I started writing novels, I had to forget everything I had previously
learned about writing. At the start of my twenty-two years as a
journalist, I trained and sharpened my writing as a sportswriter for a
chain of community newspapers in Pennsylvania. But when it came to
writing novels, I found myself in a whole different ballpark.
My debut novel, The
Sacred Cipher (Kregel 2009), started as a result of my
fascination with archeology, Jerusalem, and the Middle East conflict (I
was a history major in college). And I launched the story with a crazy
idea I had one day while standing at the back of The Bowery Mission
chapel in New York City. I held a senior position at The Bowery Mission
for twelve years, and that day I was staring up at the organ pipes when
I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a secret room
hidden behind the organ pipes? And then I thought, Wouldn’t
that make a good story?
A story. Just like any of the
other stories I had written as a newspaper journalist, right? But I was
soon to find out it was actually very different.
One of the interesting things
about being a newspaper sportswriter is that you have little time to
write your story once the game has concluded. All reporters are on
deadlines of one kind or another. Sometimes the deadlines are so tight
that you begin writing your story before the game is over. So you learn
how to write fast. And you learn how to break down an athletic contest
into its most critical elements.
Athletes? Well, athletes are
just players in a story. They are out there and involved; they are the
means through which the game is played. The game is the story. And only
the really unique athlete has the talent to transcend the game. The
game … the plot … was always paramount.
So that’s how I wrote The
Sacred Cipher, as a game story: a plot with players.
Then came my first few phone
calls with Dawn Anderson, editor extraordinaire at Kregel Publications.
She asked just awful questions. Like, “Why would your character do such
Why? Because he’s in the game,
that’s why. He’s just a player who moves around the field, depending on
where I want him to be. Don’t you get it?
No … she didn’t.
And soon I realized why.
Why was my hero willing to risk
his life to chase down an ancient message written in an extinct
language that he found in a secret room hidden behind the organ pipes
in The Bowery Mission? What was his motivation—the motivation of all
the other players around him who got caught up in this adventure?
The editors at Kregel, Miranda
Gardner and Dawn Anderson, never wanted to change my story of the game.
They just counseled, correctly, that if these players were critical to
moving forward, the reader needs to know why. Radical idea
to me, but one that, once they beat me into submission, resulted in a
much fuller, deeper, enriching story than I ever could have shaped on
And now I know.
I want to get my really cool story published, I had better know who the
players are, why they are on the playing field, what they hope to
accomplish (or are running from), and how they will
determine the final score.
Because how much suspense is
there in whether a ball will make it over a line or over a fence or
into a cup? Not much.
But how much suspense is in a
man—Tom Bohannon—who has studied history all his life and now has a
chance to make history … if he’s willing to risk his life? Wow.
The Sacred Cipher
Tom’s story, not mine. He shaped it, lived it, and propelled it. And
over time, he told me what the story really was. Not only a chase
around the world for ancient secrets that could ignite a world
conflict, but more important, the story of a marriage based on God’s
faithfulness … of one man’s search for meaning and another’s search for
the approval of others … the story of one willing to risk all he had
for his friends, and the ultimate price he paid.
What is suspense except that a
person we have come to know is facing a decision that will irrevocably
change his life? We feel a catch in our hearts and hold our breath to
see what will happen … will he, or won’t he take that risk?
After all, that’s the name of
the game, isn’t it?