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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why I'm Writing About Celtic Spirituality

I'm writing about the spirituality of the Celtic people for the same reason that a group of monks built a monastery on an inhospitable island miles off the west coast of Ireland.
Which means both for the challenge of it and the necessity of it. 
I feel compelled to write about the experience of traveling to Skellig Michael. It changed me. And even now, two years removed from the event, I still can't put into words exactly what that means. We boarded a fishing boat, early in the morning, and motored out to the island. It's visible off the coast, from the town of Portmagee, but in the distance it looks like a barren rock. It's sister, lesser Skellig, is just that. It's a shard of stone slicing through the Atlantic and covered in sea birds. 
But Skellig Michael has a few places to walk and stand. Enough that, 1400 years ago, monks paddled out there to make a home. We don't know why they went, but today it remains one of the most well preserved monasteries of its kind. We arrived at a modern concrete landing where we could unload, but soon we were ascending flat, stone steps to the summit of the island. No hand rail, no even spacing, just steps for a thousand feet. 
When we stepped into the monk's garden, the raging sea wind calmed. The noise stilled and we found peace. It's a trick of the island, the wind blows over the top and that spot is sheltered. But that threshold was more than physical. 
The Celts talk of thin places - those places where the fey, the fairie world, is nearly visible. The Christians took the idea and spoke of those places where heaven and earth touched. For me, Skellig Michael was such a place. I wandered the ruins, not with ghosts, but with friends, guides eager to show me a different life. 
Too soon we had to leave. Our boat was heading back to shore. I would have stayed there for a week. So, I've written a novel that draws on Celtic themes. My main character, Peek, goes to Skellig Michael (that's not what it's called), in the first chapter. He gets to explore the thin places that I had to leave behind. But, he too is drawn away. He can't stay there always, just like I couldn't. Thin places give us a refuge, a retreat. But they also demand that we go forth.  

Read more and pre-order the book here.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I Waste Time Writing Stories

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland and trained at Oxford, but one of the most valuable lessons he learned came from the far north. It was in his love and pursuit of Norse legend (then in the Greek and Irish mythology), that he learned how to sway the world.

Lewis wrote academic, logical, thoughtful books. Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce are all excellent. His well-reasoned approach fit nicely in the culture of scholarship. But that's not why he's so well loved today.

It's the stories.

"Jack" Lewis created a new world for us to explore. Narnia invited us to think, play and wonder at talking animals, white witches and the struggle between good and evil. It's in this fresh, vibrant world that Lewis was able to speak truth that bypassed logic and engaged our hearts.

Story does that. It's always done that. That's why our mythic tales are so powerful and repeated. There are only a few basic plots in all of fiction, but we don't get tired of them. It's because we use them to explore ourselves and our world. We play in another realm to learn more about our own.

In some small way, that's what I'm doing with my novel World Song. It's one of the most common plots - a young boy leaves home, where he's neglected and abused, to find his power and destiny is greater than he'd ever imagined.

But within that story I'm working to explore faith, reason, traditionalism and the basis of all our beliefs.

Sometimes we need to escape our world so we can see it more clearly.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why Am I Self-Publishing My Book

I'm running a Kickstarter campaign for a novel I've written, but why would I want to self-publish a book instead of going through a publishing house? Doesn't that prove that my work is sub-par? Aren't all self-published books second-rate?

Depending on who you ask, you'll get different answers. Twelve publishing houses rejected J.K. Rowling. Fifty rejected the author of The Help. Does that make those books sub-par?

Publishing houses were the gatekeepers of the print world. Their skill and business savvy determined what did and did not make it into print. But they aren't the arbiters of quality, just profitability. Any publisher on the block will take a successful author over a nobody and a recognized name over a new one--even if the book isn't as good. It's easier to sell a crappy book with a famous name attached to it. It's business.

As the noose tightens, it gets harder for people to break in to the publishing scene, so they need to do it on their own. They use the tools they have available to make the best product they can and distribute it to the widest audience they can reach. If they were musicians or film makers, we'd celebrate them as indie artists. But when they're authors self-publishing we call it "vanity press."

Did you know that publishers don't market books anymore? They used to send authors on a book tour, take out ads in magazines and generally market the book to make it successful. Not any more (most of the time). Nope, it's up to the author to market their own books. Publishers want authors with a platform (a pre-existing audience) so they can be sure of sales.

I've published two books so far People of Purpose (through a publishing house) and The Marriage Challenge (self-published). In six months with a professionally published book, I sold just under 1,000 copies and made 7% royalty. In six months with a self-published book, I sold just under 1,000 copies and made a 70% royalty.

Why should I do all the work of marketing my book for a 90% discount? Would you do the same job for 90% less money?

But what about quality? What about the process of editing that publishing houses have in place?

You're right, some terrible, sub-par books are self-published. That's why I want to have my novel professionally edited. That's why I want to pay for professional graphic design.

I learned a lot about self-publishing by doing it (and from reading about other's who've done it and been successful like Rob Kroese). I learned what I did wrong and what I did right. I've been studying the successes and the failures. I think I've done what's necessary to be a success.

So, did I sell you? Then go and pledge some money to see it happen!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What is Kickstarter?

Yesterday I launched a Kickstarter project for a new book. I've been telling people about this for a while and getting feedback to make sure it's the best project it can be. I think it's pretty great.

But one thing I've noticed is that not everyone has heard of Kickstarter. So I figured I'd help.

Kickstarter launched in 2008 as one of the first crowd-funding websites. The idea is that projects can be funded with small contributions from lots of people instead of a large contribution from just one or two people.

Only creative projects are funded through Kickstarter. There are no charitable donations, business launches or life-funding enterprises. Just the creation of projects that have real results. I've funded a movie, an album and a book through Kickstarter (or similar sites). In the end, I get to participate in the creation of something new, support an artist and get in at the beginning of a movement.

If you pledge to a Kickstarter (like this one), you aren't charged. It's only if the project ends up getting enough in pledges by the end of the set time that anyone gets charged. So if a project falls $5 short of its goal and the time runs out, no one pays any money.

But, if the project is fully funded (or over funded, which is totally possible), then all the pledges are charged (through, Kickstarter gets a cut and the creator gets the money to complete their project.

Most Kickstarter projects don't meet their goals. Only about 44% of projects are successful (and only about 31% of publishing projects). Adding a video to the project moves it up to about a 55% chance of success. The vast majority of successfully funded projects have goals of less than $10,000 (around 90%). And 82% of projects that hit 20% of their goal go on to be fully funded.

So, I've done everything I can to stack the odds in my favor. There's a video, a goal of $7,000 and in the first day we hit 23% of our goal (thanks to some generous pledges out of the gate).

So, can I keep it going? Will this translate into actual success in the end?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Kickstarter Campaign

My next book is being launched with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. If you're not familiar with the site, it's a crowd-funding website. That means that groups of people can invest in a project instead of the creator having to get one, wealthy person to help out. It's similar to the patronage system of the Renaissance, but with the internet and groups of people.

My project is World Song, which is a fantasy fiction novel based on Celtic spirituality and music.  You can watch the video below.

I'd love to know what you think of this project, to have you share it with everyone you know and especially to have you help me fund it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review - Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality by Elias Aboujaoude

Your online personality has a dramatic impact on your offline self. In Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, author Elias Aboujaoude explores the ways that being online affect our personalities and how that bleeds over into everything we do.

Aboujaoude is a medical doctor and psychiatrist working in Palo Alto, California. That puts him in the heart of Silicon Valley and he started his practice in treating impulse control at the peak of the internet revolution. This book reflects his experience treating all sorts of disorders that exist, fully or in part, in online personalities.

He recounts stories of clients who fabricated online identities, sacrificed real life for Second Life, gambled away all their money, bullied others, were bullied by others and more. It's a shocking and tragic look at the darkest effects of the internet on humanity. People who are willing to completely abandon their in-person lives in favor of something online - or to let online interaction ruin their offline existence.

Aboujaoude has been treating people for internet related issues for years and is one of the leading experts on the myriad problems caused or exacerbated by being online. But at the same time, his writing shows a marked lack of understanding about online culture and life. He's a foreigner writing about a land he rarely visits. Sure, he uses email and searches for things on Google, but that doesn't constitute a real understanding of the medium.

For Aboujaoude, all internet uses exist on a spectrum of dysfunction. He sees his clients as the far end of the spectrum on which we all lie. Because one of his clients is addicted to gambling online, we all must show some addictive tendencies online. Because one of his clients creates a new personality for online dating, we all must reinvent ourselves online. Because one of his clients is an internet bully, we all must be more antagonistic online. 

His premise is flawed. It's not true that because some people are sociopaths that all of us exhibit some sociopathic tendencies. Nor is it true that because some people are bulimic that we all have a little bit of an eating disorder. So why would it follow that online disorders would apply to the healthy as well as the dysfunctional? 

Though the basic thesis of Virtually You is fatally flawed, there is still good to be found in this book. Aboujaoude does a thorough job of examining the various issues that can be caused or amplified by the internet. A careful reading and self-examination is a good idea. Ask yourself if you separate your online and offline personalities. Look at how you might be more impulsive online versus offline. Judge your ability to be truthful as you represent yourself online. Just don't think that you're necessarily broken. 

What Aboujaoude fails to understand is that the internet is a part of our world now. It's not a separate sphere where things happen that don't affect the "real world." It's not virtual. It's reality - online. 

What I would rather see, instead of a litany of all the horrible things that people do online, is a recognition that we have this new space in which we interact with people. We need to develop new skills to integrate our personality to all the spheres in which we operate. Adolescents learn to do this as they grow up and incorporate the person they are with their friends and the person they are at home and the person they are at school. 

Humanity is in an adolescent stage when it comes to the internet. We don't need to descry the divide between online and offline personalities. We need to mature and integrate them into a healthy whole. 

(Note: The book link earns me a small commission on any sales made through it). 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Guest Post

Today my blog-thoughts are over at Matt Dabbs' Kingdom Living blog.
"The addition of technology to communication has always blurred the lines between what is and isn’t real."
Check it out and sound off in the comments.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Don't Take My Word For It

This weekend I was reminded of something my preacher said often while I was growing up. Roy would make a statement about some passage and then say, "Don't take my word for it, read it for yourself."

That attitude (also espoused by one Levar Burton), has been a core part of my intellectual and theological development. Now that I'm in a position to be teaching other people, I want to pass on what I've learned.

When you speak as the final authority on a topic, you're inviting people to a place where only a few experts can go. If they want to follow you on the journey, they either have to develop their own expertise or completely trust what you're saying.

I'm not comfortable with that for a few reasons. First, I'm not immune to mistakes. I remember one time when I asserted that the bible doesn't use the phrase "the fruit of the vine." Oops. I was wrong. Completely wrong. That wasn't the first time and it won't be the last time. If we're all working together on it, we have a much better chance of avoiding mistakes.

Also, the bible isn't a document reserved for experts. Sure, it helps to know some Greek and Hebrew, church history, ancient near-eastern mythology, archaeology and philosophy to understand the finer points of scripture. But it's not necessary. Not even a little bit. The basic message of the bible is clearly available to anyone who wants to read it. Ultimately, Moby Dick is a story about a whale hunt. The basics are clear. Experts can argue about the details until Captain Ahab comes back to correct them.

Training doesn't equal wisdom. I'd like to pat myself on the back with my degrees, but that doesn't make me any smarter or give me better things to say. Sometimes it's the person who's lived it that can speak to the point much better than the person who's learned it. I do my best to bring in experience and real-world examples, but I haven't lived through everything. So when other people read and study for themselves, their experience may serve them far better than my study.

Ultimately, I want to invite people to a life they can live. If I'm bringing questions to the bible, searching for ways to live like Jesus, asking questions about what I've assumed and trying to puzzle through what I don't understand - all that is something that other people can do to. I can model the life of a Jesus-student (a.k.a. a disciple) when I preach and teach. I'm not modeling the life of an expert who flawlessly interprets an obscure document, because that's not who I am and it's not who I want to be.

But you don't have to take my word for it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Keep People's Attention - But not too Much

Every speaker dreams of holding an audience's rapt attention. Each word is a savored morsel in the feast of knowledge.

If you're lucky, that'll happen to you. But most of us live at other places on the spectrum. On one end is complete distraction. The audience doesn't care, even a little bit, what you're saying. Toward the middle is moderate engagement with some mind wandering. The sweet spot is where they care wrapped up in what you have to say and fully engaged. But if you go past that, you'll overload them and lose them again.

The idea is to command enough attention that they have to focus on you, but to still leave some attention left for them to process what you're saying and file it away.

Attention is limited by the amount of cognitive load you experience. You have a finite number of things you can keep in your working memory at one time. It's like the top of a desk or a counter. You start with an empty workspace, but as you bring in work, the space is used up. When you're out of space then adding anything new will cover up something already there.

Everything that demands attention adds to the cognitive load. So if the audience is worried about the temperature, listening to the traffic outside, wondering what that smell is and uncomfortable in the seats, all that reduces the amount of space left for what you're saying. Typically the environment isn't a big offender. But distractions abound and each one is a part of the total load.

The workspace wants to be filled. An empty desk is an invitation to pile things (at least to me) and your brain is no different. It wants to pay attention to something. So, if you don't have enough of a cognitive load, your brain will find - or manufacture - other things. This is why you daydream when you're bored. Your brain is filling up the spaces. To prevent the daydreaming boredom of an audience, you need to give them enough to pay attention to, but no so much that things get pushed out.

Every audience is different. If you're speaking to a group of young parents with children in the audience, they will have a much lower cognitive load capacity due to their children. Because of that, you won't be able to demand as much attention from them as you might be able to from a different audience. Learn your people before you talk to them so you can provide the ideal amount of information.

Give them a place to wander. It's inevitable that your audience will stop paying full attention to you when you speak. The mind moves much faster than the mouth. They can think more quickly than you can speak. So, give them something to think about when they're distracted. I like to use visuals that reinforce what I'm saying while still giving room for interpretation. Another strategy is to ask questions during your talk so the audience is thinking about an answer or comment. Some people use outlines that are filled out during the talk, but I find this is more distracting since I'm trying to guess what the next point will be instead of listening to the current point.

How do you keep the attention of your audience?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Don't Try to Multitask, It's Impossible

You might think you're really good at multitasking or you might know someone that seems to multitask well. Well you're not and you don't.

It's not possible.

Your brain cannot multitask. Period. You consciously focus on one task at a time. That's it. No more.

When you attempt to multitask, you are actually switching between tasks (sometimes very rapidly). But your brain must disengage from one task and engage another task at every switch. This reduces the overall efficacy of all the tasks.

I know, you're still shouting at me, "Noooooooo, that's impossible! I'll never join you!"

Before you get mad and jump off a radio tower down a tube, let me explain.*

What is a task? This is probably the most important part of this discussion. A task is something you do that requires mental attention. Listening to music isn't a task because it can be easily ignored. Our brains are adept at filtering out information that's not task-critical, like music, background conversations at a coffee shop, the smell of the rendering plant near your house, the sound of the airport that sends jets over you daily and most activities that you've learned to do automatically.

For example, it's not a task for me to type the letters in this sentence. But when I was in 9th grade learning from Mrs. Van Gilder, it took all of my attention to place each finger on the keyboard. Now it's automated, it doesn't require any attention and is therefore not a task. I took care of the task of learning to touch type 20 years ago so that I don't have to worry about it now.

What is attention? When you focus on something, even a little bit, you use your attention. You have a finite amount of attention you can use at any one time. Your brain tries to help by removing extraneous details so you can get on with your life. This is why the dirty laundry can fade into the background. It's familiar once it's been sitting for a week and your brain just ignores it.

The thing that takes up the majority of your attention is the task you're working on. You can maintain a situational awareness that lets you keep several tasks active at once. For example, when I worked at the Mermaid Coffee Company I was able to take drink orders, cook food, brew coffee, get pastries and send baristas on break - all at the same time. How did I do this? I had enough attention that I could switch rapidly between tasks and I'd mastered enough of the tasks that they no longer required my attention.

That made it look a lot like I was multitasking. But I wasn't. I was multiattentioning and quickly switching between tasks.

When you try to multitask without first dealing with attention and learning your skills, then you will stumble and probably fail.

How have you experienced the limits of your brain when trying to multitask?

*This is a reference to The Empire Strikes Back. Watch it. Now.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Preach the Story

Stories are magical.

This was clear to Eugene Lowry and why he wrote The Homiletical Plot about preaching as a narrative art form. It was also clear to Bill Cosby, who could hold throngs spellbound with stories of his youth. Joseph Campbell looked at all the narrative elements that connect humanity in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It turns out, we don't have new stories, just the same old tales applied to new situations.

But for whatever reason, we forget the power of the story when it comes time to communicate important messages. We stop thinking in terms of plot, narrative and theme and start thinking in terms of data, argument and logic.

Stories provide emotionally, visually engaging anchor-points for an audience to connect with a message. Without these points, they drift aimlessly from word to word and sentence to sentence. They may eventually wash up on the shore of meaning, or they might be lost forever in the sea of logical arguments.

A story doesn't have to be complex. You don't need to find a long, drawn-out example for every point and sub-point in your sermon. Sometimes it can be a simple reference to a story that everyone's familiar with. Or you can choose to phrase you logical argument in a narrative metaphor that draws people in and evokes their imaginations (for example, look at the previous paragraph).

A story must  be applicable. You can't just throw in a story or a joke because you want to break up the sermon. There has to be a connection with the point you're making. And that connection needs to be explicitly clear to the audience. The danger is that you, as the preacher, know what's going on in the sermon. You know the end before the audience does, so it's tempting to take a shortcut. You're excited about the grand finale so you want to hurry up and get there. But it's only exciting because of the journey. Let your audience take the journey with you.

The story needs to be subordinate. In Aesop's fables, you always know the point. He tells you right at the end what the moral of the story is. Try to use stories that have clear points - they may not be as obvious as Aesop's, but they must not be vague. Moral ambiguity and subtle character development are great for novels or Oscar-winning movies, but you don't have time in a sermon to do that kind of work. Stick with the clear, simple stories that serve your point. If the story gets out of hand and starts to take over, then your sermon will begin to serve as the vehicle for your story rather than the other way around.

How do you use stories when you speak?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Preach like a Rock Star

Rock stars have something to teach us preachers. It's not how to do our hair and what pants are the most stylish. Rather, it's the application of a Brain Rule - "Repeat to Remember."

Get to the chorus of nearly any pop song and you'll hear a hook that is repeated, over and over and over again. The standard formula popular songs (top 100 on the Billboard chart) repeats in four-fifths of all songs over 50 years. The same chord progression, the same tempo, the same time signature, and the same verse structure.


The chorus happens four times in an average rock song. It's the bit that gets stuck in your head. It's the thing you sing in the shower. It's the part that you hum to yourself and get stuck in someone else's head like a contagious disease.

It's what every preacher dreams will happen to their sermon. But most preachers preach forgettable, words that never last, never connect and aren't shared. It's sad, but it's the truth.

So, how can you preach like a rock star?

Distill your point. You can make one point in your sermon. Figure out what it is and craft everything you say around that one point. Throw away anything that's off topic. Get rid of it. Ruthlessly. If you're jumping around from point to point, your audience won't follow you.

Find your hook. Just like in a pop song, there's a hook to your sermon. What one phrase is catchy, repeatable and sums up your point? Work on this. Spend time hashing through options. Throw away bad hooks. If you skip this step, most of your sermons will be forgotten.

Repeat to remember. Pepper your hook throughout your sermon. Like a hook in a song, your sermon-hook will be the refrain that ties everything together. Make a point and then bring it back with your hook. Make another point and then bring it back again with the hook.

Do this artfully. You can't just stand up for thirty minutes and repeat yourself. But, if you don't have meaningful repetition, your words will evaporate almost as soon as you're done saying them.

Below is one of the better examples of this type of sermon. I wouldn't repeat the hook as much as this, but that's my style and preference. You can see, in less than four minutes, how powerful and memorable a hook can be . . . Sunday's Coming.

Monday, July 02, 2012

How to Preach so People will Remember

Preaching produces forgotten words. On average, verbal communication results in about 10% retained material in the audience. So for every sermon you and I preach, the audience holds on to one-tenth of the information.

If you add related images to your words, that retention jumps all the way to 65%! That's why I'm so much in favor of using PowerPoint while preaching. But, if you can't (or won't) use PowerPoint, you can still help people to remember what you have to say.

Preach like they're in Junior High. When my wife and I taught the Junior High class at church, we received a book of curriculum to teach from. Some of the lessons were good, but most of them needed some modification. What we learned in trying to wrangle twenty-some Junior High students is that you have the opportunity to make one point. In an hour we could only hope to communicate one main idea. So, we structured everything in the class around that point. We distilled the scripture passage down to the one idea. We created games that emphasized that point. We gave out candy when the kids remembered the point. We did everything we could to highlight and support that one idea.

Create visual moments with your words. If you can't project a picture, create an image in the mind of your audience. If you do it well, it's probably more effective than a PowerPoint presentation. Think of the story tellers you know - they craft a tale that's vivid and real, the pictures come alive in your mind. When that's paired with a complimentary message, you'll get your ideas to take hold. This is much more than just using a metaphor or a throw-away example. Jesus told detailed stories to get people's minds engaged, "The kingdom of heaven is like . . ." Find ways that you can engage minds with your words.

Use what they already know to add something new. In the book Made to Stick the authors, Chip and Dan Heath, bring up the idea of schema. Schema are mental structures that we use to organize information. You have a 'chair' schema that helps you figure out what a chair is, so you can identify a chair in a room, even if you've never seen that chair before in your life. So, take what they know about your topic and add to it. Or, better yet, violate their schema. That's what Jesus did when he taught the Sermon on the Mount. "You have heard it was said," he started, "but now I tell you . . ." Jesus violated schema and then replaced them with something new.

It comes down to this - if you want to communicate well, you must become an expert in how people receive, process and retain information.

How can you apply these principles in your next sermon?