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Trade Paperback
267 pages
Jul 2006
Broadman & Holman

The Little Handbook to Perfecting the Art of Christian Writing

by Leonard G. Goss & Don M. Aycock

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Write in a Book What You See

Take up our quarrel with the foe.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.

-John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Do you remember how the movie The Sound of Music begins? It starts way up in the heavens. At first you are so high you see nothing, and you hear only the rush of wind. You are lost in the magnificence of God's creation. Then from this loftiest and highest of vantage points, the camera begins to sweep quickly downward at a dizzying speed. There is a grand camera sweep that goes down farther and farther, down through the clouds, out of the heavens and onto the Earth, until suddenly you are on a mountaintop as the camera focuses on Maria Von Trapp. She begins singing her heart out. The hills are alive with the sound of music! She dances and leaps for joy in God's creation, and we are there with her, having been carried by the camera from the heights of the heavens down to the sunny Austrian mountaintop, and then down to the young girl, Maria. Do you know that the Gospel of John does something of the same thing? The apostle John begins on a cosmic level: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then John begins a grand camera sweep, moving from the Creator down to the creation, for “the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word was made flesh through the Incarnation. God was there first, with the first word. He spoke creation into existence. This is the first demonstration we have that words are powerful. Creation and salvation came through words.

Bearing the Human Soul

Words have power and importance not only in the heavenlies. The camera is still sweeping downward when the Gospel writer tells us, “There was a man named John who was sent from God” (John 1:6). This other John, John the Baptist, used words, too, to witness to the Light. He cried out, “This was the One of whom I said, 'The One coming after me has surpassed me, because He existed before me'” (v. 15). Words are the vehicles of God's truth. Because of the power of words, the magnificence of God was revealed through John the Baptist.

Could the words we write be powerful and significant, such that the magnificence of God could be revealed through them? The coauthors suggest they can. As many others have pointed out, all the great movements of human history came about through the activities of writing and publishing. Think of Israel's remarkable reformation under Josiah when the Book of the Law was discovered after being abandoned in the temple.

Remember the Jews who were permitted to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple when Cyrus king of Persia put a proclamation in writing. Think of the four Gospel narratives that energized the life of the early Christian church. Or think of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther's writings circulated in Europe. In ancient as well as modern times, the great intellectual paradigm shifts have come from writing and publishing.

In her book Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Amy Lowell said, “All books are either dreams or swords.” The cataclysmic movements of history were led by vibrant dreams, and today the word-processing keyboard can be an effective and sharp sword. What is the point? It is that what we write and publish can in a realistic way transform our readers' lives.

A woman telephoned the Atlanta library and asked where Scarlett O'Hara was buried. The librarian told the woman that Scarlett O'Hara is a fictional character out of Margaret Mitchell's story Gone with the Wind. After hearing this, the caller then said, “Never mind that. I want to know where she's buried.” For the caller Scarlett O'Hara was made alive in that novel! Good books live, and they move people, for what happens in the mind of someone who reads a good book can be absolutely dynamic. Emily Dickinson hardly ever left her home, yet she went on many travels through her reading. She wrote:

    There is no Frigate like a book
    To take us Lands away
    Nor any Coursers like a Page
    Of Prancing Poetry.
    This traverse may the poorest take
    Without oppress of Toll-
    How Frugal is the Chariot
    That bears the Human Soul.

Let us ask our readers a question. Do you want to write nonfiction books, novels, articles, drama, screenplays, and poetry that bare the human soul? Are you interested in writing that reveals the heart and core of the story of God? That would be an immense challenge, worthy of our highest talents. Are you called to do it? One day while serving his prison term on the island of Patmos, the apostle John was called to write. He was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day when he heard a voice like a trumpet say, “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11 NASB). The originator of that call was none other than God's Spirit.

Sowing Tears

Has that call come to you? If and when it does, it will come in an unequivocal and unedited form-and have no doubt, it will come from God's Spirit. And when it does come, you should be ready and prepared. Motivation and desire are not enough. You don't need genius, but you do need deep preparation and a complete set of tools, including market books and magazines, dictionaries, grammar books, style guides, histories of language, critique groups, writing conferences, library and online computer research techniques, a knowledge of how to get and preserve ideas, a sense of what editors need and how to approach them, all the how-to advice you can collect, and an instinctive grasp of grammar, syntax, and words.

If you don't love words, please don't bother thinking about writing. It will be more work than you will ever want to do. Don't be lazy like Huckleberry Finn. Huck closed his story with these words: “There ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd a' knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a' tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more.” Huck Finn might have been lazy, but Mark Twain wasn't. If you want the fruit, climb the tree. As Shakespeare said in King Lear, “Nothing will come of nothing.” In Psalm 126:5, King David said it this way: “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.” You will have to sow some tears to write in a way that bares the human soul.

Are you ready to sow some tears? The number of Christians who are ready is almost amazing, and the number seems to be increasing. In a way this should not be surprising. God has given us the gift of books. We write them and publish them to please ourselves and others who, like us, love and want books. And we publish them because people depend on books to build a strong foundation. Books have the depth to let thinkers develop their thoughts and engage in dialogue with others. They enable one generation to leave a heritage for the next. In short, the world needs the value of books, and people who write them enjoy their association with books and ideas and with people who love books and ideas. For the bibliophile books are not luxuries but absolute necessities.


Discovering What This Life Is For

God has given us the gift of words. At their best, words are windows into the soul of another person-the writer. Perhaps this is why the printed word holds such a permanent place in the ranks of human achievement. What do these windows to the soul admit? Among other things, knowledge, inspiration, challenge, motivation, hope, and plain fun to millions who read and to a smaller number who write. Do you doubt it? Visit a bookstore and watch the ravenous looks in the patrons' eyes as they relish each title and devour each cover.

Saul Bellow has written that there is “an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.” That is why we write and publish-to help readers discover what this life is for. The real business of Christian writing and publishing is promoting ideas. It is no exaggeration to say that we hold in our hands the power to mold minds, and we work in this field with a deep sense of responsibility. We try to offer answers to readers through writing and publishing in the same way the Gospels tell us Jesus offered answers to his hearers on the vital religious, political, and social issues of his day-by mooring them in stories of personal accountability. Through stories the entire Bible conveys the good news that God has entered into the story of his creation. Our challenge as Christian writers and publishers is to pursue excellence in promoting that story.


Six Steps to Get Ready

What should you do to prepare to promote that story? First, wait on God and depend on him. David wrote, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret” (Ps. 37:7 NIV). Learn to put your writing project on the shelf for a time if that seems necessary-especially when it is giving you fits and there is no joy in it anymore. Put it aside, and wait until God wants you to go back to it. Learn to expect God to help you. Like David, we should learn to say, “But I will hope continually and will praise You more and more. . . . I will proclaim Your righteousness, Yours alone” (Ps. 71:14, 16). Second, put on your armor and take a stand. Paul wrote, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:11-13 NIV).

Third, during battle keep your eyes on the Leader. “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,” as the writer of Hebrews tells us, “who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God's throne” (Heb. 12:2).

Fourth, pursue excellence. Why shouldn't what we write be absolutely excellent and the best it can be in every way? We have the world's best message of hope. Shouldn't that bring out the best writing in us? Ecclesiastes 9:10a says, “Whatever your hands find to do, do with [all] your strengths. . . .”

Fifth, uncover the truth wherever it can be found. This requires wide reading if you are going to be an excellent writer. On occasion this may even require reading things that go against the aesthetic and moral grain of our beliefs. Remember that St. Augustine used the popular songs of his day to attack heretics. John Calvin and Martin Luther did the same thing, putting Christian lyrics to popular melodies. Before he became a Christian, St. Augustine read the books of the Platonists translated from Greek into Latin. After he became a Christian, he wrote, “From the Gentiles indeed I had come to know You; and I fixed my mind upon the gold which You will that Your people should bring with them from Egypt: for it was Yours, wherever it was.” John Calvin said this of some of the secular writers he read: “We cannot read them without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. . . . Those men whom Scripture call 'natural men' were indeed sharp and penetrating in their investigations of interior things. Let us accordingly learn from their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature. . . . If the Lord has willed that we be helped . . . let us use this assistance.” What matters is truth. If truth is being preached by secular writers, then so be it. The truth is one truth wherever it is found, and all truth is God's truth. Paul said that “we demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Sixth, proclaim freedom. You don't have to stick to any one form or kind of writing. Be versatile. The Oxford professor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote mathematics textbooks, but he also put on another hat and took another name-Lewis Carroll-when he wrote about Alice's adventures in Wonderland. Be free, indeed, and proclaim freedom in your writing. Proclaiming freedom also means writing as a free person, proclaiming freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. As John said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 NIV). In his own hometown synagogue, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news . . . He has sent me to proclaim freedom” (Luke 4:18 NIV). As writers we should live as free men and women, not as though our freedom was there to provide a screen for wrongdoing or a way to conceal evil but rather as slaves in God's service, as Peter said in 1 Peter 2:16. Martin Luther put it this way: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”

Our whole purpose in writing this book is to share our excitement regarding Christian writing on an intimate, personal basis. We have picked up tips, pointers, no-no's, maybes, and musts about writing along the way. We want to make these available to you. There is no one way to do it, but there are some generally accepted principles and methods of going about the writing of books and getting those books published. If we can help you, our readers, make even a single step toward getting ready to write and publish, then our purpose will be served.

When you're ready, remember that the Lord is sending you to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. That is a great work and a high calling. Do it the best and truest way you know. Then write in a book what you see.




Chapter 1

What You Ought to Know about Christian Writing and Publishing

Books have been used as God's tools throughout the history of the church, and writing and publishing continue to fill a unique place in the church's work in the modern world. When you consider that writers and editors make crucial decisions about what people in all phases of church life will read, you will realize that books are strategic in helping Christians be salt and light in society.

Words are a divine gift and powerful tools in the hands of good writers and editors. We have also been given the gifts of books and writing, which allow us to share our hopes and dreams as well as our disappointments and sorrows. Along with the incarnation of Christ and next to oral preaching and teaching, God has chosen the medium of books to proclaim his Kingdom. Put another way, God's Word is spoken to be heard, but it is also written and printed to be read. Books are much more than mere commodities-products with covers, pages with ink on them, and bindings. Books actually can change lives, and many have throughout history. In his Sesame and Lilies, John Ruskin said, “All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” Think of it. The books you write possibly could be books for all time or at least books that effectively communicate truth in our own time.

A Bleak Future?

The real business of Christian writing and publishing, then, is not only selling books, as important as that is. The real business is promoting ideas-the ideas of the Kingdom. The real business of Christian writing and publishing makes a difference in the unseen world as well as in the seen world.

Now admittedly, all of this is theoretical. On the more practical level, what sort of opportunity do we really face as writers and publishers? Is writing and publishing in the Christian arena worth our time and effort? Consider these facts.

Roughly one-half of all Americans read only one book each year. The pool of illiterates in the United States is growing by about 2.3 million people yearly. This includes school dropouts, immigrants, and refugees. But the problem is not just illiteracy; it is also aliteracy. Many people actually are not illiterate, yet they are such poor readers that they cannot draw simple inferences from written material. And they could never write a persuasive essay. Then there are some people who can read, but they just don't, except under compulsion. They read enough barely to get by.

There used to be a pet rock craze in this country. Maybe pet rocks are not as popular now, but it is possible there are more people willing to buy a pet rock than a book. Most people think that rocks are at least real, but ideas-the sorts of ideas one finds in books-are not real (even though many more people have been killed by ideas than by rocks). Ideas are very real, but to get at ideas requires reading, and this is something fewer and fewer people are either able or willing to do. Not many of us readers are left. So the fact that many people just do not read is one problem. If this is true, does this mean that the book will soon be dead?

The new electronic publishing technology is another problem. Hasn't it almost killed the need to write and publish books? Enthusiasts for the new technology have in fact been predicting the demise of the book for many years. For one thing, think about the cost of paper, which has risen at an incredible rate, along with the amount of human energy needed to move it and the volume of space required to store it. Does this suggest a more efficient method of conveying information than in the typical printed book? Some think it does and that that method is electronic. Does the ascendancy of the computer and electronic books mean we should be writing an obituary for the poor and lowly book? If so, why should anyone be concerned with writing and print publishing?

A third reason we might question the need to write and publish is our culture. We live in what nearly everyone is calling a post-Christian climate. Because of the utter contempt the wider culture has not only for Christianity and objective truth generally but also for the old-world print culture, we will continue to write and publish books and articles for a smaller and smaller subculture. How can we be literary salt and light in a culture that does not accept truth and beauty and aesthetics-in short, in a culture that does not accept us?

Another reason to wonder if we are spending our time wisely and well when working on book manuscripts is that in publishing, even in Christian publishing, our sense of business may be taking over our sense of critical judgment. In other words, the comfort level of those in publishing toward what is being published may be changing. Many in Christian publishing today seem unconcerned abut the right choice of what to publish. Rather, they are concerned only with sales and bringing their wares to the market. This is the jackpot syndrome. When George Bernard Shaw once said of publishing that “there is probably no other trade in which there is so little relationship between profits and actual value, or into which sheer chance so largely enters,” he was describing much of Christian book publishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Now the idea is to package books so they appeal only to the general reader representing the blasé Christian mainstream. It is to publish more books that sell in large quantities and fewer books that serve a limited reading audience. It is to compete with the electronic media for the entertainment dollar, to bring all the glitz and visual appeal to books one associates with the electronic media.

Some Christian book publishers have become virtually a subset of the electronic media, and some are owned by conglomerate media companies. With the media takeover of major parts of books publishing, the distribution of books is increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and the battle is to push the product out the door and to get the books on the bookstore shelves. The main thing is to convince bookstores to stock only those popular titles by well-known authors that are guaranteed to sell quickly. Many of these books are worthwhile, but many of them do little more than mimic the popular culture and popular values. They tend toward sentimentality, celebrity worship, sensationalism, simplistic answers, and self-centered desires. But they sell..

But here is the problem: As Christians, we are supposed to be in the world. Who ever said we were supposed to be of the world (John 17:14-18)?

Because of the aggressive attempts on the part of some publishing houses to grow the market and because it seems like some would do almost anything to get an overload of product out into the marketplace, some damage is being done to Christian writing and publishing. The reason for this is clear. With this aggressive attempt to grow the market has come an expanding range of what is acceptable material. In order to reach the wider market, now sometimes anything is acceptable. One wonders if there is any longer a commitment to high quality writing and publishing, let alone a commitment to any form of serious Christian thinking. In short, what has been affected is the content of what we do.

It is a sad state of affairs when it is not only the post-Christian culture that has contempt for the serious print culture but when some Christian publishers themselves have the same contempt when they will not publish serious books that demand thinking on the part of readers. Don't get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with making money, but when a publishing house exists for one reason and one reason only-to make money for their owners-and when they do this by exploiting trends and publishing fads, then this is a grim time to be involved in Christian writing and publishing. (This is of course also true for those writing in the general reading market.) If we as writers, editors, and publishers marry the spirit of the age, we may soon become widows and widowers.

How many are interested anymore in publishing books of intrinsic excellence? If it is true that we write and print books in an era when the relevance of good books seems to be dying, are we as writers and publishers ourselves responsible for the dying relevance of books? Have we lost our specific calling? Have we no longer any vision? Where is our discernment?

Striking a Blow for the Kingdom

For these reasons and others, the future for writers and publishers may look bleak. Is all lost? The answer is no, all is not lost.

Gene Edward Veith ends his book, Reading Between the Lines, by talking about what happened fifteen hundred years ago during the first Dark Age, when the Vandals trashed a civilization based on law and learning. He writes:

    Amidst the moral anarchy, staggering ignorance, and image-centered paganism that prevailed for centuries, the tradition of literacy was preserved in the church. Behind the protective walls of the monasteries, books were cherished. They were copied out by hand, carefully stored, and eagerly read. The church was concerned for all kinds of books-Bibles, of course, but also books of medicine and science, works of pagan philosophers such as Aristotle, the poetry of Virgil and the comedies of Plautus. The Vandal aesthetic may be coming back in the anti-intellectualism of the mass culture and in the Postmodern nihilism of the high culture. Christians may be the last readers. If so, they need to be in training.1

The authors believe that, should the Lord tarry, Christian writing and publishing will be here for a long time. In his book Sixpence House, author Paul Collins says, “If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent. There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel-what readers they were!”2 Let us give you four reasons our books are in no danger of being removed from the scene and why they will make a permanent dent.

First, given their price, books are the most versatile and user-friendly communications packages in existence. One can move from front to back or from back to front, or one can dive into a book at any place. You can go at any speed and snuggle up to a book in front of a fire, or in bed, or take it to the beach or on a vacation to the mountains. Here is the point: Books are tactile in a way that a computer is not. We were told that binding pages together to make books and magazines was going out of fashion when the personal computer was developed. But publishing has been alive since Johann Gutenberg invented typographic printing in the 1400s, and we think we will be making books for a long while to come.

Second, our education will continue to be built around books. The structure of our national life will continue to rest on our books of law, history, politics, religion, geography, art, and biography. Books will continue to be the main source of our reservoir of knowledge about faith, memory, wisdom, morality, poetry, philosophy, history, and science. Daniel Boorstin has said in The Discoverers that our civilization is a product of the Culture of the Book. He means that books in their traditional form will continue to encompass us in thousands of ways. People are still motivated by ideas, and books are the principle means by which ideas are given currency and made effective.

According to Barbara Tuchman, “Books are carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature is dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change, windows on the world, and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasure of the mind. Books are humanity in print.””

Third, Christian writing and publishing will be here for a long time because God wants and uses them. Put another way, the welfare of the Christian church is tied to the welfare of books and reading. There is a line that goes like this: “Without books God would be silent.” Now that is only partially true. If no books were ever published from now on, God would still speak. He spoke through the prophets and through his Son before books as we know them came into being. But God also does speak through books.

After all, Christianity actually is called the “religion of the Book.” The word Bible itself comes from the Greek word that literally means “the book.” The welfare of the church is tied closely to the welfare of books because God has chosen books to reveal himself to us. Books have been God's tools throughout history, and many of them have changed history itself. Think of the writings of Martin Luther, Philip Spener, John Wesley, Hannah More, John Newton, and many others.

Books still have something to do with spiritual values and spiritual growth, and this is especially true when publishers continue publishing serious books that veer off radically from the culture and make a real difference in people's lives. If we do that, then certainly the welfare of books will have a lot to do with the fate of Christianity. Some seven hundred years ago, Thomas á Kempis said, “If he shall not lose his reward who gives a cup of cold water to his thirsty neighbor, what will be the reward of those who by putting good books into the hands of those neighbors, open to them the fountain of eternal life?”

A fourth reason for thinking that writing and publishing of a particularly Christian nature will be here for a long time to come is that Christians have to read. We are the people of the Book. Our spirituality is centered upon linguistic revelation. In other words, we believe that books, especially Christian ones, will remain with us because many people, like us, want and need them. Why? Because they do things to us.

Wrestling with Angels

Not all books do things for us, of course. Only the best books do things in a powerful way to readers. It is certainly true that much of what we write and publish is read today and discarded tomorrow, making it irrelevant. It is irrelevant in the sense that it is not unique or compelling, and it does not provide a fresh and distinctively Christian examination of questions confronting people in their personal lives or in the wider culture. Just look at many of the books one can find in an average bookstore. What is there to stimulate us and challenge us that right is better than wrong, that joy is better than grief, and that courage and faith are better than fear and doubt? How many books in a typical Christian bookstore are written by authors of fertile powers, with a full range of imagination? We think there are few. The reason is that we do not develop and publish the best writers in our community, and we do not require the best from the authors we do publish. The result is that many of the books we produce are, in fact, irrelevant.

Think of the field of fiction. In the typical Christian bookstore, where would you turn to find an authentic novel of religious experience that is as good as Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, a story of the Jewish experience? Where would you find a book on the struggle toward religious certainty that is as good as T. S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday? Could you locate an allegorical novel on the basic human condition that was as brilliant as Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools? What real-life story has come out of the Christian writing community that is as prescient an account of the human condition as Richard Wright's Black Boy? If you wanted to recommend a novel that delves into doubt and the sinful human condition of despair, what novel could you recommend in a Christian bookstore that would even begin to compare with Herman Melville's Moby Dick? These books were written by relentlessly equipped writers. How many of such writers have appeared from the Christian community? The writers of these books may not have been writing about the Bible, but in their writing they looked into the landscape of the Bible and brought out the indomitable words in the Bible. Really great fiction is literature of power. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens shows that generosity is better than miserliness. Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov shows how Christ brings meaning into a meaningless world. Great writing fills an abyss. It stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of immediate things. But much of what we as writers, editors, and publishers do is trivial, and it will not last.

Lest we be too negative, we should not forget that if we do our writing the best we can, using all the gifts and talents God has given us, there is every chance it can move and change people, doing things to them in power-ful ways. Far from being irrelevant, our books can be literature of power, books that are radical in our time and do much to change the world-as previous books were radical in their times and did much to change their worlds. They can motivate readers, much as, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago did.

Writing is a challenge and a process, and to develop diligence and skill is hard work. Writing is frustrating. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel; all you can do is hold on for as long as you can until someone calls your name-until you find just the right word or line or expression.