How the ABCs of Recovery and Resilience—and The Lord of the Rings—Saved My Sanity After Spiritual Abuse

I have long intended to write more about what I’ve come to call “the ABCs of recovery and resiliency”—Arts, Beauty, Creativity. In my studies of forms of abuse since 2007, I’ve frequently noticed these ABCs showing up in profiles of survivors of abuse, and in people involved in resistance against evil. Even in the most extreme situations of control and violence, forms of media emerge as a source of comfort, solidarity, inspiration.

I will have much more to say about some of the case studies I’ve come across. But, on this first day of 2023, I have an initial story of my own interactions with the ABCs to share … and how The Lord of the Rings saved my sanity after severe spiritual abuse 20 years ago.

The Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres in December 2001. It may surprise you that, at that time, I had not yet read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy! As a novice immersing into Middle-earth, I remember the movie being hard for me to follow. So many characters and places and plot points, and the names Sauron/Saruman being so similar—and which was who again?

It was daunting. I asked a lot of questions of friends who knew their Tolkien well. Still, the journey of Frodo and the Fellowship inspired me to read The Lord of the Rings while awaiting The Two Towers, Peter Jackson’s next installment in December 2002. There was something deep here which tugged at my spirit, broadened my perspective, opened my emotions. Although I’d wished I’d read LOTR sooner than age 46, I was glad I finally had!

It turns out, I moved from Marin County, California, to Austin, Texas, in the autumn of 2003. This was to join a group of friends two decades younger than me who wanted to experience living in community. Among them were Shannon and Jessica, who’d been prime movers of my starting to blog, and Nathan and Amy, Erika, Laura, Stacy, and TK. We’d all been at the milestone WabiSabi event earlier that year, exploring authentic ways to connect with people like us who could be described as “cultural postmoderns.”

I was thankful to be there—not just to be in community, but to recuperate. I had recently exited from the founding team of a church plant that had turned worse than sour. It had proved downright toxic! I’ll have much more to say about that some other time. But, for now, I’ll just say the stress of that entire two-plus year situation depleted my already broken health even further. Right after the move, I could hardly walk more than a few hundred yards without being totally tuckered out. Sleep and rest often added up to more than 12 hours a day. I was a wreck!

But the time in Austin was healing—for body, soul, and spirit. LOTR played a memorable role in that, both then and later. In December 2003, our entire household went on opening night to see the finale of the trilogy: The Return of the King. We were excited for the event, as themes from LOTR had been a regular topic of conversation. (TK even went dressed as Arwen, in a spectacular burgundy and gold costume she’d made just the day before.) And we were not disappointed. Our whole row whooped and hollered and clapped at the film’s conclusion!

I didn’t know at the time, but The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy would become a strong source of solace and encouragement for me when I returned to California in the autumn of 2004. I was still dealing with the crushing impact of spiritual abuses experienced in that church plant, and, unfortunately, ended up in another church ministry that turned out likewise to be manipulative and malignant. How could I cope with serial spiritual abuse situations?

Something subliminal from deep in my previous experiences of abuse drew me then to LOTR for recovery and resilience, just as other forms of media had before. For instance, I had worn out several sets of Handel’s The Messiah on cassette tapes after a devastating church split in the 1970s. A cross made of nails from the Coventry cathedral destroyed in World War 2 had been a point for reflection after another disastrous ministry experience. And I had cycled through the Broadway soundtrack of Les Misérables over and over during that horrific church plant.

All of these somehow touched memories and opened emotions that had been harmed by abuse. I couldn’t predict what type of media would do this, but came to trust that something would serve to unlock my longing for arts, beauty, and creativity.

Anyway, I started watching the entire LOTR trilogy on DVD repeatedly. At first, the shorter theatrical version satisfied my longing for the ABCs. But, oh! The extended edition with almost 11 and a half hours of following the Fellowship! That became my main go-to free-time selection for the next five years.

I’m certain I’ve watched the trilogy at least 250 times in 20 years, and there was a time when I could quote every line. But “enduring” the epic most often felt like slogging through Middle-earth in real time. I didn’t always enjoy the experience—but if the Fellowship could endure such suffering and still overcome various impacts of evil, then perhaps there was hope for me, too.

What else drew me in?

  • The creativity and complexity of Tolkien’s story.
  • The loyalty, bravery, and resiliency of characters.
  • The operatic quality of the emotions-opening score.
  • The brilliant artisanship shown in creation of multiple cultures.
  • The beautiful depictions of nature and showing the importance of earth-care stewardship.
  • The decisive-moment perfection of photography that captured the poignancy and peril of the fight by the free peoples of Middle-earth to overcome evil.
  • The evocative truths of “eucatastrophe”—that an unexpected, providential turn of events can lead to positive outcomes when it appears all is doom and destruction.
  • The echo of biblical realities that evil will eventually be unmade and its consequences undone, often by God working through weak and marginalized people to overcome the privileged and proud.

It has been months since I last watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These days, I generally only watch a few hours (one of six discs) at a sitting. And I have been watching it this New Year’s weekend. It reminds me of a poem I wrote in 2003 after my first completion of The Lord of the Rings: “I Want to be Like Gandalf …” I’ve just updated it slightly to post here in celebration of 2023’s 20-year anniversary of the movie trilogy. I hope you enjoy it … and that, this year, you find the unique ABCs of recovery and resiliency that inspire and equip you toward deeper healing, higher aspirations, and enduring fellowship.

I Want to be Like Gandalf @ Brad Sargent 2023


Book Review: *Celebrities for Jesus* by Katelyn Beaty

A vital resource for diagnosing toxic evangelical celebs and their harmful ministry platforms.

As a futurist, I’m attuned to how generational dynamics play into transformation for individuals, institutions, and populations. My work includes scanning cultural horizons for emerging troubles and trends, patterns and possibilities, that affect preferable ways forward. The roots of over-relying on celebrities in evangelicalism go back 150 years. Such deep-seated paradigm flaws will take several generations minimum to fix.

We’ve seen the seeds of breaking through this stagnancy in the growing abuse survivor and deconstruction movements. Will we undertake the challenge to change our reliance on those “known for well-knownness”? Celebrities for Jesus is a first-rate field guide to equip us for discerning our best pathway ahead.

In recent years, we’ve seen a steady release of excellent books on identifying and dealing with aspects of systemic abuse in Christian settings. These new resources significantly advance our understanding of abuse as survivors, those who support and counsel them, and leaders who seek to create constructive ministry spaces. Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty is the best yet for spotlighting the distinctive problems of toxic celebrities in evangelical Christianity.

In it, she defines celebrity as “social power without proximity.” Celebrities for Jesus examines the dynamics feeding into misuse of power in evangelical circles. Beaty—formerly a Christianity Today managing editor and now a book acquisitions editor—gives us a 150-year history of how evangelicals, media, and celebrityship became a thing so that now, “Celebrity is a feature, not a bug, of the contemporary evangelical movement.” She offers memorable concept frameworks for understanding the inner workings of celebrity power, platforms, and personas; and how these make avoiding accountability far too easy for them.

She also considers the fandom side of these issues, unveiling what’s underneath questions like:

  • How do those we fawn over turn us into pawns?
  • Why do we grant influence over ourselves to people we don’t/can’t personally know—even if we feel we know them because of the image they project?
  • Do Cool People Christians really make our beliefs more culturally relevant and Jesus more personally attractive?
  • What happens to Christianity’s image if they fail and fall?

Beaty’s research is meticulous; her writing style, accessible and personable. She masterfully interweaves details from abuse survivors and academic experts, news reports and personality profiles, and both secular and Christian pop culture. She includes insights from trauma psychologists, sociologists, historians, counselors, denominational leaders, and more—plus illuminates her astute analysis with theological principles and practices for discerning toxic situations and developing safer/healthier ones.

Her descriptions and diagnostics are relevant to all theological/cultural rivers in Christianity. But, she maintains her promised focus by illustrating issues across multiple streams that feed into the river of evangelicalism. I was especially impressed with how Beaty navigates the unfortunately wide range of abusive evangelical celebrities. She selects an insightful set of negative examples that are not just among the most prominent (and widely destructive) in recent years, but that typically have yielded years to decades of documentation exposing specific tools and tactics each used in their particular forms of misconduct and in silencing their victims.

I also deeply appreciate the new perspectives I learned from her chapter on persona. These include dynamics of (self-)deception and how the inner workings of “character splitting” and “parasocial relationship” set celebrities up for isolation and adulation.

As Beaty herself has stated, the emphasis in Celebrities for Jesus is on problem diagnosis. However, she does use the last two chapters to explore practical solutions. In them she shows the value of everyday discipleship, serving with humility, laboring in obscurity. She touches upon these themes in earlier chapters, making her concluding section a hope-filled springboard for applying all that she has shared.

Full disclosure: I received a digital Advanced Reader Copy of Celebrities for Jesus for being on Katelyn Beaty’s book launch team.

*   *   *   *   *

Some potent quotes from Celebrities for Jesus.

*Celebrities for Jesus* by Katelyn Beaty, Available for Preorder!

Celebrities for Jesus, by Katelyn Beaty

I’ve been following Katelyn Beaty on Twitter for a while now, and that’s where I found out about her forthcoming book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church. It will be published in August by Brazos Press.

This hits many topics that I’m interested in. I applied to be on Katelyn’s launch team and am grateful to have been accepted! Over the last 50 years, I’ve survived five severe situations of spiritual abuse in churches, ministries, and Christian non-profits–several of which were connected with celebrity preachers. The first (late 1970s) was at a time when there would not be books on identifying and recovering from spiritual abuse for another 15 years. So, resources for survivors has long been a priority.

I’ve also been developed case studies of malignant leaders and their toxic systems for the last 15 years, and am highly concerned about how UNqualified and DISqualified individuals keep getting platformed–especially in church planting systems.

So much toxicity that needs to be brought under Kingdom klieg lights and aired out to prevent future abuses–insofar as possible! From her insightful presence on Twitter, I felt Katelyn’s book would make a significant and timely contribution to practical resources about safe versus sick leaders and platforms.

I’ll be reviewing Celebrities for Jesus soon, and want to encourage you to preorder a copy. You’ll receive a link to download Chapters 1 and Chapter 2 within one business day of filling out the preorder form.

Also, consider following Katelyn on social media for more insights on these relevant topics.

Here are more info and links.

Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church

Preorder link:

Publisher’s page link:

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Big Things for God
1. Social Power without Proximity
2. The First Evangelical Celebrities
3. Megachurch, Megapastors
Part 2: Three Temptations
4. Abusing Power
5. Chasing Platforms
6. Creating Persona
Part 3: The Way Up Is Down
7. Seeking Brand Ambassadors
8. The Obscure Messiah and Ordinary Faithfulness

Katelyn Beaty

Publisher’s profile page link:

Katelyn’s website:




Hashtags to Watch For



A “Welcome Home” Hug (1989)

A “Welcome Home” Hug

© 1989 Brad Sargent

First published in Time Out! A Men’s Devotional (Evergreen Publications).

… God Himself will be with them and shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death shall be no longer, nor mourning, nor crying, nor any further pain, because the former things have passed away.  Revelation 21:3-4, Revised Berkeley Version

I knew little more about Dave than two crucial facts, told to me by Charlie, a mutual friend: Dave’s wife of several years drowned in a river-rafting accident 10 weeks earlier, and Dave committed his life to Christ that same day.

I dialed nervously. The phone at the other end started ringing. I can’t believe I’m doing this, Lord! If he’s not there by six rings, I’m hanging u–


“Hi.  Is this Dave?”


“Well, Dave, you don’t know me, but my name’s Brad …”

Now, I’m as fidgety about dealing with death as the next person, but somehow I knew God wanted me to reach out to Dave. So, I phoned and invited him over for coffee. Not until his third visit did Dave share the traumatic details of Nan’s drowning. Numbed, all I could do was listen, something Dave later told me few others had been willing to do.

God continued to tie our lives together through many conversations, shared meals, hymn sings, garnet digs, helping each other pack and move.  All this time I watched and listened and prayed for healing for Dave.

Gradually, God replaced grief with wholeness. Two years after Nan’s death, Dave stopped wearing his wedding band. Two more years and he finally showed me photographs of her. Nearly two years later, Dave was dating Kerri, a wonderful woman from his home fellowship group. Dave phoned me a few months later – asking if I would be best man at their wedding!

On December 31st we stood side by side in our tuxedos. Because of our history as friends, the entire ceremony triggered deep emotions for me.  Holding back the tears proved difficult. Finally the wedding party recessed down the aisle. I looked Dave in the eyes, smiled despite the lump in my throat, and hugged him while our tears flowed freely. That hug was my way of telling him, “You’ve been restored, Dave!  Welcome home, buddy!”

Jesus watches and listens and prays for us as we go through various sufferings. What a comfort – we can tell the Great Physician all the things no one else cares to hear and He dispenses the healing balm we need. And I envision when the time comes to pass into His presence, He will reach out, clasp us close to Himself, and gently whisper, “My child, you’ve passed the test!  Welcome home!”

Thank You, Lord Jesus, You remain with me through my trials on earth and are there in person to welcome me home to heaven.  Help me remember that suffering is temporary, but joy is eternal.  Amen.

Conducting a Pastoral Search: Questions and Preparation for the Team

In a tweet posted July 29, 2021, Lori K asked for crowdsourcing on resources for pastoral searches. This blog post shares several threads I tweeted in response. I have removed tweet numbers and edited and expanded the threads slightly to improve clarity.

What are some good resources out there that church leadership should read before beginning a pastor search? Helpful info on things to watch out for, red flags to look for, good questions to ask..ect.


Issues Related to Abuse and Trauma-Informed Ministry

Here are some thoughts and questions from my perspective of involvement with church planting and social enterprises and church planter candidate assessor, plus my work as a spiritual abuse survivor-advocate-resource developer.

I appreciate the composite of figuring out “healthy” plus weeding out “toxic.” [See Part 2 for my reasoning for why I start with “unhealthy.”]

I would ask potential pastoral candidates to define “spiritual abuse” and detail their approach to how they would intervene when malignant leaders or congregants are abusing others.

Then, detail their approach for how they would disciple a congregation to prevent abuse in its many forms.

Define “healthy” for Christian individuals and institutions, and detail their approach for developing sustainably healthy ministries and congregational life in the long run.

I’d have the above issues on a preliminary questionnaire, which means a pastoral search/pulpit committee must know their perspective beforehand.

For candidates who make the cut to an in-person interview, I’d suggest a series of follow-up questions on trauma-awareness. The decision-makers need to see viable candidates’ body language plus facial expressions and hear their tone of voice as they respond to these questions—because these questions might shock or surprise a candidate (though they shouldn’t).

Define “clergy sexual misconduct.”

Summarize the laws and legal requirements in our state regarding:

  • clergy and counselor sexual misconduct
  • mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse
  • sex and “consent”

What sources do you use for researching current information on these issues?

I’d have a block of questions to probe interviewees’ experiences with associations and actions that abuse survivors-advocates-bloggers have identified as warning signs. “Tell us your thoughts about …”

  • use of non-disclosure agreements/NDAs
  • church discipline
  • church membership covenants/contracts
  • your “ideal” for leadership structures in the congregation * #MeToo movement and Christian parallels
  • what are boundary lines between legitimate pastoral care and influence, versus “overlording”
  • how leaders must handle allegations of abuse (any form) and what should instigate an independent investigations
  • what should a genuinely “independent investigation” into personal and institutional responsibility for reported abuses look like
  • what constitutes genuinely “biblical” counseling and pastoral care, contrasted with forms that abuse survivors have identified as (re-)traumatizing
  • interpersonal and institutional “reconciliation” that avoids flaws that abuse survivors have noted regarding Christian arbitration, conciliation, mediation

If interviewers/committee members don’t have answers themselves to these issues, are they ready to discern how knowledgeable and equipped candidates are to deal with spiritual toxicity in the congregation?

I may later suggest questions on the more constructive side of building healthy church. But these issues and questions about abuse and toxicity come mostly from the compilation I posted on some history plus core concerns of abuse survivors/advocates over the last 15 years that I’ve been part of it. The constructive side questions come more from church planting/assessing experiences.


Reasons Why I Put Understanding of Abuse/Toxicity Issues Before Plans for Growth/Health

Great list! I’ve thought asking to define (several things) great weeding out tool. Everything here should comprise a required seminary class

I’ve been developing an intermediate introduction that could be used at the college and seminary level. It starts with how to identify and deal with malignant people and toxic systems–then goes into how to build collaborative organizations and partnerships, using systems that are

  • safer
  • suitable for the people involved
  • culturally sensitive
  • match the scale of resources already in the context/neighborhood
  • can survive trends that no one can control (like generational shifts)
  • are holistically sustainable.

For some background on these six elements of stewardship, see section Essentials #9 – Six “S” Indicators of “Success” in Field Guide “Essentials.”

I start with the so-called “negative” for good reason. In working with church planters and social entrepreneurs over the last two decades, my sense is that they’re so focused on getting their start-up off the ground that they are especially vulnerable to it being hijacked by people with toxic agendas. So, if you can’t discern toxicity yet, it is not a great idea to do a start-up, or to attempt transitioning an existing church, ministry, or non-profit.

Similar reasoning goes into my questions aimed at figuring out where pastoral candidates currently are in knowledge, experiences, and wisdom on personal and systemic abuse dynamics. Do those first. If candidates are deficient in understanding about systemic abuse and toxicity, are they adequately prepared to facilitate congregational leadership for “health”? Or would this job situation just become a place for them to experiment with implementing whatever good *theories* they have about how church/organization should ideally run? Getting someone as a congregational facilitator/leader who is merely a theoretician about abuse is a setup for potential (probable?) disaster.

Here’s the overview of that series of Field Guides, the thinking behind it, and probable components. I’m not writing it for a Christian-only context. This forces me to use common-ground language and metaphors that work across communities.


Temperament Indicators are Insufficient for Detect Character-Deficient Candidates

Another Lori, whose tweets are set for limited viewing so I am not linking to her tweet here, commented on the thread with questions for candidates and prep-work for pastoral search team members—which apply to church planter candidate assessments as well. She noted reading @chuckdegroat‘s When Narcissism Comes to Church, and seeing “a need for new systems that start with prevention.”

My response brought up the need for a rigorous psychological evaluation of candidates for pastoral and church planter roles.

Thanks, Lori–many see the need for a new paradigm in church leader/planter assessment. Deep discussions of this came up during launch of @chuckdegroat‘s #WhenNarcissismComesToChurch, including need for psychological evaluation, conducted by a trained professional. A mere Myers-Briggs temperament will not tell you what you need to know about probable narcissism or other character issues that are disqualifications of the candidate from roles of influence and ministry.

The following link goes to a compilation of my study notes on Chuck DeGroat’s excellent book, When Narcissism Comes to Church. That page includes discussion on leader qualification assessment criteria.

Search for “Ridley” and you’ll find links to other posts that discuss or detail Dr. Charles Ridley’s assessment systems for church planter candidates, using experience-/behavior-based evaluation criteria, and more that would be helpful to pastoral search teams. His research work on what constitutes a most probably “successful” planter is based on more of a conventional business model of ministry, where the candidate is more of a vision caster who motivates and influences followers. I would suggest his criteria need to be turned inside out to accommodate the more current embodiment-based model of ministry, where the candidate is more of a vision carrier who role-models and informs/equips those he/she collaborates with. (Eventually, when time/energy allows, I plan on editing and posting an extended essay I wrote 20 years ago on what I see as this necessity for a completely revised paradigm of assessment, based on research using radically different assumptions about what constitutes “success” in ministry leadership.)

Futuristguy Resource Article Downloads

I’ve been teaching myself Adobe InDesign, to develop templates for: (1) PDF articles drawn from ~20 years of blog posts and (2) my forthcoming Field Guides on identifying/dealing with abuse and developing safer organizations/collaborations.

If all goes to plan, I’ll post articles periodically, on deconstructing issues of toxic individual and institutions, and on constructive building of intercultural, missional ministries.

Many of these articles represent first drafts of the more developed content in my Field Guides. Also, the article format is still in process, and my work on graphics is still clunky. Still, I hope you’ll find these pieces from the Futuristguy archives helpful.

JULY 28, 2021. For the inaugural PDF, I’m posting my “Pyramid of Abuse and Scale of Accountability.” This particular article has probably been the most often referenced piece I’ve produced. It’s based on my having found myself in five major situations of spiritual abuse in churches, parachurch ministries, and Christian non-profits. These totaled about 20 years out of the last 50 since I became a born-again Christian. It’s gone through several updates, and I’ve edited it slightly for this PDF.

I plan to expand upon the material here in my forthcoming Futuristguy’s Field Guide #1 (no date set yet). That will likely include descriptions of those five experiences, and what it was like being in almost all of these various pyramid roles. I will detail some of the accountability issues and long-term negative consequences that were experienced by the main abusers of their positions of power, and show how pyramids of several organizations connect to form larger platforms and “industrial complexes.” And I’ll recommend movies and other media I consider key “practice sessions” for readers to identify malignant people and toxic systems in their situations.

* * * * *

AUGUST 28, 2021. Readers on Twitter have indicated interest in issues of institutional dynamics and what constitutes an “industrial complex.” So, I put together sections from three source articles and one case study for this article on Toxic Institutional Dynamics. Contents include:

  • Describing Systems and Systemic Abuse
  • Seven Elements in Social/Organizational Systems
  • Devolving from an Open System to a Closed Industrial Complex
  • Mutually-Benefiting Platforms and Pushback by Those Victimized
  • Focusing in on Five Platform Element Clusters in an Industrial Complex
  • An Example of My Process for Detecting the Pieces
  • Sources for this Article [links to earlier posted versions]

Toxic Institutional Dynamics (c) 2021 Brad Sargent v8

* * * * *


Looking for Feedback on Readability of this Article Format

I’d appreciate your feedback on the readability of the format for the article below, my Pyramid of Abuse and Scale of Accountability. I have been plugging away at developing a template to use for PDF print articles from some of my blog posts. I like what I’ve come up with overall, but also know there are some goobers in it and that it would benefit from reader feedback. For instance:

Do you find the format easy to read?

Do the typefaces in the main text feel like they match with one another?

Is there enough spacing between lines, and enough (or too much) white space between sections and around graphics?

Are different levels of subheads easily identified?

Are the colors a help or a distraction?

Those are the kinds of reactions that will help me get my template in better shape.

Once I’ve adjusted the format for better readability, I hope to post a series of printable articles from some of my major blog pieces.

Here is the prototype article. Thanks in advance for taking a look at it and offering your opinions!

Bitter Fruit: Dysfunction and Abuse in the Local Church, by Keith Gordon Ford

Bitter Fruit: Dysfunction and Abuse in the Local Church, by Keith Ford, is set to release in late June of 2021. I wrote the following endorsement quote:

Experiencing a traumatic four-way church split in the 1970s brought on a crisis of faith. Was Christianity false—or was something desperately wrong with that toxic church’s leading, teaching, structuring? There were no books on spiritual abuse recovery until 15 years later. I know now Bitter Fruit by Keith Ford is exactly the kind of solid overview of abuse symptoms, sources, systemic solutions, and health sustainability I needed then, and that the Church needs now! ~ Brad Sargent – author of “futuristguy” blogs and case studies on spiritual abuse.

I recommend Keith’s book as essential reading for abuse survivors, advocates, church leaders, and everyday disciples. Distilled from his extensive ministry experience plus deep reflection on experience of spiritual abuse, Keith Ford provides us a solid theoretical and practical introduction to abuse by individuals and institutions.

He gives a broadband overview of abuse identification, recovery, and prevention issues. I especially appreciate how Keith integrates multidisciplinary insights on symptoms, sources, systemic solutions, and sustainability with the memorable biblical metaphor of abiding in the vine.

Abuse survivor communities have been blessed by a wave of transformative, systems-oriented books the past year. They’ve helped us in our understanding and recovery. Glad to add Bitter Fruit especially to share with our support networks and those ready to understand & stand with us!

A great theological resource and intermediate-level introduction to systemic abuse. Here’s the Amazon Kindle book page, where you can check out a sample, plus review the table of contents and how Keith weaves together key topics and the vine metaphor.

Here’s the Wipf and Stock publisher’s page for Bitter Fruit: Dysfunction and Abuse in the Local Church. Read it, savor it, reflect on what it means to bear sweet fruit instead of bitter … and what to do about toxic/bitter-fruit individuals and institutions.

“Let’s Build a Book!” A Step-by-Step Process that Worked Well for Me

(c) 1995, 2009 Brad Sargent

Someone I follow on Twitter asked, “How do you write a book?” This is a process I’ve added to and adapted over the years for various kinds of non-fiction writing, script projects, case studies, poems, and more. Maybe you’ll find ideas here that will work for your projects.

* * *

Writing a book is overwhelming – if we think about everything all at once. How can we break down the writing process into manageable units that ameliorate our anxieties? (Now, that was a mouthful …)

1. Developing a Working Detail Sheet and “Mission Statement.”

  • Title, subtitle, format, target audience, topics, central idea, take-away value, and unique features. (See the handout on “Focus Questions for Writing Your Book Proposal.”)
  • Write your proposal summary, and mission statement goals in terms of what you’d like your readers to think, feel, and do. Keep material that fits with those goals; set aside material that doesn’t. (But don’t throw it away. It can probably be used elsewhere!)
  • Back-cover copy. Try writing a vivid, two– or three-paragraph overview of your book. Try using a snippet from a dramatic personal story, or a provocative question, as a hook. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come out right at first. You’re working on “tone” here, so this exercise helps set the voice and style when writing your book.

2. Brainstorming.

  • Brain dump. For at least 30 minutes, write out everything you can think of that seems to fit with the book you’re writing. Don’t worry about sorting through the ideas – that will come later. Just “download your brain” onto paper so you capture the essence of important thoughts, anecdotes, quotes, resources, etc.
  • Example: I wrote the outline for one book based on brainstorming and writing a pile of notecards, one idea per card, and then sorting them into clusters of related items. I kept the items that didn’t seem relevant during the sort process, and many of them turned up later as relevant.

3. Clustering Concepts and Adding Ideas.

  • Organize your ideas/notes into relevant clusters of related items.
  • Remove items that don’t fit. (But save them!)
  • Revise your project’s “mission statement” if the brainstorming process helps you see that a change is necessary.
  • Use different kinds of dictionaries (synonyms, antonyms, thesaurus, metaphors, clichés) to add ideas and/or cross-pollinate with what you’ve already written.

4. The All-Important First Chapter.

  • “No one has to read a book, so in chapter one we set the hook.”
  • Publishing house editor Al Janssen suggests that in chapter one we need to: “Grab the reader’s attention immediately. Identify with the reader’s felt needs. Establish your credentials as an author – your right to write to them. Clearly identify the benefits/pay-off of reading the entire book. Let people know where you’re going – give them a promise; then keep it!”

5. Do-able Bits.

  • Break things down into manageable units – book into chapters; chapters into major sections; major sections into subsections; odds and ends (bibliography, indexing, study guide questions, etc.).
  • Example: My mentor in editing, Dr. Lalia Phipps Boone, wrote 26 grade school language arts textbooks in her “spare” time by this method. She broke down the project into a bunch of “do-able bits” that would take either 15 minutes or 30 minutes to complete. Then she listed each bit on a separate piece of paper. (For instance, a 15-minute bit might involve writing a list of 30 to 50 possible vocabulary words for a specific lesson. A 30-minute bit might involve writing three or four paragraphs explaining a grammar rule, giving several examples.) In between classes she taught at the university, she’d pull out a piece of paper and finish that bit.

6. First Drafts.

There’s an excellent tip I learned at a writer’s conference years ago. One speaker said that writing is really about rewriting/editing, and that our first draft is ALWAYS bad, no matter how long it took to pump out. So, why not just write that first draft as fast as possible, because it’ll be just as rough from pouring it out in two hours as if you slave over it and start self-editing immediately and it takes us six hours instead. He called the first draft his “Zero Draft” …

7. Fun and/or Provocative Headlines.

  • In your headlines and subheads, try alliteration, rhyming, humor, allusions to classic or pop culture, questions.
  • Our table of contents is important – headlines act as a roadmap for our readers.

8. Color-Coding to Balance Chapter and Paragraph Content.

  • A helpful process is to color code your manuscripts for different kinds of content components. This will let you see if your material is reasonably well balanced for the type of book you are writing and the kinds of readers you expect. (Different readers need different things in order to identify with you as the writer and keep on reading.) For example, use yellow highlight for personal anecdotes, blue for informational content, green for key points or quotes, orange for practical implications or actions, etc. Then lay out the whole manuscript in order on the floor and step back to get the big picture. If you have more than 2 pages in a row of the same color, you’ve lost some of the readers who need the other kinds of features you offer. For instance, you may need a story section about every other page, and a quote or key point bold-faced every second or third page.
  • If you do this process in MS Word with highlighting colors, you can print it out with the “multiple pages” feature so you get the colors more than the text. Try with 4, 6, or 8 pages printed per single sheet of paper and see what color overwhelms the manuscript. Too much story? Too much theoretical information? See, and adjust …
  • This technique can also help with editing paragraphs, and not just pages. Typically, a paragraph should be mostly one color, maybe two – but if there are multiple colors in the paragraph, and each color is not a block of same-color sentences, then it’s very possible that the types or topics are too mixed up to make sense easily to the reader.

9. Editing.

Writing may be more about re-writing than just getting material down on paper for the first time. Once the editing process gets far enough along, then this tip I learned from my friend Christine Tangvald may prove helpful. Christine writes picture books for children. The word counts per page and in the total book are very stringent for children’s picture books. Once she’s got a good draft done, one of the last stages Christine goes through is to take a highlighter and mark every helping verb in the entire draft: is, was, had, have, been, be, will, may, might, etc. Then she goes through each sentence that has a marked helping verb, and she figures out if that sentence absolutely needs that word in it, or whether the sense can be conveyed by a strong verb without any helping verb. She is usually able to cut a significant number of words from the manuscript that way, plus the remaining text is more direct and uses stronger language. This process isn’t as appropriate for academic, professional, or business writing, where the “indirect voice” is often expected. But it’s worth at least one go-through to remove words that are weak or otherwise just padding, or that are just hedging ourselves from coming across as being too certain.

10. File Organizing – Keep a “Leftovers Drawer.”

Whatever you think you need to “discard” from the current project because it doesn’t fit here means it could fit somewhere else. Keep the leftovers for another project on another day.

Book Review: Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It, by Doug Bursch

I’ve lost track of how many years it’s been since I started following Doug Bursch on Twitter – at least  three, probably more. His threads drew me in because I saw in him an engaging, personable, and consistently positive online presence. I’ve seen Doug interact with consideration, kindness, and good humor toward all, even when confusion and conflict were in the mix. He has given us a trustworthy track record of practicing what he preaches. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be reading or reviewing his book about peacemaking on social media.

Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It is well constructed and vividly written. I see Doug’s heart for pastoral care and spiritual formation in how he conscientiously leads us into the difficult terrain that is social media. He presents us with the core problems, carefully defines relevant terms, and summarizes key communication and media theories. He lays out insightful examples – personal, historical, current, biblical – that illustrate both issues and solutions. I especially appreciated seeing how cross-culturally aware and trauma-informed Doug is, as these are core aspects in productive ministries of reconciliation these days.

Doug’s study questions and practical #PostingPeace exercises with each chapter give us a chance to plum our own motives, face our fears, consider customized ways to embrace and embody the better way of Jesus. Posting Peace also keeps in positive tension the needs and challenges in being kind online and not merely “nice” – yet not avoiding conflict, because that often unlocks the way for people to change.

I came away with a strong sense of both the why-for’s and how-to’s of becoming a constructive ambassador of Christ and His Kingdom in the often divisive minefield of social media. The reading experience gave me a clearer picture and concrete ways for how I can do better online in bridging between polarized camps and creating space for those who are opposed. This is a balanced guidebook, full of wisdom for such a time as this, and I highly recommend it!

Disclosure: I received a digital ARC/Advanced Reader Copy and a print book as part of Doug’s launch team.

Posting Peace is available as of today–April 20th. You’ll find links and resources at the InterVarsity webpage.

The InterVarsity Press publisher’s webpage.

Downloadable excerpt of Chapter 1.

Posting Peace Study Guide PDF. Be sure to download the study guide. It’s really well done, dividing the book into 6 sessions of 2 chapters each. “Talking points” summarize each chapter. There are also notes on the practical experiments/experiences to do on social media, and discussion guides.

Doug Bursch’s @fairlyspiritual Twitter handle and #PostingPeace hashtag.