135 – Developing Courage as a Writer with Guest Thomas Umstattd Jr.

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Developing Courage as a Writer with Guest Thomas Umstattd Jr on Write from the DeepThere are a number of things you have to do to be a writer, and a number of attributes you need to develop. Chief among them? Courage. Without it, your writing will never touch hearts. Let guest Thomas Umstattd Jr. help you develop this essential attribute in your life.

About Thomas Umstattd Jr.

Thomas Umstattd Jr. is a speaker, author, podcaster, WordPress guru, and Christ follower. In 2009 he started AuthorTechTips.com, now AuthorMedia.com, a website to help authors build their platforms and sell more books. The site was twice featured in Writers Digest as one of the 101 most helpful websites for authors. As a podcaster, Thomas hosts the popular Novel Marketing Podcast as well as The Christian Publishing Show. He’s the author of Courtship in Crisis, a book which came about through a viral blog post he wrote. Thomas is also an award-winning speaker who teaches all over the world, and he currently serves as the CEO of Author Media.

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Karen: Hey there, we’re venturing into the deep again. We are so glad that you’re here with us, especially because yes, it’s true, we have a guest. Not just any guest! We have the amazing Thomas Umstattd Jr., and I’ll let Erin introduce him. Like he needs it. But I’ll let Erin introduce it.

Erin: I will tell you, it feels like I’ve known Thomas almost as long as I’ve been writing, because I met him at one of my very first writing conferences that I went to. Back then he was building websites, and very well I might say, and helping authors connect with their audiences.

Since then he has become an award-winning speaker. He’s been teaching creative people all over the world how to build their platforms, sell more books, and change the world with writing worth talking about. He’s also authored a book, Courtship in Crisis, and he’s had experience as a literary agent with the Steve Laube Agency.

If that’s not enough, as a podcaster he hosts the Novel Marketing Podcast, which we’ll have a link to, and we recommend that for everyone. He also hosts the Christian Publishing Show, another great show. Right now he serves as the CEO of Author Media. We’re just delighted to have you with us, Thomas. Welcome.

Karen: Welcome!

Thomas: Thanks for having me here. I’m excited.

Erin: Yes, we are too. As we always like to start, what does the deep mean to you today? As things come and go, it might have a different meaning every day. So today, Thomas, what does the deep mean to you?

Thomas: I think it’s anchoring. How deep your roots are. I think about a palm tree, there’s not a whole lot going on above the surface. It’s just a single branch. But underneath, palm trees go about as deep into the sand as they go up. They’re very different from redwoods in that way. Redwood trees don’t go very deep, but they connect to each other. They rely on community for their strength.

Palm trees are able to stand on their own, even in a hurricane. You’ll see a palm tree bent, you know, almost flat with the ground. Then when the wind stops blowing, it pops right back up. Because it’s got that deep root system, even though it’s planted in the sand, which you wouldn’t think of as a strong foundation, but its roots are deep enough to make it work.

Right now life is kind of crazy. Crazy in the world. It’s crazy in my personal life. We’re moving right now, and I’m moving my office. What is deep is what remains when the wind is done blowing.

Karen: Amen.

Erin: I love that. I’ll just say that Thomas has been very brave because he’s moving with his family, little kids. It’s tough to move with little kids, even when you’re not outnumbered yet. You and your wife have two kids, so you’re not outnumbered, but it is still so hard with them being so young.

You’re brave, Thomas, and of course that’s good. I mentioned brave ’cause that’s kind of what we want to talk about with you today, Thomas. We want to talk about courage, and courage for writers. Let’s just start with what do you think courage is? How would you define courage?

Thomas: Courage is being afraid. You can’t be courageous without first being afraid. And there’s a distinction between courage and boldness. Boldness, which you see often in the Bible, the Holy Spirit will come on somebody and they will do something without any fear at all.

There are times in our life when we experience boldness, and some people are bolder than others.

Erin: Karen!

Thomas: Right? Some people are incapable of really experiencing fear. It’s just not a thing that they experience, and that can be its own risk. But other people experience a lot of fear and courage is doing the right thing anyway. It’s not letting the fear control you.

There’s something really special about courage because the easiest way to be bold is to be ignorant of the risk. You have no idea that there was a chasm there, and so you’re walking without fear. Whereas courage is that you know there’s a chasm there, but you’re walking there anyway.

Karen: There’s a terrific book out there that I read a number of years ago called The Courage to Write. The subtitle is How Writers Transcend Fear.

I absolutely loved that book when I read it, because I can tell you probably every single writer that I have worked with has that element of fear and insecurity, and they want to make it better. Yet they feel like they can’t make it better. And how did they beat their last success?

The author, Keys, tells the story of E.B. White, who was an amazing writer. He says that E.B. was a consummate rewriter. He would rewrite things five, ten, twenty, thirty times, and never wanted to let them go. In fact, he wanted to rewrite so much that often after he had mailed the manuscript, he would return so that he could go to the postmaster and ask that they would give him his book back so that he could rewrite some more.

But in addition to being a consummate rewriter, he was a gifted procrastinator. He often managed to avoid the trauma of writing altogether until he had to do it, and he didn’t have any choice. He said that he was the most frightened person in the world. He wrote, “the old emptiness and dizziness and vapors seized hold of me,” when he was trying to write. “Nobody who has never suffered my peculiar kind of disability can understand the sheer hell of such moments.”

All of that is talking about fear and the necessity for courage as we write and share what God has asked us to share.

Thomas: Yeah, procrastination really is often just fear. Sometimes it’s a time management technique that we use to determine if something really needs to be done. Because often we procrastinate things that we never end up doing. We deep down know this task doesn’t need to be done, so we put it off.

But for writers, we know the writing needs to happen. So when we procrastinate, it’s fear and writer’s block, which is a new term. You know what they used to call writer’s block back in the day? Fear.

That’s all it is. Just a fancy term for somebody who’s ashamed of being afraid. They’re like, “Oh, it’s not that I’m afraid to move forward or afraid to write bad words. I just have writer’s block. It’s unique to me and Ernest Hemingway.”

No, it’s just fear. If you want to write, you have to write. No other profession has, you know, dentist’s block or doctor’s block or brick layer’s block, because in those other professions, they have something that casts out their fear, which is another fear: the fear of the boss.

That’s why journalists don’t get writer’s block, right? Because they have real deadlines. The paper is going out. There’s a printing press. It’s going to print the paper at five o’clock. You have to have your article in by four-thirty to get it printed. If not, there are consequences, and that greater fear casts out the lesser fear of writing something terrible.

I’ve noticed something working with authors. Journalists, or people with a journalism background, a real one, where they actually worked at a journalistic outlet, not just a degree, they are faster with writing, and they complain far less about writer’s block because they’ve learned to overcome that fear, because they have a bigger fear of missing the deal.

Erin: What else do you think writers fear? I mean, I’m sure there are lots of things that you could come up with that they fear. Rejection, maybe. I don’t know. But in your working with writers, what do you hear most?

Thomas: There’s two places I see fear really getting in the way for writers. The first is in the writing, which we’ve already talked about. It’s the procrastination.

But it’s more than that. It actually affects the craft itself. There is a fear of offense. Of giving offense and making people mad. Authors who are writing with that fear often fill their writing with so many qualifications and fluff words, or they speak so indirectly that no one understands what they’re saying. They end up taking all of the power out of their craft because they’re afraid. Deep down, they’re afraid to be understood.

If you’re afraid to be understood, you’ll never make it as a writer. The act of writing is all about being understood. You have to be willing to be understood. That requires courage because you will make people angry.

The act of writing is all about being understood. That requires courage because you will make people angry. #amwriting #christianwriter @karenball1 @thomasumstattd Click To Tweet

Especially nowadays, it doesn’t take much for somebody to be like, “Oh, I’m offended.” Okay. That’s nice for you. How is that my problem? You have to eventually get to that point where you’re not letting someone else’s offense control your life.

It does take wisdom. Sometimes there’s some good feedback that comes in. But nowadays, being offended is such a powerful tool of manipulation. Of somebody to manipulate you into being more like them by anything that you do that’s different. Any element of diversity you have that breaks from their way of thinking offends them, and they’re trying to control you. It takes courage to stand up to that.

Erin: What about, when you say that they’re afraid to be understood, isn’t there an element also of rejection there? If they understood me and this is what I truly believe, they can reject that?

Thomas: Yeah. Especially if somebody really identifies with their ideas, where they see them as part of themselves rather than as a separate entity. Some people think of their ideas as this thing that exists. It’s like, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” And it gets criticism, and they’re like, “Oh, I’ll come up with a better idea.”

Other people it’s like, “This idea is me. If you insult my ideas, you’re insulting me.” It can be really scary to put your ideas out there if that’s how you view your ideas as an extension of yourself. You have to decide, “Where do I get my value? Does my value come from having good ideas or does my value come from something else that’s more substantive?”

Because I’ll tell you, you have some really bad ideas. I have really bad ideas. We all have really bad ideas.

Erin: That’s good to know.

Thomas: If that’s your source of psychological validation, it’s going to be a really tough road ahead because one, you’ll either refuse to let your ideas change as you learn, and now you’re not maturing. You’re not gaining wisdom. You’re staying just as stupid and ignorant as you were. And that’s really a terrible way to live, right? ‘Cause we were hopefully gaining wisdom as we grow older.

Or, you’re just feeling terrible because you’re like, “Oh my gosh, everything I knew is wrong,” and you throw it all out and you start over from scratch, which again is not gaining in wisdom.

Erin: Right. Well, and also if somebody is going to reject your writing, at least it forces you to look at those ideas and decide, you know, and think about your ideas again and reconsider them in light of somebody else’s argument. I think those are good things.

What would you say then to the writer who has trouble not necessarily separating themselves from their ideas, but separating themselves from their ability to write? So they’re afraid that they stink at writing. How do you help them with that?

Thomas: Well, you do stink at your writing. If you have that fear, you do. Most people aren’t very good writers. It takes a lot of work to get good. There’s a meme going around TikTok and Instagram right now. It’s like the one wholesome meme of 2021. It’s this: to get good at something, you must practice that thing. Or something along those lines. Then the person’s like, “I tried it once and I was terrible, so I’m quitting.”

No, no. To get good at something, you must practice that thing. The reality is you’re not good at writing, and the way to get better is through practice and through training. You get a mentorship, you read books, and you do the work. It takes a long time to get good at writing. Just embrace it and see it as a thing that you do rather than an identity that you take on.

And evaluate why you got into this in the first place. I notice a lot of people are writing because they want a legacy. They write it because they want to be somebody. Those are often the ones who struggle the most with insecurity.

Whereas if you’re writing because you want to do something, because you want to reach a group of people and you want to minister to those people, you want to get as good as you possibly can so you can minister to your readers as well as you possibly can.

You welcome feedback, and you welcome that criticism because it allows you to minister better. That mindset of “Am I in this for me or am I in this for others?” really affects how you handle feedback.

Karen: I see it a lot also with people who get into it thinking that it’s a good way to make fast money, which shows an unbelievable misunderstanding of what writing and publishing are. But they get into it to make money.

When the contracts don’t come in and agents say no, and editors say no, they then get angry, based on their fear and say, “These people don’t know what they’re doing. I’m just going to self publish.”

Then they jump into self publishing and it doesn’t go anywhere. Then they get angry and discouraged and blame it on everybody else. So it’s about motivation, like you said, “Am I doing this for me or am I doing this for others?” But also what is the purpose from the standpoint of, are you doing this so that you can make money and be famous? If that’s the case, then forget it. It’s not gonna work out that way because if you’re doing that, you’re not going to be willing to be vulnerable. And if you’re not vulnerable, your writing will not touch anybody.

Thomas: There are easier ways to become famous than writing. Writing is a really hard way to be famous.

Karen: It is. It’s a devastating career. It’s one where rejection is part and parcel of the work. In any other career, there is no surgeon that will come and stand next to another surgeon and say, “I really don’t think you should have done that with that particular vein. Now, if I were doing that surgery, this is what I would do,” and come in and change the surgery.

But lots of people will read your book and say, “I could’ve written that better.” So it’s a tough career. It’s tough on your heart and your spirit.

Thomas: Yeah, it’s kind of like being an offensive coordinator in football. Everyone thinks that they can pick good plays, right? On Monday morning, everyone’s criticizing the offensive coordinator for picking the wrong plays. Going back to your example, you know, it is possible that another surgeon might give another surgeon feedback. Like, “Oh, you should’ve done the vein over here.”

But what’s different is that in writing, it’s not the other surgeon that’s giving you feedback, it’s the patient who doesn’t know anything. It’s like, “Hey, I think you did this…” and they’re wrong. They don’t know, and yet they’re the ones who are giving you the feedback, and it’s really easy to judge yourself based off of what they’re saying.

Erin: What would you want to tell to a writer that just, they feel like they want to write, they feel like God’s called them to write, and then they struggle with the self-doubt of, “Oh, I don’t have anything to say,” or “What could someone possibly want to hear from me?”

Thomas: Well, there’s two things that cast out fear, and I want to share those with you. But first I want to go back. If you don’t know what you’re going to say, you’re not ready to start writing.

You’re ready to start practicing your craft, but you’re not really ready to start writing. I really believe you have to have a message. You have to have a story in your heart, and that’s before you’re ready to actually do the work.

It’s kind of like, “I don’t know what sport I want to do in the Olympics.” Okay, you’re not ready for the Olympics yet. But you are ready to start training, right? All Olympians run. All Olympians do weights. So you can do kind of basic training.

But the kind of writer you need to be if you’re wanting to write mysteries is very different than the kind of writer you need to be if you’re writing theological breakdowns of the book of Romans. It’s kind of like on a football team, you have the guys who are skinny and fast and you have the really big guys that are really hard to run around.

Karen: The refrigerator, you remember him? William Perry.

Thomas: The human walls. They serve a different role. As a writer, you need to know if you’re trying to be a human wall or the skinny fast guy, because you train differently depending on what that role is going to be.

If you don’t know what you’re wanting to say, you’re not ready to start writing something for publication. What I would say is write for practice, write short stories, get to know what a good sentence is. Get to know what a good paragraph is. Purge passive voice. Purge adverbs and adjectives.

Karen: Oh, bless you!

Thomas: Really learn how to write well. That’s the first thing I’d say. Now, when it comes to how do you find your courage, how do you cast out fear? The first way I already alluded to: one fear can cast out another fear. You’re on the high dive and you’re afraid to jump off, and then someone cocks a shotgun behind you and says, “Jump or I’ll shoot.” Suddenly jumping isn’t too scary anymore because your assessment of the overall danger has shifted.

Obviously that’s an extreme example, but you know, that is what deadlines mean. In some industries like journalism, deadlines are real. There are real consequences for missing a deadline. In book publishing, there are not real consequences for missing deadlines, at least not any major ones. Often they’re like, they expect the deadline to be missed. I heard a stat that 90% of authors miss their book deadlines.

Karen: I want to stop you for a second. People, don’t hear that as saying, it’s okay to miss deadlines. It’s not. I just want to stress that it’s not okay to miss those deadlines.

Thomas: Yeah, and what I was going to say was that the authors who make a living at their writing, they’re in that 10% who hit their deadlines.

Karen: Yes.

Thomas: When you miss your deadline, you’re subtracting your pay. Let’s say you got a $10,000 advance and your deadline is in two months. That means you’re getting paid $5,000 a month to write your book. You miss your deadline, and now it takes you four months to write your book instead of two months. The amount of money you’re now making per book has been cut by you from $5,000 a month to $2,500 a month.

A consequence of missing a deadline, and part of the reason why your publisher is fine with you missing their deadline is that it may mean that they don’t have to pay you quite as quickly. They get to pay you with next month’s money instead of this month’s money.

If you really want to be a professional, if you want to be able to provide for your family, it means hitting your deadlines. Once you get really good and really popular, there’s a whole series of things that need to happen.

I was talking to Jerry Jenkins and he was talking about how, when he was doing the Left Behind books, they had trucks that had been reserved to take shipments of books from the printer to the warehouse. If he missed his deadline, there were truck drivers who were getting paid to do nothing. There were real consequences to him missing his deadline. If you want to get to that level, you have to be faithful in the little things.

So, fear is one way of casting out the other fear. It’s probably the most common way amongst authors, where the fear of the deadline or fear of something else, creates some consequences for them.

But in the Bible we’re given something else that can cast out fear. You know what it is. It’s love. The better that you love, the less fear you will have. If you can fall in love with your readers, if you can write your book out of love for your reader, it will make the fear go away.

I don’t know if you can love perfectly. I don’t think I can love perfectly. Maybe you can with supernatural help. But if you can, the Bible tells us it casts out all fear. Then suddenly it’s no longer courage, it’s boldness. You’re not having to work in the midst of fear, you’re having to work without fear.

Love is a really powerful thing. Loving your reader, but also loving God. If you feel like God has called you to do this, then do this. Do your writing as an act of worship and as an act of love.

Karen: I’m going to take us back to the causes of fear. I think there’s an extra added cause nowadays, and that’s the whole idea of being canceled. I don’t want to get into politics, but we are seeing it in social media, we’re seeing it in publishers who are canceling contracts with authors because the books that they want to write have a conservative focus to them.

I’ve been hearing writers talking recently about, “Yes, but how can I write that now? Because if I write that, no publisher will ever want to touch me, or the readers will come after me, or it’ll get my name on some list and the government will come after me.”

We used to look at those as conspiracy theories, but those kinds of things are actually happening now. I understand the source of that fear, but Isaiah 43:1 has this to say:

“But now this is what the Lord says, he who created you, Jacob–he created you as a writer, he created you to do the task he gave you–He who formed you, Israel. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have summoned you by name. You are mine.”

If that fear comes and it hits you when you think about writing God’s truth in the crazy world that we’re in today, remember that God doesn’t call you to back away from the hard things. He calls you to speak his truth however he is moving you to do it. Don’t pull away from doing that. Don’t let fear stop you from serving God and writing something that can change people’s lives and help them as they face their own fears.

Remember, he has summoned you by name and you belong to him.

Thomas: That’s really good. And remember that our love for God can cast out fear, but also our fear of God can cast out fear.

Karen: Amen.

Thomas: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and it also can become an all consuming fire.

Erin: Yeah. I agree with you, Thomas. I think sometimes we have a God that’s just a little too friendly in our mind, you know? And we’ve forgotten that he’s holy, and that he’s righteous, and that he has the whole world in his hand and the whole universe. Sometimes we forget to fear. We forget to reverence that. I totally agree.

Karen: Deuteronomy 31:6 is a great scripture to close out this segment. It’s about remembering where your fear belongs. I love the scripture that you shared Thomas about the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but Deuteronomy 31:6 was what he said to those building the temple.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them,”–whatever that them is for you in your life, don’t be afraid or terrified of them–“for the Lord your God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you.”

He hasn’t put you on this path to write, and then he’s not going to say, “Oh, you’re afraid? Okay, well, never mind. I’ll find something else for you because I didn’t realize how scary this would be for you.”

God knows every aspect of what’s happening in your life, in your career, in your writing. He knows every aspect of what’s happening in your heart and your spirit, and he tells you to be strong and courageous in him.

Fear him with wisdom, but don’t be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Friends, you can write. You can do anything that God asks you to do because he’s right there with you. He’s right there beside you. He’s breathing his courage into you and you can rest in that.

Erin: Amen.

Thomas: Amen.

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

What aspects of being a writer require the most courage from you?

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2 comments

  1. Such a great episode! Fun fact – I learned about “Write From the Deep” by listening to Thomas Umstattd, Jr.!! I’m always encouraged by your words, and thank you for what you do for writers who really are trying to delve into the deep with God!

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