Writers must be rigorously blunt with themselves about the motivations and goals inspiring them to write and — hopefully — publish books, said Carey Newman, senior editor at Fortress Press and author of a newly published book on the art and discipline of writing.
“Are you writing for yourself? Are you writing to make money? Are you writing to be famous? Are you writing to win an award? Are you writing because you’re running away from something? Why are you writing? What is the motivation? You’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself,” Newman said during a recent “change-making conversations” webinar hosted by Baptist News Global and moderated by BNG Executive Editor Mark Wingfield.
Another secret to good writing is to “write every damned day,” he said. “You can move a mountain one rock at a time. In fact, it’s the only way you can move it. So, write every day, pay yourself first and write every day. People don’t accomplish their goals because they don’t sit down and write every day. Once you get in rhythm of writing every day, great things happen.”
Newman’s new book, Mango Tree: The Artistry and Alchemy of Writing, examines the inner workings of writing and publishing and how aspiring authors can write more with more clarity and conviction.
But Wingfield noted that the Mango Tree is written with a structure unlike any other he has seen.
Newman said the book, in part, is an invitation to serious authors to write well and poetically. “The prompt for the book is 30 years of being an academic book editor and watching my authors write the same book over and over again, and finally grow tired of it.”
The Waco, Texas, resident was a educated to become a New Testament scholar before leaving the Southern Baptist Convention during the fundamentalist takeover. His entry into publishing included serving as acquisitions editor for Westminster John Knox Press in Louisville, Ky., and then as director of Baylor University Press, which he transformed into a major U.S. publishing house.
“I don’t know how many times I heard people say they were tired of writing an academic book because it was so boring and objective and detached,” he said. “And so, over the course of many, many years, I began to coach my authors to use some fiction techniques and apply it to their nonfiction academic work.”
Wingfield added that the text is written in brief and incomplete sentences and seems to have little use for the paragraph: “I told my wife after I had worked through the book that I felt like I had watched a Wes Anderson movie in book form. I just watched ‘Asteroid City’ the other night, and it was like, Oh, that’s what that would be as a book. It is quirky but beautiful.”
Newman said the comparison aptly described another goal of the book, which was to present the pain and risk associated with writing.
“Part of becoming a writer is having life squeezed out of you.”
“Part of becoming a writer is having life squeezed out of you,” Newman said. “The pressures and the traumas and our hardships and our disappointments are the place you have to go to write. There’s a joy to writing, and there’s a healing to writing, and there’s a fear to writing.”
“That’s why I’ve never written fiction,” Wingfield added, “because I figure people would see me through the fictionalized stories I tell. And it would be too confessional. I have a therapist for that. I don’t need a book.”
A quotation wrongly attributed to Ernest Hemingway communicates that feeling exactly, Newman said. “It was a sportswriter who said that writing is easy: all you do is open up a vein. And that really does get at the sacrifice that’s required for writing.”
However, the book does not offer advice and techniques for writers, he said. “I had a final appendix where I was going to have my tips and tricks, and I decided no — nope, nope, nope, nope. That’s exactly opposite the disruption I wanted Mango Tree to be. Mango Tree is an interruption. It’s an intentional interruption and it’s a stop-and-think.”
Newman said he encourages newer writers to read other writers’ work to get see why those authors do what they do in their books. And then it’s important to “just jump in the water” and start writing. “One of the things I would say to authors is be a good storyteller. Start telling stories. Tell stories about your subject.”
Thought experiments also can be helpful. Newman said he walks his authors through an exercise in which they write fairy tales about their topics, even for academic books. “It’s amazing what this does. It actually disrupts the table of contents that they had and provides them with a new narrative table of contents.
Wingfield asked how writing is different from preaching.
“There are five elements to a book: right author, right time and the right subject aimed at the right audience at the right moment. Of the five elements, one is by far the most important — the right timing.”
With preaching, Newman said, “there’s an immediate response to what you say. And you can tell when the sermon monster is eating your sermon between the pulpit and the first pew, and it’s getting gobbled up before anybody even hears it because it’s so bad. A book is not anything like that. A book is written to itself, not to a flesh-and-blood audience. And a book is not written to readers. A book is written to itself.”
The discussion also ventured into the business side of writing, with Wingfield asking how authors should go about finding a publisher for their books.
One way is for a writer to identify books similar to their own and reach out to those publishers, Newman said. In the case of academic books, authors can scour their own bibliographies for the publishers of books frequently cited. And networking is also important.
“Talk to your colleagues. Talk to your friends. Talk to people who have published with that particular publisher and get the skinny from somebody who’s actually worked with them.”
Wingfield asked Newman to address the frustration authors feel when a subject they have been writing on for years becomes a bestselling book for one “lightning struck” writer.
Newman acknowledged the phenomenon. “There are five elements to a book: right author, right time and the right subject aimed at the right audience at the right moment. Of the five elements, one is by far the most important — the right timing.”
But writers shouldn’t ignore that issue and instead focus on their own books, motivations and writing on a daily basis, he said. “Honestly, the best thing to do is to write the best book you can, find the best publisher, get a great editor. be happy that you have done due diligence, sleep well at night and let the gods of publishing take over.”