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For Writers: Encouragement and Advice

Why Write?

I write as one devoted to God. I believe he is most fully revealed through the incarnation of Jesus, the Holy Spirit who indwells those who love Jesus, and the Bible. What I say here may be useful to you even if you write from a different perspective, but I will assume that you, like me, are a Christian who writes to convey the splendid, many-faceted truths of God. Without him my writing, like the rest of my life, would have no purpose.

The world overwhelms and bewilders anyone with enough humility to contemplate it with breadth of vision. Devotion to Jesus does not change this -- the world remains bewildering. But now we have real, fundamental answers -- not to everything, but to some things. Even more important, we have hope -- hope that we are now connected with the one who knows all the answers, who can lead us through all the dread and confusion to a goal beyond our dreams. We have hope that in difficult, incalculable situations, the Holy Spirit will always be with us, showing us how to do right in the midst of confusion that no human wisdom can elucidate. We have hope: God can forgive the most inexcusable sequence of disastrous sins, and show us how one good step leads to another out of the most complete debacle or catastrophe. This is why I write. I write because of the hope that comes from God.

I do not write to show that the world is simple, and God has given me all the answers. It isn't. He hasn't. Triteness in Christian fiction is more likely to dishonor God and mislead his people than to honor him or lead them right. I write to show that through the overwhelming complexity of the world -- the complexity that is sometimes dismaying, sometimes delightful -- there runs, like an unbreakable strand of light, the hope that Jesus has brought us.

I will not say that my reason for writing must also be the motivation for all Christian authors. I will say, however, that I think it spans a vast range of possible stories. It does not rule out darkness: there is darkness in the real world. A book that shows only darkness and evil is not a Christian book. A book that insightfully shows the dismaying, bewildering horror of evil, with only a small light raised against it, may yet be a book that deeply honors God. A book that never mentions God can still point to the hope he gives us, if it shows something true about our human longing for him, or sets forth the disaster and despair that stalk us apart from him.

A writer should set out to write well a story that is in her heart, or his heart. The nature of that story speaks inevitably of the nature of the heart. In the end, a story, like a life, either has some real purpose and meaning or does not. If your heart is devoted to God -- if you are following him through confusion and fear with all the confidence and joy you can -- your stories will speak of hope. You will find you have not written them in vain, that they have real purpose and meaning. As your life does.

Read Good Things

Writing is an art. There's no one right way to do it. You can't learn it by rote, like the multiplication table. You have to learn it from master artists, to train yourself to recognize and to create what is good. There is no way to do this apart from reading.

You must read good things. You must read a lot. What, in more detail, should you read? You should read things you like, things that delight you. Beyond this, the right stuff to read is very individual, but I will try to make some helpful suggestions.

Be quick to read classics, where the excellence of story and writing have stood the test of time. But still, read what delights you. I hated Moby Dick, and will probably never read it again. I loved David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, and many of Charles Dickens' other books. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis hated Dickens. You do not have to like all the classics. You do not have to read all the classics. But you should make a point of reading as many of those you like as you have time for.

Recent books have to be sorted more carefully. They haven't been tested by decades or centuries. Some popular writers, both Christian and not, can't actually write. You don't want to learn to write like them. I'm not saying you must avoid trite fiction. Read whatever you enjoy. But if, as you read more and more, you get a sense that some of the things you like are trite, while some are not, read more of the ones that are not. Try to internalize the difference between trite and not trite, until you can catch and eliminate triteness in your own writing. As you learn to identify really great books, try to get a feel for what makes them great. You don't have to be able to put it into words -- that's the critic's job, not the writer's. You just have to be able to recoginize greatness, and attempt to emulate it.

If you write to show forth the hope that comes from God, you are entering a battle. Fiction is a powerful weapon, and both sides know it. Don't refuse out of hand to read dark books by secular or even militantly anti-God writers. Knowing what the enemy is doing may serve you well. However, pay attention to how a book affects you. If a book inspires you to holy anger against the author, probably all is well. Go and write a story against his story. If a book causes you to doubt your faith intellectually, you should pray, read the Bible, and talk to Christian mentors about your concerns. I am convinced that Biblical Christianity will bear testing and come out stronger.

If, on the other hand, a book you are reading just shadows you with depression or horror, if it projects an atmosphere of hopelessness that you find affects you deeply, I suggest dropping the book immediately. You might be able to learn from it, but it isn't worth the cost. When you have intellectual doubts about Christianity, you can be strengthened by considering them and answering them. But an atmosphere of hopelessness doesn't do you any good. It saps your energy and diminishes your God-given, God-glorifying joy. It is formless, too slippery to be engaged by rational argument. You must just dismiss it, turn away from it without consideration, and fix your mind on the truths of God.

One book will affect different people in very different ways. Some Christians read and enjoy books that dismay others. One example is Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. The book is splendidly written, and many Christians I know enjoyed it and others in the series. I had to stop reading it. Even though Card is a Mormon and thus presumably believes in some kind of God, the universe of his books dismayed me with its Godless despair. Though I was enthralled by the artful writing and the imaginative story, the books were simply too unhealthy for me to read.

Many Christians are quick to try to prevent others from reading books they think are evil or dangerous. My default reaction is to oppose this. Christian writers -- Christians in general -- need to know the strategy, and the weak points, of the enemy. A book that seems dangerous to one Christian can seem merely ludicrous or even innocent to another. But fiction is powerful. Stories have a profound effect on us -- especially, I think, on those with enough perceptiveness and imagination to be writers themselves. Some books are harmful to us. We should learn to identify and avoid them.

Write First and Ask Questions Later

Writing is learned by practice. If you like to write and want to write, you probably have substantial innate gifts of imagination and verbal ability. Even so, the quality of the first things you write will be mediocre. The only way to fix this is to write more. Write interesting, meaty stories. Write fearlessly and quickly, without agonizing over quality. Try out lots of new things, to determine what you like, and what makes a story work. While you're writing, forget it's practice and pretend your story is going to be a bestseller and a classic -- if you come back and edit it later, it actually might be!

Boldly share your work with friends. You don't really know if something works until you've tried it on an audience. Don't be shy, and don't assume you're asking a big favor when you ask friends to read your work. Even your initial, mediocre attempts will be interesting and enjoyable if your plots and ideas are interesting. Don't be crushed by friends who are critical, and don't get too euphoric if your friends are awestruck.

I advise against putting all your work up on the internet, or otherwise attempting to widely distribute it, but this advice is only tentative. You may not want the world to see your 'practice' work. If you have a phenomenal, unusual plot idea, you may want to protect it from being stolen. (By the way, registering a copyright online is relatively easy and costs only $35. If you have lots of short stories and/or poems, you can register them as a collection.) On the other hand, if you distribute your work widely, you'll get more comments on it, you'll become informally known as an author, and your work might wind up getting the attention of someone who can actually help you get published. Both approaches have pros and cons.

I strongly advise distributing some of your writing widely. Once you've written a good deal, you can keep back both the best stuff (that you want to publish later) and the worst stuff (that you want to forget you ever wrote), and post the middle-quality stuff online and distribute it in other ways. There should be a small group of friends with whom you share everything. Don't be paranoid about copyrights early on. You should be able to trust your friends, but even if you can't, publishing even a book that you legitimately wrote is so difficult that I don't think the fear that someone will steal your work and publish it is realistic.

Once you know you have something publishable, register an official copyright quickly, and then share it fearlessly with friends and others who might help you publish it. Your copyright will protect future edited versions as well, so there's no need to try to get it perfect before copyrighting. The one thing you must not do with something you want to publish is post it publicly on the internet. This counts as publishing already, and will inhibit your ability to publish it in other ways later on -- ways that could reach more people and make you money.

Connect with People in the Book Business

Eventually, sharing your work with your friends will no longer be enough. If you are serious about getting published, you need to know something about the business. Reading books on getting published helps, but there is no substitute for attending a writer-publisher conference. Like almost everything else connected with the book business, these are concentrated around New York City, but many are held at different times of the year all over America.

Find a weekend writer-publisher conference not too far from you, that doesn't cost too much to attend. A conference that only involves writers (no publishers) may be OK, since you will still learn a lot about publishing from the writers. The experience will probably be a bit overwhelming. You will hear of publishing difficulties you never imagined, and you may be shocked by some of the book genres that are currently successful. You will get a lot of conflicting advice. Don't be discouraged. There are solutions to all the problems. Yes, there are a host of bad books in the world -- but that is why the good ones you can write are so desperately needed. The advice is conflicting because there's no one right way to do it -- there are lots of different things you could try that might produce good results. It may be more fun to go to the conference with a friend and fellow-writer who can help provide perspective on the experience -- if you are blessed enough to know such a person, and can persuade them to accompany you.

After your first conference, you may want to go to one or two more, to get a broader range of experience and advice. You will learn a lot from your conferences (though it should be supplemented by more systematically presented information from a book on publishing). Ultimately, you may want several other things to come out of a conference. You may get an established author to read your work and make suggestions. You may meet an agent who is willing to represent you and try to sell your book to a publisher. On the other hand, you may decide to self-publish your book. You will get a plethora of information about how to do this, including suggestions about what hurdles you need to overcome.

If you decide to self-publish, as I have (or even if not), you may want to get your work professionally edited. I had a professional editor do a free sample edit of a few pages of Bright Against the Storm. He wanted to change it too much, and he made some errors in word usage and grammar. I didn't hire him, but knowing the kinds of things he had thought needed to change was very valuable when I painstakingly edited the book myself.

You can find people who will endorse your book (giving you quotes you can put on the back cover) and write reviews of your book online or in magazines. This will be essential if you are self-publishing, but useful even if you are not. If you are self-publishing, you will also need to acquire an ISBN number and a bar code for your book, and to identify an honest and competent book printer. These are the sorts of things you should have in your mind as you go to conferences: you won't find every contact you need there, but you can get leads to follow, suggestions of which how-to books are most useful, etc.

That's all I have to say...

...for the moment. I plan to add more later, especially a lot of links. For now, may God bless your writing! The world needs more good stories. You don't have to be the next C.S. Lewis to write them... and you'll never find out if you are unless you try.

Under Construction: There will be more and better organized material here later.