Much was just learning as I went, writing magazine articles and stumbling through my first book, during which I learned a lot about “how not to write a book.” By my third book I had actually learned something about how TO write a book. I read a lot of how-to books (Writer’s Digest type) about writing non-fiction, and that really helped. Then, when I tried writing my first few novels I read a few dozen books on fiction writing, moving back and forth from my research and writing to the books on how to write. I found those books extremely helpful.
To improve my skills I continue to read and reread books on how to write. I also analyze both the fiction and the non-fiction I read. What do I like or not like? What is the author doing to create this mood, develop this character, create this tension, set up a plot twist, etc. Good writers are readers, and writers who don’t have time to read won’t ultimately be worth reading.
For some reason this isn’t a problem for me. Perhaps it’s because I do so many other things besides writing, that I have to carve out the writing time and then when I get to it I’m so ready it tends to pour out of me. I learned long ago that I should never wait for inspiration or a good beginning. I just jump right in, realizing that it doesn’t have to be good—I’ll either cut it out or clean it up later. Years ago I heard someone say “Never edit at the point of conception.” Just get it written and move forward, and do the subtle finesse-stuff when you come back to it later. The best writing comes in revision, not creation—but you have to have something to revise. I think a lot of writer’s block happens when people wait for the right words. I never wait for them. I just write. Then, later, I labor over finding just the right words, and there’s no block because I’m looking at something on the screen, which is always better than looking at nothing.
It’s partly in doing what I know God has made me to do, e.g. Eric Liddell, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” But a big part too is knowing that by God’s grace I’m making an eternal difference in the lives of other people. Meeting readers and getting letters from readers really help me here. I find great joy in hearing how lives have been changed, people have come to Christ, grown and been stretched, or taken bold new steps in following Christ. That’s really rewarding. But what I really try to focus on is the Audience of One. By God’s grace, I pray I’ll hear him say to me one day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” If He says that of some of what I’ve written, now THAT will be my greatest joy in writing! Sometimes I’ve had the joy of sensing His approval here and now. I’m aware enough of my sins and failings that when I sense his approval of my actions or my words, including my writing, it’s a great feeling—and it really makes me want to get back to work. Besides my family and some people I’ve mentored, I think perhaps my writing will be the best legacy I leave.
For me it’s on the big books, the ones that take a couple of years, where all the time in research, drafts, rewrites and going through editorial input is multiplied. I just finished a big book that’s a theology of Heaven designed for ordinary Christians. In my research I read over a hundred books on Heaven, 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 out. If you do five or six revisions, as I usually do, you have to keep going over it again and again. And it’s easy to lose sight of the end. I had some very discouraging times where I stayed up half the night and asked, “Lord, is this going to make a difference? Is it worth it?” God graciously assures you that it is, but it’s really something you have to accept by faith, trusting that the pay-off (a measurable result you can see with your eyes, e.g. the letters from changed readers) will come, even if that book isn’t read by people for another two years. Perseverance is essential in writing...especially on larger projects, I sometimes get stretched to the brink. (And that’s good, because it takes me to my knees, and to my writing prayer team, to ask God for help—apart from Him we can do nothing.)
Immerse yourself in God’s Word, and study sound doctrine, good theology. (One great book, for reference or to read all the way through, is Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or his abridged version of the same, 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. Read Edwards, Spurgeon, Tozer, Packer, and Piper, past and present. You can write a novel without quoting a single Bible verse, but 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 unto 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.
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.