My Writing Process, Advice for Aspiring Authors, and Answers to Other Questions about Writing
The following are questions about writing I answered a few months ago for an article in Today’s Christian Living magazine.
What motivates you to write?
I believe it’s what God has called me to do. Scripture tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men...It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). Is writing included in the “whatever” I do? Yes. So I do it with all my heart, to the glory of God, as a service to the Lord first and to others second, aware that I must seek to please the Audience of One, my loving Lord. I serve Christ and His people and thank God often for the privilege of being His errand boy, His messenger, His servant. By viewing writing as a ministry first and a vocation only second, I remind myself it’s not about me—it’s about Him.
What are your goals as a writer?
Everything I write is to further an eternal perspective: “We look not at the things which are seen, but the things which are unseen; for the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). I seek to help readers see the unseen through my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. My prayer is that God would use me as His instrument to represent accurately the truths of His Word and the greatness of His Being.
Where do your ideas come from?
Occasionally a publisher has suggested a specific book idea that I’ve gone with, but usually my books are born out of a passion I feel God has laid on my heart. Often I don’t know where the idea comes from except God developed it within me. I ask Him to direct me toward each project. He has, and I’m grateful to be able to write—everything from detective novels and other-worldly fantasy, to children’s books, to graphic novels, to theological works large and small, on subjects such as money, Heaven, purity, happiness, grace, truth, and suffering.
When and how did you decide to become a writer?
As a student, I really enjoyed writing the term papers lots of people hated, and got encouraging feedback. When I was attending Multnomah Bible College, one of my favorite theology professors, Dr. Joseph Wong, scratched on my term paper: “You should consider being a writer.” I took it to heart, and over 40 years later I’m still grateful.
I wrote my first articles for publication in the late 70s. That’s when I started thinking of myself as a writer. Then in 1983 I started work on my first book, a history of the sexual revolution and its effects on the Christian church. Since then I’ve written over 50 more, the royalties of which are all given away to worthy ministries (nearly $8 million to date). No one is more amazed than I am that there are now over 200 different translations of my books in over 70 languages worldwide.
Did you have any mentors when you started writing?
C. S. Lewis, A. W. Tozer, and Francis Schaeffer were spiritual mentors to me. Tozer didn’t just speak the truth; he spoke it in penetrating ways. He was an editor and a wordsmith. Lewis showed me how the same mind could produce piercing nonfiction and imaginative fiction.
What’s your writing process?
I am a researcher and a perfectionist because I want my books to be just right. I do a ton of initial research; and when I write, I do draft after draft after draft. (I do a lot of my writing at night. I’m usually up until 2 a.m., sometimes 3, when friends and co-workers and readers are asleep, so there are no interruptions.)
I “finish a book” about five or six times. After editing and revising it multiple times on my own, I turn it into a manuscript, usually chapter by chapter, to editors at our ministry. They point out what they don’t understand, and suggest many corrections. I go along with most of them. After all the feedback I finish the chapters another time, and finally finish the whole book a second time and send it to the publisher. And then editing begins on that end. By choice I am highly edited and though I reject some edits and tweak others to my voice, embracing editing makes the book better.
Do you have any unusual writing techniques or strategies?
That’s a tough question to answer because writing is something very private. I have many writer friends, but I don’t sit down with them and watch what they do. We discuss our craft, and certainly people have different writing habits and techniques. I would say I am most distinguished by thorough, nearly exhaustive (and often exhausting) research. I love research, and I immerse myself in it so that as I write nonfiction, and fiction also, I am always drawing from a deep reservoir of prior thought. This makes writing more difficult because I can only use a tiny fraction of what I’ve researched and put into early drafts. But I believe, as a result, what stays in the book is therefore better.
What’s the biggest challenge for you in writing?
For me, the toughest part about being a writer is working on the big books, the ones that take a couple of years. In my research for Heaven I read over 150 books, most of them long out of print. I did this over a three-year period, and of course, the more you research, the more you have to handle, and the more you have to cut. If you do multiple revisions, as I do, it’s easy to lose sight of the end. I had some very discouraging times—with the Heaven book in particular—where I stayed up half the night and asked, “Lord, is this going to make a difference? Is it worth it?”
It’s really something you have to accept by faith, trusting that a measurable result will come, even if the book isn’t read by people for another two years. Perseverance is essential in writing. I sometimes get stretched to the brink. (That’s good, because it takes me to my knees—and apart from Christ we can do nothing.)
What’s your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?
Writing is both energizing and draining. Sometimes it’s a joy. Sometimes, under deadlines and multiple fourteen-hour work days, it feels like a long battle: you just want to be done. And though a book never feels done, eventually you must turn it in.
Honestly, the hardest part of writing for me is fighting to make the time to actually do it. I have had entire weeks set aside for writing where one thing after another happens to keep me from it. Email is, honestly, the very worst, because it never ends. Even though I have great staff who help me with it, I could easily spend my life doing nothing besides answering email. I must ruthlessly walk away from appointments, emails, texts, and even drop-by visits in order to have time to write.
I think God called me to write and to develop the skill, so I do the hard work with a sense of purpose and calling and joy. And isn’t that what He’s called all of us to do, with the particular skills and opportunities He’s entrusted to us?
How long does it typically take for you to write a book?
It varies widely with the kind of book I’m writing. My comprehensive books, such as Happiness, take a great deal of time to research and write. But in many cases, they have resulted in several spin-off books that take much less to write, not just because those books are smaller, but because I can utilize the research I’ve already done. (For example, in the case of Happiness, I also wrote the shorter book God’s Promise of Happiness and the devotional 60 Days of Happiness.)
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you work through it?
Actually, I don’t get writer’s block, though certainly sometimes the words flow better than others. I learned long ago that I should never wait for inspiration or a good beginning. I just jump right in. I’ll either cut it out or clean it up later. Years ago I heard someone say, “Never edit at the point of conception.” I think a lot of writer’s block happens when people wait for the right words. I just write. Later, I labor to choose the right words, and there’s no block because I’m already looking at something on the screen.
As you look back over your writing career, is there anything you would change or do differently?
Actually, not much. There were a few projects I didn’t allow myself time to finish, so I had to miss and extend deadlines. I hate doing that. There are times where I’ve felt I’ve painted myself into a corner by over-researching, yet in the end I still feel the research made a better book. There have been a few books where I got behind and became so preoccupied with trying to finish that I feel like I wasn’t being a great husband to Nanci. I would take her out to dinner and watch movies with her, but we both knew the book was hanging over us. I think that’s gotten a lot better over the years. (You should ask her.) That’s something I would change, and I think have changed.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Immerse yourself in God’s Word, and study sound doctrine and good theology. (One great book, for reference or to read all the way through, is Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or his abridged version, called Bible Doctrine.)
Our worldviews permeate both our fiction and nonfiction, and if all we soak in is popular culture, a few hours a week at church won’t be sufficient to give us depth and durability. We need to read great books by great Christian thinkers, both past and present.
If God’s Word is daily at home in your heart and mind, your writing will take on a perspective, and an air of solidity and permanence it won’t have otherwise. God promises His Word won’t return to Him empty, without accomplishing the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11). He does not promise that about our words, but His. If we want our words to have lasting value and impact, they need to be touched and shaped by His words—and that won’t happen without a daily choice to expose our minds to Scripture.