Zachary Bartels

An award-winning preacher and Bible teacher, Zachary Bartels serves as pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan (, where he lives with his wife Erin and their son. Zachary enjoys film, fine cigars, stimulating conversation, gourmet coffee, reading, writing, and cycling. His debut novel, Playing Saint, has been called an "intrigue-filled thriller" (Library Journal) and was a finalist for the 2015 Inspy and Carol Awards. His followup, The Last Con (HarperCollins Christian Fiction) "will leave readers stunned" (RT Book Reviews). You can find more information about Zachary (as well as follow his blog, twitter, and facebook) at

Author By Night

(Not) Writing in the Cracks of Life

It’s dangerous to be a writer when you have a flexible day job. And yet my wife and I are both in that boat. I’m a pastor. She’s a copywriter for a publisher, and works from home all-but-one day a week. And we’re both novelists. We started out writing for fun, of course. Now we’ve got agents. There are contracts and deadlines. Sometimes that takes the romance out of the whole “writer” ideal, but not often. Not if we can help it.

Almost every radio interview I’ve done and almost every panel I’ve sat on has eventually posed the question, “How do you find time to write? Don’t pastors work, like, sixty hours a week?” (Aside: they say this, but it occasionally slips out that people secretly think we only work for an hour each week, Sunday morning). My answer has become rote (ha! Baptist preacher pun!): we write together and hold each other accountable.

When I was nearing the home stretch of what would become my first published novel, Playing Saint, my wife Erin was at a similar point with her work-in-progress, and we were both writing every night without fail. It was cold up here in Michigan and we would put our then-four-year-old to bed, build a roaring fire, and type away into the night. We finished our manuscripts in a marathon session, the boy having been sent to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a few nights. There is little more satisfying than finishing a novel, switching laptops with your best friend, and reading through each other’s work.

But I said it’s “dangerous” to pursue writing when you make your own hours because sudden inspiration is no respecter of schedules, appointments, Wednesday night services, wedding rehearsals, or the like. My muse doesn’t even respect publisher deadlines, so why would she care if I’ve got to prepare for an elders meeting tonight? That being the case, the temptation is always there when inspiration strikes, to drop everything and write, write, write! That’s what they tell you to do. And some authors (I’m tempted to say “real authors”) can afford to do that. But I can’t. And so I found myself trying to sort of slalom the space between church work, editor’s deadlines, and everything else, keeping the muse with me all the while, for when I could fit her in.

To that end, I began carrying this fifteen-year-old antique of a battery-powered word processor (called a “Dana”) with me everywhere I went. It was perfect, in theory, because it does not connect to the Internet and, therefore, is free of digital distractions like e-mail and twitter. It holds eight documents at a time, and I’m usually working on a book, an article, a sermon, and some kind of elaborate project idea on any given day.

But here’s the thing: as the deadline began to loom for my second novel, The Last Con (think Oceans Eleven meets The Da Vinci Code meets a short-term youth missions trip), I wasn’t making the kind of measurable progress I’d hoped for via little increments tapped out during downtime. More important things, either real (my wife and son, my pastoral responsibilities) or perceived (twitter and facebook updates), were always there to distract. I needed to get away from all the diversions and get some real momentum going. (Yes, I realize that all the writing blogs say to get up at 5 AM to write. I’m sure if I met those bloggers, I’d find them to be likeable, but as a faceless mass, I struggle with hating people who can be productive at 5 AM, because I am not one of them.) The Last Con

And so the wife and I decided to reprise (and, indeed, one-up) our previous writing arrangement. This time, we took a kind parishioner up on her offer to use her “cabin” on the lake (I threw some quotes around “cabin” because the place is about twice as big as our house!), only instead of going in July to enjoy some boating and lakeside lounging, we went in February, stoked the fireplace, and again wrote like animals.

We were able to forget all those little things vying for our time and attention. The stresses of work and home; coordinating rides to school, church, and karate (my seven-year-old knows six ways to kill you with just his thumbs)— all of it melted away and we were able to get into the heads of our protagonists and the worlds of our stories and create. Honestly, there’s nothing like it.

I still carry the Dana with me everywhere I go. Some people have accused me of being a hipster because of it (apparently that was a thing—hipsters and vintage electronic devices) and others (namely, writers) know it means I’m an author, hoping to find a little bubble of time and space where I can put some words together in a meaningful way before the real world comes crashing back in on me. And I do tap out notes and ideas and little bits of story, all the time. But when it comes time to make major progress on the next novel, I’m looking for a fireplace, a ton of wood, and at least three days with no obligations whatsoever.

A small part of me is jealous of those writers who can assemble entire novels a bit at a time, while in line at the bank, in the drive-thru at Taco Bell, or in between client meetings, but that wouldn’t fly for me. I need to be completely present in my study, in my pulpit, at the sick-bed, and out in the community. To me, writing stories that glorify God is too sacred a thing to fit in the cracks of life. It’s important enough to pull out my metaphorical machete (read: the stylus on my also-fifteen-year-old Palm organizer) and carve out large chunks of time to devote to the practice, even though it often looks like one of David’s mighty men frantically chopping down Philistines to defend a field in a Cliff Graham novel.

Just like, oh let’s say every single pastor ever, I have used the sermon illustration about the time management expert who, while keynoting a conference, filled a bucket up with big rocks and asked his audience if it was full. They said yes. Then he poured in smaller rocks and asked again. Then he added pebbles. Then sand. Then he asked the audience what the point of this exercise had been. One young executive answered, “We’ve got to fill every single moment with something important! No down-time! No waste!” To that, the speaker responded, “No. The point is that, if I hadn’t put the big rocks in first, I never would have fit them in later.”

That’s true of writing. It’s true of time in prayer and devotion. True of family time. There are things we can fit into the cracks of life, but not the important things. That’s why it’s dangerous to be a writer with a flexible day job, when you know you’ve got a ton to accomplish and the muse beckons and the deadlines demand. That’s when we’ve got to be intentional about carving out time for everything—big rocks first. And that can threaten to take the romance out of the whole thing. But not if we can help it. Not as long as there are cold Michigan Februaries, fireplaces, and tall piles of wood.