Last week, I decided to veer off the pastoral path for a couple weeks and focus on writing. In that post I listed the first two of my Five Rules for Writing: 1. Write First, Craft Later and 2. Don’t Create a Character; Discover a Character. Today, we’ll finish off the list.
Rule 3: Write a Book that You Want to Read
John Cheever couldn’t bear the thought of reading one of his books once it was published. It is estimated that Franz Kafka burned 90% of what he wrote. I’ve read each of my Riley Covington books at least five times since they’ve been published. One of us is obviously getting this whole writer thing wrong.
I get the tortured author syndrome where someone might agonize over the wrong word choice or a poor plot decision after it’s too late to do anything about it. I know that there are those who are just too high-strung to let the coulda/shouldas slide off their backs. But my thought has always been that if I don’t want to read my book, then why would anyone else?
I love the books I’ve written. They are up there with my favorite books of all time. I’m not saying that they are the best books ever published, and I’m certainly not going to compare the quality of my writing to Cheever or Kafka. There are much more talented authors and much better story-crafters out there. From a high-falutin’ literary standpoint, my time spent in Dostoevsky’s Demons and Dickens’s Bleak House and Tolstoy’s War & Peace was most certainly of greater value. But, honestly, I like to get high-falutin’ literary-ish about three times a year. The rest of the time, when I get a break from pastoring and writing deadlines, I just want to kick back and enjoy a good, fun adventure. Those Elam/Yohn books will meet that need for me every day of the week. Why? Because I wrote books that I want to read.
While Barry Manilow may be able to write songs that make the whole world sing, no one can write a book that will make the whole world read. Don’t expect that you’re going to please everyone. Some will love what you write and some will think that it is useless drivel. A number of years ago, the comedian, Patton Oswalt, went on the Sklar Brothers nationwide sports radio program to read excerpts from Monday Night Jihad and provide accompanying commentary. All three held strongly to the “useless drivel” opinion of the book and they proceeded to mercilessly lampoon it for four episodes. Did it hurt to hear? Sure, especially when Oswalt mispronounced my name (c’mon man, it’s only four letters long). However, my feelings were somewhat ameliorated when I saw the spike in books sales, once again proving that there is no bad publicity.
Thousands upon thousands of dollars have been poured into audience analytics and what appeals to which reader. If you’re selling hundreds of thousands of books a year, then it might be worth wading through their accumulated market wisdom (personally, I’d rather be forced to binge-watch all seventeen episodes of Joanie Loves Chachi). However, if you are anticipating book distribution of slightly less than six figures, then don’t waste your time. Write your story, and write it in a way that will have you longing for a return to your book so you can spend more quality time with your fictional friends.
Rule 4: Write for Love, not for Recognition
I want all you aspiring writers to sit down while you read this next sentence. “You are not going to make a living writing books.” Okay, take a second if you need it – breathe into a paper bag if you must. You ready to go on? Do not take that as a knock on your skills or your creativity or your character. This is the reality of today’s publishing world. In order for a publisher to take on a book, they are looking for four things – platform, idea, market, quality. That first one – platform – is the killer. You could have the best idea that will speak to a wide swath of the market, and possess the skills to write an amazingly appealing book. However, if no one knows who you are, then unless you are a one-in-a-million wunderkind you will not get published. That’s not a slam against publishers. That’s just business.
Jason had a good idea for a book. There is a strong market for thriller novels and inside-sports books. He brought me in and we were both pleasantly surprised to discover that I could actually write a publish-worthy story. But no publisher would have picked it up if he was not Jason Elam, kicker for the Denver Broncos. Fast-forward a decade or so, the sole reason that I was able to send another completed manuscript to a publishing house two weeks is because the only place my name will be found in the book is in an ambiguous mention in the acknowledgements. The name on the cover is the name that will sell. The same was true of my previous two ghost-written projects and will be true of the one I’m working on now. I have no platform, but God has allowed me to come alongside those who do. I write because God has gifted me and given me opportunity. If it takes someone else’s name being on the cover for me to be able to bless people with God’s truth, then I’m all in.
The last thing I want to do is to discourage you from writing or to steal away your dream. I still have those down-time daydreams about becoming a famous author and going on speaking tours. But I also realize that the chance of me becoming a famous author are about the same as me becoming a famous blues guitarist, a famous cheese-sculptor, or a famous merengue dancer. Write because you love it. Write because you have a story. Then, if you decide you want to get it out to the public, Amazon has a free, user-friendly online publishing service. Put it out there and see what happens. You may sell tens, you may sell hundreds, you may sell thousands. Your job is to use God’s gifts, then let Him do what He wants with what you create.
Rule 5: Pray
That brings us to our last rule for writers. Everything you write should be covered with prayer from top to bottom. You may be thinking, “How predictable, Steve. There you go getting all pastoral on us again.” Au contraire, mon frère. The pastor hat is hanging up on the peg board. This is still writer-Steve talking. Whether it is for a book or a blog or an article, I begin every writing session with prayer. This accomplishes two necessities: first, it reminds me why I’m able to do what I do. Without the Holy Spirit’s gift to me, I would have nothing to say and no ability to say it. That’s not self-deprecation, that’s reality. My opportunity to write to a larger audience is unquestionably from the Lord. Once, while having lunch with my wonderful publisher friend, Karen, she said to me, “Steve, you have to realize that you were struck by lightning. The publishing path you’ve been on just doesn’t happen.” It’s that perspective-reminding conversation that I remember every time I start a writing session.
Second, I’ve written enough to know that most of my best work comes as I am writing. I plan and plot away from the computer, but ideas become reality as the fingers fly across the keyboard. To me, that is inspiration from the Holy Spirit. It’s not the 2 Timothy 3:16-17 level of inspiration – nothing I write is God-breathed, unless I’m quoting from the Bible. Instead, inspiration is using the mind God gave to me, employing the gifts He blessed me with, and listening to that still small voice that so often out of nowhere gives me the best plot twists and the funniest lines.
God is the One who is in charge of what is written and who reads it. Whether it is a book that will be read by 50,000 or a blog that will be read by 50 or a collection of memories that will be cherished by five of your grateful grandchildren, the writer’s role is no different. God gifts and we write – and we thank Him for giving us the opportunity to serve Him in such a wonderful way.