If You Build It, He Will Come

Bill Kinsella wrote a fine novel called Shoeless Joe that got made into a movie called Field of Dreams. The premise of the story has become a popular phrase: “If you build it, he will come.”

It’s one of those notions that resonates and can feel not only true but also comforting, especially to us writers. It can encourage us to wake up and dive into a project of daunting magnitude, like creating a 500 page novel. If we can just complete the monster, somebody (say a topnotch agent or publisher) will show up and deliver our fortune and fame.

We Christians are liable to take comfort in that phrase more readily than most folks do. We probably believe God has called us to write. Then it stands to reason that he would make sure our efforts pay off. So instead of wasting time researching agents or publishers and/or promoting and marketing, we can eagerly and without misgivings move on to the next project God wants us to create.

Right?

Wrong. I mean I don’t see that attitude working out for people who live here in the “real” world.

Now, the failure of God to deliver our books to a legion of readers could mean we got it wrong, that we’re not called to write after all. Or, it could mean other things. It just could mean that we’re also called to use our creative gift in yet another way.

This summer, while my Zoe is off school, I have intentionally avoided most writing projects, because when I get deeply involved in a new novel, I might as well be an absent parent. Zoe deserves better. So instead of working on the latest, I’ve spent weeks studying book promotion and marketing. The subject is vast and frustrating. Definitive answers are few. Speculations and theories abound.

Out of dozens or hundreds of theories, strategies and gimmicks, the one I’m most convinced by is: in today’s book market, with millions of titles immediately available, the author’s first and most critical challenge is to discover what his or her book offers that the others (or at least most others) don’t. Since I can’t find just the right term, I’ll call it our “thing”.

If I can’t define what my thing is, I probably should stop everything and pester God with the question, “Why on earth did you call me to do all this writing, anyway?”

But suppose I can define my thing. Still, the work’s only begun. Now I need to turn my thing into a pitch, a hook, a sound bite. An image or idea that will pique interest or curiosity.

I resent this challenge as much as you do. Mostly because it’s hard. But when my Zoe tells me something she’s been asked to do is hard, I try to respond with a look that means, “Yeah. So what?”

I mean, if we won’t take on hard challenges, we’re doomed to a sad and tedious existence. Right?

Right.

Consequently, I’ve spent weeks wrestling with the pitch/hook/sound-bite issue.

I know my novels are intended to offer both dramatic entertainment and characters who, like the readers I hope to engage, grapple with both practical and spiritual challenges. And I’ve determined that a step forward from that thoroughly abstract description might be: in my novels, Christian attitudes and values meet the demands of the real world. But that description is still too abstract a message to stick in most people’s minds.

To pitch my thing effectively, I need to make it concrete as possible. To go from abstract to concrete, it helps to narrow the range of subject matter (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a memorable discussion of the process). So I’ll narrow the subject matter from my hope its readers will ask for more.

My Tom Hickey crime series begins with The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles. Tom Hickey, a young musician, investigates the lynching of a family friend because the police and media have chosen to ignore the crime. I have used that problem as a hook/pitch. But it doesn’t reflect my “thing”: Christian attitudes and values meet demands of the real world.

The element in the book that does reflect my thing is skeptical Tom’s need to seek help from Aimee Semple McPherson, the most celebrated evangelist of the era. So a better hook might be: unless a famous evangelist will take skeptical Tom Hickey into her confidence, he may never learn who lynched his friend.

I’ll keep pondering and seeking inspiration. Once I have a pitch/hook that feels just right, I will look for a way to send more people to the book using that message.

Okay, marketing may seem a dreary and even odious chore. But it can also be a creative challenge. Which is what we writers live for, right?

Right.

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3 comments on “If You Build It, He Will Come
  1. gsgorsuch says:

    Ken,

    When we did our van Gogh presentation at the Seattle Art Museum one of our writer/artist that work with us woke in the middle of the night and wrote down, Van Gogh: A Stroke of Genius, A Brush with Faith

    After the first presentation, we had standing room only and standing ovations (over 400 packed into a 380 seat auditorium). The attendance was 50/50 church attendees vs. non-churched people. If you can find a way to luminalize the idea of faith or spirituality, like ‘brushing’ up against something, then non-religious people become very interested. In van Gogh’s case we pushed his ‘struggle with and against the Church’ yet held fast to his intense expressions of faith throughout his life.

    I need to read one of the Hickey books (I haven’t yet), but a line that captures a paradox, like pitting his intense desire/need for definitive answers (truth) in tension with the unintended effect these events have on his spiritual life. In the case of an artist she used the word brush; with Hickey it might be the ‘twisting’ or ‘entanglement’ of spiritual realities, ancient truths or his dismissed ‘spiritual past.’ I don’t know.

    The key for me is to put something in tension that reflects the Kierkegaardian tension we all live with.

    If all goes well, I will be leaving the business world for the most part by December and returning to the live I long for: writing, getting a few of these books a chance, and maybe even some Common Ground (albeit in a different cast).

    Talk to you soon,

    Greg

    Seattle

    • Ken Kuhlken says:

      Dear Greg,

      Pardon my delayed response. Somehow I don’t get notified about comments, and at one point I stopped allowing because of an astonishing quantity of spam.

      I miss our communicating, and hope all goes according to plan for you.

      Blessings, Ken

  2. cheryllynn51 says:

    I attended my first writers conference in 2008 and was immediately introduced to the fairly new idea about writers needing their own platform and marketing strategy, even when traditionally published. So, I set up my goals and began to create my platform. Each of my three novels went through the same process, but only one, “The Proof,” hit #1 best seller in Amazon. Of course, I am thrilled about that, but it made me aware that no matter how much I like my other two books, I need to write stories that appeal to a larger group of people in order to get any movement.

    I’m also one of those writers who believes, “When I write, I feel God’s pleasure.” So why are so many of our works dormant? My personal theory is in the word “dormant.” I have a feeling that after we are gone, the world will be able to get their hands on millions of books, print and digital, that will share the examples of how God interacts with His creation. In the meantime, writing gives me joy like no other activity I’ve experienced. So, it’s all good.

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