The people we interview from our church body are more than just raw materials for stories. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom have been through some really challenging times. So my first goal is to love them, respect them, and provide any counsel and encouragement that might be appropriate.
Brian Lundin is the Lead Writer and Producer for the Austin Stone Story Team. Brian has written for Story Team for four years, and leads the writing team with his wife, Lindsey. You can find Brian on Twitter at @blundin.
Story Team: What is the first thing you do when you receive a story assignment?
Brian Lundin: Because we only have three weeks to get two interviews and the first draft done, I contact the subject right away. With the inevitable scheduling conflicts to come, I’ve found it’s better to move quickly with getting the interviews booked.
Then, I read the backstory. We send the writers and photographers the information that the subjects submitted to Story Team. For me, it’s very important to start thinking about the backstory right away for a couple of reasons. First, it gives me a chance to begin praying about the story. I pray for God to give the subject the courage to be vulnerable, and I pray for him to give me the insight and wisdom needed for the story. Second, I start to think about the narrative presented in the backstory. I like to identify key moments and characters early so I’m familiar with the story. It helps so much to have some initial thoughts and know the key players going into the interview. I try to be careful not to force an artificial narrative on the story, but having some idea of the story’s shape is a good idea.
This particular story had some snags in getting published. How do you respond as a writer when this happens?
Well, the snags were all on my end this time. A career change and major life events pushed out my first draft for months. I’m thankful that our team has a culture of grace. Deadlines are important, of course, but we’ve always given leeway to artists when they need it.
Once I was able to sit down and write the first draft, I had to get back into the same mental place I was when I finished the interview. I normally like to leave as much space as I can between the interview and the first draft because my subconscious usually cranks away at the narrative and the approach I want to take. But in this case, I was so far out that I had to sit down with the interview recording a relive it. I listened to it twice, taking very detailed notes the second time. That’s not my normal process, but it was really helpful in this case.
How do you define your role as a writer? What do you want to accomplish in the process of helping someone share their story?
Because of the way we tell our written stories, the writer wears several different hats. First and foremost, I believe we are supposed to care for our subjects. The people we interview from our church body are more than just raw materials for stories. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom have been through some really challenging times. So my first goal is to love them, respect their story, and provide any counsel and encouragement that might be appropriate.
Second, my role is to understand the story from their point of view. God has grown my empathy tremendously over the last five years, and I’ve found it important when writing these stories. As the writer, we have to tell people’s stories honestly and with integrity, and that starts with understanding their view of it.
But then we have to step out of their point of view and look at it from an outsider’s perspective. I ask myself, What can I see that they don’t? The truth is that many people don’t see every aspect of their own story. Our perceptions color everything we see, even how God is working in our own lives. So not only do I try to observe the story from my point of view, but in stories like this one, I will even interview other people who are close to the story.
How do you respond to tough feedback or edits from an editor?
I think this is an area where God has really changed my heart. My fellow Story Team leaders and our editors have played a big part in that. I don’t mind critical feedback—I tend to thrive on it. I’m a big believer that if I want to improve in anything, it’s very important to know what my mistakes are.
That’s easy with feedback about my job or personal interactions, but much harder with my writing. Early on with Story Team I tended to take tough feedback with great umbrage. I often saw it as a judgement on my talent, or lack thereof.
But between praying for God to make me more humble, and the kind hearts through which our editors give feedback, my heart changed. I now have a much healthier appreciation for good, critical feedback. In fact, I routinely seek out critical feedback on all of my work.
For this story, I was asked by our Lead Editor to work on the end of the story and cut several hundred words. This piece, as published, is about 30% longer than we normally publish, and the first draft was about 300 words longer still. The editor felt the second half of the narrative was not tight or compelling enough. She thought most readers would bail. Once I read it with fresh eyes, I agreed with her. I took the second half apart by cutting a lot of commentary and reducing it to the bare bones plot points. Once that was done, the last paragraph took shape quite easily with the quote from Shawn’s wife. Our editor was right—the story was much stronger for the changes.