By Brian Davis
The first step in many journeys is often one of wide-eyed wonder—the first-grader’s step up the stairs of a school bus, the step off the elevator to start a new job, the step down the aisle to take a bride or groom, and the step to the altar to meet the Lord. With such journeys, we often have an opportunity to look back and say, “I just had no idea what I was getting into.” Such was my first step in my author’s journey, one of wonder … and ignorance.
About sixteen years ago, I began writing a story for my homeschooled children in order to get them excited about writing. At the time, I was a computer geek who had no desire to pursue writing as a profession or even as a passion. I could string words together coherently, but that was about it. The point was to get the kids writing and to make it fun.
After several weeks into this story, something strange happened. I began enjoying the process … a lot. A fire ignited, one of those burning desires to do something great that was coupled with the innocent ignorance of having no idea what lay ahead. I realized how powerful storytelling could be for communicating spiritual truth, so a spark was born. Although I enjoyed my job as a computer geek, it never provided the soul satisfaction that comes from doing something eternally significant. Writing seemed to be the way to fulfill that desire.
So my first step into the unknown was to attend a critique group session led by (cue gasp) a published author. Since I’m not the type to be awestruck by fame, I took that part in stride, but I truly had no idea what I was getting into.
Soon, I was deep into exploring the industry, going to writers’ conferences, attending CBA conventions, and submitting manuscripts by mail. At every step, I absorbed information, unaware of what my input filters ought to be. Were people offering good counsel or ill-informed counsel? I was often too ignorant to discern.
It didn’t take long for the rejection letters to arrive. I didn’t realize at the time that most of these unsigned notes meant that no one seriously read my proposal, that some weren’t even looked at. They opened my envelope just to get to the SASE. Fortunately, my reaction was to take these rejections as a sign that I needed to get better at the craft rather than to assume that the editors couldn’t recognize a work of genius. So, I bought writing books, kept going to conferences, and practiced day after day.
My focus changed one night when I had a dream about a boy who could breathe fire. As many know, some dreams are just throwaway hallucinations incited by spicy food, but some make an impact. This one was vivid, clear, something I couldn’t shake.
I told my eldest son about it, and he suggested that I write a fantasy novel based on the dream. Knowing I was pursuing becoming an author, he said that if I wanted to communicate my passion for faith in God to young readers in our culture, fantasy was the way to go. After brainstorming with him for a couple of hours, we came up with the fantasy concept that explained how a boy could breathe fire. It sounded crazy at first, but his enthusiasm was contagious. Before long, I was deep into this strange world of dragons transforming into humans and humans with dragon traits.
After about a year, I completed a good first draft and began sending proposals to editors and submitting it at conferences. More rejections filled my mailbox, this time with something more than simple form letters. These often told me that they enjoyed the concept, but the mainstream publishers said the story was too spiritual while the Christian publishers said it was too weird.
By this time in the journey, I knew enough to realize that this might be inaccurate advice. I had learned that fantasy was big among Christian readers, the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings being the obvious examples of beloved series. I didn’t have a starry-eyed belief that mine would become such a big seller, but I did think my stories fit the genre, that readers of faith as well as readers who lacked faith would enjoy them.
So, in spite of the naysayers, I continued reworking and honing the story. I was greatly blessed to meet author Randy Ingermanson, who, in a lengthy session at a conference, helped me polish my style. Rebecca Miller, an editor, blogger, and aspiring novelist, also helped me fine tune the story.
During the seven years I tried to get this dragons idea published, I amassed more than two hundred rejections (which I still have stowed away in a folder). I added more than 20,000 words to the manuscript and greatly altered scenes and characters. The story, if I do say so myself, rocked.
Still, the journey felt like I had come to a brick wall, too high to climb and too wide to go around. This obstacle led me to an extended session of prayer. What was I doing wrong? It seemed that I had done everything—learned the craft, studied the industry, met the right people. What was missing?
During that session, I felt like God was telling me that the missing step was to live what I was writing about. I told a story about young people who went on dangerous adventures. They knew they could die at any moment, but their faith carried them through. In parallel, I had ventured into a writing journey. Yet, what was I risking? If this journey ended in failure, I still had a computer job to fall back on. Was this an exercise in faith? Was I willing to live out the themes I had hoped to inspire young readers with?
Now it seemed that two doors appeared in the brick wall—one said Hero, and the other said Hypocrite. Maybe either one would eventually lead to publication. Maybe not. But only one would lead me down the path of God’s will.
So, what would take me through the Hero door? There seemed to be only one option. I decided to quit my job. With no book contracts or other visible means of support for my wife and seven children, I took the biggest faith-honoring step of my life and opened the Hero door. Was it hard? At times, yes. We had to sell our dream home and live off the equity, renting while waiting for God to move.
After taking that step, I decided to try my hand at nonfiction. I had heard that it was easier to get published in nonfiction if I knew the topic well. What did I know that hadn’t already been written about a million times? Well, it seemed to me that not many people had seven children. Why not write about being a father? They tell aspiring authors to “write what you know,” so since my kids had made me into a pretty decent dad, it seemed to be the way to go. Still, I needed a unique spin. When I came up with one, I set myself to the task.
Less than a year after quitting my job, I went to the Florida Christian Writers Conference with six chapters in hand and met Dan Penwell of AMG Publishers. He liked my idea and offered me a contract. Excited? You bet! I tore into the task with gusto. Although my passion still burned for the dragons story, I decided it could wait on the back burner.
About a month after receiving the contract, Dan came to my home for a visit. During our conversation, he asked what else I was working on. When I told him about the dragons project, he asked to see it, even though AMG had never published fiction, much less fantasy.
After reviewing the manuscript, Dan told me that the editorial staff loved it but that the publication board would probably turn it down because they wouldn’t understand it or know how to market it. He asked me to come to the meeting to pitch the idea myself.
I have since learned that such an opportunity is very rare. Who ever heard of an unpublished author being allowed to pitch his idea to a pub board? I hoped for the best, thinking that God opens unexpected doors to those who take steps of faith. In the meeting, I spoke about my passion for the story and its potential value to readers for about forty-five minutes. When I finished, Dan asked me to leave for a while, maybe see the tourist spots in Chattanooga, and return that afternoon. When I came back, he gave me the good news—acceptance. It seemed that the marketing department decided that if they couldn’t sell the book themselves, they could count on me to sell the remaining inventory from the back of my car.
They likely didn’t realize how close to the truth they were. As soon as the book came out, I embarked on a new journey—promotion. I sent free copies to every middle school librarian in my three-county region and offered to come and speak at no charge. Many schools took me up on the offer, and I gained a following. I expanded my speaking nationwide, including homeschool groups and libraries. Soon, I had readers all over the country excited about my series. They received great reviews and hit bestseller lists, for which I am very thankful.
Yet, I didn’t get into this business to sell books. I wanted to communicate spiritual truths and be a vessel for changing lives. I am thankful that this hope was also fulfilled. Emails and letters began pouring in from young and old alike telling me how God used my stories to increase lagging faith, encourage the faithful, restore families, and literally save people’s lives. It seemed that God had helped many others open the Hero door.
So much has happened during this journey, far too much to include here, so if you want to see more stories, you can jump to the following links: http://www.dragonsinourmidst.com/DimeTwoPennies.pdf and http://www.dragonsinourmidst.com/Autarkeia.pdf.
I began this journey with wide-eyed wonder, and I still feel that same awe. I hope it never fades. Looking back I can see that I have learned a lot, and I trust that the learning will continue. In fact, that was probably the most important lesson, to realize that I had a lot to learn and to be willing to learn it. I was ignorant about many things, including the craft of writing, but early on I decided to seek those with more experience and really listen to their counsel, praying that God would help me know if any advice was faulty.
Even though I received a great deal of technical counsel from experts in the field, the biggest step on the journey was a step of faith. If I was going to do God’s will in the great adventure of writing, I had to live what I believed in. I had to be a hero and not a hypocrite.
I’m sure that kind of decision is fleshed out in different ways by different authors, but, for me, it meant ripping out the safety net and charging ahead, no matter what. This made for a journey fraught with dangerous steps, but that’s what I was writing about. I couldn’t write about such journeys without sharing my characters’ fears and faith. And now that the recent years of my life have been a fantasy story come true, I think I truly am writing what I know.