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Friday, July 10, 2015

When Formula Sneaks In

by Allen Arnold
One of the most deadly assaults on your creativity comes in the form of formula.

We desire success for our stories. And formulas seem to offer us that promise. All we need to do is master the ten steps or four laws or read the new book. Or follow the blueprint that worked for that other successful author. Surely it would work for us as well.

Except it won’t.

Because no one in publishing has the formula.

If they did, we’d know it by now. Every publisher and industry expert would regularly predict next year’s big books and breakout authors.

Except they don’t.

But the pull is magnetic. Some formulas make us feel productive or in control–like relentlessly hitting our daily word count no matter what. Other formulas feel impossible to ignore–like the constraints of a genre or the man-made rules of an industry.

They can also be subtle. Formulas attach themselves to our gifting while whispering in our ears that any hope of success is dependent on them.

And here’s where it gets confusing. Some formulas do work–at least outwardly and at least for a time. Once a writer has a bestseller, the pressure is immense to figure out how to make lightning strike again. So the author and publishing team attempt to retrace the path that led to the initial fame. And though the first breakout was almost always based on a fresh new concept involving some level of risk, somehow the thinking goes that future success can be bottled or repeated. What was fresh becomes stale.

God doesn’t appear to be a fan of formulas. In Old Testament battles, he constantly revealed disruptive new ways for his followers to achieve victory. The same with Jesus. He rarely approached healings the same way. And during the Israelites 40-year desert tour, they learned the hard way not to depend on yesterday’s manna.

Rather than give us a formula that works, God instead gives us himself.  He is far less interested in our success (or repeated success) than in our intimacy with him. Yet when we place our faith, hope and trust in formulas to achieve the dreams God has placed in our hearts, we lose what matters most. The reason why is simple.  Formulas don’t require God’s presence. Worse, they offer the illusion of control in place of intimacy and dependence on a wild, unpredictable, playful, non-formulaic Creator.

So while discipline, productivity, and hard work are helpful tools for any serious writer, they are far too dull to carve a path to true creative intimacy with the Father. The tools aren’t bad. They’re just woefully inadequate for the higher journey we are invited on.

Imagine what’s possible as you–and your stories–break free from formulas. The process requires a daily dependence on God, trusting him to provide all that’s needed each day. Which, as it turns out, is not only the best way to eat manna but also the best way to write stories.

Allen Arnold loves the epic adventure God has set before him. From the mountains of Colorado, he leads Content & Resources for Ransomed Heart Ministries (led by John Eldredge). Before that, he spent 20 years in Christian Publishing - overseeing  the development of more than 500 novels as founder and Publisher of Thomas Nelson Fiction. He was awarded the ACFW Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. But that doesn't really describe the man. Allen savors time with his family, craves the beach, drinks salsa by the glass, is hooked on the TV series "Once Upon a Time" and is passionate about helping storytellers tell better stories from an awakened heart.


  1. Thanks! This is a great post and very helpful for us "just tell me what to do and I'll do it" folks. I have found my creativity stifled as I've attempted to write "right." I appreciate your take on this and feel a bit relieved and encouraged.

  2. Always love your posts as they direct me back to where is should be--following God's path. Thank you!

  3. Laura,

    So I see I'm not the only one. I cannot recount the times I've said to my husband, "I wish God would just tell me what to write and I'd write it!". Yikes.


    This is a great reminder. Thank you for sharing it.

    I'm reminded of something my pastor has said more than once.

    "You need to pray for potatoes with a hoe in your hand."

    Yes, God provides the potatoes, but we need to tend the garden. At the very least, we need to dig the potatoes up!

    Formulas, writing rules (or guidelines, whichever word you prefer), and genre constraints are all just tools. Writers must learn to use them well in order to make the most of the talents they've been given.

    But the talents and the stories come from God and unless we're depending on Him and using the tools (instead of depending on the tools and resorting to God (once in a while)), we're working in vain.

  4. Maybe that's why my first book, written when I didn't know so many rules and formulas, was easier to write than my sixth. Thanks for the post.

  5. Everyone - thanks for your thoughtful responses today. I resonate with your comments. It's amazing (and rare) to watch what happens to our writing when the foundation is fellowship with God rather than formulas of experts. Yep, techniques and goals are helpful...just not what we as Christian creatives need most or what lends the most life to our stories.

  6. Janice, your comment made me laugh. I didn't use any formulas when writing my first, just let it spill out. But now for the second I've tried to do what others do and have come unstuck. So I went back to the way I did it first time round and it's much better.

    But Allen your point about leaning on Jesus is so important. I also found I wasn't doing that either but now have turned a corner by surrendering to Him and letting Him lead me.

    Thanks again, Allen, for such an encouraging post.

  7. Ian -thanks for your comment. You are that rare breed of artist whose passion for story is trumped only (and wonderfully) by your passion for creating with the Creator. Never lose that gift!


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