Saturday, 3 September 2016

Reflections of an Amateur Christian Author

I have always had an interest in writing, but more so in reading. I devoured books as a child. I sometimes even wrote stories that tended to be spin-offs from the movie I’d just watched. It was obvious these didn’t really contain any unique material or ideas! Since my stories often featured drawings as well, it wasn’t long before I realised that my skills in the latter were non-existent. This realisation usually came through the not-so-well masked facial expressions of various adults. Hence, my writings became text-only. 

As a Christian missionary on Logos Hope from 2011-2013, I spent a day every two months composing my newsletters for my supporters. I tried to make sure they were thorough, colourful (with photos,) detailed and interesting. They seemed to be enthusiastically received. But I suppose that was to be expected as I’d been given training in how to write them. One point that stuck in my mind during the training was about what not to do rather than what to do. Maybe that says something about my personality, but I won’t dwell on that here…

It was mentioned in passing that we shouldn’t spend too much time detailing our personal spiritual experiences. These tend to put people off since often the reader can’t relate to them. That struck on immediate chord with me--the monotony of reading page after page of someone else’s vague encounters with God and their subsequent attempts to analyse them. I determined from the outset to try to connect with my readers by making my content as relevant as possible. I thought about what I would want to hear about if I was at home, the things I would be interested in, and, conversely, the things that would bore me or that I would skip through. 

People do want to know that their missionaries are trusting God and learning through their experiences on the field. But they don’t need the spiritual lessons spelled out for them in tedious detail. These lessons are easily evidenced through the way missionaries deal with everyday events. A Bible verse at the top of the page or a list of prayer points typically suffice. Lessons learned don’t need to be proved via lengthy spiritually-sounding explanations that risk sending even the most faithful supporters off into a deep snooze. 

Why do some missionaries suddenly lapse into church or “God-speak” in their newsletters? Words that long ago ceased to be used in everyday conversation suddenly make a reappearance. I’ve also noticed how missionaries seem to forget their sense of humour. Cross-cultural missions create some of the most amusing situations that exist on earth. It’s inevitable with the clash of people groups. And that’s before we consider bringing a new and potentially threatening religion into the mix! Maybe some people raised their eyebrows at the presence of my “Humour/Cultural” box. But many enjoyed it, making comments to the effect that it really helped them understand some of the dynamics I faced on a daily basis. 

It wasn’t until mid-2014 that I seriously considered writing anything more substantial for a wider readership. It came about purely because I wanted to raise awareness of a ministry situation and realised that a book might be the best method of doing so. I wrote They’re Rugby Boys, Don’t You Know? to highlight the plight of teenage street boys in the Philippines addicted to a solvent called “rugby.”

I wrote in narrative form as if I was verbally telling the story. Some readers that knew me said they could hear me speaking as they read. The vast majority of the feedback was positive and I generously received a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews. But there were critics too. People pointed out that I wasn’t a professional author, that the narrative was rambling in places, that there were a few typos, and that it could do with a proper edit to improve the flow. Personally, I think the latter group were more astute and the former were just being kind as they desired to help in the mission work!

For Rugby Boys, I did a lot of self-promotion around my mission work—not that I wanted to or particularly enjoyed doing it, but because I had picked up from a few articles that it was essential. I decided to self-publish through a print on demand company,, largely due to their royalty rates. I emailed the blurb about my book to all of the independent Christian book shops in England. I submitted the e-book to all of the big websites: Amazon, Nook, Itunes, etc. And I waited. There was not a lot of movement. 

I sold a hundred or so copies to friends and family. I joined Goodreads and other social networks to promote my book. I started a blog. I moved from Lulu to Createspace. I read reams of information about how to increase visibility as an author and tried various tricks and ideas. Still there was not a lot of movement. I joined social network groups and gave my e-book away for free to generate reviews. The reviews trickled in but with no real impact on sales. My analysis was that people who actually read the book seemed to enjoy it and that low sales were still because of a visibility issue.

Then came Planet Police. I had held off writing about my police work. I believed that I needed a spiritual purpose in writing and couldn’t just write something for entertainment. In the end I realised that if I included my personal testimony, it could be an effective evangelistic tool in the hands of the right people. Concerned that some of the content might be considered inflammatory, I approached my former police force and asked for their comments on my draft manuscript.  

Sussex Police suggested a few things be removed. They also advised that I not publish it for my own sake! I complied with the former and thought and prayed a lot about the latter. They mentioned that I might offend people of other faiths with my Christian views. They warned that my story might receive interest in a national tabloid and my personal life might be ripped to pieces. Finally, I decided to seek the legal protection of a publisher. 

Stumbling upon the only Christian publisher in England that accepted unsolicited manuscripts online in mid-2015, Onwards and Upwards, I submitted the document to them. I then forgot about it, knowing that all publishers receive thousands of manuscripts and that it had really just been a shot in the dark. Therefore, I was somewhat astonished to receive an email a couple of days later from the managing director stating that he had read my story, enjoyed it and that they wanted it! I needed to buy 200 copies of the book myself and they would do the rest. Planet Police was published in late 2015 and to date there has been no backlash, although initial sales are slow.

I still saw writing as something of a hobby but began to take it a bit more seriously in 2016. A friend mentioned that he was praying about what to write in his blog. I thought that was a bit crazy—praying about a blog post!? Did God care about things like that? But then I realised that he had been right. Any Christian putting material into the public domain should ensure they are representing Jesus at all times. My blog had to that point been quite random. I had updated it regularly with what I was doing on the field and what I was learning, hopefully in an exciting format. But it was time to make some changes--to take my writing more seriously, and to pray about it first.

Do I now see myself as a serious author? In some respects, not really. But I definitely take my writing more seriously and ensure there is a purpose in the things that I write. I am a Christian missionary and am currently between fields so I have time to spend online, writing books and updating my blog. There will come a time when I will probably not be able to prioritise these things as I will be involved in more practical field work. I am hoping to publish The Logos Life and a sequel to Rugby Boys this year or next. But early feedback suggests the drafts need some further work!

All this to say, I want to share with you here some of the practical things I’ve learned during my first few years as an amateur author. 

1.       Self-promotion irritates people, will make you feel uncomfortable and doesn’t make much difference in terms of sales. You need to get your book in front of readers that will then promote it for you. Consider offering it free for a period on Amazon Kindle. Carry out giveaways on Goodreads and LibraryThing for visibility.

2.       The more books you write, the more you will sell. This is logical. In a market saturated with self-published books, you should focus on writing what could turn out to be the next best-seller rather than spending hours advertising/promoting your first work.

3.       Choose a short snappy title for your book (no more than four words) and include a word that tells the reader immediately what it is about. I didn’t do this with my first book preferring to use a catchy phrase from the narrative. It’s too late to change it now. But I would if I could as it’s caused all sorts of confusion with readers thinking the book is about rugby, the sport. Even Amazon still have it in their rugby union category!

4.       Get it properly proofed and edited. My book had been edited, but you’d be amazed at the number of grammar Nazis out there. They will definitely comment on it in your review for all the world to see forever.

5.       A well designed cover is essential. Make sure that you are happy with it. You don’t want to be making excuses or feeling like it could’ve been better when promoting your book.

6.       Don’t stress about sales. Unless you get “lucky” or God decides He wants to use your work in a spectacular way, sales will be slow, maybe virtually non-existent, at first. Your author profile builds over time, so don’t expect dramatic results. Try to enjoy writing your stories. Don’t worry too much about the outcome sales wise.

7.       Don’t pay for advertising. The only real success I’ve heard about is through Bookbub, but it’s expensive and the path for acceptance is paved with rejections! There are lots of sites where you can submit your book for free. I got over a thousand downloads through Reading Deals but haven’t had much success elsewhere. Even that didn’t generate reviews. You can add your book to searchable book databases to ensure it is available online.

8.       Listen to your readers and read the reviews. Implement suggestions for change. Don’t react angrily or take it personally if someone doesn’t like your book. We have diverse opinions and should be free to express them. Consider thanking the reviewer for their honesty and if they haven’t been specific, ask them how you could improve your writing.

9.       Become an avid reader. Offer to review other people’s books and offer honest feedback in your reviews. Objective critique is what all authors need, but it is sadly lacking. People prefer to avoid confrontation using phrases like “It was good” or saying that it was “nice.” Be more specific and say what you really mean.

10.   Most of us are not professional authors and have other jobs, as some readers have not so tactfully reminded me in their reviews. But in all seriousness, we need to remember that and not expect to make a living out of our writing. There are very few who will be gifted enough to be able to do that, but it is not a realistic goal for most. Instead, let’s focus on our spiritual purpose in writing and ensure our faith remains central.

I hope this post encourages you in your writing for Christ and gives you some ideas for further reflection. Let’s pray that our Christian readers will be challenged and encouraged. And let’s pray that those who are not yet saved will be convicted and realise their need of a Saviour.

 Colossians 3 vs 23

"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men"

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