off, at least insomuch as they published the book. Though my editor was convinced it would sell more than 10,000 copies, I think it failed to sell out of the first printing.

But again, the publisher (Chalice Press) liked my work and asked if I had a project of my own in mind. Of course, I said, and promptly turned to Amy after hanging up the phone.

“Oh shit,” I said. “They want me to do another one. What do I write about?”

You get the idea. I limped through a few other projects, none of which have sold particularly well, and meanwhile I’ve written an entire novel that has never been published (not for lack of trying) and one-and-a-half nonfiction books that didn’t get green-lit, which I raid on occasion for material in other projects. I helped create and edit a series of books for young adults that (surprise!) paid nothing, and for years, my blog offered precisely the same return.

 

Oh, the blog. I get questions from aspiring writers all the time about blogging, like how to do it well, how to capitalize on social media, what it means to publishers and so on. Now, I blog nearly every day, partly as a personal discipline, but also just because it’s what I’ve committed to. And if you commit to something with an audience, it’s pretty important to meet their expectations. For me, blogging has been critical to my ability to keep going in the publishing world, but I can’t say that’s the case for everyone. Here are a few things I’ve realized in the process of blogging for several years:

  • Publishers are obsessed with “platform” unless you’re going after a very small, specific niche market. Your platform is your audience, which gives publishers an idea of how many books they can sell of yours without having to work too hard or spend too much on marketing. If you can’t boast a platform well into the thousands, it’s hard to get larger publishers’ attention.
     
  • Offer good content. This seems self-evident, but you’ve seen some of the crap people put on blogs. Honor the time of your readers. The way I think about it is, if 3,000 people read one of my blog posts, and each person spends an average of three minutes on it, that’s nine thousand minutes spent reading that work. Did I write something worthy of taking up 150 hours of human attention and time? I hope so.
     
  • Know your audience and articulate your themes. Every time I see some blog with a phrase like “Random thoughts …” or “Various ramblings …” I close it out and don’t go back. If you can’t tell me any better than that what you have to say at the beginning, why should I expect what’s to follow to be any more compelling?
     
  • Be consistent. If you commit to writing daily, do it every stinking day. If you can do five posts a week, or even three, do it with regularity so your readers know what to expect and when. Would your subscribe to a magazine that published whenever they felt like it? Just because you may not be getting people to pay to read your blog doesn’t mean you should be any less professional than any other kind of publishing media.

There’s plenty more to it, including exploiting social media, guest posting on other sites, getting on major portals like Patheos that draw traffic, and so on. But none of that really matters if you don’t adhere to the points above first. After hundreds, if not thousands, of posts over several years, I do enjoy between 50,000 and 150,000 pageviews a month on my blog. But trust me, it’s work. And although I do get paid something for it, it’s not even enough most months to cover the car payment on my used Prius.

Noticing a theme when it comes to money and publishing? Yeah.

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to ink a deal with Jericho, a new press under the larger umbrella of Hachette, which is one of the biggest publishers in the world. It’s a great opportunity, and I actually got an honest-to-goodness advance check for the first time in my life. At 41 years old, I can actually spend a little more than half of my time writing for my living, and it only took about 20 years of working for nothing to get here. Oh, and though it hasn’t been explicitly said in these terms – and definitely not by the publisher – this is kind of my one shot. If this book takes off, I’m probably set for a few more years of book writing. If it flops, I can at least say I gave it a decent shot, but chances of another major book deal are less than stellar.

And still, there’s the rejection. The first draft of the book got kicked back from a major overhaul, about which I has a small nervous breakdown. And once (or should I say, if) the book is accepted, there’s still a decent chance that critics and readers will hate it, or that any number of factors will cause it to get lots in the swarm of competing titles, already fighting for the same market.

So why do I do it? Why put myself through the emotional abuse and psychological wear-and-tear of a career that almost never compensates the ones creating the work? I suppose if I could come up with something else that I felt gave my time and effort the same meaning, I’d be doing it, especially if it paid well. But we don’t really get to choose who we love or what we love to do. It finds us, infests our consciousness, wakes us up at night and haunts us until we submit. It’s a blessing and a curse, depending on how you choose to look at it, but today, right now, I’m thanking God for the opportunities before me. Tomorrow I may be slamming my head against the desk and vowing never to write another word as long as I live.

I might say it, and I might think I mean it. But between you and me, I’d be lying.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."

Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock

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