Last week we discussed a variety of ways we can receive inspiration, including inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit. When I first began writing, I figured if God sent me inspiration, I should just record it, et viola, it would be perfect. It took a very wise teacher to convince me of the error of my ways. He pointed out that the Biblical writers themselves did much crafting and revising to turn their writing into the finest poetry of their day. I had always gotten the impression that they went into some sort of trance or God just moved their hand or something. In fact, the opposite is true. As I continued studying prophetic traditions, such a trance would be typical of Eastern or pagan religious traditions, but not Judaism or Christianity. The God of the Bible never moves without a person's willing consent.
So let’s take a look at how Biblical writers received inspiration from God. The writers of the prophetic books are especially helpful in explaining how they received their words from God. Many simply say that they heard the word of the Lord, or that the word of the Lord came to them. I assume these authors including Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Zephaniah, and Haggai most likely heard some sort of audible voice. Others like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Zechariah, and John saw visions. Daniel had dreams. Moses actually met with God face to face. Writers of the historical, gospel, and poetic books do not mention any direct intervention by God, although we know from other verses that all Biblical writing is inspired by God. It would be reasonable to assume that they recorded the moves of God they witnessed around them and the poems God placed in their hearts in a simpler manner.
Even in the case of the prophets, many including Isaiah and Jeremiah, crafted the words and visions the Lord gave them into some of the finest poetry of the ancient world. In fact, these poets are still read in secular universities across the nation because of the high caliber of their craftsmanship. Hebrew poetry uses devices such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, hyperbole, synechdoche, and merism just to mention a few. That’s a lot of work to add to a vision. I’m sure it took many long hours of writing and revising.
Throughout the Bible we can see that God uses skilled laborers who have trained and studied in their arts. In Exodus 26 and 28 he appoints skilled craftsmen to build the tabernacle. In I Chronicles 25 we see skilled musicians being assigned to the temple. God honors and appreciates hard work and training, whether it be through formal schooling, mentorship, or the direct tutelage of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, as with every rule, there are exceptions. For example, Habakkuk was not a well educated man, and in his case, God commanded him to record the message given to him word for word. "I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. Then the LORD replied: "Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.” ~ Habakkuk 2:1-2.
And I must confess, that as much as I advocate crafting and hard work, I have seen exceptions in my own life as well. One was a poem I wrote after receiving a hard bump on the head. It was a sestina, which is a highly structured form poem in iambic pentameter. Generally people consider these nearly impossible to write. But that day after smacking myself in the noggin, I jotted down a nearly perfect sestina in under an hour. It’s been published in its original state. Click here to see the poem and a detailed version of this story.
A longer example of an exception would be my narrative nonfiction book. I wrote that manuscript very much under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit in six days, barely stopping to eat or sleep. Because of that, I was able to stay in the flow of the anointing. Now, it did still need proofreading and editing, however, the form and structure of the book were surprisingly strong after only one draft, even though I wrote it with no outline.
But here’s the thing. Before writing that sestina, I had been reading iambic pentameter for months. I had been writing poetry all year. Before writing that book, I had been studying and practicing writing for three and a half years straight. I also studied writing in college and earned a master’s degree in the subject. So you could say I wrote that sestina in an hour, or in twenty-eight years. Likewise, you could say I wrote that book in six days, or thirty-nine years. As we apply ourselves exercising the gifts that God has given us, we become better and better conduits through which he can flow.
We will spend the next few weeks learning about the hard work and crafting we will need to apply to our books in the following areas: strategic planning, form and structure, artistic elements, and technical elements.
But before I close, I want to share some thoughts on the strategic planning stage of writing. If God has given you a simple poem, devotional, essay, etc…it does not require much time to write it down and polish it up. However, before you start an entire book, I highly recommend that you take the idea God has given you and do some strategic planning. The main goal is to figure out what God wants you to say, and who he wants you to say it to.
What God wants you to say could be called your theme—your main point. For example, the theme of my narrative nonfiction book mentioned above is intimacy with Christ. In fiction we sometimes focus more on the premise—a one sentence summary of the plot. For my contemporary novel, I began with a premise: A blonde ballerina, veiled Muslim woman, and New Age hippie chick meet over a group project on diversity. Or perhaps, especially if your idea is more research oriented, you may start with a question. As I mentioned last week, my historical novel began with a question: What is the true nature of love? Before you sit down to write a book, you should have a fairly clear idea of what the purpose of the book is. You should also know the genre. Will it be a biography, narrative nonfiction, novel? If a novel, what kind, historical, romance, sci-fi, ect…? Maybe some combination or genres? If so, which ones?
Who God wants you to give your message to could be called your audience. Who is your audience? Children, teens, young adults, middle-aged women? Christians or non Christians? Average readers or a literary audience? Authors like to think that everyone would enjoy their book, but that’s rarely the case, and publishers want you to target a specific audience. Going back to our Biblical examples, the gospels and epistles clearly demonstrate how the same message can be written with differing audiences in mind. Also note how the giftings and strengths of each writer comes through in their unique presentations of the gospel message.
Once you know your target audience and the general idea of your book, you can begin studying the rules and conventions of that genre. For instance, there are certain word lengths required for different genres. Publishers expect manuscripts in specific fonts and formats. Children’s picture books require a certain numbers of double page spreads. Theatre scripts are typed differently than film scripts. Honestly, I don’t know them all. There are too many. But you can begin learning the genres you desire to write in on your own.
Next week I’ll talk about how to take your theme or premise and begin to turn the idea into a more complex outline or plot structure. Hope you’ll come back for more. Also, later this week I’m going to put up a list of the twenty things I wish I knew before I started writing my first novel for those of you writing in that genre. In the meantime…
Homework: Do some self study into the proper format for your genre and any current rules. Think about the message God has laid on your heart. Run it through the strategic planning stage. What is your purpose, your audience, your story question, your premise, your theme? In other words, what will this accomplish for the kingdom of God?