A biographical glimpse into Michael Phillips’ roots as a bookseller, 2004
The year 2004 has brought two significant milestones to the life of 57-year old bookseller, editor, publisher, and author Michael Phillips.
After a writing career of more than 27 years, his 99th published title, Together Is All We Need, was recently released from Bethany House Publishers, and has appeared on ECPA’s Top 100 Books list. Two months later, in June, Phillips and his wife Judy made the painful decision to close their Christian bookstore, the One Way Book Shop, after 35 years of service to its local Christian community.
Despite such twin long-term achievements in an industry dominated by temporary trends, Michael Phillips may be the best kept secret in his own home town.
Not long ago a customer came to the counter of the store the Phillips operated for over three decades until its recent closure, with a set of the four Shenandoah Sisters books, the current bestselling Phillips fiction series. Waited on by Judy Phillips, when the transaction was completed, she asked, “Would you like Mike to sign these?”
The longtime customer and friend of Mrs. Phillips stared back, uncertain how to respond. “I’m not sure what you mean?” she said.
“Would you like my husband to autograph these? He’s here—he’ll sign them if you like.”
“But why would your husband sign them?” asked the lady.
“Oh, I thought you knew,” replied Judy. “He wrote them.”
“Your husband…wrote these books!” exclaimed the astonished customer. “Your husband is this Michael Phillips!”
A few minutes later, taking a break from rearranging bookshelves in the back of the store, Phillips himself was at the counter, signing the books and chatting freely with the awestruck customer.
“I’ve been coming into your store as long as I can remember,” said the woman, “and reading your books for years too! Everyone in our family loves your books. I had no idea you were the owner of the store!
Beginnings of ministry in books
Both Phillips have grown accustomed to such occurrences. They take them in stride as just one facet of a Christian bookstore ministry that has spanned 35 years. The store began during their college days at Humboldt State College in Arcata, the small town of 12,000 where Phillips was born on the coast of the Pacific in northern California. It is with some pride that Mike and Judy tell people that they have shared the ministry of their One Way Book Shop longer even than they have their marriage of 34 years.
It was during the infancy of their store, sitting at a card table between rare customers with an old manual typewriter, that Michael Phillips’ writing began. That was in the winter of late 1969 and early 1970. His writings from those early days (a non-fiction treatise on 1 Corinthians 13, for which he received his first rejection letter from Ken Taylor who said he did not feel the young writer understood the topic well enough to expound on it, and a fictional account of the gospel writer Mark, which was never completed) did not see the light of day.
The beginning of the One Way Book Shop, as recounted by Phillips, is an amazing story in itself.
“My wife Judy and I met through a Christian organization on campus. There was a tremendous bond of friendship and vision between us which had at its center a common desire to reach into parts of the Christian body on campus other than our own particular group. We wanted as individuals and as a group to be visibly ‘one’ with other Christian fellowships. We wanted to be actively identified with other members of God’s family. We worked hard to strengthen the ties between our evangelical group and the Catholic Newman Club on campus.
“The One Way Book Shop was born out of those early times in our lives. The store was an outgrowth of that vision of Christians united and functioning properly together. As the store has grown that has remained at the core of what it stands for. Our constant guideline has been, “How can this store serve and minister to these people we love?”
“After my college graduation in 1969 and an eventful spiritual summer in Germany in which Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion played a pivotal role, a friend made a chance comment that changed my life. “You know one thing I’ve been thinking about this summer is starting a small bookstore.” The subject did not come up again.
“But over the next few months something slowly began to happen inside me. Having been so powerfully influenced by books during the summer, more material by other Christian writers began to interest me. I began to discover such men as Brother Lawrence, Henry Drummond, C.S. Lewis, Keith Miller, Francis Schaeffer, and Brother Andrew. Christian books began to play a more significant role in my growth than before. But I found it difficult to find sources for good Christian reading.
“Suddenly the idea popped into my head, “If I’m not going to be able to find Christian books, and if I’m going to have to order Kelly’s book every time I want to share it, why not get a business permit and order them myself?”
“I soon discovered, however, that a permit by itself did me no good. What I yet didn’t know was that there is no central place you can write to for everything you want. To order books I had to write to each individual publisher. But when the replies to my inquiries began to trickle back, what I got were forms not books. Long forms with dozens of questions: “What are your store hours…what were your sales last year…two years ago…is your store located in a business district…what are the inside dimensions of your store? Please send us a picture of your store sign. What is your net worth? Send us several trade credit references.”
“That wasn’t what I had in mind at all! We didn’t even have a store. The more I found out the more involved and confusing it all became. As one thing led to another and as I received more replies from companies (all asking the same bunch of questions—unnecessary as far as I was concerned) the desire to “just order a few books” gave way to the desire to conquer these forms, these companies, these regulations, these delays, this red tape!
“Somewhere in the midst of a desk full of forms and questions and my replies, I got hooked. I passed the point of no return. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time. I still had myself convinced I was going to get a few accounts and then ‘just order a few books.’
“Once several of these forms had been filled out and sent in, a new idea began to form between myself and my roommates. At this time our apartment was a center for many Christian activities, both campus and community oriented. There were meetings of some kind once or twice a week. We began to think, ‘Once we get some accounts set up, why don’t we place a few small orders? Why not set up a small bookshelf of things to make available during all our meetings.’
“So as our first two or three accounts came through and with them book catalogs, we were anxious to order from them. It didn’t matter what it was. Anything would do. It didn’t matter that we barely had enough money for school. Who cared if we got any good books? We’d have taken anything we could get. So as we scanned our first catalogs, our eyes hit upon anything. I still vividly remember the excitement we felt in getting our first accounts and then those first small orders, arranging them on the only bookshelf we had along with our schoolbooks.
“For several weeks there they remained, the little stack growing every week or so when a new small box would come in the mail. We added a few of our own books to it, then friends began to add some of their books they no longer wanted to beef up the infant inventory. One night at a Bible study, one of our fellow students saw something she wanted—a used book we had marked at fifty cents. One Way’s first sale had been made!
“At the top of the long narrow flight of stairs to our apartment sat an empty bedroom we hadn’t used in three years. One day someone suggested, ‘Hey, why don’t we fix up that empty room to keep our little store of books in?’ So we built three bookshelves, painted them “Kelly” green, cleaned up the room, and moved our few books in.
“By January (1970) I had finished my credential work and was student teaching in the mornings. I had afternoons virtually free. I had no job prospects. The thought came to me, ‘Here it is. We have a room fixed up. We have shelves and a few books. Our apartment is in the business district. Why not open to the public a few hours a day?’
“It was a crazy beginning. But it was a store nevertheless. And slowly some adventurous persons began to wander up that long, dark flight of stairs to see Arcata’s new Christian book store. Slowly we increased our number of books until we had our three shelves nearly filled.
“Our sales at first were largely from friends buying things during meetings at the apartment. The growth came in spite of everything I did wrong. Manning the store at times was just getting someone, anyone, to be there. If I had to be gone I might call at the last minute to see if one of my roommates was going to be home that afternoon. If not, I called upon Judy and her roommates! It didn’t matter that he might be studying or taking a shower in another part of the apartment. If someone was there the store could be open. One day I left the store for a couple of hours in the hands of a friend. He then left it for about twenty minutes with a hitchhiker he had picked up the previous day. When I got back everyone was gone, and so was the $20 from the cash box.
“How the store survived I often wondered. Many times when I went to the bank I was certain He was treating our money as He did the loaves and fishes. During those first months it usually seemed our deposits somehow exceeded our sales.
“By the summer our little room was looking more and more like a genuine shop. When people came in they liked what they saw. The store was acquiring an identity that stuck in people’s minds. It was somehow unique, not like the usual Bible bookstore. In my mind it was looking more and more like something that could at least help support me. For a year I had been looking for a full-time teaching job without success. So I was open to anything.
“’Might as well stick with it and see where the Lord takes it, I thought.'”
Michael and Judy were married in 1971. They continued to expand their One Way Book Shop and a few years later started a family. Twin boys and a third son were born in 1975 and 1977.
All this time Phillips continued to write, sporadically in the early years and more regularly as time went on—at the counter of the bookstore, on the kitchen table at home, in the living room, in a spare bedroom, wherever he could snatch enough space to plunk down his portable Hermes. Free time in which to write was never a requirement, because there was none. After the bookstore went full time, the writing had to be squeezed into the midst of the demands of keeping a store open 50 hours a week almost singlehandedly. Pausing now and then to ring up a sale or to answer a question about Bibles or music or Sunday school curriculum, Phillips tried to find fifteen or twenty minutes a day—half an hour or hour if he was lucky!—to add a half page to whatever happened to be sticking out of the typewriter on his desk. If the ordering and pricing and shelf-stocking and bill-paying were done for the day, he might treat himself to the luxury of lugging the Hermes to the counter for the rest of the day.
Few of the customers who came to love the One Way Book Shop for its atmosphere of quiet peace and sense of God’s presence, could have known that the young man banging away on his typewriter and sitting on a stool beside the cash register, was building the foundation for one of the most versatile writing careers to emerge in Christian publishing during those years.
“It was all non-fiction writing back in those days,” Phillips explains. “My first completed book after the Taylor rejection was an apologetic for the Christian faith, based on the ideas of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, which I put together for a couple of non-Christian friends.
“My first published book was a chronicle of the early years of our marriage called A Christian Family In Action, published by Bethany House in 1977. It was followed by a book about our store, then the apologetic I had done for my friends, Does Christianity Make Sense (1978) with Scripture Press. Over the next five years, I wrote another half dozen non-fiction titles.
“As for fiction writing,” Phillips says, “I never gave it a thought. After the attempt with Mark stalled at about seventy-five pages, I basically gave up. I didn’t know what to do—how to actually string a completed story together from start to finish. My early attempt left me so entirely mystified that I never tried fiction again. It did not enter my mind that I would—or even could—write a novel. It was an unknown world to me, a world of mystery I did not understand.
“Non-fiction was easy to comprehend—that was about ideas. If one could learn to organize ideas well, and to communicate ideas in a way people understood, then it seemed that perhaps someone like me (with no background in writing, and no particular gift toward the creative disciplines) might yet learn to write effectively. That’s what I tried to do during those first years of my writing—study to learn the techniques of effective communication, and how to express myself in print through the medium of words and ideas. But fiction…that was another world which I assumed was forever locked to me. I read novels. Lewis’s Narnia was a favorite. By then Judy and I had discovered George MacDonald and had fallen in love with the man and his work. But as to doing such a thing myself, I did not consider it a possibility.”
With a physics major, and math and history minors, Phillips is the first to admit that English, both literature and composition, was his most difficult subject throughout all the years of his schooling—pointing to his first Creative Writing assignment as a senior in college, which received an F, as evidence that he desperately needed help learning how to write . The groundwork was being laid, however. In the reading of those MacDonald books, in his writing at the bookstore counter, and in his assiduous study of books on the techniques of writing, the future author was honing the skills that would ultimately produce an enormous body of fiction in the years to come.
From then to now
From its inauspicious beginnings, the One Way Book Shop eventually grew to five sizeable stores between the San Francisco bay area and North Bend, Oregon. Michael and Judy continued to make Eureka their home base and for most of that time oversaw and managed the Eureka store themselves. Phillips’ second book, Growth of a Vision, chronicled the story of the store’s vision and growth. Its publication also inaugurated the Phillips’ publishing company, Sunrise Books, which would a decade later bring the world many of the original works of George MacDonald for the first time in the 20th century.
Now, more than thirty years later, there are those who come into Eureka’s One Way Book Shop specifically to meet or shake hands with, or even just get a glimpse of the well-known novelist and bookstore owner. He or Judy may see such a one standing perusing the Lewis and MacDonald shelf, or wandering about the store holding six or eight Phillips titles, glancing occasionally in their direction, then nervously approaching to ask, “Are you Michael Phillips?” or, as is most often the case, if only Judy is present, “Are you Michael Phillips’ wife?” The result of such exchanges is often a stack of books for Michael to sign.
Such visitors come from everywhere, from up and down the west coast, from throughout the U.S. and Canada, even from around the world. One day recently brought visitors from Vancouver, B.C. and New Zealand on the same day. A man from Singapore whom they had never met telephoned from the San Francisco airport to say that he was making the six hour drive up to Eureka just to meet Michael Phillips, but would only have a short time before having to turn around and drive back to make his next flight.
Phillips remains awed about the notoriety his books have brought him. During a visit that is not without embarrassment as out-of-town visitors lavish their praises and take pictures, Phillips might sneak over to some local friend or long-time customer who happens to be in the store watching with amusement, and whisper with a sheepish grin, “Can you believe this!” Though his local readership has grown through the years, most do not take pictures or ask for autographs. If he happens to be in the store when they come in, a hug and few words of renewed affection will undoubtedly follow, and then the next moment he might be advising them on a reference book or a certain Bible translation, or simply chatting or catching up on the passage of time. To many locals he is still the young man who sold them their first Bible thirty years ago, or hand-made a leather cover for their Bible, or gave them a book without charge at some particular time of need in their life. The fact that he also happens to write books, some of the bookstore clientele are aware of that fact, but most, according to the Phillips, probably aren’t.
Phillips’ wife Judy (a successful harpist who maintains a studio in their home) took over full-time management of the bookstore and Sunrise Publishing after sixteen years home schooling their three sons. Her dedication to the bookstore gave Michael greater freedom to write without interruption. While in the store, Judy always did her best to increase local awareness of her husband’s books.
“I give away a lot of Mike’s books,” says Judy. “It isn’t just that I want people to know that my husband writes books, they are good books. That’s why I want people to read them. When someone expresses a need, there is often a book Mike has written that addressed it perfectly. So I try to make people aware of books they might not know of. I’m Mike’s greatest fan—there’s nobody that does what he does. His books are unique. I want people to know. I especially like to give away Make Me Like Jesus. I’ve probably given away a hundred or more in our store. Giving away books has been part of our ministry from the beginning. It makes it all the more special to give away something of our own. When you go to Scotland, few people have heard of George MacDonald, even in his own home town. That’s not how it should be. So maybe I am a little zealous in my campaign to get Mike’s books into circulation in Eureka and Humboldt County, but it’s only because they’re so good.”
“Years ago,” Phillips says, “it seemed that very few people who came into our store knew anything about my writing. I remember one occasion when I was alone in the store and had my typewriter at the counter. I saw a lady walk toward me with a small stack of books that included a book I had written, one of the MacDonald’s I had edited, and a book we had published through Sunrise, our own publishing company here in Eureka. There I was typing away on a new book, when it came time to ring up a sale of books I had written, edited, and published. It was an exchange I’ve never forgotten—a sort of bringing to full circle everything I have done through the years as a bookseller, author, editor, and publisher. But what made the moment most memorable was that the lady never knew that I had anything to do with those books she was buying, nor that I was writing another book at the time. She was buying them because she wanted those particular books, not because they had anything to do with me. So we passed a few words between clerk and customer, as that’s what I was in her eyes, I rang up the sale, and she left with the books. Nothing was ever said about my connection with them, and I felt warm and content inside in the knowledge that all these various phases of my work—editing, writing, publishing, and bookselling—had, in a sense, come to fulfillment in that moment as I watched those books leave the store.”
There are occasions when Michael will speak up about what he has done, though he always finds doing so difficult and embarrassing. When he first became involved in high school track and cross country coaching some eight years ago (Michael himself was an elite middle-distance runner during his college years), a memorable conversation took place with one of the other coaches. They had taken the team of runners (one of whom was the Phillips’ youngest son) to the beach for a run, and while waiting for them to return fell to chatting about their various experiences in collegiate running in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Did you follow Jim Ryun?” asked his fellow coach.
“Oh, sure,” replied Michael. “Back then, who didn’t.”
“Yeah, he was the greatest. You know, I read a book about him not too long ago. It was really good. Did you ever read it—it’s called In Quest of Gold?”
Michael glanced over at his new friend with a questioning expression, unsure how to respond. At first he thought his leg was being good-naturedly pulled. “Uh…are you kidding?” he asked with a smile.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean asking about that book.”
“Why would I be kidding? No, I just wanted to know if you’d read it—I thought it was great.”
At last Michael realized the confusion in the man’s voice to be genuine. “Well,” he began a little awkwardly, “yes, I do know the book. Actually…I sort of wrote it.”
His friend now stared back, even more bewildered than Michael had been before.
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
“No. I spent five weeks living with the Ryuns and…well, yes—I wrote Jim’s biography.”
The rest of the day’s conversation, until Michael’s son and the other runners returned, was taken up with a flurry of wide-eyed questions about Jim Ryun’s running career and what it had been like to write his biography, with continued exclamations of disbelief from the other local coach that he was walking along the beach with the famous Olympian’s friend and the author of In Quest of Gold.
One of Michael’s two sisters recently had a similar experience. Encountering a friend in the grocery store, the woman went on and on about a certain author she had discovered who was, in her words, unlike any author she had ever read.
“My favorite of his books is a series called ‘The Russians,’” the woman said. “You have to read it—it’s so good! I can loan you the books if you want.”
Michael’s sister felt the same awkwardness about how to reply. “I do know about those books,” she said at length.
“Have you read them?” asked her friend.
“Yes…I have. Actually…my brother wrote them.”
“Get out of town—I know you’re kidding me!” exclaimed her friend.
“No, I’m serious. Mike Phillips is my brother.” What Phillips’ sister did not divulge was that one of the very books they were talking about was not only written by her brother, but was dedicated to her.
End of an era
Through the years, the growth of Michael’s writing and the increasing demands on his time gradually prompted the selling or closing of their other bookstores in northern California and southern Oregon. But they always expected their Eureka store to go on forever. Changing market conditions, however, and dwindling church support finally made that a practical impossibility. After 35 years in the bookstore ministry, the Phillips recently made the painful decision to close the doors of their single remaining beloved One Way Book Shop.
As Michael returned to the bookstore to work alongside Judy during their final closing sale, he was astonished at the number of people buying his books. Judy’s efforts in recent years would seem to have been successful.
As he “clerked” behind the cash register, or sat at the counter during slack times (a Mac iBook replacing his portable Hermes) still trying to squeeze in a few paragraphs in the same way he did so many years ago, he was more aware of the steady stream of customers with his books in their hands, and the occasional glances that came his way, and the sheepish request, “Would you mind signing these?”
“Whereas ten or fifteen years ago when I was in the store regularly,” Phillips says, “I suppose it might have been one person in twenty who was aware of my ‘other life’ as an author. My dad used to poke fun at me and ask when I was going to get a real job. Now it might be one in ten. But my author hat falls off, whenever I’m in the store. That’s when I immediately revert to being a bookseller. It’s how I started. It’s in the marrow of my bones. I love bookselling as much as book writing. There is nothing so wonderful as helping someone pick out a Bible. At such times, the author part of me couldn’t be further from my mind. I’m back thirty years in the past, running the store myself, and relishing in that personal interaction with the living, breathing, functioning body of Christ. Bookselling extends deeper into the fiber of my being than writing.”
When Michael Phillips speaks of bookselling, the emphasis is always on books not selling. A little known aspect of One Way Book Shop’s policy, emphasizing to what an extent ministry always sat at the foundation of the Phillips’ vision, was their requirement that every staff member—prayerfully asking the Lord for sensitivity to their customer’s needs—give away at least one book a week.
“The success of my writing is still overwhelming,” Phillips says. “I’m not sure I quite understand it. I don’t like to overspiritualize things, but God has certainly been at work. I suppose I will always be slightly uncomfortable inside my ‘author’s skin’ simply because I’m aware that it has been God’s doing more than my own. Yes, I’ve worked hard to learn the craft, and hard work pays off. Yes, I’ve been diligent and disciplined. I suppose I know people pretty well and love to explore motives and growth and spiritual development in my characters. More than anything, I love the world of spiritual ideas. I delight to interweave a good plot with characters who are personally growing and wrestling with significant spiritual concepts. However, I am also very aware of my own limitations. I do not consider myself an enormously gifted or creative individual, just a diligent and hard-working one. Thus, I am so conscious of God’s having, in a sense, elevated my work to a higher level than I could have achieved on my own. I am, and will always remain, in awe of what he has done through my writing. God has been very good to me.
“The compliments and praises from readers always make me uncomfortable for that reason. I don’t feel like an author. I feel like a bookseller. When I walk into our Bible alcove and begin speaking with someone who has questions about Bibles and which Bible would be best for them, that may be a time when I feel most comfortable with who I am and where God has placed me. That is the hardest thing about having to close our bookstore.”
When asked about the future of an industry which is seeing ministry-based stores like his close almost weekly, the pain in Phillips’ tone is palpable. It is clear it is a pain he feels not for his own loss, but for the loss of something vital to the Christian community, and, in his opinion, the loss of foundationally important priorities in an industry he loves.
“People just aren’t going to have their questions about God’s Word answered in that same personal way at Walmart, Costco, or Borders,” he says. “It is not unusual for Judy or me to spend half an hour or more, one-on-one, over the selection of a Bible, or in quiet conversation with someone in great personal need. A few months before our closing, a young man gave his heart to the Lord in our store. Are those things going to happen in Walmart or in Borders or from online buying?
“Unfortunately, those are the directions our industry has moved. Small, personal, one-on-one Christian bookstores, with Bible alcoves and people who care about ministry to the local body of Christ, are on the way out. Judy and I went into our local Borders three days before our last day. Its ‘Religion’ section was in the process of a major revamping and expansion in response to our closing. A little section in Borders, adjacent to those sections promoting Islam, homosexuality, and abortion, will now be Eureka’s source for Christian books. It is heartbreaking to see these changes. Yet the policies of Christian publishers, and direct buying by churches, and almost nil support from pastors and Bible study leaders, has made such shifts inevitable. In a few years, nobody will be selling Bibles in the personal way Judy and I have always done, and many other small bookstore owners have done for many years.
“The Christian community is losing something that has been extremely valuable in its development and growth over the last fifty years. Yet it is Christian publishers and the churches themselves who are squeezing the lifeblood out of this incredibly valuable ministry. The sadness we feel is impossible to put into words, not at the loss of our own bookstore so much as for the loss it represents to the entire body of Christ. But churches are isolated and self-absorbed in their focus of ministry. They find it almost impossible to look beyond their own walls toward other ministries that perhaps need their support. When you add to this the obsession of publishers to make inroads into the wider worlds of big box retailing and other secular markets, and to curry church business by omitting the middle-man, you have a situation where both churches and publishers have forgotten the hands that feed them. Or, put another way, the many hands of ministry that have contributed in so many ways to their own growth.”
A foundation of ministry to Christ’s body
A common theme in Michael Phillips’ life is excellence. It is visible in his writings, in his personal life, and in the way in which he and Judy operated and managed their business for 35 years. The ministry base has distinguished their One Way Book Shops not only from the secular institutions that have at last taken over, but in many ways also from most other Christian bookstores. This foundation can be clearly seen from the lengthy “Training Manual” the Phillips have used for years to train their staff and inculcate their unique perspective of business and ministry to all those who have worked for them. In it they write:
Working for One Way is a challenge. The following pages outline in the material world the practical working out of a vision of service to the body of God’s people in the spiritual world. No spiritual vision means anything unless it has earthly results. God’s work always follows this pattern—he gives a vision and then gives practical leading as to how that vision is to be carried out daily in the world in very practical ways.
This business is founded upon a vision of unity among and service to the body of God’s people. When God gives a vision of a work he wants a man or woman or a group of people to do, that vision can either be carried out as God intended, or as something less.
I choose to carry out what God has given me to do as close to perfection as possible. I make no apologies for it. I am proud to be a perfectionist with high standards. Because I think this ministry God has given us, a ministry to his people, a ministry of helps and encouragement, a ministry of equipping the saints to minister out in all the corners of the world, a ministry of equipping the saints to do battle with the enemy—I believe this ministry to be one of the most vital ministries of God today. Not only vital—exciting! Life-changing! Therefore, I urgently believe that this ministry is to reflect the perfection and the order and the glory of the God who created it. Even a 1% sloppiness in any aspect of what we do is something I am ashamed of before God. When someone walks into our store, he should instantly feel, “This place reflects the God who made all things perfectly.”
This is a ministry, not a business, at root. And that effects everything about how we run it. In working at the One Way Book Shop you will be part of a challenging and exciting, yet very demanding ministry. In a very real way this ministry, through our stores, is in touch with the very lifeblood of the body of Christ in the areas we represent. People come into the stores every day from every conceivable part of the Christian community. Many who come through our doors are not Christians at all.
But everyone who comes into one of our stores is influenced by it in some way—by the atmosphere they feel, by the music they hear, by the books they are exposed to, and by the way they are treated and spoken to by each one of us. We will never know the scope of how God has used our stores. Not only with respect to those people who actually come into the stores, but also considering the recipients of items purchased in the store. How many people have become Christians through Godly literature! It is a high calling which God has given us. We cannot take it lightly.
Not only is God doing a work in our customers through the store, but he is also carrying out something tremendous in us. From our position in the store, we have a unique perspective of people in our local area. Knowing so many people from such varying backgrounds and from such a multitude of churches, we have sort of an “inside look” into the daily, living, breathing Church of Jesus Christ. For the body is simply God’s people, interacting together and with the world, And we have the unparalleled opportunity every day to be right inside this body, feeling its very heartbeat, watching it learn, and seeing it grow daily as new people come to know the Lord in a living and active way. We can even be part of that growth process, helping it along by our sensitivity to what God is doing in individual hearts as they make up the whole.
There is a high significance to God’s work in ordinary people. God’s wonderful plan which will last throughout eternity becomes so close, so reachable. It is right here. It is ME and how I respond to Gods voice within me and whoever is near me in the next five minutes. If I love, and thank God continuously, then great things happen. If I forget that this person I have been thrown briefly into contact with is a lovely creation of God, then I hurt the whole of God’s plan for me for this day.
That is what is thrilling about being in this business with people each day. We get to see this process actually happening. We get to participate in it and hopefully help it along in people’s lives. This is the vision for the store and its ministry—people . . . God’s people. People learning, reading, growing, giving, sharing, talking, praying, ministering, suffering, trusting, laughing. These all happen daily in the stores. We have been entrusted with the oversight of a ministry upon which much depends. A heavy responsibility accompanies working here. If we are not in tune with the Lord and with those around us, people will suffer. But the Lord gives grace and abundantly blesses for even our smallest faithfulness.
Also the best kept secret in CBA
If Michael Phillips is gradually becoming more known within his own community he may still be one of the best kept secrets in CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). How many authors have produced 99 books and yet have remained mostly under the radar? Yet Phillips has quietly and almost invisibly risen to the highest echelons in Christian fiction, and has remained at that peak for over two decades.
A visionary who takes the word “impossible” as a challenge, Phillips’ career as a novelist began in the 1970s with his and Judy’s discovery of the works of George MacDonald (1824-1905), the author responsible for C.S. Lewis’s pilgrimage to Christianity and the man Phillips considers his own spiritual and literary mentor as well. At the time not a single full-length adult novel of MacDonald’s was in print. Phillips thus embarked on an ambitious lifetime project to re-acquaint the public with the long-forgotten Victorian.
The initial roadblocks to his success were much like the barriers thrown into his path by the questionnaires from publishers wanting to know every detail about his non-existent “store.” Rather than intimidating him, the skepticism of the publishing world to resurrect an unknown Victorian author made him more determined than ever. Though initially rejected by over thirty publishers, Phillips’ edited and redacted editions of George MacDonald’s novels were ultimately so successful that all MacDonald’s work is now back in print, dozens of companies now publish his books in a wide variety of editions, and the nearly-forgotten Scotsman has reemerged as an influence in the spiritual development of multiple thousands the world over.
Phillips has brought this same vision, combined with hard work and tireless dedication to every aspect of his work, from bookselling to the management of his business to his writing to publishing. His groundbreaking efforts can be seen extending all the way back to his first bookselling years. He was one of the pioneers in the early 1970s to break Christian bookselling out of the dusty mold of previous generations, turning his small chain into upbeat, bright, contemporary, music-filled environments that were considered by many salesmen of the region the most cutting edge bookstores in northern California. His stores were not huge and thus did not gain national attention. Yet the sales representatives who traveled the region recognized the ministry of Michael and Judy Phillips as something special in the industry.
When he began writing, Phillips brought the same vision and innovation to that segment of the industry, first by his work with MacDonald and later with his own novels. He was writing before anyone had heard the names Oke, Thoene, or Peretti. His edited editions of George MacDonald were the first major “gothic” genre historical series in CBA. Along with Janette Oke’s frontier books, Phillips’ series helped spawn an entire decade of successful historical fiction in the Christian marketplace.
Phillips also inaugurated the first successful co-writing team in Christian fiction. More than a decade before anyone had heard of LaHaye/Jenkins, or any of another half-dozen co-writing duos that followed , Michael Phillips had established the Phillips/Pella team on one best-seller list after another.
Though Tyndale House Publishers, since the success of the Left Behind series, is now recognized as a fiction powerhouse, it was not always so. In the early 1990s, seeking to develop an almost non-existent fiction line, it was to Michael Phillips that the executive board of Tyndale House turned, not only to provide the foundation of the new line of fiction with a new series of his own, but to help them formulate their fiction strategy and objectives with his input at all levels of the process. They recognized Phillips’ significant role as an influential individual of stature within the industry. Executive Editor Ron Beers still points to Phillips as the man who got their fiction line going with his Secret of the Rose series. “I’ve never made any secret of the fact,” says Beers, “and have said this to Mike openly, that he helped us get the whole thing off the ground. Tyndale will always be deeply indebted to him.”
“Success is measured on many levels,” Phillips says. “There are always Okes, Perettis, LaHayes, or Jenkins who happen to have the more flashy runaway best-sellers at any given time. And deservedly so. Some of these folks are gifted writers who are able to capture the public imagination in ways that perhaps my books don’t quite do. I don’t write for worldly measures of success, or for notoriety. I write to tell what are hopefully good stories, and to get under people’s skin. I write for consistency, for longevity, for creative diversity. When you think of Janette Oke, what do you think of? You think of a particular kind of book. When you think of Frank Peretti, what do you think of? Again, you think of one particular kind of book, different than Janette’s but pretty much representative of what Frank has done. When you think of LaHaye/Jenkins, what do you think of? You think of sensationalistic prophecy thrillers and that’s it.
“I’ve never been satisfied to write just one kind of book. I’m always experimenting, always trying new things as a writer. I value consistency and longevity more than having a single runaway best-seller or top-selling series that will be here today, gone tomorrow. I doubt people will be reading the Left Behind books ten years from now. Especially as sensationalism-based views on prophecy change and their one-dimensionality is exposed for what it is, they will fade into obscurity. But I think people will still be reading my books because I hope I have something deeper and more enduring to offer.
“Early in my writing career,” Phillips says, “I had the sense that I would probably never write a runaway best-seller. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I wanted my books to be content-heavy, not mere entertainment reading. I remember thinking that, if I could produce a volume of work over the years, work of quality and that changed people’s lives in quieter and less flashy ways, and that if I could keep writing such books over my lifetime, maybe that would be better. And remarkably, that’s how it has turned out. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t occasionally make me cringe to see the public lapping up such shallow books as the Left Behind series, while books of greater spiritual content and scope (not only mine by any means) are unknown by the general public. But I have no regrets. I write for the long term, and will continue to do so.”
One key to Phillips’ success is his steadfast avoidance of creative ruts. “There are those,” he says, “who can write in the same style or genre year after year, telling variations of the same kind of story over and over by changing the setting and characters and specifics. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he adds, “I just can’t do it. I get creatively stale the minute I sense that I’ve been someplace before. I’m unable to do the same thing a second time. Even if the names and historical settings are different, if the themes and conflicts and situations are similar to ones I’ve already written about, my brain grinds to a halt.
“So whenever I start a new project or series, I have to set myself creative challenges to insure that the story remains fresh. It needs to be fresh for me, not necessarily for readers. If I’m not interested and challenged and creatively invigorated, how can I expect my writing to be any good? So I will try to think of a place I know nothing about, such as China (Robbie Taggart) or Russia (‘The Russians’)…or will think of some interesting format and structure I’ve never used before (‘Caledonia,’ Land of the Brave and the Free, A Home For the Heart, and more recently with the new series ‘American Dreams’), or try my hand at a completely new genre altogether (The Garden at the Edge of Beyond, Rift in Time, Hidden in Time.)
“It’s all about keeping my writing alive by continually exploring new and different and untried methods, and placing creative roadblocks in my path to make sure I don’t take the easy way out. Sometimes I will literally do exactly that—place upon myself intentional restrictions that make a certain story more difficult to tell, but which will insure that I stay creatively on my toes.
“The Journals of Corrie Belle Hollister are a good example. I felt that story needed to be told in the first person, through the eyes and feelings and emotions of Corrie herself. I was a man, and yet I felt I needed to get inside the skin of a young fifteen year old girl and tell the story through her eyes. For the purposes of the story, I had to become Corrie. As I recall, my co-author Judith Pella with whom I began the series, was less than enthusiastic about the idea, and our editor was definitely against it. But I knew first person was the right voice in which for the story to be told. It was full of wonderful creative challenges! I, as a man, had to convey the feelings of a woman. If the action of the story took place somewhere outside of Corrie’s eyesight and earshot, I had to find some means to describe that part of the story in Corrie’s voice, without compromising the first person point of view. That was a restriction I imposed upon myself as an author that increased my difficulty. It made the series harder to write. Yet it’s exactly those kinds of things that keep me from drifting into ruts. Whether such creative challenges are necessary for other writers, I don’t know. But they are necessary for me.
“After several other series that went in very different directions, I returned to the first person format recently in ‘Shenandoah Sisters.’ It didn’t start out that way. I began in the traditional third person. But it wasn’t ‘clicking.’ Something was wrong. So I revamped it all and turned it into first person, with the character of Katie telling the story. However, I quickly found myself reminded of the Corrie Hollister books. I began to sense that I had been here before. I needed a new creative challenge, something to put a roadblock in my path, something that would make the books harder to write, but which would make them creatively fresh. Ultimately the series turned out to be told through the first person voice of Mayme. Now I not only had to express the feelings of a young woman, I had to feel and think and express myself as a young black woman. The creative challenge was thus magnified all the more. Yet this creative challenge made ‘Shenandoah Sisters’ more wonderful and satisfying to write than it could have been otherwise. And the process sent me back fondly four decades to my year at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the Negro university where I spent my first year in college during the turbulent race unrest of the sixties.
“There are all sorts of such creative challenges I have used. The structure of two separate stories being told simultaneously, one overspreading the other, is one I particularly like (‘Caledonia’ and ‘American Dreams.’) I have used lengthy Prologues that span an entire series (‘The Secrets of Heathersleigh Hall’ and ‘American Dreams.’) I even did one of the Corrie Hollister books in two distinct first person formats, telling half from one person’s POV and the other half from another. I came up with a completely new format and structure for Destiny Junction and King’s Crossroads that I had never used before and that was difficult for some people to get a handle on. In fact, both of my two chief publishers rejected the books. Most publishers, I find, don’t want the new or daring or unusual. But for me as a writer, I have to try unusual devices and formats and plots, and new ways to tell stories and characterize people. All these things add unique and interesting elements to a book or series that help me feel I am creating a unique reading experience for my readers.”
Phillips’ reader base, is unbelievably loyal, convinced that there is no living writer like him, reading his books over and over and always receiving something new. Those who read his series two and three times are commonplace, but the record Phillips is aware of is held by a devoted fan in England who has read her favorite 2000 page series (The Secret of the Rose) eight times.
Sense of mission
Another key to Phillips’ success is surely his uncompromising dedication to what he feels is the mission God has given him, to do more than tell stories but rather to make Christians think seriously about their faith. Though his devoted readers would surely disagree, Phillips does not primarily consider himself a “storyteller,” but a commonsense theologian. “My goal from long before I was ever published,” he says, “was to follow in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, in communicating profound truth in simple and practical language. Obviously my own writing cannot be considered in the same breath with Lewis’s. Yet I dare hope that in some small way it is pointing in the same direction and having a similar sort of impact in the hearts and minds of my readers—deep truth about God communicated in down-to-earth ways.”
Phillips also points to MacDonald as his spiritual and literary mentor. “From Lewis I was filled with the passion to communicate with simplicity and punch, as it were. From MacDonald I was filled with the passion to communicate to Christians what manner of God it is they believe in. Most Christians, I find, have confused, nebulous, and self-contradictory images of God. They have never paused to consider who God really is, and what are the implications of certain of their doctrines that are not rooted in gospel truth at all.
“I believe this is the mission God has given me. It is a mission primarily to Christians. Some readers occasionally complain that the plan of salvation is not more apparent in all my books. But the reason is simple—God did not primarily commission me to evangelize the non-Christian world, but to speak to Christians about the nature of our God. All you have to do is get me started talking about the character of God, and I can go on for an hour! I only humor the public with stories. Plots and stories and characters…they’re okay—but give me a theological conundrum I can sink my teeth into, and I’m in heaven!”
Many readers would probably disagree. His books are thrillers, page-turners, tear-jerkers, guaranteed to keep you up till the wee hours of the morning, and yet with depth and thought-provoking content that keeps readers coming back again and again for the insights into practical Christianity.
A strong voice
Phillips has been willing to challenge the very industry in which he has found such success to cry out for higher standards in Christian writing and publishing in general. This dedication went so far as being willing even to sacrifice his own reputation in speaking with clarity of the higher calling to which he felt Christian writers were bound. He has been outspoken about this higher call ever since, as detailed in his small booklet, Raise Up A Standard, A Challenge To Christian Writers (1998.)
Invited to deliver the keynote address at the Mt. Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference in 1987, Phillips was asked to comment on trends in the Christian bookselling industry. Not long after he began, those listening—some offended, some in disbelief—soon realized they were in the presence of a daring man. That single address, though in a medium of communication that Phillips is not known for, may reveal as much about who he is as a Christian and a writer as anything he has written. Though now more than seventeen years have passed, the words of his address remain prophetically in touch with current trends, and certainly set Phillips apart as a man with penetrating insight into the world of Christian bookselling and publishing.
A portion of that talk is reproduced here.
I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a speaker. I’m a writer. I would much rather be sitting facing my typewriter, than standing facing all of you. But there are some concerns on my heart I feel I’m to share with you. I think they’re important things. So I hope you can put aside the fact that I’m not a dynamic speaker and see if there is something God would speak to you through the words you hear.
I started my first Christian bookstore eighteen years ago. At that time there was one Christian record company to speak of, and we carried possibly a dozen album titles. There were maybe five leading Christian publishers. Tyndale was in its infancy. Harvest House didn’t yet exist. Bethany House had ten or twelve titles. I got my first rejection letter, not from an assistant editor but from Ken Taylor himself.
The industry was small. Three or four bookshelves was ample to carry all the books we would ever need in our small town. There were three or four Bible translations to choose from. If you wanted pictures of Christ you settled for one of about a half dozen by Sallmon.
Since then the Christian publishing and bookstore industry has grown at a phenomenal rate. There had never been anything like it. The industry exploded. New companies, new products, new titles, new Bible translations—everything mushroomed not by the hundred but by the thousandfold. Opportunities for writers! Writer’s conferences. New magazines. Widespread church growth. Revival! Renewal! Thousands of new Christian bookstores sprouted up across the country. It was amazing!
This rapid expansion caused many changes. For one thing Christian publishing became genuinely big business. Opportunities for Christian publishers and writers were endless. During the last fifteen years, there has been such a boom in this industry that for many it has seemed that in a sense anything they did turned to gold.
Books came out at an unbelievable clip. Whereas eighteen years ago if a book sold 15,000 to 20,000 it was considered a best-seller, today books routinely sell 20,000 or 30,000 and a publisher hardly even raises his eyebrows unless it gets to 50,000 or 75,000. Christian TV talk shows, radio programs, and Christian music made stars overnight, and anyone whose face was in the public eye, or any famous personality who professed a faith in God could write a book about their life and it would sell. The Christian music industry literally took off and didn’t look back. Whole Christian television networks came into being and attracted wide audiences. The market for TV evangelism was so lucrative that the most well-known television personalities attracted nationwide secular press. Christian colleges and churches and camps and training sites and music studios and convention centers sprang up all over the country. By the 1980’s Christian musicians were getting placement on the secular Top Ten, were winning Emmys, and Amy Grant even landed her own network Christmas special and topped the secular charts with the number 1 secular hit in the country. We’d indeed come a long way since the Haven of Rest quartet.
Great!—right? The Lord is blessing! People are being exposed to the gospel! Christian publishers and writers and bookstores and musicians are prospering! It’s terrific! The hand of the Lord must be in all this growth and expansion and success. Actually…I’m not so sure.
As I look at this historical progression and then pause to stand back and look at where we are today I have to admit there are some things I wonder about. I confess that I have grown concerned in the last few years. I think we have to ask where this explosion of success has brought us.
It’s easy to get mesmerized by the thrill and taste of glory and prosperity, and by the world’s standards of success—the best seller, the flash, the glitter of it all, TV interviews. affluence. It is fearfully easy to get swept along into the world’s flow.
Most would readily say, “We’re not in it for the money…this is a ministry!” Yet somehow the concern is always for what will get the big numbers. The so called “profit motive” may be disguised. But it is there. It slips in everywhere. It comes out in advertising, in marketing. Christian publishers hire Madison Ave. experts to design their booths for the annual CBA convention, making a concerted effort to adopt the world’s methods. Is the concern for the message…or for the sales?
After a while it begins to sound like Madison Avenue and nothing else. The message gets drowned out by the method. What’s the difference between the Christian publishers and the secular? Our message is different, but our techniques are the same. We all hope to achieve both—to have a solid spiritual message that will sell well. That’s what everyone’s after. But our present mentality is that it’s the sales that give credence to the message. If you have a great message that won’t sell because the writer’s a nobody, who’s going to publish it?
I guess I’m beginning to wonder if somewhere along the line we haven’t gotten it backwards. I think we’re in serious danger of losing one of the most significant opportunities ever afforded God’s people throughout all of history to impact the world on a massive scale through the media and technology available today. We are in danger of squandering this opportunity God has given us, when the world is listening to a remarkable degree. We are squandering it by letting the pendulum swing too far, by getting sucked into the secular flow which is all about us and pulling on us every moment.
I think it is time we raise this serious question: Can we still our typewriters and pens and word processors…can we lay down our sales goals and predictions… can we put our desires to achieve best-sellerdom on the altar, and can we hearken back to the still small voice of God who has put the vision within each of our hearts to communicate His truth to the world?
Frankly, I have seen a lot of fluff, a lot of shallow, pat, formula-driven stuff, a lot of personality stories about people who have no business teaching the larger body of God’s people, a lot of what I would term the sensational, a lot of curiosity books, a lot of syrupy romance, a lot of shallow teaching, and a lot of books where the author and publisher are just trying to jump on a bandwagon of what’s “in” for no other reason than to capitalize on a trend and make a few bucks.
I’ve seen literally hundreds of best-sellers that attracted great notoriety not because of spiritual depth, but because they appealed to the same mentality in the Christian community that People magazine does in the secular. Christian music has become a cult of personalities not a worshipful and spiritually profound expression of the kind of music that glorifies God as spoken of in the Bible. We’re writing it, you and I. We’re publishing it. We’re producing the music. And we’re selling it. So I ask you again—where do we differ from the secular industry at these points? I see these things…and I’m concerned.
There are a hundred arguments which say we’ve got to do it the world’s way in order to reach all those people out in the world. But I can’t help but wonder how much God might be able to do it if we’d do it His way—and let the world come hear the message, rather than trying to accommodate the message to the world’s tastes so the world will be able to swallow it more easily. In my spirit I’m concerned. I’m not speaking of any one individual, I’m speaking of an entire aura, of the fuel which moves the industry as a whole. There’s a spirit of the world in operation. We’ve all been swept away by a tide of secularism.
Shortly before he died, Francis Shaeffer said, “Tell me what the world is saying now, and I’ll tell you what the Church will be saying seven years from now.” That precisely pinpoints my concern. I wonder how much difference there is between the Christian publishing industry and the secular publishing industry. I’m not sure as writers and aspiring writers we even care that much.
Francis Schaeffer hit the nail on the head. Whether it’s seven or ten or five or twenty years is beside the point—we, the Church, the Christian world, have fit right into the world’s flow, and have gone right where they have led us. We’ve disguised our own Christian brand of humanism of course so it has spiritual-looking clothes. But it’s there.
We must squarely face that evangelicalism—including Christian writers and editors and publishers and booksellers, you and me—we have all been swept unknowingly into the flow of humanism and the value system of the secular world without knowing it.
I think it’s time some stands start to be taken against it. We need to start asking ourselves seriously, “What would Jesus do here?” If the answer is a little shaky, then we are in danger of being in the flow of the world rather than the flow of God’s purposes.
I’m sorry if any of you are offended by some of these things. All I know is, I’m uncomfortable. I’m concerned. I think we have some things out of balance. We’re not paying close enough attention. Just because some neat thing comes along in the world, that does not mean we’re to Christianize it.
As a body of God’s people in the last twenty years, I don’t think we have heeded some very critical scriptures that pinpoint the attitude we’re supposed to have with respect to the world’s flow, the world’s fads, the world’s trends, the world’s attitudes, the world’s methods: Be not conformed to this world, says Paul. Or as J.B. Phillips has so graphically translated, Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. And what about Peter’s words, But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart and belonging to God…aliens and strangers in the world. And God’s command: Come out from among them and be ye separate, says the Lord, for I your God am a holy God.
To me these scriptures point in an altogether different direction than I feel modern American Christendom has been moving. For my part, as I read these scriptures and am convicted by them, I hope that when the world comes to me and says, like Satan did to Jesus, “Come on, just do such-and-such, and I’ll make you rich, I’ll make you famous, I’ll make you a star! I’ll put your book on the New York Times Best-Seller List!”—at that point I hope I have the courage to say, like George MacDonald said a hundred years ago, “No…I have a God to serve first!”
You see, your goal and my goal shouldn’t be to make the best-seller lists. That’s just one more way of saying, “I want worldly success…I want worldly recognition!” I know we can rationalize it by talking about the “message” and the “ministry” of what we’re doing. Of course that is valid. But we’ve got to make sure we’re not just fooling ourselves.
God has called us to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. And that’s what I want my life to stand for, even if it means I never write or publish another word and am never heard from by the public again. Every day I pray that God will wean me from my false and fleshly desires, will give me the courage and the wisdom to stand against the flow of the world.
I pray that He will make me like Jesus. That is the prayer of my heart.
So what are our responsibilities as Christian writers as we look to the future? You and I have the choice before us of what we will say. We will help mold the direction the Church moves in the next twenty years, by what we write, by what we say, by what we publish. Our great opportunity is to shape the future of what the Christian body is exposed to.
In our writing, are we going to mirror back five or seven years later a spiritualized re-hash of what the world has been saying? Or are we going to stand against the flow of the world’s direction. We have before us an important choice: Do we want to write the sensational or the significant? I challenge you, to establish now what God wants you to do. I challenge you to solidify your priorities, to stand firm against the flow of the world, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
God’s call upon you, and upon me, is a call to a deeper level of spirituality. Writing for God is a an awesome responsibility. It is a call to raise up a standard which reflects God’s truth and love in a world where things are too often obscure. Can we as Christian writers draw close to the heartbeat of God, and then communicate His principles of righteousness to the world. That is our calling.
When asked about the impact he feels his address at Mt. Hermon may have had on the industry in the seventeen years since his challenging words, a poignant smile comes over Phillips’ face. “Today,” he says, “most of the large Christian publishers are owned by secular publishing conglomerates. As for Mt. Hermon,” he adds, “after that address I was never invited back. In fact, I’ve never spoken at another writer’s conference since. Does that answer your question?”
A day in the life of Michael Phillips
Most days begin for Michael Phillips between five and six in the morning. Admittedly an early “morning person,” he is greatly frustrated by the fact that the rest of the world is not up and running until he is halfway through his day.
“My ideal rising time,” he says, “is about 4:15 or 4:30. That’s when I really feel I’ve got a productive day ahead of me. If I see five-something on the clock I begin to panic with the sense that the day is getting away from me. About once a month or so I’ll sleep in till 6:00 or 6:30. It’s such a rarity that I take it and enjoy it, knowing my body probably needs it.”
Usually in the dark, Phillips passes through the kitchen to turn on water for tea on his way to the bathroom, where—in summer or winter, in Scotland or California—he undergoes a morning ritual he insists he cannot do without but which makes his wife Judy shudder…a cold shower—the icier the better.
“When I sit down with tea and pen and paper,” he says, “I want to be alert, awake, the little grey cells firing at peak capacity. The cold shower invigorates the whole system!”
Tea comes next. Then Phillips sits down in one of his favorite easy chairs with pen and whatever portion of manuscript he is currently working on. “There is no describing how much I love this part of the day,” he says. “It’s quiet, still, dark outside. No pressure, no sounds, no activity, no extraneous influences or distractions. My brain and heart are unencumbered. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, I say, Okay, Lord, what do we have to do and say today? What ideas do you want me to lay hold of for your people? My thoughts and feelings are yours. Guide them into the channels you would have them go today. Speak to me and through me. Then I let my thoughts and story ideas go where they will, confident that the Holy Spirit is engaged in the process along with my own creativity.
“My normal pattern is to sit down with fresh manuscript pages from the previous day, and simply begin reading them, as if I were a reader, with pen in hand. I’m in no hurry. I try to respond as a reader would. At the same time, I’m responding fresh myself too. I’m not merely looking for mistakes, I’m using the experience to stimulate my thoughts into new areas that I hadn’t thought of at first writing.
“As I progress in my morning reading and hand-work, the pages get very marked up, sometimes so much that every line is covered with markings and additions and strikeouts and arrows moving stuff around. The back of a page might be filled with new material. A whole new chapter may come to mind. If it does, I follow the new thread wherever it leads and write on it as long as it takes me, eventually finding my way back to the page of manuscript I started from.
“In this way I progress through the material, sometimes adding a great deal, sometimes adding very little. Whether I make it all the way through the pages doesn’t matter, only that I’ve effectively corrected and edited and added and rewritten. If one sentence triggers a whole new chapter, I’m happy. I’ll get back to the sentence that followed it eventually. By then the book will have taken on larger scope and be improved. Most of what I write for the first time tends to bear but sketchy resemblance to the end result because of how much gets added along the way by this process.
“In general I have fewer additions to make in the earlier portions because I’ve already gone over it several times, while the farther I progress into the newer material, the more new thoughts and ideas will come to me. For example, let’s say I sit down on a given morning with pages 30-55 of a manuscript. Pages 30-40 might be relatively clean because I’ve already been over them three or four times, but then as I progress, more and more corrections and new material, notes and additions and movings-around gradually occur to me as I get to page 45, and the writing itself isn’t quite so polished. By page 50 its rougher still and in need of more improvements. When I reach page 55 my brain is flowing and energized with the progression of ideas. I simply keep going, forging ahead into new material and hopefully writing for another hour or two by hand, adding new pages and taking the manuscript and story forward several important steps. At that point I’m not trying to write well (that can be done later, my bad writing fixed in successive mornings with pen and tea and all the rest), I’m merely trying to get thoughts down on paper as they come. The hour or two leading up to this has served to prime the pump, and now the creative juices are moving at full speed. I use the momentum of the editing and reading process to help forge ahead into new ground.
“I love the editorial process of trying to get something ‘just right.’ Many writers say they hate to re-write. For me it’s the easiest and most enjoyable part of the process. New writing—staring at the blank page, or the blank computer screen, trying to envision a new scene and how to tackle it—that’s far more difficult. So this morning routine helps me combine and accomplish both tasks, since both are necessary in order to write a book.
“I use this process right from the inception of a book. Sometimes I sit down with just a title page and one page of hasty notes. My first day or two, or even my first week, might involve employing this process simply to put together a synopsis or an introduction. When I actually begin the text of a book, I probably go over the first ten or fifteen pages a dozen times, trying to get every word and phrase just as I want them…and then very gradually moving ahead…the ten pages becoming fifteen…then twenty…then thirty…until slowly the skeleton of an actual book begins to form.
“There’s a frustration, an unease, that always accompanies it too. No matter how many times I go through this, with every new project in early phases, I cannot help thinking, ‘I can’t do this…I’ll never write this…I can’t do it.’ It’s true with almost every book I’ve ever done. Every new book seems an impossible mountain to climb.
“I don’t know when this morning routine began to form—I think generally with my conversion to the use of nice pens about ten or twelve years ago. I was given one as a gift and was amazed at how wonderfully creative I felt with it in my hand. It was much different than using a Bic. Later I tried a nice fountain pen, something I never thought I would ever use, and became hopelessly hooked. Now I’m a collector of vintage fountain pens. A nice pen, if I can use the word in its proper sense, makes it a sensually creative experience. Your senses feel the flow of the ink and the physicality of the writing in a different way.
“Interestingly, too, this transition to the use of pens coincided almost exactly with my switch to writing on a computer. Though I resisted the change for years, once it came, the computer changed the whole process. For the first time it became possible to go over a portion of a manuscript many times, yet start fresh with clean pages the next day. That was never possible when whole pages and chapters had to be retyped in their entirety. To edit a chapter, say, two or three times by typewriter was a long process. Now a paragraph or page or chapter might have gone through the mill of my brain six or eight times before I put it to rest and feel that I am satisfied with it. Whether the advent of the computer, and my use of fountain pens in the daily reading and editing, has improved my writing I cannot say. But they have certainly changed the mechanics of the process. The first book I wrote on computer was The Eleventh Hour in 1992.
“Judy usually gets up at 6:30 or 7:00 and we enjoy a quiet hour or two together, she reading as I continue my work. Sometimes we brainstorm—if I’ve been stumped I might have been eagerly waiting for her to get up. She is still trying to wake up and I’m peppering her with questions about this or that character or plot situation, expecting her to pull a magic solution to my dilemma. (And often, in spite of her sleepiness, believe it or not—she does!) This kind of brainstorming is a huge factor in my writing.
“By 8:00 or 9:00 I’ve put in a good three or four hours and we are both about ready to start the rest of our day. I take a break, fix something light to eat before I leave for my office to begin phase two of the day’s writing—typing in all the morning’s notes and additions. Wherever the book has gotten to by the time I leave home in the morning is about as far as it’s likely to get that day. In a sense the day’s work is done even though it’s only beginning.
“(The exception to this might be when I am reaching the denouement or climax stage of an exciting novel. Readers are not the only ones to get caught up in a fast-paced story. Authors do too. Once I get to about 150 pages in a book, it starts to take me over. It may be that my normal routine will get laid aside in the rush of events and I may get out my laptop and type as fast as I can, trying to keep up with my brain. There’s no re-reading, no hand work, no quiet reading and editing now…I’m just typing as the story comes. Ten, fifteen, sometimes even twenty page days start to happen. Nothing else gets done. The story consumes me. A week or two later…suddenly it’s done. Whew! I say, both exhausted and exhilarated by the rush to the end. Now I print out the whole last 50 or 100 pages or whatever it is that I haven’t even looked at yet, and resume my normal sit-down-and-slowly-read-with-pen-and-tea routine.)
“On most ‘normal’ days, however, it usually takes me most of the rest of the day to get my morning’s hand-notes typed into the manuscript on my computer and all the changes and additions made. Hopefully in the process I will continue to be stimulated in fresh directions and will add and amplify. This process, with all the interruptions and distractions and other work the day brings, takes me most of the day. When I finally print out what I have done for the day, what was that morning’s pages 30-55 might now be pages 30-65. The process, though that morning I only set out to sit down and read and respond to what was on the page rather than to write new material, has actually yielded ten new pages.
“That’s pretty good. If I get five pages I feel that the day has been well spent. Even if there are no new pages, but if I’ve tightened and improved a bit of manuscript by this editing process, I feel progress has been made. Yet obviously I have to forge ahead into new ground on most days to keep moving forward. Though once, many years ago, I wrote fifty double-spaced typed pages in a marathon sixteen hour day, on average ten pages is a very good day. Five pages is a good day, two to three a fair day.
“At whatever time I quit for the day, I print out my day’s work into one more fresh set of pages in order to start the whole process again the following morning. And so it goes—every day beginning with a clean printout that ends up so marked and hacked up as to be unrecognizable.
“But here’s the key to the forward progress. If, say, pages 30-35 that morning very few marks on them because they’d been through the re-reading editorial mill of my brain enough times already, and if as I read them that morning I was satisfied with them, instead of going into my briefcase at the end of the day, they now go on top of the clean semi-final manuscript that is slowly growing on my desk. Now what I take home is pages 36-65. When I sit down the following morning, it’s those pages I work on. When I do, maybe I will then find pages 36-45 at last satisfactory, while I forge ahead to page 70. And thus, slowly the book takes shape.
“As the semi-final manuscript slowly grows higher on my desk, every page has been gone over three, four, maybe even six or eight times. It’s a constant process of three steps back, four steps forward, making sure I’m satisfied before I put a page on the stack, even as simultaneously I slowly move forward with new material. A lot of beginning writers are too easily satisfied, too quickly enamored of their writing. But you’ve got to recognize your own bad writing and be ruthless about it. You’ve got to see immediately when you’re telling not showing, when you’re getting too wordy and putting the customers to sleep. I think sitting down and approaching my own writing as if I’m a reader with a cup of tea helps me cut through that self-satisfaction that is the death of most beginning writers.
“Those morning hours are my most productive time of the day and really form the foundation of my entire writing career. Our lives have been very busy and intense over the years. We didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. We ran a business for 35 years. That’s intense. Our family life was intense for 20 years. We homeschooled and that adds an intensity to life as well.
“Even though our three sons are now grown and gone, our lives are still very involved and sometimes intense. Even though our bookstore has recently closed, we still publish books, we produce a magazine. Judy teaches. I coach high school track and cross country. Our days are filled with more than we can get done. So those early morning hours are my lifeline to the deeper quieter currents out of which my writing proceeds.
“Once I get to my office, it seems that there are a million demands on the attentions of my brain to distract it from actual writing, trying to pull me out of the quiet inner streams where I live with the Lord and with the world of ideas. Then there are the demands that accompany writing but that don’t really get anything produced— computer situations (crashes, problems with printers, disks and files and figuring out how to do things, and a thousand other frustrations that computers seem to bring in their wake), reader mail to respond to, letters to write, office tedium (filing, organizing the constant accumulation of paper, desk maintenance), not to mention interruptions, visitors, phone calls, etc. Just today, for example, I needed to write a lengthy letter that took over three hours. When I was finished, there simply wasn’t much creative energy and freshness left for book writing.
“Finally, there are the demands of other books besides the one I happen to be working on—situations with publishers and editors about previous projects, ongoing situations with books that are in the production process (covers, editing, changes editors have requested.) The process of actually writing a book is only the beginning. Then you have to send it around and try to get it published. That is sometimes a long process. If you’re lucky enough to find a publisher who wants it, it’s a year or two before it’s actually released. That process can be terribly involved and may entail several rewrites and all kinds of complications. A re-write may take longer than the original writing. I may be sailing along in my morning manuscript, when suddenly a major re-write rears its head for a book I completed a year and a half earlier. Nothing is so hard as that! It’s almost impossible to regain the creative and emotional momentum after all that time. Meanwhile, your new book stalls at page 55 and you may not get back to the point where you can forge ahead to page 56 for a month. By then the momentum has stalled.
“Every day brings so many unexpected challenges and roadblocks to focused, relaxed creative thought. In a so-called ideal writer’s world, all you would have to do was write. But for someone like me who writes for a living and writes as much as I do, there are always three or four books at different stages of development. Typing in my morning’s notes might have to be done alongside work on another two books and various correspondence and other things. It’s these constant ‘business’ aspects of it that seem to derail me every day.
“There are other things we do that demand my time as well. We publish MacDonald books. We produce a magazine, Leben, which I do entirely myself on my computer. Getting out a single issue of the magazine probably involves two to three weeks of work over the course of a month or two. All these things take time. So by the time I get to my office between eight and nine in the morning, I’m usually lucky if I get my notes from the morning typed in along with everything else the day throws at me.
“Juggling the three most significant writing ‘balls’ that each day presents me with—past projects that are in production, current new writing whether books or magazine articles, and thorough and thoughtful letter writing—is the most difficult challenge to regular and sustained daily creativity. All three are important. None can be ignored. Yet each requires such concentrated focus of energy and thought, and each tends to drain the day’s creative well so completely that there is a constant tension between them as their competing urgency and importance quotients vie for my time and attention. There’s a constant sense of being behind, of work undone, of being behind a dozen eight-balls. Every letter I write puts me behind on a book. Every request from a publisher for a re-written portion of a prior book puts me further behind yet. On the other hand, if I work steadily for two or three weeks on a book and really make great headway and feel a great sense of accomplishment on that particular front, the piles of other unfinished business all over my office become almost insurmountable. Mail stacks up for six months unanswered. Project lists grow to contain 65 items that at one time I thought were important but which I despair of ever attending to. Right at this minute, after getting three issues of Leben in a row to press ahead of schedule, I now find myself behind for the next issue. Yet I am behind on Leben because I have been making good progress on a book.
“People ask me, ‘How do you get so much accomplished?’ I am always at a loss to respond. Because from inside my own set of life-circumstances, with the writing goals I have for myself and the things I am working on, I feel constantly behind and so dreadfully unproductive. I suppose one might say that I’m a victim of my own success, and that’s probably true. You don’t write on average 3-4 books a year without a pretty demanding workload that has many complications attached to it. I realize that, and really love what God has given me to do. I’m simply explaining what a day is like for me, and that these frustrations and creative tensions, and the constant reality of The further I go the behinder I get, are an integral part of it.
“Actually, juggling isn’t really the correct analogy because it implies a sort of equal attention to the various balls as you try to keep them aloft. But the reality isn’t that way at all. The tension between them tends to be uneven and sporadic. I envision it more like a thought-energy ‘tank’ or ‘well’ that exists within my consciousness that is full at the start of each day. I only have so much good focused creative thought to give. Slowly through the day, in whatever I am engaged in, the various spigots of that well slowly drain out my available creative energy. A letter that is difficult to write or that touches on deep theological or personal or emotional issues may require such an intensity of thought and prayer and such an expenditure of focus and energy that when I am done there is just nothing left in the tank. I’ve got no more thought and emotional energy in reserve to devote to writing. The well has been drained for the day. Likewise, if I have made good progress on a book, it is unlikely I am going to have much left over for letters. A thoughtful article for Leben, similarly, may shove book-writing to the back seat for days or a week.
“If I could just do one thing for a while, then another, then another, keeping to a regular schedule as if it were all mechanical, that would be different. But it’s not mechanical. It’s creative. It’s emotional. It’s intellectual. The energy needed is different. These kinds of brain work exact a toll.
“A run or a bike ride or work around the house or outside or in my shop is part of most afternoons. Such physically taxing diversions are actually very creatively energizing. Hard physical work is one of the best complements to writing for me to invigorate and stimulate the creative cistern. Sometimes I am able to come back in for a little more at my desk, though usually such new invigoration has to wait until the next day to result in actual page-output. Most often, once the well has been drained for the day, that’s pretty much it.
“Actually, one of the most serious creative drains on my time is the overpowering lure of ‘brilliant’ new ideas that come suddenly and that are so compelling I cannot do other than follow them. Every one of these—flashing upon me in the shower, on a run, in the middle of the night, in mid-sentence of another project, when driving in the car followed by my bursting through the door and exclaiming to Judy, ‘I’ve just had a great idea!’—I am convinced is destined to be a best-seller, possibly the greatest book ever written. So in the middle of trying to forge ahead from pages 30-55 to pages 40-75 of a manuscript, I may suddenly find myself a thousand brain-miles away, consumed by the enormity of some new project.
“I literally have more book ideas and starts in my files, and more incomplete manuscripts, and even a few completed ones, than I have published books. And for good or ill, these unpublished starts and miscellaneous writings account for probably 30%-40% of my overall writing time and energy. To the other creative juggling balls, then, I should add a fourth—the projects destined to be unpublished but which compel my time and energy and focus none the less. Knowing I’m going to be paid for something really doesn’t help much to fill up the creative energy-tank. It’s the ideas themselves that drive me.
“Some of these sudden starts pan out, others don’t. Rift in Time and Shenandoah Sisters both began with a sudden idea, but then sat for over two years as my subconscious toyed with them before I did much writing on them. I may spend months on a project that eventually stalls, though I may have a couple hundred pages written. You never know. Three years ago I relegated an idea for a civil war series, that had germinated several years before that, into my file entitled, Books and ideas that will probably never be written. I had completely given up on it. Nothing could have been further from my mind. However, suddenly a series of circumstances a little over a year ago bubbled it back up to the surface. I went to work on the first book. Three months later I had a completed draft. A few rewrites followed, and a few months from now, that long forgotten idea will become my one hundredth book—Dream of Freedom. So sometimes those diversions and tangents and months of work that seem to go nowhere wind up paying off in the end.
“As my early mornings have gradually lengthened as I get up a little earlier and earlier, and as age slowly creeps up upon me, I have begun trying to take a nap in the middle of the day around noon. It helps toward more energy and productivity throughout the afternoon. I lay down with a P.G. Wodehouse book and read for five or ten minutes, and then usually am able to sleep for 15 or 30 minutes.
“On most afternoons I break for an hour or two to work on yard maintenance, or go for a run or bike ride. I’ve run on average 4-6 miles a day for almost 40 years. But the knees are starting to hurt so I’ve recently taken up biking. During the school year my day ends about 3:00 when I go to the local high school where I coach cross country (in the fall) and track (in the spring.) Then I put a whistle and stopwatch around my neck and don another of the many hats I wear. During the off season when I’m not coaching, I’ll come in after outside work or a run for a last stint at manuscript work, and usually quit between 5:30 and 6:30.
“Evenings are spent with Judy, reading, talking, watching the news, maybe a video. I do confess to enjoying good TV and dramatic movies. I don’t watch just to watch. I watch what I enjoy. We watch no network dramas or sit-coms. They are mostly just too disgusting for words. But I am a ‘visual’ writer. My writing is greatly stimulated by good movies and certain select series such as MASH (for relationships and humor), Poirot (for plot), Alias Smith and Jones (for fun), Jeeves and Wooster (for wonderful word use), The Rockford Files (for character), and the like. Though many Christians object to television in general, I don’t think I would be the writer I am without it. The constant stirring of the creative pot of dramatic ideas and characters, through such a visual medium, I believe has been influential to my writing in many different ways. If the writing and characterization are well done, good visual and dramatic productions stir up the brain in positive and creative ways.
“But whatever program I may be watching at the time, I almost never make it to the end. I’m usually nodding off by 8:00 or 8:30, somehow manage to stagger toward the bedroom, and am asleep by 9:00 or 9:30, already looking forward to the next morning..”