Monday, September 19, 2016

Sometimes Mr. Midlist gets to... down to Texas and spend three days with his favorite author, shooting guns, smoking cigars, hearing incredible stories, and having unforgettable experiences. Hear more about this trip on the next episode of the Gut Check Podcast.

Praise to our God and arrows to our enemies!


Monday, September 12, 2016

You can do it.

“…You can do anything, anything
They told me not to rap or sing a thing
I failed music; they said, Don’t do it
I put down acoustics and started a movement
If I can do it, you can do it
If you can do it, they can do it
If we can do it, what we doing?
Let’s start moving”

                        -Manfest, “Bounce

Have an awesome day. Do something amazing. Maybe write something amazing.


Monday, August 29, 2016


Not much time to blog today. I #amwriting the YA suspense novel I've told you about.

As I've mentioned before in numerous blogs, interviews, and writing conference talks, I always put together a playlist of music that evokes the atmosphere and vibe of the book. It's not usually my favorite music, but there's something about the aggregate effect that gets me quickly into the right head-space to pick up where I left off.  This book's playlist is just beginning to form, but here is where it stands so far:

Yes, I realize one of these songs was on the Lego Movie preview; my book is very different, I promise. Also, while there are several songs below with nonsense-lyrics, I promise Clinch will be coherent. :)

 The Rend Collective - Create in Me a Clean Heart

Weezer - My Name Is Jonas

Of Monsters and Men - Dirty Paws

I Am They - From the Day

The Boondock Saints - Holy Fool

Plankeye - Open House

Burlap to Cashmere: Chop Chop

Flatfoot 56 - Brotherhood

Avicci - Wake Me Up

Monday, August 15, 2016

Pushstarting a Locomotive

So I read The Secret when it was all the rage because I’m a pastor and I feel like I should keep up to date on the religious trends of our culture. I couldn’t believe how stupid it was. The “Law of Attraction,” which basically says that if you kick out positive vibes to the universe, the universe will deliver positive things back to you, seems like the sort of thing you’d only ever encounter on a sitcom, when a writers’ room is trying (lazily) to establish a character as a flaky, New Age nut.

But people have bought tens of millions of copies. I don’t get it. I mean, it’s one thing if God is rewarding your positivity (although the Christian Scriptures certainly don’t say a peep about that), but . . . the universe? In the words of Don Draper, “The universe is indifferent.” I even find it a little superstitious when Dave Ramsey tells people that having an emergency fund actually makes emergencies less likely to happen (Murphy stands in for the universe in that case).

And yet . . . it was shortly after I decided to start writing again and committed to finishing serializing my book Out of Sardis online (because no publisher wanted it) that the book got a nibble from a publisher who wanted a look at it. Then another possibility opened up. Long story short, the book is off the interwebs and back in play. Coincidence? Maybe. Matthew 25:21 in action? Ehhhh, maybe. Awesome? Potentially.

The fresh excitement of my writing life in general, though, is more explainable. I’m reinvigorated about a number of projects and am working pretty steadily on a YA manuscript that I really believe will be my best book yet. It’s got a slow-burn mystery wrapped up in a rather frantic plot, not unlike The Last Con, but with the addition of a claustrophobic, isolated rural town (which is something I loved about some of Peretti’s earlier stuff). I can’t wait for you guys to read it.

I’ve got no use for Murphy or the benevolence of the Universe, and I know that God doesn't necessarily wait to help us until we help ourselves, but now that I’ve push-started this locomotive once again and it’s picking up speed, the will to write is no longer a precious commodity. I’ve got more than I know what to do with.


Monday, July 25, 2016

When It Rains, It Rains Frogs. Mutant Frogs.

So a few weeks ago, I confessed that I hadn’t been writing. Not for months. But now I’m back like a butterfly tramp stamp. And I’ve got a lot to write. Too much, actually.

It's not like the merciful end to a writer’s block, when the debris sort of sloughs away and the words and ideas start trickling, slowly at first, before picking up speed. Because this was unnatural. My brain had been active, but I had been willfully pushing all ideas back down into my psyche, waiting for certain external things to resolve, publisher-wise. But now that I’m writing again, I find myself somewhat paralyzed by the sheer number of things crying out to be written.

I might liken it to my favorite method of brewing coffee; the Toddy Cold Brew System. This method involves leaving nine cups of water and one pound of coarse-ground coffee in a carafe to brew at room temperature for twelve hours—or longer if you want it stronger. At the bottom is a special filter and a litter rubber stopper to keep the coffee in there, steeping for the designated period. (The result is a delicious, non-bitter coffee concentrate that can be used to make hot or cold coffee or specialty coffee drinks.)

So it’s like I put the stopper in when I stopped writing and this stuff has been percolating for months. And now that I’ve pulled out the stopper, it . . . You know what? Let me switch metaphors.

You know how they say, “When it rains, it pours?” Well, in my case, it's not normal pouring. It’s more like the frogs that rained down on Egypt. As soon as they land, they start jumping around, croaking and looking for attention. These ideas are alive and somewhat angry. Instead of ribbit, they say, “Write-Me.” And they’re not even regular frogs. They’re mutating before my eyes as they jump around!

What I mean by that is, I spent the last week as camp pastor at a Christian camp for 7th and 8th graders. As I was reflecting on some of the peculiarities of Christian camp culture, it occurred to me that it would make a great setting for a Young Adult suspense story. I’ve never written YA, but I actually still read it—both with my son and (certain books by J.D. Fitzgerald, Gordon Korman, and Frank Peretti) for my own amusement. On top of that, I do believe I have a gift for communicating with young people. Without my consent, one of my frogs (a book I’ve outlined and started) mutated before my eyes into a better idea for a YA novel. I sent my agent an e-mail about it and she agreed it’s a good idea. But they all seem like good ideas at the moment.

So the question remains, what to write? I’ve got the Playing Saint sequel, about which I’m jazzed, but which I’ve given up the idea of selling to a major publisher. There’s this semi out-there project, which is trying to morph into a YA novel. And, of course, the reboot of my gritty, urban retelling of the story of Elijah. Not to mention a sort of medical suspense thing I’ve been outlining in really broad terms, working title: Expiration. And two different nonfiction works.

Usually, one of those frogs is croaking far louder than the others; so you write the thing you can’t bear to not write for one more minute. But this time, they’re all hopped up (heh) on Red Bull, ribbiting at full-blast. I’ve been tending to each one in turn, a bit here and bit there. But I really want to attack one project full-force, and soon. Maybe the right answer will suddenly appear in a Writer’s Digest article about the current state of the market or in an e-mail from a reader. Or maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a singular desire to write one of these things and see it through to the end.

Either way, after months of writing nothing at all, it’s a good problem to have.

Update (9/12/16): It's the YA novel. I've used a push broom to corral all the other frogs into a large terrarium and I'm going full-speed on this one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Midlist Monday: Healing a Schizophrenic Brand

Note: If you don't know what Midlist Monday is all about, check out my last post here.

A few years ago, I decided to take the first few steps on the road toward publication. I’d written a few books, some of which a friend and I had put out on our own independent press, but I had one in the chamber that I really wanted to see on bookstore shelves, published by a traditional publisher. I knew it was good enough and I wanted to see how much better it could be with the editing, design, and marketing powers of a deep-pocketed corporation. I also, if I’m honest, wanted to receive a nice fat check before a single copy had sold.

For the uninitiated, this process begins with a whole bunch of “query letters.” The best way to get a book deal is to have a literary agent working hard to get you one. And the way to get a literary agent is through querying. So I started sending letters and copies of my book proposal to agents who represented some of my favorite authors. As is almost universally the case, I received an awful lot of rejections. The helpful ones came with some advice for how I could improve my book proposal or, more often, my “brand.”

I realized quickly that, even though I didn’t realize I even had a “brand,” I did, and it needed some help. The most common thing I heard was that my brand was too broad and diverse. When you googled my name, you found 1. my cheesy smile on the church website and a bunch of sermons, 2. the niche small press, known primarily for snark and satire,which I run with a friend, and 3. a fledgling web presence for Zachary Bartels, suspense author. It was too scattered, I was told. I needed to find a way to unify it or, better, trim it down so that Zachary Bartels’ online presence was largely limited to the suspense writer stuff. I did my best, removing most links and references to my sermons, nonfiction writing, podcast, and satire from my website and social media pages.

Eventually, I did land a great agent, who quickly got me a two-book deal with a major publisher (my first choice, in fact). But now I find myself feeling oddly pigeon-holed, like a type-cast middle aged actor who doesn't necessarily want to stop playing sitcom dads, but also wants to audition for some other roles.

Of course, conventional wisdom says that, if you must branch out to different genres, you should use a pen name. That way you can start cultivating a new brand identity without diluting the one you've already been working on. But conventional wisdom and I are not on the best of terms at the moment. And there are exceptions to every rule. My friend Carrie Stuart Parks has been writing award-winning Christian suspense under the very same name she uses for her instructional art books. Readers seem oddly unconfused by this. Steven James, bestselling suspense author whose endorsement has helped me greatly, has also written kids’ books, devotionals, and nonfiction without a pseudonym. And N.T. Wright, best known for his rather academic writing, uses the (non-)pen name Tom Wright for his popular-level books and commentaries.

At any rate, I’m in the process of re-consolidating my “brand,” as it stands. I’ve added nonfiction and satire to my books page on my website, and I’m currently working on a nonfiction book about pastoring a small church in the midst of a megachurch culture, another satire with my friend (and award-winning author) Ted Kluck, and two (or maybe three) suspense titles, obviously one at a time.

That’s an awful lot, you might be thinking. And you’re right. But more about that next Monday.

To learn more about querying agents and the 
different paths to being published, check out. . .