Who Do You Write For?
Are you a Christian Fiction
author? If so, who do you write for? Do you know?
I didn’t realize who I wrote
for until I took a course author/agent Terry Burns taught at the East Texas
Baptist University’s Christian Writer’s Conference called “Writing for the
Unbeliever.” He started the class by revealing something I’ve never heard
from anyone else: There’s a difference between being called to write and
offering your writing to God. A calling, according to Terry, can be for one
specific book which He will not let you publish until you’ve written it His
way–and until you’re His way. He has a specific purpose for it which you
yourself may not recognize. Out of the forty or so books Terry has published,
he can point to only one he was called to write, Mysterious Ways. That novel
has garnered more response for the Lord than any of his other books. After the
first few emails from folks he’d reached, he had to find the passage God used to
reach them and reread it through their eyes. He was astounded at what he’d
written.
Mysterious Ways is intended
for unbelievers, and the format relies heavily on story to induce the reader to
finish the book even after the salvation message is being presented, which is
considerably later in the book. And it makes sense–if you bombard an
unbeliever with Christian jargon and principles right off the bat, they’re
going to put the book down. They’re not interested. Terry believes they’re
afraid of being convicted by the truth. He may be right.
Writing for unbelievers,
then, means developing a story so intriguing and hooking the reader so securely
that she can’t put the book down. She’ll continue reading through the salvation
message because she wants to know how the story ends. But the story itself is
vital. The author can’t stop writing once the main character is saved, because
it’s too contrived, too “in your face,” and it can turn off the
reader. The story must continue to its natural end. The best story for a
salvation theme is one in which you can yank the salvation thread out, and the
story still stands. The salvation message has to be woven in carefully and has
to evolve naturally as part of the story.
The other audience Terry
mentions in his course is the believers, those who want the faith issue right
up front. These readers want to delve immediately into what the Christian main
character faces, then watch his battle and his victorious outcome, which leaves
him closer to God. This isn’t a salvation-message kind of book. It’s a
faith-building, giant-facing, walking-with-God kind of a book written for
people who want to know they’re not alone in their struggles and want the
affirmation that God will see them through. This book is opposite the one for the
nonbeliever–if you yank out the faith issue, this story will collapse.
But what if you don’t write
for believers or nonbelievers? What if you write for the backsliders, the
nominal Christians, the ones who are Christian by heritage and tradition only?
Or what if you write for seekers, the ones who are hearing the call, but aren’t
ready to accept?
These other two audiences
weren’t covered in Terry’s outline, but by the time his class was over, we’d
analyzed them. Some  write for
backsliders, nominal Christians, etc. That message is basically, “Come
back, He still loves you,” and hits on the issues that keep Christians
from seeking a more fulfilling relationship. Others write for seekers. In a
large way, this gentle message is “Come on in, the Water’s fine!”
Writing for backsliders is
similar in format to writing for nonbelievers: hit the story hard and wrap the
reader up in it before presenting the Christian theme. Unlike novels for
nonbelievers, the message isn’t salvation, but “return to your first love,”
and can be presented through one of the multitude of reasons people don’t seek
a personal relationship with God. Like books for non-Christians, the goal is to
convict the reader and bring (or return) him to Christ. The story structure is
the same, but you can present general Christian principles earlier–as long as
you don’t harp on them–because you’re writing for people who consider
themselves Christians. The story is key here, too, but if you yank out the
Christian message, you’ll have some serious tweeking to do.
The author who writes for
seekers would follow the format of writing for believers: hit the faith issues
early. The issues here aren’t the same as the ones for Christians. These are
the challenging, “If there’s a God, then why . . . ” issues. Seekers
have, to a certain extent, accepted that there’s more to life then the
temporal, but something is holding them back from taking that final step to
recognizing the one true God. The plot is derived from that
“something,” whatever it is, and the theme is a gentle calling to
take that step in faith. In these stories, like the ones for believers, if you
yank the faith thread out, your story will completely unravel. The writing
difference between these books and the ones written for unbelievers lies entirely
in its audience. Unbelievers have either a belligerent disbelief or a complete
lack of knowledge of anything spiritual. Seekers realize there’s more, but have
to be convinced God is the answer.
So, here’s the recap both of
Terry’s outline and how the class amended it:
For nonbelievers, you need a
strong story in which the Christian message is delayed until the reader is
thoroughly hooked. The theme is salvation.
For believers, jump
immediately into the faith issue, without which the story will crumble. Themes
include God is sufficient, all things work together for good–anything that
strengthens the Christian through trials, and is presented through any
temptation or pain a Christian faces and has to respond to/overcome within the
confines of her faith.
For “backsliders,”
write a strong story in which Christian elements are presented early, but the
message is delayed until the reader is hooked. The theme, “Return to your
first love,” is presented through any issue that can separate the believer
from his faith.
For seekers, hit the faith
issue up front, without which the story collapses. The theme is generally
“I am the Way,” and can be presented through any issue that keeps a
seeker from taking that final leap of faith.
Keep in mind, the story
always has to be strong, it doesn’t matter who you’re writing for. Give any
reader a poorly written story, and the message will never get read. The
difference is where in the story the Christian message is presented.