Tell the Story!

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.

Flashpoint of a New Genre

So did you read the latest Christian novel? You know, the romance. You know, the historical one. Oh, then there was the other one that made me think, “Boy, all my unsaved loved ones will be so sorry they got left behind.”

Thus, you can summarize the vast majority of well-known Christian novels. Many new authors are stepping into this mix, but none take a bigger leap than Frank Creed, author of Flashpoint, the first novel in what promises to be a series called, “The Underground,” the first ever Christian Cyberpunk series.

Cyberpunk movies such as Blade Runner and The Matrix have gathered cult followings, yet the stark genre has been untapped by explicitly Christian authors until now. Flashpoint takes us to 2036 where David and his sister join up with the Body, an underground Christian resistance group that struggles against the One State, a somewhat stereotypical one world government.

Flashpoint focuses on David/Calamity Kid’s attempt to rescue his suburban church from the clutches of the One State.The process of re-formation through which Calamity Kid and e-girl join the Body will undoubtedly raise some readers’ hackles as the process uses technology to upgrade the knowledge and abilities of human beings (as technology seems to be mainly good for distracting us from God.) Along with this comes heightened spiritual understanding, including memorization of the entire Bible.Readers who can get past this are in for quite a ride.

Creed provides a thrilling tour through dingy city scenes with a snappy Film Noir dialogue style that permeates the book. The novel twists like a pretzel through multiple dead ends, blind leads, and unexpected turns to make for an enjoyable and satisfying whirl through Creed’s dark Chicago of 2036.Creed succeeds in creating believable 2030s Street Slang, fantastic technology, arsenals of powerful weapons, and action-packed fight scenes. This isn’t your dad’s Christian fiction, this is too cool to be left on a bookshelf action mixed with a good dose of high tech weaponry.

This is not to say the work is without flaws. The beginning chapters crawl and the book suffers from some redundant passages. The villain Calamity Kid fights at the end of the story is a tad two dimensional. When I read what “Nasty Nero” had to say, my first thought was, “Somebody found your average bitter Internet Atheist and gave him a ton of weapons.”

When I saw the Matrix, the wanton violence disturbed me. While the movie had enjoyable scenes, I couldn’t help but cringe at the gunfire scene that in part inspired the Columbine killings.Flashpoint seems to suffer from an opposite problem.

The good guys, the Sandmen, only knock out One State soldiers, to give them a second chance (and a third, fourth, ad infinitum.) The only deaths are those of Sandmen who go on an ill-advised raid. While Creed has obvious reasons for the Sandmen’s tactics (it’d be counterproductive to the argument that Christian Fundamentalists aren’t terrorists to have them out mowing down rows of government officials with machine guns,) it seems a tad unrealistic, given the high explosives that Sandmen play with, that no matter what, when the One State comes along, their soldiers will wake up and scream, “I’m okay!”

Creed’s work expresses concerns about society’s war on fundamentalism, beginning with attempts to link Christian Fundamentalists (Protestants with a belief in basic tenets of Christianity) with violent Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists. The book focuses on the question of what a post-modern society does with faithful Christians and suggests suppression and even persecution as the most logical answer.While this will touch the fears of many Christians, I see another pressing message.

Calamity Kid and e-girl come from a suburban church that has enjoyed material prosperity, but is spiritually weak. It is only in the Body that their lives find true meaning and purpose. Flashpoint speaks to a hunger for authenticity in a western Faith that has become more program and ritual than life-transforming reality. That hunger for true closeness with God, community with believers, and opportunities to serve God shine through in Creed’s work.

Though not perfect, Flashpoint is an enjoyable novel that has, “Read the sequel” written all over it. It’s a reasonably priced volume, with short and accessible chapters. It’s also a historic attempt by Creed to go where no Christian has gone before. And for that he deserves plaudits.


Time zones, sci-fi freaks and Ted Dekker's "Black"

Hey, faithful readers! Sorry I'm late - I think I was up yesterday, but I didn't want to post in the morning as that would have been too early (like the night before) in your time zone... and ended up leaving the computer off for the rest of the day and the evening as well. Oops!

I had a visit from an old friend last week, who brought her husband along. He proceeded to read straight through seven books by Stephen Lawhead, while also completing a full tourist attraction program. I sent the eighth book home with him, since it seemed unlikely to part from him unless he finished it. I was very encouraged by this literary behaviour, and realised that there ARE such things as normal, everyday, intelligent people who are REALLY into sci-fi and fantasy. Made me feel great, because here in Germany I'm too much of an oddity and although I recommend great books to everyone who'll listen, it is VERY rare that someone will read one of them. Let alone eight. Enough said.

Anyway, you're probably wondering what kept me away from the computer for an entire day yesterday. Well might you ask - this is not a common occurrence in my neck of the woods, as my flatmate will no doubt tell you. Perhaps you've guessed already. it was Ted Dekker's "Black". In the process of gathering reviews for my book Faith Awakened (now available at Lulu!), a number of people commented on the similarities between my story and the trilogy Black, Red and White. So I thought I'd better read it.

It sure is a good read. And I can see why people drew parallels to my book - both tales involve characters moving between two alternate realities, utterly different, yet deeply entwined and affecting each other. Mine used sci-fi and virtual reality to change scenes, but Ted's used a much simpler tactic: each time Tom falls asleep, he transfers from one world to the other, or back again. Very well done indeed. I was sorry to see the book is not complete in itself - but I'm still going to get the other two in the series to see how it all ends up. Is the world going to end, or not? That's something I would very much like to find out...


Benefit for the Bernard Family

Anyone live near or around Aiken, SC?
Come on by the O'Dell Weeks Activity Center between 10am and 4pm and say hi!

Members of the Lost Genre Guild, Christian Fiction Review Blog (CFRB) and The Writers' Café Press have joined together under the leadership of author S.M. Kirkland to organize a benefit.

"Weekend Sun & Reads" was organized as a benefit to help the widower and children of the late Melissa Bernard. More information about the Bernard Benefit can be found in an Aiken Standard article (Monday, Sept 3, 2007) or check out the poster.