The Quality of Surprise

What makes a book so impressionable that one would read it over and over again? As I plow through writing my sixth novel, I am starting to understand and agree with what C. S. Lewis wrote (On Stories and Other Essays of Literature, PP. 12-17) on the topic. We probably all have favorite books on our shelves. I have boxes of these gems in my storage unit, and have tried on occasion to give them away or donate them to the library book sale. The effort pained me, like turning traitor on a friend. How many of those books have I ever re-read? Some, few.

Lewis says, 'A good test for every reader of every kind of book is asking whether he often re-reads the same story.' He ponders why someone would re-read a story if he already knows what will happen. Just what compels him, since he can't be curious and excited by the suspense of not knowing the hero's outcome, or the resolution of a conflict? He claims it is due to "a sort of poetry."

"The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises, but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood . . . . In the only sense that matters, the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time . . . . we are at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have the surprise of discovering that what seemed Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia." (sudden change or reversal of fortune--yes, I had to look that up!)

Ah, I like this: "The plot--as we call it--is only really a net whereby to catch something else." Well, what it that something else we strive to create in our stories, to make them memorable and re-read by loyal readers? Lewis says, "The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path . . . . this internal tension in the heart of every story between theme and plot constitutes, after all, its chief semblance to life." Lewis concludes that we should be trying to catch in our net of successive moments [plot] something that is not successive, some bird of quality or essence that will linger and hopefully move the reader on a deep level. That is what makes us re-read books.

One of the complaints I often hear from editors regarding science fiction and fantasy is that the writer spends time creating an alternate world, drumming up bizarre unpronounceable names for characters and locale, and spinning wild stories that she (the editor) cannot relate to. Lewis remarks that the setting matters little. You can have the same dangers--cold, hunger, hardship--in your backyard as you can on the moon. It is so tempting for us to get lost in these worlds we create and forget that what the reader is looking for goes beyond that created world and that exciting plot.

Our challenge as Christian writers of fantasy is to present that quality or essence, weave it through the story, touch some human nerve, stir up a need. For me, it is the need for God, for truth, that I try to stir up without naming it. A longing, a hunger, a thirst for the only source that can satisfy. This is our challenge and our joy--to write, not just for fun, but to be used in a special, clandestine way, sent on a secret mission with a message of great hope and joy. And when you think about it--this message of the good news of never-ending, glorious life is like an outrageous, unbelievable tale. But like Lewis said, the difference is that it is a true myth. How great is that?


My Last Word on Defining Christian Writing

~Andrea Graham~

To clarify, no where, either here or in the forum, has anyone said Christians are obligated to write anything, theme-wise or otherwise.

All I've ever said is Christian writing of any sort is one where the author is submitted to God, as the Church teaches we should be, and has written what He told them (lead them) to write. The material might be wholly secular if judged by the world's measures rather than the biblical measure of the author's relationship with Christ.

As I've said, all books, whether Christian or Non-Christian, have a message and can be measured for Truth by the scripture apart from any regards for genre, personal preferences, or target audience. But that is a whole different topic.

Again, what makes your work Christian or not has nothing to do with the words on the page in and of themselves, and everything to do with your relationship to God and submission to Him in this area of your life. If anyone here really, truly doesn't want to Christ to be Lord over your writing and hence are convinced He doesn't care--you're free to make that choice, whoever you are. I do not say this to condemn you. We all have areas that we struggle to lay down control of to God, but still we remain His. I do pray that someday you will become willing to lay this crown down at His feet, but that is still up to you.

Though, one chief barrier is we tend to fear He'll demand the writer's version of being a foreign missionary, which is why stuff no one here is saying keeps getting refuted. In reality, He's probably already positioned you where He wants you. He just wants you to scoot over and let Him at the keyboard; or for Country music fans, to let Jesus take the wheel.

But, I've said more than enough. Please everyone, debate this with Him. I'm finished.


Are Christian Writers Obligated to Christian Themes?

We've been having some interesting discussions in the Lost Genre Guild about what it means to be a Christian writer. Does it mean limiting your works to those that are purposely focused on the Lord and His Message? Or can we, like carpenters and electricians and even factory workers, still be following His will for us by simply honing our talents and keeping true to our convictions whether we're writing a Biblically-based romance or a techno-thriller that may or may not have obviously Christian characters or themes?

As you can imagine, the opinion varied according to one's experiences. It really is a personal choice, so my answer today is not a statement of how it should be, but how it seems to have worked for me.

My motto is "fiction, faith and fun," yet I never intended to be labeled as a Christian writer. For the first part of my career, my works were predominantly secular--and I still think of most of my writing that way. The fact that there are Christian or Catholic characters is not usually a conscious choice; and when it is, it's often because the character demands it or because it makes for an interesting twist.

My DragonEye, PI, character is a good example. I wanted a dragon character--and what's a dragon without a St. George? Well, wouldn't it be fun if instead of killing him, George converted him--or at least compelled his obedience… Before I knew it, Vern the dragon was not only attending Catholic Mass but had a nun for a partner. I've written several stories with them and have their first book, Magic, Mensa and Mayhem coming in early 2009 by Swimming Kangaroo.

Then there's the Rescue Sisters world my husband Rob and I created. We just thought it'd be fun to have nuns in space--no real message except the understanding that humankind won't outgrow religion. Those stories led us to create Leaps of Faith, a Christian sci-fi anthology; and Infinite Space, Infinite God--an anthology of thought provoking science fiction with a Catholic twist. ISIG came out in August by Twilight Times Books and Leaps of Faith is coming Summer 2008 from The Writers' Café Press.

The Writers' Café Press is a Christian publisher, but both ISIG and Magic, Mensa and Mayhem are being published by secular publishers. (In fact, the publishers at Swimming Kangaroo are atheists.) I'm neither proud of not surprised by this, really. I write for fantasy/sci fi readers. Well, not even that, really. I write for the characters and for me. And who it impresses, I leave to God.

What has surprised and impressed me, however, is how God has used my writing. I've been told both in reviews and personal letters how touched people are by the expressions of faith in the storesin Infinite Space, Infinite God. I've also been told how the stories have not only challenged people to think about their faith. One mother said every Christian teen should read this book because the stories examined issues they would face in the future, while a Catholic mom told me her daughter found answers to some of her faith questions in the stories. Rob and I compiled ISIG for fun; the only "educational" value we thought it had was in the introductions, but people are being touched--mind and soul--by the stories themselves.

So where do I stand on the "Christian writing" issue? I am a Catholic Christian. I am a writer. They are a part of my identity. They mix when they mix, but I won't limit my writing to only Catholic works any more than I'd limit my worship to only writing. I craft my words as well as I can, then get them to readers in whatever venue God brings my way. I trust that if I have done my best, God will make sure they get to the right hands--and He'll surprise me in the process.


Writing as Unto the Lord

by Andrea Graham

Building off what Karen said in our last post, from the responses I get when I suggest what separates "Christian Writing" from "Non-Christian Writing" isn't what we write so much as Who we are writing for, it's evident how many of us truly are waffle brains: Secular and Sacred are in separate compartments,with each area of our lives clearly defined in our minds and totally separate from the other. In this mindset, God takes up residence in His very own compartment marked "Sacred", which leaves the person especially prone to thinking that God only is concerned about, relevant to, the stuff in His compartment.

Which means despite years of singing, "You are my all in all" and "In all I do, I honor you" ("Amazing Love") on an unconscious level, many think that means, "You are all in all in my religious life, as for the rest, that's why you gave me a Brain," and "In all I do in explicitly spiritual activities, I honor you."

To this mindset, the natural assumption is, if Christians must honor God in all we write, then all we write must fit explicitly in our Sacred box, and, apparently, be fit for CBA markets. Not so.

As my husband Adam put it on the Guild's discussion:

And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men,

Now, I would note that the verse [ Colossians 3:23] doesn't say, "Do all religious work." Indeed, the Bible was written to poor folks who were shepherds and other equally unglamourous secular position. Most were not priests or teachers. They had secular sheep, secular lawns to tend, etc.

The challenge is to do things as unto God. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

" What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

So doing it as unto the Lord implies a certain quality of your work. It also implies a certain set of standards. If a man claims to be a Christian and he is dishonest in his dealings as a car dealer, has he sinned? Is he doing things as unto the Lord? Does it please God?

These are questions we have to ask ourselves about our writing. Is it pleasing or displeasing to God? Is it of a high quality? What our motives. Is it Solo Deo Gloria (as J.S. Bach put it) or Solo Us Gloria?

As to the issue of work, even secular works as ministry or worship, I would say that we far too often limit our understanding and definition of what ministers to the soul. Laughter does good like a medicine, but who among us would see the ministry of a Christian comedian doing a clean secular routine? No altar call, no request to make a decision for Christ. Just a bunch of jokes about family and life, and things that provide comfort to souls wearied and burdened down by stressful jobs and difficult family situations?

The waitress in the restaurant can often minister to someone, can change their whole day some times. As someone who works in Customer Service, I've heard a few times. All too rare, few see the chances they have. Most see a job that feeds them and allows them to buy stuff, but God wants more for us than that. You don't have to be an evangelist, but there are little things that minister in ways most of us don't understand.
Personally, I want "In all I do, I honor you" to be a summation of my life. But frankly, I'm an alcoholic's daughter. Like most daughters of alcoholics, I have some serious control issues--as anyone who has known me more than half an hour probably already knows. Left to my own devices, I want things my way, and if I don't get it, I might just go off to pout and stew about it a good long while. Taking my hands off the wheel and trusting Him enough to let him have control is something I don't always find easy to say the least. For me, one of the most difficult verses in the bible to live out is Proverbs 3:5,6 "Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight." (The From Andrea's Memory Version).

The difficulty I have, and many of us have, doesn't stop when we sit down at the keyboard to write. In fact, I've found the more I learn the craft, the harder not trusting my understanding of it but rather submitting to His leading becomes. The hardest thing He could ask me to do, writing-wise, is to break one of my "sacred" rules (such as, thou shalt not write in first person multiple. Though He knows our strengths: I probably won't be asked to not write in POV any time soon, but I need to be open to it if for some reason He did.)

Americans in general, I've found, have a hard time with not leaning on our own understanding, especially as relates to the God-box. Most of us still talk about honoring God in everything and Him being all in all. We usually still talk about writing to please Him, not man--especially when being critiqued. But the behavior of the American Church indicates most of us are in the camp of: "God gave me a brain. God only is concerned with explicitly Sacred things, so I only need to seek Him in regards to those things. Secular things He wants/expects me to handle myself using the whits and natural wisdom He gave me."

Now, if I'm not careful, I start thinking that way, too. But, Brethren, that notion isn't of God. God gave the Israelites a Law chock full of rules dictating practically every aspect of their lives at least in part to disprove that lie. Whether we write in the secular market or the explicitly Christian market, and even when we're writing company reports, news reports, or technical manuals for our day job, when we sit down at the keyboard, God wants us to "scoot over" as recording artist Mark Shultz put it--and let Him work through us.

You know what? I've found God often is faithful to our covenant even when I'm neglectful. You don't know how many times when editing something I wrote, something reaches out and speaks into my life as writing only does when God's had His hand in it--even when I'd neglected to specifically invite Him to when I wrote that.

Again, "Christian writing" can't rightly be defined in terms of the actual content of what we write. Rather, in the simplest of terms, it is our relationship with Christ that truly defines our work. Where we are not fully surrendered to Him, that shows in our writing whatever the genre. Yet, even at the same time, where we are walking in right relationship with Him, everything we do, say, and write truly does honor Him--whether sacred or secular. And if that be true, what distinction is there between the sacred and the secular for the Christian?


Sacred Vocation

By now most of you have read or at least are aware the Infuze magazine feature on speculative fiction, since it's the weekly discussion topic over on the mailing list. Since it's my day to blog, I can't resist talking about the article, although this isn't a line-by-line critique...more of a philosophical reflection prompted by this statement:

The second set chooses to go around the mountain, opting for the greener pastures that may be on the other side. They prefer to be known as "Christians who happen to write." It is to the secular audience that they travel, sacrificing much of their Christian message in order to be palatable to the masses. Still, they hope that the influence of their worldview will seep through the cracks and find its way to some spiritually thirsty non-believers. A pipe dream it may be, but an attractive one none the less.

Obviously, the author takes the view that a Christian author must write in an obviously Christian style-- with specific and blatant faith elements-- in order for their work to truly be Christian. He would describe the rest of us as "Christians who happen to write" but I would offer that there is no such thing, that one's Christianity is integrally related to their vocation, whether they are a writer, a plumber, a pastor, or a secretary.

Part of the problem is that society has always loved to elevate some vocations above others, giving them the responsibility for truth-telling and moral compass. In the Middle Ages, it was the Catholic priest; in the Age of Reason, it was the scientist and the government, and in our modern age, which is marked by cultural disillusionment with most institutions, the sacred vocation is that of the Artist, or Writer.

Christianity is very often influenced by societal trends and in this case, we've absorbed the concept that the creative arts-- writing, art, music-- must have a higher sacred responsibility than other vocations. if an artist or writer doesn't specifically include religious elements in their work, they are branded as sell-outs who seek to compromise their Christianity for "the masses." This false segregation of the sacred and profane-- or secular-- is simply not true.
In the words of Martin Luther--

When God purifies the heart by faith, the market is sacred as well as the sanctuary; neither remaineth there any work or place which is profane.

To put it in terms specific to writing, everything a Christian writes is an expression of their faith, whether they specifically mention God or not. Both the Christian market and the secular market are equally valid opportunities to reflect truth.

Modern Christian culture's failure to understand this has led to the creation of a Christian sub-culture that promotes isolation rather than integration. We've created a faith bubble called the Christian market in which everything from our books to our music to our movies to our jewelry and clothing is specifically religious. Rather than take our faith and interact with our society, we would rather stay in the bubble where things are easier and friendlier.

I am in no way indicating that there isn't a place for specifically Christian literature or music. Of course there is. But there also is a place for Christians in the so-called secular field, and that place is no less important. God will call some of His children to write in certain areas, and He'll send others to different areas-- both are needed and both are equally honorable.

Let me return to the topic of the Infuze article-- the Christian speculative fiction market. In the article, the author laments the fact that today's Christian speculative fiction isn't selling as well as Milton, Tolkien, and Lewis. Those authors never wrote specifically for a Christian audience. Nor did they choose to write exclusively "Christian" fiction. If we want to see our fiction have the scope and impact of Christian authors of the past, we need to stop segregrating our writing. If you are called to write specifically Christian works, do so with rejoicing. If you are called to write non-specific fiction, do so with rejoicing. In all that we eat, and drink, in whatever we do, may it be to the glory of God.