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 beligerant 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.