Tag Archives: reading

My Writing Process, Step 3: Read 3 Pieces Before You Start

Dear you,

With tons of help and borrowed insight, you’ve been recovering. That’s so good and hopeful. Don’t forget to celebrate! It’s involved relearning compassion for the small things, and it’s been life-changing, as well as a long time coming. Specifically, you now know you started life like so many men, crying. And like too many men, you could die denying it.



These lessons naturally have required much thinking about your writing process. Which has also led to some deeper questions and considerations. But you’ve fought the nagging urge to rethink everything and undo the progress, and you haven’t tossed the management of the many details of life, which is the whole trick of getting through this better and healthier. Structure is the schedule that creates routines that work well, better, best.

But don’t forget these three simple steps in your process, especially step three.

Step one – to always go back to the start—motive. And regardless of any second thought, set out to return, submitting to what you do know: that you don’t really know where you’re going. Because you can’t.

Like everything, remembering will become easier with practice. But it’s doubtful you’ll ever outgrow the need to be reminded.


Step two The theme you think you’re capturing isn’t what you’ll end up with. The theme will arise naturally, unhurried. Wait for it and write on.

Both of these steps are about letting go, and so is this one,

Step three – Start your writing day with three pieces of high-quality reading.

There’s no getting around this: if you’re trying to be original, you’ve got to give that up. Choose reading that’ll disabuse you of that too-common notion.

Practically speaking, this is crucial and also the easiest step. Because when you make your choices and you decide to take daily drinks from three life-giving wells, you also giving up being original in your work for the day. You read a bit and you get all kinds of new, useful food on the table to be savored.


Here’s the thing: you’ll only become what you consume. And you can’t generate your own food. You can only share what’s borrowed because you’re not that smart. You only have what you’ve been given and all you do is make yourself able to receive it.

And in the words of John Wesley, “Oh, begin!”

(The whole quote is, “What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading….And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase…Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this….Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercise. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”)

You’ve heard this now so you’re responsible. You’ve also heard that you’re only as successful as your three best mentors, your three best friends? Well, this also applies to books. Each book is a friend to teach you, like each of these steps, with humility at the center. You come to the page empty, and then you need to be filled. You don’t write the story. It writes itself. You translate it.


That’s no small task, but it’s a more manageable one than you started out with. Your process will always first be to let go of and unlearn all you think you have or bring. You have nothing. And when you’re empty of self, you’re ready to begin to refill with better food.

Of course, you won’t always want to! Especially when you’re feeling no good or you’re desperate to say something artful or profound. Fine. Put it in your journal. But before you get to work, get free of that. Trying to teach readers when you have so much to learn yourself (!) is like passing out free lemonade when your house is on fire.

And now I make a rule: never tell readers what they can surmise, but always tell them what they can’t. Obviously, this one takes some practice. For example, is it obvious? And if so, did you need to say that?

Writing is tricky, and if you’re doing it to serve readers, good. But set that aside. When you start, don’t try to say something smart. Go to the library. Get acquainted with the people who tried and failed and read them. When you find them, go easy on them, but now you can see what you’re to do.

Now you’re ready to begin.

You want your book to help. Good. If you didn’t, I’d think you forgot the whole point. But to get the church to move toward the oppressed and lost, and away from the corrosive effects of Christian consumer culture and churchianity, you’ve got to give up trying to convince them what you’ve got, and all that well-meaning ambitiousness. Stop selling and start buying the books that came before you. That’s where you’ll find one thing you simply must share.


This can sound like wasting time. It’s not. Inspiration isn’t yours; you don’t claim it. The sooner you get that, the better.

No one has written your book yet or ever could. But if you think any of this is new, you’re not ready. Reestablish the right motive. Restore your faith. And recover the old lines.

God is not about the new. He’s about recovery work.

You were left to cry, and you know now this is at the core of it all–separation and restoration. It’s too late to go home again, but the search is home. The longing is you. Let that be and don’t fight.

But don’t forget it.

For the higher purpose,





Give It Up, Grousers!

Disagreements, differences of perspective, verbal sparring. This is what good stories thrive on. So it's no wonder that sometimes in the course of discussing things we're passionate about–like writing books–writers can get a little heated up.

I witnessed a couple minor disgreements between writers and editors this week over the definition of quality, and I was reminded of the early days of this blog, back when I'd take on the "establishment" and picket low quality in Christian publishing, excited to find quotes from folks like Marilynne Robinson in The Tennessean this week who said, "I think a lot of Christian fiction feels pat." Which sounds like she's saying something to the effect that Christian fiction is low quality, though she goes on to say that it seems many writers (many, not all) don't learn in the course of writing. And this is why it feels pat. Predictable. Expected.  

These days, I think my fire has turned into a babbling brook. Or maybe a little bunny. I don't want to argue anymore. Some people think predictable writing is boring and pat and connotes low quality. Others think it's nice to escape in something comfortable and safe. Whatever. We all have different reasons for reading and different qualifications for our reading material. I think I've grown to appreciate more pat writing in recent months. I don't care if it makes me seem less intelligent or interesting at parties. Pompous objections to predictable fiction are so predictable and they bore me. So there.

After so many years of fighting for "high quality," working to define it by some objective standard, and searching for new ways to enforce it–or at least get high-quality equal attention–I'm tired of it. I love the difference of opinions, but I just want to read good stories. Maybe I'm compromising. Maybe I want too little out of life or something. But I still want a lot. I want to be surprised, challenged, gripped, inspired. I want to read things that expand my view and make me more accepting, more loving, more dead to my selfish demands, not more. I want excellence, but I want a broad definition of that when it comes to opinions about something as particular and complex as novels. Most of all, I want more respect paid to the people who just enjoy reading and for writers to forget the elitism and attitude, the arguments that go nowhere, and the whining about there not being enough good stuff to read. There is. You just might have to search for it among the piles. Or you might just have to write it yourself. Quit your grousing.

That's the way it is in life. You have to work for it.

So my word for the week is to keep reading, keep writing, and keep fighting for high quality however you define that. Just don't be narrow. And don't come barking at my readers when you don't agree my fiction is high quality. Differences of opinion are what make reading much more fun.