When I first started writing in college, I sent a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. I got back a personal rejection letter. Not realizing how rare those were, I've since lost it, but I do remember one line, a piece of advice she said she received as a novice writer that she now passed on to me:
Stop showing me how good you can write and tell me a story!
As writers of Christian fiction, we need to keep in mind the corollary to that:
Stop showing folks how good a Christian you (or your characters) are and tell a story!
Tonight on FabChat, I interviewed publisher Lida Quillen of Twilight Times Books. Twilight Times is a growing publishing company, which moved from eBooks to print in 2004 and has about 50 titles to claim, many of which are award winners and some of which are in national bookstore shelves. Several of her titles, like Infinite Space, Infinite God, are Catholic and Christian in nature. I asked her if religious content influences her in any way.
"I'm looking for a great story," she insisted. Not a great message. Lot a life changer. A great story.
Certainly, there are niches for message works--but if you want to write spec fic, you find a way to make the story demonstrate the message, not fit a story into your message. Genre fiction has with it certain expectations: fantasy had better have an adventure and elements of the fantastic--whether magic or fairy creatures or stepping into a make-believe world. Sci-Fi had better have some internally consistent and legitimized science. (Has anyone read some of the early "Christian SF" novels which read like Pilgrim's Progress with a spaceship or dismiss science as inherently evil when it's all that's keeping them from the vacuum of space? No wonder it's a hard sell now.) Horror better, as Daniel Weaver puts it, scare the Jesus into you.
And no matter what, you'd better have a character who feels conflict, doubts, grows and eventually meets his challenges in a "realistic" and meaningful way. To suddenly have all their troubles solved--or have their ability miraculously empowered, simply because they "accept Jesus as their personal savior" is as much a cheat as having the Good Witch Glenda send Dorothy home at the start of the book. Faith gives us strength for the struggle; it doesn't remove it. Not in real life. Not in a well-crafted story.
As one writer put it, the only difference between secular fiction and Christian fiction should be that when evil is done, the protagonist doesn't rejoice--and neither should the reader.
The really incredible thing, however, is that if you do write a really incredible story, the message will come through more powerfully than if you concentrate on message first and story second. We've seen that with Infinite Space, Infinite God. When Rob (my husband) and I solicited stories for ISIG, we wanted stories that entertained first, made you think, second; and showed the Catholic faith in its complexities but with a positive light, third. As a result, not only was it picked up by a secular publisher like Twilight Times, but it won the 2007 EPPIE award for best electronically published sci-fi. Not religious or Christian. Just sci-fi. But even better are the reviews it's getting. Even readers who are not Catholic say they are enthralled by the book. I've been told it should be required reading for teens because of the issues covered in many of the stories. One reviewer called it a terrifying and invigorating read. Some have been led to reconsider what they thought they knew about Catholicism; others are considering anew the moral issues of progresses like genetic engineering.
We're seeing a gentle upsurge in "Christian" spec fic--or should I say spec fic with Christian values? If we are to build this gentle upsurge into a tidal wave that sweeps our readership, we need to keep in mind what spec fic readers want. They can get "message" on Sundays or from their Bible or from any number of non-fiction testimonials. When they come to spec fic, they are looking for story.
So stop showing them what a great Christian you (or your characters are) and tell them the story! Do it right, and they'll get the message.