We at FaithWriters are immensely privileged and blessed to get some first-hand insight from multi-published, bestselling Christian author Philip Yancey.
Read on to learn about Mr. Yancey’s writing process, his advice for new writers, and more.
JOANNE SHER: Where do you get ideas for your books and articles?
PHILIP YANCEY: Most start with a question that I have, one to which I don’t know the answer. If I knew the answer, of course, I’d be bored within a few weeks. As a result, many of my books have titles that pose a question (What Good Is God?, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?). And often I’ll hear from readers who point out something I’d never thought of or suggest another line of inquiry—that comment will spark my interest and soon I’ll be off on another project. Reading also enters in. I’ll find myself reading in a certain field and then thinking, “I should write about that…”
JOANNE: How did you get your first book published?
YANCEY: I had the advantage of working for a magazine, Campus Life, and as a result I knew some of the people involved in book publishing. I had written hundreds of articles, yet the idea of writing a whole book was intimidating. My very first book, long out of print, was called After the Wedding and told the stories of twelve couples and the problems they faced in the first five years of marriage. I approached it as a collection of articles, unable to carry around the burden of anything longer than an article. The next book, Where Is God When It Hurts, came out of my interviews with people who felt confused by fellow Christians’ mixed advice on the issue of suffering. Getting that first book published is a huge hurdle; surmount that and you’re on your way.
JOANNE: How do you improve your writing?
YANCEY: Two ways: 1) I read voraciously, and try to read writers who have something to teach me about style as well as content. 2) I have a few, very few, trusted friends who will edit me with a scowl. Most people want you to feel good so they give you compliments about your writing, and these don’t help at all (except emotionally). Really, you need some grouches to edit your work.
JOANNE: What advice do you have for new writers?
YANCEY: I always recommend that writers join a writers’ group in which they read aloud their works in progress. Writing is a demanding, stress-producing activity, and is best not attempted alone. Also, I don’t recommend that a writer start out as a freelancer; it’s just too bruising to the psyche. If you can get a job, any job, in a publishing environment, that helps ease the transition to the writing world. And the most important advice: keep writing on a regular basis. Blogs are a new and helpful way to keep the process going. You can’t make money as a blogger, but you keep working with words, which is the essence of writing.
JOANNE: What are some things writers should avoid when seeking publication and/or improvement of their writing?
YANCEY: When I started out I had a fear of running out of material. I kept wanting to hold back stories and ideas for future books. That’s a terrible mistake, I decided. You should pour everything you have into a book if it relates to the topic at all. Don’t worry, more material will appear. Don’t hold back.
JOANNE: How do you handle writer’s block?
YANCEY: I move on to a different part of the writing process. For me, writing divides into three stages: 1) preparation, which includes research and interviews, 2) composing, the source of all the fear and pain, and 3) editing or cleaning up what I’ve written. Writer’s block only hits me in stage number 2, and then I go back and do more research or start editing what I’ve just written until I feel back in the flow again.
JOANNE: Is there anything in your writing journey you wish you had done differently?
YANCEY: I’ve never been asked that! Nothing comes to mind, and for that I feel blessed. My years as a magazine editor were thrilling and gave me great practice. My books with Dr. Brand allowed me to lean on someone else for basic content while I developed my own style. Finally, I turned to more introspective, personal-journey accounts as I focused more on my own story rather than other people’s. Perhaps I wasted some time in the early days of journalism when everything seemed of interest and I wrote about irrelevant topics. Yet overall I have no regrets. The battle I fight now is the pull of distractions: I accept too many speaking engagements, spend time on blogs and Facebook, travel too much. Down deep, these are probably ways of avoiding writing, and I’ll regret that someday.
JOANNE: What does your writing process look like?
YANCEY: I begin by reading everything I can on a subject—within limits, of course. When I wrote about Jesus and about prayer, it was impossible to read the many shelves of books. Usually I interview ordinary people, dozens of interviews, because I approach topics as a journalist and I want a clear idea of how the ordinary reader approaches a topic. Then I outline laboriously, my outlines almost as long as the chapters. The outlining takes care of the left-brain, logical-sequence stage, yet when I actually start writing the outline gets lost in the dust. I find myself going in many directions, and later in the editing stage I have to go back and make major cuts; usually around 100 pages get cut from the final draft. That seems inefficient, I know. I wish I could write without the lengthy outlining process, and I wish I could anticipate in advance what portions will get cut, but I can’t. I have to go through that process with every book.
JOANNE: What is your latest book about? Any other book in the works?
YANCEY: What Good Is God? tells of experiences I had in my travels around the world, difficult places like Mumbai, India, the night of the terrorist attacks, and Virginia Tech University just after the crazed gunman, as well as thrilling places like modern China and South Africa. Half the chapters are set overseas, half in the U.S., and in each case I tell “the story behind the story” of what happened as I was invited to speak.
Yes, I do have another book in the works, so primitive at this stage that I’m not even sure how to talk about it, though it deals with the general area of Christians relating to a secular society around us.
JOANNE: Do you have anything else you would like to share with our writers?
YANCEY: I’m aware that the entire publishing world is in a great state of flux. Traditional publishers printed hard-copy books and shipped them to bricks-and-mortar stores. Now electronic outlets have introduced many ways for a writer to connect to a reader, and we don’t know what that will look like in twenty years, or even ten years. Bookstores are going out of business at an alarming rate. The act of reading itself is changing, from a lengthy immersion in a book to a multi-tasking sampling of words from several sources at once. I feel like I’ve lived through the golden age of publishing. However, if I were in my early twenties rather than my early sixties I would be very excited about the new opportunities. That’s for the next generation to work out. Good luck!
JOANNE: Thank you so much, Mr. Yancey, for joining us here and sharing your wisdom! I’m sure the FaithWriters’ folks will be blessed. I know I have been.
About Philip Yancey: Philip Yancey is author of twenty books, including What’s So Amazing About Grace and The Jesus I Never Knew. His books have won thirteen Gold Medallion Awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and have sold more than fifteen million copies. (Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and The Gift of Pain were co-authored with Dr. Paul Brand.) Christian bookstore managers selected The Jesus I Never Knew as the 1996 Book of the Year, and What’s So Amazing About Grace? won the same award in 1998. You can learn more about him at his website, PhilipYancey.com.