Last week Michelle and I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host Elizabeth Sherrill for a Writer's Conference in Minneapolis. Sherrill is the ghost writer for The Cross and the Switchblade, God's Smuggler, The Hiding Place and about 27 other books - many of the Christian classics of the 20th century. She has more than 50 million in book sales and may well be one of the bestselling Christian writers of all time, after the Bible.
I wrote her on her website to see if she was still doing writer's workshops. I've been a fan of her work for years. Her books, though written decades ago, seem like they were written last week. They have a timelessness about them and are true stories. She and her husband John have been eyewitnesses of the great marvels of God over the past generation. She even helped the late Ruth Graham with some of her books. She wrote me back, and the rest is history as we ended up hosted her ourselves. The writer's conference was packed.
You can listen to my interview with Elizabeth at North Central University chapel here. A thousand students sat spellbound as Elizabeth answered questions about her friendship with the late David Wilkerson, what it was like to visit holocaust sites with someone who had experienced it first hand and her experience of smuggling Bibles with Brother Andrew.
Some of the notes I took at the writer's conference, that stood out most to me, and I would now like to share with you, are:
-Play down the amount of faith, trust, joy and peace to make that priceless contact with the reader. To connect with a wider audience, don't be over-spiritual. Come down to people's level in how you write. The biggest thing a reader can say is "I don't believe you." And books can exactly argue back. Paul became all things to all people to save some.
-People don't want to sit and read your happy stories. They want conflict. They want challenge. Be real about what the person in the story went through. Don't make it all happy-happy-joy-joy. With Brother Andrew, he saw God come through daily, but we didn't include a lot of that. We were so pumped when there was finally a car accident, so we played that up a lot!
-It's easier to describe than persuade. This is why stories are wonderful. Just tell the story. Let the reader come to their own conclusions.
-Introduce the main characters in the first chapter of the book. Or prepare the reader that a main character or two will come later. Readers commit to the first characters they meet, so it's important to save emotional cognitive space for those people you want them to stay connected with.