Author Dan Balow

A Writing Life – Pearl S. Buck


Seventy-five years ago today, Pearl Buck became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The king of Sweden gave her the award at a ceremony on December 10, 1938 in the Stockholm Concert Hall.  It read:

“By awarding this year’s Prize to Pearl Buck for the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture, the Swedish Academy feels that it acts in harmony and accord with the aim of Alfred Nobel’s dream for the future.”

Pearl’s most famous works, her “House of Earth” series, written in the 1930’s (The Good Earth, Sons, A House Divided) are considered important works, making a significant literary contribution around the world.  The Good Earth was the best selling novel in the U.S. in both 1931 and 1932 and also won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. It still sells consistently today…Oprah Winfrey named it as one of her must-reads in 2004.

Pearl’s parents were missionaries in China in the early 20th century and Pearl married a missionary and lived in China until the mid-1930’s, when Japan’s war against China was reaching a peak and Westerners left.

I encourage you to read a biography of Pearl’s life (there is an excellent overview at, a life about as diverse and culturally rich as was possible in the 20th century. While certainly not a perfect life, there are lessons for authors to be learned from it.

  • She was well-read
  • She wrote about things most familiar to her
  • She wrote with a purpose
  • The causes that characterized her life work were consistent with her writing and visa versa.
  • She never stopped writing.  (She continued to write for 35 years after Nobel, never winning another award for her writing.)

Pearl Buck was truly a remarkable person, someone who lived the “writing life” to it’s fullest. While everyone is different, there are some principles to consider from her life, principles that Christian authors can emulate and earn that ultimate prize, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Have you read any of Pearl’s books?

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The Right (Size) Stuff

One hundred and fifty years ago this fall, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address on the site of the battle that turned the tide of the American Civil War.  It was 270 words and took two minutes to deliver.

Not as memorable was the 13,600-word oratory by American statesman Edward Everett that lasted for two hours prior to Lincoln’s epic speech. In fact, the program for that November 19, 1863 event consisted of eight elements…four songs, two prayers, Everett’s speech and a few words from the President.

History elevated those two minutes by the President to some of the greatest words ever spoken. The rest of the program is all but forgotten.

Recently I was in an airport terminal waiting to board a flight and the well-intentioned airline employee picked up the really bad microphone and began explaining the boarding procedure for my flight in tremendous detail.

Fifteen minutes later (I am not kidding, I timed it) the announcement was finished.

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Thankful for the Pioneers in Our Industry

Yesterday, Steve Laube asked you to thank those who have the most direct connection with readers of books…the retail bookseller.  Steve has Christian retailing in his DNA.  He worked for Berean Christian stores, managing their Phoenix, Arizona locations and was named the Christian Booksellers Association Store of the year in 1989.  You win that award because you balance the business and ministry sides very well.

Today, I am thankful for the pioneers of the Christian publishing industry. At the founding of every Christian publisher are men and women who had a calling from God to publish books, Bibles and other materials that pointed people to Jesus Christ.  If you knew one of these pioneers personally, your life is blessed for it.

I had the privilege of working with one such man, Ken Taylor, who founded Tyndale House Publishers at his kitchen table in 1962.  He was also one of the founders of the Christian Booksellers Association in the 1950’s.

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E-Readers, Tablets and Bears, Oh My

The latest data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project released this Fall and confirmed in solid data what we all know to be true…that e-Book readers and tablets are becoming more prevalent in American society.

In a scientific survey conducted five times since May, 2010, the Pew Research Center concluded as of September 2013 that 24% of Americans age 16 and older have a dedicated e-Book reader (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.) and 35% have a tablet computer (like an iPad, etc.).  Furthermore, 43% of those 16+ have one or the other, so a number of people have both.

Compared to the last survey taken in November 2012, this one reveals a 26% increase in ownership of e-Book readers and a 40% increase in ownership of tablets in the last ten months.

So who owns these things anyway?

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Decoding Publishing Terms

I looked back some of my Tuesday blog posts and thought I might be getting too serious, so I wanted to lighten it up a bit with some practical, helpful information that should help you navigate and understand the complicated world of publishing.

Here are words you might hear in relation to publishing or describing a particular book and its real meaning:

“A must-read” – Acquisitions editor job is on the line “Latest release by the author” – marketing hasn’t read the manuscript. “Incredible Literary Feat” – passive aggressive statement from publisher aimed at an author who missed their deadline by three years.
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Elect to be Successful

Today is the first Tuesday in November…election day somewhere.

Have you ever wondered why so many people in politics never seem to actually solve problems and do what is right?  The explanation is actually rather simple:

Many politicians exhibit those traits that are characteristic of unsuccessful people.

In what world of relationships, work, church, community or business would a person succeed by taking credit for good things, blaming others for bad things, doing only what makes them popular, telling people only what they want to hear, ignoring tough issues, making expedient selfish decisions, avoiding making the hard decisions and living every day criticizing and carrying grudges towards anyone with whom they disagree?

Honestly, if you knew a person like that at church or at the Starbucks, you would not choose to be close to them.  A CEO like that is not a CEO very long.  A pastor like that would not accomplish much. A friend like that would not be a good friend. But politicians like that get re-elected and keep their jobs.

Mary Ellen Tribby, founder and CEO at compiled a very interesting list of traits that are characteristic of successful and unsuccessful people.

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Real vs. Imaginary

Simone Weil was being quite profound when she commented:

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.  Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

I can see the truth in those words in just about every book, TV program or movie. Anywhere a story is told, fictional villains or real heroes are the most interesting characters.

Consider the opposite…real villains are not compelling or interesting.  There is no exciting musical soundtrack that accompanies their story. They are depressing to know.  The same would be for the “goody two-shoes” hero in a fictional tale. But make the hero significantly flawed and it might just work.

I suppose I could be argued off this opinion, but I think the real vs. fiction comparison made by Simone Weil had its roots in the development of photography and motion pictures (Simone lived in the early 20th century).  The broad use of the earliest still-picture cameras coincided with the American Civil War in the 1860’s. Pioneer photographers like Mathew Brady captured images that were the beginnings of modern photojournalism (one of his photos leads today’s post).

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Castor Oil for the Soul

I am taking a big risk here, knowing there are authors and avid book readers looking at this post.

Columbia University Press polled hundreds of editors, writers, booksellers, librarians, literary critics, and general readers in order to produce a list of the ten most boring books of all time among the great classics. The winners were:

Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan Faust, Goethe Don Quixote, Cervantes Ivanhoe, Scott Silas Marner, Eliot Pamela, Richardson Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell Faerie Queene, Spenser Paradise Lost, Milton Moby Dick, Melville

Now, before you throw our morally bankrupt society under the bus and yearn for the simpler days of yesteryear when all the children behaved, the women were strong and the men were hard working…you should probably know that this poll was conducted in 1950! If you are between the ages of 90 and 120 you should be ashamed of yourself.

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HAL 9000 Writes a Book

Since most readers of this blog are writers, this might just ruin your day.

A company called Narrative Science started as a research project with Northwestern University computer science and journalism students. (The Medill School of Journalism is arguably the best in the country)  It was called StatsMonkey.

StatsMonkey was a computer program that automatically generated a usable text recap of a baseball game pulling data from a simple baseball box-score.  A newspaper story written by a computer actually worked well…really well.

An initial round of funding in 2010 started the ball rolling and today, Narrative Science ( employs top programmers who have built an entirely new artificial intelligence writing platform called Quill.

They have won awards, they have numerous top clients using the service to generate news reports, social-media posts and other various quick generated communication and recently received another $11.5 million in additional investment.

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Make it Count for Something Important

Everyone has a pet peeve. People who drive too fast, or too slow, or fingernails scratching on a blackboard.  My pet peeve is a strange one. I have a visceral reaction to the fast-talking legal-speak at the end of radio or TV commercials. I have to change stations…immediately.

You’ve all heard them…commercials that are 50% written by the legal department of the advertiser.  The last 100 words are compressed into 10 seconds so you can’t say we didn’t tell you that the drug could kill you or the sale on flat screen TV’s is only for people named Arnold and only good on Tuesdays. The irony is that ads for lawyers and legal services don’t seem to require it! (But I digress)

So why do I have this reaction?

Being an untrained freelance psychologist, my deep self-analysis concludes that the advertisement is simply wasting my time and attention.  There was no possible way I could ever understand anything they are saying, but they had to say it.  They just wasted my time on purpose for no reason.

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