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Tim Challies

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writing

July 04, 2011

It has been several months now since The Next Story released and already I am fielding questions about my next book. I find that I am beginning to think about it as well and this got me thinking about the time after the release of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. i went looking for some of my reflections at that time and found that my thinking was heading in the same direction then as it is now.

I graduated from college in 1995 (Or so. To be honest, I don’t even remember exactly what year it was), having earned a degree in history. That degree did not open up the world of possibilities I had thought it might when I first chose history as my major three years before. With few options available to me, and suffering from a lack of motivation, I decided I had better find some kind of employment, even if it did not incorporate my training. I learned that a new Starbucks was opening nearby and quickly made my way through the interview process. The day the store opened I was there, and I stayed at that job, putting in my forty hours a week, for what must have been a year—possibly more.

I’m not sure if this is still the case, but back then every store was required to select one “Coffee Expert,” the one person on staff who would receive a bit of extra training in the world of coffee and who was required to know more about the various flavors of coffee than anyone else. This person had to be able to identify the differences between the types and to teach others how to do the same. He was responsible for brewing different kinds of coffees in order to educate both the employees and the customers. Through some strange twist of fate I was appointed to this position by the manager.

There was just one small problem. I hated coffee. It curdled my tongue, made my eyes water, and left me gagging. I found it utterly revolting. It was only a few months ago that I finally succumbed to the inevitable and learned to like it.

June 14, 2011

It was not too long ago that blogging was all the rage. Everyone was beginning a blog and everyone was talking about this exciting new medium. Today you are more likely to hear declarations that blogs are defunct, passe, a vestige of an era that has already come and gone. I say “Stuff and nonsense!” Blogs continue to flourish. The very popularity of blogs is proof that there is a lot of room for more of them; we are a long way from the absorption point. We are a long way from the end of the blogosphere.

I am often asked for advice in beginning a blog and I am going to answer a lot of emails via this blog post. Today I want to tell you how I would begin a blog if I had to do it all over again. I’d do it in 6 steps.

#1. Choose a Theme

A good blog will have a defined theme and you will want to then stick with that theme, something that may be especially difficult in those early stages where your enthusiasm outstrips the site’s readership. The theme may be just about anything. It may be wide and it may be narrow; it may be niche and it may be general; it may be a hobby and it may be a vocation. When choosing a theme, there are 2 general directions to take: you can take a position of leadership or you can choose an area of interest through which you can invite other people into your journey of learning about it. 

The theme you choose will help define the blog’s measure of success. Success may come through sheer volume of visitors or it may come through the authority gained within a specific niche or discipline. So choose your theme. Identify an area that is of particular interest to you or an area in which you are an expert. If that area is underserved in the blogosphere, you’ve found what you are looking for.

I always hold out Brian Croft as a guy who has succeeded well at this. He began his blog late in the game but very quickly gained authority by filling a particular niche—practical shepherding. He went from enthusiast to expert. His blog isn’t visited by millions, but it is visited by people within the demographic he wanted to reach.

August 27, 2010

Friday morning seems like a good time to provide some updates on what I’ve been up to lately, and especially what I’ve been up to in relation to my writing.

The Next Story

Yesterday morning was a big day: After eight months of work I finally submitted the manuscript for The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion. Surprisingly, it was a bittersweet moment for me. I was very thankful to be able to send it in and to be able to anticipate at least a few weeks away from it. It has been a long, hard push to complete the book—something that has taken me far beyond the 9 to 5. I’ve enjoyed writing it, but look forward to having a short break from it (like when your kids go to grandma’s for a couple of days—you miss them, but you’re glad for the break!).

At the same time it was also a little bitter. I was somewhat ashamed to send in a manuscript that wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I think the ideas in the book are good and helpful but as of this moment, it just doesn’t have the flow I want it to have. Here’s the problem. After writing 80,000 words I found that I just wasn’t able to get “above” or “beyond” the book anymore to see it from a wide perspective. I was just too close to it. I know there are a few elements in the book that need to be improved but either I can’t tell quite what they are or I can see plainly but don’t know how to fix them. I found that profoundly frustrating and very nearly exasperating.

However, all is not lost. Helping me in such things is the job of an editor and I’m grateful that I’ve got a good one. The book is in Ryan the Editor’s hands now and I know he’ll do great work in helping me with the flow of the ideas. He’ll have that big picture perspective that I’ve been unable to find. I know that the book will be much improved after he has helped me through this part of it.

I guess all of that humiliation is really just a manifestation of pride. I feel like I should be able to write a really good book without the help of an editor. And yet here I am saying, “I need your help!” It’s good for me, I’m sure; a valuable lesson. I think God is using this to teach me something and I suppose that means I ought to listen!

The plan is that Ryan will have the book for a few weeks so that he can begin to work his magic on it. Then he will send it back to me and I’ll have a few weeks of my own to respond with changes, improvements, and new content. By the time this stage is complete I am sure that I will be much more comfortable with the state of the manuscript. I am looking forward to being at that point. If you have been praying for me as I’ve been writing and would like to continue doing so, this is what you can pray for—that God will provide that final bit of direction I need to take all of those ideas and weave them together into a cohesive whole.

We are also beginning to look at cover design, something I always look forward to since it brings with it an element of reality—once the book has a cover it is much closer to becoming a real book. I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as there is something worth seeing.

The Next Story is still on-track for release in April.

Sexual Detox

Sexual Detox is on the way and will be released in printed form just a couple of weeks from now. It has a new subtitle (“A Guide for Guys Who Are Sick of Porn”), it has been edited and added to, and it has been endorsed by Ted Tripp, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Ben Zobrist and Owen Strachan. All-in-all I think it’s a much better book than the one I gave away for free in e-book format. It is being published by Cruciform Press, a company of which I am a co-founder, and is our very first book. I’ll have more news about it in the days to come.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

In January Crossway will be publishing a book titled Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day. Kevin DeYoung edited the book and I contributed one of its chapters. Crossway gives this as part of their description: “DeYoung and other key twenty- and thirty-something evangelical Christian leaders present Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Same Evangelical Faith for a New Day to assert the stability, relevance, and necessity of Christian orthodoxy today. This book introduces young, new, and under-discipled Christians to the most essential and basic issues of faith in general and of evangelicalism in particular.” That book is set for release in late January.

August 08, 2010

A question I am asked quite often goes something like this: “Do you ever have a day where you just do not want to write anything?” Are there ever days when the absolute last thing I want to do is to sit down and write? I can answer, quite honestly I think, that this happens only very rarely. There are definitely times where I don’t feel like I have much to say (and some would argue more than others, I suppose, about how often this happens) but there are very few days where I don’t care to write at all. The reasons is simple, really, and is something I’ve expressed often. Writing has become a critical part of my spiritual development. I write about things I’ve learned, and the desire to keep having things to write continually motivates me to seek to learn more. I think Saint Augustine said this best: “I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing.”

I love those words. They inspire me to see writing not only as a way of gaining more knowledge, but as a way of marking the progress of applying any knowledge I’ve acquired. I do not want to be a person who knows a lot but who has little ability to apply what I’ve learned or to use it to draw closer to God. Intellectual development may be important and may be gratifying, but it is a lousy end in itself. Rather, I see the pursuit of knowledge as the means to a greater end—glorifying and enjoying God. I write when I learn and learn by writing. There isn’t much I know that I haven’t written about. Writing is the means by which I take information and knowledge and ruminuate on it and, hopefully, turn it into wisdom.

So no, there are few days when I just can’t consider writing. And if I find that I don’t want to, I just go ahead and do it anyway. It’s that important to me.

July 01, 2010

It is July 1 today, which makes it Canada Day in my home and native land. Technically the day marks the anniversary of the unification of the British colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada into a federation of four provinces. At this time what had previously been the Province of Canada was divided into Ontario and Quebec. This all officially took place on July 1, 1867. However, even at this time Canada did not become entirely independent and it was not until 1982 that Canada fully and finally severed political ties with Great Britain (kind of—we still have a Governor General who represents the Queen before the government). Today Canada Day is essentially a day that Canadians set aside to celebrate being Canadian. Communities each have their own traditions though they all end in the same way—with a fireworks celebration.

Today seems like a good day to provide an update on The Next Story, the book I have been laboring on for about six months now. If I go back and review the original agreement I made with the publisher, i see that today is supposed to be my deadline. How humbling. Because of a series of factors, we subsequently bumped that due date to September 1. This means that I’ve got two months to get this book finished up if we want to hit the anticipated release date of April 2011 (which we really do).

June 12, 2010

Earlier today I was looking through some notes I took on David McCullough’s great biography of John Adams. I found there a few quotes from Adams about his love of reading. He was an avid reader who had a very substantial library—far more the exception than the rule in his day. Here is how he spoke of how reading ranked in his life in terms of priority.

I want to see my children every day. I want to see my grass and blossoms and corn … But above all, except the wife and children, I want to see my books.

As with Adams, my books are among my greatest pleasure and when I find I do not have time to read, I miss it a lot. There is pleasure to be found both in the books and in the experience of reading them. A day without a book is just not quite the same as a day with at least an hour or two spent reading.

Adams also said this about the way he did his best thinking:

The only way to compose myself and collect my thoughts is to set down at my table, place my diary before me, and take my pen into my hand. This apparatus takes off my attention from other objects. Pen, ink, and paper and a sitting posture are great helps to attention and thinking.

I, too, find that I can get very little thinking done, and cannot hold my attention for long, if I do not do my thinking with the assistance of pen, ink and paper (or the digital equivalent—a word processor and a keyboard). I love reading, I love writing and, like Adams, I love words. So I suppose one of the reasons I enjoy reading about Adams is that I feel a real affinity with him on that level.

April 08, 2010

So here I sit at 8:09 AM on a Thursday morning wondering what I am going to say today. There are times when I find writing this blog a great joy and there are times where I find it a heavy burden. Those tough times are blessedly few. Today I feel neither; I suppose I’m somewhere between. Sometimes I think well ahead and very occasionally even write posts a day or two in advance. Usually I sit down in the morning knowing what I am going to say, or at least what I am going to start to say. But today I just don’t know.

And yet I want to write. Writing has become such an important discipline in my life. It’s through writing that I do my best thinking and through writing that I do my best application of truth. I may think I know something in my mind, but when I write about it I realize that i had barely known anything at all. And really, writing is becoming my life. Ideally I spend about half of every day writing, focusing time on my blog, on my book and on my 10MillionWords reading project. Put it all together and it’s a writer’s life I’m living at the moment. And I love it.

People often ask me, “How can I become a better writer?” The answer is both obvious and simple. If you want to write better, you need to write more. As with any discipline, some people are born with exceptional talent and for them writing comes easily, naturally and with great skill. But for most of us, writing takes long and hard practice. If you want to be a good writer, you need to write even on those days when you’d rather do anything else, on those days when you feel like you’ve got nothing to say. During the recent Olympics I saw video after video of athletes answering similar questions in their field. Time and time again I heard them say that they got to the top of their game by practicing hard, day in and day out. They practiced hardest on the days when they felt like they had the least to give and on the days when they would rather have been anywhere else doing anything else. It’s not on the easy days and through the joyful practices that an athlete becomes an Olympian. It’s through the hard days, through the gruelling ones. Here is where he learns the character and endurance that will carry him in competition.

February 06, 2010

One of the strange things that happens when you write a book is that other authors begin to ask you if you would endorse their own book. There is a strange little economy whereby people in a particular genre all endorse one another’s books. This is true in the Christian world as it’s true for books about history, politics, and the like. A relatively small group of people pass their books around with requests for endorsements.

I’ve written quite a few of these little blurbs lately. It is something I’m generally quite eager to do and even honored to do. There is a certain sense in which it is humbling to have someone ask if you’d put your name on their book, offering it a stamp of approval. Yet there is also a certain danger to it, knowing that if you do not read the book carefully, you may later be accused of endorsing a book with a potentially serious theological error in it. Stranger things have happened. What is more nerve-racking still is that you may well be endorsing a manuscript that will be edited after you’ve submitted your endorsement, meaning that the content going to print may be quite different from the content you’ve put your name to.

Different authors have different standards when it comes to writing endorsements. Some go sight-unseen, endorsing a friend’s book without even really reading the content. He knows his friend, he knows his theological position, and on that basis he will write an endorsement even without looking through the manuscript. Other authors are exacting, reading very carefully to ensure that every statement is as precise as it ought to be and even pushing back a little bit, asking the author to make necessary changes before they will put their name to an endorsement. Still other authors may just skim through the manuscript, looking for potential problem areas and reading those quickly even while racing through the rest.

When I began to write endorsements, I was very much in the middle camp—I would read every word of every sentence and would do so carefully. This is what I was most comfortable with, both for sake of conscience and credibility. I wanted to endorse only really good books and ones that were free of any theological error or weakness. As time has gone on, though, I’ve found myself spanning the middle camp and the final one. I have found that not every book easily lends itself to a thorough reading (such as a book of written prayers) and not every book depends upon theological precision (such as a biography). And so my early idealism has been undone just a little bit. And yet strangely this occasionally nags at my conscience. Somehow I feel that I cannot rightly write a convicting endorsement without having read every word. And yet if I were to read every word, I could not write more than the very, very occasional endorsement due to the time it would take to read the manuscripts so carefully. I have no desire to be the guy whose name is on every book; at the same time, I do like to say “yes” to these requests when I feel it would be helpful to the author.

At this point I want to ask you, when you read an endorsement, do you suppose that the author has pored over every word? Do you read these blurbs as blanket endorsements of the content, or do you see them as something less significant than that. Realistically, if you were to write endorsements, what camp would you be in?