Writing Update

by Mike Duran · 0 comments

Things have been busy on the writing front. Glynn Young reviewed my short story anthology Subterranea at his Faith, Fiction, Friends blog saying, “What Duran plumbs here is the ‘subterranea’ of the human mind and heart. ” Reviews are slowly coming in for The Ghost Box. Austin Gunderson wrote a nice piece over at the Speculative Faith website. From The Ghost Box and the Spirit Sea:

The Ghost Box is a paranormal thriller in the vein of That Hideous Strength and The Apocalypse Door. Like those novels, it starts out small — a rumor here, an industrial accident there — and slowly ramps up until the world itself hangs in the balance. But, despite its religious imagery and eschatological overtones, this novel is about as “Christian” as Hellboy. As a kind of stylistically-superior version of Ted Dekker’s Saint, Duran’s story ignores the major players one expects to meet on the spiritual plane: here, God, Jesus, and Satan are notably absent. And yet the vacuum they leave teems with a menagerie of minions — angelic mimes, vampiric aliens, shapeshifting action girls, and transdimensional Eldritch Horrors. And in the midst of it all is Reagan Moon, a jaded journalist nursing doubts over his girlfriend’s death and sneering at the credulity of his own reader-base. As a child he dreamt of fighting evil, of throwing in with the side of light in a field of cosmic conflict, but not anymore. Not since loss dimmed the light in his eyes. Not since he became a rationalist.

Little does he realize the conflict is about to find him.

Dude. I should hire this guy to write all my blurbs. I just learned this morning that Publishers Weekly will also be reviewing The Ghost Box. This took some work. Now I can only hope they recognize the complete awesomeness of the novel and send readers flocking for their own copy. OK. As long as they don’t pan it, I’m good.

After much flip-lopping and lolly-gagging, I finally went and started a Facebook fan page for my writing. One of the reasons I decided on this is that Facebook does not allow you to run promotions and boost posts on your personal page. Being that I plan on doing some giveaways and promotions, I figured it was time to pull the trigger. If you’d like to keep up on my writing, and you haven’t done so yet, you can Like my Author Page HERE.

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Finally, I’m gearing up for the release of my first lengthy non-fiction project. I say “lengthy” because it’s 32K words (about 120+ pages). The title is “Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Christian Worldview with the Horror Genre.” It’s a bit technical, but fans of the horror genre and Christian culture should find it interesting. Chapters include “Religion in Horror,” “Horror in Religion,” “Evangelical Culture and the Horror Genre,” “Christian Horror — Towards an Apologetic,” and “Objections to Christian Horror.” I’m self-publishing it, as it doesn’t exactly fit with traditional fare. It will be available next month (May) in digital format. Really excited about this project.

Anyway, there’s a brief update. Thanks for reading.

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free-range-childrenPerhaps the hardest thing about raising children is letting them go. I don’t mean this to sound ominous or indifferent. Regarding marriage, Scripture says in several places that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). This idea of an individual “leaving” the shelter of Mom and Dad is what I’m talking about. In this case, it concerns leaving in order to establish a new bond, a new life. But in reality, growing up is a series of “leavings” (on the child’s end) and “letting gos” (on the parents’ end). At various stages, parenting means letting kids go to make their own decisions, fail, experiment, experience life apart from you, and choose what to believe and disbelieve.

So it puzzles me how many children struggle with leaving their parents’ fold and how many parents struggle with letting their kids do so. This is especially glaring in teenagers with micromanaging parents.

A while back, Lisa and I conducted a workshop at our church on Parenting Teenagers. I can’t think of two words more volatile when placed together than parents and teenagers. Nor can I think of anyone who is a real expert on the subject. I approached that workshop by discussing four phases of parenting. Each of these phases indicates a particular style of parenting:

  1. MICROMANAGER
  2. MANAGER
  3. CONSULTANT / ADVISER
  4. PARTNER

My theory is that parenting should progress through these different phases. Each of these styles correlates to specific  stages of growth within our children. In the typical family, both parent and child are on growth trajectories. The parent is growing in how to raise their child, while the child is growing within (or challenging) the parameters defined and enforced by their parent. So none of these parenting styles are wrong insofar as they are implemented at the proper stage of the child’s growth.

  • Infants / Children require MICRO-MANAGEMENT — This stage is marked by constant attention to health, detail and behavior. This is the stage where we begin to frame our moral and behavioral expectations for our children. It’s a pretty small window that closes rather quickly.
  • Adolescents require MANAGEMENT — This is the stage where we entrust our kids with certain responsibilities and enforce the values we have instilled. Unlike the micro-manager, we don’t need to hawk over them. We should give them a certain amount of freedom to “manage” their own world, but never to the extent that we don’t interject guidance, correction, or affirmation.
  • Teenagers / Young Adults require CONSULTATION and ADVICE —  This is the stage where our kids are (or should be) full-fledged managers of their own lives. By now, they should understand moral parameters and societal obligations. We respect their growing independence by posturing ourselves as consultants and advisers, not managers. As such, they are free to take or leave our advice. (Of course, this does not let them off the hook regarding behavior or responsibility, but it affirms their autonomy and our waning authority.)
  • Adults require PARTNERSHIP — At this stage, our children are adults and we should treat them like it. Lectures and scolding should be a thing of the past. They must face the harsh consequences of their own decisions or indecision. We should stand shoulder to shoulder with them, not above them as superiors, but as fellow sojourners through life.

Of course, things are never this clear-cut; every child and parental situation is different.  But I believe this paradigm is helpful in thinking about parenting teenagers. From my experience, the biggest problem in parenting teens is in trying to manage and micro-manage their behavior, rather than act as consultants and advisers.

“But my teenager is not capable of managing her own life,” some would object. My response:

  1. Then you were remiss in not raising your child to be morally, financially, relationally, and socially responsible.
  2. No amount of micro-management will help them now (in fact, it will probably make it worse).

It’s a hard fact, but SOME teenage rebellion is evidence of poor parenting. Of course, not all of it is. Kids aren’t computers that can be programmed to boot up on cue. We and they both need grace. Nevertheless, the reason that some parents resort to micro-managing their teen is in hopes of making up for years of mismanagement on their part. They are fearful of letting go because they never had proper control in the first place.

The micromanaging parent is a parent who is not confident that they’ve laid a proper foundation, fears entrusting their teenager to make the right choice, and does not trust God to handle the outcomes of both. The parent who refuses to let their teen fail, does not entrust them with responsibility, and shields them from the repercussions of their bad choices is micro-managing. Rather than acting as a Consultant, Adviser, or Partner, this parent pries into every detail of their teen’s life, scouring it for evidences of infractions, prepared to swoop in with a safety net or a vacuous threat.

The micromanaged teenager often goes one of two ways:

  1. Failure to launch syndrome — because Mom and Dad have coddled them all their life, this teenager has difficulty handling independence and fears venturing too far from the nest
  2. Implosion / Rebellion — the bubble of control finally bursts and this teenager goes full-on rebel, spreading their wings in glorious defiance of the parental bean-counters

Yeah, it’s dangerous to treat teenagers as managers of their own lives. Nevertheless, it’s important to admit when some of that “danger” is the result of our own mismanagement. Doubling down on micromanagement is the worst thing the parent of a teen can do. Of course, the other extreme — abandoning the kid to herself — is just as bad. Finding that balance of “letting go” is important. Release your teen to begin making their own decisions. Point them to the runway and give them appropriate nudges (or kicks in the ass) to help them along. Act as a trusty Adviser or a Partner in their new ventures. Forgive yourself and openly admit where you’ve blown it, been too controlling or too lazy. But when it comes to teens, whatever you do, reasserting yourself as their Manager rarely results in health. For you or them.

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I've Been CussingFormer Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Michael Hyatt, recently wrote a popular article that made the social media rounds. In How Much Business is Your Profanity Costing You, Hyatt argues that though profanity has become trendy in some circles, it can ultimately cost content providers a wider audience.

A majority of people swear from time to time, but it’s recently become far more prevalent in public. Why? One of the main reasons in the business world is creating an edge.

“Uttering a taboo word in public is a great hierarchy-buster,” says Lee Siegel. “It also gives you an extra boost in a society that is becoming ever more competitive.”

Most speakers and bloggers I know who use profanity do it for this reason. It’s part of their personal style, meant to set them apart from other communicators. But like anything, there’s an opportunity cost involved in dropping F-bombs and using blasphemy.

After listing three possible reasons that the use of profanity could be hurting someone’s business, Hyatt concludes with this tweetable:

If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.

For the most part, I agree with Hyatt’s take. He’s not framing this as a prude, nor is he suggesting that certain words contain some kind of magical power to defile. It’s the inferences that much of Hyatt’s audience draws that bothers me.

Though Hyatt’s platform is now largely related to the subjects of leadership and business, he gained much prominence through his Thomas Nelson days. As a result, many Christian writers read and respect Hyatt. He was the keynote speaker at the last ACFW conference I attended (2012) and still blogs often about publishing related issues. So when this article started popping up in my social media feed, it was posted by Christian novelists, most of whom extrapolated Hyatt’s point thus:

If you can’t be interesting without profanity (in your fiction), then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.

So while Hyatt was talking more about business than fiction writing, most of the folks I follow immediately used the piece to buttress an ever-popular argument in Christian writers’ circles: Avoiding profanity is also good for the Christian fiction business.

Writer /editor friend Johne Cook linked to the Hyatt article on his Facebook page. The ensuing discussion immediately turned to “profanity in fiction.”

Commenter Nora cut to the chase:

As writers we should be able to come up with ways to explain ourselves without it. As for dialog, you don’t have to write everything people say word for word: She swore under her breath; he would have cussed her out but that little voice inside of his head that sounded like his mother wouldn’t let him: You were supposed to keep your mouth shut, stupid. He swore as he hit the narc across the head.

This is just me though and I’m certainly no expert in the area. However, what’s more powerful telling someone they’re lower than a worm in a ditch or that they’re an xxx-xxxx. I’m just saying.

Personally, I think telling someone they’re an “xxx-xxxx” is more powerful than telling them they’re a “worm in a ditch.” But that’s just me. My point  here is to simply say that many Christian writers who follow Hyatt seemed to interpret his words as pertaining to the use of profanity in fiction.  Their logic looks something like this:

  • creating characters who use profanity equals using profanity
  • using profanity means you’re not interesting

Which prompted commenter Mary on Johne’s post to reply,

“…what bothers me is this ‘If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting.’

I’m sorry, Mr. Hyatt. You don’t know me. You’ve probably not read my fiction. So to make a blanket statement like that is, well, judgmental and presumptive. And offensive. Who are you to say that because I use the f-word in a story I’m ‘not interesting’?”

In all fairness, Hyatt did not say that using the f-word in a story makes a novelist uninteresting. However, this is the line of reasoning that many of Hyatt’s readers appear to have followed.

In my mind, the anti-profanity arguments in fiction are uncompelling. Writers talk a lot about their characters being autonomous. Which means, at times, your characters will say or do something wildly inappropriate. In fact, remaining true to your characters means letting them act in ways you don’t personally agree with. Nevertheless, it amazes me how many writers hedge at these implications.

In speaking about character dialog, Stephen King, in his book On Writing says:

As with other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialog is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or down-right psychopathic. In the majority of cases what my correspondents are hot under the collar about relates to something in the dialogue… (pp. 185-186 emphasis mine)

Maybe this is why so many authors sanitize their characters — we’re just trying to avoid “criticism.” We don’t want to appear “foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic” or… uninteresting.  So we censor our characters. And construct vapid arguments to support the censorship.

Listen, I don’t use much profanity in real life. I think it’s sloppy. In this, I agree with Michael Hyatt. My characters, however, don’t always think like me or Mike.

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Amish-1

Theology is a defining characteristic of much Christian fiction. Which is why the proliferation of Amish fiction has always puzzled me.

In The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, Valerie Weaver-Zercher notes that “The triumvirate of top Amish romance novelists–Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall–have sold a combined total of 24 million books. At least seven of Lewis’s Amish novels have sold more than 500,000 copies each, and one of those, The Shunning, has sold more than 1 million copies. Brunstetter’s fifty books, almost all of them Amish titles, have sold nearly 6 million copies.” (p. 5)

Many have sought to explain the popularity of Amish fiction in evangelical circles. According to Weaver-Zercher, the two factors that have bolstered the Amish trend is the rise of hypermodernity and hypersexualization. “The speed, anomie, and digital slavery of contemporary life have sent many readers, weary of hypermodernity, to books containing stories of a people group whom readers perceive as hypermodernity’s antithesis: the Amish” (p. 10). And with the hypersexualization of American society through television, advertising, fashion, pornography, and erotica, Amish fiction became a literary respite for those who valued sexual purity and virtue. Weaver-Zercher concludes, “The exponential growth of Amish fiction during the first decade of the twenty-first century cannot be understood apart from these ‘hyper’ cultural developments.” (p. 12)

It’s understandable that the Amish way of life would be attractive for people, like evangelicals, who seek to separate themselves from secular culture, its hectic pace and its deteriorating moralities. Indeed, the Amish may be a great example of a community that is “in” but not “of” the world.

My question is: Why does their erroneous legalistic theology get a pass?

Please know, I am not saying that the Amish aren’t Christians. From my understanding, they hold to the central tenets of Judeo-Christian theology — belief in One God, the authority of Scripture, the Deity of Christ, His resurrection from the grave, etc.. I personally feel I can no more determine that all Amish aren’t Christians as I can that all Baptists are Christians.

Nevertheless, a cursory investigation into Amish beliefs should raise some concerns among evangelicals.

In her book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Amish, Susan Rensberger writes,

For Evangelicals and other conservative Protestants, salvation is an unmistakable experience which happens when one trusts Jesus. Amish are different. They don’t believe that anyone is guaranteed salvation as a result of a conversion experience, baptism, joining the church, etc. “…they would consider it arrogant or prideful to claim certainty of salvation.”

The Amish believe that God carefully weighs the individual’s total lifetime record of obedience to the church and then decides whether the person’s eternal destiny will be the reward of Heaven or the punishment in Hell. As a result, an Amish believer lives their life and dies not knowing if they are saved and will attain Heaven (bold, mine)

An article on the Amish at About.com, similarly notes,

Although the Amish profess salvation by grace, many of their congregations practice salvation by works. They believe God decides their eternal destiny by weighing their lifelong obedience to the rules of the church against their disobedience.

If this is accurate, and to whatever degree the Amish believe this, it should be a big red flag to evangelical readers. Sola fide (which is Latin for “faith alone”), is a distinguishing tenet of Protestantism. The belief that we are saved by faith in Christ and not religious works (Eph. 2:8) is a hugely important doctrine. Indeed, a distinguishing trait of many pseudo-Christian cults is a belief in the earning of ones salvation, usually through a checklist of good deeds.

So do evangelical readers of Amish fiction NOT know this? Or do evangelical readers of Amish fiction just not care?

Another rather unique Amish belief is the the Ordnung. Amish America defines the Ordnung this way:

The Ordnung is the unwritten set of rules and regulations that guide everyday Amish life.   Meaning “order”, or “discipline”, this German word takes on a deeper meaning in the Amish context.  The Ordnung provides the foundation for the Amish Christian community.

The website gives this example of adherence to the Ordnung:

Rules of the Ordnung can help church members better live Christian lives, the Amish believe.  The strictures of the Ordnung are generally not found in the Bible, but are frequently based in Scriptural principle.

One example would be rules outlining plain dress, which Amish base on several passages in Scripture.  Restrictions on color of clothing and style of buggy, which some may see as harnessing self-expression, in fact help prevent pride and envy, though individual dictates on these issues are not necessarily found in Scripture.

On a deeper level, the Amish believe that submitting oneself to an Ordnung is also a way to demonstrate a humble spirit, an important, Christlike trait.  One must subvert individualism and arrogance for the good of the community.  Amish do this by faithfully adhering to the Ordnung.

Is it wrong to have a checklist of rules for community conduct? Not necessarily. However, in light of the previous belief (salvation by works), it could be assumed that such strictures are viewed as salvific and become a means to favor with God. Not to mention the ultra-conservative, possibly Pharisaic enforcement of communal rules in general and how biblical such an approach is.

I’ve never read any Amish fiction. (Perhaps that should be my next Fiction Challenge???) I’m sure that much of it is well-written and inspirational. I just can’t help but feel that evangelical readers and publishers give Amish fiction a pass. Because it adheres to two important values of readers of Christian fiction — it’s clean and emphasizes separation from the world — we wink at some of the legalistic, perhaps unbiblical, elements of Amish beliefs. And, oh, also because it’s selling.

I must admit, as a writer of speculative fiction, this is particularly annoying. With my first two novels published in the Christian market, I am familiar with having my stories parsed for theological accuracy by evangelical readers. I was required to write an Afterword for my first novel to explain the appearance of a ghost. I’ve had others question my approach to angels and territorial gods, as well as how “Christian” my characters were. See, for example, this Goodreads reviewer’s comments on my second novel The Telling:

I actually had to double check the back cover: this book is pitched as Christian fiction, but to my mind there is nothing Christian about it. It uses Judeo-Christian angelology as a backdrop, but it could just as easily be considered New Age.

Anyway.

A cursory investigation into Amish beliefs should raise some concerns among evangelicals. But it doesn’t. Why? Why is Amish fiction so popular among evangelical readers? Are the doctrinal issues not as big as I’ve suggested? Or maybe theology really isn’t that big an issue for Christian readers after all.  Either way, it leaves me wondering how “Christian” Amish fiction really is. It also leaves me wondering if good theology is actually negotiable for evangelical readers and publishers.

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JS nach Bosch(?), Die Hoelle, Det. - JS after Bosch (?) / Hell / detail -Many Christians object to the horror genre on religious grounds. Horror is incompatible with faith, hope, and love, they say. Why focus on hell, the devilish, and the unredeemed when the Bible tells us to think about the good, true, pure, and noble (Phil. 4:8)? In his essay An Apologetic of Horror , novelist and screenwriter Brian Godawa quotes from former Vision Forum president Doug Phillips,

“Horror is an example of a genre which was conceived in rebellion. It is based on a fascination with ungodly fear. It should not be imitated, propagated, or encouraged. It cannot be redeemed because it is presuppositionally at war with God.”

Bosch-2The view that the horror genre and religious sentiments are incompatible is an all too common one among evangelicals. What makes this perspective so fascinating is the historical roots of the horror genre. Horror, the macabre, and the grotesque were once quite compatible with Christian art. Take, for example, Hieronymus Bosch.

Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450 – 1516) was internationally celebrated as a painter of surrealistic religious visions that often dealt with sin and the torments of hell. Bosch was a member of the Catholic order Brotherhood of Our Lady for whom he painted several altarpieces. The most famous of Bosch’s works is The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych (three-paneled painting) that is considered by some one of the most terrifying paintings ever made. Listverse describes the painting this way,

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych showing, on the three panels respectively, the Garden of Eden and the creation of mankind, the Garden of Earthly Delight, and in the last panel the punishments for the sins which occur in that earthly garden. It is that final panel, and the imaginative torments in it, which have become associated with Bosch. A glance at the panel is enough to give a feeling of the horrors divine punishment hold…

All in all, Bosch’s work is some of the most horrific, yet beautiful work in the history of western art.

Part of the “imaginative torments” Bosch depicted in that painting were images of men having arrows rammed into their anuses, fish-headed monsters devouring people and defecating their remains into a pit filled with vomit, and demons inflicting a variety of exotic tortures. Bosch-3

At first glance, it is understandable to see Bosch’s horrific depictions as “presuppositionally at war with God.” Yet it was Bosch’s belief in “God’s power to deliver all people” which informed his horrific visions. In The Grotesque in Art and Literature James Luther Adams writes,

Bosch could depict the full range of the grotesque precisely because he believed implicitly in God’s power to overcome any evil, any horror, any monstrous condition; and likewise, he believed in God’s power to deliver all people into an ideal utopia. In this framework, the more imaginatively Bosch was able to represent the grotesque and the demonic, the greater enhanced was the glory of God. That’s the thinking behind the inclusion of such works by Bosch for use as altar pieces; and very likely herein lies the reason contemporary expression is ‘flat’ without ‘faith,’ artists are afraid to challenge the chaotic abyss.  — pp. 47-48

Interestingly, Adams concludes that it was Bosch’s implicit belief in God’s power that freed him to “depict the full range of the grotesque.” For “without ‘faith’” contemporary expressions of the grotesque are “flat.” In this sense, the artist’s depictions were not simply a gratuitous display of morbidity “based on a fascination with ungodly fear.” Rather, the monstrous conditions he portrayed were simply that — monstrous, deformations, anomalous, and completely outside the “Garden” of God’s intended “Delights.” Knowing God’s power to deliver from these horrors, Bosch was free to color them as the hellish abominations they were.

Christian history is awash with artists and novelists who employed the horrific and grotesque in their works. Sadly, however, contemporary evangelicals have lost this rich tradition. Many religious artists do not appear free to “depict the full range of the grotesque.” Instead, horror fiction, films, and art are condemned by well-meaning Christians as “conceived in rebellion” and ultimately unredeemable. Leaving us with kitschy, feel-good, “painters of light” and works fearful of pulling back the veil on the truly horrific. Perhaps if we believed, like Hieronymus Bosch, “in God’s power to overcome any evil, any horror, any monstrous condition,” we too would be free to “depict the full range of the grotesque.” But until then, all our works are destined to fall “flat.”

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This is actually a sampling of a work I’ll be self-publishing later this Spring entitled “Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre.” Chapters are 1.) Religious Themes in Horror, 2.) Horror Themes in Religion, 3.) Evangelical Culture and the Horror Genre, 4.) Christian Horror — Towards an Apologetic, 5.) Objections to Christian Horror. Also included will be an appendix on “Ghosts: A Biblical Perspective.”
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Flannery O’Connor’s Unsafe Audience

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Finding and connecting with your audience is a theme that’s hammered into writers from the get-go. Discovering the right audience and delivering the goods is up there with “show don’t tell” and “write what you know” in the canon of writerly rules. Which makes Flannery O’Connor such an anomaly. O’Connor is routinely considered as one […]

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Can We Be “Good” While Reading & Writing About “Evil”?

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Yesterday popular Christian writer Tim Challies made A Plea for Innocence: I want to be good at good. In fact, I want to be an expert in good. At least, I do when I’m at my best. But in moments of introspection I see a real interest in evil as well. These desires battle within […]

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Interview w/ Jason Wisdom, Former Frontman for Becoming the Archetype

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Stories about Christian musicians defecting and losing their faith have become all too common. Jason Wisdom can testify. Not that Jason has gone MIA, but having been in the belly of the beast, recording albums and touring with a popular Christian death metal band, Jason has firsthand experience of the toll that touring and celebrity […]

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Ghosts and Quantum Theory

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I didn’t expect to be talking about ghosts as much as I have lately. But thanks to the release of The Ghost Box, that’s exactly what has happened. One reader was surprised to learn that ghost boxes are real things. At least, they purport to be real things. In fact, you can even purchase ghost […]

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A Pro-Life Odyssey

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Several weekends ago, one of my sons was visiting and said he needed to talk to me. The topic of discussion was near and dear to my heart. He and his wife had recently attended a fund raising event for a local crisis pregnancy center. One of the speakers was a former nurse at an […]

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Heavenly Tourism Fad Doesn’t Disprove OBEs or Life After Death

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The recent scandal regarding the boy who didn’t go to heaven is just one more reason to be skeptical of the “heavenly tourism” fad. Thankfully, many discerning believers have seen through this long ago, not only criticizing the publishing trend, but the unorthodox biblical messages such experiences often send. However, in our haste to distance […]

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Indie Publishing and The Meat Grinder

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I recently purchased one of those Guide to Indie Publishing type books. It was cheap and a quick read. However, the author’s central point left me a bit bummed. After outlining in detail her fairly prolific sales record, she concludes that the best way for an author to succeed at indie publishing is to crank […]

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