Why Christians Should Not Make Safe Art

Christian art is limited by faith

Last week I learned about a former Christian hard rock musician who became an atheist at the height of his career, but he kept making music for the Christian market since the money was good. Presumably Christian parents encouraged their children to buy this band’s albums because they were expecting a particular message that would be safe and positive. Perhaps Christian youth believed they were protecting their faith.

They didn’t suspect that this band’s message was simply a sham for making money. According to this band’s front man, the majority of Christian musicians he knows are quiet atheists, cashing in on the demand for Christian music. That matches what I’ve heard from other friends.

How did we end up with a huge community of “Christian” music “artists” who aren’t really Christian and who, according to most experts I know, don’t usually make good art?

The problem from my perspective is that artists face ostracizing if they don’t arrive at a set list of answers at the end of the creative process. The subtext is clear: don’t wrestle with big questions in your art unless you’re ready to follow the evangelical script.

This represents the problem when faith becomes a barrier to art. Faith determines the answers and the final product without allowing time and space to ask the questions. The final product is vapid, unhelpful, and can hardly distinguish itself from art by a sell out.

In our quest to create safe art without swear words, sex, or violence (unless you count Christians who bow down to Brave Heart and MMA), we’ve stunted out ability to create honest art that fully engages our faith. The answer HAS to be Jesus died on the cross for your sins. That’s why the cross is all over Christian art, so many of our songs mention the cross, and so many books proclaim they’re offering a fresh take on the cross/Gospel—provided the Gospel is defined as Jesus dying on the cross for your sins.

While musicians who have left the faith can mimic what a good Christian “should” say, Christian artists have to play games to make their work marketable. Writers have to clean up their novels, artists have to insert “Jesus saves” into their lyrics, and artists have to paint subtle (or not so subtle) salvation messages. Meanwhile, our world has big tough questions that our artists aren’t allowed to ask.

Christians should be the ones diving into the jaws of the beast, confronting the worst of this world’s demons, and making ourselves as “unsafe” as possible as we face the worst the world has to offer. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s just a clever fabrication of his followers who needs to be protected from our big bad world.

Are we doing anyone any favors when the most influential art made by Christians is coming from people who don’t have any faith that can guide them?

Rather than encouraging Christian artists to speak to today’s issues, we’ve created a sub-genre that isn’t compelling to anyone other than Christians who want to play it safe and fear the loss of their faith. This is catastrophic. When the artists within that subgenre start asking questions they aren’t prepared to answer, they just keep plugging in the answers that they know activates record sales while their faith quietly dies.

This is how we ended up with the religious broadcasting group ostracizing Waterbrook Multnomah publishing because it published a book in its progressive imprint by a Christian man who believes the Bible supports same sex relationships. The message is clear: feel free to wrestle with the Bible, provided you arrive at our conclusions.

Honest reflection on difficult topics always brings up anxiety among Christian artists because we know that we could lose friends, struggle to make a living, and experience alienation from family and friends. As I started working on my Christian Survival Guide project, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to settle for the answers I’d been given, even if I didn’t find them satisfying.

I had to force myself to look at scripture without the evangelical community looking over my shoulder with heresy stamps at the ready. I had to dig into my tough questions about the violence of God, the place of God in a world with evil, and the ways we interpret the Bible 2,000 years removed from the New Testament writers.

I didn’t always arrive at the answers I expected. I found that hell isn’t what I thought it was, the end times described in Revelation were actually good news to their original readers, and that the Bible can be easily abused. As I considered God’s place in a world that has evil, I arrived at a conclusion that I didn’t see coming.

I didn’t reinforce everything I beleived, but I also found that facing the tough and mysterious questions of today isn’t the end of my faith, especially if I arrived at a different conclusion than expected. I found that my faith is far more sturdy and capable than I expected.

Perhaps that is our problem in the Christian subculture. We’re so afraid of our faith cracking if we place too many burdens on it. On the contrary, I found that my faith can handle far more than I would have expected. If anything, I had been placing my faith in the wrong things.

When I started asking the questions I wasn’t supposed to ask and opened myself up to conclusions I wasn’t supposed to arrive at, I found that Jesus didn’t need me to protect him. Scripture is far more reliable than we realize. The Holy Spirit settles among us to give us wisdom.

Creating art as a Christian isn’t safe or simple. The way of Jesus requires taking up one’s cross. The presence of the Spirit brings tongues of fire. We may have to endure death and fire, but the art that comes out of the process has been pruned and refined. We will find that our best work comes out of the times we face what we’ve feared the most.

Learn more about my Christian Survival Guide project.

 

I’m Finally Doing Something Either Incredibly Sensible or Incredibly Stupid

Path-to-Publishing-side2I think I’ve finally done something that is kind of sensible in my life. Of course, I could be wrong, and I’ll merely expose myself as even more foolish than I even thought myself capable. We’ll see.

So here’s the thing, I often confuse people. Some people meet me, and they wonder why I’m not a pastor. Others meet me and they can’t fathom why I’m not a literary agent.

I can relate to their confusion.

I too thought for years that I was called to be a pastor because I like helping people figure out stuff, but I don’t really have the gentle touch or the extroversion many expect from pastors (aside from hundreds of other reasons). When I encourage fellow writers and they ask if I’m going to become a literary agent, I laugh at the thought of myself getting down to hardball negotiations with publishers and combing through book contracts line by line.

“Hi Mr. Editorial Director, if we can skip this contract confrontation, I’ll even convince my client to settle for less money.”

Being a pastoral person without a church and a supporter of authors without a literary agency, I didn’t really know what to do with myself until the fall of 2009 when I got the idea to write a book about everything I learned after publishing my first book. It’s called A Path to Publishing, and it takes on every question that new authors may ask from the perspective of an author who has just completed a first book.

I didn’t have years of publishing experience like the editors and agents who speak at conferences, but that was actually my greatest asset. I could walk newcomers through the basics of book publishing from their perspective. I’d just felt everything they were feeling, and I’d just asked all of the questions they would be asking. It’s a full-length book full of publishing tips.

I received great endorsements, reviews, and feedback, but I’ve always struggled to find a way to make the book widely available while still letting readers pay something for it if they wanted to. The solution has finally come through NoiseTrade.

Today you can download A Path to Publishing completely for free, provided you pass along your email address.

Download your copy of A Path to Publishing now.

This book is like a personal writing conference. In fact, a friend who read it and then attended a writing conference said he learned a lot more from my book.

So the book is completely free, and I plan to leave it that way. It feels incredibly stupid to make that much work a free giveaway, but my priority all along has been helping writers take their next steps. A free eBook strikes me as the easiest way to accomplish that goal.

However, my foolish optimism doesn’t stop with this free eBook.

I’m also launching a small publishing community on August 14th. Here’s why: I’ve met so many people who are frustrated, fearful, confused, and uncertain about what to do next. I’m creating groups of 15 people who will meet for six one-hour online video sessions in the evening to talk about all of that.

I’ll organize each session around a specific publishing topic and will customize our time around answering particular questions. Most importantly, if you need support for the publishing process, this can become a community where you can say what you’re really thinking and ask those questions that have been nagging you.

The group is called Journey into Publishing, and the early bird rate for all six sessions is $60 (plus a small Eventbrite fee). That’s only $10 per session.

The early bird rate ends July 5th, and spots are limited to 15 people. If we have enough interest, we’ll add another group so that we can keep our meetings small and personal. Need to learn more? Visit my information page.

Eventbrite - Journey into Publishing

So there you have it.

I’m giving away my eBook on publishing AND hosting an online book publishing community. Both of these moves strike me as completely sensible and helpful for others, but what do I know? I’m just a writer.

Don’t forget to pick up your free copy of A Path to Publishing today!

Path-to-Publishing-side2

I’m Offering a Big Discount for Book Proposal Evaluations This Winter

book proposal editing penAt the start of 2005 I had just finished seminary and had a long, rambling paper from an independent study that I wanted to publish. I had no idea what I was doing, so I started asking around at my seminary, and my professor put me in touch with an editor. The editor sent me a book proposal template, I filled it out, hit send, and waited.

I waited, and waited, and waited.

Finally, he replied with a firm “No.” His message made two things clear:

This was not a good book idea.

I wasn’t the guy to write it even if it was.

Crestfallen, I tried to redeem myself by contacting two other publishers. I once again filled out my book proposal according to their guidelines, and they also rejected me. I’m sure I still have the emails buried in my GMail account, but I’m afraid to look.

I finally signed on with an agent who overhauled my proposal several times before we pitched the book again.

The idea was still basically the same.

I was still the same guy, albeit with a blog.

As if my agent had accomplished something magical, NavPress signed me to a contract to write what later became Coffeehouse Theology. It’s no mistake that my book was only accepted after I received professional help.

Why Are Book Proposals So Hard to Write?

Nonfiction book proposals require a unique blend of creative writing and marketing know-how. You have to pitch a winning idea, demonstrate that people want to read it, list ways you can reach those people, prove you have the credentials to write it, and convince an editor that they’re the right publisher for this book.

Over the years I’ve pitched a variety of nonfiction book projects to many publishers, and while it hasn’t necessarily become easier, I have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t work. In 2013 alone I signed three book contracts based on my proposals.

Along the way, I routinely overhauled my proposals and refined the message of each unique section. I’ve also consulted with a number of aspiring authors on their proposals, and many of them have since been published.

A Special Offer for You…

This winter, I’m offering 10 nonfiction book proposal critiques for $200 each, a $100 savings from my regular price of $300 per critique. I’ll also throw in a copy of my book A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book to help you refine your proposal along the way.

I’ll offer the critiques on a first-come, first-served basis, aiming to work on 2-3 proposals a week, with the last day of March as my end date.

THIS IS FOR NONFICTION BOOKS ONLY.

If you’re interested in signing up or if you have questions, email me at edcyzewski (at) gmail.com.

What I’ll Do for Your Nonfiction Book Proposal

Nonfiction book proposals can be divided into two basic sections: the marketing information (book summary, audience, promise for readers, competing works, publicity, etc.) and the book content (chapter list and 2-3 sample chapters).

I’ll read through your proposal from the perspective of a potential editor. I’ve worked with and spoken to enough editors that I have a clear idea of how most publishers approach book proposals. I’ll suggest revisions, offer ideas, and do everything I can to point you in the right direction for your project.

While I can’t guarantee that an agent will take you on as a client or that an editor will accept it, a professional critique will increase your chances of acceptance exponentially. I can’t think of a single author I know who has sold a book proposal without some kind of professional help.

I’m not saying you can’t write a proposal on your own. There are some great books out there that will walk you through it. However, if it’s your goal to publish a book, a personal evaluation of your project will give you specific, concrete ideas that you can work on today and help you spot problems in your proposal before an editor emails you about them.

Questions? Email me at edcyzewski (at) gmail.com.

 

Why Now?

I’ve been using book proposal critiques over the years to barter for marketing or design services, as well as to simply help out friends. This winter I have a chance to buy back some study guides for Coffeehouse Theology from my publisher before they go out of print. I put a lot of work into these study guides, and I believe they can still help readers think about what they believe and where their beliefs come from.

This book proposal experiment will help me buy and ship the study guides, saving them from getting pulped. So if you love books, your money is going toward a worthy cause!

Download the Kindle Bestseller-Creating Space

creating-space-angled-250Creating Space: The Case for Everyday Creativity

Download this Kindle Bestseller today for $.99.

“Ed’s writing is clear, engaging, and enjoyable to read. I highly recommend it, especially for people who don’t think they have a lot of creative energy to offer.”
– Matt Appling, Art Teacher and Blogger

Creativity is a gift everyone has been given to share, but doubt, discouragement, and distractions hinder the ability of many to pursue their creative passions. Creating Space advocates for the creative gifts in every person, arguing that…

– Creativity is not a mistake.
– Creativity can be developed.
– Creativity is a vitally important gift for others.

This brief manifesto on creativity is for everyone. Whether you doodle, sing in the shower, knit scarves, or scribble poems, Creating Space will encourage you to make space in your life in order to fulfill your creative calling, using your gifts to their fullest extent.

“This book is a much-needed resource for anyone who has lost the artist within due to the hurriedness of life.”
– Ben Arment, Founder of STORY

Creating Space banner price

A Writer’s Secret Weapon: Honest Feedback

redpen

When I wrote a short story for a contest a few months ago I gave it to my wife and to a friend for feedback. They both love to read, but I hadn’t anticipated the results.

My wife felt comfortable telling me that it was terrible. My friend just said it was alright.

I thought they would both say something similar, but my wife ended up giving me the feedback I needed in order to rework my story. She was right. The original one didn’t work.

Paying $15 to enter a lousy story into a contest is not my goal.

Just about every article that passes the “wife test” is accepted by an editor or at least receives praise. One story, that passed the wife test, even received an honorable mention in a Glimmer Train contest.

I’m lucky to have such a talented reader in my home that I can trust implicitly to provide honest feedback. She is my secret weapon who has saved me a lot of disappointment and frustration in the long run.

I have read similar stories from writers who rely heavily upon one trusted reader who is sometimes a spouse and other times a member of a critique group. Keep in mind that a spouse is not always the best choice for feedback.

What to look for in a reader:

  • Interest in the same subject matter.
  • Attention to the details in your genre (eg. what makes for a good plot in a novel).
  • Trust and comfort to tell you the truth.

No writer can catch all of his/her mistakes. If there’s a hole in an argument, a weak point in the plot, or an explanation that falls flat, oftentimes an attentive and critical reader is one of the safest bets in finding them. If you’re waiting for an editor to catch your mistakes, chances are you’ll just receive a form letter saying, “Your work does not meet our current needs.”

That could be a clue that you really need better feedback before you submit your work.

How to Know if Your Book Idea Works: Is It Unique?

I’m guessing you can count on one hand the books you’re read more than once. We typically read for information or in order to be entertained by a particular story, and then we return the book or stick it on a shelf. If we really enjoy it we’ll recommend it to our friends.

If you read a book explaining the significance of the beaver trade in colonial America or telling the story of a young woman who finds out that she’s really the princess of a small country, I’m guessing you wouldn’t be tempted by another book that explains the animal-centered commerce of colonial America or how a country found it’s unsuspecting princess in a mall department store.

In other words, if you’re just rehashing what’s already out there, chances are you’ll have a hard time finding readers. That isn’t to say you need to have a completely fresh and unique idea that no one has ever done before. There are fresh angles to explore in topics that are already addressed in books and new spins we can add to old stories.

However, you need to watch out for the “been there, read that,” response from readers. It would be terrible to invest a year or two of your life into a book project that fails to sell because it’s been done.

I know that the spirits of aspiring authors are crushed every time a new vampire book is released, but even if there are plenty of repeats out there, publishers and the general public are looking for unique books with something new to say. For every vampire spin-off, there are plenty of innovative and unique books released each year. For example, I encourage you to read something by Susanna Clark, Jasper Fforde, or Neil Gaiman for examples of authors breaking new ground by tinkering with older forms.

Can you add a new angle to a topic that has been covered extensively? Can you draw in your readers without tossing in a character with a gun (such as secret agent Michael Scarn?)?

If someone has already nailed your book topic, I encourage you to buy that book, read it, and consider what else needs to be addressed in your own book. In fact, reading your competition is essential by way of not only selling your book, but making sure you write with an awareness of your genre and field.

If you claim to present a ground-breaking, fresh, new, riveting book that only rehashing what five others have already done, then you’ve just spent a lot of time working on the project that’s going no where fast.

Perhaps you could begin by asking yourself this question: What can I write that no one else can?

How to Know if Your Book Idea Works

I have had publishing hopefuls ask me whether their book ideas were good, and I have to admit it’s a tough question to answer. There are many factors to consider when setting out to publish a book.

It’s most important in my experience to summarize the book succinctly, to have a solid title in mind, and to know exactly what you need to say in order to evaluate its merit. The details of each chapter may be fuzzy, but at least the main idea, controlling metaphors, and outline should be pretty clear before evaluating whether or not a book could work.

Some sample chapters will help you sort through how substantive your ideas are and if you can carry on for an entire book. Many good book ideas work better as magazine articles.

There are several factors you’ll need to consider when evaluating whether your book idea works. I’ll give you a hint right now, it won’t be enough for the idea to be good. I’ve seen my own good ideas and the good ideas of others fail the editor test.

They need to be better than good, and that’s what I’ll discuss in my next post.

What You Need to Know About Self-Publishing: Solving the Distribution Problem

One of the greatest obstacles that self-published authors will face is finding people to actually buy their books.

Think about it. No one will visit a book store and stumble upon your book. No one will find it on a publisher’s web site. No one will read about it in a catalogue. No one will want to stock in a book store because it’s self-published.

Oh, of course you can sell it online, but how will readers find it?

That is the trick. Can you assemble a realistic marketing plan that will sufficiently take into account all of the setbacks that self-publishing brings, while still connecting with readers on a scale that will ensure you sell enough copies to at least break even?

Ah, distribution is a huge problem for self-published authors. Heck, when self-publishing A Path to Publishing, I still didn’t quite grasp the amount of work ahead of me or the sheer quantity of potentials readers I needed to connect with in my niche.

Where should you start if you’re self-publishing?

For starters, check out my free online marketing guide. That gives both traditional and new ways to market your work.

However, the most important principle in selling books is to make a real connection with a potential reader and to communicate clearly why he or she may want to buy your book. Someone else may be able to do that for you by way of an endorsement or a review, but kicking it all off depends on you and you alone.

I began this series saying that “self” is the key word when it comes to “self-publishing”. If you have any hopes of selling your book, make sure you have more than Plan A and B for distributing your book. You’ll probably need to have plans that range from A to Z.

Your job is to find the communities, blogs, forums, Twitter users, Facebook users, groups, societies, and any other group of potential readers in your content niche. That is the publishing sales game in a nutshell, and it’s a tough one on your own!

Lessons in Self-Publishing: Format It Correctly or Else…

While no one will dispute the importance of writing a great book and making sure you connect with readers, the design of a book can be just as important, if not more so to a certain degree. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” aside potential readers WILL judge your book by its cover and its formatting.

In fact, if your font, lay out, and spacing look sloppy or are unreadable, they won’t take you or your book seriously. There are simple things you can do to correctly format a self-published book, ensuring that readers will be drawn in and take it seriously once you’ve successfully marketed it to them:

Keep Your Lay Out Simple

Don’t make your book’s lay out too flashy if you don’t know what you’re doing. Instead, use the templates that are available at sites such as www.lulu.com. Your primary job is to write a great book, and therefore a book template will save you a lot of time and pay off in the long run.

Research Your Design Options

Beyond the options offered by book templates, many of your most important design decisions (cover design, font choice, font size, and line spacing) can be figured out by researching your options and reading what others have found to be true in online forums. Some test-printings on your home printer will also give you a good idea of how your fonts will show up for readers.

Compare your design choices to the books you enjoy most, what experts recommend, and what others have found in their own publishing experiences. Readability is a major concern for self-publishing authors and deserves a lot of consideration.

Invest Where It Counts

There are some things that you cannot do well on your own no matter how hard you try. One of these things, for most of us at least, is designing a great book cover. Of course most self-publishing services provide a cover creator as part of their packages, but if money isn’t too much of an issue, I think it’s well worth paying a professional or even novice designer to at least create a cover.

Even designing a simple cover requires choosing the appropriate font to match your material and then choosing the size, spacing, color, and location that works best. This can be quite difficult to do.

A catchy, professional cover will not necessarily sell more books, but it will be an important part of the whole package. You don’t want an unappealing cover to give customers a reason to ignore your book!

What You Need to Know About Self-Publishing: Seek Opinions

In conjunction with the release of my self-published book A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book, I’m offering this series of posts on what you need to know about self-publishing.

When working on a self-published book you may have put together a passable first draft, and even managed to spruce up a pretty decent second draft. However, chances are your argument or story will have some significant holes in it, to say nothing of some sections that readers will find confusing.

While working on my third draft of A Path to Publishing I couldn’t think of any significant changes to make, so I sent it off to several friends and colleagues to read it. Sure enough, one reader found the same glaring flaw in two of the book’s chapters.

She very gently suggested that those two sections needed significant revision. She was absolutely right. I had a few doubts at first about those sections, but I had decided they worked fine. Thankfully she pointed out some other reasons why needed to be not only rewritten but largely deleted.

And that brings us to the challenge of editing your own book. You always need perspectives other than your own to make sure your book flows and makes sense. No matter how talented you may be as a writer or an editor, you can’t catch all of your own mistakes.

Depending on your relationship with your friends and family, you may ask them for help. However, remember that a good editor will not worry about hurting your feelings. A good editor needs to feel comfortable pointing out all of your book’s flaws. Will your friends and family be able to do that?

My friends through social media and blogging have been a tremendous help in reading drafts of my books, while several key friends and family members have helped at times as well. However, I think it’s important to choose your readers carefully and to give them deadlines that can be flexible if need be.

In addition, keep in mind that these friends may publish their own books some day. Guess who they’re going to e-mail before anyone else for help…