Friday, July 31, 2009

Bumble Bee: Invite People Home

Editor’s Note: My guest today is Beatrice Bumble, but most of us call her Bumble Bee. I originally asked her if she would write a post for my blog, but what she came up, while great, didn't realy seem to fit my site. I told her she ought to send it to the webmaster at their church, so you may be able to read it there. What I have for you today is another interview.



Timothy Fish:
Bumble Bee, I want to say that it is really good of you to do this.

Bumble Bee:
It's my pleasure. You know me. I want to do anything I can to help and I love having company.

Timothy Fish:
You've had a rough life.

Bumble Bee:
I suppose, but I don't think of it that way.

Timothy Fish:
You had a child when you were young and gave her up for adoption. You had a miscarriage after you got married. You and your husband couldn't have children. Then he died.

Bumble Bee:
Well, now that you string it all together like that, it sounds a lot worse than it really was. Besides, I get to see my daughter once in a while now and my grand daughter is still staying here with me.

Timothy Fish:
And you have a house full of friends every Sunday after church.

Bumble Bee:
Yeah, that's right. I wasn't sure you wanted me to talk about that.

Timothy Fish:
It was just that what you wrote was a little too much about that for my blog. How many people do you usually have?

Bumble Bee:
O, I don't know. Ellen's family shows up most of the time, so that's four. Then there's another four from the Hillers. April usually has two or three friends over. Tina shows up a lot. Then, if I happen to met visitors at church, then I invite them. Some of them come and everyone knows that they can invite anyone they want. You really ought to come back sometime when you're in Missouri.

Timothy Fish:
You know how it goes. When I'm there, I go to church with my parents.

Bumble Bee:
That's okay, you can show up for dinner anyway. Bring them along if you like.

Timothy Fish:
We would show up late. It's a good forty-five minutes to an hour for us to get to your house.

Bumble Bee:
We'll wait on you.

Timothy Fish:
I'll think about it. Why do you have so many people over?

Bumble Bee:
Because if I didn't, they might decide to eat at a restaraunt and I don't think that's right. If church people wouldn't shop and eat out on Sunday then the store workers could go to church.

Timothy Fish:
Most people aren't the cooks that you are.

Bumble Bee:
It doesn't take must to fix a balony sandwich. If they can't handle that, then maybe they should consider fasting on Sunday.

Timothy Fish:
Moving on, just how are you able to fix all of the food?

Bumble Bee:
Fixing for fifty isn't that much more difficult than fixing for five. I do a lot of it on Saturday, so when we get out of church it's ready to go.

Timothy Fish:
That's still a lot of people.

Bumble Bee:
Most of them are willing to help and then cooking is something of a family business with us.

Timothy Fish:
Like with Ellen. She's in your family.

Bumble Bee:
Yeah, but I won't let her doing anything on Sunday. She works hard enough at that restaraunt. Her and Sara both.

Timothy Fish:
Ellen has told me that you won't let her help, but I didn't realize you were including Sara in that too.

Bumble Bee:
See? That's just one more reason why you need to come for Sunday dinner again.

Timothy Fish:
I will sometime. I'm just not sure when that will be. Kim and Martin are going to be over there sometime and I would like to be a fly on the wall.

Bumble Bee:
How do you think that's going to turn out? He never did treat her right.

Timothy Fish:
We're getting off topic.

Bumble Bee:
Sorry.

Timothy Fish:
Was there anything you wanted to tell my readers?

Bumble Bee:
Nothing but how much I would love for them to show up at my house for Sunday dinner.

Timothy Fish:
Should they tell you they're coming first?

Bumble Bee:
No, just show up. There'll be plenty to eat.

Timothy Fish:
In that case, thanks again for taking the time for this and thanks for that post you wrote, even though I couldn't use it.

Bumble Bee:
Oh, I've enjoyed it. I hope we can do this again sometime.


Editor’s Note: Feel free to ask any questions you have for Bumble Bee in the comment section. Bumble Bee made her debut appearance in How to Become a Bible Character as a minor character. I don't remember the name of the street, but if make a right as you leave the church parking lot, go two lights west, make another right and follow the street until you get to the university campus, you will see her house on the left side of the street. It is number 1400 and is two story red brick house. I won't say you can't miss it, but it is just across the street from the tennis courts and it is the biggest house in that neighborhood.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

About Scenes

Stories are made up of scenes. Every story has at least one scene and most have many. With novels, we often think in terms of chapters, but a chapter is just an arbitrary means of dividing the text into chunks that can be read conveniently in one setting. The scene is a basic unit of a story. A chapter may contain several, but it is conceivable that a scene will cross the boundaries of chapters, though this rarely happens.

A scene has a setting. A scene that takes place at night in a trailer is very different from a scene that takes place during the day that the White House. When a story changes setting, we change to a different scene.

A scene has a cast. Suppose we place our protagonist in a trailer at night. He does something and then leaves. That is a scene. Now, if our antagonist shows up at the same trailer and has no interaction with our protagonist, does something and leaves, that is a completely different scene.

A scene shows change. If we enter a scene one way, we should leave it another. If our cast enters the scene with hope, they should leave with despair. It they enter the scene in despair, they should leave with hope. But they should never leave unchanged. Imagine our protagonist sleeping on the couch in the trailer. If we leave the scene and he is still sleeping on the couch, then we don’t have much of a scene. Instead, we could enter the scene with him sleeping peacefully, only to be awakened by a noise, which he goes off to investigate. Or we could have him out looking for something, after he finds it, he comes back to the trailer and collapses on the couch, falling asleep.  What we wouldn’t want is for the character to be sleeping, wake at a noise, investigate and then fall back asleep in one scene. Essentially, nothing has changed in this scene and it can be cut.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dentists and a Useless Form

After putting it off for far too long, I went looking for a new dentist the other day. I started with the website of my insurance provider, which gave me the name of a dentist office near me. From there, I went to the website of the dentist office, which actually has several branches in the Metroplex and a couple in Austin. I hate calling to make an appointment because I’m always at work during the typical office hours and it is inconvenient. But this website was different. This website had a form for people to fill out if they wanted an appointment or more information. Since it was Sunday evening, I filled out the form, believing that they would contact me the next day. They did not. I waited another day and on Tuesday I filled out the form again. This time, I asked the question in the more information field, “Is anyone responding to this form?” Still no response. I ended up taking time out of my workday, just to call and schedule an appointment that could have been done using the from they provided.


Whoever put this form on their website had a great idea. I’m sure I’m not the only person who would rather fill out a form during the off hours than to wait until after 9AM on a weekday, call the office, be put on hold by the receptionist, be transferred to someone else, give out information over the phone, hoping that they get it right and finally get a scheduled time. Had the website been implemented well, there is no reason why I couldn’t have scheduled an appointment with no interaction with the workers at the office. But instead, it left me frustrated and gave me a bad impression.


We all start off with good intentions that don’t always pan out like we think they will. We have great ideas for our website that turn out to be more trouble than we anticipated. We run into situations where a form is ideal for allowing the user to provide us with information without any interaction from us, but we need to be careful that we don’t imply that a form does something that it doesn’t. Suppose there is an author who provides a form that site visitors can fill out to receive a copy of the author’s book. After a while, the author terminates the offer, but rather than removing the form, he just ignores any requests that come through the form. The visitor will not think anything about it, if the form doesn’t exist, but if the form is there and it is ignored then it will provide a source of frustration for the visitor. We should look for the sources of frustration on our websites and remove them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Christian Sci-Fi and the Multiple Worlds Interpretation

Science Fiction writers, especially television writers, love the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is the interpretation that allows for characters to slip into a parallel universe and interact with duplicates of themselves, the only difference being that one made one decision at some point in history and the other made another choice. Even though this interpretation is held by many prominent scientists, it is beyond ridiculous when we consider the implications. If the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) is true, then tomorrow morning at 8:46 AM, everyone is the world is going to simultaneously go outside, raise their voice to the heavens and sign Kum Ba Ya. When we are done, hundreds of reporters will call me to ask how I knew it was going to happen. If MWI is provable, there exist many universes in which scientists have proven beyond any doubt that MWI is false. If communication between alternate realities is possible, then there exist an infinite number of alternate realities that are communicating with our reality at this very moment.


This will have no meaning to many of the scientists who have considered MWI, but when we add the Bible to the mix, for MWI to be true, there will exist a branch of our own reality in which no one ever sins again, making God a liar, since he said “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We know that God transcends the Universe. If there is more than one then he is over those too. God does not lie, but MWI would create a universe in which God has said something that isn’t true.


This presents the Christian Science Fiction writer with a problem if he wishes to use alternate realities as a way to explore possibilities. For God and MWI to co-exist, the alternate realities must be such that no realities exist in which something God has promised is not true. Furthermore, no reality can exist in which a person accepts Christ in one reality but doesn’t accept Christ in another. The Bible tells us that God has a book records everything there is to know about us before we are formed [1]. It tells of the names of the righteous having been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life since before the foundation of the world [2]. A character that comes to Christ in one reality must then come to Christ in all realities. Given what we know about God, there is almost no conceivable way to write a MWI story that remains true to the Bible.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Denise Hunter Stole My Idea or Why Women Shouldn’t Wear Short Skirts

Denise Hunter posted a sneak peak at Seaside Letters, a story about a woman who falls for a customer and gets into a online dating relationship with him, but doesn’t want to let him know (go figure). Actually, she didn’t steal that idea from me, though it has a few of the same elements in it as Searching for Mom. But there are some very obvious differences. The main similarities are that the love interest between a worker in a restaurant and a customer, as well as the online dating aspect of it involving deception. In my story, the poor guy didn’t even know he was in an online dating relationship.

 

I thought the cover was interesting. It has all the stuff wrong with it that I don’t care for with recent Christian fiction covers, such as appearing to be a stock photo, chopping off the head and too much pink. What makes it interesting is that the woman dress appears to have gotten hung on the name banner as she walked past it. So ladies, that’s why you shouldn’t wear short skirts. If you ever find yourself on a book cover, it might get caught on the author’s name.

From The End to The Beginning


On another author’s blog I mentioned that when I wrote For the Love of a Devil I outlined it backwards. When I mentioned it, I didn’t think it a particularly foreign approach, but at least one person hadn’t considered that possibility, so maybe it’s worth covering in more detail.


Why Outline Backwards


There are some good reasons to outline backwards anytime, but in my case, I was working with a story with a known ending. For the Love of a Devil is based on the first three chapters of Hosea. I was also dealing with an unlikely scenario in modern society. Slavery is illegal in America, though it still exists in some form. Read the first three chapters of Hosea, then ask yourself, how do you take a modern woman, married to a good Christian man, sell her into slavery and then have her husband buy her back? The book of Hosea gives us a hint, when we see that Hosea was to choose a wife of the children of whoredoms. Gomer came from a family that didn’t teach her right. But she escaped that lifestyle, so how does she end up a slave for sale to anyone who can pay the price?


I also had a scene that I wanted to make sure made it into the novel. I wanted a stark contrast to the dark filth of the female character’s chosen path. When we know the final scene, we want to get there without it seeming too forced. We need to address the question of how did we get here?


Outlining backwards is a great way to develop a tighter story. Because you are beginning with the end and working backwards, every storyline will naturally converge on that point. At the beginning of the book, it may not be clear how all of the storylines are interrelated, but by the end they all merge into one.


Begin with the End


How do we want our story to end? Let’s look at the Romance Genre. They all end something like, Jen agrees to marry George and they life happily ever after.That’s pretty much set in stone, so it is up to the Romance author to make it significant.


Find the Events Leading to This Point


What things must come together at the same time for Jen to agree to marry George? Well, they probably have to be in the same room, or at least talking on the phone. It wouldn’t do much good for him to propose if she can’t hear him. She has to realize that she does want to live without him. Why would Jen decide that she doesn’t want to live without him? Maybe time away from him has made her realize she needs him. What caused the time away? An argument? A trip one of them made? What were they arguing about? What was the reason for the trip? What had to be done to get ready for the trip? What kind of job would she have if she is making a trip of this type? Being in the same room with someone doesn’t automatically create a marriage proposal situation. They must have gotten to know each other somehow. What did they do together? How did they meet? What job does he have or who do they know that would cause their paths to cross?


For everything that converges on the end, we have things that converge on those things, which in turn have the same. As we move backwards, we keep asking what things had to happen or be true to cause the event. We pay special attention to those things that must come together for the next thing to happen.


Stop at the Beginning


As we move backwards through the story, we expand into a number of converging threads. The farther we get from the final event, the more there are. If we go back far enough, we would get back to the birth of our characters, which is a requirement if they are to marry, eventually. Going back even farther, we would get back to the marriage of their parents and the stories associate with them. We don’t want to go back that far. Instead, we need only go back to where the story begins. Where is that? Most likely, it is when George opens a store next to Jen’s. This is romance, so we throw the characters together as soon as possible.


Tools


I used Visio’s cause/effect diagramming tools for the example, but a brainstorming tool like FreeMind or some other mind mapping tool will work just as well and may be the preferable method. For that matter, you can draw it out on paper. Whatever tool you use, start with the final scene on the right side of the page and work toward the left. When you are finished, what you will have is a roughly chronological listing of events in a number of threads that will converge on your final scene. Some of those threads will need to be fleshed out in detail. Others can be ignored in the book if we don’t need them to explain what caused the results we see.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mission, Core Values or Vision?

Today I continue to answer the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt. At this point, this activity is growing a little tiresome. Many of these questions seem to be very similar with very similar answers. But this week we move on to the question, Which is most important to your organization—mission, core values or vision?

When you are talking about a church, isn’t the mission to teach the core values? I don’t exactly see how you can possibly separate the two. And if we take the biblical understanding of vision, which Proverbs 29:18 seems to imply is right up there with the Law, we can’t say that one is more important than the other. But I doubt Michael Smith meant it quite that way. In a business sense, the vision comes from the big boss, whomever that might be. Since Christ is the head of the church, vision would still be right up there with the law, even in the business sense, but let’s leave him out of it. Let’s suppose the pastor sets the vision. Though the pastor is due respect, he is just a man and is not as important as the church. Whatever vision he may set is not as important as the mission and core values of the church.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Xander X, P.I.: An Interview of Sorts

Editor’s Note: Today, we’re doing an interview with a private investigator. I originally asked him to write something for the blog, which he did, but it looked more like ad copy for his business then it did a blog post that any of you might be interested in. Incidentally, if you need a private investigator in St. Louis, Memphis or Chicago, you might want to call him, but I wouldn’t recommend it.



Timothy Fish:
Xander, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I’m sure the readers will enjoy it.

Xander X:
I’m happy to do it. You did bring the money didn’t you?

Timothy Fish:
Yes, I brought the money. I’ll give it to you as soon as we’re done.

Xander X:
Good. You remembered I only take cash, didn’t you?

Timothy Fish:
I’ve got you covered. You can relax.

Xander X:
In that case, I’m happy to do the interview. It gives me great pleasure to give the readers what they want. After paying more than $100 for a book, they deserve something.

Timothy Fish:
They aren’t paying that much.

Xander X:
They aren’t? Then I’m not sure I want to do this interview.

Timothy Fish:
Sit down, Xander. You’ll get your money.

Xander X:
Okay then. What’s the first question?

Timothy Fish:
Tell us a little about what you do.

Xander X:
I’m a private investigator. Doesn’t that say it all?

Timothy Fish:
Yes, I suppose it does, but I was hoping you would tell us a little more. Maybe I should have worded that differently. Let’s come back to that one. Where is your office?

Xander X:
We operate in St. Louis, Memphis and Chicago.

Timothy Fish:
I know that’s where you operate, but where is your office?

Xander X:
I’m not so sure I want to answer that. You said that I wouldn’t have to tell people anything I don’t want them to know.

Timothy Fish:
True, but we’re all friends here. These people have either read the book or they’re going to.

Xander X:
That shows how much you know. You’ll be lucky if ten percent of these people buy the book. I could help you with that, if you would let me.

Timothy Fish:
Yeah, I know, but I’m not sure I like your tactics.

Xander X:
It’s all legal. Well, most of it anyway. Are you going to ask me some questions or what?

Timothy Fish:
What’s your real name?

Xander X:
Xander X

Timothy Fish:
But that isn’t the name you were given at birth.

Xander X:
No, but I changed it. Xander X is my legal name.

Timothy Fish:
Do you mind if I call you Bailey?

Xander X:
Call me what you like, but that isn’t my name.

Timothy Fish:
Wow! I figured that would get more of a rise out of you.

Xander X:
Next question, please. My rate is going up if we go over the hour.

Timothy Fish:
We’ll finish before then. I understand that you are a master of disguise. Tell us about your favorite disguise.

Xander X:
I have so many, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Right now, my favorite is probably the psychiatrist. I was using that one just the other day and this woman came right out and told me that she was cheating on her husband. Even told me who she was seeing.

Timothy Fish:
Is that what you do most of the time, check up cheating spouses?

Xander X:
We get our fair share of those. We’re good at it too. If someone wants to know if his or her spouse is cheating, I can answer that for them. Not only that, I can provide video, if they want it.

Timothy Fish:
As long as the batteries on the camera don’t fail.

Xander X:
You know, things happen. I would have gotten better footage for the client you’re thinking about, if she hadn’t been in such a hurry. I would have gone back, replaced the battery and we would have been in business.

Timothy Fish:
What other things do you investigate?

Xander X:
I investigated a suspicious death the other day. Weren’t you going to put that in a book?

Timothy Fish:
It isn’t published yet, but yes.

Xander X:
So, it might be better if we don’t talk about it.

Timothy Fish:
That’s right.

Xander X:
Have I answered enough questions to get my money yet? I’ve got a meeting with a client that I have to get ready for.

Timothy Fish:
Yeah, sure. You’ve given me plenty. Thanks for answering my questions.

Xander X:
Can I give them my contact information, in case they need a private investigator?

Timothy Fish:
No, I think not.

Xander X:
They can look me up then. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.


Editor’s Note: If you have any questions for Xander, please feel free to ask them in the comment section. Xander will be checking in from time to time to answer your questions. Or, knowing Xander, he will rig up some kind of machine to do it for him, but you'll be getting an answer of some kind, one way or the other, and it might even be the right answer.


Xander made his debut appearance in For the Love of a Devil as a minor character. Given his scene stealing nature, he may be showing up in more books in the future, but don’t tell him I said that. I wouldn’t want it to go to his head.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Drive Traffic to Your Site Through Links

If you want a popular website or blog, you have to have two things. You have to have links and you have to be relevant. Of the two, it is most important that your content be relevant. If you have that and at least one link from another website, your links will eventually grow. But the topic of relevance is a topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about links. This will be a fairly lengthy post, but if you’ll stick with me, I’ll show you what links are, how to get them and why it works.


What Links Are


Links are like hooks that draw surfers from one webpage to the next. They can be internal or external. There really is no difference between the two types of links, other than control. In their most basic form they look like the following:


<a href="http://www.timothyfish.net">my website</a>

The a comes from the word anchor. Anywhere you need a link, you place one of these anchors. Most comment forms allow you to use the anchor tag. By doing do, you can include a link to your own website or that of another. If you are writing a blog post, you can include a link to a related post, encouraging the reader to read that post as well. When you have links coming from other websites, the person writing the content for the website has included HTML that is very similar to what I show above. If you care to, you can even view the source of a website and verify that to be the case. There is nothing mysterious or complicated about the basic anchor tag and it is very easy to use.


At a higher level, a link is a line of communication on the Internet. Search engines find new web pages by following links. If you have a website and no website has a link to it, the search engines will never find it. Going a step farther, if Microsoft, which has thousands of incoming links, had a web developer who created an HTML file, placed it on the server and never connected to it from another web page, that HTML file would never receive any hits.


One way to look at links is to think of them as votes. The more links we have coming into a site, the more votes we have. When we create a link, we are taking a portion of those votes and we are passing them on to either another page within our site or to another website. If that is all we know, it is easy to conclude that incoming links are good, but outgoing links are bad. We want to draw in more votes and release fewer.


How We Get Links


Things are not so clear cut when we start talking about how to get links. It used to be that we created relevant content, other webmasters read that content and linked to it as a reference. We still hope for that, but blogging has changed much. These days, we can visit other people’s websites and add a link to our own, without even asking. We can go to various social networking sites and we can add links, once again, without asking. That sounds a little odd, but if the people running these sites understand the system, they want you to add links to your site or anywhere else, as long as it is relevant to the discussion. If you are reading this, I would love for you to leave links to your website in the comments to this post, as long as it isn’t something inappropriate. Having links pointing away from my site will actually increase the flow of traffic to my site. I’ll explain that in a minute. We get links when we include links to other sites in our blog posts. Those links may not be as valuable as links referencing in our site, but they are links all the same. The more we use the anchor tag to point to relevant data, drawing a line either to or from our website, we are potentially increasing the flow to our site.


How It Works


It took me no time at all to understand that links coming into my site produce traffic. That much is obvious. But it is a little harder to comprehend how visitors linking to their own sites or putting links in our posts will increase traffic to our site. So, let’s look at that.


The most obvious thing that people leaving comments do is that they provide fresh content. Google loves fresh content, so it is a great thing, no matter whether we write it as a post or a reader leaves a comment in the blog. Their comments are certainly worth more than any draw away from the site that most of them will produce.


The out going links help us because people track where links are coming from. It could be a webmaster, wanting to know why someone visited his site, or it could be some other means of tracking links. It could be that the blog post you reference lists every link to it along with the comments. It may not result in someone clicking to follow the link, but Google follows every link and factors all of them into the ranking algorithms.


If you want to find more readers for your blog, learn to use the anchor tag and use it often. Link to pages within your site. Link to pages on other people’s sites. Visit blogs and other websites where you can add to the discussion and create links. But keep it relevant. Links appearing on other people’s websites that aren't relevant have a tendency to disappear and all of your labor will be in vain.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How Do You Know If You Are Called to Write?

The calling to write is something that many authors talk about. Some Christian authors will even tell you that they went down to the altar and surrendered to the call. Many writers—perhaps most—have a strong desire to write. Put a pen in their hand, give them a few blank sheets of paper and it won’t be long before the pages are filled and the pen runs dry. That’s the way writers are, but is that a calling? In the world’s concept of the calling, it may very well be, but is every person who eats and breathes writing called by God to write? And how do we know if we are truly called or if it’s just something we enjoy immensely? That is what I would like to explore today.


In the Bible, a word that is often used to refer to the message the Lord gave various prophets is a word that can be translated as burden. A burden to prophesy, we might ask? Did the prophet get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll die if I’m not able to be God’s mouthpiece today?” No, not so much. In fact, many of them ran from God. Look, Lord, I’m happy going about my business, plowing my field, hiding out in the wine press. You go find someone else to tell these people how ignorant they are.


Daniel, in the tenth chapter of his book, is shown ill and fasting for three weeks because he has foreseen the dangers his people faced. Then he sees a vision that puts him on his face and unable to speak. An angel comes to set him upright and one touches his lips, just so he will have the power to speak. In Romans 9, the apostle Paul is so burdened for the Jews that he would willingly throw away his eternal salvation for their benefit.


The point I would like to make here is that the burden of the call is much heavier than a desire to do something and its primary focus is turned toward other people. Writing makes you feel good? That’s great, but that doesn’t make it a calling. So, you would die it you couldn’t write. That still doesn’t make it a calling. Are you burdened for your readers? As you write, do you think I would rather die than to have them not get this? If you do, then you just might have a calling to write.


The called writer isn’t concerned about getting published. Publication is either a stepping stone or a roadblock between the writer and the people of his concern. If it is a stepping stone, he puts it behind him, remaining focused on those people. If it is a roadblock, he finds another way to convey the information they need. Can’t reach them through a book? Maybe through a newspaper column. Can’t reach them through a column? Maybe a blog. Can’t get anyone to pay him? That’s okay, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and he will provide.


The calling to write has nothing to do with how passionate about writing you are. You may despise writing. You may know of hundreds of other things you would rather be doing and still be called to write. The essence of the call to write is that the writer has a burden from the Lord to help readers through the words he writes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Become an Expert in Six Months

Someone once suggested that if a person would study a given topic for one hour a day, five days a week for five years, he could be a world renowned expert on the subject. When you think about it, it seems to be true. That doesn’t mean that you are an expert on everything you have been doing for five years, but if you were to deliberately study a subject—any subject—with the intent of becoming an expert, you could reach your goal.


A working year is 2,000 hours. Five hours a week times five years is 1,300 hours. Just imagine if you could take on this task as your job. You would take up your work each day, looking for things you could learn about the subject that you hadn’t learned before. You would begin your time studying what others have written on the subject, but you would soon exhaust their work and you would start looking for new things. In a little more than half a year, you could be an expert. We see that happen all the time in the engineering world. An engineer is given a new assignment and he has many questions for those who are already working the assignment, but within six months he will find himself in a position that the questions he has are such that there is no one else who has the answer yet either.


If you pick a subject and put in the time to become proficient in the subject, what happens next? You will reach a point where you are hard pressed to find a book that tells you much you don’t already know. You’ll glean a detail here and there, but most of the book is just a repeat of your knowledge. So you might do some experiments and try some things to see what happens. You’ll have a few successes and many failures. You’ll start thinking, “I wish someone had told me this would happen. I wish someone had written this in a book.”


Novelist Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When you reach a point in your research on a topic where you can’t seem to find a book that will take you deeper into the subject, when you reach the point where you are thinking, “If someone had explained this better, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to reach this point, it is time for you to write that book. You be the one to explain it better. You be the one to take the topic deeper. If that requires more experimentation, do it. If that requires interviewing people, do it. You’ve put in the time. You’ve done the research. Share your knowledge with the rest of us so we won’t have to do what you have already done. We might even pay you for your trouble and be glad to do it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Making HTML Drop Caps Work

Recently, I have noticed a surge in interest for my book Church Website Design. I don’t know about everyone else, but when I see book sales rise, it gives me a renewed interest in the subject matter. Now, I’m not going to talk about church website design, exactly, but I am going to talk about that big R you see to the left and tell you more than you probably wanted to know.

Now, if you know anything about HTML, there isn't a drop caps tag. To get that, you have to use Cascading Styles Sheets (CSS). In the case of this R, the style is defined inline. I will note that there are some good reasons why you should avoid doing that, but it is the easiest way to go for the typical blogger, since it doesn't require messing with the template or files on the server.

This R is accomplished using the span tag and has the following form:

<span style="font-size: 100px; float: left; color: #477fba; line-height: 70px; padding-top: 2px; font-family: times, serif, georgia">R</span>

Everything within the quotes goes into defining how the R will appear. Let’s look at each:

font-family
This is somewhat optional. If you want to use the same font as the rest of the text, you can leave it off. Three fonts are shown. These should be seen as three preferences. This tells the browser that the web designer thinks times is the best choice, serif is the second best and georgia is the third best. Most users will see the R in times. But some machines may not have the specified font, in which case the browser will select a default or it could be that user define preferences supersede the choice or the browser is designed for a special purpose, such as reading to the blind. In that case, the font may be ignored. I'll not at this point that this is a good reason to do this with the span tag, rather than graphics or something, since browsers that much convert text to speech would otherwise have trouble deciphering the first word.
color
This is just any web color. Some text based colors exist, such as blue, red, etc. but if you want a specific tint, you will need to specify it like I have done with a hexadecimal number. Colors have the form #[red][green][blue] where each color is represented by a two digit hexadecimal number from 00 to FF. This is optional. The text will default to the same color as the other text.
float
This separates the text inside the span tags and shoves it over to the left or right. In English, we read from left to right, so we want this to be float: left. If you leave this attribute off, the R will sit inline with the rest of the text and it won't drop down because the text won't be able to flow around it.
padding-top
As the name implies, this sets the padding above the R. In this case, it is 2 pixels, but you can play with that to make it look how you want. The padding moves the R down to be closer to the top of the rest of the test. It doesn't have to be much, since we have already used float to allow the other text to flow around it.
line-height
This defines the size of the box the R sits in. It controls nothing about the size of the R, but it does control the area around which the rest of the text flows. This one was designed for four lines of text. If you want three or two or five, you can adjust this size to make it work.
font-size
This sets how large the R will be within the box we have specified. If we set it too large, part of the R will be cropped. If we set it too small, the R will have a lot of empty space around it. You will notice that we have set the font-size to 100 pixels while the line-height is only 70 pixels. This accounts for the padding around the character. We actually when to crop the padding, showing only the R in our invisible box.

If you want to try this on your own blog or website, copy the HTML above into the HTML of your post and start playing with it until it looks the way you want. If you have trouble or questions, please feel free to ask in the comments to this post. I will answer all I can.


Now, if you want to do it a better way. You can edit the template for your blog. In the Blogger template for this page I placed the following code:

.drop-caps {

float: left;

color: $postTitleColor;

font-size: 100px;

line-height: 70px;

padding-top: 2px;

font-family: Times, serif, Georgia;

}


To get the drop caps N, all I had to do was to insert the HTML

<span class="drop-caps">N</span>
This way, I get the same result, but I have the option of modifying the template and updating all of the blog posts at once. Notice that the color is set with a variable. If I decide to change the color of titles, the color of the drop-caps will change also.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where Ideas Come From

Continuing to answer the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt, this week’s question is, Where do the great ideas come from in your organization?


I’ll tell you where they don’t come from. They almost never come from the leaders. Leaders are great people, but tend to get caught of in making the last great idea work. You get tunnel vision sometimes and then some ordinary person comes along and asks, “Wouldn’t it be easier if you did it this way?” Your natural tendency might be to tell them all the reasons they are wrong, but after you take the time to consider the idea and make adjustments for things they hadn’t considered, it might the one of the best ideas you’ve seen in a long time.


Remember Moses? He got so busy trying to judge the people that he didn’t have time for anything else. His father-in-law showed up one day, observed what was going on and told him he ought to get some men to help him. Moses set up a system in which some men would judge the lesser things and other men would judge the things that were weightier and only some of the things would ever make it up to Moses for judgment. It must have been a good idea. We are still using that system in our courts system today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sara Dawson: Life Without a Mother


Editor’s Note: I’ve been looking for some ways to do more with this blog than just talk about writing, publishing and websites. To that purpose, I have sought out a few guest bloggers. I know some people don’t like guest bloggers, but I’m hoping you’ll like these. It took some serious arm twisting, but today’s guest is the beautiful, tough as nails, restaurant owner in training, Sara Dawson.


When Timothy asked me to write a post for his blog, I said, “I thought you would never ask!” Its funny how much it sounded like, “Uh, no.” But as you can see, he talked me into it. I told him that I don’t have anything interesting to say. If I bore you to tears, it’s his fault. He told me I should write about growing up without a mother. So, here goes.


I don’t know if anyone ever told me I didn’t have a mother. I don’t have many memories from when I was very young. It was just Dad and me back then. Of course there was also Grandma and Aunt Stephanie. I usually stayed with one of them when Dad was working. I remember an awful woman at this daycare place, but that was before I went to kindergarten.


Dad never talked about my mother—not back then. It was just the two of us at home and I didn’t know anyone was missing. I liked it best when he didn’t have to work. He would tuck me in at night and read me a story. When he had to work, there were some days that I didn’t go home at all. He would come to Grandma’s or Aunt Stephanie’s for a while and then he would say he was going to work. But on the days he was off, I would get up in the morning and he would fix breakfast. Some days we would play or I would try to help him in the yard. I used to have this little purple water pistol that someone gave me. When Dad would clean one of his pistols, I would sit down at the table with him and pretend to clean mine too. I knew how to reassemble a pistol by the time I was six.


I must have noticed that other kids had mothers at church, but I didn’t pay much attention until kindergarten. The teacher passed out construction paper and we were supposed to make a card to give to our mothers. We were supposed to draw a picture we thought our mothers would like and write “To Momma” at the top. On the inside it was supposed to say, “Love Sara.” While all the other kids were putting hearts and flowers on theirs, I was drawing a picture of Dad holding a pistol with two bad guys with their hands in the air. The kid sitting next to me pointed at my picture and said, “You aren’t doing it right.”


“What’s wrong with it?”


“Momma’s don’t like guns.”


“Mine does.” I didn’t want to tell him that I didn’t have a mother and I intended to give the card to Dad. He started waving his hand back and forth in the air. The teacher came over and asked what he needed.


“She isn’t doing it right.” He pointed to my paper.


The teacher looked at it. “Maybe it would be better if you drew a different picture.”


“But that’s what Daddy does for his job.”


She gave me another piece of paper and took the time to tell me how to write, “To Daddy” at the top. I drew a picture of Dad and me fishing.


“I told you,” the kid next to me said.


I took a black crayon and drew a gun pointing at one of the flowers on his paper. It made him cry. Looking back, it’s a wonder that I ever made any friends.


The teacher gave him another piece of paper and scolded me for what I did. She made me tell him that I was sorry. That should have been the end of it.


The next day, the kid and two of his friends met me on the playground. The steps going into the school hid us from the playground monitor. It was just me, three boys intent on giving me what they thought I deserved and a few other kids who wanted to see what was going to happen. I didn’t hurt them much, but they all had tears making mud tracks on their faces by the time the bell rang for us to go inside.


I’m not sure if that’s quite what you wanted me to write, but that’s pretty much what my life was like, until I did something about it.


Sara is the protagonist of Searching for Mom and has a supporting role in each of the other books in the series.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What is a Story Idea?

When I hear some people talk about their story ideas, I’m amazed at what they think is a great idea. One author described her great idea as “an adventure story from the girls’ point of view.” She also described it as a female Lord of the Rings. Doesn’t that just make you want to rush out to the story and buy her book? Yeah, me neither.


I see nothing wrong with putting female characters in an adventure story. We’ve seen several authors do it. But what’s the story? The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley could be described in the same way as that above, although there are many things that are different. What that tells us is that the author above has told us very little. At most, she has told us the plot and one characteristic of the protagonist. But as you’re aware, there is a decade of plots, depending upon who is numbering them.


A story idea includes characters and plot, but these things alone are not enough. Change is the element that completes the triad. We start with a character, send him through the plot and he emerges having experienced change. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo begins as a carefree Hobbit, with little knowledge of the world outside the Shire. We send him on a quest to destroy the ring. He emerges with experience and wounded from the ordeal. In The Hero and the Crown, Aerin begins as an outcast, the daughter of the witchwoman who the people believe enspelled their king into marrying her. On her journey, builds popularity with the people the hard way, by slaying the dragons that ravage their lands, but that isn’t enough. She goes on a quest to kill her uncle and return the Hero’s Crown to her homeland. She emerges a hero and not quite mortal, respected and loved by her people.


Change is what makes a story memorable. I think that’s why the Biblical account of Hosea had such an affect on me and why I chose to write For the Love of a Devil. In Hosea’s case, the change is in his relationship with his wife. Gomer is content to stay with him long enough to have three children, but she doesn’t love him and longs for someone better—her “soul mate”, perhaps. Their relationship goes through the gauntlet with her always seeking someone better and Hosea providing for her. When they emerge their relationship has changed. She no longer longs for other men and Hosea has proven that he will love her unconditionally.


No story idea is complete until we know how the plot will change the character. The strength of a story idea is directly proportional to the amount of change that takes place between the beginning and end of the story.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Should We Worship?

Paul wrote to Timothy in order to give him special instruction on how people in the church should behave themselves. In I Timothy 1:3, 4 that the church at Ephesus had problems with false doctrine as well as problems with people spending too much time talking about fables and endless genealogies. So, Paul tells Timothy what they should be doing instead. What does he tell him is the most important thing people should do when the church assembles? Pray. (I Timothy 2:1-4)


These days, we hear a lot about styles of worship, how many services we should have or whether we should have small group meetings during the week or on Sunday morning. In all of that, we may have lost sight of this simple truth. The most important thing for a church to do when it comes together for worship is to pray. We are to pray for our needs. We are to intercede for others. We are to give thanks to God. We are to pray.


We are to pray for all men. We are to pray for those in authority. Why? So, that we may have a peaceable life and because God would have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. It seems odd, doesn’t it? The prayers of the saints—our prayers—make a difference. These people were living under Nero. Nero was a very evil man, but these people were to pray for him and it was a good thing to do because God desired that Nero be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.


Have you thought that there are people that God wants to bless or show mercy, but he can’t because of their sin? When we intercede for these people, he is able to pour out his blessings at our request. I don’t know of anyone who fully understands it, but when you read the Bible, it doesn’t take long to realize that God has limited himself in such a way that there is much he will not do until we come to him in prayer. The only way it makes sense to me is when I look at this world as a schoolhouse with God as the teacher. A teacher has the authority to give every student an A, but what would the students learn. God has the power to act without our prayers, but he knows it is better for us to have the experience we gain when he doesn’t. So, this world operates in such a way that we are standing in the gap between a sinful world and an angry God, but a God who wants us to give him a reason to stay his wrath.


God hears and answers prayer. We know it from the Bible. We know it from experience. God has designed this world in such a way that our prayers impact outcomes. Some of the leaders of our nation may be lost and God will not hear their prayers, but he will hear ours. Since this is the case, why would we not pray? We have a responsibility to pray because our prayers are what stands between our nation and judgment. Some long for that day, but I don’t think that is what God wants. I think he wants us to cry out to him and ask him to spare our nation and our leaders from the punishment their sins require.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

12 Things Every Author Website Needs

Every author needs a website. I think an author should have a website before he has a blog. My argument is that the author website provides a single location for people to go when they want information about the author, while a blog is constantly changing and information that was on it one day may not be visible the next. So we need both, but blogs are such time hogs that once we start blogging, it may be difficult to justify spending the time developing a website. If you’re sold on an author website, here are Twelve things that every author website needs. These may be on separate pages, linked from the home page or you can combine them and even include some on the home page, if that is what you want.



1. About Me
You don’t have to call it About Me, but every author website needs a section dedicated to telling visitors who this person is.

  • Tell us why we should listen to you.

  • Tell us something personal.

  • Tell it as a story, not a list of events.

  • Give us information that isn’t available from other sources.



2. Contact
Provide an e-mail address, at the least. It is probably best not to give out your home address. A PO box is better, if you want to give a mailing address, but there really isn’t any reason why people who need to mail something can’t e-mail first to ask for a snail mail address.

3. News
This section is where you tell us what you’ve been doing. Speaking engagements, book deals, book signings, guest blog posts. If it is happening and it is related to your writing, tell us about it.

4. Blog
A blog can be part of a larger website, part of a blog service or stand alone. It doesn’t really matter, but whatever method you choose, you need a link to the blog from your website.

5. Author Photo
People want to know what you look like. It shouldn’t dominate the page, but a nice photo will help.

6. Press Kit
Provide everything that a member of the press might need if he writes about you or interviews you.

  • High resolution author photo (300dpi minimum)

  • Photos of book covers (300dpi minimum)

  • Author credits, background, life story. (different from in About Me)

  • Suggested Interview Questions

  • Book Summaries (but don’t give away the ending)


7. Book Info
This only applies to authors with published books, but people coming to your site may be looking for other books you’ve written. Make sure you have a list of every book you have.

8. Link to Purchase
This also only applies to people with books in print, but make sure your users are only a few clicks away from a purchase. Either provide a link to the book’s product page at an online bookstore, or provide some form of shopping cart capability on your site. A purchase is much more likely if the customer doesn’t have to go hunting for the book.

9. RSS Feed
Incorporate some form of RSS feed into your site. When you update the site with news items or whatever, inform readers through the RSS feed. Some people say RSS is being replaced by Facebook and Twitter, but I still use RSS extensively, even when the person also informs me of posts via the other sources.

10. Home Link
Every page on your site should have a navigation system that lists the major items. One of these things should be a link to the home page. This can help with search engine ranking, but it also makes it easier for readers to get where they want to be.

11. Newsletter (Optional)
Some people like newsletters. If you’ve got one, you should provide a link to a page where readers can subscribe and find older versions of the newsletter. If you are going to do a newsletter, you should automate the subscribe/unsubscribe process, so you don’t have to spend a lot of time maintaining the list.

12. What I Can Do For You
Above the fold on the home page, aim for providing information about you as an author and your website can do for those who visit. Often, that is book information, but it could be other stuff as well. Don’t completely fill the space with a picture of yourself and the title of your website. This goes for blogs too. The site visitor may want to know what you look like, but he is there for another reason. Focus on those other reasons in the prime real estate.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Should People Visit Your Website?

Your platform is essentially the people who willingly listen to you. I’ve said before that platform is your capacity to influence people.

We must earn the right to influence people.
The reason you are able to influence people is because they have given you the right to influence them. Most people have sense enough not to give that right away too freely. We must earn the right to influence people. This is just as true with an online platform as it is with any other social platform. Subconsciously, every visitor has asked the question Why should I visit this site?


It Answers a Question


If a user finds a site through a search engine, he is probably looking for the answer to a very specific question. If the site appears in the search results and the title and summary statement imply that the site will answer the question, the user clicks the link. But a platform this does not make. Even if the user finds the exact answer he was looking for, there is no guarantee that he will ever return. The best chance for that is if the site addresses a general type of question that interests that user. He may return, knowing that the site will be a reliable source for other information on a subject he enjoys.


This can be particularly difficult for aspiring novelists. An author with an established fan base can provide more information about characters and back-story than what the pages of a book will allow. Maybe there is an interesting lesser character in the book that the readers might enjoy knowing more about. Putting this information on a website will address those questions, but when the author is unpublished or not well known, people are unlikely to searching for this information, no matter how interesting it might be.


It Sells the Dream


Authors congregate around literary agent blogs. As I write this Rachelle Gardner has 831 followers. Nathan Bransford has 1664. Chip MacGregor doesn’t have the same gadget on his site, but based on the number of people leaving comments, I would say he has similar traffic to Rachelle. I’ve seen other agents showing similar numbers. Most of the people following these sites are authors. I haven’t polled them, but based on comments, I think it is a pretty safe bet that most of the authors visiting these sites are hoping it will help them overcome the hurdles of reaching publication. We don’t usually see even well known authors getting anywhere near that traffic.


As authors, we can’t sell the dream of publication as well as literary agents and publishers. Nor should we, if there is a dream we should be selling, it should be the dream of our readers. With non-fiction, that can be doable. With fiction, it is much more difficult.


It Provides Community


People visit websites because they provide a community of likeminded people. People need community. We like to come together and share our experiences. When a user finds a site where other people are discussing a topic that interests him, he may return many times, to read the comments of others and participate himself.


To some degree, I think this may be an area where authors can make some gains. Amazon.com offers the capability for product discussions, but it seems like an author’s website would be a better place for readers to discuss the book. People who bought the book through Amazon.com may return to write a review, but to include the most people in a discussion of the book, it seems like the author’s website would be more open for people who buy the book from various sources. If the author happens to see someone discussing the book elsewhere, the author could even contact the person and ask if he will also raise the discussion on the author’s website, giving that person and others a reason to visit the website.


Unfortunately, with unpublished and low sales authors, it may not be so easy to get the discussion started. I can’t imagine many people wanting to visit an aspiring author’s website to discuss topics related to a book that doesn't yet exist.


It Provides a Useful Tool


Many of the sites people visit again and again are sites like Google.com or Wikipedia.org. I personally use BibleGateway.com and BlueLetterBible.org all the time. I also visit my bank’s website, several times a month, to check my balance and pay my bills. These sites all have something in common. They are tools that allow the user to do something or find information.


If you are creative and have programming skills, you can create tools on your site. If it is useful, people will return and use them, helping you with your traffic figures. But you will have to think up your own, rather than use someone else’s. So far, I haven’t found many tools of particular interest to fiction readers. Non-fiction is much easier to find tools that aid the reader in accomplishing his goal.


The Myth of Great Posts


Notice that I haven’t said that people visit a site because of great posts. There is a theory in the blogging community that if you create great content then your blog will receive more traffic. It does have some basis in fact and I can personally attest to the fact that some of my better posts and articles tend to be the ones people are reading and linking to, but I’ve also seen people show an interest in posts and articles that aren't as well thought out (I mean for me). And I’ve seen blogs that are somewhat popular, but I can’t figure out why anyone would read them. So, while we should strive to create great content, I think it is largely a myth that great content alone can push a blog to success, if for no other reason than what is great content for me may not be great content for you. If you can create okay content and incorporate it with some of the things mentioned above, you are likely to get more traffic than great content alone will provide.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Encourage Creative Thinking

Slowly buy surely, I am answering the 20 questions for leaders that Michael Smith of ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee asked Mike Hyatt. Mostly, this is because I am curious to see what my own answers are, rather than because I am some great leader. This week I answer the question How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?


I believe responsibility and authority are the keys to creative thinking. The Bible tells us that where our treasure is our heart will be 1, . We focus our attention on the things we hold the most dear. We also put our money there. The most generous givers to any ministry are the ones who are the most actively involved. You want someone to think creatively? Identify the problem, make that person responsible for fixing it and give him the authority to take action. You want several people to think creatively? Stick them on a committee, don’t give them the solution, step back and let them go to work.


If you do that, they may not come up with the solution you would have. I can almost guarantee that they won’t, but isn’t that the point? Of course, you have to keep the committee sizes reasonable. The more members there are, the less responsible each member feels.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review: The X and Y of Buy

In The X and Y of Buy, Elizabeth Pace makes the claim that because men and women think differently those of us who must try to sell products and services must take into account those differences if we hope to make the sale. Throughout the book, she notes differences, such as how women tend to buy from people within their network and men tend to buy from people within the same organization.

If the assertions Elizabeth Pace makes throughout the book are accurate, the book will help your company reach out to the half of the population that you are not currently reaching. She does provide references to back up many of her claims.

Frequently, she brings up the topic of primitive man and relates the hunter/gatherers of that time to modern man. It is unclear whether she is saying that modern man is the way we are because out ancestors were the way they were or if she is saying that the same traits that make man and woman different today are the same traits that produced the hunter/gatherer work divisions of that day.

At times, Pace relies heavily upon her own experiences and the experiences of her friends as proof that men act the way they do and women act the way they do. While this doesn’t necessarily invalidate her claims, the book would have been helped had there been a male co-author to provide a view from the other side.

Overall, the book brings up some interesting points that are worth considering as you try to market your products to both men and women.

Blog Like Successful Authors

What do all the big names in Christian publishing—names like Rick Warren, Robin McGraw, Mike Huckabee and Max Lucado—have in common? No, it isn’t doctrine. Yes, they all have a huge platform, but that isn’t it. No, the thing they have in common is that they don’t blog.  Cindy commented yesterday about how it might be interesting to see whether successful authors have more followers who are readers or followers who are writers. The only way to answer that is to ask, so I decided to compose an e-mail message to send to each of the top writers. I went to Mike Hyatt’s blog, where I remembered that he had a list of the top Christian authors, thinking that would be a good place to start. I expected find their e-mail addresses on their websites and if I didn’t I would see if I could contact them through their publishers. As I moved down the list, I quickly noticed the problem. Not only did they not have e-mail addresses, they don’t have blogs. It would do me no good to ask about people who follow a blog that doesn’t exist.

But there are some exceptions. Victoria Osteen has an one-way blog. She or someone who works for her posts to this blog on a regular basis, but comments are not enabled, restricting feedback from readers. T. D. Jakes blogs infrequently. It appears he blogs about once or twice a month. Dave Ramsey is the one true exception to the rule. The other 10 of 13 have no blog, though most have a website of some kind.

The question we might ask is whether they are successful because they had sense enough to ignore blog and focus on more important things, they have no blog because success has put such a strain on them that they don’t have time to blog, or the two things are unrelated. Whatever the case, the path of the hugely successful author may not be a path that an aspiring author should take.

Author Blog Book Publisher Book Sales Rank Overall
Rick Warren None The Purpose of Christmas Howard 1,290,000 2
Jon & Kate Gosselin None Multiple Blessings Zondervan 523,000 12
Victoria Osteen One-Way Love Your Life Free Press 325,000 20
Robin McGraw None What’s Age Got to Do With It Nelson 289,000 28
Dave Ramsey Yes The Total Money Makeover Nelson 252,000 34
Don & Susie Van Ryn None Mistaken Identity Howard 235,000 44
Mike Huckabee None Do the Right Thing Sentinel 232,357 45
David Jeremiah None What in the World is Going On? Nelson 223,000 46
T. D. Jakes Infrequent Before You Do Atria 212,984 49
Joyce Meyer None The Secret to True Happiness Faithwords 190,851 55
Tim Keller None The Reason for God Dutton 155,104 67
John Eldredge None Walking with God Nelson 118,000 96
Max Lucado None Cast of Characters Nelson 110,000 100

Source: Publishers Weekly, via Michael Hyatt's Blog.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Selling Bottled Water in the Desert

What does it take to build a platform online? I look at blogs and I ask myself why one blog is successful and another isn't. I particular, I look at the blogs run by literary agents and I compare them to those run by authors. As a general rule, literary agents have blogs that have several times the followers that successful authors have. How do we explain this? There is a theory that as long as you write great posts, your blog will succeed. I won’t say that literary agents aren’t capable of writing great post, but if we are looking for someone who can write “great” posts, doesn’t is stand to reason that the typical bestselling writer should be able to write better posts than the typical literary agent? But the numbers don’t add up that way.

The reason this happens is fairly simple. Literary agents are doing what is essentially selling bottled water in the desert. If you’re out in the desert with a bunch of people, the guy selling bottle water is a popular guy. What literary agents have going for them is that they offer a glimmer of hope to the thousands (millions?) of authors out there who are hoping that someone will take an interest in their work. It is not unlike what we see with marketing gurus.  

There’s a fancy term for this, felt need. If you can address a need that a person knows he has, then you stand a better chance of attracting people. But we can’t all be literary agents or marketing gurus. We can’t all be the guy selling bottle water in the desert. So we end up being the guy selling sunscreen, which is more expensive to make, doesn’t sell in as high of volume and people have to be persuaded they need it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Going the Extra Mile

Do you ever go the extra mile? Do you ever expect other people to go the extra mile? Do you know what it means?


The saying originates from something Jesus said. “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him two.” (Matthew 5:41) In Jesus’ day, Roman law permitted a Roman soldier to compel anyone to carry his pack for him, but only a mile. Jesus was saying that instead of just doing what we are required by law to do, we should go beyond that. In other words, don’t do the bare minimum.


One of the interesting things in looking at this passage is that Jesus isn’t talking about the stuff we want to do. These are things that we don’t want to do. Someone takes us to court. We don’t want to pay the judgment, but if we have been found in the wrong then we should pay more than what the court rules. We don’t want to carry a soldier’s heavy pack, but rather than doing so grudgingly, we should carry it farther that he can force us to.


Going the extra mile is sacrificial in nature. Imagine you are at work, ready to head home and your boss stops by your desk. “I need to you work a couple hours overtime.” You have little choice but to do it, but it that going the extra mile? No. But suppose you reach the end of the two hours, your boss looks at the time and says, “I know you need to head home. I’ll work on this some more and will pick it up again tomorrow.” It’s been a long day and you’re even more ready to head home to your family than before. You open your mouth and say, “I’ll stay until we get it done.” Now, you aren’t doing what you are compelled to do, but you are going beyond that to do what needs to be done.


Many people use the phrase when they are talking about doing more than what most people do or when they go out of their way to impress people. In some cases, that could be going the extra mile, but until we are in a situation where someone in authority tells us to do something and we do more than they require, we aren’t actually going the extra mile. We shouldn’t just live to the letter of the law, but follow the intent of the law.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Philosophy on Comments

How we handle comments on our blogs and websites greatly influences the experience people have when they visit. Yesterday, Rachelle Gardner posted about her Comment Policy. Mine, as you may have noticed when you commented, are somewhat more relaxed than hers. To summarize mine: 1. Be Nice (Okay, that pretty much says it all, but I’ll ad the second for clarity.) 2. Don’t say anything inappropriate or mean spirited to my guests. But this post isn’t about the rules of commenting on my blog. What I want to discuss is my philosophy on blog comments. The topic of blog comments has been going around lately and I’ve noticed that several people disagree with me. I thought it would be good to put my thoughts out there. Maybe I’ll persuade a few people to my point of view. Or maybe someone will show be the error of my ways and I change my mind, but this is my philosophy thus far.


Comment on Your Own Posts


If you blog, you know that the only sure way you have of knowing if people are actually reading what you said is if they leave a comment. Page loads don’t tell you much, but when someone leaves a comment, mentioning something you said, you know the person read the post. Likewise, when a guest leaves a comment, she doesn’t know the blog owner has read it, unless the blog owner responds. There are some comments that I don’t know how to respond to, so I am forced to say nothing, but I figure that as long as I frequently respond to comments by posting a comment then guests will know that I’m reading their comments, whether I respond or not.


Encourage Discussion


Some people may wonder how many times they can post a comment to a blog post or how long their comments can be. They may also wonder about getting into a discussion with another guest, that doesn’t involve everyone else. As far as I’m concerned, as long as they keep to the rules I mentioned above, people can leave as many comments as they want and they can talk amongst themselves as much as they want. As for length, for the most part, I don’t care. If someone wants to spend an hour typing a ten page comment, what do I care? It’s just more free content for me. Although, I might not read a long comment in its entirety. I figure my guests can scroll through a long comment, if they don’t want to read it, so I’m not going to get bent out of shape when someone leaves a long comment. What I most want is for people to feel free to present other points of view, even if that means an extra long comment.


Discourage Inappropriate Behavior


I’m not interested in Jim Bob’s House of Girls and if I see something inviting me to visit such a site, I will delete the comment. I also expect people to use language that is fit for use in the presence of a lady. There are some ladies who visit my site and I expect people to respect that. Language that I might let slide if it were just you and me face to face will be considered inappropriate and will be deleted. But that all fits under the be nice clause of my rules.


Encourage Links


Links is the area where you will find more people disagreeing with my philosophy. Some people don’t think people should put a link in their comments, especially links to their own website. I totally disagree. I’m not giving you permission to just leave a comment with nothing but a link to your site, but I want people to leave links to sites they believe adds value to the discussion. I link liberally in my posts and I want my guests to link liberally in their comments.


Links Provide Source Material

When people leave a comment, its hard to know where they are coming from or why they believe what they believe. If they leave a link, I can go read what they read. Maybe I’ll agree with the person or maybe I won’t, but at least I know why the commenter is saying what he is. “You’re absolutely wrong, see this website,” is much more helpful than just saying, “You’re absolutely wrong.” Once I understand, I might be able to address the comment.


Links Let Me Know Who You Are

I don’t really care for people putting links to their website as the signature of their comment and I usually don’t click on those links. I also don’t care that much for people saying, “I talked about this yesterday. See here.” I won’t necessarily delete those comments, but I don’t think they are the best way to go. What I would like to see is a comment like, “When I talked about comments on my website, one of the things I mentioned was that 5% of the visitors who leave comments are aquatic mammals.” Don’t ask me to follow your link, tell me why I want to follow your link.


I want people to link to their own websites because it quickly takes me to more information about that person, hopefully, information that tells me more about what they think concerning the subject. I don’t have to follow the link. My guests don’t have to follow the link, but it is there as a reference, if we want it.


Links Create Traffic

We know that incoming links encourage people to visit our site, but so do outgoing links. Let’s say you comment on this post and leave a link to your website. A few months from now, you will have forgotten about it, but you’ll be looking at your web stats and you’ll see some traffic coming from my site. Or you’ll be looking at one of these sites that track links. You’ll scratch your head and wonder why I would be linking to you. You’ll follow the link back and there you will find your comment. In the process, you have visited my site one more time. Now, imagine if we duplicate that scenario many times. Maybe the search engines happen to find a few of those links. The result is more traffic.


Links Are a Reason For Free Content

I don’t pay people to leave comments. I can’t afford to pay for it, but I love the benefits. Comments are free content. The search engines are looking for fresh content. If someone leaves a comment, my blog or website is freshened, even if I’ve been too busy to put new content out there. If commenters are providing me with something of value, I want them to receive something of value in return. Many people who leave comments are hoping it will direct people back to their site. I figure that if a person leaves valuable information for free, the least I can do is encourage him to leave a link, creating the win-win.


Be a Moderator, Not an Expert


This one’s hard, but often the best thing to do is to encourage comment discussion to focus on a topic, then step back, not offering the “right” answer. Let the discussion hash it out. If things seem to be getting a little off track, step back in and guide the discussion back in line. Some of the best solutions come out of a well moderated committee. Why not use a blog that way?


Anonymous Is Permitted, Not Preferred


I allow Anonymous to post comment. I want to keep it open for everyone. One of the things I hate is going to a website with a comment form, with a statement next to it that says, “Sign-in to comment.” I want to say something about the article or post. I don’t want to spend time registering for one more thing. Likewise, I don’t want my guests to have to register before they can speak, but I hope they’ll sign in anyway. I want to be able to see people’s faces (yes, I said faces and not socks or hats or children). I want to know that they stand behind the words they say. We may disagree, that’s fine, but I prefer when people don’t feel at ease to speak with out fear of recognition. If it isn’t good enough to say in front of your mother or your friends or you children, it isn’t good enough for the rest of us either.


Treat Commenters With Respect, No Matter What


“You are wrong and you look like road kill.” That’s hardly the thing you want to wake up to one morning. The temptation is to fire back a similar comment. I believe we should treat commenters with respect, even when they don’t respect us. They shouldn’t be that way, but how we respond impacts how other guests see us, more than it impacts the other person. Delete the comment if you must, but don’t respond in kind.


Moderation After The Fact


I don't read comments before I allow them to be posted. I haven't had very many comments that I've had to delete anyway, so I believe it is more important to keep the conversation going than it is to make sure the comments follow my guidelines. It is very hard for people to interact with each other if their comments are getting caught in the moderation filter.


Conclusion


Encourage comments. Encourage links. Encourage discussion. There are things we have to delete, but I want to encourage participation. Allowing more open participation will encourage traffic, while being diligent to delete inappropriate stuff will keep the blog from degrading into a shouting match.


Related Post: Rebutting a Flaming Review

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Getting Your Readers' Attention: Help Them Remember (5 of 5)

We’ve looked at the first four questions from Andy Stanley’s pod cast. Today, we look his last question. In lecturing, people remember a small percentage of what we say. In writing fiction, we don’t really think about the need for people to remember. Just the fact that we are communicating through a story will improve retention significantly. We are most interested in people remembering our theme and the action they need to take. If they don’t remember those, our time is wasted. But if people remember our story, they will probably remember these as well. So, do we need to ask:


What can I do to help them remember?


Andy Stanley talks about sending trinkets home with the congregation, so that they will remember. Of course, you can also use object lessons. One time, we had a Sunday school lesson on the furniture in the tabernacle. I set up the classroom with the candles to represent he candlestick and the show bread and burned incense. I took our small group of adults in there, with nothing but the candles for light. That part of the building smelled like frankincense for weeks. But none of that kind of stuff works when you’re writing a book. In non-fiction, we have a little more we can do. We can include illustrations and checklists and other things that help the reader understand and retain information. In novels, all we have are words and maybe a few pictures that may or may not have anything to do with the story. We might be able to package a book with some trinket, if the publisher will go for it, but I don’t see it happening. So, should we just forget it?


It doesn’t hurt to ask the question. Depending on the novel, there may be something more that we can do to help our readers retain what they have read. We won’t find it if we don’t ask. Maybe there is something we can give one of our characters that will help our readers remember. In How to Become a Bible Character, I send one of my characters home with a handful of sand. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know how I did that, but the memory of receiving something vicariously can have almost the same impact as if we have the object in hand.


However we do it, we don’t want our readers walking away and not remembering what they have read. We want them to take action, but even if they don’t, we want them to remember our story long after they have stored it away in their bookshelves. So, What can I do to help them remember?


Conclusion


Andy Stanley’s five questions, which don’t appear to be original with him, are certainly good to consider though they are more of a stretch with fiction than with non-fiction. The important thing—the one thing—is that we should focus our attention on the needs of our readers rather than what we want to say.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Getting Your Reader's Attention: It's Good For Me Too (4 of 5)

The topic of inspiration is the next question from Andy Stanley’s pod cast.

Why do they need to do it?


Years ago, people didn’t realize the danger of smoking. Smoking didn’t lose its popularity until people were able to explain that it is bad for people’s health and the health of the people around them. Today, people are being told to stop smoking with the added incentive that they may receive money from their employer. They have a reason to do it.


If we expect people to take action based on our novels, we must address the question of why they need to take action. As with showing what they need to do, we do this through the example of our characters or it will come across as preachy. We do so by either revealing the danger that our characters are in if the action isn’t taken, by showing the good that will come if people take action or both. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the call to action was an end to slavery and inhuman treatment. The reason that unfolds in the book is that while some of the slave owners treated their slaves relatively well, all slaves faced harsh treatment and death.


Most novels don’t start a civil war, but all should call their readers to action. One might call a person to be more brave or to participate in Bible study, but many fail because they don’t address why. It isn’t enough to have character doing these things. We must show the reader the benefits of doing so and the cost of not. The reader might see it as a good thing for other people and yet has not personal incentive to do the same. Wouldn’t it be great if our readers would put down our books and then go love their families better or study the Bible more or call their congressman about an issue? That isn’t going to happen if there isn’t a clear reason why they need to take action.


Next time, What can I do to help them remember?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Better Website

After several months of putting up with a website template that I wasn't particularly pleased with, but was "good enough," I updated my website. The content's all the same as before, but I got rid of the design that I had hoped would look like a piece of paper with a burned edge--like what we used to do when we were children--and I updated it to something that I think looks better.

The CSS is a little more simple than before, giving us less opportunity for it to break. I’ve got the print capability working. So, if you happen to be on my website and find an article you want to print, all you have to do is hit the print button on the browser and you should get a nice black on white page without the graphics. Well, without the graphics other than the images on the right-hand side of the page.

Anyway, if you’re bored, go check it out. Like I said, the content hasn’t changed, so you won’t find much there that you couldn’t have found before.