10/13/2006

Making a Difference

Where is that magic line that delineates secular sci-fi/fantasy from speculative fiction? Must the name of Jesus be used "X" number of times? Must a salvation message be slipped in, thus providing a Sunday sermon dressed up in Monday's blue jeans? Or are we writing spec-fic for our fellow Christians, couched in the jargon of the sanctified, which unbelievers may not clearly understand?

Now before the indignant barrage of boulder-sized stones start flying, let me state emphatically that I truly want to glorify God with my writing. I want non-believers to be drawn closer to the Lord's embrace, and I want Christians to feel strengthened, encouraged, and uplifted. Now comes the "however" that you've already braced yourself for.

One of my "pet peeves" in Christian fiction is the author that batters the reader continually from beginning to end with Christian jargon or Bible verse after Bible verse. Obviously, I am not opposed to Scriptures, but it is not necessary to use every verse you know (or can find in a concordance) in your fiction. If the reader is not engaged by the characters, if he/she doesn't care what happens to them, it won't matter how many Scriptures you've quoted to back up your plot. The reader will sigh, close the book, and place it - unfinished - on the darkest corner of the bookcase.

Personally speaking, my goal is to write memorable literature, good stories with strong characters, and plots that won't easily be forgotten. I want my readers to see people they can relate to, struggling with moral dilemmas that they face themselves. My goal is to build the story around the characters and how they deal with life, spiritual battles - whatever pitfalls I've created for them to overcome. That's why people buy fiction.

I'll be honest here, although it may get me nailed to the nearest tree. I read very few "Christian" authors. Frank Peretti, yes, as I mentioned in my last post, and I love the fiction of Francine Rivers, especially her Mark of the Lion trilogy, which I read for about the thirtieth time last week. In fact, I've read the first in the series, "A Voice in the Wind", so many times I had to replace it about a year ago because all the pages were falling out! Her characters are so multi-layered and real, I don't even see them as fictional creations, but as living, breathing people I wish I could go back in time to meet.

An even better example is author Madeleine L'Engle. She has written shelves and shelves of wonderful books from adult fiction to young adult fiction to poetry to thought-provoking non-fiction. Her non-fiction is filled with her own struggles to reach out and touch Jesus, to overcome her own frailties, and to share her journey along the way.

But her fiction is an entirely different matter. Madeleine L'Engle is the author of the award-winning spec-fic young adult series, The Time Quartet, comprised of "A Wrinkle in Time", "A Wind in the Door", "A Swiftly Tilting Planet", and "Many Waters". She used the concepts of physics to create other worlds for the Murry family to explore in time and space. It's page-turning spec-fic for all ages. On the other hand, Ms. L'Engle's adult novels, "The Small Rain", "The Severed Wasp", "Certain Women", and (my all time favorite!) "The Other Side of the Sun", are not even classed in bookstores as Christian fiction. Her characters face life, death, wrong choices, unbelief, and spiritual darkness, but her faith rings clearly by the end of her stories. Very few writers have ever captured me and held me like this author. Her books are beacons of light, and examples I strive to live up to. They ARE the epitome of exemplary literature.

The point I'm trying to make is this. If you want to minister directly to a certain demographic or a particular issue, write a non-fiction book and cite references to your heart's content. Pull out that thirty pound concordance and preach, baby, preach! I'll sit on the front row and shout, "Amen!"

But if you choose to write fiction, particularly spec-fic, remember that the reader is buying your book to escape into another world. Create characters that will take the readers by the hand and coax them down Alice's rabbit hole. Build worlds that capture them so completely, they're ready to pack up the family space ship and fly away. If I can challenge the reader, slip the message of God's love between the lines, give them something to mull over long after they've closed the back cover, then I will have achieved what I set out to do. The Holy Spirit will do the rest. After all, we don't save people - Jesus does. If we give our Lord fine literature to work with, HE will have a vehicle through which to woo hearts, and we'll have the assurance of knowing that we are only vessels in the Master's hands.

It's been a privilege to work with the writers of the Lost Genre Guild to create the anthology you'll soon see on the bookstore shelves. They have all lived up to the same standards I hold dear, and hopefully we are sending our work out into the world to shine God's light in the world's darkness.

NOW you can throw those stones!

18 comments:

Aisha said...

Very nice - I think you touch on a necessary point - build a world that allows the reader to discern right from wron, truth from lies, without direct teaching. This also requires the author to refrain from direct preaching, judging and fingerpointing. Good job.

Grace Bridges said...

Hey baby, nobody's throwing stones around here!
I agree with you completely. We can capture hearts in the way we write, and that is what we are here to do...

WriterGoneWild said...

AMEN!!!

Frank Creed said...

Deb--
I've just copied the following sentences from my home-page:
People read fiction to be entertained, period. That's any fiction-writer’s first job. Readers want to find likeable Christian characters living out their faith in spite of the most dire consequences. If a story is not entertaining, it's message will be as stuck as the wisdom in a dusty Bible.
I agree for the purposes of evangelism and pre-evangelism, but properly done, pieces written for post-evangelism, can effectively use theological vocabulary. It all comes down to a writer's intended audience and a sense of propriety.
Faith,
frankcreed@insightbb.com

Lady Prufrock said...

I'd like to say more than just "excellent article, I heartily agree" but it's almost 11 here and Ember and I are pooped. You managed to articulate almost exactly what I feel when it comes to Christian spec fic.

Huzzah!

Karen

Dan Edelen said...

Besides the point pounding that occurs in too high a percentage of Christian fiction (spec fic or otherwise), the characters are routinely plastic. They're conglomerations of traits, but not real, breathing humans. Making them fallible doesn't render them more human, a mistake too many Christian authors commit.

Anonymous said...

Well said! Thanks.

I wonder if anyone who doesn't agree with you has or will read this?

cyn said...

Deb,

No stones from this quarter! Your description of "preaching" is exactly what I mean—the overt, in-my-face sort of preaching.

1. I am a fairly well-informed reader and I am insulted when a fiction writer feels she needs to explain or draw attention to the excellent analogy she just provided. Or, when he assumes I won't understand the theme of the story and so has a character explain it to me.

2. A few scriptures in a book aren't an issue; however, continual "interruptions" of scripture citations are distracting. I am currently reading a book where this is the case—the author wants to make sure I understand so he "tells me" instead of "showing." I then become side-tracked and lose track of the story flow, and more importantly, lose track of how he is (for the most part) skilfully integrating his themes.

3. I find the obvious tiresome as well as preachy. I have started and put down more than a few books when, after several pages I can put my finger on the theme, or should I say "lesson." Don't do that to a reader! –give them some credit. Develop a plotline that makes them think, consider options and gives them a purpose for reading; throw in some twists and curves; show them that X is a morally reprehensible act, don't tell them.

Yes, great literature has underlying themes but it isn't beat-me-about-the-ears. When I read Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment for the first time, I didn't think, hmmm, how to be an axe-murderer and get away with it. I also didn't read any "the preceding was an allegoy of God's love for the fallen" or chapter and verse about (the parallels between the protagonist and) Lazarus. Dostoyevski left these to the reader.

Authors need to let their readership view the literature from their own experiences. Yes, there will be a range of understanding: some folks will only see the big ideas while others will pick up on nuances as well. Alas, there may even be readers who’ll experience nothing more than pure entertainment—perish the thought!

Elliot said...

Hallelujah!

Very well said. In fact, I think this is one of the best statements on Christian spec fic that I've ever come across!

vbtenery said...

Deb:

I've struggled with how much "religion" to put into the novels I've written. I've tried to keep it absolutely revelent to the story. I hope I've been suscessful.

Virginia

cyn said...

P.S.

Looking back at my comment, I realize I left out something crucial regarding quotation of scripture in fiction. I did not mean to imply a wholesale deletion of all scripture. There are times when citing verses is relevant and indeed helpful to the plotline. E.g./ a character at odds with herself—what to do in this critical situation. She turns to scripture for guidance. OR, a character from another world finds a Bible, and in curiosity opens it up—only to discover a passage meaningful to his situation—a discovery along the lines of an Aha moment. In these cases, chapter and verse work well. What I stumble over is reading quotations when it seems unnatural to the character—unless, of course, the character is a guy who drives around in a camper sided with hand-painted signs featuring the entire book of Revelations and topped off with a bullhorn strapped to the grill piping fire and brimstone to all and sundry (I’ve actually seen this).

Becky said...

Well, I'll lob a stone, but just a small one. As I mention (late into the discussion) in a comment after the previous post, theme needs to be crafted well, not omitted.

Contrary to your observation about Christian fiction (I wondered if you'd read much of it), the current vogue seems to be to omit theme, to let the author's worldview show, because, afterall, if he's a Christian, he will surely write like one.

I just came from a writer's conference in which the instructor likened "story" to a pearl necklace and the theme to the invisible thread holding it all together. That's what I aspire to.

As if to reinforce this, I read this today in Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel:
"An indifferent author cannot excite me. An author who is fired up, however—or, rather who fires up his characters as his proxies—stands a much better chance of crafting a story that will hold me spellbound. Having something to say means having something for one's characters to say."

Becky

Andrea Graham said...

Agreed, Becky, the main problem in today's Christian fiction, rather than being too preachy, is a scarcity of any Christian content whatsoever. I guess while some of us were reading secular books, the market swung too far in the other direction.

Scriptorius Rex said...

Just like we are to live our lives in a way that lets people see the love of God shining through, we should write fiction that is in keeping with that love. I suggest we write what we are led to write and let God move the hearts of the readers if He so chooses.

Andrea Graham said...

Most of the books I've read do that, as with the authors I'm familiar with here. If you've read my other comments today, I hope you'll understand what's really frustrating me.

By the way, Deb, my mother-in-law gave me the Mark of the Lion for my birthday. Despite the old-school writing style--which those of us who haven't been publishing books for twenty years won't get away with--the books were awesome. The only thing she could have really done different was stay in one head per scene, but she's a romance writer by nature and that genre's been the slowest to switch over to the latest technology. Still, it would have made a great book even better to get that close connection with the characters, though she actually improves on that as the series progesses. She did the best she could with the tools she had. I found more to admire, over all.

Elliot said...

So, uh, when's this anthology coming out? I'm intrigued!

cyn said...

Elliot,

Late winter / early Spring 2007!
We'll be sure to let everyone know when exactly (February probably)

driftwood said...

One of my "pet peeves" in Christian fiction is the author that batters the reader continually from beginning to end with Christian jargon or Bible verse after Bible verse.

Haha. Mine too. I'm more lenient to Christian jargons though. But Bible verses distract me. Not the actual verse but the references. I mean, of course the references are important for easy look up.

The original manuscript of the Bible are not chopped into numbered chapters and verses. But characters written in the Bible didn't have any problem at all quoting other verses available to them at that time, right? Like Jesus quoting Isaiah.