Naturally Beautiful Novels

IT’S EASIER TO WRITE ABOUT BEAUTY than it is to write beautifully, because the difference between good craftsmanship and beautiful writing is something like the difference between goodness and morality.

Consider C.S. Lewis on that topic:

“Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are ‘done away’ and the rest is a matter of flying.” (“Man or Rabbit?”, God in the Dock, p. 113, Eerdman’s, 1970)

Beauty is goodness, and like the ability to be good, the ability to write beautifully is a gift which can’t be earned, or learned. Some authors are able to take off from the summit of good craftsmanship and fly; it’s as simple and mysterious as that.

But although there is an aspect to beautiful writing which we cannot teach, all beautiful novels share certain common qualities which are worth examination.

Following are seven characteristics of a beautiful novel:

Hope

Beautiful novels often take us deep into the darkest corners of the human condition, but in the end, they usually leave us with a sense of hope. This is only natural, because hope is one of the primary purposes of beauty.

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes, “. . . roughly speaking, God relates to space as we do to our body. He occupies and overflows it but cannot be localized in it.”

This means every beautiful sunset, every beautiful flower, every thing of beauty which exists is a manifestation of God’s spirit in creation. As divine manifestation, natural beauty of every kind whispers the glorious truth, “We are not alone so be of good cheer; there is hope.” And in one way or another, the most beautiful of novels all say it, too.

Symbolism

Our minds initially respond to beauty on a subliminal level. We sense the beauty of a sunset as a feeling before we become consciously aware of it as a fact. This is why beautiful novels always speak to us on levels deeper than our conscious thought.

The main way novels do this is through symbolism, because symbols are the language of the human mind. Everything processed by our brains is classified, memorized, and organized through symbols. Even the language that we use is composed of symbols (the words and letters I am writing now).

In beautiful novels, very little meaning is limited to the obvious. Characters stand for good or evil. Settings stand for peace or persecution. Events stand for destiny or chaos. When such things act, speak, or occur, or when the story passes through them, our subconscious attends to it with deep-seated emotions, which arise before we are aware of them as facts, exactly as we might response to sunsets or any other manifestation of natural beauty.

Simplicity

Beauty demands our attention. How many times have you “missed” a beautiful sunset which was right there before your eyes, simply because you were distracted? This is why beautiful novels are inevitably simple.

I don’t mean beautiful novels don’t have complicated plots or complex characters. I mean the story is presented in a way the mind can follow without losing track of all the elements that make it beautiful.

Craftsmanship accounts for much of this simplicity. Extraneous adjectives and adverbs are shunned. Pointless repetition of ideas is avoided. Each new idea builds logically on what went before, and establishes a context for the ideas that follow in an unbroken chain which guides the mind effortlessly through the fictive dream.

Of course, there are dozens of other “rules” designed to simplify the reader’s experience with good fiction. Beautiful novels are simple in the sense that they are easily read, but as every novelist knows, to write simply is anything but easy.

Rhythm

There is a rhythm to all that’s beautiful in nature. Tides. Waves. Heartbeats. Seasons. Beautiful novels pay attention to the force of rhythm. They align themselves to it with cadenced syllables and words.

The novelist who writes beautifully is constantly aware of how her words will “sound” in her reader’s mind. She reads her work aloud, and if it does not flow with poetic meter, she may insert a comma just to slow things down, even though the technical rules of craftsmanship might forbid it. She may select the longer of two synonyms just to add the extra syllable. She gives her mental “tongue” a moment’s pause between her vowels by adding consonants or punctuation or a paragraph return.

Beautiful novels also align rhythms with ideas. If the action is dangerous or rapid, sentences are shorter. Often incomplete. Words are shorter. Syllables are shorter. Then the rhythm might be broken with something longer, just to put the reader off balance. No effort is given to similes. Thus the reader senses urgency and haste. But if the time has come to slow the reader down and give a sense of peace, sentences and words and syllables may stretch out on and on with repetition, flowing one into another, each opening the way for what will follow like a river winding through the countryside. In these ways, a beautiful novel reflects the way rhythms speak to us in nature.

Intuition

As I mentioned earlier, natural beauty first approaches us subliminally, usually as a feeling of joy and delight. Only then do we think about a sunset rationally. And much as symbolism allows readers to tap into the subconscious nature of beauty without fully understanding what is happening, so authors who write beautiful novels make countless creative choices they cannot logically explain.

This is true on the macro level, with choices about characterization, plot direction, and so forth. It is equally true on the micro level, with particular word choices made to support a particular mood or atmosphere within the reader’s imagination.

On what basis is one word chosen over another with the same meaning? Although logic often fails to explain the choices, the choices are effective. Consider for example the following synonyms:

Fecund versus fertile
Nude versus naked
Dank versus damp
Ruddy versus scarlet
Stout versus strong

A novelist capable of producing beauty will sense that the words listed on the left belong together in one group, and the ones listed on the right belong to another. The novelist knows this, but it is not a rational kind of knowing. That is why it cannot be taught. It is known tacitly, or intuitively, and beauty in a novel comes in part from paying close attention to this intuition.

Variety

Everywhere we look in nature we see incredible diversity. No two snowflakes, stones or blades of grass are identical. This too is part of natural beauty, and this too is reflected in beautiful novels.

Tragedies have comic moments. Comedies have serious morals. Characters behave against type. Plots take minor detours. The noun precedes the verb in two sentences, followed a verb before the noun in a third. A paragraph with three longish sentences is capped off tersely with one word. Paragraph and chapter lengths are unpredictable.

These choices are not practical. They don’t improve the quality of communication. They save no time. They are done for one reason only: beauty demands variety.

Echoes

Humankind’s first experience with natural beauty was in a garden. We were banished from that garden, and humanity’s history is the story of our longing to return. These facts are imprinted in everyone’s imagination, believer and unbeliever alike. The proof is in the way the pattern of returning reappears in every novel we call beautiful. (It’s also found in all great music, but that’s another story.)

We see this echo in the repetition of certain words throughout beautiful novels. We see it in the way some events are brought back to the surface through characters’ memories or flashbacks. It is in the way symbols reappear over and over, and in the way the same descriptions are applied first to one thing, and then to another.

A question asked in the first scene is asked again three hundred pages later in the final paragraph. An image seen when we first met a character is seen again when that same character departs the stage forever. Words spoken in one situation are repeated verbatim in another, with the double power of a new meaning in the second situation, and the harkening back to what they meant before.

By echoing the beginning in the end, a novel can awaken memories of primordial beauty with a whisper to our subconscious mind, “Turn back. Turn back. Turn back to the garden.”

Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

How to Write a Masterpiece

Do miracles survive after they have been scientifically explained? Can intuition still guide our choices after we understand the subconscious factors at work? Or do rational explanations for such things mean they never really existed in the first place?

If these seem like strange questions to ask at the outset of a column about writing novels, think about it this way: it is the goal of all great literature to speak of truths beyond words, but is it even possible to learn how to use words to write of things beyond words? Or does the act of learning such a mystery somehow destroy the mystery?

To answer this question we must consider how the greatest thinkers come to know the things they know. Most of modern thought falls into one of two camps when it comes to understanding how original ideas appear within the mind. These two ways of knowing can be loosely defined as the scientific and the existential.

One of the fathers of the scientific method, the philosopher Rene Descartes, believed the path to knowledge lies in the systematic abandonment of preconceived ideas, questioning and discarding everything which cannot be rigorously proven beyond all doubt, until one arrives finally at a bedrock of indisputable fact. In the end, Descartes learned the only thing he could not doubt was his own existence, so he famously said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Today, many atheists place great faith in the fact that divine existence can’t be proven by the scientific method Descartes helped to establish. Ironically, Descartes himself would not agree. He was a Christian, who went on to build a logical case for God by beginning with perhaps the most basic scientific observation of them all: “I am.”

Still, any serious novelist will sense something missing in the scientific method of knowing. Just as thirst and lust prove water and sex exist, so from the earliest cave paintings until now the human need for art proves that something lies in wait for us beyond the realm of cause and effect and logical progression. Replying to Descartes’ famous words, a novelist in pursuit of the ineffable might well say, “I write, therefore God is.”

In response to this basic flaw in the scientific method, another philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, was among the first to propose the existentialist model of knowing. The Danish philosopher famously coined the term “leap to faith” (usually misquoted as “leap of faith”). He insisted there are gaps in knowledge which cannot be bridged by human logic alone. When standing at the edge of such a gap, Kierkegaard believed one must trust pure intuition.

Like Descartes, Kierkegaard was a Christian. As such, he pointed to Abraham, who was commanded to sacrifice his son by a God who forbids human sacrifice. No systematic case could be made for Abraham’s participation in such a paradox. Only a “leap to faith” independent of rational explanations could account for it. But in spite of this lack of logic, in the end Abraham arrived at indisputable knowledge of the divine.

Unlike Descartes’ scientific method, Kierkegaard’s philosophy allows for the possibility of knowing the unknowable, a solution certain to appeal to novelists. Still, it’s not enough. Kierkegaard’s existentialism leads to risky territory. What if we leap only to find nothing there? After all, human intuition is very often wrong. Many an author who writes by the seat of the pants has arrived at an illogical cul-de-sac from which there is no escape.

To understand how these two ways of thinking influence writing, think first of novels which conform to every literary rule and contain nothing whatsoever factually mistaken. Using something akin to Descartes’ scientific method, they build their characters and plots point by point without a rational misstep, yet for all their technical perfection they lack the organic spontaneity of a great work of art, and leave us feeling only superficially engaged, distant and uninterested.

Following something more like Kierkegaard’s approach, the plots and characters of other novels flow naturally from the author’s stream of consciousness, every syllable an artistically inspired choice, yet the story somehow lacks a basis in reality which leaves us bored and subtly annoyed at the author’s self-indulgence.

It seems neither Descartes nor Kierkegaard will do alone. Neither science, nor intuition. What we need, somehow, is both. To write of truths which transcend words, we need a way to leap instinctively into the unknowable without landing in the midst of nothing.

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” (Albert Einstein)

In studying this quote, especially the last sentence, one might assume Einstein believed “intellectual experience” is more important than intuition. One might assume Einstein pursued the secrets of the universe only in terms of coldly scientific methodology. But in another place he also said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Clearly, Einstein and Kierkegaard had much in common, but as the consummate scientist Einstein also owed much to Descartes. No mere scientist could have made the leap to faith it took to think as Einstein did about time and space. No mere artist could have found a way to explain such thoughts to others. Somehow, Einstein knew with a kind of knowing that included both pure intuition and pure logic.

Returning to his first quote above, we can see how he did it. Read that first quote again as if it is a kind of loop in which the final thought feeds back up to the beginning.

New ideas first appear as if from out of nowhere, then looking back on it we find they were the logical result of other ideas which had already come before, but those prior ideas also appeared as if from out of nowhere, until looking back on them we found they too were the logical result of other ideas . . . and so on and on and on. Each intuitive “leap to faith” fuels fresh ideas which stand the test of scientific method and join the growing pantheon of knowledge, which in turn fuels new intuitive leaps, which lead to more ideas, which lead to more knowledge, which leads to new intuitive leaps.

Philosophers call this model “tacit knowledge.” The concept was first proposed by a scientist-turned-philosopher named Michael Polanyi, who befriended Einstein and exchanged letters with him off and on for over 20 years. (I learned about Polanyi from my friend, Dr. Jeff Tacklind.) Polanyi believed there is a way to know what we do not know.

His basic idea is that intuition and intellect are not two different ways of thinking, but rather two halves of a single process, which can work synergistically to produce great advances in objectively verifiable knowledge if we will only step back and allow the process to unfold.

This brings us to the first of two important facts about the greatest novelists in the world. For most of them it is not Descartes’ way or Kierkegaard’s way, but both, together, in cooperation.

Even once a novelist understands this concept it remains difficult to hold those two halves of the thought process in mental balance. Most of us focus too completely on the scientific or on the existentialist side of the process. We thereby become mired in uninspired thinking on the one hand, or else unreasonable thinking on the other. Our writing may be technically proficient, but we see no truth beyond the words, or else we glimpse deep truth but fail to speak it well. So how did Einstein manage to avoid this trap?

With the help of music, as it turns out.

Few people realize Einstein was a lifelong musician, a good violinist, passionately devoted to the classics. According to his son, Hans Albert, he turned to his music, “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work . . . [and] that would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

We find a clue to how music helped Einstein overcome logical problems in something he once said about Mozart, who was his favorite composer. According to the great physicist, Mozart’s music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”

This is a very important observation for a novelist, because it is just as true that Einstein’s famous Special Theory of Relativity was also “ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered.” And if E=mc2 and “The Marriage of Figaro” were both always there, waiting for someone to apply the tacit way of knowing to discover them, might the same be true of a great story?

In other words, what if we thought of writing not as a creative act, but as a process of discovery? This is the second clue to how a masterpiece is written, a way of thinking common to the greatest novelists.

There are scientifically verifiable realities which support this approach. Harmonics, for example, is the fundamental basis for the pleasure we receive from music, but harmonics was not created by musicians. It has always existed. It’s present when a winter wind blows hard through naked branches. It’s present when frogs croak by the riverside and crickets chirp in the grass. Harmonics is the purity of certain waves of sound which have existed as long as the universe, awaiting discovery by musicians such as Mozart. (Thanks to another friend, Rev. Brad Coleman, for pointing this out to me.)

Similarly, the Golden Mean, also known as the Golden Ratio, or Divine Ratio, is a shape defined by a specific set of proportions—a ratio of width to height—known to produce a sense of pleasure and harmony in human observers. The Golden Mean is found in the measurements of the Parthenon’s facade for example, arguably one of the most widely imitated and pleasantly proportioned buildings in existence. It’s found in the Great Pyramids and the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Leonardo da Vinci used it to compose his famous paintings of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. It has been used (consciously and subconsciously) in works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and countless others.

But as with harmonics (and E=mc2) the ancient Egyptians and Greeks didn’t invent this ratio. They only discovered it. The Golden Mean already existed in the pattern of a sunflower’s seeds spiraling from the center as it unfolds, in the way a nautilus shell grows, and even in the whirling shape of galaxies. Like the number Pi, the decimals of the Golden Ratio seem to have no end. As a great physicist once said of a great musician’s work, the Golden Mean was ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” (Michelangelo)

So this is how it works; this is what the greatest philosopher/theologians and scientists have in common with the greatest novelists: they all realize truth is not created; it already exists on levels beyond words. They seek the pre-existing truth like bold explorers on a voyage of discovery. They seek it through intuitive “leaps to faith” within their hearts, or spirits, or subconscious minds, which function in an awe-inspiring place beyond rules and preconceptions. Then, when part of the truth is discovered, they press into it further, using technical skills gained through countless hours of pragmatic study and hard-won experience, and in so doing, they stake it out and point to it in ways they can grasp logically. Then the great ones set out after truth again, seeking yet another intuitive leap ahead, springing on from the territory only just discovered.

Thus the existential and the scientific methods come together in all great masterpieces of human thought, including novels. Thus what is not known is known. Thus the unwritable is written. And thus are miracles explained, yet they remain miraculous.

Athol Dickson’s novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

Scariness in Fictionland

Sometimes being a novelist is scary. For example, over the last year or so I’ve seen dozens of emails from other authors who claim they strongly dislike the first person point of view. That’s a frightful development for a serious novelist.

The first person point of view transcends all periods, genres and literary styles. It has existed since the dawn of language. It is as fundamental to literature as oil paint is to visual arts, as antibiotics are to medicine, as the Ten Commandments are to law. For an author to say she doesn’t like an entire point of view is as if a motion picture director had said, “I don’t like male actors,” or an architect had said, “I don’t like south facing windows.” It’s not as if these authors confined themselves to dislike of mere genres, not as if they said, “I don’t enjoy murder mysteries.” It’s more like they said, “I don’t like the letter ‘a’.”

If you still don’t understand why I find this so disturbing, imagine if this took hold, and in another decade or two all the seminars and books on how to write started teaching that the first person point of view is against the rules. What if publishers and literary critics jump on this bandwagon? What if everyone decides the first person POV “draws readers out of the story” or “distances us from the action”? What if the day comes when third person is the only acceptable point of view left to us? While you’re at it, imagine living in a world where ice cream shops sell only vanilla.

Don’t scoff at the possibility. This trend which so concerns me is already underway, and has been for many years.

Once upon a time there was a thing called “third person omniscient” narration. You know: a Voice which tells the story from an all-knowing perspective, a “meanwhile back at the ranch” or a “little did she know” kind of storyteller. In centuries past, thousands of wonderful novels were written in this point of view by literary giants such as Dickens, Austen and Tolstoy. Once it was a perfectly acceptable part of the novelist’s tool kit, but you’ll hardly find third person omniscient used today, and when it is, you’ll often hear impatient complaints from The Powers That Be. We’re told it’s “telling, not showing,” and it “draws readers out of the story,” or “distances us from the action.” So they’ve already killed an entire point of view. First person might be next.

Then what? The death of adjectives and adverbs?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

While I agree it is a bad idea to dress up weak nouns and verbs with weak descriptors, I also know for a fact that an adverb or adjective can do some very heavy lifting if chosen wisely. For example, Sol Stein in his peerless and pragmatic Stein on Writing (Read it! Read it!) points to this sentence from Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter:

“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”

Read that sentence again and omit the words “bald pink” for incontrovertible evidence of the power of adjectives—two adjectives in a row, actually!—in the hands of a great writer.

It’s Greene’s brilliant writing that makes the adjectives so wonderful. Without him, they are simply inert tools with no qualities to like or dislike whatsoever. To say “I don’t like adjectives,” (or the first person point of view, the third person omniscient, or adverbs), is like saying, “I don’t like guns.” Until the gun is used, it is just a clump of metal. In the wrong hands, a gun can indeed be dangerous and harmful, but in the right hands a gun can put dinner on the table and keep evil at bay. We tend to focus on the damage done by those who don’t know how to use these literary tools, or by those who deliberately abuse them, and we say, “Therefore, I don’t like the tool.” What a sad, irrational mistake.

While I’m at it, let me add I’ve also noticed a growing impatience with “long” (as in, you know, more than one paragraph) descriptions. Of anything.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who sees the king is naked. What in the world is going on here?

To understand how we came to this, it might help to think of where we are in the history of literature. Around the turn of the last century, the reaction against Romanticism and Aestheticism (and a few other egghead “isms”) which had already begun in the visual arts and philosophy also started to take hold in architecture, dance, music, and literature. Some people said the arts were just too fluffy.

By the middle third of the century, Modernist painting had been stripped down to the bare essentials, simple fields of color, or stark lines, and Modernist architecture had been reduced to a “form follows function” approach that removed all ornamentation. In the same way, Modernism began whittling away at the novel, deleting adverbs and adjectives and the “unnecessary” omniscient narrator, until authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were hardly even bothering to write descriptions of characters or settings. Everything boiled down to dialogue and action, period.

That spare approach to fiction is a legitimate aesthetic, and it led to some true masterpieces, but as is often the case with human nature, the pendulum swung too far. Andy Warhol’s soup cans overwhelmed a basic concern with beauty in the visual arts world. In the same way, Modernism’s starkly reduced style of storytelling fascinated all the most important editors and critics in the world of literature, and The Powers That Be in New York City developed a universal disdain for such things as adjectives and adverbs, non-participating narrators, and “long” (you know: more than a paragraph) descriptions of settings, no matter how beautiful the language might be. In fact, “beauty” as a fundamental goal of literature was almost totally forgotten, until today we hardly ever speak of it alongside character, plot, theme, setting and so forth, as I have mentioned in this column before.

It’s a well-known psychological fact that our environment conditions us to prefer our environment. (Stockholm syndrome is one extreme example.) So without really knowing anything about the theoretical reasons for the shift, the reading public came to prefer the stark and spare Modernist style of literature which had been almost universally forced upon them, not because it’s necessarily better in any way, but simply because it had indeed been so universally forced upon them.

Also, it’s a well-known psychological fact that we develop habits mainly because they are more convenient. At rush hour, when presented with a choice between a scenic route and a shortcut, a person falls into the habit of taking the shortcut between their home and workplace. But after doing that a while, the person also takes the shortcut even when they’re not in a hurry, and even though they’re missing a chance to see more beautiful scenery.

Why do they do it? Because it’s easier not to think about which route to take, or to have to think about which way to turn at this intersection or that one. They choose against the beautiful scenery because it’s easier (more convenient) to simply do what they always do, with their mind on autopilot, so to speak.

Similarly, a reader learns to “suspend disbelief” and go along for the ride in one form of novel, and then when presented with a different mode of storytelling, they choose not to indulge, even though it may have great promise, because it’s easier to just stay with the form of fiction they already understand.

The near-death of third person omniscient narration is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Although it was once the most popular form of novel, many readers (and authors) today say omniscient narrators tempt them out of the “fictive dream”. It is as if these people think the narrator they experience in the story is somehow outside the story.

Of course, that is not true at all. In the hands of a skilled author, the narrator can be as much a part of the novel as any other character. After all, who has the right to say a character must participate in the action to be in the novel? Who says we can’t make that omniscient narrator character interesting in other ways? Who says a skilled author can’t introduce a reader to that Voice, and get them thinking, “Oh, good. I like this person,” every time the narrator speaks?

We have forgotten that it was our decision to think of adverbs and adjectives as “superfluous”, our decision to be impatient with descriptions of settings or characters, and our decision to think of omniscient narrators as exterior to the story. These are mere fads and opinions, not objective facts. Indeed, millions of authors and readers who went before us would strongly disagree with all of that. We have been told these perfectly fine literary tools are distractions by the so-called “authorities,” or “critics,” and like sheep we have accepted their judgment, not because doing so has actually improved fiction in any way, but simply because the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Well.

Heaven forbid me to become that much a slave to fashion.

I believe no serious author—no writer who genuinely wants to grow and improve in every way she can as a novelist—would ever reject any literary device out of hand, just as I believe every serious author will immerse herself in novels of every style, genre, and point of view. To always strive to learn, to grow, and to maintain openness to everything that might offer the chance of better storytelling . . . that is the universal hallmark of a true novelist, and a true lover of novels.

Athol Dickson’s novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

I Give You Permission: Be Yourself. (A Post about Marketing)

When I started this writing gig, my ears were wide open (if one could say such things about ears). I knew I had everything to learn, so I did. I took every criticism to heart, morphing myself with each piece of solicited and unsolicited advice.

Partway through that journey, I found my writing voice. It didn’t happen overnight, unless you count twelve years of solid writing overnight. Once I felt comfortable with my style and voice, I could discern better which advice to heed and which to kindly toss.

It’s the same with other aspects of writing too–particularly PR and marketing. Once you start the publication journey, you’ll hear a dizzying array of “shoulds.” Here’s a listing, in case you were wondering:

  1. You should have a facebook page and a connected twitter account. Oh, and LinkedIn, and Bob’s social marketing bonanza, and any other ning, ping, zing that comes around.
  2. You must speak. And learn to speak well. Pay your dues by traveling to Bob’s boathouse to talk about your maritime novel.
  3. Remember to hire the right publicist. And practice your radio voice, presence, pitch, and tie everything you say to to your website.
  4. Which brings me to websites. You ought to have one. And make sure you have a non-Wal-Mart-photstudio picture there. Be sure the site is SEO friendly. And be sure it’s pretty and practical and stunning. It should look like you spent lots of money on it.
  5. Oh and be sure you blog. A lot. Consistently.
  6. You can’t make a living as a writer, so create products on your site.
  7. Email every bookstore in the continental US and make a relationship with every single bookstore owner.
  8. Be sure you send chocolate (or other delectables) to your publishing house.
  9. Buy a magnetic book advertisements for your car.
  10. Send newsletters. Physical ones. Email-y ones.
  11. Teleseminars and webinars are your friends. Shake hands with them.
  12. Start creating seminars (real ones, in the flesh) utilizing your expertise.
  13. Comment on blogs you have affinity with. 
  14. Guest post as much as you can. Invite high profile bloggers to guest post on your blog.
  15. Create or understand or formulate a brand or tagline. Who are you? How do you help others?
  16. Have contests.
  17. Build a database.
  18. Give books away to influential people.
  19. Rethink booksignings to make them less embarrassing! 
  20. Be everything to everybody…

I write this list and smile. Why? Because I’ve done nearly everything on this list, pushing myself close to burnout.

It’s odd to me how I was able to sift through writing advice after I found my voice, but I haven’t been as astute in discerning all the voices in terms of PR and marketing. Instead of thinking through each set of expectations and seeing how they fit me, my ministry, my career, I’ve done everything. Because I thought I had to.

I know some amazing people in PR and marketing. And I’ve learned so much. But I’ve also learned that not everything fits me. And some of it drains me. I’ve learned from Marcus Buckingham recently that I should concentrate more on my strengths (things that strengthen me) rather than my weaknesses (things that weaken me). In light of that, I’m dropping some of my marketing efforts. I’m farming out others. And I’m concentrating on those that strengthen me–things like blogging and social media.

What I toss out won’t be what you toss out. What I do well won’t be what you do well. And that’s okay. The point of this rambling post is to give you permission. Be yourself. Find your marketing and PR voice. Then you’ll be able to better discern the advice that comes your way.

Remember, too, that this is a fickle business. I wish I could give you “the” formula to sell your books, but there is no formula. Part sovereignty, part hard work, part writing, part serendipity, part word of mouth, part mystery, we simply can’t predict how to sell our books.

Which is where I rest today. I may never be a bestseller. It may not be God’s plan. But I want to do this writing journey well. I want to market in a Mary-shaped way. I want to make Jesus smile in my efforts. And I want to let the results rest in His capable hands–He who wrote the bestselling Book of all time. I’m tired of running around in circles, heeding every piece of advice. I want to write. I want to write well. And I want to rest there.

Anyone else feel that way?