This last weekend I was privileged to join other authors and editors at a local event in our area. We filled the coffee shop with authors and aspiring authors who came to “stir up” the gift of God in their lives.
I spoke to them about how the novels of Clive Cussler challenged me to re-think my own writing. You may have heard principles like these listed elsewhere. For me, it was a master novelist who brought them to life.
Below are my notes from the presentation. May you be “stirred up” to write for God with boldness!
I have a hard time reading books for leisure. I spend so many hours at my computer that I can’t turn off the internal editor in my head at the end of the day. I can’t get past poor plot lines or sloppy editing in a book. The little bit of reading I usually do is Christian, and I have often been discouraged by some of what is currently being churned out in the name of God.
My introduction to Clive Cussler was through his novel, The Silent Sea, a gift to my husband from a friend. I was immediately engaged by the story and the fact that it was clean.
I’m almost finished with another of his books, Mirage, and as I read this one, I took the time to analyze it. I was entertained by it and challenged to rethink my own writing. I have found seven principles that I believe make Cussler’s books bestsellers for the right reasons.
If you’re not familiar with Clive Cussler, here’s a little background information on him. He is a prolific writer, having authored or co-authored 60 action-adventure novels, two children’s books, and several non-fiction books. His books have been on The New York Times bestseller list more than 20 times.
Cussler began writing in the evenings and on weekends in 1967, and he published his first novel in 1973.
His first non-fiction work, The Sea Hunters, was released in 1996. The Board of Governors of the Maritime College, State University of New York, considered it in lieu of a Ph.D. thesis and awarded a Doctor of Letters degree to Cussler in 1997, the first time in its 123-year history that the university bestowed such a degree.
Cussler is the founder of the National Underwater and Maritime Agency, or NUMA, a non-profit organization dedicated to American maritime and naval history. He and his team have discovered over 60 historically significant underwater wreck sites.
Two of his novels have been adapted for film. The most recent of these is Sahara, an action-comedy film released by Paramount Studios in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey.
His most recent novel, The Assassin, just came out on March 3rd of this
year. Clive Cussler is also a serious collector of classic automobiles. And he’s
83 years old.
Here are seven principles I learned from a secular novelist. Note how they vitally intersect to create a powerful message.
Live the Adventure Boldly
Proverbs 28:1 tells us “The righteous are as bold as a lion.” When God commanded Israel to enter the Promised Land, He told Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous.” Joshua 1:7
Is our writing bold? Cussler sends his characters into improbable situations and court danger. His canvas is expansive.
He isn’t afraid to think outside the box. In Mirage, Cussler takes his hero from the Delaware breakwater to an old Soviet prison in Northern Siberia to California to the Aral Sea. One moment he is exploring an underwater shipwreck. The next he’s fighting for his life as a torpedo speeds toward the wreckage where he is trapped. In a later scene the good guys are cutting open the red hull of a luxury yacht that has capsized Poseidon-style. The promotion blurb for his newest book, The Assassin, which just came out last month, promises to transport the reader from the oil fields of Kansas to Washington D.C., to New York, to war-torn Baku oil-fields on the Caspian Sea, and back to America.
Literary agent Chip McGregor once told a group of us writers that in the Christian publishing world, it’s said that if you want to sell your book, “Put a bonnet on it,” a reference to the current popularity of Amish romance. I have no problem with Amish romance novels, if God has called the author to write them. But why should Christians limit ourselves to cheap devices for the sake of selling a book?
We, of all people, can be living the adventure. We have God’s entire universe at our disposal. The Bible has revealed to us wonders that we can scarcely fathom. Good and evil are played out at our very doorsteps. Demons oppose us. Angels minister to us. A being not of this world lives inside us and guides us.
I remember the time I wrote a short story for a creative writing class in high school. The teacher was very taken with the story, and I had my first taste of the thrill of actually using words to create a picture in the reader’s mind. It was the first time it occurred to me that “To write is to paint worlds with words.”
Read the page one of the Prologue to the first paragraph on page 3 of Mirage. Can’t you see this being the opening scene in an action movie? Notice that he doesn’t take much time setting up the scene and he doesn’t give long descriptions. But in just two pages he has given us a lot of information and engaged our imaginations. You know the name of the ship, the name of the captain, the fact that he is a veteran seaman, they just passed through a hurricane, and that it’s about nine o’clock at night. You can hear the water flowing against the ship and the feel cool metal plates under your feet. You can envision the captain in his ridiculous outfit and even breathe an inward “ewww” at his hairy chest and back. You stand on the bridge of the ship and are enveloped with the others in the mysterious blue light.
“Everybody born comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory.” ~Maya Angelou
Whether we’re writing fiction or non-fiction, fantasy, biographies, devotions, or children’s books, our challenge is to tap into the limitless creativity of God. It was God who thought up kangaroos and daffodils and gave lions their teeth. He painted the stripes on the zebra and gave pandas their teddy bear eyes. He sends the lightning to split the sky, the thunder to speak His mysteries, and the rain to wash away the storm. It is those wisps of glory we are called to capture for our readers.
We’re finite. We have only so much brain power at our disposal. But by letting God in on the discussion, we open new doors to our craft. I’m convinced that God loves to partner with us in the creative process. He wants to reveal Himself to others through us. In fact, that’s His plan.
“As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly.”
“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”~1 Tim. 4:7
Cussler must be a disciplined writer, to have produced such a body of work. We can be full of ideas, but unless they make it to the page, they never see the light of day.
Develop a plan for writing that fits your life. Don’t worry about what other people do. Do what works for you. Just be disciplined.
Do the Research
“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing” ~Wernher von Braun
Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, research is the foundation of our story. It gives the story an air of realism. If we know our subject well, we will write with authority and speak with confidence.
In Clive Cussler’s books, especially in Mirage, I occasionally had no idea what equipment he was talking about. But the extra effort he put into being accurate gave integrity to the scene and convinced me of his knowledge base. Because his novels are so expansive, it also lends credibility to the story lines.
He has also taken obvious care to know the physical settings in which his characters play out the plot. In one of my favorite scenes from the book Mirage, the protagonist searches for a lost ship among the rusting hulks that litter the exposed seabed of what was once the Aral Sea. I was so taken by this image that I had to look it up and discovered that, indeed, the Aral Sea is shrinking.
Challenge Your Readers
Go ahead. Use the big words. Your readers can handle it.
Cussler’s use of military jargon and knowledge of the settings of his scenes reveals a careful study of his subject. I found myself occasionally pausing to mull over a new word or picture a piece of machinery he described. I had to look up words like “panamax,” (size limits for ships passing through the Panama Canal) “subaltern,” (a person holding a subordinate position, specifically a junior officer),“lateen-rigged dhows,” (A broad-beamed shallow-draft vessel with lateen-rigged sails), and “fusillade” ( a number of bullets fired at the same time or one after another quickly).
Oddly, I didn’t find this distracting. In fact, it was refreshing. It felt GOOD to read fiction that made me think. I was engaged and learning and still being entertained by the story.
It’s okay to challenge your readers. Writers have been told that readers want to be spoon-fed, instead of being encouraged to think. Whatever genre we’ve chosen as our outlet for our writing, it’s possible to elevate the craft and perhaps even society with our words. And I believe it’s possible to do this without being preachy or assuming a pseudo-intellectual tone. It just takes more work on our part so we don’t lose them along the way.
“There are two kinds of writer: those that make you think, and those that make you wonder.” ~Brian Aldiss
Obviously, we want to be the former. We want them to think, but we don’t want them to be totally lost. You can tease your readers along and pull them into the story. Then challenge them to rise above and beyond mediocrity.
Know Your Audience
“Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.” ~Jimmy Stewart
Cussler knows his audience well. In this Oregon series, his use of military terms and non-stop action is clearly geared to lovers of government intrigue and action movies. He knows his readers aren’t looking for steamy romance. He doesn’t sell politics or try to solve interpersonal relationship problems. He gives them action, and lots of it.
Write what you love, but treat your readers always as partners in the experience.
Strive for excellence.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Ecclesiastes 9:10
I’ve been challenged by the high standards of the two books I’ve read. Along with Cussler’s superb writing, the editing on the book is impressive. You’re not likely to find typos or dangling participles or unfinished plot lines in these novels.
This is especially interesting because he produces a lot of books. He often co-authors with other writers, which is probably why he can be so prolific. As an author who has used both the traditional and self-publishing paths, I’ve learned that either way, it’s important for the writer to insist on quality control over the finished product.
One Final Thing…
Seek God’s anointing.
“Unless the LORD builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it.”
Psalm 127:1 NASB
Along with these principles of good writing, we have a greater charge: Whatever we write should honor God. When we have partnered with Him in the process, He delights in breathing life into our words.
May you be inspired to write courageously.