What I Learned from Stephen Bly

Idaho Christian Writers have lost a great treasure as Stephen Bly: a pastor, an author of more than 100 books, and statesman went home to be with the Lord yesterday at the age of 66, after a five year long battle with cancer and five days short of his forty-eighth wedding anniversary.

I only met him once, but once was enough to leave an indelible impression. Sometimes, with Bly, it didn’t even taken once as Daniel Darling explained .

Bly was best known as a writer of Westerns and Historical Fiction, neither of which I’m fond of, but a Stephen Bly western or historical was different. His storytelling and voice kept me engaged and interested. His love for the places and the stories he told showed on every page.

There are many things that can and ought to be said about Stephen Bly, but my experience with this multi-published author over a period of a few days back in 2008, and that’s what I’ll speak to.

I went to the 2008 Oregon Christian Writer’s conference where Stephen Bly spoke. While it was an expensive conference, his presentations were worth the price of admission.

Shoot Somebody: During his presentation, he talked about how to get your novel going again and one tip I’ll never forget is, “Shoot somebody.”  By this he meant to have have a character get shot or have something else dramatic happen that brings the story to a head. To this day, when I get stuck in a story, and I don’t want to do, the thought comes to my mind, “Shoot somebody.”

Write Short Paragraphs: This helped me a lot in both my fiction and non-fiction writing. I come from a family of long dense paragraph writers. This is really bad in fiction as readers tend to give up when they see that.

Bly taught us to use short choppy paragraph to build tension and forward the action, and it made a big difference for me in my writing life as I’ve implemented that.

Dialogue First: While this isn’t a method I’ve tried, it was one of the most interesting highlights of the conference. Bly did dialogue first writing, where he would write all the dialogue for a scene and then fill in the tags for who was speaking. I’ll never forget when he read several pages of an upcoming work with dialogue only, and the audience had a good laugh listening, with no idea who was saying or what they were doing while they were speaking. It won’t work for everyone, but for him it did.

Our Writing is Ministry: This may have been greatest lesson I learned from Stephen Bly and his book, Paperback Writers.

In the novel, Paul James Watson is  a writer going through a career crisis as he finishes up his latest book. Watson is a professional novelist whose books sell a steady number of copies:  just enough to keep the publisher interested in more books in his Toby McKenna series. However, Watson has not achieved critical acclaim or the fame many of us authors would like to experience.

In the course of Watson’s adventures, he converses with his lead character, and during one of these conversations, Watson is able to put his writing into perspective leading to one of the most powerful passages I ever read on the life of a Christian writer:

“I got an inflated idea about my writing. I needed to back up and see it from the Lord’s point of view. I’m a paperback writer, Toby. I’m not a world-famous novelist. Not a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. I’m just like in the old Beatles song. But I’m good at it. And it’s my place that the Lord has provided.

“They don’t study my novels in English lit. classes at Stanford. But there’s a single mom, struggling to make ends meet working as a clerk-typist in the admissions office, who tackles those preschoolers in late Friday night in that one-bedroom apartment #421 on 16th Street in Palo Alto, and then curls up on the faded pea-green sofa she inherited from her granny, pulls a tattered afghan over her feet, and reads my book until she falls asleep about three in the morning. And for five straight hours, she isn’t worried about car payments, or alimony checks that never arrive, or little sissy constantly getting sick at day care, or the jerk at the office who brushed up against her backside in the elevator, or her mother’s comments about her marriage failure, or the fact that she’s gained six pounds since Christmas. For those few hours it’s just her and Toby McKenna, having one incredible adventure after another.

“She will fall asleep with a sweet dream of a dashing, though distracted, detective. She’ll wake up in the real world, but for a few hours we gave her mind and body and soul a break. She got to live in your world. And because of that, she’ll tackle the new day with just a little more strength, courage, direction, and, I hope, more faith.

“Oh, the critics don’t think much of my books. But the critics don’t have to carry a three-year-old up two flights of steps every evening at 5:45 and twice on Sundays.

This quote brought home to me that writing of any sort can minister to those around us.  It also means that if we are blessing and ministering to those who God wants us to touch, that we have fulfilled our purpose as writers.

Stephen Bly ministered to tens of thousands of people through his writing and his books will continue to be blessed and comforted by his paperback writings.  He also was  a great blessing to his fellow writers.

Our prayers are with his wife, Janet and their family as they go through this time of loss and mourning.